Hidden 7 mos ago Post by Grey Omen
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Cedar.


And there was the voice again, and again, it brought no answers.

But then there was something. It felt... invasive, like someone had broken into his head and shoved their wants over his for a second. Involuntarily, his hand twitched. This, Cedar did understand. It wanted the ring.

Shortly after, heard a voice yelling in the distance. It sounded like Archer, though he wasn't too certain. Whoever it was sounded not too pleased about whatever was going on. And while that was happening, Cedar's eyes caught the drone controller's screen and watched a second armadillo crawl through the cracks. A plan formed in his head.

"No rest for the wicked," he sighed, then turned to Iris.

"I want to examine the body further, but if it's all the same to you, it might be a good idea to check out whatever Archer's yelling about. If not that, I'm also about suspicious about, well..." he held out the drone controller to let her get a glimpse of the screen. "These armadillos keep crawling into this building, and the first armadillo I saw was messing with this body, so the building... I dunno, could be full of bodies or something like that. Just a guess, but still. Oh, and before you go, you mind if I see the ring? Don't want to miss any details."

The last part was said casually, but inside his head he was debating how smart it was to indulge the mysterious head voice. For all intents and purposes it could be some Nox insanity or something equally insidious. But, he thought to himself, if it is something Nox then at least I know there are plenty of Zephyrs in the area to stop me from hurting someone. So, against his better judgment, he merely extended an open hand towards Iris for the ring.

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Hidden 7 mos ago 7 mos ago Post by drewccapp
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A few moments passed and Listener felt nothing. Then it hit her like a bolt of lightning. The new influx of noise was a new experience that she could not describe. She heard the whispers and they sent chills down her spine. She could not make sense of them, but there was no way she would forget them and how they sounded. Then the revving of the engine tore into her eardrums, and she yelped in pain. It was much like the noise that Archer made, although in hindsight she was amazed that she didn't yelp in pain then.

What on earth had Archer said? What was that whispering? What did she take? "Uuuuu... I regret taking that. Ow."

Listener covered her ears as her own voice was too loud for her to handle. She wished she could wipe away the several tears of pain now rolling down her face. "It's okay... I'll get used to it. It can't be permanent. It'll stop. I'll be able to see again."

Even while covering her ears the sound of her voice echoing in her head was almost too much. Listener decided it would be a good idea for her to just stop talking for a while. She knew just how difficult a task this would be... she hated the silent game. Her next question though was what was she going to do next? She hated doing nothing. She couldn't do much all alone though, even with her freshly enhanced senses.

She decided to wait for now as she paid attention to Fluke. Considering his track record, he probably would not be interested in babysitting her, and that was fine by her, but she hoped he would at least hang around long enough for her eyesight to recover. She could already see shapes and blurs. Only a few more minutes and her sight would be back, right? After that her only concern would be how long would this... senses enhancer would last.

After some thought, Listener decided to make her way to Cedar and Iris. The energy she had coursing through her veins would not let her stand there and wait. She held back the urge to ramble about how she felt still worried about the consequences of talking out loud. Staying silent with her own thoughts would definitely become too much of a challenge for her, she knew that much.

Thanks to Cedar's voice and the continual talking it was not all that hard to her to find her way to them.

"Hey," Listener alerted them as she approached wincing at her own voice. "I, uh, I have like super hearing. Ow. I, ow, I hope I can be, like, helpful to you guys. I don't think Fluke is going to be all that nice to me as much as I'm nice to him. Ow. I think my eyesight might come back. Ow. It has slowly been getting better." She winced again before whispering. "Slowly."
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Hidden 7 mos ago Post by Plank Sinatra
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I R I S


"Details?"

Iris didn't like the idea of holding onto this ring for a second, but Cedar was looking a little anxious. Her heart went out to him - the last half hour had been a whirlwind, and he had taken saving Ruskali to heart maybe more than any of the recruits. But what details were a pair of brand-new Zephyrs really going to determine from something like this? And he wanted them to split up, go chase some armadillos while she tagged along with Archer - sans the ring? It was weird. Iris watched her new comrade's hand twitch; she wanted to chalk it up to nerves, but...

"You go ahead and figure out what's up with the buildings," she said amiably, standing up to her full height and rolling her shoulders and legs. She could feel herself wanting to hack up a lung, damned smoke... "I'll catch up and give this to Archer, see if she wants more help. I'd feel better if she had it on her. We'll tell her about this guy, since neither of us really wanna risk touching the poor bastard, and then we'll look at it with her together later, yeah?"

She smiled and squeezed his shoulder.

"Don't worry about it. We'll be able to get some rest sooner rather than later. Just keep your chin up."
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Hidden 7 mos ago Post by Mokley
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The Highrise

Silence hung like cobwebs from the cracked ceiling and settled in the grimy floor.

Something clattered and fluttered on the other end of the hallway, where a pigeon disappeared through an open twisted door.

"Oh... Oh, no. They got you, didn't they? They got you, too."

...hteet ruo neewteb sluos rieht ward...

A sussurus of hissing voices shimmered inside the open room where the pigeon had just gone. The bird now lay shivering among shards of fallen drywall, its eyes gleaming black then chalky white.

"It's dark in here. It's always going to be dark. I'm so sorry, Vern. I wish I'd been there to warn you."

The wall beneath Rose's fingers was crackled and peeling, full of burrow holes from insects and pecking birds. There was a rectangle impression, almost imperceptible, where a door had long ago been sealed shut and painted over.

"YOU'LL NEVER LOCK ME UP!" a familiar voice roared on the floor above. "I KNOW THE TRUTH! THE NOX, THE RAVEL, AMALGAM, THE END OF THE WORLD! YOU WON'T KEEP ME QUIET, DEVOURERS!" Ruskali's voice roared as if he were charging the enemy. A resounding BANG rattled the ceiling and rained bits of dust and drywall down on Rose's head.

The Alley

{Signal's lit} A metallic voice buzzed almost inaudibly inside Iris' pocket, where the ring lay dormant. Iris would hear it clearly, like an echo inside her head. Listener would hear it like a distant staticky radio, the words barely understandable. Cedar would not hear it at all.

{We've got the preacher} said a second, feminine voice. The rumble of the motorbikes faded in the distance. {Is Damari with you?}
{Why would he be with me? He was supposed to recruit the preacher and meet you in the square.}
{Well he wasn't there. Just a bunch of Ze. It's fine, they didn't even look at us.}
{That doesn't explain why Damari's not saying anything! Damari!}
{What if someone else--}
{Shit. I'm out.}


Iris, Cedar, and Listener would all hear the skid and clack of an opening window high above.

A skinny young man leaned out of it, bald and draped in orange robes. He didn't look down, didn't see the group of Ze gathered in the narrow alley -- instead, he braced a sandaled foot against the windowsill and leaped like a cat across the alley. He caught himself on the edge of the next roof and swiftly pulled himself up and over, disappearing onto the flat rooftop above the spice shop.
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Hidden 7 mos ago Post by Plank Sinatra
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I R I S


Shit. Oh shit.

"Get to Archer,"
she ordered urgently, pulling away from Cedar. "Tell her about the ring, tell her, uhh, I'll bring it back with me. That--"

She jerked her hand up to the rooftop the guy had landed on. The confluence of healer's robes around this initial assignment today can't have been a coincidence. The sky over Rig was growing murkier; the storm she had scouted out was growing closer, and she could tell it was connected to this corpse, and to the orange robes she'd seen standing out amidst orange flames. They almost burnt that girl up there.

Determined, Iris' brow set beneath her ornate mask.

"I gotta handle that," she said. With the easy grace of the city's high-fliers, and with a speed and agility that belied her size, the big girl leapt from alley to vine and began clambering up the side of the spice shop. If she hurried, she could keep track of him. He was wearing a pretty big target, after all.
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Hidden 7 mos ago Post by Grey Omen
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Cedar.


"Oh, hey, Listener," Cedar said, turning to her. "Should I, like, whisper? And, uh, I don't think Fluke would've been nice anyway. He's... just sort like that. Anyway-"

Cedar stopped, looking up at the sound of the window opening in time to catch an orange-robed man leap from it to the neighboring rooftop. He almost began moving to chase - though how, he hadn't thought out - when Iris took off, climbing quicker than Cedar surely would have. And with her, went the ring.

Well, Voice, unless you can magically drop me another ring, I can't do much for you right now. Guess you'll have to wait, huh? he thought to himself.

"Well, I know you probably just came from Archer, but I need to tell her a bunch of stuff, so I think I'll head that way. If you think you can keep up with Iris, though, feel free," he said to Listener. Cedar turned and started walking. Surely, at least, nothing could have gone wrong back with Archer?
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Hidden 6 mos ago 6 mos ago Post by LuckyBlackCat
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"Huh...?" Rose frowned, the battered side of her face twinging. "Nah, the Nox didn't, but if you meant the Ravel..." She forced a shaky laugh, more panicked than anything else to her own ears, as she thought back to the symbol on the wall. "Look, I'm a Ze. It's my job to deal with those wackos. We're gonna get out of here."

Her trembling voice didn't sound as reassuring as the words themselves. Something was off... well, yes, Nox survivors regaining their minds wasn't an everyday occurrence, but there was something else besides the obvious. It took Rose a moment to realise what it was. When she did, her blood seemed to freeze.

She couldn't hear the others.

"Uh... Listener? Cedar?" No reply. She removed the earpiece, checked it, and put it back in. "Iris? Fluke?" Well, this explained Archer's apparent lack of reaction. "Archer? C'mon, say something, shouldn't you be yelling at me?"

She jumped at sudden voices, but not those of her teammates. A chorus of inhuman hisses filled the air, their message cryptic, although not lost on her. "Don't you dare hurt him! Or anyone else!" she yelled, brandishing Thorn as she edged towards the doorway the voices had come from, and peered inside. She gasped. On the dust-coated floor lay the still form of a bird, its eyes fading from black to white. There was a Nox in here... Not a surprise, but the undeniable proof turned the situation all the more fraught. She stared around the room and hallway for any sign of it.

"Shit. Nox alert," she called, hurrying back to the hidden door and ramming her good shoulder against it. Flakes of paint fluttered down, but the door held fast. "No, no it isn't your fault." She shoved it again and again. Surely the door had to be old and rotten enough to break eventually. "Please, tell me, how did you end up here? We'll find a way out." All the while, she kept alert for a glimpse of the Nox, head whipping from side to side to make up for the narrowed field of vision.

A yell from the floor above made her reel back. Arm raised against the shower of drywall, Rose craned her neck. There was no mistaking that fervor. "Ruski? But... The medics, they came for you just now..."

It was clear she wasn't talking to Jay and Ruskali as she'd known them. Nox were soul snatchers, but what if those souls weren't destroyed? Everything had to go somewhere, right? But why here of all places?
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Hidden 6 mos ago Post by Mokley
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The Rooftops

*slap-slap-slap-slap!* The healer's sandals smacked the stone rooftop with an urgent beat. He skidded around a smoky greenhouse and dodged an old woman who'd been watering her potted flowers: she looked up with bewildered eyes, first at the retreating billow of orange robes, then at the huge masked woman that sprinted in quick pursuit.

The healer hopped to the next rooftop, vaulted over an arch of clay shingles, and scrambled up the twisting bark of an enormous root that towered into the sky. He crouched in a bend of the wood, craning his neck, listening. His back was to Iris: he didn't know he'd been followed.

He only waited a moment before the rumble of an engine drew closer; two linked airbikes curled toward him out of the sky, carrying orange-robed riders and Ruskali in a stretcher between them. They drew close enough for their comrade to climb on the back of one of the bikes.

"Hey man," said one of the riders in a guarded voice. "Your eyes are kinda... You feeling ok?"

The skinny young man twisted around in his seat, and looked back to scan the rooftops he'd just traversed. His eyes glowed bright neon blue. The veins in his face had begun to bulge dark beneath the skin.

The riders revved their bikes, ready to take off toward the hospital.

The Alley/The Square

While Cedar rushed off toward the empty square to find Archer (who wasn't there at all), Fluke rocked on his heels and watched Listener through the hot twisting pipes and rods of his heavy mask.

"Still can't see, huh?" he grinned, and he spoke into the earpiece radio that Iris, Cedar, and (tragically) Listener would all hear. "I'll tell you then: Steely broke into an abandoned building and Archer went after her. They didn't come out. Some guy just jumped out of a window of that building and Iris is chasing him across the roof. Cedar Plank went back to find Archer, but he's probably gonna end up gone, too."

Fluke grabbed Listener's elbow and dragged her along after Cedar, marching single-file through the narrow alley. "Hey Plank. You wanna, I dunno, maybe move a little faster than a lame turtle, and maybe your friend or whatever won't be dead by the time we get there? Why am I the one in charge? Where's the drone? Rule number twelve: don't split up!"

Once they returned to the empty market square-- where a couple of armadillos skittered quickly away into the dark corners --Fluke pointed out the rotted door of the highrise. The building was barely standing, held up by invading twists of enormous roots and vines. The bricks bulged and rippled, violet smoke drifted in the air overhead, and all the windows gaped dark and jagged.

From between the tattered curtains of a third-floor window, Archer's horned mask looked out. It was empty.

The Highrise

"You're a... Ze? You're a Ze? So you're not dead?"

With every *wham!* of Rose's shoulder against the hidden door, the entire building seemed to shudder.

The floor at her feet began to crackle and shift as a disturbed root writhed like an enormous snake beneath the floorboards.

The Nox had gone quiet. Ruskali had not.

"WHO'S THERE! I HEAR A VOICE BELOW! RUN! RUN BEFORE IT'S TOO LATE!"

"Vern, even if you're a Ze it just means the Nox can't see you, they can still get you." Jay's voice spoke urgent, close to the thin wall between them. "Everyone is here. The Nox, they nest in your head until they pry you loose from your own body, and they lock you in here. There's something coming for us. The Ravel said... they said we're evolving. They said we're going to wake Amalgam. They're going after the Light, Vern. They're going to take the Light and do this to everyone. Until there's nothing left of us."

"THE LIGHT IS NOT YOURS, FOUL DEMONS!" Ruskali laughed maniacally. "THE LIGHT OF AMALGAM WILL NEVER FALL INTO RAVEL HANDS! THE ZEPHYR EXTINCT WILL NEVER ALLOW IT! THE SMOKE! THE ROOF! THE SWARMING STORM APPROACHES! BUT IT WILL NOT DEVOUR ME!"

"I think I can control the plants a little, put a crack in the wall. But you need to have something ready for me to... uh... haunt. Like a bottle or something. Genie in the lamp, right?"

The roots in the walls and the floor began to shift; the drywall cracked.

Something dark and writhing skittered along the ceiling out of the far stairwell, like a gruesome spider with too many shifting legs. Its shining eyes seemed to look straight through her, and it would move on over Rose's head as if she weren't there at all...

...as long as she didn't make a sound.
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Hidden 5 mos ago Post by Plank Sinatra
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I R I S


She almost couldn't believe her luck.

The smoke she had inhaled earlier still left her huffing at the end of every pant; her lungs chafed from the effort it took to lug her muscular body up and over the same obstacles as her fleeing prey, and her shortness of breath was only another detriment compounded on top. But when she saw the orange-robed man's mode of extraction, a getaway driver on a hoverbike, a winded smile grew across her masked face. This leg of the race would be much more her speed.

Thankfully, it also seemed she had far more experience - or wherewithal - to know where most buildings would incorporate high-flyer perches into their gardens. Every building was different, obviously, but all architecture had a style, constants in its design and function - the realities of Rig's midair society had slowly been incorporated over the decades, as surely as the needs of the gardeners and sunbathers. She hopped off the branch a bit later than her target had at one such perch and hurriedly paid for a glider rental. When she was at the lip of the perch, an excellent vantage point, she started scanning for her target again.

Most high-flyers would instinctively recognize the sight of the healers on their hoverbikes, stretchering the injured or infirm to facilities for care, and steer clear of them to avoid congestion at critical junctures. Iris was no exception, and the OSO acronym - Orange-Stretcher-Orange - she'd been drilled with during childhood rose to the forefront as she scanned for healers. Thankfully, there was at least three times the orange to look for as there had been on the roof, and she found them in short order. When they peeled off, Iris went soaring too, kicking off from her nest as gracefully as a falcon. She felt the fresh air in her lungs, great heaving mouthfuls of it, and smiled, all chest congestion and sear in her lungs forgotten. Her smile grew--

--and, watching the getaway drivers from above, she continued to soar.
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Hidden 5 mos ago Post by LuckyBlackCat
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Rose stumbled back as the floorboards splintered, a large root writhing beneath them. "Eeeeehhh! What the...?" She stepped aside, one hand over her thudding heart, the other pointing her gunblade at the tendril. No, she scolded herself, it didn't do for a Ze to get jumpy, especially at a time and place like this.

"Heh..." She caught her breath. "At least the plants are livening the atmosphere. And yeah, you know how I kept saying I'd run away and join the Ze? I had to follow through. I'm Steel Rose now."

Her forced smile faded as she listened to Jay's warning. The way he described Nox possession was worse than she'd imagined... and if the Ravel got their way, there'd be many, many more hosts trapped in here before long. "Well, shit." Her stomach sank. "So you were right all along, Ruski."

Ruskali, as usual, was quick to speak up, his cries of defiance echoing through the building. "You tell 'em!" Rose backed him up, her bright confident tone returning. "Like we'll let them anywhere near the Light. Or let them keep you walled up in here. Your bodies... They're still alive. There's a chance you'll be able to go back."

At Jay's mention of a vessel, Rose opened her bag. "Is an old satchel ok? Just, uh, be careful not to set off the motor skates in there. They didn't work quite as expected." This time, she kept her cool when the plants wriggled, all while keeping a healthy distance. Falling through the floor wouldn't help matters.

Unknown to her, neither would the many-legged creature darting silently along the ceiling...
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Hidden 4 mos ago Post by Mokley
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The Highrise

The wall cracked and a deep fissure split the doorframe like firewood. While the roots twisted, the door groaned under strain and pressure. Cracks spidered across the moldy drywall, which shattered in broken chunks to the shifting floor at Rose's feet. With a lightning-strike *POP!* a deep gash cracked the door in two.

A shine of white light glimmered through the gap, then a little shining translucent ball-- no bigger than a lens flare --slipped out of the broken door and dove immediately into Rose's open bag. The left motor skate shimmered momentarily before the light was gone.

"FOUL DEMONS! BACK!" cried Ruskali above. "I WIELD THE POWER OF TRUTH! YOU WILL NOT--"

A sudden hush dropped into stillness.

The roots had stopped moving.

Like the abandoned set of a silent movie, the hallway and the broken doors seemed suspended in time. A held breath.

...tor meht hctaw dna yrd meht knird...

The dry, dark whisper, like black cobwebs, hissed in Rose's ear.

The Nox had attached itself to her back, and crept around her neck like the brush of a feather.

*ka-BOOOOM!*

The ceiling of the far side of the hallway collapsed in a violent billowing cloud of violet smoke that smelled like burned flesh as it rolled and crashed toward Rose like a tidal wave, devouring the hallway and everything in it.

The Rooftops

From Iris' vantage point, she could see almost all of Rig: the gargantuan roots twisting between clay buildings, treehouses dangling from great shaded branches, the spark and flare of bright flags and murals along the winding narrow streets below. A murmur of starlings swooped out of high branches and undulated in the sky to her left, so close she could hear the flutter of their quick wings.

Beyond them, closer on the horizon across the water, a darker cloud shimmered ever closer...

*ka-BOOOOM!*

Behind her, in the distance, a chorus of shrieks and screams accompanied a billowing plume of violet smoke that rose out of the crumbling highrise.

Below, unaware they were being followed, the three orange-robed healers looked back over their shoulders to see the violet cloud rising against the sky.

They said nothing, however, that could be overheard through the ring.

The two motorbikes and the stretcher revved faster over the rooftops, headed straight for the hospital: a round glass building nestled among great twisted roots, shining in the sunlight. They hovered over the center of the honeycombed dome while a wide round doorway opened in the top, and they gently descended inside.

*That's it.* Fluke muttered in the receiver in Iris' ear. *Archer's dead, or something. I can't find any of you and I'm done trying. Maybe you're dead, too. Worst training exercise ever. I'm telling the council you all suck.*
Hidden 3 mos ago Post by Plank Sinatra
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I R I S


*That's it. Archer's dead, or something. I can't find any of you and I'm done trying. Maybe you're dead, too. Worst training exercise ever. I'm telling the council you all suck.*

Despite the whirlwind pace of events and the weight of Fluke's words, Iris almost wanted to smile despite herself. The scatterbrained little trainee hadn't bothered Iris as much as he'd seemed to bother some of the others, and his ornery personality remaining relatively unchanged was a comfort at the moment. She'd almost jolted out of her skin - and worse, lost sight of her trajectory on her glider - at the explosion when it had gone off, but her prey had barely even registered that there was an incident. They'd spared only a fleeting look before dipping in the direction of the hospital; Iris remained in pursuit, but...

Archer's dead? And the others...? But she'd just seen...

"Don't go badmouthing me, Fluke," she complained in his ear. "I'm doing my best here, following the people we think dumped that corpse in the alley. Pretty sure they're the ones that have been leaving the trail of burning buildings too, those rude asses...they had this...never mind." Cedar's reaction to the ring was still in the back of her head. Best to not bring it up. "I was just with Cedar back in the alleys. What happened to Archer? Should we regroup?"

She hated abandoning the chase right now, but if the others needed a big girl on demand, then Iris would have to be there. On the other hand, she could still see right where they'd entered the hospital...

So while that avenue was still available to her, and she waited for Fluke's usual retort, she kept straight on.
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Hidden 3 mos ago Post by LuckyBlackCat
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At the sight of the shimmering orb, Rose laughed in relief. A literal glimmer of hope in the darkness.

"Good to see you again," she said, watching her best friend's soul disappear into the skate. "You never could resist motor skates, could you? Hey, when you get your body back, how about we have another motor skating competition?"

She looked up at the cracked, flaking ceiling. "Ruski, quick, if you can get through, there's another one here for you too!" She bit her lip, her good eye flicking around the hallway. If there was a severed soul behind each door, there was no way she could get them all out at once. "Everyone, I'll tell the other Ze about this place right away. We'll get you out, each one of you."

Ruskali, however, didn't seem to acknowledge her words, focused on something else entirely. "Ruski...?" His shouting gave way to eerie silence, accompanied by stillness. It was as if time had stopped all around Rose. All she could hear was her own breath, her own heartbeat.

Until a whisper pierced through the quiet.

An inhuman one. Right behind her.

Rose yelped, grasping wildly at the creature that clung to her. "Gahhh! When the fuck did I turn into a climbing frame for you guys?" The frozen scene roared back into motion, the hallway collapsing in a cloud of dust and violet smoke. Instinct kicked in. She shot a beam of light into the billowing mass, crying out as the recoil slammed her fist into her already sore shoulder. A good idea, or another stupid one? She couldn't stick around to find out. All she could do was run, despite the screams that rose up with the smoke.

"Leave them alone, you bastards!" Her yell came out as a frantic sob. With her arm around the satchel, she rushed down the stairs, misjudging the last few with her limited depth perception and tumbling in a heap. The gunblade clattered across the floor.

"Archer!" she yelled into the unresponsive earpiece, rolling to try to dislodge the Nox, reaching for Thorn even as pain flared down her arm. "Cedar! Listener, Iris, Fluke, can you hear me?"
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Hidden 3 mos ago Post by Mokley
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The Hospital

*OH. You're ALIVE.* Something snide dripped in Fluke's voice, crackling interference in Iris' earpiece. *You didn't just hear that explosion? Archer and Steel Rose were inside. It's over, our leader's gone so what's the point.*

The sun blazed high overhead, shrouded in a film of rising violet smoke that sent the birds spiraling down into the spaces between the great gnarled trees and cracked clay buildings. An echo of screams haunted the streets. Fire sirens wailed in the distance.

Ahead, the dome of the hospital glistened with moving reflections of the smoke. The round door in the top of the roof had begun to slip shut the moment the healers and their stretcher had descended through it. The opening narrowed, nearly closed by the time Iris could complete her approach -- but she could see through the glass prisms of the dome, the rainforest of trees and flowers like a hidden world deep inside, swarming with spots of bright orange where the healers traversed the weaving lanes. The motorbikes landed on a wide stage at the center of the forest, converged with orange robes by the time the motors stopped.

From other angles, she could see more rooms within the hospital: a cafeteria, a waiting room, a hundred patient rooms with pulled curtains.

In the center of a wide empty hallway, an old man stood alone, thin as paper and reeds, leaning like a stick against a walker. He tilted back his shivering head, and though he was so far away, Iris would have the distinct feeling that he could see straight through her, like a needle shot into her soul.

"Hello, Iris," said a gentle voice in her head, the same way she had heard the voices through the ring still in her possession.

*You do whatever makes you feel like a hero or whatever,* Fluke interjected. *I'm leaving before something else happens--*

*Archer! Cedar! Listener, Iris, Fluke, can you hear me?*

The Highrise

Rose's light beam cut like a knife through the roiling undulation of darkness and smoke; a vaporized hole punched the stunned shadows, which recoiled and scattered like a swarm of black wasps for the heartbeat Rose needed to stumble down the stairs. All around her, the walls and the floors and the ceiling were shaking and crumbling as if the world itself was shattering with the pitch of screams that stormed in the roaring smoke that smelled like cinnamon and burned flesh--

The Nox at her shoulder gripped tight despite Rose's thrashings, locked against her arm like a new appendage, but at least it wasn't reaching for her mask, nor making any attempt to possess her, as if it couldn't tell which part of her was the face. Still, Rose was on the floor and her gunblade out of reach, and the Nox weighed heavier by the second, twisting her arm as it pressed her shoulder into the floor and the ceiling cracked and rained plaster upon her while the smoke billowed dark down the stairs toward her feet--

*Finally, you feel like responding.* Fluke's voice in Rose's ear scraped with static. Iris, too, could hear everything. *You sound like you're about to ask for help. Remember you're the one who went off on your own.*

Rose would hear the scrape of her gunblade being picked up off the writhing floor, though the smoke now had engulfed the last shreds of sunlight around her.

"Close your eyes," said Archer.

A beam of light flooded Rose's prostrate body, and the clinging Nox disintegrated with a screech. The air around her cleared, like a bubble of freedom beneath a dome of writhing smoke that would descend again in a few precious seconds. In the sharpened gray clarity, Rose could see the door that would lead outside--

--and between her and the door stood Archer, with Thorn dangling slack in her dark hands. Her mask was gone, and her head was engulfed in the inky black shine of a thousand Nox eyes, like writhing, slurping spiders. She didn't move nor respond again, like a statue, like a doll in her likeness, hollowed of all thought.
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Rose gave an agonised yelp as the Nox clung to her wounded arm, twisting it, pinning her to the ground. The creature that had weighed no more than an insect a moment ago now threatened to crush her. With her other hand, she grasped blindly about in the growing darkness, her fingers meeting only debris-littered floorboards.

Through the crash of plaster, an all too familiar voice piped up, bringing a surge of both relief and irritation.

*Finally, you feel like responding. You sound like you're about to ask for help. Remember you're the one who went off on your own.*

Rose could barely speak for the coughs racking through her body. Smoke caught in her throat and chest, that stench of burning flesh making her want to retch. "For fuck's sake," she spluttered. "If-If you're not gonna help me, at least help the others here! There are people, trapped, in danger... Just be careful!" Her good eye stung with tears, not just from the fumes, but the thought of what must be happening to the souls held captive. Screams echoed all around.

Over those screams came another voice she recognised.

"Close your eyes."

The incident with Cedar and the other Nox fresh in her mind, Rose braced herself. This time, there was no impact, just a wave of light she saw through the redness of closed eyelids. The attacker's weight gone, she sat up and stared around, checking right away for the motor skates in her bag. "Whew... You alright Jay?"

She stretched out and flexed her arm, wincing. It didn't feel broken, but she'd likely have some severe bruising and stiffness for a while. Still, it could have been a lot worse. "Thanks," she rasped, with a trembling laugh as she looked up. "Now if it's not too late, we've gotta help the others..."

That momentary joy evaporated at the sight of Archer's face - or rather, the writhing mass of shadow obscuring it. Realisation weighed heavier on Rose than the Nox had. This was her fault. Fluke's words replayed through her mind, about going off alone. He was right. She'd been reckless, and now Archer had paid the price.

"Shit, no..." Crawling back, she yelled into the earpiece. "I screwed up. Archer, she's... They've got Archer!"
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