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Nothing Gold Can Stay (Dead)

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"I can agree to your conditions, so long as you can abide by two of my own. One is that my protege be let in on our arrangement. As she has agreed to stay with me despite the danger it places her in, I will hide nothing from her."

There was no hiding the flicker of distaste that flashed across Phoebe's shadowed expression as John raised the possibility of bringing Muriel into the fold. Her light eyes slid toward the door, though her face remained turned toward the Governor, and small lines shot from the corner of her full lips as she pressed them together.  

The second condition received just the flare of her palm; the first, though, the first she came back to.

"Are you sure, John? If we do that, Muriel will wear the contract the same as you- for life. "

If Phoebe knew Hell's Gate, it was probably no surprise that she knew Muriel as well.

"Just an educated guess on your dear friend.." Sharp eyes would catch the wink, subtle as it was, before she went on .  "We know how tough you are to kill, so the repercussions of breaking the contract would then have to be.. properly targeted.. for both of you."

A smile, faint and weary, pulled at Phoebe's lips. Truth be told, this wasn't the most enjoyable part of her job - threatening someone's wife, letting their imagination wonder what horror she could bestow on their children, their loved ones, everything and anything they cared for, was almost a step too far into the fetid blackness.


She'd done worse, when needed, and she'd do this too.

Her psionics' gentle touch was a calming breeze that swept through John's thick hair as she wove it through his dark locks, leaving it unkempt and ruffled, like a young man in the prime of his rugged wildness. It was an unbecoming look on a politician, but as a man, it worked for John, casting a glimpse into a long-distant past, one which would never again be, but one that felt so very real- so virile- so possible.

She was distracting- him, and her, and maybe other eyes not yet considered. Idly, her attention and its ghostly manifestation slipped lazily across the swell of his broad chest, to the two buttons at the top of his shirt. With abstract, idle intentions, the warm pass of her Will slipped the polished disks loose, and their brush delicately sprawled his collar open in indecent, whimsical, abandon.

A glance took him in now, carefully and delicately, like appraising eyes on a new bride. He was just the shadow of the Cowboy now; the free-spirit which rode into Everrun so many years ago and claimed it with little more than piss and an 'I said so', but it was still there, and its hint broadened her lazy grin. She spent another moment in reverie before business lay its claim across her face and her soft gaze met his bicolor atrocity once again.

"What I mean to say John, is that if you bring her into this and she declines, she'll die right here on your floor."  She paused, let a breath fill and empty in her thin chest, as she looked down at the imported wood planks which would be Muriel's resting place.  It was just a fact to her; not arrogance, or foolish bragging, or a threat.  If anything, she sounded sad about it- the way her eyes rounded, and her voice toned down, one might think the thought bothered her.  Phoebe let the moment settle, then looked back up.  "It's just like a light going out. It'll be gentle, but that's of little consolation to most people. If she accepts and later breaks the contract, your family dies; her family dies. If you break it, she and your family die."  

Her sigh was gentle but resigned- for all the mad power she sought, Phoebe had no wish to spread misery for misery's sake. If decisions were to be made, they would be made with wide-eyes from all parties.

"There's a lot of death in business these days. Take a minute to consider-- we can still do business; I can walk out of here in ten minutes with a grin on my lips, a half-tuck to my shirt, and a handful of cash that make this... " She lifted her hand, a waving, playful wave of her fingertips tied she and John together. "..an easy story to sell. 

Muriel can go home; she can keep going home for the rest of her life, and never, ever, see me again. 

Your enemies will still die.  Your family will still be safe.

Or we can bring her in.

Think about it.. I'll wait."

Edited by Noko

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Anger flared up in the pit of his stomach when the woman threatened his family and protege; but he was able to quickly suppress it. Though he had no doubt that his guest would carry out her promises of harm; he also knew that it was just a formality. In the world they lived in, it was important to establish that there were consequences for crossing you. Once it was clear that anyone acting against you would be harshly dealt with; you rarely had to make good on threats of violence. John had given more than a few such warnings during his time as a gangster; so he understood the protocol. He took a deep breath, then answered.

"I understand. I will leave the choice to her then; without telling her any details that would make her a liability. Excuse me for a moment."

The governor walked to the door of his office and into the hall where his protege was waiting dutifully for him to call on her. He regarded her with a neutral expression for a moment; wondering if it was truly fair to ask what he was about to from her. But he decided she needed to know.

"Muriel. I am about to enter into a deal with someone who has offered their help. If you want the full benefit of my help, then you must agree to the deal as well; and understand that there will be dire consequences for breaking the terms. I will not force you to accept, and I will keep you as my apprentice no matter what. But if you want to be able to follow me everywhere, follow me into my office."

John turned and went back into his office and wait to see if Muriel followed him.


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Straining though they were, her ears don't catch everything spoken. Perhaps it's just as well: despite the determination fueling her every move, propelling her into the position she is in right now, the ground she stands on is unsteady, a vague tumultuous sea shifting beneath her feet.

The world she inhabits is a cutthroat business; it's hard to keep the mud splatters away from the hem of your clothes, unblemished and pure. Every day is a struggle not to give in to the temptation of having things easy. Cutting corners, conducting clandestine meetings, making use of shady contacts—these are all so achingly within reach, ready to be used at one's disposal. However, she has made it a point to always reach for the upright methods, the clean-cut kind of people. Her skirts are immaculate. White as snow, or at least as white as John's line of work for her allows it to be.

Her morals are as steadfast as her loyalty to her people and her own. When the two are in direct opposition of each other—well. Therein lies the real challenge.

The door creaks open, and Muriel lifts her gaze off the floor and into her boss' eyes. He tells her he is about to enter a deal, advises her to agree to the deal if she wants in on whatever it is he is planning to do. There is talk of consequences. Danger no matter where she chooses to stand. That, at the very least, is not something new to her nor her ears.

"But if you want to be able to follow me everywhere, follow me into my office."

The precipice is steep. The knife's edge is sharp beneath the rugged soles of her boots. Muriel takes: a deep breath, a careful step forward. Here she goes.

"I'll listen to this—deal of yours, whatever deal it is you're thinking to make," she tells him, holding his gaze with only the slightest of trembling, "before I agree to anything. But know I am with you every step of the way."

And so she follows him within, over the threshold into something new.

(Is this really the right choice?)

There is no time to wonder. Muriel lays eyes on John's guest—the clean lines and the primness of her, the sharpness and the shadows and the mystery of her—and offers the woman a firm nod in greeting. She does not speak, not yet, opting to clasp her hands together tight, white-knuckled.



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Phoebe didn't share Muriel's penchant for silence- the name was a declaration, almost an accusation as her light eyes swept judgment's weight across the newcomer's frame and carried its verdict up to John's granite expression.  For a myriad of reasons, Muriel's presence here wasn't ideal for the Dead-- the First saw it as an extra complication without any corresponding reward; another set of eyes to see things which were best left unseen and a tongue that might wag and need to be ripped out, and it was all so unnecessary.

So ruinous.

So final.

The smile Phoebe laid upon Muriel was faintly welcoming, closed-lipped and slanted, but the other woman would know it for what it was- disappointment.  Not in her, but in John.  It was the tight line of a mother watching her child fail- blooming, then gone in the devil's flash, and covered with a broad falsehood and the arc of her hand and attention toward the newly set desk.  John hadn't been outside the office for long, but it was long enough for Phoebe to have set out and poured a glass for Muriel, topped off she and John's drinks, as well as laid out a fourth glass containing a dusting of what looked like crystalline gun powder on its bottom, next to a long, thin, peculiar-looking knife.

"I'll admit, I'm surprised," Phoebe acknowledged out of the blue, "All that time in advanced studies... honor roll, dean's list, and somehow your road still loops back to me.  You know, I've been promising important people that education is the key to success.."  Her attention flashed up from the drinks, edge-sharp and finely focused, almost angry as she corralled her glass and brought its cool crystal up in a flourish to down the whole of its contents.

"Seems I've been lying."

There wasn't a sense that this was a cooperative conversation and the First didn't wait for a reply.  Instead, the second of John's two visitor chairs was thrust forward toward Muriel via unseen hands, its legs scraping, screeching, carving anxiety out of thin air as it rattled the eardrums and scratched nerves.  Phoebe's touch on their worn wood wasn't the gentile grace with which she'd eased John's buttons open or the playful tease that ruffled his hair, but a sharp snap back to the butcher's edge - to the meat of the matter - business.  

If the girl made it through, she made it through, and if she didn't, that was on John.  

The First's unseen Will peeled from the chair like worms over the edge a fisherman's bucket; on the floor, their influence elongated, stretched for the would-be protege and wound their way up to unfurl around the curve of her jaw, and the rounded swell of her skull, like a Lady caresses a well-polished bauble.  To Muriel, a tickle- the dance of tension and anticipation, unattached to conscious reason or sight.  Muriel couldn't know how close to the cliff she was; but she could feel the empty air beneath the tips of her toes and wonder.

The time for second-guessing was over.  The deal would be made, and Muriel would sign, or the First's skeletal grip would close around Muriel's unblemished neck and her earlier warning to John would sing true.

"Have a seat."

A long moment had stretched into silence, only to be ended with the directive and the jut of Phoebe's chin toward the newly arrived chair.

"..and a drink."  Crisply, she set her empty glass down and picked up a full one, handing it toward Muriel.  "You must really care for John... or really think he's going to carry you to much greater things.  

Out of curiosity, which is it?"

Her question loosed to the whim of the Fates, Phoebe shifted her attention to task at hand.  At the edge of John's desk, she hooked the empty glass with her fingertip and dragged its heavy bottom toward her, glancing at Muriel from time to time as/if the woman answered.  A small red vial appeared, summoned from a sleeve, or a pocket, or the interior of Phoebe's tailored black blazer.  This was set to the side as she lay her fingertips on the steel handled knife and looked back up.

"Grab the top of the empty glass, please.

Ladies first."  She smiled, and the air caught a chill.  "John, hold tight."


Try as I might, this was hard to describe without ruining the atmosphere.  Basically, she's directing Muriel to grab the top of the glass as if she were going to pick it up from the top, then for John to do the same but on top of Muriel's hand.

Also, I made a bunch of assumptions about Muriel based on generalizations.  If they're wrong, tell me and I'll edit!


Edited by Noko

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When the stranger speaks, honeyed poison dripping with every word, Muriel is perturbed but not surprised.

How many times has it been, this wearied dance at the ballroom, hot coals under bare feet? Her family, her upbringing, the glimmer of her intellect and her success and her goodwill: they are all viable barbs to tear at her skin, potential stumbling blocks that can be employed to make her falter. She may yet be inexperienced in all the ways their world works, but she knows a threat when she sees one, and she has been to this performance a hundred times before. Knows what to do in the shoes of her own role.

(The Academy would not have let her survive without a little bit of dogged tenacity and a stiff upper lip.) 

This woman does not know just how much she has sacrificed. Does not know that the being wearing Muriel C. Grey's skin is as much a battle-hardened creature as she is—if not less elegant about it, more clumsy and devoted and forthright about her ill-advised possession of a tender heart and where she stands. Even as her life has been all but spelled out for her like an obstinate toddler, this stranger does not know her. She takes this fact as refuge, bleary lighthouse glare in the foggy chaos of this turbulent sea. Her eyes cannot see the harbor and the giant waves are threatening to drown her, but this: this is a glimmer in the gloom.

When the chair is dragged in her direction by some unseen force, a phantom pressure she knows to be a knife aimed dangerously at her jugular, Muriel betrays nothing but the slow release of air from between the grooves of her teeth. Like a punctured balloon. (Her lungs aren't punctured yet.)

She does not take a seat. A glass is handed over to her, and she grips it tight between her palms, willing the thundering of her heart to slow down.

"You must really care for John... or really think he's going to carry you to much greater things. Out of curiosity, which is it?"

"Both," she tells her, a bland smile painting the arch of her cupid's bow, "but I think that was obvious to you already." 

There is the sudden appearance of a vial with contents Muriel cannot trust, placed next to a knife. The sinking feeling in her chest is a yawning crater, now that she has suspicions on what is about to happen. You know pain, now, don't you? Muriel sneaks a glance towards John, asking a question that need not be verbalized, and then follows the woman's prompting, placing her fingers on the glass where it is instructed to go. 

(Her hand does not shake. She refuses it to.) 



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John had never been a man burdened by regrets. 

Ever since the day he had emerged from the burning wreckage of the black site where he had been made the man he was today, he had treated his life as a second chance. Very few memories of the person he'd been before those experiments; and he reasoned there was more to that than just trauma-induced amnesia. To remember so little, John reckoned that there must not have been that much too remember. He must have been an ordinary man; an unremarkable soldier indistinguishable from every other. A normal life, come and passed like a summer storm. Of course, there was nothing wrong with such a life; it was the sort of thing that John strove to offer the people of his city. 

But he wanted more.

Unable to recall his true birthday, he had decided to treat the day of his escape as the day he had been reborn. From that moment on he had lived each day knowing that the next was never guaranteed; eating the best food, drinking the finest booze, sleeping with the most beautiful men and women. He indulged in every pleasure that struck his fancy; pursued his goals with ruthless drive. Standing in his office now, watching his protege risk her life for his sake, for his family's sake, he felt a deep sense of pride and affection for Muriel. It was much like the way he felt when he looked at his children. The feeling that they were destined for greatness, and that he was privileged to help them reach it. 

John waited for Muriel to place her hands on the top of the glass before he wraps his hands around hers. His gaze meets her, and his eyes communicate many things; respect, gratitude, paternal love. With his thumb, he stroked the back of her hand to comfort her. Then he looks at Phoebe.

"We're ready."

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"We're ready."

So it was settled.

"Then we start," she responded.

Phoebe plucked the blade from its place- it was an odd-looking thing, for a knife.  It had the requisite components, of course, a long, thin, wickedly sharp edge, and the smallest of hilts that turned backward to cup the hand and not catch weapons.  Angling it upward, she scraped at its pommel until her nail caught an edge and with the curl of her finger, she popped the obsidian cap up and out and then tapped out what appeared to be an eight-inch long needle, as thick and as sharp as a butcher's hook, that had been housed along the back of the blade.

Its dry echo ground as it slipped free, sounding sandpaper and glass along its metal edge, and prickling its way across one's small hairs as the sharply angled tip escaped and was set on John's desk alongside the glass cup.  Phoebe glanced up from her preparations, watching her companions' eyes and offering their sensibilities only a scampish grin.  There was a certain ceremony required.  A contract like this wasn't sealed with anything so fleeting as a flourish, or a kiss, but the weight of it could settle oddly from time to time. 

Depending on the person, of course.

Phoebe shrugged off her dark blazer, carefully folding its fabric before she lay its length across the back of the chair behind her.  Beneath it she wore a deep blue sleeveless halter, the color of the ocean in a storm, and a handful of whorling, thin-lined tattoos that crept and curled around her shoulders like some ancient skeletal grasp.

She lifted the knife.  An unseen pressure on John and Muriel's hands lined them up most precisely and held them in its iron grip- bone to bone, gap to gap, flesh to flesh - before a flash of her hand and a sharp, barely seen movement drove the knife straight down through the gap between John and Muriel's third and fourth metacarpals, pinning them together like some grotesquely melded insect in Phoebe's collection.  The wound was dramatic, but oddly painless - a heavy blow, not a reaving puncture, and as soon as the knife's razor tip broke the skin of Muriel's palm, blood began to flow down its length and drip onto the dark crystalline dust beneath. 

The knife hit the bottom of the glass and buried its point in the dust; an acrid smoke rose, filling the glass with fog until it wafted through the wound in their palms and into the air, while their life blood mingled with the exotic black powder.  The crimson mixture stirred and crept, pulled by capillary action in a tip-toe through the thin cylindrical housing which once held the needle.  In a few moments, their mingled blood pooled thick in the knife's open metal pommel, and the tip of the needle-stylus glinted as Phoebe lofted it to the air.

A contract with the Dead was only ever a fair accord- each point was set out deliberately, agreed upon or debated until concordance was reached among all parties.  Now was no different.  Only once everyone was satisfied would the First dip the needle into the makeshift ink well, then set its vicious point to the creamy white side of her bicep, and begin to write.  The needle's wicked tip scored her skin an inflamed crimson as she scrawled something midway between slicing and searing; there was no blood, but a red hot glow that flared, only to disappear as each point of the contract was etched from shoulder to wrist and then finalized.  Beneath the edges of John and Muriel's shirts, on the flesh of their chest, the same incomprehensible language flared, sinking the contract through their skin and muscle, as deep into their skeletons as corpses thrown to the depths of the churning, shadowed ocean.

John and Muriel would agree to allow the Phoebe and the Dead free reign in New Everrun, with no interference of any kind, at any point, for as long as they lived, and to actively prevent any interference by forces under either of their control.

Further, they would agree to never speak of the contract or to acknowledge its existence to anyone not bound by it, or to describe or name Phoebe or the Dead, or to act against them in any way.

Lastly, they would promise to die- for their hearts to burst, and their flesh to melt, and to breathe their last breath through putrid, bubbling lungs, and for their families and contract partner to suffer the same fate if either of them should ever break the terms of the contract.

In return, Phoebe would agree to fully explain the plot against John Wilder, and to capture or eliminate those involved, and to do so in a way that allows John to claim his forces are responsible, and that if she should fail, the contract will break.

With the last sigil etched into Phoebe's flesh, a hollow warmth bloomed from the center of each participant's spine.  Its spectral heat snaked along their biological ley lines like a raging torrent along a chasm, racing up and down their backs, through their limbs, to the very tips of their bodies before it turned on itself and shot back. 

The circuit completed in their centers; its commands solidified, sending a flash of scalding heat that emanated from the center of their bodies and signaled their flesh's acceptance of the contract's chains.  Only then did Phoebe reach forward and grab the knife, withdrawing it in an unapologetic flourish and releasing John and Muriel from their forced binding.  The movement dragged their blood up and out, through flesh and bone until each was part of the other.  A few drops clung with the motion, springing free into the air and landing as globs on the desk where they lay quivering in a grotesque contrast to the office's modern civility.

If they looked, they would find their garish wounds already beginning to heal.

"Should I get to work, then?" wondered Phoebe idly, as she set the knife down and held out a pair of white cloth napkins toward John and Muriel.  "Do you have any preferences beyond bringing you the leader?  Pieces, or parley, or witty proposals?"

Edited by Noko

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The pain of having his hand stabbed was trivial compared to the scorching heat that started as a gentle warmth before blossoming into a raging fire. Pain was nothing new to him; even burns lose their novelty if experienced often enough. Instead, he was more concerned with his apprentice. Thankfully the pain was as brief as it was intense, and soon it began to ebb. John wasn't surprised when the wound on his hand began to heal; his healing factor could heal much worse injuries just as fast as this one. More curious was the way that Muriel's wound healed; as to the best of his knowledge, his protege was a normal human. He assumed it could be written off as magic, and thought of it no further. 

"Should I get to work, then?" wondered Phoebe idly, as she set the knife down and held out a pair of white cloth napkins toward John and Muriel.  "Do you have any preferences beyond bringing you the leader?  Pieces, or parley, or witty proposals?"

John considered it for a moment before answering, "Kill them all."

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The contract settled along with the searing flame- the binds from this devil's deal seared into their bones to the marrow, with a permanence the cliffs of Dover would envy.

"Kill them all."

Silently, Phoebe repacked her dagger as John voiced his want.  A nod signaled her understanding, a fractional movement made as she took the blood-filled glass, wiped it out with a rag, and set it off to the side.

"You're a go, full-engagement."  The command was idle and untethered, voiced purely for John and Muriel, echoed, then pushed along the telepathic strands that connected her to the Dead.  A half-dozen acknowledgments replied in her thoughts and, across New Everrun, teams of Skeletons in New Everrun blues, with crisp, clean haircuts and sinners' grins, stormed their targets.

The resulting skirmishes were violent and brief, and in the end, the members of the failed coup against John Wilder were nothing more than meat and memories.

Having taken a few moments to pack her things (including John's glass), Phoebe was walking out as across the city the sirens began to sound, and with a little smile, she glanced up to meet John's eyes.

"Contract complete," she spoke, "Their leader will be deposited here for you shortly. 

We look forward to a profitable future, Governor.

Muriel.."  She smiled at the other woman, close-lipped, and oddly careworn.  "You have a bright future, make what you want of it.

We'll be around if you need help."

For a cost.


Edited by Noko

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