Startled gasps echo through Ria’s ears as she lays limp on the floor. The throbbing pain at the back of her head is soon forgotten as her senses cloud with the sweet, intoxicating terror that seeps from the two souls in the room with her.
One of them is the Coroner – Oliver, he’d introduced himself as – but he’s still so human it hurts just to look at. Still afraid, vulnerable, and apparently unaccustomed to dealing with death when it occurs in front of him. When Rosie had mentioned he needed “a bit of a push” towards the End, Ria hadn’t expected this level of fragility.
It’s silly, really. The End’s Coroner, gasping in horror at the aftermath of her calculated collapse. She’d laugh if she weren’t so committed to playing the role of a bleeding corpse.
This particular performance is easier than some – she’s had to suffer through so many frustrating displays of concern in the past. Just a week ago, someone called the paramedics to come “save” her when she very clearly had a broken neck and no pulse.
Dumbstruck horror, at least, is easier to tolerate than misguided attempts to help.
She’s just starting to debate whether or not she should get up off of the ground and properly introduce herself when the needling feeling of being watched – no, scrutinized – hums through her mind.
Then a voice from above her, soft but edged with apprehension, announces, “Oliver, she’s not dead.”
Ah. That’d be Gerard. Rosie wasn’t kidding about him being powerful.
“What do you mean she’s not –” There is a pause in speech, the sound of a couple footsteps forward, and then two fingers are against her neck checking for a pulse. “Gerry, she’s not breathing .” The Coroner – Oliver, Ria supposes she should get used to calling him – sounds incredulous and hopeful in equal measures.
No wonder Gerard is such a threat to Oliver’s transformation… there is no room for hope among the avatars of Terminus.
Ignoring the lightheadedness invoked by blood continuing to rush from her head wound, Ria leaps up before any more about her can be Seen. “Not everybody relies on such simple things as breathing to get by, you know.”
Oliver tries to stifle a gasp, scrambling to his feet and promptly stumbling backwards. He does, however, maintain a better poker face than Gerard (who shoots her a silver-tinged, piercing glare, shoulders arched defensively).
His first instinct was to shy away from her, to seek protection in the arms of his Beholding-aligned companion. Hmm. He really is going to take more work than she initially planned.
“Who are you?” Gerard’s voice is low and cautious, eyes never moving from Ria’s even as he traces reassuring patterns on Oliver’s shoulder with one hand.
Ria responds how best she knows how to – in action. Specifically, with her eyes (because what more could a Beholding avatar ask for?) She lets their dark brown hue bleed into deep, bloody crimson, pairing the shift with a smile.
Both Gerard and Oliver exude spikes of shocked fear at the sight. They are , however, keeping their physical composure fairly well. So, with a sigh, Ria wills the wound at the back of her head to close up, letting the fresh horror coursing through her veins knit bone back together. Then, she extends a still bloodied hand to Oliver.
Gerard’s eyes narrow. Oliver gives him a weak smile, attempting some semblance of reassurance.
Ria continues to let her hand hang in the air until Oliver takes it, and there is something kindred in his cold-tinged grip. He is, no doubt, one of the End’s – just a little lost at the moment.
Well . She’ll help him find his way again.
“Ria Mirti, otherwise known as the Casualty.” She gives a little curtsy, hands poised at the edges of her leather skirt in an exaggeration of demureness.
“Rather dramatic for one of the End’s ilk,” Gerard huffs under his breath.
Oliver looks more conflicted now. Good. “Gerry… she might be able to help me. To understand .”
“Yeah, and then lead you straight into Spooky Death Land.”
Gerard isn’t wrong . Ria doesn’t see any reason to be so uptight about that observation, though.
“Everybody goes to ‘Spooky Death Land’ in the end,” she points out with a challenging look.
“She isn’t wrong, you know,” Oliver sighs, turning to offer Gerard another little smile – more resigned than weak this time.
“No. No, I guess she’s not.”
Ria lets that affirmation sink into the room for a moment before continuing along her script. “I just moved to town, you see. And from what I heard, the tarot readings at this shop are remarkably accurate when it comes to predicting deaths.”
Internally, she side-eyes the silky way the lie rolls off her tongue. The Web has long since threaded itself almost as deeply into her psyche as the End.
It makes sense, of course. Inevitability rules fate, and she is its puppet.
… And while she’s been musing to herself, Oliver and Gerard continue to stare blankly at her. Right. She still has a bit of explaining to do.
“I figured I’d come here and see if all the predictions stemmed from the source I thought they did – namely, another End avatar. And lo and – well, lo and behold – “ she lets herself laugh for a moment at the initially unintentional pun, “– here you are.”
Another customer runs past Ria and out of the Keystone without paying, face blanched with terror. Third person in one day. Impressive. Ria lets herself soak in some of their fear before going to check on Oliver – he never means to scare people, apparently, so there’s always a good deal of guilt he endures after each meal.
Well, for now anyway.
Upon reaching the doorway to the room where readings take place, Ria swings open the door to find Oliver sitting at the table inside with his head in his hands.
Pushing back an exasperated sigh, willing herself to remember that he doesn’t understand who and what he is yet, she pulls up a chair next to him.
“It’s the only way to keep yourself strong, you know.”
Oliver's head snaps up, eyes guarded as he glances over at her. “What?” His tone is pleasant enough, but Ria can hear the slight apprehension that creeps into it. He doesn't trust her yet.
She supposes that's fair - it's only been a couple of days since she first introduced herself.
“Feeding on fear. That’s what we do – servants of Smirke’s fourteen, puppets, avatars…what ever you decide to call what we are.”
“So I've been told.” Oliver lets out a sigh, propping his head up on one hand. “I can learn to live with it, I suppose. It just…doesn’t feel quite right, y’know?”
His eyes are heavy-lidded, a pleading spark at their corners – a hopeful reach towards familiarity and comfort. Ria cannot give him what he wants. He’ll have to unlearn the need for comfort, and she doesn’t have the luxury of empathy to spare.
“No.” No, she doesn’t know. No, she won’t let him give in to his weaknesses. Hesitation won’t help him escape from what he is - what he will inevitably become. It will only cause him pain.
He has a long road ahead of him, to be sure, but there’s no reason that road should have to hurt.
“Oh. Alright.” There is resignation behind the light chuckle Oliver gives with his response.
Ria can’t afford to feel sorry for him. She’s here to help, not to nurture – to provide perspective, not to hold his hand through the difficult parts. Still, she explains herself. It’s beyond her why she chooses to do so, but perhaps it isn’t choice at all. It’s just an action she’s moved to take. So she takes it.
“Fear’s not inherently bad,” she blurts out, breaking the grim silence of the room. “And it’s not like you’re choosing to make your customers freak out; they just can’t handle being told that they’re going to die just like everyone else in this world.”
Oliver nods. The words don’t seem to have fully sunken in, given his still-sullen expression and slumped shoulders.
With a pat on the shoulder and a casual, “See you tomorrow!,” Ria is on her feet and out of the room. The seed of an idea – of a truth – has been planted. She just needs to give Oliver time to see it root itself and bloom.
Fear is not inherently bad.
Fear is a means of subsisting.
You cannot take responsibility for what scares a person, but you can hone and make use of the terror they project.
It isn’t good. It isn’t bad. It simply is , as the End is simply what will be .
Catching the aura of someone frightened of mortality on the edge of her conscious senses, Ria breaks out of her own thoughts to purposefully take one wrong step on the staircase she’s just started walking down.
The cycle of death and undeath continues, an unspoken contract between the Casualty and Terminus.