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The Priestess, the Emperor, the Empress

The Priestess, the Emperor, the Empress “You want me to do what?” Cindy blinked at Niko from across the dining room table. It was December, and finally the first real snow of the year was falling outside the frosted windows. “Just... you know, back me up,” Niko shrugged. “I’m gonna be goin’ into some pretty dangerous turf, and I need all the firepower I can get.” Cindy frowned. “Well... what about Lila? She can take down pretty much anything, right? Besides, I got shit of my own to deal with.” Like an ever enigmatic quest for “the Truth”, whatever that meant, and a long-lost brother who hadn’t called her in the last forty-eight hours, she added to herself. “I’m not worried about getting jumped,” Niko explained. “I’m more concerned about being intimidating. This guy’s not violent, as far as I know, but a hard customer to crack. I just need him to know we mean serious business.” “You’re the spectacle, and I’m the steel,” Lila added from between them as she took a bite out of an especially crunchy bagel, which sort of temporarily cancelled out her badass persona. Shaking her head, Cindy folded her arms. “Witchcraft isn’t even remotely ‘spectacular.’ I don’t know what you expect me to do.” “Not spectacular?” Niko scoffed. “What do you call the fire that comes out of your friggin’ hands then?” He wiggled his fingers dramatically. “5 out of 10? Lacked a certain pizazz?” “Oh, that? It’s not as great as you think it is,” Cindy shuffled in her chair. “I mean it’s fire, but... look.” She reached for the chain she kept around her neck and showed them the yellow-orange amulet that dangled from it. “It works through one of these, but they don’t have much power. I only had a little to work with, after all. Anything big will expend most of its juice. I mostly keep it for emergencies.” “Perfect, wonderful. Listen: I don’t care if it only burns at room temperature,” Niko leaned towards her, grinning. “I just need it to look like it’s something.” “I dunno...” “Okay how about this: if you use it all up, I’ll get you the shit to make a new one free of charge. Better yet, a better one.” Frowning, Cindy thought for a moment. She had a bad feeling about this. But at the same time, Niko and Lila had become her friends, and if they needed her help... “Alright,” she said finally, sighing as she leaned forward on the table. “You’ve got yourself a deal.” “Yes!” Niko stood, rubbing his hands together in anticipation. “This is the big one, ladies and, uh, ladies. I think some celebration is in order. I’ll go make some pancakes.” Cindy raised an eyebrow. “Pancakes? Why that of all things?” “It’s the only thing he knows how to make,” Lila supplied. “Hey! That’s not true,” Niko pouted. “I’ve learned how to make a lot of stuff in the last couple months.” “My apologies, young master,” she bowed as much as she could while sitting. “It’s the only thing he knows how to make well.” Nodding, Niko seemed satisfied. “Much better,” he replied, before disappearing into the kitchen. Once he was gone, Cindy turned to Lila. “Are you sure you’re okay with this?” she asked. “I feel like I’m kind of taking your job.” “Oh, no,” Lila smiled, “it was my idea, actually. I’m...” she paused, looking back into the kitchen. “I’m afraid Niko’s getting a little in over his head with this one. People with guns I can, and have, dealt with, but this is... something more along the lines of your expertise. I’d feel much more confident if you were there, for your knowledge if nothing else.” “And are either of you actually going to tell me what it is we’re walking into?” Cindy asked. Lila sighed, as if she didn’t quite believe what she was about to say. “We’re going to conduct business. With a daemon.” Cindy blinked. “Oh shit.” So it was with great reluctance the following afternoon after school that she met Niko and Lila at the house and together they walked down to the old part of town. Lila had her katana strapped to her shoulder like a backpack, and certainly had several weapons besides on her. Though Niko seemed less armed, there were several suspicious lumps under his trench coat that Cindy suspected were guns. Cindy felt positively naked with only the fire amulet and the hasty protection charm she’d whipped up for the three of them last night. Meanwhile, Lila was feeling just as nervous, if not more so. She wasn’t used to not being the toughest person in the room, and her every instinct was screaming to bodily grab Niko and run. But she didn’t. Niko had found himself a real niche here, in this small, unimportant suburb, selling substances of an... occult description, mostly just because this town was so gosh-darn weird. With the exception of that one family down the street from the abandoned house—what was their name? The Jeffersons?—she suspected that there wasn’t a single ordinary person in the whole of Ede Valley. She knew that he’d been saving the money he’d been making until his eighteenth birthday rolled around and they could get a place that didn’t have more cobwebs than a football player with a concussion. If he could get a daemon in the chain of supply and demand, that would be huge. But still, it was one of the more dangerous things she’d done in her life, right up there with trying to steal the watch off a rich mob kid with a heavily-armed bodyguard. Daemons, to put it lightly, weren’t human, they didn’t think like humans did, and most could probably tie her up in a knot of words before she’d even drawn her katana. Niko might fare better, he was good at that kind of thing. But Lila was afraid, even for him. Lila was so lost in thoughts that she didn’t realize they’d reached their destination until the hum of the neon sign cut through the haze. Blinking, she saw with a start that she recognized that image of a scrubby goat. This was the bar right below the safe house, err well, ex-safe house. She glanced over to Niko and briefly caught his eye, trying to convey just how dangerous this was. True, it had been almost four months since the “Vincent Incident” but she was still paranoid that they might be recognized. Niko nodded, ever so slightly, probably telling her to keep her cool, and then carefully stepped over the threshold, into the Smiling Goat. Apt name, Lila thought, almost bitterly as she followed suit with Cindy behind her, though she had no idea whether the proprietor had any real associations with the land down under. From the décor, it certainly didn’t seem like it. If anything, the place had a worn-in feeling; Lila would have called it homely if not for the crawling feeling that something dangerous lurked in these walls. Niko gestured for the two of them to hold back, and Cindy and Lila obliged, glancing around the place while Niko approached the bartender, a tall, dark-haired kid with an exceptional amount of tattoos. He leaned on the counter conspiratorially, a smirk that seemed to say he already owned the place painted on flawlessly. “I’m here to speak to the boss,” he said softly, but firmly. “He knows we’re coming.” So far, so good as the bartender nodded. But Lila shouldn’t have dared to even think it, because just then Cindy happened to glance over at the bartender, her mouth dropped open, and she almost shouted: “Tommy?” Annnnd the spell was broken. They had lost the intimidating edge. They had ceased to be dark, mysterious strangers and had become teenagers playing as them. But surprisingly, the bartender didn’t scowl, or scoff, he looked kind of sheepish, and almost a little scared. “Cindy,” he said, “what are you doing here?” Swiveling back and forth between the two, Niko looked just as confused as Lila felt. “You two know each other?” “He’s my brother,” Cindy provided before turning back to the bartender, Tommy. “Why didn’t you call?” “I, uh...” Tommy began. “Wait, your brother?” Niko interrupted over the top of him. “I thought you only had one of those!” She shrugged. “I thought I did until two days ago.” “What does that even mean?” “It means,” came a new voice, “that dramatic irony is still functioning as it should.” All eyes turned as the black curtain at the back of the bar was pushed aside and a tall man with round spectacles slunk out. Said curtain was then nearly set on fire a second later out of sheer reflex. “Oh hell no,” Cindy said, a jet of flame separating her and the newcomer. “Not you too.” “Cool your jets!” Niko yelled. “Are ya trying to set the place on fire?” “I would if it would burn this son of a bitch with it.” The newcomer chuckled. “I’m a little tougher than that, I’m afraid.” As Cindy hesitantly put out her flames, Lila took a small step forward, her hand twitching near the hilt of the katana. She could see why Cindy had reacted the way she did, there was something about this man that raised the hairs on the back of her neck. At first glance he appeared harmless, even a little foppish with his dishwater blond hair flopping over his round glasses. But there was something about his eyes. They were too sharp, too focused for the persona he was trying to display. Niko, on the other hand, didn’t appear to be picking up on any of this. “Do you know everyone in this town?” he asked Cindy. “Apparently so,” she glared at the newcomer. He shook his head. “And you’re not even going to introduce me? That’s a little bit rude.” “No offense, but I met you two and a half years ago for two minutes, and that meeting ended with me in a mental ward for three months.” “Fair point,” he nodded. Lila paused mid-breath. This man was clearly the daemon they were looking for, and if Cindy had met him two years ago... she nodded to herself, the pieces falling together. A brief glance over to Niko revealed that he had come to the same conclusion. “The name’s Cowell,” the daemon continued. “And I’m the proprietor of this establishment.” He turned to Niko. “I believe you are...” Lila froze as his tongue closed around the first syllable of Niko’s name. The pub seemed empty, but who knew who could be listening at this very moment. “Looking for me,” he said instead, seeming to enjoy the momentary panic that had sprouted on their faces. “That’s right.” Niko recovered quickly. “We spoke over the phone. I’m very interested in this place, and all the... things you’ve got inside of it.” Cowell simply seemed bemused from the many inches of height he had on Niko. “Ah, I see. A connoisseur of the more... obscure trinkets, are you hmm?” “More of a... business man, I’d say,” Niko matched his tone with ease. “Mhm,” Cowell nodded. “Then let’s talk in my office, shall we?” He beckoned Niko to the back curtain, but quickly stepped in front of it as Lila—and Cindy, a little more hesitantly—tried to follow. “Ah, ah, ah,” he intoned. “I don’t let just anyone back here, you know.” Frowning, Niko stared at Cowell for a moment, trying to read the vague smile. But he quickly gave up. “Cindy?” he asked. “You’re good with doin’ a little catch-up with your bro, yeah?” She looked a little relieved, and nodded. “Good. But Lila’s with me.” It was now Cowell’s turn to eye Niko. He seemed just on the cusp of refusing, but then smirked a little and nodded. “Alright then, the two of you follow me.” Across the pub, Cindy watched them disappear behind the curtain. With anyone else she would have been worried. But this was Lila, after all, and Niko was no slouch either. After a moment, she turned back to Tommy, who had been polishing the same glass for about ten minutes now. “Sorry I didn’t call,” he muttered finally, after they sat in silence for a minute. “I was worried, you know,” she admitted, “that you’d disappeared again, or worse, and that I’d never see you again.” Tommy looked up from his glass. “It’s just... it sounds like you and mom and Mike have a nice life now, one that I’m not a part of, and I would just bring back memories.” Though she nodded, Cindy still wasn’t fully convinced. “You saw dad, yeah?” “Yeah.” “You’re not like him, you know. I know you worry that you are.” She neglected to elaborate why she was certain of this. “There’s someone else you take after, but it’s not mom either. I don’t know who it is.” “Thanks.” Even if she didn’t, Tommy seemed to know who she was referring to, and he brightened up a little. “Look,” she sighed, “I see what you mean about coming back from the dead and all, so I’ll make you a deal: I won’t tell mom you’re here, but in return, you need to tell me the whole story, where you’ve been all these years, all of it.” Tommy paused, staring off into the distance for a moment, before he finally nodded. “Alright. Deal. But I can’t just ‘tell’ you. I kinda have’ta show you. Once Cowell comes back, I’ll see if I can get off early.” And so they waited. They would be waiting awhile, because back in the office, there were some... complications. Cowell led Niko and Lila down the black hallway and into the last door on the left. Lila’s hand twitched, ready for anything as the door opened into... a small, cozy office. The only off thing about the whole affair was the shelves upon shelves of jars containing, what else, souls. They were of all colors and consistencies, some adrift peacefully while others almost seemed to be fighting to break free. “Fascinating, isn’t it?” Cowell said suddenly after he noticed Niko and Lila’s transfixed gazes. “How each one is so unique? I sometimes take them just because I’m curious about what they look like. And taste like,” he added, grinning to himself. He didn’t seem aware of just how odd that sounded. “Funny,” he continued. “Most people are a bit scared once they find out what’s in those jars, but not you two, eh?” Niko scoffed, drawing his gaze away. “After the things we’ve seen, this is downright calming.” He plopped down in the chair in front of the desk without waiting to be invited. “But neither of us are starry-eyed kids you can con out of our essences or whatever the hell. We’re here for business.” “Yes, yes. Of course.” Cowell grinned, sitting as well. “The young mob heir, striking off on his own, to prove to them all that he too can construct an empire with his own two hands. Thrilling stuff really, though the plotline’s been done before. Though never with this specific ‘occult’ twist.” Raising an eyebrow, Niko shook his head. “Whatever you say, pal. Now, seems to me that you’ve got a lotta souls, uh, hanging around. I could take some off your hands, cut you a really nice deal...” Lila remained standing, and listened with half an ear as she continued to glance around the room. She had never had a mind for this business stuff like Niko, so she let him work his magic while she prepared to back his honeyed words with steal if necessary. The souls were really quite mesmerizing. They seemed to be in a bizarre half-state between liquid and gas, though some leaned more one way than the other, floating in their jars like hair immersed in water. But now something else caught her attention: a small, mahogany cabinet opposite the desk. She narrowed her eyes, attempting to see past the frosted glass. But, to no avail. When a lull appeared in the negotiations, Lila took her chance. “Forgive me,” she said, “but what’s in there?” she gestured to the offending case. “Ahhh....” Cowell’s smile grew even wider. “That’s where I keep the more... interesting things I’ve collected over the years.” “Do you mind?” she asked, reaching with trepidation towards the cabinet. “Be my guest.” The doors swung open with a quiet creak, and Lila frowned at the contents beyond. Small, glass bottles glowed in the pale light, each containing... something. They looked a bit like the souls, vapory and translucent, but these things had different textures to them. Lila picked up one of the vials. On it was a thin, paper label which read in a scratchy hand: “Loyalty, Penelope Blanchett, 2017.” Inside, the loyalty glowed a soft pink, but there seemed to be something darker at the center, almost like a heartbeat. “Loyalty?” she asked. “What does that mean?” Cowell rose to join her at the cabinet. “It’s all the little bits of people I’ve collected. Things they can, but probably shouldn’t, live without. Bit of a macabre hobby, but there it is. Courage, knowledge, fear, I’ve taken them all. Oh, this one’s my favorite,” he pointed out one of the taller, thinner vials. “A teenage girl’s perspective. A genius move if I do say so myself.” Immediately, Lila and Niko caught each other’s eye. A teenage girl missing her perspective? They knew someone who fit that description. Without words, a plan was formed. “Why didn’t you tell me about this?” Niko interrupted. “I know a lot of people who would pay big bucks for something like that. Come on, let’s get back to business.” As Cowell turned his attention away from Lila, she took the split second chance and snatched the vial before closing the cabinet, then focused once more on the conversation. All seemed to go well, Cowell didn’t spare even a glance in her direction. Eventually, Niko and Cowell came to an arrangement. And just like that, Cowell became part of the ever-growing supply chain. Those... acquaintances of Niko’s that were willing to pay for genuine human souls would finally get them. What they were actually going to do with them, Lila didn’t even want to guess. Niko and Cowell stood and shook hands. “We’ll be in touch,” Niko smirked. “I await with anticipation.” Turning to leave, Lila followed Niko to the door. She finally felt herself begin to relax. This had been a highly successful endeavor, after all. “By the way...” Cowell said, and Lila’s heart sank right back down as she heard the smile in his voice. She had relaxed too soon. “That bottle you’ve got in your pocket isn’t what you think it is.” “I... what are you...?” Niko tried desperately to say something, but Cowell simply held up a hand, staring intently at Lila, and Niko fell silent. “Check the label.” Hesitantly, Lila pulled the vial from her jeans pocket. Inside, the only thing she could see was an almost clear sheet, slightly tinted a rose color, almost the most solid thing in Cowell’s collection. She turned it over in her hand and read the faded paper: “Perspective, Agnes May, 1975?” Niko leaned over and stared at it as well. “Wait, this isn’t—” he began, before he realized what he was saying and shut his mouth. “Your friend’s?” Cowell continued for him. “Afraid not.” Lila took a step towards him, her face set. “Where is Cindy’s vial? We know you have it,” she growled. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” His smile said that he knew exactly what they were talking about. “Bullshit.” Niko stepped in. “We know you’re the daemon she made a deal with, you bastard.” “I don’t have it.” Oddly, it seemed as if he was telling the truth. “What?” Niko asked. “I never had it to begin with,” Cowell shrugged. “You can’t take someone’s perspective if they can already see the Truth. You just need to give them a little push.” “But... why?” Lila shook her head. “Why would you just ruin her life like that?” “I wouldn’t say I really ruined it, per say,” Cowell grinned. “I mean, I’d say that you two are probably the closest friends she’s had in years. And believe me, you’ll see someday. Now if you’d kindly hand me back poor Agnes May’s perspective, thank you, then I’ll show you out. I’ve had quite a bit of excitement for one day.” Grabbing both of their shoulders, he guided Niko and Lila out of the office and back to the pub. And a silent vow was passed between them: don’t tell Cindy. After everything she’d been through, finding out that it had all been a lie, well, they weren’t sure what she would do. Niko made a mental note to not get the ingredients for too big a fire amulet. He did not want to be witness to that explosion. Better to wait until the time was right. “We’ll, uh, get out of your hair, then,” Niko said. “A real pleasure.” “Oh no,” Cowell’s smile grew even broader. “The pleasure’s all mine.”

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