Hidden 10 mos ago Post by Plank Sinatra
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I R I S


"Y'know, when you put it that way..."

Yeah, the hell with being the first one to dip into that thing.
It was nothing that couldn't be dealt with in a few short, sweet, minutes spent blissfully procrastinating by dealing with the litany of problems happening on the ground below her. It was moving slowly enough that it could be dealt with after the Nox - along with that figure atop the roof Iris had rescued the girl from. Was it conjuring it somehow? Maybe responsible for the Nox that had infested Ruskali...?

Well, now you just sound like a conspiracy theorist yourself, babe.

"Hey gang, I'm breaking off from pursuit of the hellcloud. Don't sweat. Whatever happens, we'll face it together, yeah?"


Iris broke off from her trajectory towards the Apocalyptic Swarm of Nope, No Thanks, and began expertly weaving her glider through the breezeways, past layer and layer of flower beds in hues of sunrise and sunset, lemon and peach...slowly darkening as she approached her fellow trainees from up above. It seemed like Listener and Steel Rose were having trouble doing what they had to do. Behind her mask, the big girl bit down on her lip in frustration. It didn't seem fair to the old guy, even with all the fun they'd been making at his expense, but...wasn't this the job?

If I have to take it off their shoulders, can I? The thought of taking a life, no matter its prospective quality, churned her stomach more than any joyride she'd ever taken, but if it came down to protecting her new teammates...

"Cover your eyes everyone!"

Iris reflexively lifted up one hand over her eyes, feeling the cool texture of her mask against her skin. She almost felt, rather than saw, the resulting muzzle flash from Steel Rose's weapon going off, but from her height above the rest of the team she wasn't as affected by the blinding light of her teammate's energy blast; hence, the shock wasn't as immediate or extreme, and she felt the cerulean and black circles in her eyes that came from being exposed to brightness fading faster, too. If she had to she could glide down from the skies and finish the damn thing herself.
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Hidden 10 mos ago Post by Grey Omen
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Cedar.


Cedar followed quickly behind Rose, clenching his hand repeatedly. It was still a little numb - not enough to significantly bother him, but he'd rather it be as normal as possible if he had dirty work ahead of him. Multiple people passed him on his way, looking a just a little panicked. People who'd seen the business with Ruskali, he assumed. He couldn't imagine it was pretty.

Arriving on scene, his thoughts were immediately confirmed. He'd really only given Ruskali passing glances before, but Cedar was rather certain he hadn't been so grey-skinned, and he definitely didn't recall any previous Nox-vomitting shenanigans.

Hearing Rose, he threw his arm up to cover both eyes, shutting them and turning away from the shot as well for good measure. He remembered how bright the shot had been when he fired the gun, so he was prepared. With his other hand, he unclipped the halberd from his back. He positioned himself closer to Ruskali, taking a spot between the Nox-infested man and the other Ze's. Dimly he was aware of Iris above them, but the issue that caught his attention more was Listener's clear reluctance to risk harming Ruskali. He didn't blame her, but he still moved closer, taking a combative stance as his vision readjusted slightly from the shot. If Ruskali was still aggressive after that, Cedar wouldn't hesitate. It was better to err on the side of caution that to hope Ruskali could be retrieved from the Nox, if it came down to that.
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Hidden 10 mos ago 10 mos ago Post by Mokley
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"Y'know Fluke, less talking and more doing would be nice!"

"I'm doing!" Fluke protested. "I'm watching your back! You're welcome."

"Uh... guys... Ruski has become a, uh, host for a Nox."

"Whoa, is that what the mass panic's about?" Fluke hopped down from the weapons chest and began to meander through the running, screaming, shouting crowd, like a raging sea of billowing bright robes and fear-stricken faces. The sound of stampeding feet echoed in the square. "I gotta see this!"

Behind him, Archer straightened her posture. She watched the fleeing people with a glassy shine in her helmet's eyes, like a deer that had spied a wolf, but she did not interfere. Not yet.

Cedar moved closer to the body, motioning to shoo the armadillo away from it.

The armadillo jumped backward, wiggled angrily at Cedar's hand, then scuttled haughtily away through a cracked hole in the wall.

What was left beneath Cedar's feet was a slightly misshapen form beneath the soil: a young man with a black ring on his finger, wearing the orange wrapped robes of the reservoir healers. His brown skin was cold.

She aimed for his mouth as she tearfully struck forth hoping she could end the Nox without ending Ruskali with it.

Ruskali reached for Listener like a man dying of thirst in the desert, while black ooze bubbled out of his throat and began to gnash bright teeth of its own. A wide perimeter had grown around them, littered with paper and food wrappers, while along the walls the people fled stumbling, their eyes averted from the horrific sight of a Nox being born--

Listener's shaking reluctance gave the Nox time to shift nearly out of the way, jammed against the roof of Ruskali's mouth like oily black taffy-- but the spear struck a quick long gash into the Nox and triggered a bright white flash like lightning inside Ruskali's throat: it shone in his eyes and glowed haunting beneath his skin for only an instant while the Nox screeched like a tortured cat.

The ragged, tattered, injured Nox fled like torn paper out of Ruskali's mouth, desperate to get away from the fading light of Listener's spear, and it swirled over Ruskali's head in blind confusion--

"Cover your eyes everyone!" she yelled at the top of her lungs, before bracing for recoil and firing.

The projectile thudded into the soil and burst with a bright explosion of light that blinded the entire square. A few straggling passersby shrieked and ducked their heads under their arms while the Nox howled a long, low death cry into the white-blinding light.

Iris reflexively lifted up one hand over her eyes, feeling the cool texture of her mask against her skin. She almost felt, rather than saw, the resulting muzzle flash from Steel Rose's weapon going off, but from her height above the rest of the team she wasn't as affected by the blinding light of her teammate's energy blast;

When the light cleared, all that was left of the Nox was a shimmer of dark smoke that dissipated into the air. Listener had nearly killed it, and Rose's flash had struck the destroying blow.

Iris, from her vantage point, might see a shock of orange cloth in the alley, where Cedar and Rose had left the young man's body: the same color of the hooded figure from the roof.

Dimly he was aware of Iris above them, but the issue that caught his attention more was Listener's clear reluctance to risk harming Ruskali. He didn't blame her, but he still moved closer, taking a combative stance as his vision readjusted slightly from the shot.

Ruskali was not dead.

His eyes clouded haunting gray. Black and red mucus dribbled from the corner of his mouth and snagged in his scraggled beard. Tears leaked from his hollow eyes, and he sobbed quietly...

...then suddenly bared his teeth, his eyes widened in terror and fury as he saw Cedar's mask. Ruskali screeched a horrible manic noise and flung himself at Cedar, his thin hands striking at Cedar's throat with deadly intent to crush his windpipe in his grip.
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Hidden 10 mos ago Post by LuckyBlackCat
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Rose's eyes were squeezed shut, partly from the light, partly from the flare of pain in her shoulder. When she opened them - or rather, the one she could open - she saw only a wisp of smoke where the Nox had been. She let out a breath she didn't know she'd been holding. "Well, that didn't even have to hit to be a lucky shot," she said, with a shaking laugh of relief. "Crisis averted, everyone."

Except it wasn't, not for everyone. Cringing at how inaccurate her words had been, Rose sheathed her weapon and slowly approached Ruskali. The attacks hadn't hurt him, but the Nox had, as the bloodied gunk oozing from his mouth made all too clear. "Ruski?" she whispered as he began to sob. "Ruski, hang in there, we'll get help..."

She jumped as, with a wail of terror and anguish, Ruskali lunged at Cedar. "No! Don't!" Ignoring her bashed up state, she rushed forward and wrapped her arms around Ruskali's shoulders to pull him away. Her stomach felt like she'd swallowed a shard of ice, and not just because of her risky move. This was the kind of outburst she'd seen in some other survivors. Violent reactions weren't as common as people who hated and feared former hosts seemed to believe, but when they did happen, it was paranoia that set them on.

Loosening her grip slightly to as not to worsen Ruskali's physical state, Rose thought back to the healers, to their calm, detached attitude. What would they do in a situation like this? Recalling something one had mentioned, she hummed a song she sometimes heard street musicians play. Holding a distressed person while humming could supposedly calm them with the vibrations. She tried to keep the tune gentle and even, but her breath juddered in her chest. Compartmentalising was all but impossible right now.
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Hidden 10 mos ago Post by Grey Omen
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Cedar.


As the light faded, the Nox's death scream fading from his ears, Cedar sighed. Finally, it seemed to be over. He let his arms drop -

Ruskali lunged like an rabid animal. Cedar almost instinctively raised his weapon up - not point first, but both hands apart on the shaft of the halberd, holding it horizontally in front of him. It seemed almost defensive, as if hoping to stop the attack, but Cedar took a step forward, and suddenly the halberd's shaft seemed less like a defensive barrier and more of a potentially nose-breaking bar of solid metal -

And then Rose grabbed Ruskali. Cedar inwardly cursed. Of course - De-escalation. He's just panicked or something. What was I gonna do, break some bones on this poor man? Cedar holstered his weapon on his back, then held his hands in front of him, palms up. He took a step back, assuming his best 'I won't hurt you' stance. He tried to think of something calming to say, then promptly decided against it, settling on silence instead.
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Hidden 10 mos ago Post by drewccapp
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"Might want to invest in some shades for yer mask, though: the fireworks from one of these things could make ya go blind." Archer's words of warning echoed though Listener's mind as the Nox flashed brightly when she struck it. Blind was right. All she could see now was black spots with an oily sheen blocking her vision. She blinked wildly as she heard struggling and panic. She looked around quickly hoping she could regain her sight.

"Wh-wha.." She reached out blindly toward Rose's voice. "I can't see. Archer warned me... I can't see."

She had never been blinded before. Would this be permanent? What if it was?

Listener took a deep breath and closed her eyes. The spots were still there. Another deep breath. She could hear Ruskali's screeching. Calm down and breath. She tapped the ground with her spear, and she realized she could feel the ground in a manner of speaking. Would this be enough? Now that she thought of it as scary as this experience was it was also exciting and... fun? She put a grin on her face and reopened her eyes. She could see colors and vague shapes now, but everything was a blur.

"Oh dear," She giggled. "I messed up. I'm not going to be much use for anyone in this state." She had heard about blind people that were able to see as well as a normal person or even better, however, she had not spent the time required to figure that out. Hopefully she wouldn't need to.
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Hidden 10 mos ago Post by Plank Sinatra
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I R I S


Wait, huh?

Eyes still filled with blinking, strobing light while smoke still chafed in her lungs, Iris found herself still a little dazed as her teammates below tried to help Ruskali get it together as non-violently as they could. Still, underneath the hail of blue and purple that assailed her vision, she was more than capable of making out a distinct orange - the same color she had noticed staring her down from the top of the tower, while the dark cloud began its approach.

Is he...a healer?

She hadn't made the connection before, in the chaos of the fire, but now it seemed obvious that the poor guy's body was clothed in the same raiment as the man who had been watching things unfold behind them. She found it hard to believe that the same eye-searing color was a coincidence, so she finally made her descent. The tall girl brought herself down on a landing pad and began rappelling down into the alleyway via vines; as good as she was, it seemed too dicey for a girl as tall and muscular as her, aboard a glider, to make a descent directly with everyone else. While they dealt with Ruskali behind her, Iris knelt and inspect the corpse.

Whoa. What's with the ring?
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Hidden 9 mos ago 9 mos ago Post by Mokley
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Recalling something one had mentioned, she hummed a song she sometimes heard street musicians play. Holding a distressed person while humming could supposedly calm them with the vibrations. She tried to keep the tune gentle and even, but her breath juddered in her chest. Compartmentalising was all but impossible right now.
Cedar holstered his weapon on his back, then held his hands in front of him, palms up. He took a step back, assuming his best 'I won't hurt you' stance. He tried to think of something calming to say, then promptly decided against it, settling on silence instead.
She put a grin on her face and reopened her eyes. She could see colors and vague shapes now, but everything was a blur. "Oh dear," She giggled. "I messed up. I'm not going to be much use for anyone in this state."
The tall girl brought herself down on a landing pad and began rappelling down into the alleyway via vines; as good as she was, it seemed too dicey for a girl as tall and muscular as her, aboard a glider, to make a descent directly with everyone else. While they dealt with Ruskali behind her, Iris knelt and inspect the corpse. Whoa. What's with the ring?


Ruskali shivered in Rose's hold like a leaf in a hurricane, his stained teeth bared, his filmed gray eyes wide and wild and sightless. But as Rose began to hum a gentle tune, Ruskali slowly stopped struggling and began instead to gurgle a wordless sound in his throat.

There was nothing left of him but a heartbeat, a trickle of breath, and a streak of cold tears down his sallow, dirty face.

"Nobody really liked him anyway," Fluke commented. He'd walked up behind Rose, the little drone perched on top of his mask, and he lilted his head as if Ruskali were a funny street performer.

His gaze shifted toward Listener, who seemed to be wobbling around a bit more manically than usual. The shorter Ze ambled up to her and waved his hands in front of her mask. "Hey guys, I think Listener can't see. You really rolled a one on that hit, huh?" he laughed.

Ruskali's knees buckled, and his weight drooped toward the ground as if he no longer had the strength to hold himself upright.

An echoing voice hummed a faint tune in the empty square. While the vines and flowers shivered, and an armadillo scuttled across the cobblestones, they could hear someone else singing the same tune that Rose used to calm Ruskali. It was faintly coming from the broken windows of a high building that was veined with vines and violet flowers.

Rose might recognize the voice as that of an old friend.

Cedar, however, would hear a very different voice. One that no one else could hear, that whispered inside his own skull:

'tnelis peek. gnihton od. yaw eht uoy wohs lliw i.'

Meanwhile, in the alley, Iris might discover that the healer's corpse was pale, hollow and gray-eyed, thin and emaciated like the hosts of the Nox. The black ring seemed nothing unusual, except the skin around it had turned a deep bruised purple, and etched into the smooth dark surface was a circle with a dot in the center. It was a symbol of grounding, of energy and purpose. It meant a higher calling.

It was the symbol of Amalgam.
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Hidden 9 mos ago Post by LuckyBlackCat
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Supporting the ragdoll-like form of Ruskali, Rose gave Fluke a glare as sharp as her blade. "It doesn't matter!" she snapped. "I doubt anyone much likes you either, yet you wouldn't want to be in his place! So quit watching with popcorn and go get help, which two of us here need!" The outburst had been a little harsher than she'd intended, but that guy was seriously getting on her last nerve. She took a deep breath, head swimming with the stench of incense, Ruskali's unwashed clothes, the alleyway sludge all over her, and blood. Not that it calmed her any, but she had to try to keep her wits about her. She turned to the other person she'd referred to, Listener.

Of course, Fluke just had to go and taunt Listener as she felt her way about with her spear. "Is everything some big joke to you?" Rose yelled, approaching while still holding Ruskali upright. "Hey Listener, you ok now? How many fingers am I holding up?" Keeping one arm around Ruskali's torso, she raised three fingers of her other hand. Was this serious? Had it been partly her fault for firing the energy beam right after the hit? She glanced wildly from her blinded comrade to the slumped form in her grip. "Archer, I know you wanted to test us all, but please you've gotta do something!"

The emaciated frame, the shallow breathing, the stillness, all brought back memories of someone else.

Someone whose voice she hadn't expected to hear again, especially not right now.

She gasped, staring up at the broken window of an old abandoned house. From it, she could faintly hear the tune she'd been singing just now. Craning her neck, she listened over the breeze. Either she was imagining it, or he was here... But how could he be? She hadn't heard him speak since the incident, let alone sing. The image of the man in the alleyway, in distinctive orange healer robes, resurfaced in her mind. Did this have something to do with it? In any case, what in the name of the gods was even going on?

"What? No way..." Steel Rose didn't know whether it was hope or fear that welled through her as she stepped closer. In all likelihood, it was both.

"Jay?"
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Hidden 9 mos ago Post by drewccapp
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"Hey guys, I think Listener can't see. You really rolled a one on that hit, huh?" he laughed.


Listener giggled again as she found a wall of a nearby building with her spear and leaned her back against it. For some reason she felt a little bit of vertigo now that she could not see. "Yeah, I rolled a one. Metaphysical dice rolls and all that. I can't say I wasn't warned."

"It doesn't matter!" she snapped. "I doubt anyone much likes you either, yet you wouldn't want to be in his place! So quit watching with popcorn and go get help, which two of us here need!"


"Don't say that, Rose," Listener said with a calm tone. "I like Fluke. Hey, uh, Fluke, if you do help out... I'll do your laundry or something."

"Is everything some big joke to you?" Rose yelled, approaching while still holding Ruskali upright. "Hey Listener, you ok now? How many fingers am I holding up?"


Listener blinked as she saw the blur of motion, but she could not see anything clearly. She shrugged and shook her head. "All I see is a blur of colors. I can kind of see movement, so I could, like, follow you guys. I think? This... this is a new experience. Like it really gets the blood rushing, right? I'm scared, but..." She stopped as Rose started to move away towards singing.

Deciding it was better to stay nearby a comrade, so she would not lose track of anyone Listener followed carefully using her spear to find any tripping hazards. She heard Rose's surprise and confusion, and Listener's curiosity welled up. She decided to pay attention to listen for more closing her eyes to keep the colorful blurs from distracting her.
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Hidden 9 mos ago Post by Grey Omen
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Cedar.


Cedar watched in a sort of detached way as Ruskali went limp. He knew what this was; Ruskali might as well be dead, the way he was now. Well, at least Cedar hadn't broken his nose, too. That would've just been salt on the wound. At least I wouldn't have to deal with his rambling anymore, he thought, then mentally chastised himself for being so callous.

Despite his own callous thoughts, he bristled at Fluke's carefree statements. At least Cedar had the decency to just think it, instead of say it. "A little bit more courtesy would be appreciated, Fluke," he said, his voice clipped and stern. He didn't have it in him to be angry right now; his adrenaline was leaving him quick, and his hand still felt a little weird from the Nox. It was best to focus on -

'tnelis peek. gnihton od. yaw eht uoy wohs lliw i.'

Cedar almost visibly startled. It sounded like a voice, not from around him, but from inside his head. It didn't completely make sense, but he understood it. He opened his mouth to say something - 'Hey, I'm hearing voices,' maybe, or the slightly less worrying 'did any of you hear that just now?' - but something made him close his mouth just as fast. Best not to say anything yet, something in him suggested. Too much of everything else to add more to the plate right now. Do nothing. Keep silent.

Instead - as if he hadn't heard a mysterious voice inside his head, right after killing a Nox and watching a possessed man, as if everything was simply going fine and presented no risk - he moved on to a completely different subject. "Anyone seen Iris?" Then, without waiting for an answer, he said through his comm, "Yo, Iris - you still with us? We've, uh, got thing under control here." At least there wasn't anyone actively attempting to kill anyone else, at least.
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Hidden 9 mos ago Post by Mokley
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"It doesn't matter!" she snapped. "I doubt anyone much likes you either, yet you wouldn't want to be in his place! So quit watching with popcorn and go get help, which two of us here need! Is everything some big joke to you?"
"Don't say that, Rose. I like Fluke. Hey, uh, Fluke, if you do help out... I'll do your laundry or something."
"A little bit more courtesy would be appreciated, Fluke."


"Hey it's not my fault it's funny," Fluke protested, shifting from one foot to the other. "Look, he's drooling!"

But no one else was laughing. In fact, Rose and Listener and Cedar seemed the very opposite of laughing. All of them were hurt, some more than most, Ruskali most of all. The old man seemed to have aged a decade in three minutes, his skin sagging and eyes glazed, brittle fingernails scratching into his frail palms. Rose especially seemed upset by this.

While they all turned their backs on him, Fluke fidgeted with a metal piece on his mask and squeaked it back and forth while he scuffed his boots in the dirt.

Finally Fluke knocked on Cedar's shoulder and shoved the drone controller into his hands. Between the thumb controls was a little screen with a live video feed of the drone's camera. It was currently hovering over the half-buried corpse in the alley.

Fluke jammed his hands in the pockets of his shorts and strode away toward an empty flower shop, where he'd spotted a landline telephone.

"Archer, I know you wanted to test us all, but please you've gotta do something!"

Archer approached with a grave gait, the horns of her mask glinting blue and green. She slung Ruskali's arm behind her neck and cradled his weight away from Rose, then carefully laid him down on his back in the sandy street. While she held Ruskali's face between her hands, the old man whimpered and fidgeted and breathed loudly through his nose.

"Ruskali," she said, calm and firm, like an anchor for a ship in the storm. "What is coming? What did the voices say to you?"

In Cedar's head, a voice laughed like a pit of snakes.

When Ruskali's only answer was a gurgling sob, Archer sighed and laid a comforting hand on his forehead. She moved instead after Listener.

"Now, you'll only be a liability scuttling about like that," she warned, taking Listener's shoulders in her hands. Once Listener was standing still, Archer pressed her palms against Listener's neck to gauge her heartbeat.
"It's one thing if you know what you're doing, but you've obviously never been blind before. If ya don't want to go home, I've got something that might help temporarily."

Confident that Listener's blood pressure was mostly normal, Archer reached into a pocket and popped the cap of a little pill bottle. She pressed a gumdrop-sized candy into Listener's hand. "Lose one sense, rely on the others, yeah? Sound, taste, touch, smell. Just be careful of the kick, it's like seven cups of coffee, but you can handle it right?" There was a small grin in her words as she gave Listener an encouraging pat on the shoulder.

Archer looked up and took a step behind Rose. "Steel Rose," she said solemnly, her mask's scanners drifting between Rose and the jagged window above, where the singing continued. "What is it, what's wrong? Is someone in trouble?"

Fluke stepped out of the flower shop and stood alone with his hands in his pockets again, watching the clouds.

A whirring noise in the sky drowned out Jay's song, and a pair of hoverbikes appeared over the low rooftops. The two healers were bright in their orange robes, medical kits slung over their shoulders, a stretcher balanced between them.

They landed in a soft swirl of wind and sand, and with practiced efficiency they tossed supplies between them and scurried to Ruskali's side.

"etsaw a!" laughed the voice in Cedar's head.

The singing had stopped.
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Hidden 9 mos ago Post by Plank Sinatra
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I R I S


Behind Iris' exquisite, angular mask, the big girl's face was its own mask of slack confusion. She stared numbly at the ring; inside her head, normalcy bias warred with her own intuition. She knew the symbol well, like most in Rig. The symbol was innocuous enough, even aesthetic in a plain way. A simple circle, with a small, strong dot to fill the void inside. In some ways it could be a metaphor for religion, or love, or even vice; its true meaning was an amalgamation of all three.

Amalgam.

Amalgam.

Her eyes clocked the horrific indigo tinge around the finger, where blood had been choked from the digit. Quickly, she slipped the ring off - although she was careful to drop it in her pocket instead of coming anywhere close to slipping it on. It felt like a weight in the pocket of her jacket, and her whole arm tingled with nerves as her mind came to grips with reality.

A thought struck her.

Chewing on her lip behind her mask, all trace of her cheer gone, Iris flipped the corpse's arms over, feeling the stiff cold flesh almost crack under her strength, to look for tattoos. She prayed all she would see was the curdled-milk color of the inside of a corpse's arms.
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Hidden 8 mos ago Post by drewccapp
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Seven cups of coffee. Listener never had coffee in her life. Her parents never let her near the stuff, and honestly, she never felt the need for a pick-me-up. She hesitated as she closed her hand around the pill that Archer gave her. "This won't be addictive, right?"

She lifted her mask just enough to slide the pill into her mouth before receiving any confirmation. Ultimately, she was not too concerned. She was confident this vision loss would be temporary. Especially considering how she had gone from seeing nothing to seeing blurred colors. She rolled it around in her mouth for a moment to build up saliva before quickly swallowing it. She never liked taking pills of any kind even when she needed them, but she never complained about them either. Even if they gave her chills when she swallowed them.

While she waited for the pill's effects to take place, Listener stood still for what felt like eternity. She hated every second of it.
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Hidden 8 mos ago Post by Grey Omen
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Cedar.


Cedar accepted the drone controller from Fluke wordlessly. Had they actually upset Fluke somehow, or did Fluke merely tire of talking? Cedar didn't particularly feel like asking at the time, so he just checked the camera feed. The sight of the corpse didn't even really shock him. Today was weird enough already, so what trouble was a corpse thrown on top of today's heap? After fiddling with the controls for a bit, Cedar deduced which alley the body was in specifically (the one Cedar had fought the Nox in - so the same body the armadillo had been poking at. At least it wasn't some extra corpse on top of everything else) and also that Iris seemed to be investigating it already.

Before he moved to return to the alley, he looked back to Ruskali. Was Cedar really saddened at the man's newfound emptiness? Well, a little, but mostly he was frustrated - Ruskali represented a loss. Somewhere along the mission lines Cedar had missed a step or made a bad choice. Maybe if he hadn't panicked fighting the Nox. Maybe if he'd been faster reaching Ruskali. However he failed, he knew that he could have been more efficient. He turned away from the body as the healers moved in.

On the way to the alley, Cedar's mind wandered to the second, arguably larger, topic in his thoughts - the voice in his head. He'd heard it more - laughing, talking, whatever it was doing. Cedar didn't know what it wanted or what it was, but the best approach to the situation was staying calm. Maybe it can read my thoughts as well? Uh.... hello, Voice. Who are you? What do you want? Cedar immediately felt embarrassed, even if no one (except possibly the voice) could hear him thinking so absurdly.

He turned the corner to see Iris inspecting the corpse up close. Iris hadn't responded to the earlier message through the comms, but nothing dangerous was going on here, anyway.

"Iris. Find anything valuable?" Cedar said hesitantly. Was he interrupting the inspection? Ah, whatever.
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Hidden 8 mos ago Post by Plank Sinatra
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I R I S


"Huh?"

Iris, broken out of her anxious reverie, turned over her shoulder with a jump at the mention of her name. Beneath her mask, a wan, relieved grin came to her face as she saw Cedar behind her. Even in her current kneeling position, they were almost of a height; she had no iea if that was intimidating for Cedar or not, but it made her feel happy to know that someone wasn't looming over her no matter what stage of 'parked on my ass' she was currently occupying. That comfort and relief was coming in really handy at a time like this.

"Yyyeah, actually. Kinda." She pulled one hand from her pocket and raised a closed fist up in greeting - then opened it, spinning the ring she'd discovered on the corpse in a circle on her palm. She stopped its motion long enough for Cedar to be able to give it a thorough twice-over before pocketing it again. The last thing Iris wanted was either of them to wind up with this freaky piece of crap on their finger and wind up like this poor screwball. "And then there's this."

She scooted to the right, boots making soft, wet scraping noises against the muck and soil of the alleyway. Her moving her tall, muscular frame gave Cedar a good look at what she had been examining when he arrived. The corpse's forearm was milky and wizened looking, its flabby, dead flesh growing even paler than it had when Iris reached him. It made the light scarring of a tattoo - and its shape - all the more obvious. Iris giggled to herself, a little nervously.

"Maybeee he had a bad breakup," she suggested, her voice playful despite everything. "People get tats removed after those all the time."

...yyyyeah, those breakups...wiiith the theocratic death cults. They really getcha every time.

She kept staring at the healer's forearm, and the remaining imprint of a tree.
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Rose would have yelled at Fluke again for his insensitive comment, but right now, the voice occupied her focus. Was this a trick? Or some kind of dark magic? Her insides squirmed as she thought back to the healer's corpse, the ring she'd glimpsed on his finger. She hadn't gotten a good look at it, but if it was what she thought it was...

"Jay! Please tell me that's you!" she called, watching for a face at the window.

She didn't notice Archer's approach until Ruskali's weight eased from her arm. Cringing as the Ze leader laid him down, Rose hoped she hadn't made his injuries worse by helping him stay upright. Part of her - a significant part - wanted to believe that in even the furthest gone of former hosts, a spark of who they were remained, a spark that could grow. Ruskali's incoherent whimpers, however, were a world apart from his usual zeal.

There wasn't much even Archer could do, besides comfort him. Rose watched her leave Ruskali's side and set about treating Listener, who didn't seem too worried - well, except about possible addiction. If this was what it meant to be Ze, Rose thought, they'd need Listener's peppy attitude to lift them up. It beat Fluke's any day.

She stared back up at the window. "Jay, it's me!" She gave a hoarse laugh. "As you can tell, I went through with it." If only she'd done so sooner, she berated herself, thinking back to the joke she'd started making several years ago.

...

Through the bustling marketplace, Laverna squinted at two figures heading down a distant street. Masks - one shaped like the head of a wolf, the other like elaborate butterfly wings - obscured their features. "They some kind of carnival act?" Vern asked, pointing them out.

"Nah," Jay chuckled, looking up from his coconut square. "They'll be the Ze. The Zephyr Extinct. The guys who go round hunting down horrors." At her look of shock, he added, "Oh, no need to worry. There haven't been many of those around lately, thanks to the Ze. Those two are probably just on patrol."

So much still to learn about the outside world... Reminders like this frustrated and fascinated Vern in equal measures. She kept her eyes fixed on the two. "What's with the masks? Besides looking awesome."

Jay shrugged. "Who knows? Nobody really knows much about them, except they have this tendency to start over. Leave home, take on a new face, a new name, the whole deal. A little extreme, but they've got to have their reasons."

A grin spread over Vern's face. "You know," she joked, "some day I might just run away and join them."


...

She'd even considered it seriously at times, but it had seemed beyond her capabilities. If that really was Jay in the building, Rose wondered, would he forgive her, or blame her?

As Archer addressed her, she turned. "A friend's in there, it's him, it has to be him!" she explained. "Even though he's..." Her glance at Ruskali told Archer the rest. Just then, two hoverbikes zoomed into view, their whirring growing louder as they neared, until it drowned out the song. Two medics landed in a flurry of sand and tended to Ruskali right away, but Rose's relief was short lived.

The singing had given way to silence.

"Jay?" No response. "Please, answer me, make a joke, even yell at me because I wasn't there, just please say something!" Stepping forward, she clenched her fists. This was probably a dumb move, especially in her current state. Still, if something sinister was going on, she had a duty to investigate. Both as a Ze, and as a friend.

She wouldn't hesitate again. Flinging open the weathered old door, Steel Rose rushed into the building.
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Cedar.


Cedar instinctively made a small gesture at the sight of the ring - a clenched fist held for a half-second in front of his throat, then with his index and middle finger extended. Cedar did not consider himself superstitious, but he had lived most his life with people who were, and certain habits had rubbed off.

"Yeah, clingy exes can be a real danger," he joked, though his voice had a bit of a hollow ring to it. His mask concealed any expression, but underneath his brow was furrowed. This on top of everything else today - Rest in peace, Ruskali, ran through his head quickly - was either a very unlucky coincidence or somehow related. Either way, it fell under their jurisdiction to do something about it. This isn't quite how I imagined my first day would be, he thought.

"I guess we should call this in to Archer. It's been.... very hectic so far, and maybe she can make some sense of this." Cedar didn't mention that he also wanted to call Archer because the adrenaline rush going away had left Cedar practically shaking with some sort of exhaustion. He turned to Iris. Had she always been that tall? Their meeting earlier already felt like a distant memory. "Unless you feel up to moving it yourself. Personally, I'd rather not touch it."
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The Alley

Silence weighed heavy in the narrow space, as if death clung to the air and devoured all sound and light. While Cedar and Iris discussed what to do about the corpse in the dust, the drone whirred idly overhead. The controller's screen offered a stagnant view of the other end of the alley, all empty dirt to the weedy edge of the sidewalk. Another armadillo hurried waddling into frame, then scrabbled at the edge of the wall before squeezing inside a crack in the foundation. It was the second such animal to hurry inside the same building, where a dim voice had just stopped singing.

uoy era how? tnaw uoy od tahw? echoed the voice in Cedar's head, and he could hear the mocking grin in its hissing words.

Cedar's hand involuntarily twitched. It was almost imperceptible, perhaps a temporary tremble of nerves, but his fingers had moved toward Iris' pocket. An inexplicable desire burned in the back of his throat: a tingling curiosity to see the ring again.

That desire was foreign, and didn't belong to him at all.

An echo of Archer's voice shouted from the square, but Cedar and Iris wouldn't make out the words, only a tone of fierce warning.

The Square

"Rose, don't go anywhere alone!" Archer snapped, but the faded door had already creaked shut behind Steel Rose. "Fer cripes' sake, am I the babysitter now? Listener! Stay here with Fluke and wait for Iris and Cedar. I'll bring Rose back in a minute, and we'll plan our next move, right?"

But Archer's voice rumbled like thunder in Listener's eardrums, her words almost unintelligible to Listener's heightened sensitivity to sound. By the time the painful noise faded and Listener could hear properly again, Archer had rushed inside the building in pursuit of Steel Rose.

To Listener, new sounds emerged out of the distance. She could hear Fluke breathing with his mouth open beneath his mask-- and then she could hear the slow thrum of his heart. She could hear the rustle of fabric and the quiet grunts of the healers as they moved Ruskali to a stretcher. She could hear Cedar and Iris, their movements and distant voices in the alley, as clearly as if they were next to her.

And she could hear a hissing chorus of snakelike voices, whispering almost imperceptible even to her sharp senses, murmuring together inside the building where Rose and Archer had gone:

gnimoc era sretsis ruo. thginot tseaf lliw ew. stiaw maglama. stiaw maglama.

"Stiaw maglama..." Ruskali whispered as the healers suspended his stretcher between their hoverbikes and revved their engines. The roaring noise drowned out all other sound in Listener's ears.

She could smell smoke, and the distant pungent stench of burned flesh, billowing on the roof of the highrise.

The Highrise

Inside the abandoned building, the air shifted and glimmered with curtains of dust. The wooden floor was twisted and cracked, scattered with trash and a film of greasy dirt, and the plaster walls were coming apart, darkened by swaths of mold and mildew beneath fresh graffiti painted on the wall that led to the stairwell: a perfect blue circle with a dot at its center.

Jay laughed hollowly in a hallway above.

Rose would not see nor hear anyone follow her. To her, the front door remained shut, and she remained alone in the building: alone with her thoughts, the thrash of her heart, the voice in the dust.

Upstairs she was faced with a long passage of doors: some of them hung brokenly open, inviting into sun-bleak rooms full of rotted furniture, twisted pipes and sagging walls; a few others were shut tight, and would open into rooms that were darker and stained cold, as if the windows looked out on a different time.

But in the hallway, a voice murmured softly behind an uneven section of wall where a door should be.

"I'm not sure where I am....Vern?....Where are you?"
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Rose half expected Archer to run in and stop her, but thankfully, she remained alone in the ramshackle room. Her footsteps echoed against the cracked floorboards as she approached the stairwell, wrinkling her nose from the stink of mold. She faltered as, through the dust motes, she saw a graffiti symbol that looked oddly fresh amidst the decay. A symbol everyone knew as that of Amalgam.

Despite the heat of sunlight through windows, an empty laugh from upstairs chilled Rose to the bone. It sounded nothing like the joyous chuckle she knew. It wasn't him, her instincts warned her, it had to be a trick... But even if it was, it was a Ravel related one, and she had to get to the bottom of it.

With a stiff shoulder, an eye she could barely open, a weapon requiring training she didn't have, and no allies around. Yeah. Those odds weren't exactly looking great.

Nonetheless, she drew Thorn and headed up the stairs, heart creeping higher into her throat with each step. A hallway stretched out before her, lined with doors, some closed, others hanging off of their hinges. "Jay?" she called, inching down the hall, peering into room after room. "Where are you, and what's going on?" If he was here, involved in any way, she wasn't going to let him down again. The open doors, however, revealed nothing but dust and disintegrating furniture. Rose tried one of the closed doors, but it wouldn't budge.

She gasped, head whipping around, as a voice broke the silence. A voice from behind a wall, a gap between two doors.

"I'm not sure where I am....Vern?....Where are you?"

A shaky laugh spilled from her as she sprinted over. It was him. He'd called her Vern, not that stuffy full name Laverna. "Oh, Jay, what happened? How did you get here? How did you..." Her voice cracked. "Fuck, I'm sorry, I'm sorry I wasn't there." She looked into one of the rooms flanking the patch of wall, breath catching - she still couldn't know what to expect - only to see nobody in there. A glance into the other room revealed the same.

"O-ok, ok..." She took a deep breath, studying the wall, tracing her fingers along it in case this was some kind of weird illusion. "What can you see in there? And who brought you here?" The questions poured forth, one after the other, as she struggled to make sense of the situation.
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