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A Spoonful of Sugar [Dead recruitment]

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It was past midnight and the house was silent when she woke up in a cold, nauseating sweat. 

Lisanne Orlos lay next to her husband, her breath coming in quick, ragged gasps. Eyes that had before been restlessly shut had flown open and stared with brimming anxiety into the void of a lightless bedroom. A nightmare had preceded this unpleasant awakening -- great looming dark figures had crowded her in dark, red halls, chattering down at her in a mumbley kind of language she didn't understand, and she'd felt heavy... far too heavy. She had tried to run, but as was the way with dreams, she only felt like she was running against a current, her legs slipping out from under her, the figures keeping easy pace... even now, in her wakened state, she could hear their muttering. 

She tried to lift her arms. Her fingers barely twitched: she was paralyzed.

She had felt unwell before bed, but had thought nothing of it at the time; something about dinner, perhaps, she had thought. They had visited a friend that evening, and the feature was some exotic bird whose name she couldn't pronounce, and she began to feel foggy, a bit nauseous shortly after they arrived home again. A bit of indigestion, maybe: some sleep would surely fix it. 

But as she slept it settled in, a growing, gnawing, heavy pit in her abdomen that seeped into her blood and made it sluggish. Even in the dream her head felt thicker, near to bursting, and was beginning to hurt; a sickness rolled around inside her that felt like it desperately needed to be expelled, but would go nowhere; her mouth tasted foul, old, and sour, and despite her greatest efforts she still couldn't move. The room swam with darker shapes than the shadows, and she could see swaths of that too-red place creeping in and out of the walls, the ceiling, peeking with invisible eyes as her own watched in growing panic. Seeking something to focus on, something that might bring her back to reality and end this awful paralysis, she shifted her gaze around the room -- and it settled on something that sent her panic skyrocketing into sheer terror. 

At the corner of the bed, one of the figures from her dream still stood: it was tall and thin, like an emaciated shadow with no face. As she watched, its featureless, awkward-looking head tilted slowly, and she realized quickly that it was staring right at her. 

For several horrible moments that stretched ever onward, Lisanne held her gaze on the creature until finally, her will broke through and she forced herself to sit upright with a scream. The bedside lamp on her husband's side flipped on with a click, and she turned to him quickly, breath hitching in terrified sobs; he was a rational man and could certainly talk her down from--

All her gasping and whimpering stopped. Next to her sat not her husband, but a sagging, crooked thing, with stringy, wet dark hair, soggy skin, and a sharp hunch in its back. Rags in the vague shape of the nightclothes her husband had been wearing hung off its lank form. As she watched, her heart all but hammering right out of her ribcage, and it twisted its head around to look at her. 

It's eyes were deep, huge, and cavernous; its mouth, dripping with rivulets of thick, yellow saliva, stretched into an unnaturally wide and shark-like smile. 

"Darling," It purred. Lisanne found her breath and gave another cry of disgust and dismay, and tumbled out of the bed, tearing a path towards the door and the stairs that went down to the first floor. 

Behind her, Edward Orlos sat dumbfounded where his wife left him, sitting up in bed, having flipped on the bedside lamp. His brow furrowed in a mixture of concern and complete confusion; lifting his arms, he examined his arms and legs -- she'd looked at him like she'd just seen him kill a man, but he could find nothing wrong with himself. Realizing something must have happened with her, Edward hopped off the bed and hurried his way downstairs, hearing her rummaging around somewhere down there in a panic. 

"Liz?! Hey, what's going on?" He called out to her, pausing on one landing to listen, but received no answer. With a sigh and a frown, he continued and followed the din into the kitchen. 

Inside, Lisanne hunted through maid-organized drawers and cupboards, her hands shaking so badly they could scarcely grab any knobs or handles. The room seemed to swim in and out of focus, in and out of shape, and the foul taste was getting worse. She could hear voices, distant, but layered and aggressive as rushing water, and she couldn't understand what they were saying. Finally, her hands found purchase on an object she rarely held, but certainly recognized, and just in time to hear footsteps nearing, and entering the doorway. 

She whirled around to see it creep in, and it was much, much taller than it had initially looked: it stooped low to enter through the kitchen doorway, its disgusting hair and yellowed strands of spit hanging and waving as it moved. Lizanne shrank against the counter, whimpering, tears running down her pretty middle-aged face, but too afraid to make any other noise. 

"Darling," It crooned again, its enormously long legs making painfully slow strides across the tiled floor -- its voice changed, becoming feminine, disapproving: 

"You knew this was a bad idea, didn't you? You knew he was no good...

"Mother....?" Liz Orlos barely managed to eke out, and now she did start to sob, airy and weak like a little child.

"I told you over and over again, he would get you into trouble. He's not a good man. I told you."

"No....." She breathed again, "He... he loves me..." 

"He's buying you, just like we did. You've always liked being spoiled. Do you even care where the money is coming from?" The thing stepped closer, but she had nowhere to go. She tried to avoid looking right at it, tried to parse out her other escape options, but in her terrified state she found none.

"Please...." She begged it. 

"You're such a stupid, selfish girl.

Lisanne screamed as it came within arm's reach, and thrust the knife she'd been holding up, aimless, just hoping to hit something -- and the taunting, the rasping voice, all stopped, replaced by silence and an ugly, feeble gurgling. Still crying, still shaking, she let go of the knife and heard the thing collapse to the floor. 

The voices ceased. The room began to settle, and the foul taste in her mouth faded slightly. Exhausted, she sank slowly onto her knees on the floor and sat there quietly, sniffling, sobbing, and trying to collect herself. When her thoughts began to finally organize themselves, and the subsequent nausea of panic leveled out, she finally took the risk of looking at it again; just to make sure it was dead. Cautiously, she turned her head towards where the dark shape lay.

And began to scream anew. 

On the floor, of course, was not a horrible-looking creature: Edward Orlos lay on the floor in his sleeping clothes, the handle of a kitchen knife jutting out of his mouth. 

As people began to gather on the street outside, and as law enforcement rushed in to investigate the disturbance, the tall, black, awkward-looking figure that had spied on Lisanne Orlos as she lay trapped in sleep paralysis, slipped easily out the back door, and made a silent but cheery waltz through the alley away from the scene of the crime.


And about two hours later, Lala Besschentyil silently waltzed into the backroom of her next victims. 

It had been all she could do to keep from humming with pleasure, and it had been all she could do not to laugh at Edward and Lisanne Orlos: Edward was a crooked businessman who owned a mill out in the sticks, one staffed entirely by prison inmates. Since it was somewhat remote, and nobody cared about criminals, they were frequently underfed, lodgings were uncomfortable, and some had even died when their hearts simply gave out, unable to keep up with the working conditions and demands at once. Lala didn't exactly have a bleeding heart, but when she had seen how much Lisanne enjoyed being spoiled with things that came from the money made from such an enterprise, it was simply too good of an excuse. 

And momma had always taught her never to pass up an excuse to do something nasty. 

An annoyed, barely-audible hiss escaped her dry teeth, filtered out through black cloth. It was a simple but effective disguise -- she just clad herself entirely in swaths of black cloth, wrapping even her face and head, and not only was she harder to see, but those who did see her often thought her some uncanny-valley hallucination, a shadow that was human-adjacent, but not quite close enough to be picked out. It was what she wore beneath her brighter daytime robes, beneath her mask -- she had seen it in a mirror once and decided right then and there that she absolutely had to do night-crawling in it.

Her current location, about halfway across the city from where Lisanne Orlos was being arrested and interrogated, was a dingy wine cellar in the home of Duane Leeds -- a business partner of Edward's, and as far as she knew, just as low on scruples. It would be an easy enough procedure: poison his precious wine, of which he was a collector, and watch him Work. The biggest issue was getting in and out of the cellar unseen, but currently it seemed no one was home, so she had a free pass on this one. 

The second biggest issue was figuring out which bottle to spit in. For a couple of minutes she stood stock-still in there, looking around at the countless amount of bottles from different locales and of different persuasions, and felt her spirit Frown. This was too many choices. 

"O, to be a rich fuck," She whispered, and spotted out three bottles that were out standing on a ledge near the stairwell. They seemed to have been recently cleared of dust, and she boldly assumed that this meant they would be taken upstairs and consumed sometime soon; and even if they weren't consumed tonight, they would be eventually. 

Delighted by this new revelation, Lala walked silently up to the ledge and took the bottle closest to the stairwell, pressing the top against her face in the vague region of the mouth. To the naked eye, nothing was happening -- but a close inspection would show the cork darkening rapidly with the contact, and through the tinted glass of the bottle, a brackish sludge oozing its way through the cork and down the neck of the bottle into its contents. Several moments passed and Lala simply took the bottle away from her "mouth" and set it back on the ledge where it had been before, the cork regaining most of its former color, then crept up the stairs into the main house. With the coast still clear for the moment, she picked a suitable hiding place within its many rooms where her black-clad form would not be spotted out...

...and waited. 

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His very first kill— a Queen— had cost him, nearly along with his life, his family and the last of his expiring race. His next kill was a fisherman. After that an armed guard, a wyvern, two princes. A cruise ship. An entire megacity. There are ten ways to kill a cat, he learned over all those years, but it was what you could do with the body afterwards that grew to interest him more. Power is always misused, he used to say, unless it’s by you.

Cutting deals with the veritable and swindling the weak, he rose to criminal infamy whilst dividing his fortune among his favorite little things that went bump in the night. Whilst dividing his mind and soul between the bodies he puppetized. He and his purpose bore about them a gravitational pull, such that by the workings of his hands he gathered around him like a cloak the darkest shades of black that the depthless Valucre had to offer, the meticulous spinning of its yarn gathering of the Dead. 

The Puppet Master toiled endlessly to develop and empower his Blood Magic. From the beginning he saved the bodies of those he’d killed, experimenting on them and thereby perfecting a device that channeled his magic into them latently, creating autonomous meat machines that lived for him without his continuous sustenance. Creating ecosystems of hiveminds, going so far as creating new brains for thousands in the peripheral as the Dead rose to power in Valucre’s underground, the man himself eventually succumbed to monumental physical and immaterial stress and was forced to create an avatar, a peek version of himself that could act as a valve to continue the cycle of life and death that continues to be Cain Rose.

So it is that his original body, the Shadow, lies within a labyrinth of Cain’s creation while the avatar, the Earthbreaker continues his will. Now the neural system of the Puppet Master’s strings is a web that reaches every continent, the spiders that are the Dead’s agents weaving their enemies into traps worldwide on an insidiously individually capable and daily basis.

Have you gotten a new milkman lately? It might be him. Have you had the same milkman for a decade? It still might be him...

The only thing that was certain is that there were no certainties with the Dead. Most criminals, especially those of the serial killer variety, keep to themselves. Besides cases of killer-to-killer adoration or rivalry, most killers and criminals of the clandestine cut never even find out about one another in the same time period during which they exist! So if Lala even was aware of the Dead, in her blissful jaunt from one victim to another, it was unlikely that she thought they would ever come for her. Little did she know, she was a perfect specimen for the cult. Little did she know, they’d had their eyes on her.

Lilting up into the silent recesses of the house, Lala would find it eerie. The fireplace was lit, the heat and lights were on, the family’s luxurious steam-powered sedan was parked in the underground garage, but the entire home was entirely silent. Lala could wait and wait in whatever the best spot she found was, but as long as she waited nothing would happen. As uncertainty set in the only thing that was certain was the fact that this was not going as she had initially planned.

Eventually Lala might feel compelled to journey out of her spot, probe into the apparently occupied but naggingly idle setting, and when she did, she would find a singular man and woman sitting across from one another at a bare table in the large dining room. Both of them bore masks like one might expect at a masquerade or some satanic orgy, the man’s red hair falling in rivulets over the horned ram concealing his pale face down to just above the lips.

Before each of them sat a glass of wine, filled particularly with the contents of the bottle she’d tampered with.

“Hello,” said the man without intonation. He seemed ever so lost in the woman’s eyes across from him, so much so that he did not move but for his lips when she entered. “Would you sit with us?”

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"A toast?"

The woman continued where the man had left off, languid and content as she drifted off into the hollow depths of his blue eyes.  A girl could lose herself there, could lose herself and never, ever, come back, and this one might have.  Where the man was the wild ram's masculinity, she was it's opposite- a beautiful brunette, thin and lithe, wearing an angelic gold mask above a flowing, shoulder-less, black silk cocktail dress.

Like Little Red, the lure was one she had prepared exactly, and like the fair girl in the red riding hood, with the day's work behind her she lay with her Wolf and waited.  The display was perfection, purposeful, and intentioned; an exhibition nudged to excellence with her delicate, feminine hand until it precisely portrayed the emotion and weight she wanted.  For this piece, she had set out to breathe life to the uncanny valley- to invoke unsettled normalcy; surreal, imagined but wrong, like a table set with all spoons or a child napping in a head basket.

Why?  Who knew.  

In all her dealings, her wants were her own.

The dining room was immaculate- the rest of the house, untouched.  The table they sat at was bare to its high gloss wood and let to reflect the edges of her golden mask and his musk, but there was no carpet, no drapes, no fabric of any kind anywhere, and its lack lent the room a hollow death that scraped the nerves.

"To hospitality," she said after an unceasingly long moment, making her first movement as she cupped the crystal wine glass in the palm of her hand and hoisted it to the flickering firelight, waiting for him to join her raised glass before she finished,  "And new friends."

She had spent months following Lala's exploits.  Only luck had brought the skeleton to her attention-- bad luck, on Lala's part, and good on her own.  It had been a singular triumph that the poisoner had the unfortunate circumstance to target one of Phoebe's marks and therefore rise above the muck to her emerald sight.  His name had been Raoul Sirhan, and while he was a rich fuck, he was her rich fuck.  As one of her cross-ocean trading partners, Raoul had the good fortune to benefit from her insider knowledge. With his winnings, he financed a handful of her unmentionable side projects, and she fed him information, and the circle of life went on.

Until it didn't-- until he had a heart attack last month, at thirty-five, and being a suspicious woman, she had set her considerable resources on determining why.

Guess what she found?

"We want her," she recalled telling him late one Tuesday night, as they met up for drinks, and she handed him a stack of data crystals with the information she gathered-- bodies were examined, autopsies pulled, until she could present him with a full picture, a plan, and a crafted set of antibodies that could fight back Lala's unique corruptions.

They had agreed without words, and so they sat here now, lost in one another's eyes with glasses lifted to the light, then drank.

No one died.

Edited by Noko

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The ambience, as it were, had indeed struck her as she moved silently through the house, finding her vantage point. It felt not too unlike those homes she heard about in stories -- the kind that restless teenagers stumble into on a dare, the kind that is furnished, well lit, and warm, with food still left on the table half-eaten.... and no one to be seen. It was not what she had expected, and left her with an uncommonly eerie feeling. Frowning inwardly, she decided to wait it out a little longer, but eventually the silence became oppressive, if only because there were no sounds of anyone coming in; no sounds of a struggle; no sounds of sickness; no sounds of distress. 

Oh, silence was golden, even the silence of death, but not when Lala herself did not cause it. Something was amiss.

With a barely audible rustle, she slipped out of her hiding spot in the shadows of the sitting room and, careful to avoid the windows, crept around to the opening of the hallway and leaned in to listen. Hearing nothing, her inner frown turned to a scowl, and she was beginning to feel impatient: that rat-bastard should have been home and dipping into his stores by now, but if he had come home, he wasn't dipping into anything. 

One of her shrouded hands moved to her non-existent stomach and reached beneath the layers of black cloth which wrapped her bones; it slowly snaked its way up into her ribcage, and with a quiet scraping sound, withdrew a simple, but sharp and well-kept hand-sickle. 

If he wouldn't drink, she'd do it the old-fashioned way. 

On padded feet she crept through the hallway, a looming specter without a face, like the shadow of the monster which haunted Lisette into her own kitchen. Only this time, the shadow found its way to the doorframe of the dining room. 

Lala's teeth cracked together in spent patience when she saw them just sitting there, but the moment vanished in an instant when she saw the masks. Her skull twitched into a baffled tilt. Her gaze flipped back and forth between them, taking in the unsettling scene with the grace of a serial killer who finds a ghost in place of his mark. Thankfully she didn't have any blood, or it'd be awful cold at the moment. 

It felt like cold stone and a slowly smoldering ice-fire before her; their energy was palpable to her virtually naked spirit and she curled her spine in slightly, expecting retaliation for her presence and a not-so-graceful exit as she had planned. 

What she got instead, was a greeting. 

“Hello,” said the man without intonation. He seemed ever so lost in the woman’s eyes across from him, so much so that he did not move but for his lips when she entered. “Would you sit with us?”

Her skull tipped the other way, half-incredulous and half-intrigued. There were filled glasses on the table -- and between them was the bottle she herself had tainted a while ago. 

"A toast?" Proposed the woman seated across from the ram. Lala froze where she was, sickle held at her side in a rigor-mortis grip, looming, head tipped, wanting to leap forward and make these people dead like she planned. She found her vitriol rising, shamed at having been caught out and trumped, and outraged at what she perceived as mockery of her failure on their part. An inhuman, barely-audible growl rattled in her cold dead windpipe.

"To hospitality," the woman said after an unceasingly long moment, making her first movement as she cupped the crystal wine glass in the palm of her hand and hoisted it to the flickering firelight, waiting for him to join her raised glass before she finished,  "And new friends."

Yes, yes, drink away, Lala hissed inwardly, Let me see it.

The two of them then drank, drank away a multitude of sins by a multitude of individuals. Lala leaned forward, her abnormally long neck craning to its maximum length to take in every moment of their reactions, every shiver of their auras, every deterioration as it happened. Rarely did she get to watch her work so closely; maybe she'd have the last laugh after all. 

The moments stretched away, stretched into an awkward thinness as half a minute became a full one. One became two. 

And absolutely nothing happened.

Their energy remained stable -- they didn't appear to flinch or wince, and they said nothing. The silence in the room was oppressive, and heavy enough that they could hear her grinding her teeth in newly found frustration. But something else accompanied her frustration -- as infuriating as it was to see her most reliable weapon fail, the sin-eater couldn't help but begin asking questions. The chief of which was, of course.....


Her voice was hollow and sharp, muffled only very slightly by her wrappings. The hand holding the sickle lowered as though defeated, and she looked back and forth between them once again. 

Now it was they who waited. After the minute or two it took her to realize they were not going to fall ill or go mad, she registered the display as a show of power, and the fact that no normal person could possibly resist the spirit-poison she had spat into that wine. They weren't attacking her, and they weren't outing her to any authorities. 

Straightening, Lala stepped peaceably forward and pulled out another chair, sitting down as the man in the bone ram mask had originally requested. Still uncertain and alert to any possible aggression, she finally spoke, addressing them both at once in a low tone of intrigue and caution:

"What are you?"

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“We are the Dead.”

He had practically interrupted her question, how rude, his red-stubbled chin stretching up in a vertical oval as he adjusted the pale neck beneath his perfectly black suit. The veins there were visible, darker than normal. Upon any closer inspection, the ginger man with the ram mask bore every appearance of a well-kempt zombie. This was the bloodmage-made-deadman himself, not the Earthbreaker. His veins were already tainted with still blood, his mind and soul elsewhere. Lala’s poison had a special place inside him but in this form, even if he hadn’t taken the antidote, not only wouldn’t the poison work,but the damn wine wouldn’t even make him drunk.

The lights flickered, even the fire seemed not to exist for a split second. Lala would know the dramatic effect when she saw it, but to someone it must have been quite impressive once.

With one hand, Cain raised the half-full glass just below his lips and took a whiff of the liquid that seemed meaningless, but was full of intention. Lifting the other hand from beneath the table, he released from his palm a scrolled piece of leather that rolled unnaturally, end over end, until it rested open before Lala. 

It was empty.

“I am a blood mage called Cain Rose.” 

His name would evoke separate memories from the Dead: the destruction of a megacity called Tia, the catastrophic sinking of the Full Deck casino yacht and consequent destruction of Casper’s harbors, his contributions to the war between La Ultima Opportunidad and La Ultima Fortuna in Last Chance.

Any knowledge Lala had of the Dead it would be one that skittered, spider-like along whatever semblance of a spine she had— trickled up into whatever facsimile of a consciousness she had— as he spoke. They were behind virtually every dirty CEO, no matter how clean they seemed. At least, the most successful ones.

“You killed one of my puppets in Berton,” Cain said simply. “Berton was a small subdivision of Casper you hit a month or so earlier. I felt the poison fill my pet and I couldn’t help but see it through.” He finally sipped again from the flute before placing it on the table before him, his hawk eyes flitting toward Lala. “I didn’t have to let your poison work on him, but I did, just to see what happened. Your work is… most interesting.”

“You kill meticulously, philosophically, endlessly, but for what? What are you searching for in these deaths?”

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"You killed one of my puppets in Berton," Cain said simply. "Berton was a small subdivision of Casper you hit a month or so earlier. I felt the poison fill my pet and I couldn't help but see it through." He finally sipped again from the flute before placing it on the table before him, his hawk eyes flitting toward Lala. "I didn't have to let your poison work on him, but I did, just to see what happened. Your work is… most interesting.

You kill meticulously, philosophically, endlessly, but for what? What are you searching for in these deaths?"

"..and Raoul."

The woman sighed softly, her breath casting ripples across the surface of her now half-full glass.  She spent a moment looking into its rich, trembling depths, seeming to search for answers like a soothsayer, before her golden mask tilted upward to look at Cain once more.  Wordless, she tipped the crystal flute and set its edge against her lower lip, then lifted it and drained it in one smooth movement.

She didn't even hesitate.

"I didn't appreciate losing Raoul, but your technique was.. intriguing."

She spoke truly in this; unlike the Architect, Phoebe's assets weren't shells she hollowed out and puppeted from afar-- she knew them, learned their fears and desires, groomed them, and in some cases, had known them for years.  She trapped some, it was true, but just as many chose to dance to her tune for the sheer joy of it-- for the pleasure, for the vengeance, for whatever it was they wanted. 

Reaching forward, she plucked the amber bottle from the table and thumbed its cork free, refilling her glass before lifting it in offering to Cain-- as it weren't crawling with fetid poison, as if it were as new and rich as a recently raised Governor.  "Intriguing enough to bring us here, to ask," she continued, shifting her light eyes to find Lala shrouded in the dark as she held the bottle utterly still.  "Why?  What rattles those bones of yours?"

She didn't follow with a name; she didn't need to.  Her promises were gold, but her name was a shadow.  Phoebe Marshall was a ghost; a faceless myth passed between thieves in the night and a curse thrown by the lawmen who chased false trails she lay for them, to targets they eliminated for her, and defendants they convicted for her.  Hers was a game of tactics, of pawns in the night, and games that took years to finish.    She contrasted Cain in this: his death, her life, his fame, her shadow.  Together, their halves made a whole, and in their pairing, an empire rose from the darkness.

Edited by Noko

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