Clarence Gupta's Magic Assembly

The address that Alda had received from the GNA would lead her through the familiar streets of Electown, to the less familiar, and finally to a strange part of Electown, strange enough for her new wardrobe to not be particularly out of place in the setting. Offices, restaraunts, stores, arcades, and the like gave way to geek fare, as Alda reached the inner mecca where Electown's swelling otaku base most loved to visit. "Visit" was a key word, because no one would really want to live here, given the noise and the foot traffic. People on corners were selling comics, videos, collectibles, and some were dressed up in costume to look like cahracters from video games and cartoons. People would give her second glances here, but not for looking like a weirdo, at least. The fact that she didn't look like any specific character at least left her mostly free from anyone trying to stop her to get a picture taken.

At first, she might worry that the address she'd been sent to led to a rink-a-dink office building with a mannequin, dressed up as a sword-lady, in front. Thankfully, the address was actually for the next one over, a much larger arena building, intended for hosting events. A scrolling banner displayed several different events: "Lit Fusion Live!" was one. "Showbizz: Girls on Ice!" was another. "Red Nova: The Musical" was yet another. Probably most important for her was "Master Magician Gupta," scheduled for later on in the afternoon. Still, there was a pretty good while between when she would arrive and when the show would go on. That ought to give her enough time to find her employer somewhere inside the building.

Inside, things would become only more confusing. Most of the banners hanging up around the area advertised Vinzez Gupta, not Clarence Gupta. They were all very professionally done, displaying the image of a handsome, though middle-aged, gentleman in a black, padded dinner jacket, with a red ascot and silk top-hat. His hair was salt-and-pepper, wavy but combed back, and his face looked stern but impressive, with pale, gray eyes and a thick mustache concealing his upper lip. Unfortunately, if she was impressed by the official, magician-look of the man, all of these read "Vinzez." She'd have to keep looking if she wanted to find Clarence... and, for that matter, she'd need to avoid associating with Vinzez in the mean time, lest she become ineligible for the mission she'd signed up for.

People were hanging around the lounge here and there, most of them seemed to be workers rather than fans. The show still wasn't for a couple of hours, after all. A massive staircase led up to the next floor, flanked on either side by doors that would lead out to ground seating. It appeared that she could continue to walk a ring around the arena if she wanted, spotting similar staircases. Merch booths were already set up, selling a variety of snacks and also momentos related to the upcoming show. No obvious signs pointed towards Clarence, however, which might make Alda begin to become seriously annoyed that he hadn't provided a more specific meetup point in the address the GNA provided.

Finally, someone would notice her and move over. The lady had tremendous black hair, done into two giant rings behind herself that went nearly to the feet, on either side of her head. Her face was pretty, although she was making a rather obsequious looking grin that made her look a little too toothy to be trustworthy. Her eyes were narrow and brown; she was very tall altogether, and very, very stacked. Her large bosom and wide hips made it seem like she might have had a little work done. Her wardrobe consisted of a long, red sweater with a single black stripe across the chest, reaching down to a little above the knees; long, black boots started at about the thigh, leaving a bit of her legs exposed at the separation point. A necklace with an ominous charm, shaped like a red devil's face, hung from around her neck by a thin, black cord... it looked less like a fashion statement and more like a talisman, perhaps befitting for her work today. "Hello! Are you, by any chance, looking for Clarence Gupta? I figured maybe you are, since... well... you're dressed a little like a magician," the woman called out. "I'm Mundwoon! I'll take you to Clarence, if you like, so long as you don't mind owing me a favor?"

A bit of a shady introduction, but Alda might be out of other options to start her search with, unless she wanted to contact the GNA again or start trying hallways randomly.
Alda, surprisingly, didn't live too far from the area her mission was supposed to take place in. She'd even stopped by her apartment on the way to install her recently bought upgrades. But now, she was staring the nerd district down, arms crossed and not looking too happy. "Ugh, this place always freaks me out a little."

"Well, suck it up, buttercup, your mission's in there! Oh, and speaking of cup, you never let me finish what I was saying back in the shop."

"What, the saying? Yes, I'm a witch. Yes, I have tits. Yes, I was cold in there. What of it?"

"Suitachi never actually got a good look at you, because of the boxes, but...well, your nips were showing."

"They were? ...I probably should've made my top out of thicker fabric, but eh, whatever. If I was all that embarrassed by things like that anymore, I wouldn't wear what I do, now would I?"

"Fair enough. And like I said, no one saw you anyway."

"All right then. So, let me get this mission straight. We're helping a guy discover the origins and secrets of magic."


"And...what were those requirements, again?"

"Let me bring up the we are. You have to be female..." Anathema took a moment to take a good look at her operator's crotch bulge anywhere. "Which you most certainly are. Unless it's changed since you walked out of the shower this morning, and it doesn't look like it has."

"Really, you looked? Annie, you can be such a perv sometimes, you know that?"

"You act like that's a bad thing! Now, moving right along...'comfortable in costume on stage'. Considering you dress like that even when you're just buying groceries, I'm gonna give you a big checkmark on that on."

"Comfy's comfy!"

"'Comfortable with acting or behaving promiscuously. Well, you were showing off what your mother gave you in the Navi Shop and didn't bat an eye when you found out about it, so checkarooni there!"

"...Who even says checkarooni?"

"Me, as of right now! What can't be a known associate of Vinzez Gupta. ...I guess you could be an unknown one, but known? Nope!"

"Who? Never heard of him."

"That's another one in the yes column. Okay, last one. You need to know about a field related to magic. Alchemy's a listed example, so you're good there!"

"So I check out, at least." Alda looked up from her PET, and looked around for a moment. "Now that I think about it, there was a flyer for some event happening around here not too long ago. I don't remember the name...Salad Fest, maybe?" ...Ha. Like this area's clientelle ever ate a salad. "Nah, that doesn't sound right."

"Must be some pretty good salad to have a fest in its honor. Maybe you should check it out after we're done!"

"I said that's probably NOT it!" Okay, the address should be right "...Okay, question. If they wanted us to go to the arena, why didn't they just say 'go to the arena'? Why'd they have to give us some weird coordinates that you can't tell what they're referring to until you go there?!"

"Iunno. Makes them feel fancy?"

"Well, whatever, we're here. Ooh, Master Magician Gupta!" Let's older guy, but all in all reasonably attractive, and he very much looked as a stage magician. 7.5/10, would bang. "...Wait, Vinzez Gupta? That ain't our client."

"Quick, look away! You might be associating with him just by looking!"

"I...don't think looking at a poster counts." At any rate, she needed to find Clarence (and only Clarence) Gupta. But this was a big place, and she left all her scrying supplies at home. "Well, this sucks. Where could he be? He could be anywhere right now, with so much time left..."

"Hmm. Well..."

Before Anathema could muse, a woman showed up. Her body put Alda's to shame, but she didn't seem too fazed. "Er, hello. Yeah, I'm looking for him, but I don't have a clue where he could be. But, I'm not just a magician, I'm a witch! Big difference!"

"Yeah, it's subtle to the uninitiated, but it's definitely not the same thing!" A hologram of the Navi formed, and took a good look at the lady that had shown up. "So...just asking, have implants, right?"

"Hey, that's rude to ask!" ...Out loud, at least.

"What? I'm pretty stacked, but she makes me look like you in comparison! If that's all natural, I'd be really impressed!"

"Like me? What's that supposed to mean?"

"I mean that you have boobs and hips, but they're not exactly huge! And you kinda luck out that you have what you have...that's like, the only fat on your body, and it goes straight to where you want to have some fat!"

"...I'm going to take that as a very roundabout compliment, and move on..." Ahem. "Sorry about her, she has a tendency to not think before she opens her mouth." Hmm. Favor, huh? "A favor? Sure, I guess...nothing sexual or anything, though, I'm not that kind of girl."

"I'm available for sexual favors, if anyone needs any!"

"...Not right now, you're not." A tap of a button on her PET made the hologram disappear. "Well, Mundwoon, shall we be off?"
The woman looked curious, perhaps a little confused or even slow-witted, when Alda mentioned her profession. "A... witch? They make those? Oh well! I'll bet that Clarence guy will like it even more, your dedication to character is impressive!" she laughed merrily; perhaps she was not as dedicated to the concept of "real magic" as the employer was.

Mundwoon's face looked startled by the comment on her implants; she seemed torn between two answers, but her internal dilemma was clear basically providing the answer. "They are impressive, aren't they?!" she finally responded, thrusting her chest our proudly. "What's 'natural,' anyway? We are women of the supernatural, are we not? Ha ha ha..." The joke somehow seemed to suck the energy out of the room.

She seemed to get back in character once the mention of a favor came up; she crossed one arm atop another, fingering her talisman with a coy smile. "Ha ha... Who can say the nature of the favor? Just think of it as running a tab... and I wouldn't charge you your body for merely guiding you! I'm a generous person," she chuckled, almost seeming to wink, but it was just the way her eyes looked when she smiled. "Put it out of your mind! Let's go see the master magician himself."

The strangely-named woman would transport Alda from the front area, through the side hallways, and finally to what looked like dressing rooms for visitors to the arena. Notably. They passed by a rather large, open one, sporting a number of banners for Vinzez Gupta's show, before reaching what seemed to be a single, small locker room for Clarence. "Short notice," Mundwoon whispered, perhaps anticipating that Alda might start worrying she was going to be getting chump change for her efforts. She stood to one side and pushed open the door so that Alda could enter in first.

The inside was a bit shabby too, not to mention a bit overstuffed. The locker room was slightly damp, perhaps having been used regularly by athletes based on the shower room nearby, and the only thing in the way of furniture was four sets of long, narrow benches. Mundwoon followed Alda in, then took a seat upon one of them. The room was occupied by two other figures, a man and a woman.

The man, only just so based on his apparent age, was like a taller, thinner, less stylish version of his father. He had the same skin tone but his hair was more chocolate brown than black and styled in a strange way, shaved almost completely from the sides, but with plenty to combine across the top. His wardrobe consisted of a purple stage magician's outfit, very sparkly, with a red corsage and matching cape. He carried an extremely long black cane with a silver handle; the top was engraved with a carving of an eye. His sad, brown eyes made him look rather... well, sad. Or at least frustrated by something.

The woman fit the standard set by Mundwoon so far: mysterious and almost overly stacked. The lady was dark-skinned, but more so than him, and not nearly so tall. Her hair was long and extremely straight and white, possibly dyed. Like Alda, she was dressed provocatively without regard to public conventions, with an ensemble including a very tight, gold miniskirt, slit at the sides, and a jacket with a single button in the center. She might be wearing something underneath, but if so, it was well hidden; most of her central cleavage was on display, and there was a lot of it. Her belt was fastened by a silver eye symbol, similar to on Clarence's staff... but they didn't quite look related. Her shoes added a couple of inches to her height, being gold platform heels, but even still, she was only a little taller than Alda. Without them, she might be the same height.

"Greetings! Welcome to the realm of learning, where we of the occult arts, combers of mysteries and excavators of ancient truths, shall endeavor to further understand what the unaccustomed refer to as 'the dark arts.' You've already met Mundwoon... hailing from a cavern of bones, she brings to us a deep understanding of what she refers to as manipulation, a sort of hypnosis... bending the wills of others."

The lady in question gave a short bow, still seeming as though she was joking, despite Clarence's all too serious theatrics. "The Bowl 'N Bones, actually. It's a bowling alley," she laughed.

Coughing, Clarence continued. "This next woman... her name remains a secret, but she assures me she knows mystic arts tantamount to wish- granting. Though... she says it's primarily for navis." He seemed somehow less certain about this as he continued.

The woman nodded, but remained otherwise quiet. Her face seemed serene, but also very still, almost doll-like. She appeared to be wearing gold contacts as well.

"And then there is me, Clarence Gupta, master of illusion! So far I only know a few trivial feats of prestidigitation... 'stage magic,' you might call it. Disgraceful, really. A poor imitation of the true magic I hope to one day know. Still, what matters is the heart! And I have the heart of a true future sorcerer, one who wants to know more about the magic lurking in the leylines running across our fair planet. But before I may learn, first I must... learn. Tell me about yourself and your specialty," he beckoned Alda, steeping his fingers together with a serious expression that seemed especially laughable given the setting. "Once you're done, I will explain your purposes here, which are twofold, though both equally important..."
"..Character?" Alda placed her hands on her hips, not especially happy at the prospect of not being taken seriously. "Oh, I assure you, I'm the real thing...assuming such things are possible, at least. But at the very least, I'm no 'character'."

"It's true, she's real! You can poke her, and your finger will touch her!" Speaking of real, Anathema's hunch that certain parts of the other woman weren't real was correct, even if it wasn't something normally spoken of in public. "Ha! Knew it! Well, just so you know, mine ARE real! ...As real as a Navi can be, at least."

It took the bonafide witch a moment to recover from the sheer awful of the joke, but managed to shake it off easily enough. "Well, whatever...wait, you mean you WOULD be asking for my body for a big enough favor?!"

"Lucky! I want someone to use my body for a big favor, too!"

"Note to self: never ask this woman for another favor...and second note to self, keep your finger hovered over your PET's mute button..." Well, this was going to Question mark? Then again, she hadn't met the man in charge yet, and he might be the complete opposite. She could only hope as much as she was shuttled into a hallway, and then...a locker room? "...A locker room? What kind of-" She got an answer before she could finish, and almost surprisingly, she seemed mostly satisfied by it. "...I see. Makes sense enough. I think."

"Hey, your store isn't exactly big, why should this be any different?"

"...I'm not even going to try to answer that." It'd just give her a headache to do so. "Let's just head in. The secrets to magic await, after all!" At least, she hoped they did...entering revealed that there was, in fact, a Clarence Gupta. Or so he probably was, considering he looked a lot like the man on those posters. He seemed to lack his charisma, though, at least by appearances. There was also another woman, who...she couldn't quite get a read on, honestly. It was a little annoying to be the least busty woman there, though, even including her Navi. She didn't get a chance to introduce herself before the magician started to speak...he did realize there were only three other people in the room, right? Anyway, might as well listen.

So, she also had a hypnotist, a 'wish granter' but only to Navis, and a stage magician. Even though she hadn't been into it for all that long, she honestly felt like the most magical one there. "Well, greetings, everyone! My name's Alda, and I've been dabbling in all sorts of mystical arts for a while now. Alchemy and potion brewing are my specialties, though. With the right reagents and chemicals, there's no limit to what you can make the human body accomplish!" She puffed out her chest, as though it was some profound statement she was proud of. "Lately, I'm been working on trying to come up with the legendary panacea. Standard chemistry can't achieve it, but magic chemistry...I know there's a combination of atoms and mystical forces that can cure anything and everything! And then that stupid pharmaceutical company can suck it!"

"Uh, Alda? You have that look in your eye. You know, the 'I'm gonna tear that bitch a new one and laugh at her for it' one."

"Huh? ...Oh, sorry. It's a subject I'm really, uh, passionate about!" And she was. She was even genuinely interested in the science and magical theory behind it. There was just a nice, spiteful gooey center that wanted to ruin a certain CEO. "Anyway, that's what I bring to the table. So, what ARE our purposes? It hasn't been all that clear so far..." Aside from the uncovering of magic secrets, anyway. Which, to be fair, was something she was interested in anyway. She wouldn't mind additional reasons to care, though.
"Alchemy! Potions! Major boons to my magical research, that's for sure. You don't meet a lot of folks who are so deep into it these days," Alda's employer responded excitedly, clasping his hands onto the edge of the locker room bench while he leaned forward. He seemed suddenly more child-like, given his whole-hearted enthusiasm for magic; it seemed he took it much more seriously than Mundwoon, who he'd hired. "Panacea! Such a goal, truly. There's nothing more important to a magician than ambition. That's what I tell my navi all the time: future sight is one part preemption, one part perspiration! With the right attitude, she can harness her latent powers, I'm sure."

He folded his hands again and sat up straight; poses like that were going to be important if he wanted to seem like anything more than a scrawny novice in a fancy suit. "Yes, what you bring to the er... table, as it were," he murmured, noting the distinct lack of any table to gesture towards, "is most impressive. I won't ask your motivations. It's clear that some spirit of vengeance hovers over you, but I'm haunted by the same specter. I don't want to live in my father's shadow, and you have clearly been... slighted by a pharmaceutical company. But yes, that's fine, and it's not my place to question it." He looked between the other two, who were still watching Alda curiously, obviously wanting to know more about her circumstances. "Ahem. But yes. Our purposes..."

He pointed first towards Mundwoon, who smiled and curled her fingers in a jovial greeting gesture. "Mundwoon is headed upstairs to bring to us another magical talent. My father, who you may know is holding a magic show today, has brought many of his stage ladies along with him. One of them... perhaps unbeknownst to him... is a clairvoyant. For the sake of my navi and her own research, I've long sought one with that true power, the power to see the threads of fate and follow them forward. I've got a folder here with her name and details. At any rate, our goal is to persuade the woman to join us here for our magic gathering, so we can have her input. If she happens to not be a no-show to my father's performance, well, that's just a bonus. She'd only be doing stage-girl duties there, it's not like he's even using her for cool magic stuff..."

This time, the dark-skinned woman coughed, obviously meaning to get him back on track.

"Ah, yes... Well, Mundwoon will be headed up there. I'm hopeful her persuasion skills will come in useful there. I had costumes for both of you, but... well... I think your current wardrobe might be more effective than the magician's assistant costume I would have provided. You're free to take it if you like, though. Our other goal is, of course, a concourse. A discussion of magic, sharing of secrets, and probing into new and promising procedures. It's rather straight-forward; I have a few theories, I'll want to hear yours, and we'll test a few things. The honorable Hadya El-Amin will be sitting in for the discussion." He nodded to the strangely dressed woman, who closed her eyes and nodded along. "And offering help where she can." Another odd, one that didn't seem to commit to actually saying anything. "Obviously, Alda, you cannot be in two places at once. The question is this: would you rather retrieve our clairvoyant or go straight to magical experimentation? I'll leave the choice to you," he finished, spreading his hands to either side.
Well, she found out what they were doing. And yet, Clarence wasn't very forthcoming on exactly WHY they were doing all of it, beyond 'because MAGICAL KNOWLEDGE'. Oh well, good enough for her. Alda rested her chin on her hand, taking a moment to ponder the two choices she'd been given. "Well, it'd probably be prudent to get everyone together before starting the discussion. Who knows what we might miss if we don't?"

"Yeah, the more the merrier!"

"Five heads are better than three. So let's hold off until we're all back." Truthfully, she just wanted her cake and eat it too; their discussion would be all the better with another person, but she also didn't want to miss a moment of it, even for that. "Anything we should know before heading over? If not, we'll be off."
"Hm. Fair enough! So long as you and Mundwoon can bring her back quickly, we shouldn't miss too much time for our group discussion. In the mean time, I'll learn the ins and outs of 'wish-granting' from Hadya here," Clarence agreed, holding a hand out towards Hadya. The woman nodded, but said nothing in return... one had to wonder how much use she was going to be in this discussion he had planned. "Yes, as for the briefing you need before you head out, there are a few things we ought to go over. First off, your target... a woman with the gift of future-sight, named Clair Vogel. I've got a few pictures of her there in the folder. She'll be with the other show-girls, I'm sure. As to how to get her down here... that's a tougher nut to crack. I'm hoping Mundwoon's powers of persuasion might help, but in case they don't, I do know one thing: she's very proud of her prophetic visions. I'm especially interested in her because, unlike many of my father's other helpers, she genuinely believes in her craft. I don't want to associate with other fakers, like my father."

Mundwoon appeared to be stifling a giggle at that point again, but kept it out of his sight. She handed the folder over to Alda, so her partner could get a look. She sort of fit the bill for the body type of the night: relatively slender but busty, with red hair in a close bob with a curl falling across the forehead, full, red lips in a big smile, and vibrant, nearly orange-colored eyes. She looked at least a little older than Mundwoon or Hadya, and definitely older than Clarence, but not nearly as aged as Clarence's father. In the picture, she was dressed in a trendy white turtle-neck, but there was no telling what she'd be wearing tonight. It ought to be easy enough to spot her, though, given her distinct hair color.

"I-I wouldn't mention money at all... I can't outdo my father in terms of payment. We're going to have to hope she's genuinely interested in the pursuit of magic or the occult. There may be other things she wants... Try to listen to her terms, but try not to sound too needy either. There's got to be something we can do to get her down here!" he exclaimed, waving his arms as unintentionally shifted gears from dramatic to just drama. It was probably a good thing he was sending someone else to negotiate, as he definitely seemed like the type to be a poor negotiator.

"Huh... I sorta figured you'd have this part thought out. Doesn't matter, though! I'm an expert at getting people to owe me... and if I can do that much, it should be a peace of cake to get her down here!" Mundwoon chuckled, winking with a sly smile. "And if that situation turns to crap, well, I'm sure Alda here can turn crap into gold."

"That would certainly benefit our knowledge of alchemy. Please also feel free to send me a message via your PET." Clarence chuckled, but for all his belief in magic, even he seemed a bit dubious on that account. He exchanged the address quickly. "I'll be eager to see all of your talents up close later, Alda. But for now, bring us Clair, and we'll begin a study of magic to make even the greatest philosophers of our times and ages past green with envy! The walls we shall break! The ceilings we shall crumble!"

"Remember you can't afford to pay for all these broken walls and ceilings, okay, buddy?" Mundwoon joked. "For now, let's get going! I'll lead you there..." At this point, Mundwoon and Alda would take their leave. On the way up to Vinzez' backstage area, they'd have some more time to talk, if Alda had any further questions. Otherwise, she'd be left with more of her partner's off-kilter humor all the way over. The way out was the same, but this time they'd go further around the stadium and to what was presumably the entrance to the backstage area, looping behind the main arena. For a while, it seemed they'd be able to walk right in... through the double doors was indeed the backstage area, with many stage-hands moving this way and that, a rigging crew preparing certain things (Clarence would surely be appalled if he saw them setting wires up to prepare to make things fly), and the like. No sign of Vinzez or his assistants just yet, though.

Before they could get any further in, a man in a black suit stepped seemingly out of nowhere. He was tall, a little wirey, and older than either of the two of them, with rusty orange hair and a matching, bushy mustache, no beard. His eyes were hidden behind black shades; he also wore a large cowboy hat, which looked a little out of place with the suit. The man had a big grin, but there was something untrustworthy about his face. "Bill's the name! Bill Fawkes," he introduced himself, briefly removing his hat to hold it over his chest for a more gentlemanly intro. It looked like his hair was starting to go a bit wispy along the top, possibly a reason for the hat. "I'm in charge'a security for Mister Gupta. Me on this side, ol' Buzz on the other. Course, you two look like yer probably in the right place... Two'a Vinzez's girls, am I right? Lucky dog, that man is!"

At this point, Alda would probably need to make the snap decision of whether she'd like to continue on, pretending to be one of the girls, or try to explain another reason she was walking through here. As far as the rest of the backstage area went, it looked like when they went a little further, they might get past the rigging crew and on to the dressing rooms. They'd have a better chance of finding the show girls there. They'd want to avoid going out the curtains to the left, which would likely lead onto the main stage... possibly interesting to look at, but not somewhere they needed to be right now.
A discussion with...someone that hadn't said a word. Alda was starting to see why they were stuck in a locker room. She took a look at the picture, and perhaps unsurprisingly, she had a killer figure. If the goal was to make her feel inadequate...well, they weren't succeeding. Yet. Give her another 30 minutes, and that might change at this rate. "At least she'll be easy to spot. Not too many people look like that."

"No money...well, I didn't get into this business to get rich, anyway, so I wasn't going to. Anyway, I'll keep that in mind." She rolled her eyes as Mundwoon appeared to take a shot at her preferred magical field, but didn't bite, and just kept on listening. "Don't worry, we'll do everything in our power to bring her here. ...Well, the stuff that's not illegal, anyway. We're not abducting her against her will or anything."

Alda remained quiet as the pair headed off to find the remaining member of the panel. For the most part, she tuned the other woman out as she walked...and walked...and walked. There sure was a lot of walking thus far...too bad she wasn't with a big, muscular guy, that could give her a lift, instead of...her. She did perk up a bit as she saw the backstage, albeit mostly because it meant she could stop walking soon. But as it turned out, she could stop even before entering!...Because someone was in their way. But fortune was still with them, as he seemed to mistake them for showgirls. And they said wearing an outfit like this was pointless. "Yeah, but we need to talk to Clair about something for the show. You know where she is right now?"
"Right, right... never against their will," Mundwoon winked, perhaps alluding to her supposedly magical powers of motivation. That was really just a small sampling of the sort of vague, egotistic, smirking, joking behavior that Mundwoon had in store for Alda on their way to the backstage area of the main arena, where they ran into against the mustached man.

The man brushed his chin idly with one thumb as he pondered the question. "Clair, huh? Which one's that? I guess it don't matter, cause all the showgirls are in the same place, well as I know: right behind me, in the dressing rooms over yonder," he explained, thumbing over one shoulder. "Look though, ya'll gotta understand that dressing room is full as it is. Already three girls in there! Seems like ol' Vinny's got a lotta money, if he can afford to pay fer five'a ya'll. Makes a working stiff like me feel downright jealous. Anyway, point being, there ain't no room in there for ya'll. Why don't I find somewhere else ya'll can sit? I'll even keep ya company fer a while!"

To her credit, Alda's artificially endowed partner picked up on the act quickly enough. "Well, we didn't say we need to actually use the rooms right now, did we? We just need to find Clair and bounce a couple of ideas off of her! I happen to know Vinzez's plans for tonight, and I highly doubt she's all that busy. Come on... girl like that... she's eye candy," she chuckled, ribbing Bill to with one elbow to try to get him to admit that's what he was thinking about the showgirls himself.

"Well, yer the one that said it, not me, darlin'," he guffawed, stroking his chin again while grinning broadly. "Ya'll look like some mighty seeew-weet candy yerselves! Tell ya what... I'll let one'a ya back there to talk to Clair. That oughta be fine for asking her whatever questions ya need, right? In the mean time, I don't think it's fair Vinny gets all'a ya to his'self... Never thought that was fair, not one bit! So I think one of you should stay and chat. We can get to know each other! It's a networking opportunity... I work all kinds'a venues. Could get'cha some good work when Vinny moves on, ya know?"

"Is he really that old?" Mundwoon asked, surprised. It was hard to tell if she was faking that or being genuine.

"Naw, not like that... I mean moves on like heading to his next show, ya know? He switches up his girls all the time, keeps the show fresh... Heck, that's my favorite part'a the show! You don't know who's gonna show up next time. And the girls line up to do it, cause Vinny's a sugar-daddy, a big, walkin', talkin' dollar sign in sequins. Then again, I guess that's why I'm here too, so I'm not judgin'. Probably why you girls are here too," he chuckled. "Anyway! Which'a yew wants to be my eye candy for a bit?"

Alda probably had a feeling about that one way or another, that being whether she trusted Mundwoon to keep Bill off her back or she'd rather take on that role herself and let Mundwoon go after Clair with her powers of persuasion.
...Actually, now that she thought about it, did it count as abduction if they used hypnotic powers to draw her away willingly? Hmm...


Okay, so they were all probably in there, including Clair, who they needed to get out. And...the dressing room was full. Fortunately, the man in question wasn't all that bright, and wasn't putting 2 and 2 together. Mundwoon did, luckily. "Exactly! We'll be in and out before anyone even knows we're there!" This sounded doubtful, if the room was already full, but whatever.

And so, they were offered a compromise. One goes in, the other...keeps this Bill character 'company'. The one she wanted to do was so obvious it almost hurt. "Well now, the answer to that's pretty clear. If it's a tight fit already, I doubt you'd even be able to squeeze in there!" She pointed at her partner in getting Clair away, and took a sidestep towards the door. "But I should be able to get in and out, no problem, so it's only logical that I go in! Be back in a flash!" And also like a flash, she'd head on into the dressing room, before anyone could object, or really even think about what she had said.
"Righto, in and out, just like that. And you're quite right, you're best suited to the job since I-" Mundwoon played along, smiling, although the corner of her mouth began to twitch when she realized she'd just gone along with the affirmation of her oversized womanly assets. "Yes. It's best that you go," she confirmed. "I'll take very good care of Bill here."

"Oh, will ya? Har har har! Lookin' forward to that, ma'am! Maybe we'll pull a magic trick and just disappear somewhere, you'n me?" the man asked through his toothy grin, seeming to bite on to Mundwoon's casual flirt harder than was kosher. Playing her part, Mundwoon led him away by the hand so they could go further backstage. Alda would probably have a generous amount of time to do whatever she needed to now, with Mundwoon's strong... persuasive skills doing their work on Bill.

On the other hand, she would not have Mundwoon's help in persuading Clair to join their pow-wow. Hopefully, Alda could manage the job without the use of hypnotism (or with the use of alchemy, perhaps). She'd nip away quick into the dressing room, where she'd find that Bill had really been exaggerating the crowded nature of the room: the only part of it that was limited to three people was the line of mirrors, make-up stations, and seats along one side. This dressing room looked a lot better than the one downstairs, partially because it was actually a dressing room rather than just a locker room. It even had real decorations, including a few tasteful flowers in vases. Some seemed to have letters with them; it was quite possible they were from fans, though whether that meant fans of Vinzez or fans of the girls would be interesting to know. In place of lockers, this room had closets, which contained many fancy, colorful, and ritzy outfits for showgirls, and a few classier but less provocative ones that looked to be ordinary clothing the girls had hung up when they'd changed.

Inside the room, three women were busily preparing for the show... well, it seemed that way at first, but in actuality, on closer inspection, one of them was checking a message board on her PET. Alda would again be the odd one out proportionally, as it was apparently some unwritten rule that show-girls had to be at least a certain degree of busty. Seated in the middle was Clair, who Alda would recognize just from her hair. She hadn't turned around, but Alda could still see her reflection in the mirror; the face looked much the same as in the photograph. Currently, she was dressed in a white, shiny one piece with a zipper up the back and black, semi-shear leggings underneath. She wore long white gloves and short, white high heeled boots. Most notably, she was wearing red bunny ears, which would either look a little provocative or a little ridiculous on a grown woman, depending on your stance on such things.

Vinzez had spared no expense in terms of animal head-gear; another woman nearby, who was the only one to have shifted to watching Alda suspiciously, was wearing a similarly sparkly outfit in yellow, with a cat ear headband, but otherwise similar. She was dark-skinned and had a somehow dangerous look to her, with biceps that looked a little overly toned for the job. Her hair was black and rather straight, only reaching about to the base of her neck. Her eyes seemed pitch black, though that might just be the lighting, and while her lips had an attractive model's pout, they were currently turned into an untrusting frown as she watched Alda enter.

The third girl, who wasn't paying any attention to Alda, was dressed in a similar outfit with black and dog ears, but with white leggings. Her one-piece was still unzipped all the way down the back, making it look like she probably was going without bra. She had blond hair done into pigtails and a figure so similar to Clair's they might be sisters. Actually, with that in mind, it was worth asking whether biceps girl or Alda was really the odder one out, given that she seemed to be the only one investing in muscle tone. The blond girl's eyes had a sort of sleepy look, but a bright aqua color, which Alda could see in the mirror. She was talking into her PET, on and on, as she scrolled down the message board. "Possession is a serious matter! But these guys don't take it seriously at all. It'd serve them right if they all just got possessed, wouldn't it, Clair? Eeeeh.... Clair? There's nothing good about these guys or what they're saying. They're just all... you know?" she droned on and on, never taking her eyes off the PET. "It's icky. They don't take it seriously! But there's spirits everywhere, right? You believe in the paranormal, riiiight?"

"Yes, yes, Silly," Clair responded, putting the finishing touches on her make-up while her eyes tracked Alda in the mirror. "Alda, hello. I know why you're here," she began, her reflection smiling and her eyes shining.

"What? Why's she here," the semi-buff one asked, narrowing her eyes. "I'll curse anyone who ruins this performance for us. This is our big break... No one's going to take my hexes lightly again after this. I mean that literally, little girl," the woman continued, cracking first her neck, then her fists... although, apparently, her threat was to place a curse upon Alda, not to punch her.

"She's here because she wants to recruit me... I've foreseen it," Clair chuckled. "However, she doesn't have my gift of foresight... she's a bit misinformed if she thinks I'm leaving alone with her. In fact, I'll put it in the form of a statement: with 100% certainty, I say that you will not convince me to leave the others and come down to Clarence Gupta with you," she finished, turning in her backless swivel seat and shaking one finger. She gave another cryptic smile, then crossed her arms. "However, if you still want to try... let's see if you have the power to defy my predictions."

"She said it! Brr... it gives me chills," the black girl shivered.

"Claaair... you're giving me chills too... stop it," the blond one added, but in a sing-songy voice that sounded as though she wasn't being serious like the other girl was. In fact, she still hadn't even looked up at Alda yet.
Alda managed to get into the dressing room, with little trouble...only to find out that it was decidedly more spacious than previously stated. That guy just wanted to go off alone with one of them, and was willing to lie to do it, most likely. Kinda gross. Also gross: the fact that apparently she wasn't busty enough to be showgirl. There were totally people that didn't care for giant boobs, she'd totally appeal to them. And she worked hard to have what she did; if she ate less, her chest would get ravaged by her metabolism. Sigh...some people had all the luck.

It turned out she'd walked in on a conversation. One on...possession? Spiritual possession, no less. She hadn't found any evidence on that front so far, but she couldn't rule out that such a thing existed. If nothing else, she figured as long as you had a strong spirit, you could fight off any malevolent free-floating apparitions. And...oh, she just got greeted. The witch wasn't exactly surprised, since she had no reason to doubt Clair's powers, but it was still slightly unnerving for someone to know who you were without ever even meeting you before. "Oh, hello! If you know why I'm here, why don't you go ahead and come with me? Time's a-wastin'!"

Instead of everything going without a hitch, the more muscular woman spoke up, not too happy about the prospect of the show being ruined...though thankfully her threat seemed to be more metaphysical than physical. "Um, calm down! I'm not here to ruin anything!" Plus, she was still a novice when it came to curses. Anathema generally knew her stuff about them, though...could a Navi even curse a human? What about a human cursing a Navi? That might actually be worth studying after this.

Clair proceed to show that, yeah, she knew exactly what was going on, but she wasn't coming along willingly? Curious. Alda noted the wording of her prophecy, though, and unlike the others, she didn't get any chills. She could think of three ways the statement could be true and still get her down there. First, she could somehow force her down there...but she already said she wasn't going to do that, and she really didn't want to be a hypocrite on the matter. Second, she could get Mundwoon back in, and try to have her convince her. And third...there was the option she was going to go with. "Well, if you don't want to leave the others, why don't you all come along? The more, the merrier!" She had no idea how anyone would react to three more additions instead of one, but she, for one, was all for it.
The hex girl regarded Alda with suspicion, even after she stated that she hadn't come to do anything to Clair. Actually, it was kind of hard to think why that would be her default assumption, but the girl sure seemed to have a sour mood. "Hope you're telling the truth... Otherwise, you'll get one of these!" she murmured, thrusting her fist as if to punch Alda right between the eyes. Instead, she stopped her fist and dangled a slim piece of paper as she unclenched it; letters were written down its length in scratchy, black letters:









She continued frown, looking gravely serious despite the seemingly comical nature of her tool of the trade. "Watch yourself... I'd hate for you to spoil that cosplay you're wearing," she threatened, as if she wasn't herself wearing cat ears at the moment.

When Alda revealed that she had revised her plan, now opting to request not only Clair, but also the two of them follow, the biceps girl and the blond one both reacted with surprise, although it was still pretty muted on the latter's face. "Like, wow! Are you possessed too? Possessed in the head, I mean. You think you can pay our whole group? Vinzez is like... loaded. I don't think you can outpay him," she criticized, before turning her eyes back down to her PET, flicking at the interface with her finger lazily.

"Hm hm... No, Dusana, I have foreseen it. We will indeed join Alda... for her employer has something that we need," Clair smiled, keeping her bright eyes closed in a patient, cool-headed expression. Again with the mystery, though. Clair didn't seem to like spelling things out. The tough-looking girl looked very confused and started to open her mouth, before Clair held up a finger, now looking in her direction. "And Mallory... I know you're curious to see it through to the end. What need do we have for money or fame when we have our chance to get our hands on something much more valuable? This is a matter of faith... And I believe in your faith, as always."

The dark-skinned girl, apparently Mallory, gave Clair a hard stare for a while, then nodded. "Yes..." she murmured agreement. "Where are we going?"

The question was for Alda, but Clair answered instead, standing up and zipping the back of Dusana's outfit as she talked. "We are going downstairs to meet Vinzez' son, Clarence. He's in the locker rooms," she responded, giving Alda a knowing smile. "Let us be off. But don't think that we're going to get back down easily... that old man, Fawkes, may be occupied, and you can choose to sacrifice Mundwoon if you want, but there is another who stands in our way... I wonder if you'll be able to get us past him?" Again, that knowing, sexy smile, aggravatingly stopping just short of actually naming the thing that Clair was referring to. One might begin to wonder what good her gift was if she kept all the answers to herself.

"Ha! If he's trying to get in our way, I'll show him," Mallory laughed, slapping one hand upon her bicep with a snarl, before bringing it back and revealing another strip of paper:













... Alda would need to lead the way back out, though she was still currently standing in the doorway. From her current position, it didn't look like she could spot any security that would have any interested in stopping her from exiting. Presumably, Bill was still away somewhere with Mundwoon; it was up to Alda if she wanted to retrieve Mundwoon or not. After all, even if she left, she'd have just gotten three magic specialists for the price of one. If she did want Mundwoon, she'd need to head off to the right where she hadn't been yet. If she wanted to try to just leave, she'd want to go left. And if she wanted to really disrupt the set guys, she could go straight out through the curtain area and onto the stage, but she'd probably want to have a good reason.
Alda instinctively took a step back upon noticing a fist coming her way...which proved a wise move, not because she was in danger of being hit, but it made it easier to read when something wasn't right in your face. "CUR...SE...YOU. ...Curseyou? How's that different from a regular curse?" If she was trying to be sarcastic, there was actually no outward sign. For all she knew, it was a brand new kind of hex. If it was, she certainly was interested in learning about it.

Her idea was met with SHOCK!...Or whatever passed for shock on that one girl. Who, for some reason, thought she was going to be compensated for leaving. And on the material wealth front, that was a big nope. Luckily, Clair of all people came to the rescue, stating that they needing something from Clarence. Hmm. She was kinda curious about what that was. As much as she'd like to ask, though, they should probably get going. "So we're all going? Great! I'll lead the way!" All in all, that was surprisingly painless.

But, according to Clair, there was another obstacle to face before returning. Just great. AND she needed to get Mundwoon back somehow. Well, first things first, she supposed. "I'd rather not sacrifice anyone, if I can help it." Naturally, the rather...blunt Mallory had other ideas. "I said no sacrifices! Unless they really, really deserve it, and I haven't run into anyone that fits that. Yet."

" ...But I've got an idea. The three of you, go on ahead, but only as far as you won't be seen by that Fawkes guy. This'll work better if he doesn't realize you're out of your dressing room, obviously." Alda waited until the others were almost out of sight, then went right. By the time certain people looked that way, they shouldn't be able to see a thing. That said, while she had an idea of what to say, she really wanted to know exactly what was going on between those two at the moment first...just in case.
The dark woman screwed up her eyebrows in a less than pleasant expression when Alda called into question the effectiveness of her curses. "My talismans aren't about what's written on them! The point is they work, okay? If I really hit someone with one of these babies, I can have them sick to their stomachs, crying like babies, chattering teeth, nervous breakdowns, you name it! I'm not somebody you want to piss off, Alda," she warned the newcomer, cracking her knuckles again with the so-called talisman still wrapped around her fist. "It's magic. Real magic, she sniffed, then gave a cocky smile. Hopefully, Alda wasn't going to learn the truth of that, because apparently, doing so required being hit. It seemed like that would probably be worse than whatever magic Mallory summoned would probably be secondary to that, judging by the look of her physical conditioning. The two continued to butt heads, as Alda suggested they avoid inflicting harm upon anyone for now. "Fine... but if we get screwed out of the money for this job and can't make it down to, uh, whatever Clair's looking for... Then that's on you! And something else might find its way onto you too..." she threatened, showing Alda the talisman again.

The three girls followed Alda out of the room, each dressed in their show girl outfits... it was going to be hard to sneak around with them like that, given that they were already drawing the attention of a lot of random stage workers. Alda's outfit merited some attention too, of course, but these girls were all being paid for looking like models (and having some cursory ties to the magic industry, perhaps). The three girls would wait behind that corner while Alda went out first; as it turned out, it was a good thing she did, because Bill Fawkes was just down the hallway. It looked like Mundwoon had her back turned to Alda, while Fawkes was turned the right way to see her. It was hard to tell due to his glasses, but his attention seemed to be all focused on Mundwoon right now. They hadn't really gotten up to anything dirty after all... instead, the two just appeared to be talking, albeit in a flirty way.

The way it was now, he might not be looking for Alda, but he'd definitely notice if all of the girls came around the corner and tried to leave the backstage area, whether it was by him or by the left stage side he'd originally been guarding. It did not look like anyone had actually taken up his post on the left yet. If there was another guard somewhere, he must either be standing just outside the area, or perhaps further down the right where Alda couldn't see. Clair had said they'd run into someone else besides Fawkes, though. For now, Alda would presumably need to approach Fawkes and find a way not only to free up Mundwoon, but also divert the man's attention so that he didn't notice the girls leave. Alda might also be able to think up a bribe, but it'd have to be pretty darn good to convince Fawkes to look away from all the big money he was being paid. One might actually wonder if Vinzez Gupta was going to have his whole show dismantled, with all three of his showgirls taking off...

From around the curtain, a man appeared; thankfully, he had his nose buried in a clipboard and didn't appear to be watching her. He was wearing reading glasses and a sharp, black suit, the kind you could wear without necessarily looking like a magician, but his skin tone and square shoulders made it clear he was the man Alda had seen on posters earlier. He had an imposing stature, with height and muscles... his son had inherited the former, but none of the latter. His hair was black-going-on-gray and his mustache was similar. He rubbed his jaw thoughtfully as he read the lines to himself. "And in this box... no... and in THIS box. Ha... I think not," he murmured, then adjusted his glasses and continued.

At this rate, the girls were all going to be seen by him; they didn't have time to make it behind the dressing room, so they all jumped into the closest room, which appeared to be a VIP shower room... though, at closer inspection, only two had made the jump. The third, Dusana, was still standing there, engrossed in the screen of her PET and paying no attention. Alda now had problems on all three sides: behind her, Dusana was standing visible to Vinzez, and the window for her to hide was nearly closed. In front, Vinzez would soon look up and see both Alda and Dusana standing near the intersection.. there was no way Alda would get away from him, even if Dusana did. Would it be easier to explain why she was wandering around backstage on her own, or would Alda rather have some of the other showgirls with her when she did? Finally, to the right, it looked like Bill had placed his hand on Mundwoon's back and was leading her further off to the right. If Alda didn't get to them soon, it might be harder to track them down later and Bill might get around to some funny business, although it was questionable whether that really mattered in the end.
Okay, so, let's see...there was Fawkes, chatting up Mundwoon. They just HAD to be positioned like that, didn't they? Not ideal, but there had to be some way to get them to switch spots. Hmm. "Hey, Annie? Any ideas on getting those two move?"


"...Annie? Oh. Right." Click. "Welcome back to the world of making sound. Please don't make me regret it."

" I can come up with is to walk up to what's-her-name with the big fake boobs, and tell her to do something without him realizing what you're up to."

"I can't say I really want to do that, but that's what came to my mind, as well. If I must..." But that couldn't be it. No, it could never be that simple. Another man entered the scene, and he looked familiar...urk. That was Vinzez Gupta, wasn't it? So much for any chance of him not knowing, especially now that he saw her. ...Guess she'd have to somehow try to convince him to let his showgirls attend the meeting.

"Ooh, that's the guy on the poster! Very nice! I wouldn't mind if he made ME disappear somewhere..."

"Annie. I'm regretting right now."

"Fine, I'll shut up...actually, wait. Before you talk to him..."


"...If things look bleak, and it looks like he won't let you take the other girls...threaten his Navi with Gresply Nekrom."

"...With what, now?"

"It's a cyber death curse. Obtain an effigy of your victim, manipulate it with dark magic, and say the curse's name as you think of the target. Then sit back as they die a quick but agonizing death."

"You actually know something like that?"

"No, though I've looked into it. It's fairly well-known among Net magic practitioners, but there aren't a whole lot of people that know the exact magic manipulation for it. But, while you had me silent, and for just such an occasion, I prepared this!" Anathema held something up in front of the PET looked like some sort of straw doll. "A genuine voodoo doll! Not from a VoodooDoll chip, mind you. I've infused it with some magic, so that it gives off a dark aura...I may not be able to use the curse for real, but if he knows of Gresply Nekrom, I can bluff pret-ty hard with this!"

"All right. I'll keep it in mind." Alda motioned for Vinzez to come closer, as she herself started walking to him. "Excuse me! Mr. Gupta, I presume? I need to borrow your showgirls for a bit."
Mundwoon and Bill exited stage right as Alda focused her attention on the new obstacle before her. Alda's navi came up with a plan that would allow her to threaten the safety of Vinzez' navi using a little known curse, to be deployed if negotiations broke down. At her side, Dusana raised her eyebrows. "That sounds like something Mallory would use. I wonder if there's anything about it on the board..." she murmured, scrolling over her PET screen again. "Oh, wait. There's my boss..." she remarked blankly, turning her eyes up to the man as he approached... then back down to the PET, like she wasn't worried over the situation. Her confidence was either a good sign that the situation didn't call for worry or an indication that she just didn't know how to focus on anything other than her PET.

Upon hearing his name, Vinzez lowered his reading glasses and looked to the speaker. He raised an eyebrow, seeing Alda's clothes, then stuck his glasses into his jacket pocket. "Yes, I am Vinzez Gupta. You clearly know who I am, but I must confess, I cannot say return the introduction. You are?" he asked, lowering the clipboard down to his side. He'd wait a moment to allow her to respond, then smirked slightly, looking to Dusana at her side. "Borrowing my showgirls? Ordinarily I would have no objections, only know that, for today, they are obligated to participate in my show, which is starting very, very soon. I don't know what this is, but I don't have time for games. Neither do you, Dusana."

"Oh, uuuh... Well, when you met Claire and the rest of us, I told you that she's the leader, didn't I?" she asked, looking up for a moment, then back down. "Claire says that we've gotta go do something with Alda. So I'm going to do it. Claire sees the future and stuff, so if she says to do something, I usually do it. That's worked out real well for me so far," she explained, with painstaking delivery due to her distraction by whatever it is she was occupied with on her PET.

Vinzez tensed his brow, looking somewhat more severe now. "If I were to actually believe that nonsense about seeing the future- and I don't- wouldn't it be highly suspect that she'd first arranged for you all to work for me, then changed her vision to instead say you should leave? Who can believe in such a fickle premonition?" he questioned, briefly looking left and right as though to see if he could spot the leader. Perhaps because he didn't have much time, he didn't have much patience either and wanted to graduate to speaking directly to the ringleader, who he considered to be Claire.

"No, not really. I mean, you've never seen Claire in action before! If she says, like... 'there's a bug in your soup,' you might as well just dump it, cause she's never wrong about it. It's kinda scary. So if she says we'll be better off going with Alda, then we'll be better off. Just wish she'd said you'd be better off too. Kinda sucks for you. Sorry," she finished, looking back to her PET. The corners of her mouth teased a smile for a moment and a snicker nearly came out. It was hard to tell if she was laughing at something on her screen or laughing at telling off her employer.

"Hm. I guess that would make you just as much responsible for this debacle as Claire. Tell me, Alda: why are you taking my showgirls and how long will it take? I could spare them for... ten minutes, tops. Any longer than that and it threatens to interfere with my show. You'll be disappointing a great many people, depriving them of what I have in store. I don't like to brag, but there is an audience of hundreds out there, waiting patiently in their seats for me to perform," he insisted, his stern face brooking no argument in what he thought was an entirely rational rebuttal.

"Huh, yeah... some show. I mean, I love money as much as the next girl, but that's all this is, right? People come to see your special effects and your tricks, but you don't, like, actually know any magic, do you? I mean, at least I know about spirit possession and stuff. Like, I can't possess you, but I can tell if you're possessed. You're not, by the way," she answered plainly, turning her eyes up for a moment as if checking to make sure she didn't see anything riding on his back.

"Thank goodness for that. However... and this is something I've told my son many times... there is no such thing as real magic. Or certainly not ghosts. At least he hasn't taken up that particular interest yet, I think," Vinzez sighed, looking more frustrated now that the subject had turned to this. He'd likely had this debate with his son many times in the past. "'Magic' is simply a quality performance I provide to audiences, who pay me to do that performance with beautiful showgirls such as yourself, Dusana. For that matter..." he murmured, suddenly regarding Alda again. "You could fit the bill nicely. Let's put this mess behind us... how would you like a small role in my stage show as well? If you agree, I could pay you and we could cease this talk of ruining my own for... whatever it is your goal is," he finished, rolling his hand dismissively. It was hard to tell, but he might be smiling behind his mustache; the deep line at one of his cheeks seemed to turn up ever so slightly.

"Uuuuh, that's not what Clair said she wanted. I don't think we should do that, Alda," Dusana pitched in, shaking her head but otherwise keeping her eyes firmly on her PET.
"Ah, but of course." Alda took a moment to ponder how fancy she wanted her greeting to, she was probably on the clock, so she should keep it simple. "Alda Hyde, humble apothecary! Now, about borrowing those showgirls..." Vinzez's response only made it painfully obvious why Clarence had picked today to have his discussion. If this was a year ago, she might've actually cared about that. But now, meh. There was a magic discussion going on, and by golly, it was a magic discussion she was going to have.

Surprisingly, Dusana...huh, she'd totally forgotten already until now what her name was. Anyway, she chimed in, causing some discussion, blah blah blah...hey now, that 'responsible' sounded kinda like he wanted to use 'blame'. Rude. "Hundreds? I guess that explains why you're not using one of the bigger arenas around DenCity."

"Hey, that's kinda mean!"

"It's also true. A good stage act should be able to rack up spectators by the thousands, regardless of what it is. If it's good enough, they will come, or something like that."

"Well...uh, the magician guy probably needs an answer now! Tick tock!"

"Right...well, Mr. Gupta, between that and your rather blatant dismissal of magic, you're a very disappointing magician. If you can even be called that. I mean, she's right, you're kinda taking people's money by tricking them. That's more a con artist in my book. ...I suppose I shouldn't be insulting you like this, though. The truth of the matter is, I somehow doubt we'll be done in 10 minutes."

"Ya know, sometimes honesty isn't the best policy!"

"Time is of the essence, however, so I'll keep this from taking too long. Regardless of your thoughts on magic in the real world, it's hard to deny that it exists in the cyberworld, thanks to the wonders of programming. And I'm sure you have some sort of attachment to your Navi. Would it not be an absolute shame if something happened to it? The screams of agony as they disintergated into junk data before your very eyes, as you realize that you are entirely helpless and unable to aid them when they needed you most?"

"Uh...damn, that was harsh! But yes, I know a particularly horrific curse to set on a Navi. With this effigy..." Anathema appeared as a hologram on Alda's shoulder, proudly displaying her voodoo doll. "I can pick any Navi in the world, mumble a couple of words, manipulate some darkness energy...and pain suddenly courses through their body! They could probably hold out for...maybe 15 minutes? 30, tops, and that's if they're really beefed up...but for that short period of time, know what it's like to get poked by a spike? Imagine that all over your body. From the inside. AND the outside. Actually, I might be understating it. Like, every last pain receptor in your body gets its dial cranked up to 11. But don't worry, as soon as the Navi can't take it anymore, and pleads for their life to end so they won't have to feel the agony anymore, the curse grants them the mercy of death."

"Few Navis know such dark arts, of course, but my Anathema here has done quite a bit of research on Gresply Nekrom, and has finally mastered it. A shame it only works on Navis, though. Imagine if viruses could also be wiped out with it." Well, they were officially all in on bluffing. She just needed to hope that Vinzez and his Navi were close enough that he couldn't risk her invoking the curse.
"Ha ha! You're bold, Miss Apothecary. You know, there was a time where the famous Luxor Theater sold out at just under 400 and an act was considered legendary for doing so. Of course, that's ancient history. I play to thousands regularly, but you're correct that this little arena isn't the place to do it. We are not in NetVegas. You cannot have caviar every night, nor would you want to. I know you personally wouldn't want to treat thousands of patients with your medicine every day, would you? Just a few hundred ought to be acceptable," Clarence's father taunted, eager to fall into the insult game once it was clear she wouldn't be bought. "Ah, well... The difference between myself and a true magician is the same as our acts, only reversed. I am a false magician who is real. The real magician you are looking for is an illusion. And on another note, I believe that the proper word for 'apothecary' these days is actually 'pharmacist'. Only, like 'stage magicians' tend to make a good deal more money than 'wizards' or 'warlocks,' the humble 'pharmacist' tends to make much more than an 'apothecary.' You should keep that in mind. Ha ha... It's like I'm talking to my son."

Dusana rolled her eyes, then returned them to their usual position: downward. "Uh, the navi's got a good point. I get enough of these pissing matches on the boards..." she complained. "Let's move along."

Alda's idea of moving along was an unveiled threat to use voodoo against Vinzez Gupta's navi, which caught the man by surprise, as evidenced by the way he began to stroke his chin contemplatively with one thumb. "Well isn't that something... an... 'apothecary,' with a tool that can remotely target a navi- who they don't know all that much about, based on how you haven't spoken my navi's name yet, and put them into unspeakable agony before deleting them. The Mafia would most likely love to get their hands on a tool like that. And yet they haven't... it remains in the hands of 'real' black magic practitioners alone. If you want to call that 'net magic', why, that sounds like once again you're hiding the details of your 'trick.' Only, this trick is nothing more than a bluff. You can't do anything to my navi and even if you could, my security detail extends to the net as well. I'm not worried about your threat, Miss Apothecary."

He breathed deeply, then held up his clipboard again. "I was actually in the middle of something when we bumped into each other," the stage magician explained, tapping his fingers onto the clipboard twice. "If you'll have Dusana and the others return to their dressing room, we will wrap this up. If you won't, it will be easy enough to get Bill and Fawkes after you. Either way, I have no more time to spare," he finished, putting back on his reading glasses and inspecting the next page of the clipped document.

Dusana leaned over, none to discrete, to whisper to Alda. "I think we'll have to make sacrifices to get outta here... not like blood sacrifices if that's what you're thinking. But uh, Mallory could tie this guy Vinnie pretty easily, long enough for us to outrun him and his security. That pervert mustache guy, Bill, is out of the way, so we can go through that way at least. Claire, you, and me could all get out. That's something, anyway," she offered. If Alda looked to the side, she'd see that even as Dusana was close, whispering to her, she was also still focused on the screen of her PET. "Between you and me... Mallory isn't even really even 'magic' or a master of curses or anything. It's a symptomatic thing... like, she says she's got a curse that makes you violently ill, she threatens to punch you, then you get violently ill. I just let her believe it cause we don't have the heart to tell her and she's a good friend... I sort of assume Claire's doing the same with her... but uh, I don't think we really need her at whatever we're doing..." That might make Alda, in turn, question how much the other two were bringing to the table, although, so far, Claire's future-sight was panning out pretty well.
"Depends on your definition of personally. Me, myself? Not really, that would be exhausting, and in a business where an error can endanger someone's health, no less. But if it was my business as a whole? I'd clearly have expanded from my quaint little shop, and that's only good news in my ears. What entrepreneur doesn't want to see their business take off like that?" If he was trying to insult her, he wasn't doing an especially good job. "Is that how you measure success? In money? How pitiable. A scientist doesn't make discoveries just for the allure of zenny. They do it for the good of all. Oh, and you'd be surprised about the traditional remedy market. Call yourself an apothecary, come up with some herbal substitutions for modern medicine, and those hippies'll practically pay you whatever you want! I mean, paying more for something that, at best, is no better therapeutically than a cheap pill?...I guess I can't complain, it keeps the bills paid, and my personal research funded. Plus it's fun! But they're lucky I actually know a thing or two about pharmacology, or they might get lured in by some snake oil salesman." Really, it wasn't much different from her old job, just a bit more...out there.

Anyway, time to play Anathema's trump card. "Well, it's not so much me, as it is my Navi. She's the expert."

"Are you listening to this guy? He acts like the NetMafia never tried to get their hands on it. You wouldn't believe the hexing rituals that go into this. You can't just learn a thing or two about dark magic and expect to pull it off. Your very heart and soul must be shrouded in the darkness the curse comes do so and come away unscathed is...rare, to say the least. Even though I did come away with the darkness needed, I can't say I was unaffected. ...But you don't get to see what I mean. Boundaries, and all that."

"Yeah, like you've ever had boundaries..."

"He's acting like a jerk! Who wants to bare it all for a jerk? Not me!"

"Fair point, but let's focus..."

"Right. Anyway, I'd tell you how it works, but you wouldn't understand the terminology. But I CAN tell you how it works. Yes, you do need to be within a certain range to ensure it works, but I can say with reasonable certainty that they're in range, and even if not, a little Net surfing, or a little bit of Alda walking around, would do the trick. Anyway, once the curse is activated, fell energy forms within the Navi the effigy represents. This energy attacks their life force directly, going so far as to disable automatic efforts to negate it. Needless to say, being overloaded and harmed from within is...less than pleasant for the sufferer. Eventually, their read-write protection is eroded entirely by the darkness, and...deletion. That's all she wrote. Think of it as an extremely potent Navi poison, if you can't wrap your head about magic existing in Cyberworld."

"Still sound like a trick?"

"And one more thing. Who said you needed a name? Because of the direct manipulation of life energy, you need only track Navi data signatures. Since it's designed for a specific, single target, any failed attempt will just bounce off harmlessly and return to the effigy it originated from." Everything Anathema had said about Gresply Nekrom was true. But she had left out one important detail: in order to work, the effigy had be placed in a specific location in Netopia Area, and that exact spot had been lost for years. She could certainly TRY it, but without the focusing power of that location, it'd dissipate the instant it located its target. "Well, Alda? Shall I?

"I'll give you one last chance before giving my Navi the approval to destroy yours, o Magic Man. I won't give you a third." If only because she'd probably be found out for sure before she got the chance.