Tag Archives: Celeste

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“Okay, but I still wanna know how you’re funding all this, especially since you swing from being such a penny-pinching tightwad to apparently making a day trip to freaking Glassiere for the highest of high fashion.”

“This is high fashion?” Hesthri muttered, plucking at the gilded lapels of her crimson velvet longcoat.

“Buried treasure,” Natchua said.

Melaxyna rolled her eyes. “You know, boss, if you don’t wanna answer a question you can just say so. Nobody needs to sit through your amateur league sarcasm.”

“My sarcasm is more skilled than your sex appeal,” Natchua sneered.

“Oh, burn,” Hesthri crooned, grinning and earning a sidelong scowl from the disguised succubus.

“And I was being entirely serious,” Natchua continued in a low voice, her eyes constantly moving. The three of them were naturally acquiring glances as they navigated through the surprisingly crowded streets of Ninkabi after dark, but no one lingered to try to talk to them or listen in and the pace at which they moved would have made it difficult for anyone to eavesdrop. “I got the idea from Tellwyrn. She funded the University that way: use magical means to locate buried treasure, then go fetch it. Simple. Being Tellwyrn and unable to do anything half-way, she uprooted no less than four abandoned dragon hoards. Even after building the school, the old bitch is probably richer than the Sultana of Calderaas, not that she bothers to care. My needs and aspirations are much humbler. After thousands of years of various adventures this whole continent is riddled with forgotten treasure troves. I just had Qadira point a few of them out to me.”

“Risky, getting directions that explicit from a djinn,” Hesthri murmured. “There’s always a sting in the tail.”

“In this case, it’s that nobody is the only one contracted to any djinn at any one time, and information like that which is universally interesting to anyone who likes money—so, everyone—gets immediately broadcast to everybody they feel the urge to share it with. Which, being djinn, is whoever they consider most likely to ruin your day. I spent some of my downtime in Mathenon jumping to various patches of wilderness and then annihilating some other warlock Qadira either disliked or thought could take me. I’m assuming the first option, since none of them were especially challenging. I picked up a couple of useful knickknacks from them along the way, even.”

“Right, so, basically then, you have functionally unlimited access to money and your whingeing about my requests for supplies is just you being a drama queen,” Melaxyna said sweetly.

“Wealth is not an excuse for profligacy,” Natchua snapped.

“On general principles,” Hesthri agreed, “and also because throwing money around draws attention. It’s the funniest thing,” she added, glancing speculatively at Natchua, “how I keep finding reasons to like you, despite everything and you generally being so…well, yourself.”

“No, the funniest thing is how you keep zig-zagging between groveling submissiveness and needling at me,” Natchua retorted. “Is this some long-term plot to keep me off-balance or do you just have an unstable personality?”

“Bit of both,” Hesthri mumbled, now avoiding her eyes. “It’s… Some of the habits of survival in…where I’m from…translate poorly to…well, anywhere else. I do appreciate your patience with me, mistr—”

“Don’t.”

That harsh syllable put an end to the conversation, at least temporarily, and the three strode through the crowd in silence, letting its noise wash around them. Natchua had done nothing to change her appearance save dressing up for an evening at a trendy nightclub. Drow were merely exotic in these parts; it was the two demons who had to be heavily disguised. She had tried to limit the amount of infernal magic used toward that purpose, having performed a similar spell upon Hesthri as the one on Melaxyna that let her pass undetected through demon wards…in theory. A divine ward would still go off explosively if they blundered into it, but Natchua was confident in her spellwork against any other warlock’s, and anticipated no trouble in slipping the pair of them into Agasti’s club. Beyond the magic suppression, Melaxyna had exercised her native shapeshifting ability to assume the appearance of a brown-skinned Jendi woman with her hair up in a profusion of thin braids, while Hesthri wore a conventional arcane disguise charm that made her look like a human of Tiraan extraction.

Altogether they made something of a spectacle, just walking down the street, and not least because of their formation. The necessity of people getting out of their way—while, in many cases, slowing to gawk at the well-dressed drow and her companions—was limiting their movement speed.

“You know,” Natchua said, glancing to both sides at the pair of them, “this would probably be easier if you two would follow me in single file.”

“Ah, ah,” Melaxyna chided. “The whole approach here is to use the sheer power of making an impression to get access to the club and then Xyraadi, yes? I had assumed that was your purpose in choosing us in particular to come along. Please tell me you actually do know what you’re about and that wasn’t just a coincidental whim.”

“I always know what I’m about, but I don’t necessarily know what you are talking about. As usual.”

“Two is the optimal number of hench-wenches for the appearance-minded alpha bitch,” Hesthri recited, one corner of her mouth drawing up in a little smirk. “This is universal across cultures and time periods. One, no matter how obedient, is just a friend you’re dragging along; three or more create positioning issues for threat displays, and introduce progressive complications in maintaining control. Girls are pack hunters, Natchua. For every additional female in the pride, the risk of one making a power play on the queen increases exponentially. You have the best possible position with us flanking you.”

“Mel,” Natchua said quietly, “was that spiel anywhere near as accurate as it was creepy?”

Melaxyna leaned forward subtly to look past Natchua at Hesthri, who was now striding along with her eyes forward and a smug little smile hovering about her mouth. “Well, I could argue with every one of the details, but honestly I’m impressed that she has even that solid a grasp on the dynamics. I had to pause for a moment and remind myself which of us was which species of…wench.”

“Hm,” Natchua grunted. “What exactly did you do for your previous employer, Hesthri?”

Her expression closed down. “Unspecified servant work. Her demands varied widely with the situation. I learned to pay close attention and understand as much as possible while presuming as little as possible.”

“There’s a sweet spot,” Natchua said in a near whisper, “when working under a noble. You want to be close enough to the currents of power to catch enough loose favor that you don’t starve, but far enough not to get swept up in their schemes. It’s an impossible balance.”

Again, Hesthri glanced at her sidelong, a look as laden with thought as it was fleeting. “You really do get the most surprising things.”

“Tar’naris is a lot like Hell. I suspect the difference is one of degree.”

“No, it isn’t,” Melaxyna said immediately. “You know a phenomenal amount for someone your age, Natch. I recommend keeping your mouth shut about things you specifically don’t know.”

The drow’s jaw tightened momentarily, but the brief hint of anger faded as fast as it had come. “That’s fair. And good advice. I suppose I should be glad to find myself surrounded with so much unending sass that I don’t risk getting a big head.”

“Yes,” Hesthri said in complete seriousness, contrasting Natchua’s light tone. “You should. That is a very real danger for people in your position.”

“The consequences can be fatal or worse,” Melaxyna agreed, drifting closer to tuck one hand through Natchua’s elbow. “We do care, kiddo. I for one would prefer to see as many of us as possible survive whatever the hell is coming next.”

“Don’t call me kiddo,” Natchua grumbled, causing both of them to giggle and Hesthri to likewise step closer and take her other arm.

They turned the corner into the tunnel street which lead straight to the entrance of Second Chances. Once beneath its arch, the more general crowd shifted in composition to knots of strolling and chatting young people in fancy clothes, the mismatched uniforms of those with too much spending money out for a night on the town. It seemed that Agasti’s place was truly the spot to be seen in Ninkabi, to judge by how far back the general crowd morphed into the line waiting to get in.

Natchua and company reached the end of the line and kept going right past it, heading down the center of the street toward the door and ignoring the unfriendly stares they were accumulating along the way. Quite apart from the line-jumping, they were the best-dressed people here—at least, in her opinion. Glassian fashions did tend to lead the world, but they did not tend to reach the Tiraan Empire until a year or so after they peaked in their homeland. Natchua wasn’t personally very sensitive to the dictates of fashion, but quite incidentally what had been described to her as “l’aventure chic” was very much to her own taste, and she had not hesitated to dress her two companions in it as well, despite Hesthri’s skepticism.

She herself wore black, as was her longstanding habit—black and a shade of nearly-black green that, though she hadn’t realized it until belatedly, was the same as that corduroy greatcoat Gabriel Arquin was always wearing. That deep green was the shade of her baggy velvet trousers and the narrow scarf wrapped once around her neck and trailing down her back. Her trench coat was black, and fitted closely to her figure—not to mention equipped with a hidden interior support structure which was very necessary, as its highest button was low enough to clearly reveal that she had nothing on under it. Natchua didn’t usually show off cleavage but it would’ve been a shame to waste the ingenious engineering underneath. Her supple black boots might have passed for Punaji stompers if not for their pointed toes.

As she had been alone on her visit to Glassiere, only her own garments were cut to fit her—or close to it, as she hadn’t time for a proper fitting and alterations and had to settle for the closest thing available to a match for her measurements. The most forgivingly-cut outfit had gone to Hesthri, by necessity; Melaxyna, thanks to her shapeshifting, could all but literally pour herself into any garments she chose. She could also have used it to mock up any clothing she wanted but Natchua was in no mood to deal with the caterwauling that would ensue if she came back from Glassiere with stylish new clothes for everyone but the succubus.

Thus, Melaxyna was garbed in something that might have passed for a low-cut black evening dress if not for its profusion of unnecessary leather belts, gleaming steel buckles, and strategic sprays of raven feathers. It came with leather bracers which bristled with actual spikes, and the most ludicrous shoes Natchua had ever seen. They were described to her as “stiletto heels” and she had bought them mostly just to torment Melaxyna. To her annoyance, the succubus balanced on the absurd things with impossible agility, proving that among them she was the least in need of the strut they added to her walk.

Hesthri’s coat was red velvet, trimmed in gold, and far looser in cut. Her scoop-necked peasant blouse and leather trousers didn’t make much of an impression on their own, but the coat really sold it. The result wasn’t as vampish as the other two, but she looked quite dashing. Privately, Natchua thought that better suited the hethelax’s personality.

They came to a stop alongside the front of the line, before the door to Second Chances and the flat, fiery stares of two revenant demons.

“Do they not have lines in the Underworld?” the female revenant asked in a particularly dry tone. “If you’d like, I have time to explain to you how they work while you’re standing here, not getting in.”

“We’re on the list,” Natchua announced.

The male demon’s expression was openly skeptical, but he did prop his clipboard on his forearm and rest his fingertips upon it as if preparing to leaf through the pages. “And your name is…?”

“I don’t think you understand,” Natchua said pleasantly, raising her chin. “This is a nightclub. We are three amazingly hot young women, one wildly exotic, and all in outfits that each cost more than the reagents for summoning and binding the both of you. We are, by default, on every list.”

“I don’t think you understand, darling,” he replied, lowering the clipboard. “This isn’t a nightclub, it is the nightclub. If you don’t have a name and it isn’t written down on my paper, you get to be grateful that our entrance is out of the wind. Those oh-so-expensive outfits look pretty drafty.”

There were a couple of snickers from waiting club-goers at the head of the line, which Natchua ignored. All her attention was focused on the two revenants. They weren’t true demons, but elaborate constructs of magic around a wisp of a soul—in theory, the same general type of creature as Melaxyna. The succubus, though, was the handiwork of Prince Vanislaas and thus orders of magnitude beyond the capabilities of any mortal warlock. These were like open books to someone who could both read and understand the amazingly complex web of spells and charms of which they were composed.

Natchua could read and understand them as easily as a journal. A journal, specifically, at which she held her own pen.

Nudging their consciousness required the daintiest of touches, not even necessitating any gesticulation or outward sign that she was casting; she barely had to bother shielding her tiny flow of power in a shroud of concealment.

“We,” she enunciated clearly, “are on the list.”

The man—his name was Drake, it was written on his soul—blinked his fiery eyes once, then again raised his clipboard, lifted a page, and scanned whatever was written there. “Ah…so you are. Welcome, ladies. Enjoy our hospitality.”

“Why, thank you,” Natchua said sweetly, already striding past him to where the other revenant—Celeste—was already opening the door for them.

“Oh, come on,” protested a young man in the line behind them.

“You wanna start over at the rear, handsome?” Drake asked him, cutting off the complaints. That was all Natchua heard of the world outside as she and her two companions swept into the interior of the nightclub.

“Please,” Hesthri muttered, just barely audible over the swell of peculiar, syncopated music within, “tell me she didn’t just—”

“Find a way to antagonize our host literally before we got in the door?” Melaxyna murmured back. “Of course she did. It’s Natchua, have you met her?”

“They’re fine,” Natchua said brusquely. “It was just the tiniest—”

She was more surprised than pained when Hesthri jabbed her knuckles into her ribs, though the blow hadn’t been playful. The support framework under her coat was really something else. Natchua turned a surprised frown on Hesthri, who was openly glaring at her. The anger in her eyes wasn’t the least bit diminished by her human disguise.

“That is one of the things I was talking about,” she hissed. “Those were sapient demons. People. Sticking your tricky little fingers into their brains is crossing a line.”

Natchua drew in a breath and let it out slowly, then nodded. “I…don’t disagree. You’re right, Hes. Thank you.”

She seemed surprised by the admission, but it quickly passed, and then she nodded back. “Okay. What’s done is done. Just don’t do it again.”

“Not unless I absolutely have to,” Natchua agreed.

The demon’s expression hardened again. “Natchua.”

“If it’s some hypothetical scenario where the choices are pushing a revanant’s mind or you get maimed or killed or something, I won’t hesitate. But, you’re right, that kind of thing isn’t for casual use. I won’t use it to get us into private with Agasti, I promise.”

“Almost a shame,” Melaxyna commented, perusing the dimly-lit interior of Second Chances. “You could find all kinds of uses for that trick in here, of all places.”

They had drifted to the side, out of the way of traffic, though no one else had yet been admitted through the door behind them. The reason for the line was clear; the club was loud and quite crowded, with every table filled and people twirling about on the dance floor, and even most of the stools at the bar occupied. Second Chances was made up to look like an underground cave, with the bar and stage where the musicians played elevated and a knee-deep sea of fog obscuring the floor. The three were already accumulating some speculative glances—mostly Natchua, actually—but it was a different matter in here. It was dim, the music and noise of the crowd was distracted, and people were generally too occupied with their own revelry to eyeball new arrivals.

Melaxyna’s comment was a reference to the fact that all the staff—servers, bartender, musicians, bouncer—were revenant demons.

“Unbelievable,” Hesthri muttered. “I assume there’s an amazing story behind why the Empire doesn’t shut this place down.”

“I’ll tell you later, if you want,” Natchua offered, leading them past the bar toward a dark corner with a good vantage over the floor. “For now, business.”

“Well, hello there, ladies,” said a young man at the bar as they passed, turning to grin at them. “I must say, you’re a—”

“No,” Natchua said curtly.

“Now, don’t be that way!” he replied, his grin widening. “Let me treat you girls to a round. If you’re half as interesting as you are lovely, I couldn’t possibly find a better use for my time.”

Natchua came to a stop and stared at him. “Do you know the temperature at which human blood boils?”

His grin faltered. “Uh, I don’t…”

She held up one hand and blue-black flamed flickered across her fingers. “Want to?”

He actually edged backward against the bar. “…well, all right then. Enjoy your evening, ladies.”

She turned without another word and continued.

“Oh, Natchua,” Melaxyna said despairingly. “Honestly, we can’t take you anywhere. If that’s how you treat boys who just say hello, what the hell will you do to the ones who’re actually boorish?”

“Actually boil them.”

“You really aren’t much for socializing, are you?” Hesthri asked.

“I assume that was rhetorical. Do I need to remind you that we’re not here to socialize? This clubbing business was a front to get us in. We’re in; now we need to find Agasti, or ideally, Xyraadi herself.”

“Uh huh,” Melaxyna said with a grin as they slipped into their targeted alcove over the dance floor. “Annnd…since you could apparently get us in with your little mind trick, why did you need to jump all the way to the fashion capital of the world and drop a fortune on these costumes?”

Natchua scowled at her. “I was hoping that would be enough. Hes isn’t wrong; messing with people’s heads is not a nice thing to do, and never my first choice of action. For your information, this is literally the first time I’ve been denied entry to any kind of bar or club. Being an attractive dark elf is usually all it takes in the Empire.”

Hesthri rested a hand gently on her upper back, and leaned in close to murmur barely above the noise when Natchua turned to her in surprise, “You know, if you just want to buy and wear pretty clothes, you’re allowed. Being on some suicidal crusade doesn’t mean you can’t find a little joy for yourself along the way. If anything, the opposite.”

Natchua scowled and averted her eyes. “No time for that. All right, it doesn’t seem likely our quarry is just going to come to us. Now that I’m inside the wards, I can probably zero in on a khelminash demon regardless of what protection she has up, but I’ll need to focus. You two run interference with any more bozos who try to pester us.”

“You’re going to quickly wear out our welcome by lurking in the corner muttering to yourself,” Melaxyna said. “Places like this exist to make a profit; providing a venue for the likes of us to flaunt our cleavage is a means to that end. Gimme some doubloons so I can buy us some drinks before you end up having to hypnotize the bouncer.”

“Bozo incoming,” Hesthri murmured.

“The feminine form of ‘bozo’ is ‘bimbo,’ darling,” Melaxyna replied sweetly, and that was all the time they had before a young woman stepped within earshot of them. Given the noise in the club, within earshot was more than close enough to touch.

She was tall, slender of build, and local to judge by her coloring. Unlike everyone else here, staff and guests alike, she was not dressed to be in a nightclub, wearing a sweeping robe that more resembled old-fashioned wizard’s attire than any modern fashion. The new arrival just stood there, uncomfortably close, studying each of their faces in turn.

“And hello to you, too,” Melaxyna said pointedly.

“Bonsoir, mes petites,” she replied, suddenly grinning. “So! Which of you is the succubus, and which the warlock who had the unspeakable gall to tamper with members of the staff? Ah, ah!” As all three stiffened, she held up both hands, graceful fingers splayed as if playing a game of cat’s cradle. Nearly invisible lines of orange fire flickered between her fingertips, though, some deadly spell held on the verge of being unleashed. “Let us not go and do anything which might disrupt anyone else’s pleasant evening. We can perhaps settle this ourselves, without involving law enforcement or bodily harm to anyone, yes?”

“Well,” Hesthri commented, “that was fast.”

“What succubus?” Natchua asked coolly.

The woman’s smile broadened a deadly half inch. “Ah, so that is only a partial admission. We are making progress, then! The protections upon you three…yes, very subtle, very powerful. But not perfect. Warlocks never fail to overestimate themselves, non?”

“Ah.” Natchua inclined her head. “Well, that was much easier than I expected! Good evening, Xyraadi. We came a long way to meet you.”

That grin instantly vanished. “You are…increasingly interesting, cherie. That may be a good thing, for you. Or it may not.”

“Okay, wait a moment,” Melaxyna said, raising both her hands. “Let me just pose a question, here.”

The other three shifted to stare at her in silence.

“Why in the hell,” she demanded, “would a centuries-old khelminash demon have a Glassian accent?”

The music played over them for three tense seconds.

“Let’s try to focus, shall we?” Natchua suggested. “That’s not relevant here. I apologize for the tampering; I’ll try to make it up to the establishment, if you wish. In all seriousness, I am not looking for trouble, here, and I mean no harm. I very much desire to have a conversation with you, Xyraadi.”

“Perhaps,” Xyraadi said evenly, “we should indeed continue our pleasant little chat in a quieter setting.”

Natchua glanced past her; from their position they could make out an opening adjacent to the bar, where the cleverly placed stonework almost concealed a door that led out of the main club area. She slowly raised one hand to indicate it, moving deliberately as if to avoid spooking a flighty animal. “May we?”

Xyraadi studied her a moment longer, then suddenly smiled again, took a step back, and also gestured languidly in the direction of the door. “Mais oui.”

She let them pass, bringing up the rear as if to prevent them from bolting, which none attempted to do. The four slipped quietly through the back, finding themselves in a well-lit hall running behind the bar.

There, Natchua suddenly stopped, causing the rest to do likewise.

“Just ahead, if you please,” Xyraadi prompted pleasantly.

“Of course,” Natchua replied, studying the walls. “Just as soon as you explain to me what this exceedingly complex ward network does.”

“What, you can’t just eyeball it for all the answers?” Hesthri muttered.

“Now, now, give credit where it is due,” Xyraadi admonished. “That she can even see that is impressive. To answer, ma petite, that is a little safety measure which will ensure any child of Vanislaas who steps within does not step back out until I choose to allow it. And since you have none with you, there is no harm, is there? Be so good as to proceed.”

Natchua rounded on her, baring her teeth in a snarl and causing Hesthri and Melaxyna to rear back in surprise.

“I haven’t come all this way to be caught like a rat by the likes of you,” the drow spat, and dark wings blossomed from her shoulders.

“Alors,” Xyraadi said disdainfully, gesturing flippantly with one hand. Circles of white and scarlet fire materialized in the air around Natchua. “Your kind, always so dramatic. Well, that settles that!”

“Yes, it does,” Natchua agreed, calm again. She made a slashing motion of her own, and the spell circles disintegrated, causing Xyraadi to stiffen in surprise. Her shadowy wings had disintegrated before she even got that far. “That was a very neat Vanislaad trap. And the fact that you used it on me means you don’t know which of us is the succubus.”

“And that means there is one among you!” the disguised khelminash snapped.

“I’m actually amazed you fell for that,” said Hesthri. “Any warlock should know Vanislaads can only shapeshift into human forms. The elf in the group is never the disguised succubus.”

“And thank you for chiming in,” Xyraadi said smugly, gesturing again. The circles re-formed, this time around Hesthri.

The khelminash’s smile instantly vanished when the hethelax stepped right through them, grimacing. “That feels weird. Tingly. Is that really all it takes to snare one of them?”

“Well. This is not my finest hour,” Xyraadi grumbled, turning a scowl on Melaxyna.

The actual succubus just raised her hands. “Y’know, at this point, you might as well not even bother.”

“Let’s focus, please,” Natchua snapped. “You said there was a succubus here, so you detected one on the premises. You did not penetrate my concealment to identify Mel, and I know you are too good a warlock to be easily fooled. That means…”

“That means…there is another one,” Xyraadi breathed. “Merde alors.”

“Okay, just so you know,” said Melaxyna, “nobody just drops bits of a foreign language into conversation unless they’re trying to be pretentious. If you think that’s charming, you’re mistaken. Anyway,” she added, glaring at Natchua, “this is all easily resolved, since we not only know who else is running around loose, but why, and by the way, everyone told you so!”

“Yes, yes,” Natchua sighed, holding out a hand. In a brief swell of shadow, Kheshiri’s reliquary appeared in her palm. “Fair enough, I suppose it was too much to hope that anything useful might come of that idea. And we definitely don’t need her getting under our feet.”

“Is that what I believe it is?” Xyraadi demanded.

“Yes, with my apologies,” Natchua replied. “The solution to your Vanislaad problem. Let me just square this away and then we can actually have that talk.”

She grasped the reliquary by both ends and twisted the cap.

All four of them stared at it in silence.

“Well?” Xyraadi prompted after a short pause. “I gather you were expecting something to happen?”

“Melaxyna,” Natchua said in a very even tone, “if I remember right… Did you happen to mention that Kheshiri is a practitioner of both infernal and arcane magic?”

“Yes, I did,” Melaxyna said in exasperation, “and wow, look how fast that backfired! This has to be a record even for you.”

“Oh, do not tell me,” Hesthri groaned.

“Someone please share the joke?” Xyraadi exclaimed.

“Hum.” Natchua actually winced. “We may…have a problem.”

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14 – 19

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The goddess began by buying them dinner.

“We won’t be eating at Mortimer’s place,” she confided while handing over coins at what she insisted was the best falafel stand on the Western coast, to the beaming satisfaction of its proprietor. “He overcharges horribly for everything but the liquor. Ordinarily I would never enter an establishment without buying something, but I cannot in good conscience support gouging, and Morty knows that. Besides, the joint has a cover charge, so he can suck it.”

“Uh…” Gabriel looked a little spellshocked, even as he accepted the folded flatbread full of meat and cheese she handed him. “This guy…sells food?”

“Oh, I didn’t mention it? Mortimer runs a nightclub. Well, owns and lives over it; he doesn’t actually manage the business himself these days. That’s the dream, isn’t it? Getting to the point where you can delegate all the work and let your business interests pay you to goof off.”

“Nothing for you tonight, Nell?” the falafel guy asked, all three of them having received theirs.

“Not this time, Apir,” she said, winking at him. “I’m watching my figure.”

“Well, I can’t blame you for that,” he replied with a broad grin. “I don’t mind watching it myself.”

“Say hi to your wife for me,” she said dryly, turning to go. “Come along, kids.”

Toby waited until they had proceeded out of earshot down the street before asking. “So, does that guy know you’re a…?”

“Of course he doesn’t know,” she snorted. “I could never get any business done if people knew.”

“Do you do a lot of business yourself?” Trissiny asked. “Most of the…well, your colleagues tend to be pretty hands-off.”

“Yeah, well, that’s their lookout. Me, I’ve gotta to stay in circulation. Nothing is more important than staying in circulation. Everything you see here is the work of mortal industry, kids. This suit?” She turned and extended her arm to show off its cut. “From Chevantre. Glassian tailoring in the styles I prefer has fallen a bit by the wayside the last few years, but Marcel is still my go-to guy, and will be so long as his eyesight holds out. The tie is Sheng silk, though the actual weaving was done in Puna Vashtar—Shengdu and Sheng-la have lots of natural resources but their industry was smashed in the war, and both states have gotten way too dependent on raw exports and neglected to rebuild. They’re heading for a worse depression than the Five Kingdoms if they don’t straighten up. Speaking of which, the cufflinks are Stavulheim gold. I actually don’t care for dwarven aesthetics, personally, but I’ve made it a point to support jewelers in the Kingdoms ever since the Narisian treaty. They need the help. This, now!” She produced her lighter again, flicking the switch and igniting the tiny blue arc of energy. “The actual mechanism is new, from a custom workshop in Calderaas. The place for the latest arcane gadgetry. It used to be an alchemic lighter; I had to buy something for it to justify keeping it around, but the thing itself has sentimental value. Was a gift from Boss Catseye; she stole it right out of the pocket of Lord Aristan Vasaar. Yeah, I buy everything I might want, I have business interests and at least one piece of real estate in every major city in the world. I stay in touch.”

“Amazing,” Gabriel mumbled around a mouthful of falafel. Aside from his manners, it wasn’t clear whether he meant the sandwich or the goddesses recitation. The food was really good.

“Why?” Trissiny asked simply. She was paying more attention to where she was walking, taking her falafel in small nibbles.

Nell turned her head to give them a serious look without slowing down. “I would never damage the value of currency by conjuring it. Nor the goods and services it can buy. All of those are the product of people’s effort, knowledge, care…their lives. Let me put it this way: you all know that every cult has a passage from its dogmas that is repeated so often as to become idiomatic. Almost a slogan, if you will. All systems are corrupt. All love is good. Justice for all, or for none.”

“Lot of ‘alls’ in there, now you mention it,” Gabriel observed.

She laughed, still facing ahead. “And have you heard the one most widely associated with Vernisites?”

Gabe glanced at the other two and shrugged helplessly. Trissiny just drew her eyebrows together in a quizzical frown.

“I mean no offense,” Toby answered after a pause, “but…that particular cult was never seen as very important to the people who trained me.”

“I would say it’s more that your ascetic faith is inherently contemptuous of money and those who work with it,” the goddess said, her voice fortunately amused. “Likewise Trissiny’s, albeit less so; people who raise and field armies damn well learn the value of money.”

“I have heard one idea several times, during my training with the Church,” Toby added. “It must flow?”

Verniselle spread her arms wide and threw her head back, shouting to the darkening sky. “It! Must! Flow!” All three paused in eating to look warily around, but they garnered only a few curious glances from other passersby. Ninkabi was a large city, and thus home to many a strange sight; an expensively-dressed woman gesticulating and chanting the code of a major faith apparently wasn’t worth too much interest. Nell carried merrily on, seemingly ignoring everything around her. “Money is nothing, kids. It has almost no material use! Bank notes are just paper and ink and security charms; even coinage is typically made from the metals that are too soft and heavy to do much with. No, money is not a thing unto itself, it is potential. It is nothing, but it could be anything! Any object, any material you might want to possess. Any activity you might want to have another person do for you. Money can be turned into any of those things, into virtually anything you can imagine. It is not matter, but concept. It is energy. And energy wants to flow! Whoop, hold that thought.”

The street along which they were walking bordered the canyon. The view was incredible, though somewhat obstructed by the chest-high stone wall and iron fence on top of that. Evidently the authorities in Ninkabi didn’t mean to take chances with their citizens’ safety. Along the other side of the street, though, were storefronts and free-standing stalls and carts. Now, their guide suddenly cut to the left, making a beeline for one of these, where she bought them all sweet spiced tea in disposable paper cups. Like the falafel, it was amazingly good. Apparently she really did know where to find all the best of everything in the city. Which made sense, given her claims.

“Do you know what the greatest sin in my faith is?” the goddess asked them as they resumed course. This time she’d bought four servings, and sipped at her own tea upon pausing.

“No, I don’t,” Trissiny replied after glancing at the others. “I do know that Eserites find Vernisites somewhat mystifying. It’s an iron rule in the Thieves’ Guild that you don’t run a job on a Vernisite bank unless an Underboss at the very least authorizes it. But…several people within the Guild told me that Vernisites actually like us. They always send gifts to the local chapter house after someone’s robbed them. Nobody could explain why.”

“That’s just willful obtuseness, you know,” Nell said merrily. “Eserites of all people would understand, if they could get over their perception of ‘money people’ as inherently evil. The greatest sin for Vernisites is hoarding. It must flow! Money is meant to be in circulation, to be active, to be keeping economies alive, enabling people to work, to live. And just like every cult, mine has a way of attracting people who have serious trouble with its core values. You know, the way some Avenists just want to stomp around giving people orders, justice be damned. Or how some Eserites are in it for the stealing, not for resisting power.” She glanced back at them again. “How ’bout you boys? You’ve seen the same in your own cults?”

“Vidians are supposed to be two-faced,” Gabriel said lightly.

“Omnism doesn’t have…as much of a problem with that,” Toby added. “It’s a faith that emphasizes a simple life, growing useful plants and sharing the fruit of one’s labor with those who need it. The worst sort of person who is intrinsically attracted to that is smug and self-righteous. Which is annoying, but mostly harmless.”

“Well, in my banks, that problem manifests as people who want money. Always more money; always longing to possess more and more stuff. Which is an innate misunderstanding of what money is, what it means, how it works, and how it should be used. We have doctrines to teach better ways, of course, but even so… All systems, as our Eserite friends like to remark, are corrupt. It’s tremendously helpful to have the Thieves’ Guild operating outside the law to administer a knockdown when one is needed. Otherwise, who would? Actual law enforcement is way too easy to influence, when you control the flow of money.”

“Huh,” Trissiny grunted, seeming lost in thought.

“It must flow,” Gabriel murmured, also frowning pensively.

“It must flow,” Nell agreed gravely. “I’m constantly frustrated by the association of my cult with rich people in the minds of the general public. Almost nobody who’s not innately interested in trade looks into my faith, and far too many of those are exactly the kind of people I don’t want. In truth, the rich do not like my rules. Now, I realize most traditions apart from mine don’t hold charts and graphs in great esteem, but do you kids know what a bell curve is?”

“I’m going to clamber way out on a limb,” Gabriel said solemnly, “and guess that it is a curve…which is shaped like a bell.”

“Is he gonna sass every god of the Pantheon?” Trissiny muttered to Toby.

“That depends on whether we meet every god of the Pantheon,” he murmured back, smiling.

“He’s right, though!” Nell turned without slowing, walking backward and tracing an arch shape in the air with her finger. “A bell curve is a line graph describing a thing which progresses upward to a certain point, then after that point, back down in close to the same trajectory. In this case, the horizontal axis represents the amount of money a person has, while the vertical represents their health, happiness, satisfaction, and overall success in life. What do you make of that?”

Trissiny cocked her head, lowering the cup from which she’d been about to sip. “Wait… I might be misunderstanding, I wasn’t raised to think very much of money or possessions. It sounds like…you’re saying that after a certain point, having more money makes your life worse?”

“That is exactly what I’m saying,” Nell replied seriously, nodding at her and then turning back around to walk forward again. “It starts at the bottom left, with zeros on both axes: absolute, destitute poverty. None of your material needs are met, your very survival is uncertain from one day to the next, and you live in constant fear and stress. From there, obviously, as you gain more wealth, your quality of life increases…up to a point. The higher you climb on that arc, the smaller the overall benefit you get from every increase in your income. Until you crest the top, and getting more money just…stops…helping. And then comes the descent. You already have everything you need and more; beyond that point, the pursuit of more wealth is purely a neurosis, both the effect and the cause of a deep, underlying insecurity. You must constantly chase more money, more possessions, more power, more stuff, until it’s all you can do in life and the pursuit saps your very vitality. Until, at the bottom of the curve, there is just nothing inside you but that cold, meaningless, insatiable hunger. There’s nobody more miserable than a miser, kids. As miserable, perhaps, but not more.”

“Now, I don’t know about that, honestly,” Gabriel said. “Being poor is no fun at all, trust me.”

She peeked over her shoulder at them, expression inscrutable. “Hmm. None of you three grew up with much money, did you? But you two never felt the lack; everything you needed was provided for you. Gabriel, though. You know the sting of privation.”

“…a bit,” he admitted, his expression closing down.

“I’m sorry to hear that.” Though still facing away from them, she sounded absolutely sincere. “Both because no child should have to live that way, and because that sets you up for dangerous habits in the future. Now you have power, and there are all kinds of ways you can turn that into wealth. Not all paladins are ascetic; more Hands of Salyrene than otherwise have lived like kings and queens.”

“And you think…that’s wrong,” Gabriel said skeptically.

“I think it is bad for you,” she replied. “The crest of that bell curve is nowhere near as high as most people think it ought to be. Nobody needs to be rich. What a person needs is comfort and security. They need to have their needs met, food and shelter and clothing, all that. They need to have fulfilling work and time away from that work to enjoy their lives. They need healthy relationships with other people, which you can’t really buy, though having things to share certainly helps. They need a few luxuries—and oh, yes, that is important, a person is not a machine that runs on fuel alone. People need pleasure like crops need fertilizer; they can technically exist and grow without it, but only as wan, scraggly things. Ultimately, though? People just need enough, not too much. Too much fertilizer buries crops, and too many possessions bury people.”

“Hmm.” Gabriel took a sip of his tea, having polished off his falafel before the others. “How…do you find the top of the bell curve, then?”

“Now that,” she said in a satisfied tone, “is one of the core goals of my religion. It’s all about knowing the value of money, which means knowing the value of life, and of goods and services. I could go into detail about the Vernisite codes, but let’s be honest: your eyes would glaze over within a minute.”

“I suspect that is accurate,” Gabriel agreed, ignoring his fellow paladins who were both nodding solemnly.

“The central rule of thumb that I think would guide you best, though,” Nell continued, “is this: do not own more things than you can appreciate.”

“What does that mean, exactly?” Trissiny asked.

“It means that everything you possess, you should pause every time you see it, and take a moment to really feel the satisfaction and gratitude that it is yours. Own nothing that you take for granted.”

“Um.” Toby blinked. “I…may not have the best perspective on that, I was specifically taught to appreciate people and not things. But… I mean, just with the average quantity of stuff a person needs to get through life, that sounds like it could get exhausting.”

“You’d be surprised!” she said cheerfully. “For one thing, it makes for a slower pace of life—which is for the good both materially and spiritually. Anybody is healthier and better off when they take time to enjoy existing. But basic needs, if you stop and appreciate them for what they are, don’t distract you too much from the business of living; doing so just makes you happier. It’s the luxury items that start to get you. Valuable things, precious things, expensive things. Things that cause you to truly stop, to truly feel a sense of joy and pride in possessing them, if you bother to. There’s a limit to how much of that you can do in a day and still get anything done. The Rule of Appreciation not only ensures that you are gaining true fulfillment from your material possessions, more importantly it forces you to really consider what’s most valuable to you, and dispense with what isn’t. It stops you from squandering resources on junk that doesn’t actually contribute to your well-being. And speaking of junk, it’s time for dessert!”

They had come all the way to the end of this tier of the city; ahead, the plateau dropped off into the next level, a descent of nearly a hundred feet. Before that, broad staircases carved into the face of the rock descended back and forth in a series of turns and landings. Nell stopped before the stairs, though, and bought them pastries from a nearby cart run by a smiling dwarf woman. These were like nothing they had sampled before: thin sticks of deep-fried dough, generously coated with sugar which itself had been infused with citrus juice. Sweet, tangy, and crunchy, the treats were a perfect after-touch for the falafel and went beautifully with their spiced tea. They also served to keep all three paladins quiet while their guide led them down the steps and resumed her lecture.

“No offense to your religion, Toby, but there’s nothing wrong with owning nice things. There’s nothing wrong with valuing nice things. Having an emotional attachment to possessions is perfectly normal, and not unhealthy in and of itself. There is, however, something seriously wrong on many levels with owning a whole lot of expensive things that you don’t actually feel much regard for. Not only are they wasting space and not really contributing much to your quality of life, but excessive possessiveness is an example of hoarding.” Again she turned to walk backwards, which was downright terrifying as she was walking down stairs at the time, to give them a grim look. “And hoarding is the ultimate evil to the person who understands and values money. You do not need more than you need. Going out of your way to own more than you need is an outright affront to everyone around you. Money should not be gathering dust in a vault, nor should any of the things it can buy. Money wants to be used, to be appreciated—money wants to work. The job of money is to be out there in the world, paying people for their labor, providing resources to everyone. Money is the lifeblood of economies, sustaining societies, nations, civilizations. And what, my young friends, is the nature of blood?”

“It must flow,” all three of them chorused obediently, Gabriel spraying crumbs in the process.

“IT MUST FLOW!” Verniselle bellowed, startling a woman passing up the stairs the other way. They had reached the next landing down, and she turned to walk forward again down the next flight of steps. By now, it was fully dark, the path well-lit by fairy lamps and not much less crowded than it had been earlier. A city the size of Ninkabi never truly slept.

“If money were allowed to flow the way it wants to, there would be no poor and no rich. Nobody hoarding more resources than they need, and nobody going without their necessities. In any society that’s not actually in the process of collapsing due to unavoidable resource scarcity resulting from natural disaster, there is enough for everyone. And not just for everyone to survive, but to live lives of quality and satisfaction. The existence of poverty invariably means that some asshole is hoarding.”

Apparently they weren’t going all the way to the bottom of the stairs; at the next landing down, Nell turned into a large opening into the wall of the plateau itself, leading them back the way they had come but about four stories down. This underground passage was obviously a street, as well, fronted by shops and businesses and lit by fairy lamps. It was tall and broad enough that it did not feel claustrophobic, though in most cities it would have counted as little more than an alley. There definitely wasn’t room for horses or carriages, but then there didn’t need to be, considering that no such could have made it down the stairs.

She fell silent, finishing off her cooling tea, while they pressed deeper into the plateau’s heart, and the doors they passed became fewer, the chambers behind them apparently stretching more widely. The lights, too, were more scarce past a certain depth, attached to the arched roof of the tunnel rather than lamp posts along its walls. The place wasn’t growing rougher or poorer, though; if anything it seemed to get increasingly trendy deeper in. Shop signs glowed with arcane charms, and the people passing by were mostly young and expensively dressed.

“So,” Gabriel broke the thoughtful silence after a few minutes, “how would you enforce that, exactly?”

Nell heaved a sigh, hard enough to make her shoulders visibly shift in front of them. “An economist might have an answer for that question, Gabriel. And sure, most economists would have my idols on their desks. But there’s a reason I run a cult and not a consortium. I’m talking about values and virtues, not practicalities. The fact is, you can’t enforce those. It’s the disappointing reality of every religion. There is just no way to make people be kind, or peaceful, or just, or whatever it is that your faith values, and efforts to make them, well… That medicine is worse than the disease. And so, all too often, money doesn’t flow. People hoard and people starve, because people suck.”

“There’s the dwarven system,” Toby offered. “Ruda was talking about that during our downtime in Puna Dara. Apparently they have high taxes and the Kingdom itself makes sure everybody has everything they need…”

“Nnnnyehhh…” Though she was not facing them, the grimace on Verniselle’s face was audible. “I am not a fan of redistribution by fiat. Think about it: that’s basically where an entity—the government—seizes people’s hard-earned property for the crime of having earned property and decides who deserves it more. More often than otherwise that leads to worse injustices than it’s meant to correct. I tend to share Eserion’s view of systems like that. But, taxes and governments are necessary evils, because the alternatives are worse. Nothing enables hoarding by a powerful few like anarchy. So, yes. Societies have crowned heads, which collect taxes and provide services. It’s gotta be that way because people just won’t damn well behave unless compelled to. That doesn’t make it any less annoying. It’s a reluctant adaptation to necessity, not the way things ought to be.”

“I’m suddenly glad that Ruda and Teal aren’t here,” Trissiny said, shaking her head. “You boys have missed some of the heated discussions we’ve had about economics and social justice in Clarke Tower.”

“How do you have heated discussions about economics?” Gabriel asked skeptically. “Even porridge is more exciting than that, and it’s supposed to be heated.”

“I would imagine,” Toby mused, “that if the discussion included hereditary royalty from a culture that prizes individual freedom, and the daughter of industrialists, that conversation could get pretty dicey, pretty quick.”

Trissiny sighed. “It’s even better when it includes two confused fairies trying to understand how economies work. I swear, Shaeine is the only reason nobody got punched that first semester.”

“I do like the Punaji,” Nell said lightly. “They have the right idea about a lot of things. I also like the Falconers—they pay their employees very well. That’s another of my most important rules. Well, anyway, I could lecture on this subject for hours and hours, but we’d better table it for now, kids. We have arrived!”

She had turned a sharp corner while speaking, into a smaller and narrower tunnel; the three of them slowed to read the enchanted sign above it, which glowed a sullen orange in the dimness, and named the establishment Second Chances.

This side tunnel terminated in an alcove in which was the actual entrance to the club, and it was immediately clear why the door was situated at the end of a corridor and not out on the street. For one thing, there was already a line of people—only five deep, at this early hour, but if it was a popular club that could stretch to really impair traffic out in the main avenue.

For another, the doorkeepers were demons.

Trissiny stiffened slightly as soon as they came close enough to see; both boys gave her sidelong looks, but she only slowed for a half-step, then resumed following the goddess’s pace without comment.

They were two, a man and a woman, both garbed in black clothes of a stylish cut and androgynous style. Their skin was pale, not like the pale flesh of elves or Stalweiss, but very much like marble: a grayish color, shot through with irregular veins of black, and with a glossy sheen of polished stone. Both were bald, with horns of the same material as their skin rising from the peak of their forehead, the woman’s long and swept backward over her skull while the man’s were shorter and stood almost perfectly upright. Their eyes were empty sockets, opening onto a flickering space within, as if each had a hollow skull containing a live infernal flame.

Verniselle led the way past the end of the line, to the vivid annoyance of those standing in it, but they were interrupted before anyone could complain. As the group drew closer, infernal magic surged around them, causing all three paladins to freeze in place; Trissiny and Toby reflexively threw up golden shields. Embedded in the walls, runes burst alight, casting an orange glow across the corridor. Immediately, the five people waiting to get into Second Chances scurried away, pressing themselves against the wall farthest from the new arrivals.

“Ah, ah, ah!” said the male demon loudly, wagging his finger at them. In speaking, he confirmed the impression of his eyes; his mouth opened onto emptiness lit by inner fire. “You know the rules, Nell. No clerics!”

“Oh, come on, you know me better than that,” she said, putting on a charming smile and sauntering forward. “When have I ever shown a lack of respect for the bossman? These aren’t clerics.” She leaned close and lowered her voice. “They’re paladins.”

Both demons turned to stare at the three, their eyes narrowing to fiery slits.

“This is one of those things you were talking about last time,” the woman said after a pause. “Something that’s never going to be technically illegal because it’s so damn unlikely nobody would bother outlawing it.”

“Yeah, well, you know why we have that rule,” the male said, clearly unimpressed. “I’m gonna go ahead an say it applies extra hard to paladins. They’re not coming in.”

“Don’t you worry about a thing,” she said soothingly, “I’ll vouch for them. These kids need to have a word with Morty, and they’re not gonna cause any trouble.”

“No clerics, and nobody sees the boss without an invitation,” he said flatly. “You’re outta luck, Nell.”

“Ah, but there is a higher rule,” she said solemnly, “one which applies in all places, in all situations: Go ask the boss himself. I guarantee he’ll want to see us.”

The demon was shaking his head before she finished. “Not happening—”

“Yeah, I’ll go get him,” his counterpart said, turning toward the door.

“Come on, Celeste!” the man snapped.

“You come on,” she retorted. “There’s three paladins in the world, Drake. You think the boss wouldn’t want to be informed when they all show up at the door with one of his friends? I’ll go get him. You!” She leveled a finger at Nell, who looked deliberately innocent. “Just hold your horses. No funny business until I’m back with Mr. Agasti’s word. I know your tricks.”

“You know some of ’em,” Nell said with a wink. “Don’t worry, I have no reason to get clever, here. Morty’ll understand.”

Celeste shook her head, but opened the door a crack and slipped inside.

Drake folded his arms, glaring sullenly at them; the five would-be clubbers were staring with wide eyes. All around them, infernal runes blazed a warning.

“Okay, so,” Gabriel said into the ensuing quiet. “What the hell?”

“Second Chances is one of the more exclusive clubs in the city,” Nell explained, turning back to them. “Heck, in the world. So, in case this doesn’t go without saying, once we’re allowed in you will kindly refrain from any smiting and purging you may be considering.”

“I wasn’t planning on it,” Trissiny said curtly. “But for your information, the sheer concentration of infernal magic around here has me rather on edge. Anything which jumps out at me suddenly is asking for whatever it gets.”

“They won’t,” Nell said in a wry tone. “They want to live.”

“A little late for that, isn’t it?” Trissiny retorted.

“Oh, the hell with this,” said Drake with a heavy sigh. “You! All of you, go on in. Go on, get outta here.”

The goddess and the paladins watched in silence while he ushered the five onlookers into the club, doubtless sparing them from a rash of annoying questions.

“Don’t take this the wrong way,” Gabriel asked, “but what kind of demon are you?”

“An annoyed one,” Drake replied. “Why, what kind are you?”

“Half-hethelax.”

Orange flames winked momentarily out as he blinked his eyes in surprise. “…that was a rhetorical question. I didn’t expect it to have an answer.”

“Yep, I get that a lot.”

“They’re revenants,” Trissiny said quietly.

Toby gave her a quizzical look. “I’m not familiar with those. I thought I’d learned as much demonology as you. Apparently not, though…”

“Revenants,” she said, eyes on Drake, “aren’t proper demons; they’re demonic undead. Specifically, mortal warlocks’ feeble attempts to reproduce the work of Prince Vanislaas. They are colloquially called the poor man’s incubi.”

“Or poor woman’s,” Gabriel intoned. “Or succubi. I mean, I presume.”

“Shut up, Gabe,” she snapped. “Their powers are considerably diminished compared to a real Vanislaad, but the basic process is the same: it begins with a damned soul. Except, to get one of those without going into Hell, you have to damn your own. Revenants are made in broadly the same way as talking swords. For a warlock to have one under their control is an automatic death sentence in the Tiraan Empire. In most countries!”

“Less automatic than you may have been led to believe,” Nell said with a placid smile. “Morty is great at finding loopholes.”

“Is this guy a warlock?” Trissiny demanded.

“He is a very good warlock,” the goddess replied, her smile broadening. “What’s more, he is a lawyer. Between the two skill sets, Morty has never met a rule he didn’t want to twist to his advantage. You’ll like him.”

Trissiny began massaging her temples.

“Don’t rush to judgment,” Nell said more soberly. “I wouldn’t bring you here without reason, you can trust that.”

“I’m trying,” Trissiny muttered. “Rushing to judgment is a problem I have, I know this. I am really trying. But this? This is not making it easy!”

Drake snorted loudly and leaned against the wall by the door.

Before anyone could respond to that, fortunately, the door opened again and his companion returned.

“That was really fast,” Drake said warily.

“Yeah.” Celeste nodded to Nell. “Apparently, your arrival isn’t a total surprise.”

“Ah, Morty,” Nell said, chuckling and shaking her head. “Never misses a trick!”

“Yeah, well, you can go on in,” the revenant said, stepping out of the door and clearing the way for them. “Boss isn’t exactly ready for visitors at the moment, but he said he will be soon enough. Meantime, you’re welcome to his hospitality. Everything’s on the house for you this evening.”

Drake’s head snapped around to stare incredulously at this pronouncement, but Nell just grinned and rubbed her hands together. “All right! That’s my boy. Welcome to your evening in hell, kids. C’mon, let’s hurry and get a good table.”

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