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Balibago, Angeles City - 10/18/2022, 20:55 UTC+8

One of the law enforcement officers ran after him, telling him that he cannot escape. He ignores the officer, making his apparently very successful escape as he clears the alley's gate without getting shot and continues towards and up the back of the lot, over to the next street.

It's pseudo-residential, with buildings that show clear signs of habitation standing right next to small businesses and at least one residential home with a housefront stall. A small sign in front of it advertises it as an electronic shop that does, in fact, do TV repairs.

He ignored it, running down the street towards their neighbor, who happened to have left a small table out, which was perfect to use to jump up off of and onto some corrugated metal roofing. He didn't like the stability of the roof under his feet, so he continued on to the next building, which he only belatedly realized from the parking lot on the opposite side was the Balibago Barangay Hall. He's not sure how he ended up on the rooftop of a city hall by pure accident, but hey, he's got a sizeable lead on the cops because of the gate in the alleyway and the high wall at the back of the lot. Maybe he could use this. Not a lot of better places for stereotypical acts of terrorism, no?

In any case, he first has to stall out the flying guy with red hair. He can hear the wind rippling closer and closer from the guy's Noble Arm behind him, so he sets his hostage down onto his feet, taking care not to accidentally cut him with any of the floating knives pointed at him. He turns to face the guy as he approaches, then remembers that he should avoid looking directly at his strangely, eerily familiar face. Not for the first time today, Jason is glad he decided to wear a mask to work, even if it is hopelessly tacky.

The dancing of the flames within the crackling fire was transfixing. It was perfect for letting his mind wander up and away from the world, away from his inevitable conversation with Deuel. The fire seemed to stretch and bend just like his thoughts, clawing towards the heavens whose twinkling stars grew closer and closer before reaching down to match. It wasn't a particularly unusual sight, though it was unusual that he was seeing it when he had gotten plenty of sleep last night. He took another long drink of his Red Bull as the fingers of the fire and the stars interlocked, forming a fiery gate to hell that seemed to shamble forward, bending and twisting from its position on the campfire and in the heavens. It reached towards him, blurred around him, enveloped him in its warmth, until it had engulfed him completely.

The hallucination then got brighter and brighter, bright enough to sear his eyes, and he shut them, only for the brightness to burn through his thin human eyelids. He blocked out the light with his hands, but it did nothing to shut out the light. This wasn't just a hallucination, though what it could possibly be, he couldn't fathom. Then, all at once, the light was gone, and he blinked his eyes open to find himself in a forest with all of his friends.

“Uh… Is everyone ok? And… what just happened?”

"We are in a forest. With magical creatures."

Deuel seems to assume they've been isekai'd, and while the hallucinogenic fever dream immediately preceding their arrival here does lend credence to his theory, it's not exactly a theory grounded in reality. Then again, what else could it be? Mildly hallucinogenic knockout gas followed by an aborted abduction doesn't explain why they all arrived perfectly alert without any memories of the interim, and he can't think of a better mundane explanation. Already entering the realm of fantasy, spatial dislocation would explain it, but does not necessitate ending up in another world. He supposes Deuel didn't specify that they did, and the man's a bit of a dandy, so he could just be assuming based on the popular trope. In that case, there should be botanical and/or zoological differences to be found to prove the hypothesis, though he's never bothered devoting time to learning about the subtle differences in different arboreal species and there weren't any obviously extraterrestrial insects buzzing about; just some perfectly normal-looking black ants. Perhaps they could find differences in the constellations? He memorized enough of them for navigation (part of his excessive research on wilderness survival) and would be able to tell the difference. Even with no astronomical knowledge, the others might be able to just because they were looking up at them before they arrived, except it's the middle of the day now, and even if it's a fantasy world, it could just as easily be a parallel Earth. For that matter, they are just as likely to have been displaced in time, though seeing as how they're in a forest, the future is less likely than the past, which would match with typical medieval isekai settings. Whether back in time or in another world, it would likely fall on them to bring technological progress back, and until then, they'd have no access to modern conveniences like-

Like caffeine.

No caffeine.

In the entire world, possibly. Different plants means no guarantee of coffee or cocoa or guarana or whatever the fuck and there's no guarantee this world has any replacements. He could try synthesizing caffeine, but he can't remember the chemicals involved, much less the steps. He thinks Theobromine is involved somehow? It's not nearly enough to work off of, and he can't imagine spending weeks, much less months or years raw dogging life without it.

He's got a hand on his forehead, trying to keep from freaking out, because there's still hope - they could just be in another time or place, but then Deuel pulls him out of his thoughts with a question.

"Niles, are you okay? I hope you don't think I'm presuming, but are you worried about your parents?"

No, Deuel. He almost laughs, because his parents were probably the farthest thing from his mind before now. Shame to have wasted their 18 years of investment with a sudden disappearance-

"If so, there's a nonzero chance that time here might be out of sync with time on earth and we can come back at the same time we left. But if not, well, we can just say that we got kidnapped or something when we do come back, and if we all get our stories straight, they'll believe us. Either way, let's both focus on surviving this situation, okay?"

At that, Niles does let out a laugh, though when Deuel gives him a questioning look, he simply shakes his head, saying, "it's nothing."

His parents will assume he left without warning. Will likely find a replacement to pass the company onto - maybe adopt if they really want to keep it in the family, though he's not sure how much they care about that as long as they stay on the company's payroll. He has a month or two before his parents realize he's gone, maybe 3 months given their big business trip in Tokyo, but they will probably seek him out before their next trip given his college plans and his lack of response if they text or call in the interim. He's 18, so by all likelihood they'll assume he just ran away, and since it's within his right to, when they can't find him, they'll probably just give up. They'll probably move on, thinking that he hates them.

That's his time limit.

Soon, a motherfucking talking Ermine arrives to properly introduce them to the situation, seemingly confirming the isekai theory.

"You see, your friend is the Chosen One and you guys have been tasked with serving as his 'adventuring party' to save our world under our leadership!"



He decides to slip away behind the surrounding trees as the others, especially Deuel, are distracted by Deuel's transformation.

He walks away slowly, at first, because he doesn't want to make noise that could draw the attention of the others, but once some distance has been made, he picks up speed until he's running. No, until he's sprinting - as fast and as far away as he can manage.

Adventuring party of the chosen one? What a joke. Him? Right before he's about to step all over the chosen one's feelings? Might as well destroy the whole damn planet now. The overlap between their respective skillsets makes him easily the least useful to Deuel anyway. He's not sure about the others, but Deuel could easily spark a technological revolution with or without him. From a purely practical, cost-benefit analysis standpoint, he's nothing but a detriment, and any clerical, moral or practical support he could offer after the fact pales in comparison to the damage he could do to them all as a group.

A darker thought occur to him - that they're all dancing to the tune of some kind of cosmic narrative, and that his role in the story is either as Deuel's designated love interest or perhaps his tragic motivator. A living, breathing, Death by Origin Story trope, or perhaps it's the I Let Gwen Stacy Die trope. Would depend on how long he actually goes on living, he supposes - a funny thought to have while tumbling down a steep hill after tripping on an exposed wooden tree root.

He doesn't think he's particularly hurt by the time he reaches the bottom, not that he cares to devote much attention to such things, given his swirling thoughts, but he does find himself just laying there, on the ground, covered in dirt and small bruises, thinking. Even within the framework of a narrative, there can be no offscreen happily ever after with him, and he's not willing to take that away from Deuel. It feels selfish to even entertain the idea of getting to that point, because what divine fucking neanderthal thinks they have the providence to use him to manipulate Deuel's love life? Any of their love lives? 'Designated love interests' and any divine being that insists on them can kiss his ass, just the same as anyone who tries to tell him its his fate to die just so Deuel and the others can have some cliché 'You did everything you could', 'I should have been better' bullshit.

It was a pointless mental tangent anyway. At worst, isekai tropes tend to include prophecies, not entire meta narratives. Still, rejecting it clears his head enough to notice an approaching worm of some sort, emerging from the ground near him.

He gets up, trying to avoid letting the slimy blind creature touch him, only to realize that, upon closer inspection, it's not covered in slime. In fact, it seems to be covered in small scales, and, looking more closely, he could see the occasional flick of a forked tongue out of an extremely round face.

He's seen these before - it's a blind snake, though he's never seen one quite as large as this. He extends a hand, gently, to pick the creature up. The differences in this world's fauna kind of pale in comparison to a talking stoat directly stating that they've crossed worlds, in terms of confirmation of their situation, but sue him, it's an novel animal and he's curious.

He feels a gentle surge of sorts when he touches the snake, though he couldn't say what of. It felt like getting zapped, except harmlessly, and the snake doesn't seem spooked, unlike how he might expect an earthen blind snake to be. Soon it's nuzzling into his hand, slithering up and around his palm, and it allows him to lift it up for closer inspection.

It occurs to him that a snake in a fantasy world might be more dangerous than its earthen equivalent, though from its relative diminutiveness, he can't imagine it to pose much of a threat, even if it had venom. (blind snakes don't) It seemed to have the same jaw as a blind snake, which couldn't open absurdly wide like bigger snakes, and was likely indicative of a lack of fangs. Blind snakes wouldn't even be able to penetrate human skin with their teeth, and this one seemed no different. The little thing only got more adorable the closer he looked at it, as it seemed to hide its face shyly - behind his own hand, as he focused his attention on it.

He resumes his walk, snake coiling around his hand, as he idly tries to puzzle out what he felt earlier. The sensation was muted now, but still there, like a beautiful song playing off in the distance. He tries to focus on the music, to reach out to it, and it responds, flowing into and around him, wrapping him up within it until he finds himself standing there, in the middle of the forest, wearing an ornate brown and gold outfit. Distantly, he recognizes that he's just undergone much the same transformation Deuel had, and while it casts doubt on the stoat's claims, it doesn't change that such a transformation is indicative of the fantastical. They were therefore brought here for some type of purpose, perhaps even a prophecy, and he neither had the desire to go along with such things nor thought his presence would benefit the pursuit of such goals anyway. He could perhaps help from the sidelines in the future, if needed, but going back to have that delayed conversation with Deuel is the last thing he wants right now.

Instead, he turns his attention to his new abilities - He can feel the Earth's thrum beneath him, around him, and before he knows it, he finds himself inadvertently sinking into grass-hardened dirt as if it were memory foam. Comfy, but... ugh, dirt.

Then, a thought occurs to him. He stands up straight, and directs his newfound power against his senses. Every speck of dirt, every small stain on his clothes, both old and magically new, lights up like beacons before him, and with a hesitant, tentative thought, he finds himself able to pull the stuff off of him like a god damn psychic. After a little exploratory fooling around, he finds he now has telekinetic control over dirt, stone, and even the metal that makes up his phone. An attempt at technomancy would have to wait until he had something more expendable to work with, but gaining fancy magic powers is nothing short of exhilarating.

He tries to do some minor limit testing - taking the dirt and crushing it together into a sedimentary rock. Shooting the rock at a nearby tree. (and not getting hit by it as it ricochets off) Then he tries to extend his tremor sense outward, only to notice that there's some kind of structure nearby. His friends don't seem to be in range, and it doesn't seem like civilization anyway. Curious, he decides to make his way towards it.

Sullivan's Irish Pub, Balibago, Angeles City - 10/18/2022, 20:50 UTC+8

"I have aerokinesis precise enough to rip off your breath from your lungs. Do not test me."
Highly doubtful considering he hasn't attempted to knock him out with it yet, and even if he tried, his regeneration and blood manipulation can compensate. Jason hasn't bothered testing how long he could do such a thing, but that could be a pretty good avenue of future training.

"You've already killed civilians; by the laws of war..."
Technically speaking, that's an unfair accusation. Attacked them? Sure. Set in motion misunderstandings leading to untimely deaths? Plenty. However, the only instance where he's been directly 'responsible' for the death of a civilian was the woman with the stab wound, at least during his deployment here. He's not even sure she's dead yet. The civilians he killed within the pub can be justified in the eyes of society, if not the law, since he is under duress; he would have stopped at infection had he not taken a bullet to the leg, but since he had been temporarily impaired, his life had been under imminent threat. Killing those people could therefore be considered an act of self-defense, since his choice to do it had been purely utilitarian in nature.

...He still didn't want to deny the accusation. He can't be certain about the woman, since he didn't know whether she has yet succumbed to blood loss, and splitting hairs on killing a civilian versus civilians and the circumstances surrounding qualifiers to such statements wouldn't accomplish anything anyway.

There's a dull thrum in the back of his head when he thinks about what he's done to that woman in particular. He supposes it was rather selfish, using her as a personal litmus test.

Ugh... he's letting his thoughts wander again.

"Do not make your situation any worse; if you surrender now, arrangements can be made in exchange for the survival of the remaining civilians; even more for curing the infection you caused..."
He barks out a laugh. Then he lets go of the man he's been holding hostage, letting his Hemokinesis hold the knife against his throat. "Hand me an empty bottle. Your cheapest drink, if you've got nothing empty."

He ignores the sound of a flare going up outside as the man shakily complies, standing up - within view of the gunman outside, though he can't imagine they'd take the shot through the infected civilians clogging up the pub's entrance, nor risk extraction of the remaining uninfected when the man is currently between the floating knife at his neck and Jason, who happens to be armed with a large ball of stolen blood. The man returns with a mostly empty bottle of San Pellegrino, looking pale as a sheet. He supposes that's to be expected given the bedlam going on at the back of the pub - a cacophony of crying and misdirected violence as they all panic out of their minds.

He takes the bottle, uses a little blood to clean out the insides, removing all of the sparkling water, then discards the liquid in the sink. He takes a bit more blood, fills the bottle up, then turns it into the Panacea.

He creates another two knives to cover all angles, then positions them around his hostage's neck. It takes a bit of concentration to keep them the right distance away to keep from cutting the man as he moves and breathes, but he already has to divert focus to him in order to keep the other infected off, so it's not much worse.

He calls out to the gunman as he tests his mostly healed leg with a stomp against the ground. "Coming out. Attack, and I can't guarantee this hostage's safety." He couldn't even if the gunman didn't attack, and safety was relative to begin with, though he had no intention of harming the man, (at least not meaningfully) and at a certain point, language simply does not play nice with specificity. If he specified he had no intention of harming the man at all, he'd also have to specify for how long, and 'until I escape' probably wouldn't go over well, especially if they took it to mean he wanted to harm the man afterwards. What if he's a particularly ornery hostage with a hidden Noble Arm? People never think their commitments through.

In any case, the gunman didn't feel it prudent to take blind shots through the counter, so he doubted he'd actually risk the hostage even if he had something to say to the contrary. He stood up, finally showing himself from over the counter, and directed the man to stand up with him. He had the man lead the way to make it easier to multitask his concentration, but instead of walking towards the back of the pub near the hysterical infected to go around the counter, the man decided to clamber over it. Fair enough, not even Jason was safe from them, even if none of them could realistically harm him.

They walked out in front of the pub, gently pushing the forlorn looking civilians who had been eyeing the gunman out of the way when his hostage didn't feel confident in doing so. Jason floated the Panacea bottle over beside him.

There, Jason finally came close enough to get a good look at the gunman. He had flown down to get a better angle on the pub, but was still hovering out of reach of the infected. His features were effeminate, and his hair was a nostalgic shade of strawberry red...

He averted his eyes before his ghosts had time to come back and haunt him. Hopefully the mask did a good job of hiding where he was looking. It certainly helped hide whatever face he was making. He mentally shook it off.

"If you wanted the cure, all you had to do was ask." The San Pellegrino bottle filled with Panacea floated on beside him. He really didn't mind giving away the cure; it's not like it could be kept effective for long, and curing the zombies wouldn't constitute a failure state. In fact, it would help hide the inherent time limit of his viruses. The exterior of the bottle just so happened to be covered in a thin layer of the apathy virus, but since it was mostly dried and impossible to discern from the bottle's contents, the gunman didn't need to know that.

He handed the bottle over to the hostage, being sure to keep the virus on the bottle from infecting the man. It would help hide the virus and prove the Panacea was real. "Why don't you demonstrate it? Pick one of the infected and make them drink. Here, I'll remove my protection to make it easier to see the effect-"

All at once, every lonely infected took their eyes off of Amadeo to stare at the man in their midst. He flinched, and Jason let the back of the man's neck touch one of the knives. "You're safe. Relax. They're annoying, but harmless."

The man was soon smothered by the strangers who had started grabbing and holding onto him for dear life. It was better that he didn't make contact with the infected to prove the cure's authenticity, though he wouldn't deny avoiding that was a major factor in his decision to do it this way.

The man, visibly very uncomfortable with all the people and the knives around him, uncapped the bottle and pressed it against the nearest man's lips. "Drink." Jason commanded, since the hostage didn't seem composed enough to give the order himself. The infected man, irrationally trusting the object of his obsession, complied, and, after a few seconds, began to grow confused, not entirely sure why he was hugging the pub's bartender. He backed away from his first hostage, and Jason stepped forward to put an arm around the man. It was an overly friendly gesture - hopefully indicating his lack of intent to harm to the gunman. Technically, all of the infected were his hostages, though it seemed that they weren't recognized as such until they were cured. "Hello, healthy hostage two." He pulled another knife from his back - a butterfly knife, just to play with using his free hand. It felt rude to point it at the new hostage right off the bat, though the knife tricks and his grip on the man's shoulder had him plenty intimidated. He let his protection on hostage 1 come back up, and the lonely infected slowly began peeling themselves off of him, returning their focus to the gunman.

He took the bottle from the first hostage's grip, using his Hemokinesis, lifting it up to the man's lips. "You might want to take a drink yourself." The man wasn't actually infected - he had enough control to do that much, but he was covered in the sweat of the other infected, and he didn't particularly see the point to letting the man become infected when they inevitably parted ways. The Panacea wasn't by any means a permanent cure, though unless he deliberately messed with the virus strains, it could prevent reinfection in cases like these.

The man hesitantly complied, taking a sip, then made a disgusted face. He finally spoke for the first time since he was taken hostage, "Tastes like blood."

A shocking revelation. Who would have thought that blood tasted like blood. "I've been working on that." he comments offhandedly, because he has, even if it hadn't been because of the Panacea. He doesn't look back at the gunman - didn't like his face, but he turned to address him nonetheless. "The bottle contains the cure. It works on the zombies and all of the infected here." There. No room for ambiguity. It should be clear he meant it when he said that all the gunman had to do was ask.

Just then, a riot police squad pulled up, leaving their vehicle only for the attention of all of the lonely infected to turn away from Amadeo and towards them.

"Attention! This is the police! Surrender now, and there will be no further trouble!"
The infected hesitated, but still began drawing towards the newcomers as they erected a shield wall. Unfortunate, how often police seemed to shoot first and ask questions later, though he supposes that trait isn't unique to the police. One of the members held an old Roman shield, too ornate and incongruous to be anything but a Noble Arm. He held it up above him - a barrier perhaps? Not likely a threat, then. He addresses the gunman without taking his eyes off of the riot police. "You mentioned something about killing civilians earlier?" It'd be quite ironic if they began opening fire. He shook his head. "Nevermind. Well, here, you wanted the cure, right?"

Jason takes the bottle from his hostage and uses his considerable strength to throw the bottle up, aiming it over rooftops, at an angle from his escape route so that he could potentially take the gunman captive if things went well but divergent enough that he could avoid the gunman if things didn't. He took off at the same time, not particularly caring if the riot police opened fire considering the crowd of infected he had as cover and the two hostages he was dragging along. He carried the second over one shoulder, letting the butterfly knife float next to his head, while the other felt the gentle press of a knife on the back of his neck until he followed, forced into a route that put him in the way of any incoming bullets or Noble Arm projectiles. Jason ran back towards the alleyway, turning the corner into it, then ran up to the gate and simply jumped it, kicking off the wall and over it. It left him vulnerable to gunfire if anyone had an angle from outside the alleyway, but the gunman should hopefully be busy, and hostage 1 could continue providing cover from the other side of the gate after landing.

The back of the alleyway led to a small square lot, which would let him break line of sight to the alleyway. Upon arrival, he'd pulled the knives around hostage 1's neck away, up, then towards him, releasing his hostage without meaningful harm, as promised. He'd then reposition the knives around hostage 2, reducing the man's struggling, but mainly just to save himself the trouble of making more.

The lot rests at a lower elevation than the street at the back of it, but it wasn't too high for him to leap up and climb over, and from there, he could get try getting lost within the semi-residential backstreets.
So, I may have gone a little overboard.

Controlled Amadeo for a bit in my latest post with @Letter Bee's consultation and approval.

Balibago, Angeles City - 10/18/2022, 20:48 UTC+8

As much as he wanted to keep his anonymity, the far side of the alley was fenced off and didn't visibly lead anywhere he could hide. He could get over the fence, easily, though the voice behind him came from above, and the words 'state your name and purpose' seldom came without a Noble Arm being trained on you. That or just a gun. Against an unknown enemy, he couldn't risk letting them get a good look at him, nor risk being unable to find cover from aerial bombardment. He reached into his jacket, pulling out his mask, and affixed it to his face before turning around.

He had already checked for potential witnesses before attacking that woman, who was, instead of attacking a storefront like he had initially thought, apparently now attacking a bank. What he had failed to do, however, was sweep the skies. Rookie mistake, Jason. He knows, logically, he can't spend his entire life looking over his shoulder for Noble Arm-based boogeymen, but some form of flight is pretty common among combat Noble Arms. Maybe not many within a given group, but at least one? Almost guaranteed.

In any case, he needed to bullshit his way through the flying guy with a rifle trained on him. He had no idea what the guy was talking about, and even if he did, he didn't care for deception. That's been true even before the OPL fucked with his head. That being said, a lie by omission isn't a lie at all. It's not his responsibility to volunteer information to people, and what they do with what he gives them is their own prerogative.

It was rather awkward shouting up at the guy from so far away anyway. It was, amusingly, a genuinely opportune moment to practice his piss-poor sign language skills. He covered his masked mouth with a fist ((the symbol for mute but held against his face the wrong way)) and then did some bullshit swirl of his two index fingers before tapping two fingers on one hand beneath his chin. That definitely meant that he was not going to talk, source: bro trust.

Amadeo just stared at him, looking confused. Jason repeated the totally accurate and not at all made up gesture that was just as likely to be a real sentence in sign language as it was to be the somatic component of an Occult Programming Spell. Amadeo visibly didn't get it, so he tried a few more gestures as he slowly walked out of the alleyway. Amadeo kept his rifle trained on Jason the whole time, and didn't seem to object when he came to a stop on the sidewalk outside the alley.

Reaching a communicative impasse, Amadeo reached into his pocket for a phone, perhaps to look up sign language. That was bad. Potentially worse was the possibility that he was looking up Jason's mask. He hadn't been too high-profile since nobody connected him to his virus' debut until after it had been mostly dealt with, and subsequent infections never made headlines like the first, but the mask was distinctive. The connection between the virus and the man in a plague doctor mask is known, and he wouldn't have a hard time looking him up if he was with Task Force Obsidian, which, based on the volunteer comment, he almost definitely was.

Not giving Amadeo the time, he began making additional gestures towards the nearest busy storefront - Sullivan's Irish Pub. The interior was dimly lit by colorful lights, and despite the mess going on across the street, it was full of patrons, probably not paying much attention from the loud sound of music coming from inside. Jason begins walking towards it, eyes still trained on the man floating distantly up above.


Amadeo shifts his rifle, keeping it on Jason, and Jason stops. He doesn't actually mind getting shot, though it wouldn't be good to let on just how little he would mind it - He does mind, in fact, that it'd put a hole in his clothes, and a headshot would be particularly bad, but best practice is generally to aim for center mass, which ironically isn't likely to slow Jason down too much. Jason continues making gestures he invented on the spot to indicate that he wanted to enter the pub. He even makes a gesture indicating that he's trying to get away from Amadeo, which probably reads as nothing since he can't do sign language to save his life. Amadeo continues giving him confused looks before trying to respond to his made up sign-language.

"Not the Pub. If you want to go somewhere, pick a place without people."

Right. Guess it's time to get to cover.

Jason doesn't acknowledge Amadeo - a nod would be a lie - but he stares up at him, patiently waiting for his attention to flick back to his phone. When it does, he dashes straight towards the pub, and a gunshot rings out as the sensation of a bullet wound hits the back of his right calf. It rips right through his leg, but either misses or ricochets off the bone, because he finds he can still put weight on it. It's unsteady and he's liable to collapse with every step, but it keeps him going long enough to enter into the pub full of aghast patrons and throw himself over the bar counter, leaping up with and sliding over it on his good leg. He generates a few knives in his back, grabs two with one hand and tosses them into the crowd of patrons. When push comes to shove, he finds it much easier, and he's going to need more blood than whatever he can pull out of himself for this. He grabs the man behind the counter as he pulls the third knife out of his back and drags the man down, holding the knife against his throat. It never hurts to have hostages. Sitting on his ass with his back against the counter, one arm draped around the man with his other arm holding the knife, he begins pulling the loose blood he can sense from over the wall of the counter, modifies it with the loneliness virus, and shoots it towards the front of the shop, blindly splattering the first of the patrons to run away - maybe that guy too, if he followed. Afterwards, without waiting for any sort of confirmation of the situation, he switches to the fear virus and shoots it towards the patrons stuck at the back of the pub, including the band who were, up until his entry, singing a song about whether some girl would spend time with him if he told her the world was ending. He pulls the rest of the blood closer to him, ready to splatter the first person he sees peeking over the counter.

He's been in the pub for about three or four seconds, and although he can't see most of it from his angle, it no doubt already looks like a horror show. He saw it as he entered - relatively little standing room between the occupied bar stools on the left and the tiny tables lined up against the wall on the right. A live performance occupied the small stage at the back of the pub, probably a local band that performs for fun. He wonders how bad it looks with all the walls covered in blood.

Balibago, Angeles City - 10/18/2022, 20:33 UTC+8

He's always liked people-watching, even back when he was a civilian. Watching passersby isn't particularly stimulating, but hubs of activity tended to offer revealing windows into the irrationalities of people. It gave him a more reliable measure of what constituted normal behavior, free from the bias of entertainment or the specific quirks of his direly limited social circle.

It's become a more fruitful pastime, as of late. His intuition has since become strange, and behaviors he had originally dismissed as impractical or nonsensical make more sense in the context of social manipulation. He could recite a book on the topic word for word, but he's always struggled to identify how the underlying principles are or could be put into practice.

He stared at the ramen shop from a nearby rooftop. The way that man leans over his ramen, despite having finished eating. The way that woman seems to laugh at every other thing her companion says. The subtlety of simply tilting one's head towards another. The way that woman from earlier begins to stare off into space, like- yeah, that's the first infection within the restaurant. The other patrons scream. Ironic, considering they didn't even notice when one of the other patrons turned outside the restaurant and attacked someone in full view of the windows.

Looks like his people-watching time is over.

He dismounts the rooftop, not bothering with a safe landing. His steps are a little awkward for a few seconds after, but it's nothing he can't walk off. The zombies seem to be proliferating well, though they've always been rather stupid things. If nothing catches their attention, they tend to shamble aimlessly, and while they don't ignore the hustle and bustle of the city, they aren't exactly the running type unless they catch sight of prey.

He decides not to linger with them, walking down and off the street. The zombie virus is, honestly, pretty harmless in the end, but unless ASEAN quickly puts together that the symptoms match some random arms user that has only been active in Ukraine, the damage from the panic they cause tends to be vastly more devastating. After all, it's rare for zombie movies to end because the virus has a shorter lifespan than the common cold or flu. Granted, reinfection is a serious issue, but even without a quarantine, it tends to burn out in a week or two at most. Reinfection often happens before they get the chance to drink anything, so they tend to die of dehydration during the second round.

Still, that left the question of whether he should add more points of infection or leave it as-is. Dropping even a few zombies into a highly populated area is usually enough, but dropping them into different locations massively speeds up the infection rate. Knowing Ai Chen, he doubts she'd care how much collateral got involved. In fact, she might egg him on to cause more, even if it isn't beneficial.

Wouldn't it be, in this case?

Something about the thought is upsetting, though he can't particularly fathom why. He doesn't care for anyone here - probably no one in the country, even. He's unleashing a zombie virus that will have an indeterminate death count, even if it's all indirect deaths, so why does he feel opposed to the idea of spreading it more?

He tamps down on the feeling as he passes by another man. He doesn't particularly need to make a scene to infect him, so he doesn't, withdrawing some blood and guiding it to the man's face without pausing his walk. It only takes moments for the man's spluttering to cut out before, no doubt, being replaced by a thousand-yard stare.

He keeps walking.

His newfound fixation on preserving human life is pointless and detrimental. Life is not precious. Earth has had a chronic overpopulation problem even throughout the rise of Noble Arms. It's that damned OPL code.

It really was incredibly stupid, using normal human brain chemistry as the regeneration template. The idea that it wouldn't matter is laughable to him, now. At least his Noble Arm got it right.

He still hasn't tested his regeneration without his Noble Arm. He should have some degree of it in theory, but he knows that normal people view his thinking as lacking, somehow, and he'd hate to think the same. He'd much rather have an emotional blind spot than a logical one, thank you very much. Hypocrites, the lot of them.

He enters a nearby alleyway and lifts up his jacket and shirt to avoid creating a hole in them, then manifests a simple kitchen knife, feeling the throb of unfelt pain in his back. Reaching back, he pulls it out, letting his clothes drop, and hides the knife under his jacket. He can feel his blood staining the back of his shirt, but the jacket is water-resistant and his regeneration is fast enough to keep the wound from making a mess. Blood clotting is child's play.

He waits by the alley entrance, waiting for another passerby. Eventually, a woman holding a baseball bat does, and he uses his Hemokinesis to pull the knife out from his jacket and launch it at her. Human life isn't precious, and he needs to prove to himself that he believes it; that he can take it when the need arises.

The knife sinks right into her neck, catching her completely unawares, but the wound is pathetically shallow. An exercise in utilization of minimal force, he tries to justify, except he knows he can't lie to himself. He hasn't caused any meaningful damage. Frustration bubbles up within him, and he telekinetically pulls the knife out and jams it into her lower abdomen. It was something he did on the spur of the moment; something to take his anger out on, except why bother pulling the knife away from her neck, then?

It's a waste to kill her, he mentally argues. It's a waste to kill everyone haphazardly too. Human life isn't precious, but it has more use alive than dead. The justification rings hollow to him, but it's an acceptable excuse this time. He has no reason to kill people here. He can more closely examine his self-endangerment later... except there may never be a better time to do so than now. If he fails to pull the metaphorical trigger once, what's to stop it from happening again?

He can feel a headache coming on, already far too late to stop. He decides that if he's going to kill the woman, it's now or never. He reaches out - an unnecessary motion, but a steadying one. He could pull the knife out. The blood loss alone might be enough to do it, eventually, though it wouldn't be enough to clear his doubts, and he's not sure he wouldn't hesitate to stab her again. He instead reaches for the virus, barely accessible through her stab wound, and changes it to the rage variant, something that ensures she'll aggravate her wound and burn out - to death. There. He's done it.

When the headache hits, he finds it easier to keep his gaze locked onto the pavement. It's not painful, per se, but it's probably the closest thing to pain he can still feel, like resting your head on a bed of uneven porous rock. It's an intrusive sort of discomfort that he's become excruciatingly familiar with, since pushing against the resulting mental fatigue is both pointless and sharpens the rock's jagged edges. It's certainly worse than the feeling of the woman slamming the bat into his head.

"American Bastard!" She yells out something he barely registers, and doesn't even bother trying to understand.

He kicks her back as his skull repairs the minor damage she managed to deal and she snarls, brandishing the bat for another home run. Why is she even carrying... doesn't matter. He can still identify an enemy when he sees one. He grabs the bat as it swings at him. He probably sprains his wrist in the process, but he wouldn't care even if he were in his right mind to. He sees flicker of movement in the corner of his eye, and, preparing to take on another assailant, he angles the bat and pushes it back at her, hitting her in the chest and forcing her back, before following it up with another kick, pushing her out of the alleyway and into the street. That should give him the time and space to deal with the new arrival.

He stares them down, arms raised, prepared to fight, and they stare back through slitted green eyes. The staredown drags on and on for what feels like forever, until the loud sound of glass shattering rings out from a ways across the street, and the tabby cat he's been staring down darts away, probably scared off by the noise.

Did he just... get into a standoff with a stray cat?

He clutches at his forehead, not sure whether the lingering discomfort of his headache or his mortification is worse. He glances at the woman with a baseball bat ransacking some storefront before walking away as shouts of alarm begin to ring out. He'd rather not put on the mask and give up the element of surprise just yet, and it's not really his concern what trouble that woman gets into. The rage virus isn't really the infectious type, if only because the behaviors it causes aren't conducive to it, but maybe she'll infect more people by accident, who can say? Ai Chen hasn't said anything about friendly fire, so it's not like a particularly ornery Noble Arms user getting infected should matter. Even if the Philippines gets blown up, he'll probably be fine as long as it isn't vaporized. Probably.


Getting back to camp, first thing's first, he deposits the wood next to the small fire Noah lit and tosses a few sticks onto the blaze without any prompting or permission. Next, he begins to wander off, trying to break line of sight with all of his friends but especially Kieran before digging his cooler out of the sand, retrieving two cans of Red Bull and then burying it again. He creates some distance from the hiding place, remaining out of sight of the others just in case, before cracking one can open and immediately downing half of it in one go.

When he finally comes back up for air, he begins pacing, still mostly obscured from the others by the pre-shore tree line. He needs a plan, a series of steps he can follow in order to achieve his goals, and the first step for that is determining what those goals actually are.

He likes Deuel, that much is undeniable. Though, as a romantic partner, he can't say anyone else comes further out of left field. At least, out of anyone he actually considers a friend. It's... not something he's sure about, at all. Although he's mostly deferred judgment on it because of his age and inexperience, love at first sight isn't something he currently believes to exist, and he can't imagine suddenly losing all of his brain cells at the sight of someone particularly attractive as so described in many a trite love song. As such, it strikes him as impractical to be holding out for some kind of divine revelation relating to his love life at the expense of his current prospects. They say relationships take time to build, don't they?

He's certainly had plenty of time to build a relationship with all five of his friends, but he's never had more than passing flights of fancy about it - mainly with Conner, and only because of the excessively affectionate mannerisms he shows everyone. Did all those years as friends not constitute adequate candidacy for a relationship? Has he been aromantic the whole time or is it just because he never bothered considering it?

Well, no, he's definitely considered it, but he's persistently identified himself as an underlying problem with any projection of hypothetical relationships with himself. He is undeniably pretty fucked in the head, and every scenario he maps out always loops back around to hurting not just his friends but himself in the end.

Him and Conner? Complete opposites. It's a miracle they're even friends. How happy could they be together when he doesn't even like the beach? There's no way Conner would be happy in a relationship with him.

Him and Kieran? Also a disaster in the making. Even now, he can't laugh off a prank because he has too many psychological hang-ups. It doesn't really matter how many apologies or assurances Kieran gives him when being made the butt of a joke always feels like a microcosm of his life.

Him and Ciel? It's like the blind leading the blind, except the one being led, Ciel, just lost his glasses while he's had his eyes scooped out like cannibal ice cream. Their friendship is already like that - Ciel's managed to open up about his insecurities, but what Niles has isn't a fear of judgment, it's quantifiable knowledge of his many inadequacies. Ask anyone - there's no denying he's the biggest wet blanket in their friend group. Their problems will only compound if they got together.

Him and Noah? God, him and Noah. It's so easy to form and hold grudges against the guy when he pushes so many of his buttons without even realizing it. His overreaction to any tiny slight against him is... it... it makes Noah hard to handle, and when he returns the favor, it just seems to piss Noah off, hypocrite that he is. If they got together there's a chance it'd end in blood and he's not sure whose.

Then there's Deuel. What else is there to say about Deuel? He's more distant than Noah or Ciel, similar to Niles in many ways yet utterly superior in others. His tendency to unilaterally compete with Niles has always made him wonder if Deuel secretly hated him; wanted to expose his vapid hairstyle and nonchalant attitude for the empty posturing that it is.

For a brief, heart-clenching moment, a swirling vortex of bubbling pitch seems to blot out the sunset sky; dread washing over him as he considers the possibility that this is a ploy set up by Deuel to manipulate or embarrass him.

No, he shakes his head to himself - no. Besides a less than graceful escape, he hasn't blown the situation up in his own face yet. If anything Deuel left himself more vulnerable with that straight-faced confession.

"But what I feel for you, this yearning, this warmth and fire, it's love."

Niles shudders. The wording - how can he doubt that level of sincerity?

So, Deuel likes him. Maybe it's just a fleeting crush he'll get over with time, but for now, it's going to be something he has to address either way, since, unlike the others, he's likely to continue seeing Deuel throughout college. That could potentially be bad, if things don't work out. He should probably plan that argument out in advance, when Deuel inevitably gets frustrated he's committed so much of his life to being around such an asshole. It's not hard to imagine how - money spent on charity is money that isn't spent on research, development, or expansion. You need to spend money to make money and beyond tax incentives, there will never be a time when he won't be able to argue that he could do more good by reinvesting and helping people with the greater resulting income.

He'll put a pin in rehearsing that argument for now.

As much as he likes Conner's freely given affection - as much as he likes Kieran's comfortable presence, dark humor, and emotional openness - as much as he empathizes with Ciel and admires him for tackling his struggles better than he ever could - as much as it means to him when Noah goes the extra mile to prove how much he cares about him, even when he tells Noah not to - as much as Deuel is perhaps the only person who can go off on a idealistic tangent and not only make him believe that such ideals can be lived up to, but that the person carrying it out, Deuel, actually believes what they're preaching - as much as a selfish, possessive, altogether ugly part of him wouldn't mind a relationship with any one of them, no matter how he hurts them, in the end, he doesn't want that. He doesn't want to hurt any of them.

Backing up a bit, he needed to decide what his goals are in order to form a plan. After careful examination of his feelings, he can say with confidence that a relationship with Deuel or anyone else isn't it. Not... not as the person he is now. Maybe that's not a realistic time frame, but maybe he's too messed up for a proper relationship.

If the goal is to make Deuel happy, he can't see any better way of handling his confession than a rejection.

After spending several more minutes spent pacing, searching for the right wording to use, and coming up with excessively numerous deflections to potential avenues of further inquiry, Niles returned to camp, depositing the empty red bull can into a bag for later recycling as he took a swig of the other one.

The bonfire was starting to flag a bit, and he sat himself down next to it, taking a pile of sticks and tossing them in one by one. It was perhaps bad for the eyes to be staring directly at the fire continuously, but watching the sticks burn was just too cathartic. Perhaps he was adding more wood than strictly necessary, but it's not like they didn't have the sticks to burn.

Niles noticed the arrival of most of the others, though he didn't realize Deuel had arrived until he announced that he had brought gifts for everyone. Before he could even debate when to tell Deuel his decision, Deuel was shoving a bag towards him.

He was at a bit of a loss here. He didn't deserve a gift from the guy right before breaking his heart, but if he had to explain why he couldn't accept a gift before even looking at it, he wouldn't be able to do it casually. "...Thank you."

He gingerly took the bag and lowered it, peering inside. Inside was some sort of plush doll, which he gently pulled out, only to realize it was a doll of Deuel.

A bit of a conceited gift, maybe, but as a token of their friendship, something to remember him by, it's perfect. It's... nice to have proof, that they were once friends... just in case.

Niles stared at the plush, a soft smile on his face below stormy eyes. He didn't want to say he liked it in front of the others, lest they get the wrong idea, especially given what he was about to do, but he did like it. He opted to repeat himself. "Thanks. We should talk, tonight." He can at least keep the matter private, for Deuel's sake. Give him the space to lash out, if it makes him feel better. Plus, no spectators means less variables. Less chance that someone asks something he hadn't planned for.

Well, for all his contingencies, the plan is pretty simple: I think we should stay friends.

Muraya Ramen House, Balibago, Angeles City - 10/18/2022, 20:02 UTC+8

"Spicy Miso, please."

The waitress nods, taking back the menu and leaving Jason to his own devices.

The gunmetal jacket Ai Chen had thrown in his face on the flight over is unassuming enough, though infiltration work really isn't his forte. That isn't to say he's feeling much career fulfillment carrying out haphazard acts of terrorism, but he has to admit that his Noble Arm is uniquely suited towards 'lowering morale.'

The mission itself is rather onerous - him against pretty much all of task force: Obsidian. While he hasn't been saddled with taking them all down, besides his extraction, he's mostly been left to handle the whole thing on his own. Can't have him flipping out on any partner, and it's not like they could split up after he begins spreading the virus.

The waitress eventually returns with his bowl of ramen. He shoots her a thank you before breaking apart a pair of chopsticks and digging in. Maybe he should have tried actual filipino food for his first visit, but as a creature of habit, he can't resist going back to his old favorites.

The spice dances mildly on his tongue, and he bites into it hard enough to bleed, willing the regeneration to do its damn job. The scars on his skin and dark circles under his eyes are both its most glaring failures, but his burnt taste receptors from years of drinking coffee before it adequately cools down is perhaps its worst shortcoming. It wouldn't be so bad if he could fix it once and be done with it, like the same haircut he's been sporting since he got his powers, but he either can't help but foil himself with the same bad habits he's always had or his self-image is so intertwined with the damage that he keeps bringing it back without realizing. Either way, he reaches for one of the bottles of chili oil the restaurant leaves on every table and begins pouring on more of it, then takes a bite and smiles at the double-whammy of repaired taste buds and increased heat. It's not like he can feel the painful parts, so the physiological responses to extreme heat have a novelty to them not unlike the deterioration of motor function from alcohol.

Whatever, this should do for the taste test.

He bites into his thumb and pulls a small ball of blood out, hidden from the other customers by his bowl. Modifying blood is his specialty, but the most literal of modifications still elude him. Changing the color of blood to a different shade of red is easy. Blood already changes color based on its level of oxygenation and can range anywhere from a vibrant scarlet to a claret shade of black. While he's managed to keep blood healthy and alive at its more unhealthy shades, nothing really happens when he tries to go for shades of blue or green. Perhaps more frustrating is that, when he tries, he finds that it really isn't that difficult to push the color slightly away from red, towards orange, brown, and especially towards pink. At the extreme end of alteration, the orb of blood looks more like an orb of Pepto Bismol. Something about the image of that wretched indigestion medicine near his ramen makes his stomach turn, so he returns the ball of blood to red before taking another bite.

What he'd really like to accomplish is clear blood, indistinguishable from water, but the opacity on his little ball of blood isn't quite so flexible. When separated into component parts, semitransparent blood plasma should make up more than half of the contents of blood, but even through conscious effort, all he seems to be able to make is this sickly yellow mess that fills him with similar disgust when left next to his food. Does pure blood plasma even still count as blood for his powers? Is the blood plasma he creates even close to pure, or is it some bastardized contaminated mix?

Fuck it, he'll just put the blood in the chili oil.

Next, modifying the blood to have no taste. He begins trying to remove the iron so that the offensive taste of pennies doesn't stand front and center, but try as he might, any satisfyingly inoffensive taste constitutes complete death of the sample. He ends up having to bite into his thumb a few more times before finally giving up on removing the iron, aiming to overpower the taste instead. Luckily, enhancing the inherent meaty flavor leads to a surprisingly pleasant outcome, resembling the miso soup in some ways. Maybe he could slip it into the Miso too. Just gotta make it more of a dark orange-yellow... yeah, that works. Taste test, and- okay, a little bit more tweaking.

By the end, he has something that any chef would crucify him for comparing to miso, but it doesn't particularly change the flavor when added to proper miso broth.

It strikes him, all at once, that perhaps matching the ramen flavors was an unnecessary step to take, but he rather enjoyed the food here, and defending the chef's professional integrity is the least he could do before terrorizing the staff with zombie customers.

Well, no, the least he could do for them would be contaminating all of their supplies and not giving a damn how it affects the ramen. The entire exercise in blood flavoring has been a waste of time, hasn't it?

Jason physically shakes off the gloom. He has to consciously remind himself that further development of his Noble Arm could eventually lead to a breakthrough, no matter how inane the direction seems at first. He finishes off the rest of his ramen before flagging down the waitress for his check.

While he's waiting, he considers how to handle task force: Obsidian after drawing their attention here. Realistically speaking, all he'd need to do is infect one of them with the loneliness virus and his job would be done. Since they seem to be recuperating, it's unlikely that the Ritz hotel becomes an easier target just because some of them are drawn away, and thus it's likely best to just send one of them back as a trojan horse.

Jason takes his lightly flavored blood, keeping it red, and begins modifying the virus within for delayed release. This, he has already mastered, albeit only relatively, since the variance in victim metabolism makes it difficult to nail down a specific time frame before secondary symptoms manifest. A side effect of the greater delay is that the increased heart rate is harder to notice at first, though it stops being beneficial once it starts to kick in, becoming more obvious due to the longer period it's drawn out over. He should also probably keep collateral to a minimum, which in this case means making the virus lose potency if it hasn't infected a body by... let's see, the restaurant closes at midnight? That works.

Mixed in with a lot of broth or the rest of the chili oil, the dosage would be rather low, but direct consumption would still have people turning within several seconds. He decides to shoot for a dosage and potency where secondary symptoms begin to manifest after fifteen minutes or so, hopefully enough time for people to finish their meals and walk out, if only to lessen the trouble for the restaurant owners.

...Which is pretty pointless considering they're likely to get infected sooner or later, whether it be by the broth or their customers. He can feel a light ache at the back of his head at his own wishy washy bullshit and decides to stop thinking about it before the thoughts start to become their own problem.

When the waitress comes back with his check, he pays in cash, leaving a generous tip, before standing and infecting all the chili oil bottles he walks past. His own table was at the end of the restaurant, so it was simple to get all the unoccupied tables, and for the rest he just floated the blood droplets under their table when he passed by and into the chili oil bottles from behind their lines of sight, quietly observing the other customers as he did so to make sure none of them paid enough attention to notice. When he reaches the front of the restaurant, he stops, turning around and walking towards the back of the restaurant, as if forgetting something. It's rather trivial getting into the kitchen, albeit not very far in, and floating over the flavored, colored blood into all of the pots that look like miso.

One of the chefs realizes he shouldn't be there, but doesn't seem to have noticed his sabotage. "Sir, you can't be back here."

Since it's not the waitress, he plays up the clueless foreigner act, apologizing in Russian, not expecting it to be understood, before using a common tourist phrase, letting his accent shine through. "Where is the restroom?"

The woman shakes her head, probably unsure if the foreigner would even understand her words. "No public restroom." She moves forward to drive him out of the kitchen and he lets her, backing off and continuing away from the kitchen once he's out until he passes through the front doors.

Now he just has to wait.
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