This chapter introduces the heroes to Claris. After this they'll go on a little bit of an adventure bumping into some other and perhaps unexpected characters. Oh, and although it's mentioned a lot, no actual mucky stuff actually takes place in this story, in case anyone was worried and/or looking forward to it.

It's a Baneful Life

Part Three

"I'm all wet!" The pink woman bellowed indignantly, twisting and ringing out her hair. "What is this? Is this seaweed?" She squelched her face, tears starting to form. "Ewww… this is awful! I need to wash it out…" she said, continuing to pick and twist her braids more tightly. "Also, you know this place was a tip when I came in. How can anything live like that? It's disgusting."

Across the room, Aerie was busying herself burying the still shivering Imoen under a mound of rugs and blankets, as if she feared the flickering flames from the fireplace weren't enough to warm her friend. She would have probably used her own body for warmth too, were there not other matters as well. When she finally returned with a steaming tankard, helping Imoen to guide it to her lips, she turned on the woman who had caused them to run out, the little blonde's arms folded suspiciously.

"What are you?" Aerie asked.

The pink haired woman tilted her head, casting an eye over the elfling as if weighing her up. Aerie was hardly an imposing figure on her own, but there were others; Skie with a hand ready on the hilt of a sword, and even Nalia had appeared again to see what was going on, after applying all her makeup, her quarterstaff aloft and glowing with magical energy. Eventually, the pink haired woman closed her eyes and turned away. "My name is Claris," she said.

The elf sighed, "that wasn't what I asked, a-and you know it."

"Look, elfling; it's not my fault your friend'll be sneezing 'til her eyes pop out, okay? I never asked her to dive into the water after me. It was her fault I fell in, wasn't it? She shouldn't creep up on people."

"True. But then, I-I can't help but be curious as to why standing out in the cold and falling into freezing water hasn't affected you at all. Especially dressed like that."

"Well…" Claris rolled her tongue around her mouth in tandem with her hand making circles in the air. "I'm… just naturally cold resistant, I suppose. Yes; I grew up in the far north. That's it."

Aerie considered this. She herself grew up in the mountains; she knew it was possible for a body to adapt to extreme temperatures, although she'd never heard of anyone adapting to the extent Claris was claiming. "Still… s-something about you doesn't feel quite… natural…"

Skie asked, "what do you mean?"

"It's… hard to explain. I never got to learn all the skills my people have, b-but… I can still feel life around me. But the… the energy, I suppose, that I feel from her… i-it's like it's dark energy. The only time I've felt energy like that before, is when I've been in the presence of demons…"

Claris gasped, "please! Do I look like a demon? Big, ugly, brutish, things, with more teeth and horns than an entire marching band… yuck."

"A devil, then…"

"Eeewwwyou know what?" Claris turned away again, brushing herself, "I've got to go; appointments to keep and things like that. And, all that ash and dust from the fireplace is sticking to me and getting in my hair… got to get it off, fast…" she started heading for the door which, seemingly of its own accord, slammed shut before she could reach it.

Aerie opened her eyes, breathing slowly. "I'm sorry," she said, "but I can't let you leave."

The devil shook her head. "You really think that will stop me?"

"Probably not, but… l-like I said, I can't let you leave. I can't let a succubus wander the city on her own."

Nalia stepped forward, her staff raising and increasing in intensity. "Or at all, I should think. I have a responsibility to protect the citizens, so we need to send this creature back where it came from," she looked determinedly at her companions, only to find them rather less resolute.

Aerie had her arms folded, her head bowed, and her lips pursed pensively.

"Well? What are we waiting for?" The noblewoman asked.

Looking up, the elf explained, "i-it's just… she did save Imoen's life…"

"Right," Nalia nodded along, "so… why aren't we sending her straight back to hell?"

"She isn't threatening us now. Besides, I… I-I can't fight someone who isn't fighting back…"

"That's the best time to fight them! It's only a pity she's awake."

"You… y-you wouldn't really kill a person in their sleep, w-would you?"

"She's not a person, Aerie. She's a devil. A succubus. She's pure evil. She's…"

"Crying?"

Claris had collapsed into a chair, falling over herself, arms around her knees as her shoulders bobbed irregularly.

Nalia turned away in disgust. "Yes, well… it's obviously a trick. She realises you're soft, so she's trying to play on your sympathy. Soon as you get close to try comforting her, she'll punch a hole in your chest and pull out your bleeding heart."

"Maybe," Aerie conceded, "b-but… I still think her saving a life with no obvious benefit to herself means we should at least try to find out more before concluding anything."

Claris made a futile attempt to wipe away her tears before addressing them once more. "You know, I really don't care what you do. One or another, I'll soon be returning to hell. And there to face oblivion."

"You said that before," Aerie remembered, "w-what does it mean?"

"When you die in this world, you move on to the next. But, obliteration… oblivion… that's a real and final end to existence. Only gods and the lords of hell themselves can do it; they take you apart atom by atom and scatter them so they can never come together the same way again."

"But why would it happen to you?"

"Because I'm a succubus. I'm just… not a very good one. This was my last chance. I blew it… well, actually I didn't. That's the problem," she went on, explaining her situation with Sordread, only pausing to point out how dusty the shelves were.

"Sure," Nalia nodded. "Um, Aerie… a word please. Now," she beckoned, leaning slightly over the elf as they turned their backs on the succubus. "So, if we're not going to destroy her, then what, exactly, is the plan here?"

"I-I don't know," the elf admitted with a frustrated shrug. She wished the devil was trying to punch holes in her chest and suck her soul out. When she was attacked she knew what to do; she just let her instincts take over. But this, with devil just sat there with her head between her knees… that just made things awkward. "I've… never been in a situation like this before."

"Well, for once, you're not alone."

Claris had stopped crying, although there were still some sniffs. Mostly she was now looking up at the group curiously. "Can I ask," she asked, and then did anyway, "why does the tall brown haired one have a face like a clown?"

The noblewoman pursed her lips and sucked in her cheeks trying to restrain her tongue. "My name is Nalia. And I do not have a face like a clown. I'm wearing makeup."

"But why do you need that much?"

"I don't need it!" Nalia snapped, red faced. Well, redder faced. "It's just the fashion. Not that I expect you to understand fashion. It's obviously something you don't have a use for."

"Fashion? You mean like clothes? Like the sparkly yellow robes you're wearing?"

"This is very exclusive," the noblewoman announced proudly, a hand gently coiling back and touching her own chest. "hand stitched by elven priestesses and embroidered with hair from dryads."

"I think it looks cheap."

"Cheap!" She snapped again. Aerie tried to put an arm around Nalia to hold her back, but it appeared it would make little difference. "Have you any idea how much this cheapness costs?" She soon started to control herself. "Anyway, I will not be lectured on fashion by someone wearing someone wearing some string and a hankie. How much did that cost?"

"Nothing, really. I can just sort of make whatever clothing I want materialise around me."

"So why don't you cover yourself?"

Claris shrugged. "I'm a succubus. This is what we wear. It's just… conservatism, I suppose."

"Right," Nalia evidently thought it wise just not to talk to her anymore, and turned back to Aerie. "I still say we blast her."

The pile of blankets moved, Imoen's head slowly climbing up like a tortoise coming out of it's shell. Her nostrils were flared and raised pushing the rest of the nose almost flat against her face. With her mouth a perfect circle and her face tense, the head bobbed a few times, before finally the face relaxed and she beckoned Skie to lean over her, then started to nasally mumble.

"Uh-huh," the round headed young woman listened intently and nodded. "Imoen says she thinks we should help the succubus."

Nalia burst into a mocking laugh. "Right. And, how does she propose to do that? Find a volunteer? I'm sure men would line up, but it's the getting dragged to hell part that's a bit a hard sell I think."

Imoen shrugged, and mumbled more so that Skie could translate. "Maybe we could find someone who'd enjoy that as well… like a masochist. Or an arsonist."

The noblewoman was stumped, mouth snapping but having to concede that there was a certain logic there.

It was left up to Aerie to point out the flaw. "A-a masochists torment might just be that everyone is really nice and gentle…"

"That's right," Claris affirmed, "torments are always tailored to the individual. A lot of men are emasculated, or a vain woman might have her hair turn into serpents and constant bites cause all her skin to swell up. It's quite an art, really."

The redhead scrunched her face, finger on lip as she thought. Eventually, Skie was once again acting as interpreter. "Imoen is wondering if we can think of anyone who would deserve it..."

"Oh!" Nalia lit up, turning to the devil. "Have you met a man named Isaea? Because I could introduce you to my former fiancé, if you like…"

Aerie bit her lip, and hmmed.

"What? Why are you hmming? The man is involved in slavery. Don't tell me you don't think he would deserve it! Aerie, I expected you to want him punished almost as much as I do."

"I-I do think he should be punished. It's just, i-if we send him to hell, he'll be there forever, and I… I just think that, surely, any crimes a person commits during their finite time in this world, no matter how bad, would be outweighed by punishment that lasted eternity…"

"So, you're saying you think hell should have some sort of system of parole?"

Nalia's hand went up covering her own face. "Why do you have to bring morality and justice into it?"

"Because… t-that's what us makes different to people like Isaea, I suppose."

"And look where it gets us? We're never going to be able to work this one out. I sometimes think that being bad would just make life a whole lot easier…"

There was very fast, very sharp chooing sound, although followed by a very round, very slimy blob flying across the room and splatting across Nalia's chest. Imoen stood up, smiling and holding her palms out apologetically.

The noblewoman closed her eyes and tried to breathe, slowly. "I," she began, clenching her fist. "If… anyone needs me, I shall be in the washroom."

"W-would you like help?" Aerie asked, knowing that it was not a place Nalia was accustomed to.

"No. I would just like to be alone, now, thank you…"

As the noblewoman left the room, Aerie thought she saw a tear. She would have run after, but Imoen, having cleared her nose, jumped up and started speaking.

"So, heya, I'm Imoen," the redhead waved with a wide smile, "you've met Aerie, my minion."

The blonde was agape. "I… I-I am not your minion…"

"No, of course not!" Imoen hugged and patted her on the head. "Ye're a foot soldier as well. Oh, and that's Skie. She runs the shop for me."

"The one that was a tip?" Claris glared.

"I'll sort it out," Skie sighed, "honestly; you try having her for a boss."

"You wanna swap?" Claris asked, hopefully. Skie actually thought about it.

"Okay, so, look," Imoen bounced; she seemed to have a lot of pent up perkiness after being almost drowned and then buried under the blankets, "what I think is, we should try to figure out what exactly your problem with men is."

"I don't have a problem," Claris sagged a little in her chair, "and maybe that is part of the problem. My job, you see, is to seduce them… tempt them, I suppose. Make them be unfaithful and engage in all sorts of sinful behaviour. Then, when I do the… the mucky business," she said like there was a bad smell, "I suck out their souls and take them to hell."

"So… what're you finding difficult?"

"All of it! But mostly… mostly the mucky stuff. I mean, I've tried. I've looked at it. I've read all the books. But, I just can't do it. It's so… filthy. I mean," she held out a hand, palm up, and then a large colourfully covered tome simply popped into existence there, "look!"

Claris opened it, flicked through the pages, and held it up in both hands to show the three other young women the pictures; for the next moment, they all found it very hard to blink.

"How is that appealing to you mortals?" The succubus asked. "I mean, that… that isn't even in the right hole, is it? Why would you want to put it there?"

Skie kept trying to look away. They all were. But they all couldn't. "I'd… say it was more for his pleasure than for hers," the brunette said.

"But why would she let him do that? It can't be good for you."

"W-why would you worry if it's good for you?" Aerie asked. "I mean, y-you can't get sick, can you?"

"I like to look after myself. We're all taught when we spawn to look after ourselves, keep clean and neat and tidy. But, all that contorting, and… and juice. That is not clean or tidy. It's disgusting."

Skie thought, "well… is the problem that you just don't like the thought of doing it with men, maybe?"

"No; that's not it. It's all the same to us. It's just that men are easier to find."

"I suppose, but there are a few taverns in the city I know about," Skie then felt that, suddenly, everyone's eyes were off the book and on her. "What?"

"How do you know about them?" Imoen asked.

"I have a friend."

"A friend, eh?"

"Yes, a friend! She's a sailor and she comes in and I just talk to her sometimes, okay?"

"Okay… I believe ya."

"Eldoth may have been bad, but he hasn't turned me or anything. And as I've actually had a boyfriend, and you haven't, and you're always jumping on and wrestling Aerie all the time…"

The elf quickly interjected, "I-I think we're getting a bit off topic…"

Claris evidently agreed. "As I was saying, devils don't really have a sexuality. It's all the same."

"So, no succubus really enjoys sex?"

"It's just work. We're supposed to study and imitate mortals and, well, fake it," Claris sagged, "not that it matters; I hardly ever get that far anyway. I guess, not being mortal myself, I just can't understand things like love and that other stuff. I don't know how any of my sisters manage it."

Imoen pondered. "Well… that's one for you I think, Aerrers. 'What is love'?"

The elf blinked. "W-why me?"

"You read all them philosophy books, right?"

"Yes, but… I-I'm not sure the theory that we were once all four legged beasts who the gods split in two is really all that useful, here…"

"But… you have been in love?"

"I thought I was, once… b-but it turned out to just be indigestion."

Imoen lost some of her perkiness, starting to pace a bit with her head lowered. "And Skie;s only ever been the pulled, not the puller… and I'm…"

Skie finished, "a twenty year old child?" She sighed, "but I admit; we do seem a bit under qualified in this."

The redhead continued to pace pensively. "Ah-hah!" She slapped, then pointed a finger, "but, we do know someone who some might consider an expert on these matters, or at least with the whole seduction part. Seems a good place to start."

"You do?" Claris's eyes lit up.

"Uh-huh," Imoen nodded, "just everyone get a cloak, and follow. You too devil woman; that little you got on ain't exactly conspicuous in this weather."

As they made their way to the cloak room, Aerie tugged gently on the redhead's arm. "We're… not really going to help her get… laid, are we?"

"Nah," Imoen shook, "but we're not gonna come up with anything just standing round here. Least this will keep her out of trouble, 'til we can think of something else."

Aerie nodded her understanding, but then asked, "um… w-where are we going? And who is this expert?"

"Oh, it's… it's someone you know," Imoen explained tactfully, then less tactfully she pointed to the front door and announced, "to the cemetery!"