[ Please read the kickoff post before commenting! ]
Webb gave the place a cursory glance, but didn’t spot Pax or his brightly-colored horns anywhere in the crowd. That didn’t mean much—the place was huge. They didn’t really want to ask about Pax directly, since things like that could get around. But they could either spend time wandering around trying to find him and looking more and more suspicious, or they could settle down in one spot with a good vantage point and try to reel him in.
“We’d like a table,” they decided on the spot. “Live music—who’s performing tonight?”
The moth-girl fluffed up slightly, smiling, gesturing for the three of them to follow her deeper into the practically labyrinthine gambling hall. “Oh, you’ll love it,” she said, wings fluttering as she swayed through the crowd. “Tonight’s performers are Dandelion and the Merry Gentry. They’re quite the energetic bunch.”
Webb doubted it, but they gave Nettle a distracted smile, adjusting their sunglasses as they glanced around the hall without trying to look too pointed about it. Faraday and Ariadne walked close behind him, sticking next to each other, and for the first time, Faraday seemed visibly out of his element, stiff and stony-faced.
“What’s wrong?” Webb murmured to him, leaning back a little into his space as they walked so that Faraday could hear Webb over the noise of the crowd. “Don’t get out much?”
Faraday gave him a brittle grin in return, a sidelong glance. “The last time I was someplace this busy, it was a community center craft market.”
“Ah, yes, beacons of night life, those are. Don’t worry, grandfather. I’ll keep you safe from grifters out to take advantage of your charming innocence.”
Faraday made a face, rolling his eyes. “Thanks very much.”
Webb could understand how the Drawing Dead would be unsettling even for those who were used to dealing with various denizens of the valley. It was all flashing lights and sounds and glitz painted over a sense of something darker. A raucous chorus of howls split the air as a rowdy group of lycanthropes jostled for supremacy over a game of roulette. On the other side of the hall, a trio of unnervingly tall and thin individuals dressed all in black stood clustered in front of a slot machine, taking turns pulling the lever very slowly with emaciated-looking skeletal hands. Occasionally they’d hum in unison, swaying slightly.
More than just the casual attendees there to have a good time, Webb was always wary of those that were clearly here for reasons other than fun. There were tables all around the edges of the floor, and even some in overhanging balconies—private, and much too expensive for Webb to even consider—behind which there were further secluded rooms where private parties and clandestine dealings were held.
It was a great place for information, but Webb always got the impression that they were giving up a little more than they realized in return.
Nettle led them to a vast area full of tables that were enchanted to float at different heights surrounding a central stage. Each table was draped with a fluttering white cloth, which combined with the moody blue lighting, created the illusion of bobbing jellyfish drifting ghostlike around the room.
“Please, have a seat, and enjoy your stay,” Nettle murmured, coaxing one of the tables down to ground level so that they could slide onto the attached bench seating. “A server will be around to tempt you presently.”
Webb slid around easily, waiting for Ariadne and Faraday to join, which they did with considerably more trepidation on Faraday’s part and excitement from Ariadne.
“Oh wow,” she gasped as the table shuddered and started to idly drift away, joining the orbital circuit around the stage. “This sure is… something else.”
Webb caught themself smiling over at her, then ducked their head to the side, flustered. “It’s—well, enjoy it while you can. I figured it was one of the best places to get a view of the floor while also keeping our conversation a bit private.” They paused, lowering their voice. “Lore, you’re still with us, right?”
“Mmhmm,” came a soft hum in return. “Sorry, I also, don’t get out much…”
“Do you think you’d be able to safely sneak around a little to see if you can find Pax, without being seen?”
There was a little pause, then: “Yes, I can certainly try. Do you… want me to get his attention if I find him, or…?”
“No. It’s best if nobody knows about you for now, just in case. Just come find me again to let me know. And be careful,” Webb felt themself adding hastily. “If you feel like you’re in danger at any point, come right back.”
“I will, Webb,” Lore murmured back. Webb couldn’t really hear when Lore was no longer there, but they felt something shift, leaving them more alone than they were a moment before.
They shifted a little closer to Ariadne and Faraday, who were leaning over to get a better look at the band.
“Ugh…” Webb muttered, resting their chin in their hand as they caught sight of the singer. He had a burst of fluffy white hair and seemed to be some kind of high elf, one of the sidhe. He was glammed up in glittery makeup and strutting around the stage with an overt amount of enthusiasm as he railed at his guitar. There were a few other fae that made up the rest of the band as well: a satyr, a nixie, and a tall woman in white who was playing the keyboard.
“I think they sound nice…” Ariadne mumbled.
“I’m allergic to the fae,” Webb muttered. “You could say they are not my fae-vorite.”
Faraday looked pained. “You could say that, but why would you?”
Ariadne laughed at least. And Webb was saved from Faraday asking any further prying questions by the arrival of one of the servers, a sleek harpy woman that alighted on the far side of their table, folding her wings around her. Her black-and-gold uniform did little to keep any part of her contained, and she gave the table an overly wide smile, mainly zeroing in on Ariadne.
“Well, he-llo there. We will be closing about an hour prior to sunrise, but you’ve still got plenty of time to enjoy the night. And what will it be for you fine people…?”
As the others placed orders for drinks—Ariadne specifically requesting that hers be provided with a straw, at which point the harpy seemed to flirtatiously be trying to coax her to take the helmet off—Webb let their attention wander back down to the floor, keeping an eye out for Pax’s obnoxious, brightly-colored horns. He should be like a pylon, if he were making his way around this way.
They found their attention caught, instead, by an unusual looking procession of people making their way towards one of the stairwells up to the private balconies. The woman in the lead was alarmingly tall and dressed from head-to-toe in red—which was what had caught Webb’s eye. All around her were half a dozen others dressed in black that seemed to be some kind of entourage. The crowds parted around her like water.
Webb glanced back at the others and got their server’s attention. “Hey, you.”
The harpy turned with some mild irritation away from flirting with Ariadne, then did a bit of a double-take, feathers bristling. They smoothed down again after a moment of surprise, and she shifted closer. “Mmhh, yes?”
Webb shifted, uncomfortably aware of how far off the ground they were, and jerked their head back towards the group they’d spotted. “Who’s that over there? The tall woman in red.”
The harpy followed their gaze, her own golden eyes sharpening into focus. “Oh,” she said, coyly surprised. “You don’t know? Well, I suppose she does run with quite exclusive crowds.”
Her talons scratched lightly at the tablecloth, and she tilted her head to one side, expectant. Webb sighed heavily, fishing out a couple of crumpled bills from their wallet and dropping them on the table. The harpy picked them up and examined them with a show of mild discontent.
“If she’s that well known, I can ask someone else,” Webb pointed out.
“Oh, I suppose,” the harpy hummed, sliding the bills away to Webb-cared-not-where. “That’s Veracity Yun. Quite the influential vampire lord around these parts.”
It took all of Webb’s effort to keep their face schooled into mild disinterest. “Good to know,” they said with a shrug. “I’ll get a Dark and Stormy. That’ll be all for now.”
The harpy gave them one more sharp look over her beaky nose before giving the group a gallant bow, wing folded in front of her, before vaulting back down off the table and plunging away into the hall.
Ariadne had leaned all the way forward on the table like an excited housecat. “Veracity!” she hissed at Webb.
“I know, I know,” they muttered, rubbing their temples. “That’s… I mean, that’s not surprising, but it’s definitely convenient.” Too convenient? It was hard to say. Webb rubbed their jaw uneasily, glancing back down again, but Veracity was long gone—the door was closed tightly.
They jumped as they felt a cold, slithering sensation against their ankle.
“Webb,” came Lore’s voice, soft and urgent. “Webb, I found Pax.”
“Don’t sneak up on me like that!” Webb grumbled. “Great, you found him. Where is he? Why do you sound upset?”
“He, um, he saw you, too.”
The table rocked as a heavy shape hit it. Webb jerked their head up to see—well, exactly what they expected to see: an imp half sprawled across the table like a cat who’d just pounced on its prey, his arms outstretched, his knees braced on the bench, his back curved, his ass in the air, his tail swishing wildly back and forth as his small, batlike wings flapped to counterbalance him.
Pax hadn’t changed in all the years that Webb had known him. For someone that small—barely five feet tall, and weighing a hundred pounds on a good day—he seemed to be entirely made of presence. Like the other employees of the Drawing Dead, he dressed in black and gold: today it was a corset vest ribbed in gold, tight-fitting black pants that laced up the side, and gold-buckled heels that looked untenable to walk in. His skin and horns were a color that couldn’t seem to decide if it wanted to be red or pink; his hair, eyes, and tongue a vivid shade of blue-green.
And as always, that incorrigible grin, and those cross-pupilled eyes that always seemed to be able to look right through you. He was looking at Webb, now, easing down to rest his chin in his hands, elbows on the table.
“As delighted as I am to see you, lovely, I must admit, you have come at the strangest time,” Pax said, draping dramatically across the table with his arm outstretched. “But still, I’ll always make time for you. But—and, oh! Who is this? Are these your friends? Webb, have you been holding out on me?”
[Please suggest or +1 an action in the comments.
As a reminder, it can be thoughts, words, deeds, or curiosities!]