"But we're not done yet." Trudi continued. "There's still one more to go - one girl we haven't heard from.
"I know," Ayna said quietly. "I know what this is going to be about. This is about the darkside.
"Yes, I did some bad things back there. But I had to. That's the rule of the darkside - 'survive or die'. And I didn't want to die.
"So I survived. And then I came here.
"/That's/ what matters. Not what I did. Not /anything/ you can bring up.
"And now I'm here."
"Mm." Trudi agreed. "You're good at that - only to be expected, of course. An excellent survivor.
"But when you first came here, all those finely honed instincts seemed to fly right out the window.
"Because you almost immediately stuck with the very first people you met - Xeffy and her family." Trudi tapped her card against her chin. "Now a good darkside girl knows better than to rely on /anyone/ - so what happened, Ayna? Death wish, perhaps?"
"_No_." Ayna said.
"Or maybe it was familiarity. They are /your/ family's alters, after all. Someone you knew, someone to stick with - and yet you of all people should know that simply being an /alter/ doesn't guarantee any actual /similarity/. You don't know /what/ they might be like." Trudi shrugged. "But perhaps that was all you had to go on."
Ayna's expression spoke volumes.
"Or perhaps that /is/ why you stuck with them. /Because/ you didn't know what they might be like. But if /that's/ the case, then /your/ family must have been a nightmare, if /any/ other possibility seemed better."
"Yes," Ayna said, voice flat. "They were."
"Or perhaps there's another, more deep-seated reason." Trudi mused. "I mean, barring visits to the bathroom, there always seems to be someone around, doesn't there? You share a room with Xeffy, you've always got a class with one of your friends, you've got the family around at home, you never go out without someone else... all very social, and you /are/ a social girl. No-one would think anything was wrong.
"But what if something /was/? What if you /were/ hiding something? A phobia. A fear of being alone. Of course, the only way we could prove /that/ is if you /were/ alone..."
She lifted her fingers in readiness to click.
"...No..." Ayna whispered. "No, /please/..."
"/Back off/." Xeffy snapped. "/Now/."
Trudi lowered her fingers, smirking. "I think I've made my point."
"Yeah?" Embericles said. "Well, you can /take/ that point and stick it."
"Monophobia," Trudi continued. "Why would a darkside girl develop monophobia? Perhaps because of the sort of things that would happen when you /were/ alone..."
Ayna shuddered, grey face paling.
"Or perhaps it's one of those irrational quirks," Trudi said. "Everyone has them, after all. Who knows? Perhaps several years' therapy might be able to sort it out.
"Even so, it must have taken an incredible act of courage to break free from the darkside - to act /past/ the fear and fly into the unknown. To risk everything you'd known on a Siren song... but then sailors have died for less..."
Ayna's face was white.
"But you made it. You took the biggest gamble of your life, and it paid off over and over and over." Trudi said. "Who could blame you for not wanting to go back? Well, Ellia and Andie for one - but Niccolo seems to have /them/ well in hand. Curious that Daddy dearest doesn't seem to want you back - or is he simply being patient? He /does/ have millennia to wait, after all..."
If Ayna's expression had been any paler, she would have looked like Sandra.
"/Back off/." Kwen snapped.
"Interesting reaction there, Ayna," Trudi continued, as if nothing had happened. "One might almost think you're /afraid/ of going back - afraid of what you'd have to face. Just how far would you go to avoid it? We've already established you were willing to do anything in the name of survival - and this seems like another example of the same, albeit a tad more... /irrational/, for want of a better word.
"Something to think about, hmm?"
Xeffy clutched her hand around her sister's.
"But you've got people who'll look out for you. People who'll be there no matter what - Xeffy, Dominic, Kari..." Trudi paused. "Nice for some, isn't it?"
"She's my /sister/." Xeffy said, voice harsh.
"Oh, I'm sure," Trudi allowed. "And maybe that's enough of a reason for the /rest/ of your family to look out for her. But why Kari? What does /he/ see in her? _He's_ not family."
"You'd have to ask him," Anya said. "Oh, what a shame, he's not here."
"Mm." Trudi agreed. "All right, let's take it from the /other/ direction. What do /you/ see in him, Ayna? What's so fascinating - beyond the fact he looks like Harry Potter?" She paused. "Or /is/ it that simple? I wouldn't have thought you were so shallow..."
"...it's not." Ayna's voice was barely audible.
Trudi cupped an ear. "I'm sorry, what was that?"
"It's not," Ayna repeated, louder.
"Then what is it?" Trudi inquired. "If it's not looks alone..."
"...He listens," she said finally. "He's good at that. He'll let me talk and talk, let me tell him everything.
"And I /can/ tell him everything. He won't judge, he won't say anything - but he's /there/ for me, you know?
"He'll tell /me/ things, too. He may not tell me /everything/, but he'll always be straight-out with me, always be honest - he won't lie or try to cover things up. He doesn't need to do that, but he /does/.
"He's sweet and thoughtful and considerate. He always seems to know what to say.
"And the way he makes me feel, when he says things like that... the way he always makes me blush... the way /he/ blushes when someone's teasing him... the way he looks at me when he thinks I can't see... I don't know what it is, but I like it.
"He's a pervert, yeah - he always seems to have an eye for the pretty girls, and it makes /me/ feel... not pretty. Like another part of the background.
"And then there's that succubus after him. He /says/ he still has feelings for her, and I believe him. But I don't know how far it goes. How much he still feels."
Ayna looked up, slitted eyes tearing. "He's living on borrowed time. He knows it, I know it, we /all/ know it. He could be doing /anything/ rather than sticking with us.
"But he does. And I don't know why.
"I wish I did. But he won't say.
"And I still don't know why."
"Don't you have any problems with him being a Demon Lord?" Trudi inquired.
"Only that it's going to get him killed," Ayna said softly, eyes cast down. "He doesn't deserve it, not him - /Aballon/ did bad things, but he's not Aballon, not any more.
"He's Kari. And- and-"
She choked up.
"And?" Trudi prompted.
"And I don't want him to die on me," Ayna whispered. "Not him..."
"Aww..." Trudi said. "How sweet. Isn't that sweet?"
The audience 'aww'ed.
"It's a shame Kari isn't here to share /his/ perspective on all this," Trudi continued. "I'm sure he'd have a lot to say..."
"/Don't you dare/." Ayna hissed. "/Ever/."
"But we're nearly out of time as is." Trudi said, ignoring the young Siren. "Let's see... Anything else?
"Oh yes. Is it true you're just a /teensy/ bit jealous of Xeffy and Embericles's boobs?"
"AYNA!!" Xeffy squawked.
Ayna blushed. "Sorry, Xeffy. But it's true. Yours are bigger than mine."
"We're the /same person/, you moron!" Xeffy ranted. "We'll have the same damn size boobs /anyway/!"
"We will?" Ayna said.
Xeffy groaned. "Gods give me /strength/..."
"And on /that/ note," Trudi said, "I think it's about time to wrap up. Any final words, girls?"
"Eat the peanuts out of my shit, Trudi," Embericles said.
"Insult: I hope you get perpetual amnesia." Molly said.
"I have a black hole I'd like to introduce you to." Kwen said.
"I've got this bunch of WANKERs I'm not using...." Anya said.
"I want to see you buried in Harpy droppings." Ayna said.
"Spamites. You. And no 'delete' button." Xeffy said.
"Embericles showed me terrible things when we fought," Nyssaias said primly. "Pain and horror beyond anything you can imagine. Yet, for all their awfulness, those evils still had a dignity about them. You have not even that, and for that you are _truly_ pathetic."
"You see that?" Kwen said. "/That's/ class." She glared at Trudi. "As opposed to the alternative."
"And that's about it from me," Trudi faux-grinned. "I'd like to thank my lovely guests..."
This time, /all/ of them bar Nyssaias matched Embericles's upraised finger.
"And until next time..."
"Like _Hell_," Kwen said. "Welcome to cancellation."
The studio went white-
-and when it cleared, they were sitting in the living room once again.
And Dominic marched towards the DVD player.
"...Dad?" Xeffy said.
"In a minute, Xeffy." Dominic said.
He pushed 'Eject', removed the DVD, and 'disappeared' it into thin air with a flick of his wrist.
"I'll take care of this," he said. "These things are notoriously hard to dispose of." He scowled. "And we'll have to do something about the video store, too..."
Nyssaias shuddered. "Just so long as no-one else has to go through that again."
"/That/ I can promise you," Dominic said. He looked not a little disgusted. "I've known some History Muses use these to extract information. /Highly/ illegal - we do /not/ go about unearthing evidence by abusing others. Those I know of were caught and punished appropriately."
"...Were you watching?" Kwen said.
"Having a portal open to Narrative Space in my own house is /not/ something I'm likely to miss," Dominic answered. "And before you ask, no, I /wasn't/ able to do anything about it: opening a portal into it from this side is beyond my capabilities, as they effectively create a 'sealed space' for the duration of the narrative."
"Why didn't you ask your girlfriend?" Embericles snarked.
"I /did/ think of that," Dominic said, not blinking an eyelid. "But there were a number of strikes against it. One: as I said, I'm familiar with these things, and I knew that you /would/ get out without my help. Two: I knew there was someone behind this, and I knew it was likely that if they were thwarted, they would decide to escalate their intrusions - and there are /far/ worse than what you've just encountered."
The MythMob shuddered.
"Another factor is that I would rather not depend on Amber to bail me out of my problems. It's not what /she/ wants, and it's not what /I/ want either. Were it a situation where there was no /alternative/ but to call on her, then yes, I would - but for nothing short of that."
"...You /knew?/" Kwen said.
"After having Mephiahna attack Ayna at the school, it wasn't hard to work out." Dominic said. "She had another reason to be there barring trying to kill Ayna - which she could have done at any time - and all things considered, it wasn't too difficult to guess what it might be."
"She doesn't know /everything/ about Kari's present situation - or at least the parts of it most important to her. And succubi are impatient almost by nature. She /wants/ to know what's going on - and she's not interested in /how/ she finds out as long as she /does/."
"You /let/ us go through that?" Embericles said coldly.
"You would have preferred worse?" Dominic returned. "Have you _met_ a desperate succubus yet? A succubus willing to go all out?
"And would you - you, specifically - I know the /others/ would have liked it - would you have /liked/ me to pull a dea ex machina out of my hat?"
"Why didn't you?" Embericles threw back.
"I'm not an oracle, Embericles," Dominic said. "But I /can/ make reasonable predictions about certain parts of the future. And this is one: /Mephiahna would have done worse had I intervened/.
"No, I'm /not/ happy I had to do this. Yes, it smacks far too much of moral compromise for my liking. Yes, I found it personally /agonising/ to watch my daughters and their friends going through this.
"But I made the decision I did, and I have to bear the responsibility.
"Think me a coward if you will, but you know /why/ I made the decision I did. Perhaps you would have chosen differently, and for that I applaud you.
"But /I/ am the one who had to make it, here and now - and what's done is /done/, for better or worse."
"I understand," Nyssaias said quietly. "I may not like it, but I do understand."
Dominic sighed. "Thank you, Nyssaias. That means something to me.
"And no, you're not the only one who's unhappy about it either."
"...and so, the loving father was afraid to stand up to the succubus for his children's sakes," Embericles said in a soft, detached tone that belied the frigid irony of her words. "Why, if I didn't know better, I'd think I had seen this story somewhere before."
"Oh, believe me, Embericles," Dominic said quietly, "I /know/ what it is to not be there for your children when it counts - because I /wasn't/, and it haunts me to this day. /They/ may have forgiven me, but I have far more difficulty forgiving myself.
"I have met far worse things than a single succubus, Embericles. I went into the /abomination/ that was the Tod Brothers' Carnival for Ayna and Sandra, and I brought them out again. I faced off against the Firstborn of Gallifrey because she had hurt my children. Why should a succubus frighten me?"
"You tell me." Embericles said.
"I could have drawn this out, Embericles," Dominic said. "I could have got Amber to pull you out and waited for Mephiahna's next attack. We could have engaged in an escalating battle of attrition as Mephiahna sought ever-more dangerous ways of gaining the information she sought.
"But I didn't."
He looked Embericles in the eyes.
"/Because there are worse threats than Mephiahna, Embericles./
"Worse by /far/.
"There are much, /much/ more dangerous things after Kari - Archangels. Demon Lords. Demon Princes.
"And I would prefer to /minimise/ the problem Mephiahna poses when I can. Succubi are notorious for intensifying chaos, and I have no doubt Mephiahna will continue to do so.
"Which is why I think it's important to deal with these things early before they can /add/ to the chaos. She will cause /enough/ trouble as it is.
"Sure I do, Mr. Allingham," Embericles replied, expression never changing an iota. "After all, I've heard most of those excuses - or 'explanations', if you prefer - before."
Dominic sighed. "All right. If that's the way it's going to be. I'm certainly not going to persuade you otherwise - I've been called far worse in my time."
Embericles blinked, momentarily startled.
"One thing," Dominic said, addressing Xeffy and Ayna. "/Don't/ stick up for me to Embericles."
"But *Dad*-!" the twin Sirens wailed.
"Don't." Dominic said. "I appreciate the sentiment - and the feeling behind it - but ultimately, arguments aren't going to get you anywhere. The only evidence she'll accept will be evidence from /me/.
"If Embericles won't be persuaded, then she won't be persuaded. Let her think what she wants."
Embericles started to smirk, only to find Nyssaias glaring at her.
This seemed to discomfort her for some reason.
"Where's Anya?" Kwen said, in an attempt to change the subject.
"Right here," Xeffy's shadow said. "I /wondered/ when you were going to get around to me."
Kwen peered closer. "You okay in there?"
"No problem," Anya assured her. "I'm fine.
"How about you?"
"...Honestly?" Kwen said. "I feel like /shit/."
"You're not the only one," Xeffy sighed.
"And me." Ayna put in.
"Observation: seeing /you/ feeling bad has caused /me/ to feel bad." Molly said.
Nyssaias looked at them all.
"...No," she said finally. "No. We can't leave things like this."
"A group hug and a couple of rounds of 'I feel your pain' is not going to make everything better," Embericles stated.
"I think..." Nyssaias hesitated. "I think we should go out for a meal and let ourselves wind down. We don't have to talk about what we've gone through - we can do that later. For now, we just need to get ourselves feeling better."
Embericles snorted. "A group hug and 'I feel your pain' over pizza?"
"That's not helpful, Embericles." Nyssaias told her. "If you have a better idea, I would very much like to hear it."
The redhead opened her mouth, closed it, then just blew out a long sigh. "You've got me there. I _don't_ have a better idea."
"You could always think about it over a meal," Molly suggested. "From observation, people usually think better on a stomach that is full, but not so full as to induce a soporific state."
"...I think you'd like my father," Nyssaias said. "And I think you would too, Mr Allingham."
"I look forward to it," Dominic said.
"...Fine," Embericles said. "We'll go eat."
Nyssaias beamed. "See? I knew you could get along!"
"Don't spike the ball." Embericles told her.
"...What about Kari?" Ayna said.
The rest of the MythMob thought about it.
"Yeah, why not?" Kwen said eventually, most of the others nodding in agreement.
"Count me in." Embericles said, to everyone's surprise. "This _is_ largely his fault, after all."
Ayna glared at her.
"I'll go and get him," Dominic said, ignoring Embericles's last line. "Meanwhile, think about where you'd like to go."
He opened the door as the MythMob fell into a huddle behind him, and let the relief well up inside.
He deliberately ignored the fly on the wall.
Once again, Mephiahna was not in a good mood.
This time, however, it was because she'd taken offence to Dominic's desire to 'minimise' her chaos. She didn't take kindly to people out to /stop/ her enjoying herself, and from what she'd seen, this Dominic was a killjoy of the highest order.
But she could have a lot of fun with him - show him what he was missing out on.
Show _all_ of them.
It reminded her of the good old days, back in dear Abi's court. All those little courtiers, scurrying around trying to get an advantage, trying to get one over on each other, advance themselves in their Lord's eyes - while _she_ already had Abi's ear _and_ his bed.
And from there, she could play with them as she liked - and the best part of it was, they fooled themselves into thinking /they/ were the ones playing.
But Abi... ah, Abi had been something else. Not like the little minions or toadies who served him. Not only had he been a worthy catch, he'd been a worthy /opponent/ - and that wasn't a combination Mephiahna had come across too often.
Mm. That had been fun.
And this promised to be more of the same.
These children were a virtual /train-wreck/ of factions, bloodlines, and relationships. You could just about start a Divine /War/ over some of the things they were into...
And there, right in the middle of it all, was darling Abi - /Kari/. Given a new form, a new body, a new mind...
She still didn't understand what he thought he was doing, but that made it all the more interesting. Was he still up to it? Still the master game-player she remembered?
Mephiahna licked her lips. Oh yes. She was going to enjoy this.
Because for /this/, for the opportunity for chaos he'd practically handed her on a /plate/ - for /this/, she could wait.
And at the end... at the end... Kari would be hers.
For /that/, if nothing else, she could wait.
She wanted to /savour/ this.
Her mobile rang.
Mephiahna blinked, pulled it out, and flipped it open.
When she saw the number, she groaned.
Not now. Not _now_, dammit! Not when she'd just discovered her best opportunity for chaos in /decades/!
But she couldn't ignore it. Not unless she wanted something terrible to happen, most likely involving hard work and tedium. She'd had enough of /that/ to last her the rest of her life.
She answered it.
"Hello, Mephiahna speaking."
<Mephiahna, Succubus First Class, Unlimited Licence?>
Mephiahna briefly pondered denying it, just to see what happened.
No. Better not.
"Yes." she said.
<Congratulations! You have been selected from our list of candidates to be the tutor for a brand-new succubus trainee!>
"_Angel dung!_" Mephiahna swore.
<Stay on the line, and your new recruit will find her way to you! Remember Guild guidelines in the care and education of your new recruit, being sure to keep them in mind at all times! The Succubus Guild can not be held responsible for any suffering and torment you may receive in being found to have disobeyed these guidelines!
<Have a nice day!>
The word 'sucker' at the end was naturally left unspoken.
Mephiahna glared at the phone as if she could make it spontaneously combust by thought alone (sadly, this was not one of the standard succubus powers, otherwise Ayna would have been a smoking cinder by now).
Thanks to the generally chaotic nature of succubi in general, /none/ of them wanted to get saddled with some wet-behind-the-wings trainee. However, they /also/ realised they needed to train up their next generation so they had _some_ idea what they were supposed to be doing, the best ways to go about it, and generally how not to make fools of themselves in front of the other Divinities (shame was one thing, /foolishness/ quite another).
So the Guild had instituted the lottery. When a new recruit was ready for training, a name would be picked at random from the list of all current working succubi, and /that/ unfortunate succubus would be assigned as the new recruit's tutor.
Mephiahna wondered briefly who'd she'd pissed off to get picked.
There was a knock at the door.
Mephiahna groaned, and went to see who it was.
The dark-skinned girl standing in the doorway managed to look various combinations of nervous, frightened, worried and awed.
Like Mephiahna, her blonde hair was long and full, framing an attractive face with a certain innocent look to it - entirely /too/ innocent for Mephiahna's liking. Her figure, while not a match for Mephiahna's own - few /were/, in Mephiahna's considered opinion - was built to give a lot of teenage boys - and girls - wet dreams and sleepless nights (not that this was too hard, given the libido of the average Terran teen). To a succubus's eye, there was a certain unformed potential about her.
Her large blue eyes fixed, not a little nervously, on Mephiahna.
"..Yes?" Mephiahna said, feeling as if the word had been dragged out of her by a thousand dull grey pen-pushers.
The girl inclined her head. "Glorietta, Succubus Fifth Class, Type One, Limited Licence. It's an honour to meet you."
"Excuse me for a moment," Mephiahna said, with all the politeness she could muster.
"Of course, senior."
Mephiahna closed the door.
Shortly after, there came a repeated series of loud smashing sounds, as of a hotel room and its furnishings being systematically reduced to their component parts.
When Mephiahna opened the door again, she was the epitome of sweetness-and-light, even managing to give Nyssaias a run for her money. "/Do/ come in. Sorry about the mess, the cleaner /still/ hasn't come round..."