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June 24th, 199X

You pull over your Dodge Charger a couple hundred yards away from your destination. Sure, the car shows its age, rust slowly eating into its body over the years, but you don't want it ruined beyond repair in case shit goes down. After all, the nearest gas station is 30 miles over, and you don't want to get stranded in the middle of nowhere.
Stepping out of the car, you stretch yourself after an hour long drive. The breeze flows through your hair, cooling you down in this warm summer evening, as you look over the barren wheat fields swaying in the wind.
After admiring the scenery for a while, you finally decide to get to work.
Opening the car trunk, you reach in to grab...

>Choose one:

>[EASY] an ancient-looking .45 revolver, a cut-down double-barrel and a handful of scattered 12 gauge shells
>[NORMAL] a heavily-used Walkman and a couple of scattered cassette tapes
>[HARD] a butterfly knife and a small (but respectable) collection of recreational drugs
>Rules: Votes lock in 15 minutes after the first vote.
>>[NORMAL] a heavily-used Walkman and a couple of scattered cassette tapes
Locked in. Writing.
You insert one of the tapes at random into the Walkman, connect the headphones, and put the player away into your pocket. You haven't changed the batteries in a while, but there should be enough charge to last you an hour or two.

You look yourself over in the side mirror of your car. An unshaved face of a 30 year old looks at you from the reflection, dressed in jeans and a plaid shirt. The headphones dangle from your neck lifelessly, and you take a moment to adjust them over your ears.

After a short stroll, you stand in front of the abandoned church, asking yourself once again why are you even here. Investigating this place alone seemed like a decent idea at the time, but as you approach the building, you feel the oppressive aura encroach upon you.
You fumble in your pocket, turning your trusty Walkman on and setting the volume to low. The motors whir to life, delivering straight into your ears the sweet sounds of...

>Choose one:

>heavy metal
>surf rock

The wave of calm washes over you, and, pushing the doors open, you let yourself into the church.

Rays of the setting sun seep through the doorframe and pave your way inside. The suitably gothic interior is lined with the dilapidated wooden pews and decorated with old murals that depict various scenes from the Bible. The evening sunlight permeates the church, the cracked stained glass tinting the light in muted colors as it passes through.

The sudden sound startles you, and your gaze shifts to the church's altar, where a beautiful scantily-dressed woman is sitting cross-legged. A giant stone cross looms behind her ominously, throwing a sinister shadow.

"Another mortal", the woman greets you in a bored monotone. "How unfortunate for you to stumble upon this scene."

You shift your eyes towards a pile of mutilated human bodies neatly stacked against the cross behind the woman, their blood painting the stone floor crimson.

"I hate disposing of witnesses", the woman drawls. "Mortals never put up a decent fight."

Unfurling her feathered wings stained with vivid ash gray color, she floats into the air, her eyes pinning you in place with killing intent.

And just when you hoped investigating this place would be a simple milk run...

>Choose two:

>Assess the situation before initiating combat
>Try to remember anything that could be useful
>Surprise the woman by seizing the combat initiative
>heavy metal

>Assess the situation before initiating combat
>Try to remember anything that could be useful
Locked in. Writing.
>Assess the situation before initiating combat

You turn up the volume of your Walkman, and easily recognize the aggressive riffs of Metallica.

>NOW LISTENING TO: Metallica - Master of Puppets

It's likely you won't have the time to switch tapes during the fight. Judging by the blackened feather wings, the woman in front of you is a fallen angel. Your heavy metal mixtape has a couple of offensive tracks, but most of them are geared either against angels, or devils.
You aren't sure how powerful she is, or what's the repertoire of her spells, but any kind of major Christian creature is bad news.

>Try to remember anything that could be useful

You strain yourself, and your mind helpfully supplies useful tidbits of information you wouldn't've conjured up otherwise.

The woman in front of you has four pairs of wings.
Strong, but not crazy strong. You can likely beat her in a straight-up fight, but you'll waste most of the mana you've stored up over the course of the last two months, leaving you at the level of a mortal in the direct aftermath.
You automatically adjust the volume knob to 7, as it's likely the most optimal mana output for this fight.


The vivid hue of her wings suggests she committed the most grave sins, such as torturing and slaughtering innocents. This might work in your favor, if she isn't used to her prey resisting. A strong surprise attack might overwhelm her.


Of course, time doesn't stand still. The woman conjures up a ball of light in her hand, aiming at your head. You realize you have no time to switch the track to something more suitable.

>Choose one:

>[PLAY: MASTER OF PUPPETS] Use the dead bodies to shield yourself from the attack
>[PLAY: MASTER OF PUPPETS] Mess up her aim by temporarily assuming control of her hand
>Dodge behind one of the pews
>>Dodge behind one of the pews
In an event of a tie I don't mind switching.
Locked in. Writing.
You quickly dive behind one of the wooden pews lining the church corridor, narrowly avoiding the spear of holy light. Guess a fallen angel is still an angel.

"Pathetic", the woman says in disgust. "Yet another powerless wimp. I'll enjoy turning your intestines inside out."

It seems like you've earned yourself a moment to breathe by not revealing your powers just yet. This just might be your lucky break.

>NOW LISTENING TO: Metallica - Master of Puppets

>Choose any combination of the available options:

>[REW/FF] Switch track (write-in an appropriate heavy metal track)
>[VOL UP/DOWN] Adjust the mana output of your spells
>[PLAY] Use the current track to power a spell (write-in the action)
>[EJECT] Switch tapes (write-in the genre)
>-[REC]- Siphon the ambient mana onto an empty tape [UNAVAILABLE]

>Choose one:

>Chat the Fallen up, maybe she will reveal something due to her feeling of superiority
>Taunt the Fallen to provoke her into making a mistake
>Assess your tactical options
>Attempt to flee outside, the cramped interior of the church doesn't do you any favors
>>Chat the Fallen up, maybe she will reveal something due to her feeling of superiority

Not that familiar with heavy metal so I'll let other anons choose.

>[FF] AC/DC: Shoot To Kill

>Chat the Fallen up.

If you won't allow AC/DC (if you don't count them as heavy metal)...

>[FF] Iron Maiden: The Trooper
Locked in. Writing.
She hurls another spear of light at you, missing you by few feet, as you instinctively take cover behind one of the church columns.

Damn, you haven't had a workout this hard in quite a while. After all, athletics were never your forte. This might be a problem.

"So what's with the bodies, lady?", you ask nonchalantly, breathing like an asthmatic chain smoker. "I thought you Fallen enjoyed a hot stiffie over a cold one."
"Ooh, a feisty one", the woman cackles madly. "I do quite enjoy the entertainment before the killings, little clown."
"Glad we're on the same page then", you shout from behind the column, fumbling with your Walkman. "I also enjoy my friendly banter before putting down creatures like you."

>NOW LISTENING TO: Iron Maiden - The Trooper

"So what's a bird like you doing in a place like this? I can't imagine there's anything here worth a dime."
"I could ask you the same, mortal", she answers, and you make no effort to correct her mistake. "But don't worry, I'll make sure to enjoy the taste of your succulent mana."

Your eyes flick to the dead bodies stacked against the cross, and you notice the suspicious absence of pooling blood, despite their mutilated states.
This must be her home base. No wonder your investigation of the recent disappearances led to this place.
As far as you can guess, the bodies were drained, and the blood was desecrated in the church altar to feed the Fallen with forbidden power. This explains why the hell no one knew about the presence of an eight-winged Fallen here. If you hazard a guess, the angel had a measly single pair of wings before Falling and feeding on the mana of the innocents.

"Well, aren't you a sweetheart", you say sarcastically, making sure the words reach the woman's ears. "I guess a half-baked two-winged harpy like you needs to resort to cheating just to get more wings and look respectable."

The woman screams out in rage, and hurls more bolts of (un?)holy light in your direction, but the column serves as a decent cover. You realize that you won't be able to hide behind this column for long, though, as the stone behind your back is quickly crumbling apart under the sheer force of raining light spears.

Finally, the song lyrics start to kick in, and you feel the berserker strength quickly swelling within you, as the song augments your body. It's a strong support track that enhances your physical abilities, but you can't rely too long on this one.
You could probably go toe-to-toe physically with the Fallen right now, but the lyrical context of the song isn't the best - you are certainly not in a mood to go out in a reckless blaze of glory, as the song will likely drive you to if you let it guide you for too long.


Meanwhile, however, right now you feel like you are at the top of the world, an apex predator capable of ripping the Fallen's wings off and tearing her apart like a child's toy if you turn up your Walkman to 11.

>Choose any combination of the available options:

>[REW/FF] Switch track (write-in an appropriate heavy metal track)
>[VOL UP/DOWN] Adjust the mana output
>[PLAY] Use the current track to power an action (write-in the action)
>[EJECT] Switch tapes (write-in the genre)
>-[REC]- Siphon the ambient mana onto an empty tape [UNAVAILABLE]

>Choose one:
>[PLAY: Iron Maiden - The Trooper] Rip the Fallen apart with your bare hands
>[PLAY: Iron Maiden - The Trooper] Summon the battlefield into the church
>[PLAY: Iron Maiden - The Trooper] Use your augmented strength to hurl the pews at the flying Fallen
>[PLAY: Iron Maiden - The Trooper] Write-in?
>Write-in mundane action?
>[PLAY: Iron Maiden - The Trooper] Rip the Fallen apart with your bare hands

Time to get some wings.
>[PLAY: Iron Maiden - The Trooper] Write-in?
As opposed to trying tear it apart, use the beserk rage to grab the Fallen and smash it as hard as possible into the nearest surface.
Locked in. Writing.
You call upon the newfound berserker rage, feeling the heartbeat pattering like a machine gun through your head.
Wasting no time, you dash out of the cover, the primal rage powering your body. Jumping towards the Fallen, you tackle her out of the air, smashing her body against the giant stone cross behind her. The stone cracks under the sheer force of impact, and the Fallen's wings crumple like a paper airplane, leaving the some of them mangled beyond repair.
Not content with that, you grab the woman by one of the broken wings and smash her body against the altar. She screams out in agony as the wing gets torn out of her back, but she has enough presence of mind to use her magic to shield herself from the worst.

As both of you rise, struggling to keep standing, you glance at the woman. Her wings are painted red, the feathers are clumped, sticking together with her own blood, and her back is covered with deep-running open wounds. One of her wings is missing and three of them are mangled beyond recognition, raw bones and flesh sticking out of them.
Her revealing dress is pretty much destroyed, leaving only a mess of blood-covered rags that barely covers her attractive body that is broken, bloodied and bruised.
But most importantly, the look of arrogance and contempt on her face is replaced by that of apprehension, fear and a hint of terror.

"Not so fun when you're on the other side of the fence, is it?", you taunt the woman smugly, wincing over in pain and coughing up some blood, as you realize that, aside from obvious internal damage, you also might've broken some of your ribs.
This is a grim reminder that for all of your brute strength, you still aren't particularly tough.
At least both your Walkman and your headphones didn't take any damage.

It's obvious that the woman is in no condition to fight, and it's obvious that she knows it too.
You limp towards her, intent on ripping off the rest of her wings and finishing her off, but the Fallen reacts like any cornered animal would in her place, overloading the church with mana, forcing it to collapse on top of both of you in a suicidal attempt to take you out.

>Choose one:

>Finish her off, no matter the cost
>Get the hell out before she takes you to a shallow grave
>>Get the hell out before she takes you to a shallow grave
Locked in. Writing.
Acting purely out of instinct, you force all of the strength left into your body, covering several yards in a fraction of a second, and leap through the stained glass, barely avoiding multiple tons of stone and granite collapsing moments after you made it to relative safety.
You pause the tape, and the all-consuming rage stops powering your body, leaving you crumpling to the ground like a stringless puppet. You no longer feel the oppressive aura of the Fallen in the vicinity, which leads you to think that she is either dead, or managed to somehow escape.
In any case, you collapse on the ground, spending precious minutes catching your breath, as your muscles ache from the mana overload inflicted by the Iron Maiden's song.

Quarter-hour later, you scavenge the rubble of the fallen temple of God, but you find nothing that would conclusively prove the Fallen's death. No body. No vital organs. Just blood-painted rubble, a few torn-off wings and the drained bodies of the Fallen's victims.

You think of all injuries you've sustained and the mana you've wasted today with nothing to show for it, and how miserable the ride home will be in your current state.


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Chapter 1

July 25th, 199X

Your dreams are disturbed. You can't help but feel revulsion from the nightmare you're experiencing, as you the beautiful Fallen in front of you methodically dismantles the humans in front of her, disfiguring and draining their bodies, her flawless ash gray wings unmarred by the blood of people she is torturing with her vicious methods.
The altar is slowly filling with blood, and as the woman dispatches her victims one by one in a cold and precise fashion, clearly enjoying the victims' suffering, you realize that your turn is next. The woman looks at you with a bored and arrogant expression, looking at you as if you were mere livestock, ready for slaughter. Her nails lengthen and gain a metallic glint, and she reaches for your throat--

You stir awake from a sharp stabbing pain in your side, and attempt to move away from it, but your body doesn't obey you.
"King, you absolute motherfucker", the female voice booms through your head, and you wince in your hung-over state. "I swear, if you try to move one more time while I'm wrist-deep in your guts, you'll have to stitch yourself up on your own. I told you mixing alcohol and painkillers was a bad idea."

>Choose one:

I have been rather busy today but this is a very interesting read. I will contribute when I have time. I hope you keep up this Quest op
Locked in. Writing.
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"Who...?", you moan out in confusion.
"It's me, you idiot", the female voice echoes in your mind. "Now stop squirming and take it like a man. I'll be finished up in a moment."
You carefully crack open your eyelids, and you are welcomed with a view of a reasonably pretty woman sticking a needle through your gut. You seem to be lying on a cold metal operating table in an unfamiliar room.
You patiently wait for your brain to catch up with reality, and after a few seconds, your mind helpfully supplies the details.

The woman in front of you is Doc Grace, an unlicensed street surgeon and an old friend of yours. Your relationship goes back at least a decade, and she is one of the few people you can trust with your life.
Of course, it's not like you are joined at the hip or anything. As far as she is concerned, you are nothing more than a two-bit human magician. The mistake is easy to make for any non-human creature, and you never bothered to correct her, having your own reasons to keep her in the dark.
After all, she is technically also a Fallen angel, even if she Fell for all the right reasons.

"Doc, you are a goddamn lifesaver. Where--", you wheeze at her, parched throat restricting your proper voice, but your words are cut off by cringing from the pain of needle piercing your gut.
"Don't thank me until the job is done, you dunce", the woman berates you naggingly. "I swear, every time you go out on a job, you make it your mission to return with as many holes and bruises on your body as possible."

"As to where", the woman continues, "you are at my vet clinic. I finally got a license to practice on animals, so I hope now my day job won't consist of stitching up criminals and ne'er-do-wells like you."
"Nice one, doc", you say, knowing full well she doesn't mean it. Her entire life revolved around begrudging kindness and reluctant compassion. The woman couldn't turn away a wounded man for the life of her.

You glance around, wincing each time the sharp piece of metal threads through your flesh, and let your mind wander to pass the time, but your thoughts always seem to converge on the topic of...

>Choose two:

>Doc Grace
>The eight-winged Fallen
>The job
>The Walkman
>The eight-winged Fallen
>The Walkman

>Doc Grace
>The Walkman
Locked in. Writing.
Your thoughts drift towards Grace and the Fallen in general.

To be honest with yourself, you don't think that Doc deserved her fate. Before she was forced to Fall, she was your bog-standard low-ranking angelic creature, either an archangel or just your ordinary common angel.

After an all-out war between the entirety of Judo-Christian pantheon of mythical creatures in the late 50s, the big G kicked the bucket and the Heaven went into full-on information lockdown to control the fallout. Only the highest-ranking angels, namely, Seraphims and the like, had knowledge of it, and they kept carrying their duties in the name of their dead Lord as if nothing had happened.
It was a smart move on their part. If either Hell, or the few Fallen that united under the same banner during the war, knew that the big G was no longer in his heavens, the reluctant armistice and gradual reduction of tensions would swiftly be replaced with yet another all-out war, where the Heaven would unlikely to be the victor.

Unfortunately for Grace, who found out about it about two decades ago, she knew too much while mattering too little, and spilled her beans at the wrong time to the wrong people. She was forced to run from the lapdogs of the Seraphim Council, but it had its own ways of tracking an angel gone rogue. As long as she remained in Heaven's grasp, the threat of death sentence always hung above her like Damocles's sword. So she Fell and went into a voluntary exile, hiding among the mortals, until you found her... which is an entirely different story in and of itself.
The most twisted thing about this whole affair was that if the Council didn't hastily force their hand in effort to contain the situation, they would've probably come to an agreement. Grace was a smart girl, and she knew how to keep her mouth shut, but the damage was already done.

Of course, this entire story was told to you by Grace herself. At the time she told you of it, you weren't on close enough terms with her to trust her entirely, so you've done your own part of investigation and... her story checked out.
It certainly explained your birth and the like of yourself.

It's unfortunate that not all Fallen share Grace's pleasant disposition. Most of them are simply angels tempted by sin. Some of them are decent, their mentality no different from your average human, Falling because of their devotion to their hobbies or people they love.
Most of them, however, are angels who've tasted sin and found themselves wanting more, diving into the depths of immorality head-first.
Like the one you've encountered last night.
Your heart lurches as you realize that you haven't managed to finish the eight-winged Fallen off. The Lady is going to kill you if she finds out about it. Thankfully, the whole collective will help you hunt her down once it comes to it, so maybe you'll get off with a slap on the wrist, if you're lucky.
At least you know how she looks and what her mana feels like, so it shouldn't be too hard to recognize her once you stumble upon her again.

You carefully crane your neck so as not to interfere with the good doctor's working on your body.
You are still dressed in the red plaid shirt and tight-fit jeans, which are stained with dried blood from yesterday's incident. Doc is putting on finishing touches with her gentle fingers, disinfecting the neat suture running through your naked abdomen.
You feel neither the headphones lightly constricting your neck, nor the reassuring weight of Walkman in your pocket, but you aren't too worried about it. You've probably left it back in your car.

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It's an immensely useful tool, but there's nothing special about the Walkman itself. It simply serves as a (very convenient) focus for your powers, but any portable tape player would do. Before you realized you could channel your powers through recordings, you've had to carry a guitar around with you at all times, and it wasn't very convenient, to say the least.
You've shared some history with it, though, as it served you faithfully for years ever since you bought as a replacement for the previous one. Would be a shame if it died on you.

"I'm done with you", the female voice snaps you out of my reverie. "You can get the hell out of here, but no alcohol, no sudden movements or strain, and definitely no mixing alcohol with painkillers. If I find out you did something stupid, next time I'll leave you lying in the gutter."
"Since when were you ever worried about me, Doc?"
"...Idiot", she reprimands you, slapping you on the back of the head. "I don't like seeing you half-dead every time you do something dangerous, yknow? What even happened? You got ganged up on by stray Devils or something?"
"Something like that", you answer evasively. "Alright, I guess I'll see ya later, doc."
"Exit is down the stairs, and one turn right", she looks over you curiously. "Well, I guess it's none of my business. By the way, your car is parked nearby."

She reaches into the pocket of her labcoat, handing you the keys.
"I had to drive you over here, after you passed out. Don't forget to come back tomorrow for your pills and my payment", she says in a begrudging tone. "You are an absolute moron, you know that?"
"I love you too, Doc", you crack a million-dollar smile at her, and she can't help but smile at you back. "Alright, see ya later."
A few minutes later, and you're breathing the fresh air of the backwater America streets. The afternoon sun is shining brightly, forcing you to squint your eyes, as you weigh your options.
"Alright, where to?", you say to yourself. You've got the time.

>Choose one.

>It won't hurt to go back. You could chat up the Doc for a little while.
>Gotta report to the boss. Lady will be pissed if you delay it.
>Go home and get some rest. You are in no condition to be walking around.
> Go home and rest.
> Change track: Come and Get Your Love by Redbone to recharge your mana.
supporting this. Also text the boss so she knows what's up.
Locked in. Writing.
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You wander over to your car, fully intent on driving home for some well-deserved rest.
Then you remember that you still haven't reported back to Lady.

"Oh fuck", you moan exasperatedly to yourself. You know what, Lady can wait. Best inform her of that.
You shake a couple of loose quarters from your jeans pocket, and after a few minutes of dawdling, you finally locate the nearest phone booth.
You carefully dial the number, propping the handset against your head with your right shoulder, the old rotary dial clicking incessantly as you turn it. You thought of getting a portable phone, but it's not like you can carry one in your pocket, and knowing the coverage of this backwater shithole, it's a moot affair anyway.
The idling tones finally stop, and a female voice answers you.

"Hey, boss, it's King", you greet her conversationally.
"...Our purpose is simple."
"We'll be asking the questions", you answer the memorized code phrase, one of the many she forced you to memorize decades ago.
"How was your hunt?", she asks without much prelude. "You found what you searched for?"
"More than I hoped for, I'm afraid", you tell, shrugging your shoulders, even though Lady can't see it. "I'll be calling in sick for today."
"Everything alright?", she asks in a professional tone, but you've known her long enough to recognize when she's attempting to hide her emotions by the cold facade. You grin involuntarily at the thought.
"Nearly died out there, but, yeah, I'm mostly fine. Nothing a night's rest won't fix."
"...I see", she responds, "You are dismissed for today then. Come by the office tomorrow."

You stare at the buzzing handset in your hand, as you realize she just hung up on you.
Well, that went better than you expected. Depending on the mood she's in, Lady can be either a fragile sweetheart, or an insufferable bitch. Sometimes both.

"Women", you sigh to yourself.

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The ride home is uneventful.
The traffic on the road is reasonably tolerable, as it always is in this hot summer weather, as few people enjoy being stewed alive in their own cars. You notice that the leather seat covers are lightly stained with your blood that already managed to bake into the covers under the summer sun. They're not that obvious anyway. If anyone asks, you can just write them off as a design choice or something.
You fumble around with your glove compartment, pulling out a tape of feel-good music and shoving it into the cassette deck, allowing the soothing sounds to surround you.

>NOW LISTENING TO: Redbone - Come and Get Your Love

The song does its job of relaxing you and putting you in a good mood, but, mana-wise, you feel like a newborn deer. Right now, what you need isn't a focus for your powers, but rather a source of energy. Mosh pits and lounge singers, record stores and nightclubs - it's the people who hold the power you need. It's the live performances and stray worship that produce the ambient mana for you to drain.
Fortunately, you have an idea or two where to get some in the coming days. But for now, you'll have to settle for twiddling with the guitar back home to slowly recover at least a small fraction of your power.

You pull out of the road and into the driveway that leads to a rundown trailerpark-cum-shantytown. Home sweet home. You pull over near your house, ready to step inside, when a male voice calls you over from behind.

"Mr. King!"

You turn around, surprised to hear an unfamiliar voice, and see a teen dressed in a T-shirt and a pair of shorts.
"How're ya doing, Mr. King?", he greets you in a conversational tone. "Haven't seen you since the last summer."
"Mostly fine, thanks for asking", you answer, struggling to remember the kid's name. "How about you?"
"Eh, it's okay", he shrugs in response, "You still playing the guitar?"

Your brain finally catches up with you, providing the kid's name.
Charlie. Just your standard teen with teen problems and all that comes with it. His parents don't sound like respectable bunch, judging from the stories he occasionally shared with you, but he regularly comes over for a visit to his grandparents that live in the shantytown for a week or two each summer. Good kid. Last summer you indulged him by showing him a couple guitar solos, and now you're his go-to example of a "cool adult" (sic).

"Occasionally. Right now I'm a bit tired, though, and I've got work tomorrow", you offer, "but you can come over if you like. Tell your grandpa I said hi."
"Sure thing, Mr. King."

And with the distraction finally gone, you step into your house.

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It's not a particularly well-furnished home, but it's yours. You kick off the leather loafers, and slip into the plastic slippers you wear at home. The planks creak under your feet as you make your way into the bathroom, where you strip off the shirt and jeans, which go directly into the wastebin, as you deem them completely unrecoverable from the bloodstains.
You look at the reflection staring at you from the cracked mirror, your face looking like you've got hit by a truck. You also clearly need a shave.

Wandering out of the bathroom and into the kitchen, you open the fridge, and your hand reaches for the beer, but then you remember the Doc's directions and decide to settle for the orange juice jug. Crashing on the sofa, you fumble around, reaching for the remote.
You turn on the TV and the mindless droning of the newscaster fills the room. You finally relax, sipping on the juice directly from the half-empty jug.
Finally, a moment of peace.

You mess around with your Stratocaster, gently fingering it for solid half an hour before you realize this is getting nowhere and you put it away on its stand. At this rate, you'll be recovering your mana for months.
Your gaze wanders towards the end table, where you see your Walkman and some of your tapes sitting on top of a bunch of newspapers.
Perhaps there is a better way...

>Choose one:

>Look up useful news on the TV and newspapers
>Listen to the new records you've got recently and rearrange your tapes
>Relax on the couch and let your thoughts drift
Look for possible supernatural news/events and potential cases. Who needs mana anyway. We can hunt with mundane items for now
>>Listen to the new records you've got recently and rearrange your tapes
>Listen to the new records you've got recently and rearrange your tapes
Locked in. Writing.
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You reach for the Walkman, awkwardly grabbing it without getting off the couch, and pick a tape at random.
Might as well take it for a listen.

>NOW LISTENING TO: Alice in Chains - Heaven Beside You

Listening to something you've never heard before helps you with mana regeneration, even if it's just a little, despite it being a recording. Sure, the results are negligible and, honestly, comparable with the effect of playing with the guitar, but at least now your hands are free to do some actual work.

You get off the couch, picking up the tapes along the way, and head to your bedroom closet.
You carefully open it, so as not to accidentally drop its contents, and you are greeted with a massive stack of cassette tapes dating back from the late 60s. The majority of tapes have something written on them with a non-erasable marker, [UNUSABLE] or [LISTENING ONLY], stuff like that.

You take the marker off one of the shelves, and carefully write [MIXTAPE CANDIDATE] in legible script over the empty plastic case of the tape you're currently listening to.

It's the little things you've learned along the way that make your life easier.

Heavy metal is useful augmenting yourself or the others, and the tracks often had themes that made them useful against representatives of monotheistic religion mythos.
Surf rock and horror surf in particular is great against undead and various supernatural creatures that fed upon humanity in the shadows, both offensively and defensively.
Folk and blues are good at influencing people's moods, its already powerful lyrical nature further enhanced by your powers.

Of course, these are general rules of thumb you've figured out over the decades of your existence, and there is always exception to the rule, but they served you quite well over the years.

As to the exceptions, for example, pop and rock'n'roll are too varied in nature to say anything conclusively. They can be used to power literally anything depending on the exact song and its musical and lyrical context, from augmenting your own abilities to influencing others' actions, from direct elemental attacks to summoning items, creatures and even entire scenes into reality.

Classical music, however, always was pretty much off-limits to you. Its domain was already occupied by multiple gods from different ancient pantheons, so what was left for you was a mere pittance. Of course, you always could utilize it if pressed, but the final result would be more of a powerful stream of raw mana rather than anything resembling a controlled spell.

In any case, categorizing music like this has proven useful to you beyond the shadow of a doubt over the past decades. Whenever you had time to do some research and prepare before rushing headfirst into the battle, you've recorded disposable custom mixtapes tailored specifically for the encounter.

You spend the next two hours skipping through tracks of the new albums, making appropriate notes over the cassette cases and rearranging them for your convenience, until the batteries die on you.

After that, you spend about an hour researching the news. Nothing stands out too out of ordinary (you would be surprised if anything did - after all, the Fallen are pretty good at infiltrating the human society), but you manage to find some useful information.
As expected, wherever 4th of July is mentioned, you can expect celebrations and performances. Some new boy band is touring through the states, and there will be a premature performance in a few days. Perfect for a light mana snack.
You cut out the relevant article, and pin it to your kitchen corkboard, where it hangs alongside similar cutouts highlighting places and events of mundane interest.

You glance outside and notice that it's getting dark.

>Guess it's time to call it a day.
Look at the other papers in the corkboard, and then call it a day.
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You examine the corkboard, taking a closer look at the papers cluttering it.
Some of them conjure up fond memories, while others you keep purely out of necessity. Unpaid bills and used concert tickets mix together with handwritten notes and article cutouts.
Most of them are hardly important or relevant, but some of them helped you during the investigation.

At first, you dug deeper purely out of your personal suspicions, finding it unnatural that some of the locals you've known or heard about would just up and disappear. But then one of Lady's charges disappeared under similar circumstances, and that's when she got involved.
Lady did not like it when someone messed with her people, mortal or otherwise. She would move heaven and hell for those loyal personally to her. That is not to say that you ever was or considered yourself one of her subjects, but when you off-handedly mentioned people inexplicably vanishing in a passing conversation, she quickly latched onto that and offered you a generous sum in return for your services and help in figuring out the truth behind the disappearances.
Once you considered the fact that you haven't been paying your bills for almost two months, it truly was an offer you couldn't refuse.

You spend some time pondering and fiddling with the notes, thinking about the Fallen's next movements, but the puzzle pieces fail to fall into place.
Oh well. Guess you'll just sleep on it, and let your subconscious do most of the heavy lifting.

Swapping the AA batteries, you turn on the Walkman and drop on the couch.

>NOW LISTENING TO: Pink Floyd - Breathe

Not bothering to lay down the blankets, you let yourself drift asleep.

The rabbit-hole of Morpheus consumes you, as you fall into nothingness, dreaming of the past.

After the death of biblical God, the mana poured into worship from Christians, Muslims, Judaists and assorted religious sects had nowhere to drain, as 95% of worship performed by humanity became effectively stray, as and even with rise of Wicca, scientology and other various neopaganistic New Age movements and cults, simply too much uncontained mana was floating around.

The first thing you remember was your birth. Feeling lost, as you suddenly became aware of yourself, as you suddenly sprung into existence. Looking no different than you do today, you were born an eternal 30-year old.
More than a mortal, less than a god, belonging nowhere in this world. Just another Stranger wandering the Earth.
You never felt like people around you were lesser beings, but you also never felt like you truly belonged with them.
That is, until you met someone who felt just like you. You've easily picked each other out in the crowd, and without exchanging a single word, both of you had finally realized that, for the first time in your lives, you were not alone.

"Rule number 1: do not allow the Strangers' existence to be discovered."

Of course, this was not the end of it.
More and more Strangers found and became aware of each other, and discovered their powers over divine domains. Realizing they lived in a dangerous world, where all myths are true, but some myths are truer than the others, they concealed their existence, hiding among the mortals, biding their time.

"Rule number 2: do not interfere into another Stranger's affairs, unless given permission."

Some of them amassed power, hoping that one day they would be able to come into the light, while others like you settled down and lived their own lives, not particularly caring about affairs of the supernatural until they were affected personally.
But all of that doesn't particularly matter. What matters is who you are.

"Rule number 3: survive at all costs."

You are the nameless King.
Platinum records are your icons, and record stores are your temples. Mosh pits are filled with your loyal worshipers, and small-time singers preach your word in cocktail bars. The Beatles are your godfathers, and every rebellious teenager has an altar in your name, hanging on the wall or standing in the corner of their bedroom.

Elvis wished he could be you.

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June 26th, 199X

You wake up feeling refreshed, ready to meet yet another morning of living in backwater America, and go through your usual morning routine.

You rinse yourself off in the shower, and shave yourself clean with a cheap plastic disposable razor. The stitches and bruises on your body are still where they were yesterday, but the dull pain from the injuries has subsided, leaving you a mostly functional being.
A couple of fried eggs and a glass of orange juice tame your stomach and give you the energy to start the day right.

>Dress comfortably - it's too hot to wear anything except T-shirt and shorts
>Dress casually - a Hawaiian short-sleeve shirt and jeans will make sure you don't look like a total asshat, while maintaining at least some modicum of comfort
>Dress professionally - necktie, white shirt, black pants - the whole package to dress to impress

>Choose the tapes you want to carry around today (up to 3 tapes, write-in - can be genre mixtapes or specific albums/compilations)

After getting yourself in order, and pocketing the Walkman along with the tapes, you lock up your house and head for your car, with a destination in mind.

>Report to Lady and, hopefully, receive your other half of the agreed-upon payment
>Check up on Doc Grace and get the medicine required to heal up properly
>Scout for a place to replenish some mana, like a bar or a record store
Sleep. Then call the boss and ask for a new case
Put on a band t-shirt and some jeans and boots. What is the format of our tapes, OP?
> 80's rock ("Y.R.O." - Racer X, "Battle Angels" - Sanctuary, "Capricorn" - Motörhead, etcetera)
> "Alt" Rock ("Burn the Witch" - Queens of the Stone Age, "Bella Lugosi's Dead" - Bauhaus, "Weapon of God" - The Taxpayers, etcetera)
> Jazz ("Destroying Angels" - Bohren & Der Club Of Gore, "Film Noir" - Scott Hallgren, "Autumn Leaves" - Chet Baker, etcetera)
Jeans and a shirt
Check out doc Grace
If we found a super popular band that had a concert, would we gain more mana than just a regular concert
>What is the format of our tapes, OP?
Standard Compact Cassette tapes, usually either C45 or C60.
> If we found a super popular band that had a concert, would we gain more mana than just a regular concert
Yeah, pretty much. The main factors are popularity and emotional impact.
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You depart the shantytown to the sounds of engine purring and feel-good music playing in your car deck.

>NOW LISTENING TO: The Escape Club - Wild Wild West

Your mood is at an all-time high, well, as high as it could be after getting into a fight with an eight-winged Fallen and not coming out of it as a cripple, and, honestly, you feel fantastic. That is, until you accidentally bump into the steering wheel as you take a turn and a sharp sensation pierces your abdomen, making you wince in pain.
The sooner you get to Doc Grace and she gives you some painkillers, the better.

You reach the main town after a short ride, and a few minutes later, you pull over near the clinic, pausing to grab a stack of ruffled banknotes out of the glove compartment. You count the cash in your hands, and a sigh escapes you as you realize that the initial paycheck you've received from the Lady will be pretty much gone once you settle up with Doc for your treatment.
Oh well. Can't win them all, you suppose.

Stepping out of the car, you head to the entrance of the vet clinic and start torturing the door buzzer, pressing it repeatedly and incessantly.

Half a minute later, and the raven-haired woman cracks the door open, looking suspiciously at you through the small gap.
"I should've known it was you", she sighs in exasperation, lifting the door chain and letting you in, leading you through the building.
"I'm here to do drugs and act like an asshole", you say humorously. "And I'm all out of drugs."
"Nice to see you've still got that butterknife-sharp wit. What's with the groupie look? Women don't find you attractive, so you went the easy route?", she chuckles, nodding at your attire that consists of worn-out jeans, leather boots and a black T-shirt proudly emblazoned with Steppenwolf logo, complete with a howling wolf drawing in the background.
"Just thought I needed a change of pace", you take Grace's good-natured jab calmly. "Besides, I know you love being cooped up in your clinic, but it's hot as hell out on the streets."

A momentary silence settles between you, as you struggle to find a topic for friendly conversation.

>"How's business?"
>"Heard anything strange recently?"
>"You know you are quite cute, right?"
>"So, about that medicine..."
How's it going/you're cute
Let's try to fluster her
>>"How's business?"
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"So, how's business?", you ask to stave off the awkward silence. "Can't imagine many people in this town might need services of a vet."
"You would be surprised. It's not like all my clients bring cats and dogs", Grace notes in response. "A lot of folks just beyond the town borders have livestock to take care of. Of course, it's not like they bring their cows to the clinic, but having an actual place my clients can turn to does wonders for my reputation.

Fumbling with the keys and opening the door to her office, the woman turns to you and examines you critically.
"...Something on my face?", she finally comments.
"...Nah, you just look really cute when you're happy, yknow?"
"Moron", she retorts flatly, gently flicking you on the forehead. "You'll have to do better than that to tease me."

You step inside the room and take a seat on the operating table, while Doc sits opposite you in a comfortable-looking office chair.

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"Local thugs still bothering you?", you ask off-handedly, gesturing at the table you're sitting on.
"They pay well", she says, shrugging. "It's not like I can refuse a man in a critical conditi--"
"No, actually, you can and you probably should", you interrupt her mid-sentence. "They can't keep relying on your kindness to fix their knife wounds and bullet holes."
"It's not like they don't respect my work...", she says, her voice trailing off.
"I just don't want anything to happen to you, Grace. You sure you'll be alright?", you question Doc, looking her straight in the eye. "If anything happens, I'm always there for you, but I won't know if you don't tell me first. You sure you don't need any help with them?"
The woman looks away from your eyes, and nods silently in response.

"...Did you know you also look cute when you're distraught?", you joke in attempt to lighten the heavy mood that settled between you.
"...Idiot", Doc forces out weakly, but it's clear her heart isn't into it. She curls up in the office chair, hugging her knees to the chest, and examines you with a piercing gaze. "Why are you even here?"
"Medicine to heal properly. Also, I've never paid you for the treatment", you say as you pull out a neat stack of crumpled dollar bills and put it on the table under you. "You know, the fact that I called you in the middle of the night, and you still answered and did your best to patch me up means a lot to me. Really."
"You're really not helping your case here when you say stuff like that, while also telling me not to let others rely on my kindness", she snorts at the irony, a hint of a genuine smile appearing on her gloomy expression.
"I've got to be wrong sometimes", you respond, shrugging your shoulders in mock defeat, and a gentle laughter escapes Doc's mouth.
"You're impossible, you know that, King?", she finally cheers up, letting hold of her knees and sitting up properly.

"I've got your pills on the second shelf from the top, on your right. No, your other right", Doc facepalms as you try to follow her directions. "Yes, that's the one. Follow the prescriptions carefully, and don't mix them with anything stupid like you usually do. There's also ointment there, you have to rub it carefully into the stitches daily, so that the wounds don't scar."
"Thanks, Doc. It's like you're an angel on Earth".
"Don't test your luck, King", she retorts, looking positively menacing in response to your attempts at humor. "Now get out of my office."
You get up from the operating table and turn to leave the room, but at the last moment you hear Grace calling you from behind.

"And King?"
"Yeah?", you turn to the good doctor, and see her still sitting in the office chair, twirling her dark hair uneasily.
"Did you really mean what you said? About being there for me anytime?"

>Choose one:

>"Of course I did, Grace."
>"Well, not anytime, but yeah, sure."
>>"Of course I did, Grace."
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"Of course I did, Grace", you answer, puzzled look apparent on your face. "...What, is something actually wrong?"
"...Nothing a human like you can do for me", she says, looking distant. "Even if you are a magician."
"You would be surprised", you mutter under your breath, before returning to your normal volume.

"Look, even if there's nothing I can do, you will still feel better if you share your problems with me, even if it'll just be you crying into my shirt and ranting about life being unfair", you grin reassuringly. "And who knows, maybe we'll even figure a solution. Two heads are better than one and all that."
"...Thanks, King", she nods appreciatively. "Who knows, maybe I'll take you up one day on your offer. Now you really need to get out before you scare off all of my clients."
"Later, Doc", you do a cheerful salute, and vanish in the depths of building, leaving the raven-haired woman behind in her office.

A few minutes later, you're outside, squinting to fight off the bright sun glare blinding your eyes.
"Damn, I really should've brought sunglasses", you complain to no one in particular.

Where to next?

>Report to Lady. You shouldn't delay further, and besides, you're short on cash.
>Scout for possible mana sources. You really need that sweet hit of mana right now.
>>Report to Lady. You shouldn't delay further, and besides, you're short on cash.
>[X] Report to Lady.
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After about half an hour of mostly uneventful driving, you pull over your car in front of a small rundown hotel, dreading the encounter soon to follow. You down two pills of the stuff Doc gave you, and after putting the pill bottle into the glove compartment, you step out of the car.
While most of the time Lady is a civil and businesslike woman whose real nature is only betrayed by the nature of her cronies, her temper is legendary when you manage to catch her at the wrong moment, and you just aren't in any mood to deal with that bullshit right now.
You take a deep breath, calming yourself, and confidently stride through the hotel entrance towards the reception desk.

The inside of the hotel looks just as dilapidated as the outside, with plaster peeling of the walls, shabby furniture worn-out by time, and dust floating in the air illuminated by sunlight flowing from outside through cracked windows.
The lobby is empty save for two people, an impeccably dressed receptionist girl and a sharp-dressed man, resembling a bodyguard more than a hotel bouncer that he is, which feel out of place in the midst of the general state of disrepair of hotel.

"I have a reservation for two with the Madam", you announce, and the receptionist's brows shoot up. "The name's King. She should be expecting me today."
"Change my mind", the girl quickly regains her composure, and you recognize the codephrase hidden in her sentence.
"We all change", you say, feeling cheeky enough to work the original codephrase into the answer, "but we stand strong."
She looks you over in apparent disbelief, then reaches for a phone on her desk, dialing an internal line, and even though your back is turned to the entrance, you can still feel the bouncer eyeing you suspiciously from behind.
"Yes, Madam. Yes, he asked for you specifically", the girl speaks into the handset, still watching you carefully, when her suddenly eyes widen. "Let him through? But-- Yes, Madam."

"John!", she exclaims loudly, calling the bouncer over. "Pat this one down, then guide him towards the basement. The Madam is waiting."
The receptionist looks you over in distaste, clearly unimpressed by your choice in fashion, while you are being frisked by the muscular man for weapons. Finding nothing but your Walkman and tapes, a keyring, and a few loose dollar bills, the man seems satisfied, and gestures you to follow.
"Since when were the hobos allowed into Madam's office...", the receptionist grumbles, as you pass her following the bouncer.

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You descend into the depths of the hotel, your attendant leading you through a labyrinth of one reinforced door after another, and the interior suddenly changes.
The crumbling plaster and dirty concrete floor make way for lush carpet and luxury furniture, as you step through the threshold into the basement.
Multiple casino tables line the spacious room illuminated by the low and mellow lighting.
The room is currently devoid of people, but you know that, come evening, it will be brimming with life, playing blackjack, poker and roulette, as the players consisting of gangsters, thugs and gambling addicts will engage in not-so-legal activities through the night, laughing and enjoying the thrill of high-stake gambling, where one bet can mean heaven or hell for any of the participants.

The bouncer leads you towards the bar counter stretching along one of the walls, and you notice that one of the stools is already occupied.

"I would appreciate if you dressed more... respectably next time, King", the woman at the counter says, lifting her gaze from the cocktail in front of her, looking you over critically and wrinkling her nose. "Nevermind that. Take a seat."
"Good morning, Lady", you intone carefully, conscious of your actions. "Sorry I couldn't report yesterday. I wasn't really in a state to move around or talk much."
"We did agree that you would report me the results of your investigation every day, regardless of circumstances. But I guess I can overlook it, since it wasn't your fault. Michael!", she calls, and the bartender pops out behind the bar counter like a jack-in-the-box, as if out of nowhere, surprising you for a moment. "A drink for our guest."
"Uh, sorry, actually, I'm on meds right now", you refuse politely. "Let's talk business."

You quickly recount your encounter with the eight-winged Fallen, making sure to leave no details unmentioned. One parched throat and about half an hour later, you finish your report.
"...I see", she muses thoughtfully. "And one of my men that vanished?"
"Was probably one of the victims", you confirm her suspicions. "I'm sorry."
"No need to", Lady waves you off, "It's not your fault he was kidnapped. Wrong place, wrong time. My men know the risks. Though there's one thing that strikes me as strange..."
She seems to be lost in thought, unlikely to snap out of her reverie for a minute or two.

>Actually, you probably need that drink right now. Preferably non-alcoholic.
>Scrounge your brain for as much stuff as you can remember about Lady.
>>Scrounge your brain for as much stuff as you can remember about Lady.
>[x]Dr. Pepper, on the rocks
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Your mind helpfully fills in the blanks, as you order your fizzy drink, desperately attempting not to accidentally make a faux-pas in front of Lady.

You do not know her real name, and it's likely that nobody except her closest confidants does. The feeling's mutual, as she isn't aware of your true nature, thinking you to be yet another human magician who wandered into her webs, and simply accepts your alias for what it is.
What you do know, however, is that Lady is a high-ranking Devil with a prominent heritage, and the Owner of the state you live in. While usually such a large area like an entire state is officially separated between multiple factions and Owners within those factions, neither the angelic faction, nor the few Fallen that actually managed to organize into an hierarchy are particularly interested in a backwater flyover state like the one you inhabit, effectively giving Lady free reign of the area.
She established her powerbase back in 1920s, making her name during the prohibition era, and after helping the war effort in 1940s, she had managed to become the de-facto kingpin of the state's organized crime and, surprisingly, it wasn't such a bad thing to happen. The crime rate fell drastically, and random robberies and murders disappeared almost entirely from the public eye, as all disputes became internal in nature, and innocents were left out of the harm's way.

The public of her deceptively little establishment is likely entirely diabolic in nature, as it is somewhat infamous for being an elite club for powerful and wealthy Devils and their entourages, both from across and outside the state.
For a moment, you can imagine the amount of diabolic mana that would be swirling in the basement during a busy night, and you salivate at the thought of so much power being concentrated in a single place. Must be the influence of the devil's temptation, you think as you put a stop to that particular train of thought.
You wouldn't be surprised if most of the personnel in this place also consisted out of Devils, whether natural ones who went into service of more prominent Devil families in hopes of improving their status and gaining power, or artificial who were basically ordinary humans and magicians who sold their souls into service in return for fulfilling a particular wish.
Still, it seems that Lady also keeps some human personnel on-hand for reasons unknown, even if they are clued into the existence of supernatural.

Her cardinal sin is Wrath, and she is known for being calm and level-headed, yet occasionally blowing up in bouts of rage for no observable reason, as you found out first-hand during one of your meetings long time ago. Thankfully, you weren't the target of her fury.
The woman also doesn't seem to mind getting her hands dirty, or hiring others to do her dirty deeds, as your relationship, which alternated between being both friendly and purely professional over the decades, has shown.

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You pull yourself out of your musings, concentrating on the situation at hand, and, it seems, just in time, since Lady turns her attention to you.

"Something doesn't add up", she says with a puzzled expression. "The power-up ritual is only temporary in nature and doesn't require almost a dozen humans worth of sacrifice to power up to eight-winged state, no matter the initial powerstate of the Fallen."
You pause to process the new information and figure out where it fits in the big picture. The results aren't encouraging at all.
"Do you remember the design of the sacrificial circle on the altar?", Lady asks you.
"I'm not even sure I noticed one in the first place", you respond truthfully. "I was too busy trying not to die."
"And since the church was destroyed, we can't go back and doublecheck", she notes, lightly biting her nail.

At this moment, she looks vulnerable, as if she is just an ordinary (if beautiful) office lady, but you quickly remind yourself it's only an illusion. From what ability you've witnessed during her brief displays of power, the she-devil is terrifyingly strong. She could probably wipe the floor with the eight-winged Fallen right now, even if her opponent was at full power, and not even break a sweat.
You feel uncomfortable at the thought of being locked in the same room with a living ticking bomb, and you suddenly become aware of the careful gazes on your back of two bouncers on your back, watching your every move from the corners of the room, ready to act if given command or if you are perceived as a threat.

"How unfortunate. At least now we are aware of the threat", Lady interrupts your depressing train of thought. "Michael, prepare our guest's payment."
The bartender ducks under the counter and reappears with a small fancy bag containing a small brick of mint condition $100 bills, a bottle of expensive looking whiskey.
"You've found out the reason for the disappearances, and even risked your life to apprehend the culprit", Lady offers in congratulatory tone. "I deem your work satisfactory. You can leave with your rightful reward and not look back, and I wouldn't hold it against you."
"I sense a 'but' incoming...", you say carefully, and you hear alarms going off in your head as her neutral smile becomes predatory.
"I knew you were a smart man, King", the woman says, not bothering to hide her amusement. "That's why our mutually beneficial partnership has lasted for so long."

"Truth be told, I sense something big behind this incident", she tells you frankly. "Something that might upset the balance of power. My premonitions were never wrong before and I don't like power being out of my control."
"What do you want from me? And what do I get out of this?", you ask simply, knowing full well she enjoys it when you show some of your more mercenary aspects.
"I want you to hunt that feathery bitch down. I want you to make her suffer for the death of my subordinate. And I want her dead after you've pulled every single secret out of her head."
"I'm not really in the state to hunt anyone", you say, attempting not to be intimidated by Lady's behavior.
"I don't need you to actually fight her. You probably wouldn't win anyway, what's with you being a puny human. What I need is your mind of a bloodhound. As to your reward...", she pauses her tirade, pulling a pen from her jacket and writing on the coaster underneath her cocktail before passing it to you. "Of course, you will receive part of it in advance. And I can sweeten the deal even more..."

Your eyes widen as you look at the sum offered. This isn't thousands of dollars that you've been receiving for your milk runs before. No, compared to this, all of your previous bounties were simply pocket change. You could probably buy multiple houses with this, maybe even start a major record label.

>Accept. You've got beef to settle with the Fallen anyway.
>Refuse. You should pull out before you get involved in some really deep shit.
>[x] Accept
Literally no reason not to, let's go.
>>Accept. You've got beef to settle with the Fallen anyway.
>Add some magical stones first.

Can't do anything if we're low on mana.
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"Honestly, I see no reason to refuse", you accept the woman's offer. "Besides, it combines business with personal vendetta, so I'm killing two birds with one stone."
"Splendid", Lady claps her hands together with a satisfied smile, and beckons one of her bodyguards over to see you out. "Come by the hotel in the evening. We'll smooth out the details there and then."
"Uh, before I go", you insert quickly before you are forced to leave, "I'm actually kinda low on mana, and I was wondering if you could arrange me with some mana potions or stones or... something...", you stumble over your words, as you witness the woman's clearly amused expression.
"Don't get me wrong, the thing you are talking about definitely exists, but it's not something you can just find or give away", she explains to you as she would to a curious child. "It would be way beyond your paygrade anyway. But I will arrange something for you."

Lady empties her cocktail glass, and turns to look you sharply in the eye.

"And King? I will be a host to a certain... audience tonight. So, please, make sure you do not embarrass me. John, please, guide our visitor out."

A few minutes later, you're back in the dusty hotel lobby. The receptionist is clearly bored by her job, as she sits reading through a book, and the bouncer that guided you out returns to his work, standing vigil near the entrance.
You put on the headphones, sliding the 80s rock tape into the Walkman, and walk out onto the hot asphalt, summer sun shining brightly onto your head. It's hard to imagine that just a few minutes ago, you were in a chilly neon-lighted air-conditioned bar that looked like something straight out of film noir.

>NOW LISTENING TO: Def Leppard - Hysteria

It's only noon at best, and with your mana problem ostensibly solved (if you can trust Lady), you still have plenty of time to kill until the evening comes.

>Explore the town (write-in what you will be doing and/or looking for)
>Return to shantytown and get some free time.
>Reflect on what you should do before the evening.
Finally caught up. This quest seems really interesting so far. I hope you don't quit this midway OP I have been disappointed far too many times.
>Explore the town (write-in what you will be doing and/or looking for)
Look for a bar with some nice music and ambience.
Hey, we have money now, right? Let's get our rent paid and finagle a slightly higher class outfit together so we don't "embarass" Lady. Then maybe find a coffee shop or something similar with live music to grab lunch at.
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You feel the stacks of bills figuratively burning a hole in your pocket, and you remember Lady's warning. Figuring you'd better find an acceptable outfit, you head for the car, set on finding a tailor shop or, failing that, at least a brand outlet store. After that you can probably relax in some local joint or something. You would've also paid your bills, but those remain pinned to the corkboard in your kitchen, and you don't feel like driving to-and-fro.

Shortly after you stop at the local shopping district, you spend about half an hour walking around aimlessly, relying purely on your instinct to guide you to your destination, until you notice a small sign that leads you into the recesses of the town's backstreets, where you find a small tailor-cum-cordwainer shop catering to wealthy fashionmongers influenced by British culture.
The personnel there is reluctant to serve someone who looks like a pleb fresh out of a heavy metal concert mosh pit, but once you start slapping their faces with mint dollar bills, they quickly understand the situation and turn their attitudes around.
After almost two hours of the pure torture that was being groped and prickled with the pins by the man in charge of taking measures, waiting for the suit to be altered, and haggling due to a clearly unfair markup, you walk away with a premium, first-cut, lightweight silken three-piece suit complete with a matching shirt, a pair of stylish dark leather brogues and a pair of round silver cufflinks, leaving more than a thousand dollars behind at the shop.
Well, there's a quarter of your paycheck gone. You don't fret about it much, though, seeing as you will receive far more, come evening.

Once your purchase is safely secured in the trunk of your Charger, you wander through the district and settle for a small diner as a fitting place to relax.
After choosing a table, you hail the waitress, ordering an iced coffee and some club sandwiches, and put on the headphones, switching the tape in your Walkman.

>NOW LISTENING TO: Sweet - Teenage Rampage

The order arrives in a swift manner, and you pay for it ahead, not wanting to bother with it later when you decide to leave. Both coffee and sandwiches were clearly defrosted in a microwave, as they taste somewhat bland and artificial, but you don't care enough to complain.
You are comfortably seated, absorbing the sweet sounds of New Wave glam rock and lamenting the fact how hard it is to find a live joint in the middle of the day in this backwater town, when suddenly your perception catches a familiar aura at the entrance of the diner.
You know that its owner has already noticed your own aura, and thus, you don't bother doing anything. If he wants to come over, then let him come.
Slowly, but surely, the man moves in your direction and plops over at the seat against you.

"Hey there, Stranger."
"Hi, Jack", you greet the man, taking off the headphones.

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Jack'o'Knives, as he calls himself, but you simply call him Jack, since you are on friendly enough terms to act familiar with each other, even if you meet only once or twice a year.
A fellow Stranger, one of the only two that live close enough for you to interact with them on a semi-regular basis. You first met him a couple years ago, when he moved into the area, fleeing from Las Vegas where he was found to be an undesirable of highest order by every faction that mattered. When he recounted the stories of his youth during your occasional meetings in the past, you were genuinely surprised he managed to actually follow the Strangers' Masquerade, seeing how high-profile his behavior usually was among the supernatural world.
He looks like a drug addict who has seen better days, dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, shorts, white socks and plastic slippers, and truth be told, it's not too far off the mark considering the domain he presides over.
For you, it's music stores, electric guitars and platinum records. For him, it's drug parties, sheets of blotter acid and cocaine-covered dollar bills.

The man sits against you in the diner booth, expertly twirling a butterfly knife in his fingers, playing with it as if it was a harmless toy.
"You still working for that succubus?", he asks casually.
"I wouldn't exactly call her that, what's with her being a devil", prompting him to snort at your admission. "But to answer your question, yeah, I do."
"I know that she's a devil", Jack pauses his performance with the knife, pocketing it in the depths of his shorts. "She's still a succubus, both in body and soul."
"That same succubus is the only reason why you still weren't run out of state yet."
"Touché", he raises his hands in mock defeat. "To be fair, the woman has the business sense of a Wall Street insider, lying and deceiving her way to the top. Still, she's a decent partner. If it wasn't for her, my work would be much harder. Still wouldn't trust her farther than I could throw her, though."

He kicks back, relaxing on the diner sofa, and looks at you curiously, studying your features.
"Never thought I'd see you in this part of town", he comments casually. "You get in a fight or something?"
"Kinda", you shrug, thinking whether to share the situation with Jack.

>Tell him about the encounter at the church
>Evade the topic
>>Tell him about the encounter at the church
Maybe he can give us some leads.
>[x]Tell him about the encounter at the church.
Couldn't really hurt.
>>Tell him about the encounter at the church
Locked in. Writing.
You recount the encounter to Jack, making sure to stress his attention on what Lady told you about the ritual, and his expression darkens with each detail he hears from you.
"That explains why you're all blue and purple", the man comments, and you remember that for all of his flaws, Jack could never be called imperceptive. "Don't worry, it's not that obvious. I've got an advantage of being more knowledgeable about how a Stranger's aura should look like", he answers your thoughts, as if reading your mind.
"I find myself outmaneuvered on all flanks lately", you comment mirthfully. "So, what do you make of this?"

"What do you know about hemomancy?", he says, his expression gaining a semblance of seriousness.
"...Huh? In English, please."
"Blood magic, mate. What do you know about it?", the man seems unamused by the cheek you give.
"Just the basics", you admit flippantly, knowing that Jack is about to give you a lecture. "But you are about to explain, aren't you?"
"I'll give you a quick rundown. Basically, it's the type of magic that most of the ordinary magicians use. Heavily ritualistic in nature, it requires only properly designed and drawn sacrificial circles and mana-rich blood, meaning that just about any random housewife can use it if she got the right ingredients."
"Nothing is more dangerous than a psycho with a cooking recipe", you add, smirking at the thought of the appropriate image conjured by your imagination.
"Pretty much", the man snorts at your attempts at wit. "Anyway, there are numerous supernatural applications of blood. You can force someone to drink your blood and control them, you can drink the blood of supernatural creatures to grant yourself some of their properties, you can drink someone's blood to regain mana or gain a temporary increase in power... The possibilities are endless. And the best thing about it, the only things you need is a willing blood source and a creative mind."
"Or an unwilling one."
"Or an unwilling one", Jack agrees easily, repeating your words.

"Blood is an excellent mana capacitor and a terrible mana conductor. It's impractical to use as a power source for spells that rely on powerful mana surges, and we both know that few creatures will bother wasting time learning the subtler arts when they can just hit you with simple fuckoff-huge spells they are capable of naturally. The conversion rate of mana content when you use someone else's blood is awful too, and it gets even worse once you account for cross-race mana compatibility. Why bother wasting decades learning to power mediocre spells with gallons of someone's blood when you can do the same by snapping your fingers and willing it into existence?"
"When all you have is a hammer...", you comment, not bothering to finish the saying.
"Pretty much", he admits easily. "Well, I mean, hey, at least it stops other factions from farming humans like livestock for mana. Unpleasant thought of the day right there."

"So where does this all fit in?", you ask somewhat impatiently, as you process the information, and take a bite out of a stale club sandwich. "And how do you even know all this?"
"Magicians often use drugs to enter the concentration trance. Who do you think their dealer is?", he asks rhetorically, giving you a condescending glance. "Anyway, I assume that Lady has at least cursory knowledge of this particular field, since she recognized the ritual in question."

"It does indeed sound like a power-up ritual", Jack notes with a puzzled expression. "You gather the blood of mana-rich victims, desecrate it to improve the mana conversion rate, and then absorb the mana out of the blood by drinking it. Then you flood your body with mana, overloading it and allowing you a better magical throughput for a limited duration. All the signs point to that. The problem is that Lady's also right that it shouldn't have taken a dozen bodies to power up a recently Fallen angel to the eight-winged state."
He lifts his gaze off the table, and looks you straight in the eye.
"It should've taken at least a thousand", he tells you with a dead serious expression.
You process the words, the implications slowly sinking in, and your mood turns sour.

"...Shit", you manage to force out.
"Shit indeed, my friend. This isn't swapping out a handgun for an assault rifle in terms of firepower escalation, it's swapping out a handgun for a nuclear warhead. Imagine a world where any random gangbanger can harvest his neighbour for blood and easily start competing with mythological creatures in terms of power. Doesn't sound so bad? Now imagine the reverse, where any supernatural creature can just use the blood of both their enemies and innocent bystanders as mana-replenishing Kool-Aid to fight their own petty conflicts."
The man pauses to take a breath, clearly winded after his rant.
"This is dog-eat-dog at its purest", the man continues, "If any major faction gets access to this - angels, devils, pagan pantheons, even just supernatural creatures like vampires or whatever - anyone - then the world in general is fucked, not just us. The armistice would be pretty much over, it's just the matter of who shoots first at that point, and what follows would be an absolute chaos."

Both of you sit without exchanging words for a minute or two, only the sounds of cutlery and droning radio disturbing the relative quiet of the half-empty diner.

>"I'll try to convince one of my friends to help us."
>"I'll try to convince Lady to stay out of this."
>"We can't let anyone know about this."
>"I'm not sure we can even handle this."
>I'm not sure we can even handle this.
>I'll try to convince one of my friends to help us.
>Write in
>This shit feels absolutely beyond my paygrade. What do you suggest we do?
>[x]"... Fuck."
Locked in. Writing.
"Fuck", you say eloquently, summing up your mixed feelings on the whole affair.
You are at a loss for words. How the hell is one even supposed to react to a bombshell like that anyway?
"This feels so... unreal", you throw your hands up in the air. "Like, what are we even supposed to do? This shit is so way beyond my paygrade. I'm not sure we can even handle this."
"It's not a matter of whether we can", Jack adds with a stone-cold expression. "It's a matter of what we must."
"You sure we aren't jumping to the wrong conclusions here?", you say hopefully. "Maybe there is another explanation for this."
"I sincerely hope you're right, King", Jack says as the butterfly knife makes a reappearance in his hand, and he slowly twirls it in his fingers. "But thinking logically, it doesn't really matter whether we're right or wrong."

"Like, let's assume we're wrong. It still doesn't solve the question of how an eight-winged Fallen appeared in this backwater shithole without anyone noticing it. Either she sneaked into here, which is unlikely since the amount of both the angels and the Fallen that have more than three pairs of wings is less than two hundred or so, maybe even less. We would've definitely heard something if one of them just appeared out of nowhere. That can mean only two things - that Fallen you fought with at the church either somehow managed to make itself more powerful to the point of the extreme... or someone else uplifted her. And the only one I know with that level of power is the God himself."
"Yeah, about that...", you comment awkwardly, as you recall the story that Grace told you years ago. "He won't be making an appearance anytime soon. If anything, the fact that we were born in the first place is thanks to his death."
Jack stares at you astonished as though seeing for the first time.
"...Wow. Just wow", he shakes his head. "This explains a lot. I've had my suspicions, but you really know how to break some really world-shattering news, huh? Is the source legit?"
"As far as I can tell, yeah. I did my homework."

"...That doesn't make the situation any simpler", Jack says after a short pause. "We've got the magical equivalent of doping on our hands, regardless of how exactly it was done. I can only hope that it requires some truly rare circumstances and resources to utilize it, because otherwise, if the only thing that separates a low-ranking creature from the likes of Seraphims and Princes of Hells is a slightly complicated sacrificial circle and a body count of less than a dozen, we're fucked. If the knowledge got out, we'd have to fight for our survival in the chaos to follow. And as you know, Strangers..."
"Survive at all costs", you finish the sentence for him.

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"I can try to convince one of my friends to help us track down the Fallen before anyone else does", you offer after racking your brain for options. "Surely, if--"
"Sorry, King, but no", Jack immediately shuts you down. "I know the kind of friends you make, and I know that with the exception of me and Marissa, your circle of friends consists entirely of people we really don't want knowing about this. Power like this isn't just power. It's a motive to do terrible things with a universal adapter attached to it. Hell, the only reason Lady hadn't caught on yet is because she doesn't know that God is dead, and probably thinks it's heaven doing false-flag shenanigans."

He pauses to reflect on what just came out of his mouth.
"Or something", he adds weakly. "I don't fucking know how devils' minds work beyond doing business with them, to be honest."

"I can try to convince Marissa then", you make another offer. "I know she cut off all ties with the supernatural years ago to live a normal family life, but if the situation is truly as dire as we imagine, we'll need all the help we can get."
"I'll see what I can do on my side of things too", Jack nods approvingly. "I've got a couple of Strangers I know back from Vegas. They might agree to help us once I explain the situation properly."
The man hides the knife back into his pocket and takes a small shabby pencil, writing something down on a loose napkin before handing it to you.
"Here, use this number for emergencies", he informs. "I won't always be available to answer it, but it's better than nothing."

"One last thing, King", Jack says, standing up from the table, ready to leave. "You can't be good on mana after that fight, am I right?"
"What's your point?", you ask curiously.
"You need to top up immediately", he tells you seriously. "We don't know what we'll run into during the coming days, and I need you in your best shape if it comes to blows with whatever interested party that might get to the Fallen first."
"I've got something planned out with Lady--"
"Don't", he immediately stops you in your tracks. "You can't trust her with this. At best, she thinks of you as an amusing pet. At worst, you're nothing but a disposable if useful tool. She's a ruthless, power-hungry control freak, she looks and acts nothing like it, and she's all more dangerous for it. I should know, I've been dealing to her for years."

"How do you absorb ambient mana, King?", Jack asks abruptly.
"Live music", you share the method. "Why?"
"Well, it's better than snorting cocaine off the bathroom mirror and risking OD'ing each time I do it. At least I don't have to deal with going cold turkey", he muses aloud with a hint of amusement. "You need to recover from your injuries. Get well soon. And by 'soon', I mean ASAP. I'll contact you."
The man heads for the diner's exit, and just like that, he's gone.
You take a sip of the iced coffee left forgotten in the midst of the discussion. It tastes lukewarm and sour.

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A few hours later, you're standing back in front of Lady's hotel, the last rays of the setting sun covering the area in the crimson light. The suit you bought fits you perfectly like a glove - it better be, considering how much money you spent on it. You put one hand into the pocket of your pants, touching the folded headphones you've brought with you, while the other pocket is pleasantly weighed down by the Walkman and the tapes.
It's not obvious to an untrained eye, but the diabolic public is slowly but purposefully rolling into the hotel one by one, looking casual while they're at it, and you take the opportunity to slip inside with them without attracting attention to your own persona.
The hotel lobby looks far fancier than what you've witnessed earlier in the day. A lavish rug lies where there was only bare concrete floor, and the crumbling plaster on the walls is expertly covered by wooden panels that weren't there before.
The receptionist girl you saw earlier is hard at work, greeting the guests, who are then helped by the bouncers guiding them down to the basement.
You can't help but get cold feet. Once you approach the receptionist, you will be stuck in a building with some of the most powerful Devils available in the state for the entirety of the night, and there is no knowing if the situation won't turn ugly.

>No turning back now. Let's do this.
>Perhaps agreeing to Lady's offer wasn't such a great idea. Maybe you can back out while it's not too late...
>>No turning back now. Let's do this.
Go to hustle.
>[x] No turning back now. Let's do this.
>[x] Act casual.
Locked in. Writing.
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"Welp, there's no turning back now", you mutter, psyching yourself up. "Let's do this."

You stride towards the reception desk, with a seemingly confident spring in your step. You hope that you look more confident than you actually are.
Ushering the guests in front of you towards the basement, the receptionist turns her gaze towards you, and you see a spark of recognition in her eyes.
"...Your outfit is acceptable", she notes, eyeing you over. "The Madam is expecting you."
She passes you a paper wristband over the desk, and you promptly examine it. The outside of the wristband has "Mr. King" printed in a simple font on it, while the inside of it seems to be covered in handwritten runes of some sort. You look around, and notice that other guests that passed the reception too have these bands displayed prominently on their wrists.
"And this is?", you question, arching your eyebrow.
"A small precaution to make sure that only people who were actually invited can get in", the girl answers tersely, as you enjoy the soft sensation of her palms putting the paperband onto your wrist. "Enjoy the evening, Mr. King."
"Thanks, I will", you nod at her politely, and head for the basement. After you're sure she's out of earshot, you mutter under your breath, "Or at least, I'll try my best."

You navigate labyrinthine corridors, slowly descending towards your destination, and once you finally get towards the basement, you are greeted with sounds of joyful laughter, clinking of wineglasses, whispers of gossip and overall partying.
The room is surprisingly devoid of its usual public of unsavory individuals and ne'er-do-wells tonight. Only the richest of the rich, the most elite of elite, the cream of the crop are present in the underground casino, only those can afford the most fashionable of dresses, the highest of bets and the most vintage of drinks as they leisurely enjoy the luxury offered by Lady's establishment. The dimmed lighting creates a mellow, comfortable, almost intimate atmosphere, complemented by the sounds of smooth jazz performed by a live band in the corner of the room.
Sharp-dressed men and ladies in fur-trimmed high-cut dresses fill the casino tables, cheering as the rolling roulette ball decides the fates of the gamblers. Wineglasses are emptied and promptly refilled by the catering personnel dressed in tailcoats and Playboy bunnysuits.
"Devils sure know how to enjoy the high-life lifestyle", you note to yourself absentmindedly.
Of course, that's not true for all of the guests. You are aware that wealthy devils often bring their entourage to parties like this, whether for protection or simply to show them off like toys, and you can easily pick the devils in question out, as they stick out like a sore thumb in this celebration of life, looking stiff and somewhat uncomfortable, clearly unused to this kind of events. You can't help but sympathize with them a little bit.

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You make your way towards the bar counter, swiftly maneuvering through the diabolic crowd, and hail the bartender. A familiar face approaches you to take your order, but you quickly stop him with a wave of your hand.
"Tell the Madam that King has arrived, please", you say, deciding that it's never hurts to be polite with the staff that serves your drinks.
The man excuses himself for a minute or two, leaving you waiting at the counter as you relax on the barstool, twiddling your thumbs. Finally, the bartender returns, relaying you the message.
"The Madam is waiting for you in her inner office. The men should let you through."
"Thank you, uh...", you struggle to remember the man's name, "Michael."
The man has a surprised look in his eyes, clearly not expecting you to pay attention to small details like that, and gives you a curtly nod.
"Enjoy the evening, Mr. King."

You head away from the counter and towards a small door flanked by two professionally-dressed bouncers. They look at you cautiously, making no movement but ready to pounce, until you announce yourself.
"Your wrist, please, Mr. King", one of the bouncers says, while the other frisks you for weapons and magical items. Finding nothing suspicious, they let you through the entrance and into the Lady's office.

You've never actually been in this room, despite all the years of doing assorted errands and milk runs for Lady, but it's everything you've ever imagined. It looks lavish and grand, interior designed clearly inspired by the best examples of Art Nouveau.
She sits in an armchair behind an antique wooden desk, sipping on a cocktail relaxedly, her face illuminated dimly by the light of a floor lamp behind her.
"I'm pleased to see you took my advice to heart, King", she gestures, inviting you to take a seat. You are only too happy to oblige, your body drowning in the velvet armchair. "You look quite dashing."

>"Let's dispense with the pleasantries and get the business out of the way first."
>"I mean, I knew you catered to the wealthy public, but this is just... wow."
>"Not a fan of the crowds? I thought you would be enjoying yourself in the midst of the party."
>>"Let's dispense with the pleasantries and get the business out of the way first."

She's a devil pleasantries are probably just a front.
>Not a fan of the crowds? I thought you would be enjoying yourself in the midst of the party."
>[x] Not a fan of the crowds? Shouldn't you be playing host to your guests?
Locked in. Writing.
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"Not a fan of the crowds?", you ask casually. "Shouldn't you be playing host to your guests?"
"I'm hardly a competent jester", she laughs calmly, making you nearly miss the dangerous glint in her eye. "My strengths lie elsewhere."
Lady takes another sip of her drink, pinning you with her gaze, making shivers travel down your spine, until she turns her attention towards her drink thoughtfully.
"But I suppose you're right", she admits, melancholy coloring her words. "I do not enjoy being in the spotlight. Besides, I was never fond of frittering my life away on base pleasures, unlike my brethren. A sin without direction is merely a vice, and every vice is a tragedy in making. I strive to make my life a story of triumph, not a tale of downfall."

She turns her gaze to you, and your heart skips a beat. At this moment, she looks incredibly fragile, a beautiful woman carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders. The closer you examine Lady's pretty face marred by depression, the more you want to throw reason to the wind and comfort her, sacrificing everything just to see her smile--
It takes all of your self-composure and willpower to break out of her spell. Holy shit, dodged a bullet right there. She just nearly enthralled you simply by making a pouty face and spouting self-pitying nonsense, with no magic involved. You remember Jack's comment, slightly amazed at how pinpoint it was. Succubus in body and soul indeed.
You focus your vision, only to see the woman giving you a sly smile.
"I prefer to motivate people by giving them what they want, King", her smile turns vicious. "In the future, do not suggest me to a be a simple clown entertaining the masses."

"I believe you called me here to discuss my next job", you cough, breaking the heavy mood that settled in the room, attempting to keep your tone as neutral as possible, shaken a little by what just happened.
"...Yes. Let us talk business", she changes her disposition to stoic professionalism, as if nothing happened. "I've told you the jist of it earlier today, but I wanted to clear up some details."
"As usual, you will report to me daily, but this time I will not accept any excuses if you fail to comply", the woman gives you an ultimatum. "Finding and apprehending the Fallen is critical, and I do not want her vanishing into shadows if something happens to you. If you can't report to me in person, use a phone, preferably a mobile one. If you don't have one, then get one. Your payment advance should cover all of your initial expenses."

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She reaches into her desk, pulling out a neat stack of $100 bills that's easily twice or thrice as large as the one you received earlier today, and puts it on the desk, pinning it with her palm.
"Remember, you will receive ten times that if you do the job to my satisfaction", Lady says, pushing the cash towards you. "I always reward work well-done generously."
You pick the money up and slide your thumb down the stack, automatically counting the bills. Fifteen thousand dollars in cash, mint condition. You put the stack back on the table, knowing that pocketing it right now would be a mistake.
"I will give you free reign of investigation for now", the woman continues. "Once you close in on the Fallen's location, I will attach a 24/7 guard out of my most trusted subjects. This is not negotiable. I do not want her slipping away again at the last moment just because you weren't strong enough. I also will ask you to be discreet in this investigation."
"Why so?", you ask curiously, having your own suspicions as to the real reason behind her request. "You've had no problems with me being thorough before."
"All the same, I would prefer if you didn't muddle the waters this time", she tells you, shrugging her shoulders. "The less people know about the circumstances around the investigation, the better. It's not healthy for my reputation to admit that I cannot control what happens on my own territory."
You remain unconvinced by her answer, but you do not question her aloud, maintaining the air of calm indifference.

"With that said", Lady claps her hands with a smile on her face, her mood changing instantly, "I'm counting on you, King. Feel free to enjoy the party. Oh, and before I forget..."
She rummages in her desk's drawers once more, pulling out a small glass vial out and setting it next to the money.
"You've asked me for something to help with your mana fatigue. This is the best I could come up with in short order."
You cork the vial open, and you are immediately hit by the heavy smell of iron and sulfur, the viscous deep-red substance swirling lazily inside.

>Drink it
>Pocket it
>>Pocket it
Let's save it for now.
>[x]Pocket it.
Locked in. Writing.
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You hold off on drinking the unknown substance for the moment, hiding it away in your suit jacket.
Lady seems almost... disappointed? You decide not to question it, grabbing the advance payment, which follows suit after the vial into your jacket, before quickly excusing yourself from the she-devil's presence.

The festivities seem to be running their course outside Lady's office, as the drowned out sounds of music, laughter and clinking glass return to full strength once you step back into the underground casino.
You head back to the bar counter, hailing the bartender and ordering a drink, and use the situation to clear your thoughts, sipping on the whiskey in your glass. You stare into the mirror on one of the walls, and hardly recognize yourself staring back in reflection. The man in the mirror seems like a complete stranger to you, what's with you being unused to wearing expensive suits and looking like some kind of gigolo.

You turn your thoughts elsewhere, concentrating on the atmosphere around you and turning your perception outwards. The place feels like a maelstrom of diabolic energy, and no wonder, considering how many powerful Devils have gathered in this place.
Biblical creatures traditionally could be characterized by the amount of wings they had, each additional of pair of wings roughly meaning another power of ten in terms of rarity and raw power, even if most of them usually hid their wings away to conceal their powerlevel.
It's a convenient measure, you think to yourself. Even the most modest of estimates make you think that there is likely not a single Devil present here that has less than two pairs of wings.
The sheer amount of mana concentrated in the area makes your head spin, and you feel pitifully small in the scale of things. You've got to replenish your mana tonight, or this will drive you crazy.

Conveniently, there is a live band playing tonight. You turn your attention to the performers in question, who transitioned from performing smooth jazz to ragtime, bringing an even more likely atmosphere to the establishment. You recognize the song in question.

>NOW LISTENING TO: Jelly Roll Morton - Gambling Jack

You don't have any particular affinity for jazz, since you always preferred strings to brass and woodwinds, but neither you have any particular issue with it. Of course, you can't just absorb raw diabolic energy, as it will corrupt you. Although, you might have an idea...

>Join the festivities (write-in your actions)
>Leave the establishment and get some rest

>Sacrifice one of the tapes to absorb the ambient mana (choose one: 80s rock, alt-rock, jazz)
>Maybe you should just drink the contents of the vial now...
>Persevere for now
>>Leave the establishment and get some rest
>Persevere for now

Can't we buy some tapes to sacrifice?
> Can't we buy some tapes to sacrifice?
The point is that you're using them as a filter for the diabolic origin of mana you're draining from the performers/audience. The tapes themselves don't do anything.
>[x] Join the festivities.
Let's mingle a bit. Curious as to what other sorts Lady deals with.
>>Sacrifice one of the tapes to absorb the ambient mana (choose one: 80s rock, alt-rock, jazz)
Locked in. Writing.
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With the amount of power floating around in the basement's air, no one is going to notice even if you drain a little bit of it for yourself. Putting the headphones on, you slide the jazz tape into your Walkman, reasoning that even if the tape will be ruined, there is a band playing right here that you can use as a musical mana focus if you need to.
You might look a little strange, wearing cheap-looking headphones while dressed in a luxurious silken suit, but you hardly care even if you get a few occassional curious glances.
Focusing your mind on the sounds of the jazz band playing in front of you, you press the record button and feel the flow of pure mana entering your body, putting you into a state of mild euphoria comparable to sugar high. The amount of ambient mana generated and unconsciously leaked out by the devils in the underground casino should be enough to fill you up if you keep this up for another half an hour.

Honestly, you are a little jealous of creatures around you.
Most of the supernatural creatures you've encountered so far during almost 40 years of your life (mostly Biblical in nature) are perfectly capable of naturally regenerating their mana to a varying degree, and yet Strangers like you and Jack have to engage in their own little personal rituals and exploit places of power, like hunting around for concerts and snorting drugs, just to recover a fraction of mana other creatures generate naturally after a night's rest.
Of course, they too require outside sources of mana if they want to increase their maximum power, but that doesn't make it any more fair.
If an angel is born powerful, he can spend his entire life not touching a single outside source of mana and perfectly capable of fending for himself on a daily basis. Meanwhile, one brief encounter with someone strong enough to challenge you, and you have to waste your time hunting around for mana to drain.
Realistically speaking, if Strangers' auras stood out in the mortal crowd like supernatural creatures' auras do, you would be destroyed within a week, all because of this single weakness. This is why the Strangers' Masquerade was born and put into practice. 'Survive at all costs', huh...

You are snapped out of your thoughts, alerted by the smell of burning magnetic tape, which is closely followed by the light smoke coming out of your Walkman. The diabolic energy is actively corrupting the tape, melting the inside plastic and decaying the cassette rapidly.
Only ten minutes have passed, but you don't want to risk damaging your Walkman, so you pull the cassette out before the outside plastic of the tape is affected by the corruption, and throw it into a nearby ashtray on the counter. You estimate you're currently at a third of your normal mana level, putting you in terms of raw power somewhere a little behind four-winged creatures.
You sigh, disappointed that you couldn't juice out a bit more out of using the tape as a filter before it went up in a smoke.

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"You look funny, mister!", a female voice slurs happily at you.
You turn around, taking your headphones off, and come face first against a young-looking girl's blushed face.
"And you also smell funny!", the girl says excitedly, grinning stupidly at you, her breath reeking of alcohol.
"You don't smell much better", you retort humorously. Might as well enjoy yourself, you think as you let the provocatively-dressed girl rope you into the festive atmosphere.
"Eh, you got me there, mister", she laughs drunkedly, her voice a little bit too loud so that it attracts curious looks of nearby drinkers, but not enough to cause a commotion. "Maybe you can buy me another drink?"

>"Sure, why not."
>"Don't you think you've already had enough?"
>"You don't look like someone who needs to rely on stranger's generosity."
>"Only if you tell me something interesting about yourself. Give-and-take, it's only fair."
>"You don't look like someone who needs to rely on stranger's generosity."
>>"You don't look like someone who needs to rely on stranger's generosity."
>[x] "You don't look like someone who needs to rely on others' generosity."
Let's be careful throwing that "s" word around, yeah?
Locked in. Writing.
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"You don't look like someone who needs to rely on str-- others' generosity", you quickly correct yourself.
"True, but it's much more fun that way!", the girl giggles mischievously. "And you looked like a nice guy to mooch off of. Bartender, another Blue Fairy, please!"
You watch the man twirl the shaker in his hands, expertly mixing the ordered cocktail before pouring it into a tall glass. He looks expectantly at the girl, waiting for her to pay for her order.
"He's the one who's paying", she says, instantly pointing at you. The man shifts his gaze to you questioningly.
"...Mr. King?"
"I'm certainly not", you deadpan with stone-cold expression. "Don't believe a word that comes out of her mouth, Michael."
"Spoilsport", the girl shrugs, reaching into her scandalous dress for the wallet.

"So, 'Mr. King', huh?", the girl comments once the situation is dealt with, her curiousity obviously piqued. "You some kind of big shot?"
"Hardly", you say, unsure what to make of the circumstances you find yourself in. "I'm afraid you have me at disadvantage here."
"Hmm...", she examines you, her pupils diluted and eyes slightly unfocused due to influence of alcohol. "You can call me Rudi. So, is King your last name or just an alias?"
"Is Rudi short for something or just a nickname?", you quip right back at her.
"Touche", she concedes her defeat. "But isn't that the point of this whole party? To stop pretending to be someone else and just enjoy yourself?"
"You can turn that argument around", you comment calmly. "Isn't the point of this party for devils like us to pretend to be someone we are not? Indulging in sin is reserved for humans. We shouldn't stoop to their level."
"That sounds like someone too full of himself would say", the girl remarks benignly.
"That sounds like someone who fritters his life away on basic pleasures would say", you return the verbal barb. "...Gluttony?"
"Yep", she doesn't bother to argue. "Pride?"
You shrug, letting Rudi think she managed to figure out your supposed cardinal sin.

The whole situation is hilarious once you think about it, the high concentration of diabolic mana in the basement working in your favor and obscuring your human-like aura.
Your perception, however, is much better than that of an average devil, one of the very few perks of being a Stranger in this strange, strange world. You can freely pick out the girl's aura in the swirling mana of the room, and your experience tells you that despite Rudi's ditzy behaviour, she is a lot more in control of herself than she shows. Focusing your mind's eye, you can easily imagine six ephemeral leather wings floating behind her back, which tells you all you need to know, what's with her being one of the more powerful devils present in the room.
You wonder why Rudi approached you in the first place. Was it a simple coincidence or...

"So, what do you think of our gracious host?", Rudi unsubtly changes the topic.
Ah, there it is. She probably saw you coming out of Lady's office. Clever girl.
"What kind of party host doesn't even make an appearance before her guests?", the girl questions, unaware of your thoughts.
"Lady is the Owner of this state, so I imagine she has a lot on her plate to deal with", you answer noncommittally. "The party itself is probably just an excuse to give powerful devils opportunity to mingle."
"Hmm...", she hums thoughtfully, before returning to her happy-go-lucky behaviour. "Hey, wanna move over to the gambling tables? Only to watch, of course. I'm not made of cash, and can't imagine you gambling, what's with you being one stingy guy."

>Indulge the she-devil.
>Refuse politely.
>>Refuse politely.
Yeah, she's definitely about to try some bullshit. Let's keep her guessing.
>[x] Politely refuse, buy her another drink, fade back into the crowd.
Fuck right outta this place before we get fucked
Locked in. Writing.
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"Sorry, I'm not really in the mood for it right now", you tell the girl off, hoping that this will be enough to dissuade her from any further harassment attempts.
"Oh, you're just no fun", Rudi says, pouting a little, surprisingly buying into your paperthin excuse, before her mood turns sour. "I thought you were sweet and tasty, but you are just another bland and flavourless excuse for a devil! Well, I'm going to have fun, and you certainly aren't going to stop me!"
Getting off the barstool after the childish outburst, she storms off in the general direction of the gambling tables, but not before taking one last appraising glance at you that you can't miss.
"...What was that all about?", you can't help but wonder to yourself quietly.

Ordering another drink in stead of the one you've already finished, you move away from the bar counter, slipping away into the anonymity of the festive crowd until you find a suitable table in the corner, away from inquisitive eyes, relaxing after the encounter with the bipolar devil.
Something keeps nagging your thoughts, but you can't quite grasp what exactly. Perhaps if you clear your thoughts, the answer will come naturally to you.

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You calmly observe the partying devils, sipping on the whiskey diluted by the already melted ice. The celebrations proceed in full swing, some of the devils already inebriated by various alcohol and drugs consumed. You can clearly envision this party turning into a bacchanalia or even full-on orgy later in the night. Hopefully, it doesn't actually come to that. You can't imagine Lady allowing something like that to happen in her establishment.
You wonder if Jack would've enjoyed this party unlike you. He certainly would've been in his element here if he was present.
The jazz band already transitioned smoothly from performing ragtime to something a little bit more calm and somber, in attempt to influence the mood in the room and reign in the overly zealous partygoers.

>NOW LISTENING TO: Chet Baker - Blue in Green

You mindlessly shift your arm into a more comfortable position, and suddenly feel something snagging against your wrist. Oh, right, the paperband.
With nothing better to do for the moment, you take it off and examine it in detail.
The runes on the inner side of the wristband don't look familiar, their jagged lines crisscrossing over the thick paper, but it's not like you are much of a reader. The inscribed letters might as well have been just ordinary Latin, and you still would not be able to decipher the meaning behind them.
You flip the band over on its outer side, only to find yourself staring at your alias printed in a simple serif font, giving it a minimalistic yet refined look.
"Hm, 'Mr. King', huh...", you mutter to yourself.
Lady was right to implement a security measure for a high-profile event like this, you think to yourself. Being able to identify guests' identities on sight is incredibly useful from the standpoint of ensuring security of an event like this. No doubt, Lady has her share of enemies, especially since devils are prone to internal power struggles among themselves.
Besides, it gives the guests convenience of not having to ask each other their names.
But wait... haven't you asked somebody for their name earlier this night?

Your eyes widen, as you realize that you don't recall seeing Rudi's name on her wristband. In fact, your vision was mostly preoccupied with the appetizing proportions of her scantily-dressed body at the time, but you struggle to recall her wearing a wristband at all.

You've got to warn Lady.

You fail to make even a single step in the direction of her office, when a sudden, impossibly loud explosion shakes through the building, the blastwave in the closed-off space of the basement giving you a mild concussion, making your vision white out for a moment.

And that's when it all goes to hell.

>End of Chapter 1
Alright, I figured this was a good place to stop for the moment.
My Internet is incredibly shit right now, making it very hard to post, and I will be away from it almost entirely for the weekend. This should give the thread enough time to get locked and archived.
I will continue the quest after the weekend from where we left off.
Feel free to ask any questions or clarifications ITT for now.

You can follow me for notifications at: gab.ai/loomweaver
Awesome quest so far. Thoroughly enjoying it. Also the difficulty levels mentioned in the first post was in terms of what exactly? Did it affect our mana regen or the story entirely?
Dammit man, I'm catching up and at every turn you go for the lame choice. Cut it out!
Eh, both kinda? I'm making the story up as I go. You can see some of the inconsistencies if you look close enough.
Mostly it affected the domain of the protagonist i.e. the way he uses his abilities and regenerates mana.
New thread: >>2874295

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