Even with all my years griming through the underworld never really was anything like Titan. I was only on a couple of weeks leave, and yet I already felt like I was entering a whole new world. And it was a busy one as the defeat of Deborah Grace had given us just the kick in the ass we needed to take charge in the Hidden Wars finally. Stan and Lenses' more active roles have given us the threads towards the rest of the Trojans and even closer for the Gearheads to close the tech gap. Though I can't decide if all of Wiz's "Paladin projects" being postponed were a blessing or a curse. However, with so many hands-on decks, I've been left to my lonesome to fight the rest of the world. Different agents would come and go, but it was a revolving door that left much to be desired. At every turn, I was forced to fight against every merc and punk thinking they had a shot, while still getting nowhere to clearing this bounty.
And days like these made me miss my former home all the more, not just my old hometown, but also the town of Unity. Aman may have killed Sarah Walters, Eclipse may have made Saytan, but the people of Unity made me the Paladin. There isn't a single day that I didn't think about what life was there now, how they moved on from Reyna and the person that brought her to their doorstep. A part of me hopes that I would still be welcomed back with open arms, but I guess I would never know, because on the day that I left to rid that monster from the world; it was the day that I decided I would never return to a place I never deserved in the first place.
But just because I left the village behind didn't mean that I left its teachings. But so far, I haven't done much to replicate the focus I displayed against both Reyna and Orcus. The feeling that every skill I ever learned flowed in unison, where my senses felt more alive than ever, where the world faded away until it was only the bare essentials. I hoped meditation would help replicate the effect, but it just wasn't the same. Eventually, I just gave up and decided to head to work early. And while I've both experienced and seen some of the most messed up stuff to ever exist on this earth, I was not expecting to see The Dragoon knitting. As the older man knitted with the same fierceness, he always displayed, he finally noticed my presence.
"Hello Sarah, I was just about to call you over here."
"If I may I ask sir why the-."
"Knitting? Well, with how hectic things have become i decided to follow my ninth grade highschool teacher's example and relieve some stress. In a violent motion, he slammed his needles into the desk and redirected his laptop to me.
"Despite my best efforts, Wiz hasn't stopped trying her hardest to look for anything relating to the bounty. This search brought her to Henan, China, where police found a chilling crime scene in a back alley. The victim said that they were pulled into a back alley by five men and drugged, but she said that before the drug fully took effect, she saw a ninja attack the men before passing out. When both the police and paramedics came onto the scene, they saw this."
He then scrolled the image to see something that would shake me even in my darkest days. My Mandarin was still rusty, but I still got the message, not only was it my name written in blood, but also a word I thought I'd never had to face again: Gui. My left hand started to shake and heat up, but I quickly steeled it up as I decided to take it one step at a time.
"I wish I could be of more service, but I'm already getting more messages as we speak, so I'll keep it short, considering we reached the point where you know the rest. Find this Gui before he hurts anyone else, but the fear of god along the way, your teammates, will be ready in 5."
"Well, at least it's longer than las-"
"You've got to be kidding me, isn't there any-" I said, letting my formality slip.
"I'm doing everything I can, Sarah!" he said with anger that rivaled mine.
I instantly shut up as Morgan continued.
"I've been working just as hard hell even harder to pull us all through, and with every battle, every second, every resource that we lose that goal gets harder and harder! You're not a lone wolf anymore, so stop acting like it!!!"
As soon as his short rant stopped, he slumped down in his chair, the burden of the job finally showing on his face. And while we always tried to maintain our distance, I decided to drop it entirely.
"I'm sorry, sir, it's just that ... I miss them, all of them so much that it hurts. And your right, I'm not alone anymore, and that is exactly why I need to go alone because I think we reached the point where we know that we both make the tough calls, so no one else has to. So please, sir, let me loose."
For the first time in my life, I saw Morgan look at me, not as a potential threat or an agent, but another comrade at his command, and as he looked at my determined eyes, He soon relented and gave me the green light.
I didn't bother with any more pleading, as I quickly left to deal with my next challenger. The good news of dealing with other potential ghosts from my past is that I already have a lay of the land. Between Genjo and my prior knowledge, I knew the advantages of such a place. Henan had a relatively low crime rate, at least on the surface. Go in deep enough, and you'll soon find that it was perfect for smuggling drugs, especially in my old town. During my time in Unity, I eventually discovered that Yima was the closest to civilization I could find and the location of my challenger. And I won't lie and say that walking down these same city blocks, seeing Mai and Kai gawk at sights that amazed even me, hurt me more than any knife. Still, I managed to survive without a full-on panic attack, and a couple of days of snooping lead me to a sizable sliver of the 14K triad, one of the largest groups in the entire nation, infamous for drug trafficking.
Though recently, it seems to be running amok as the mysterious "ninja" has been taking lives and making names for himself almost regularly. And like clockwork upped fear means upped security for one of their biggest bases. China has had a history of underground tunnels, so it is no wonder I was able to find a warehouse of it. And as I sat above the workers, I couldn't help but once again go into the memory lane. In many ways, you could say that it was my origin story, the place where I wanted everything to end, one way or another. Every ounce of my body wanted to leave, to stop them from doing something, afraid that I was back where I started. But then, I see it, see them. All of the great men and women I met these past two years and all the adventures I went on since then. This bounty was my fault, whether I like it or not, and if I couldn't escape it, then I will embrace it, so they never have to. Because that was Titan, and that's my job, like it or not.
And before I could even agonize over what James might've said if he was here, my timely brooding was interrupted from a barely blocked stabbed from my grapple gun sending "us" over the edge! I barely have any time to think, only react as I fire a shot that sends both of us taking a pretty hard but delayed fall. A puff of white smoke sprung up from our landing as the worker's son started to leave in fear, but that didn't stop us for even a second as once again, I grabbed my gun to block another deadly slash! And with life and death so close, I could taste it. I looked into the eyes of my reaper. Not going to lie, he was somewhat stylish for a ninja, wearing nothing but a dark red outfit with black lines over his eyes and the symbol of a falcon on his back equipped with a familiar black Dao (Sword).
Even from a simple block, I could tell his conviction as he pressed the blade closer. But it was already too late; the surprise had worn off. Pouring all my strength, I level my gun inch by inch until it faced him directly. He didn't even let up until the last possible second as right before I fire, he lets up and backs away at a feverish pace. With some distance finally between us, I make my notes. If he was fast enough to dodge my grapple, get the drop one me, and be almost as strong as me, then I needed to maintain mid-range at all cost. In a quick motion, I busted out my bow staff and forwent my grapple. Seconds past, all of which filled with enough tension to break steel, as we measured each other up. And, once that time passed, we didn't waste another moment as our weapons clashed full force!
As we ran across the tables, we engaged in a frustrating stalemate of spark filled strikes that ended once we both made it to the edge of one of them. But even that it was like battling a mirror as we both flipped off the table, only to close in again in an equal clash! But ironically with us both face to face, I almost forgot about one variable: the 14K. From the corner of my eye, I could already see them start to assemble. Considering that it was better for him than me, I opted for a strategic retreat. Using his conviction against him, I delivered a hard headbutt to gain some distance. I was about to end it all with a glue bomb from a range, but that haste proved to be an almost grave mistake. I couldn't even get very far instead of barely deflecting a thrown shuriken. And that proved to be the right call as, upon contact with some nearby men, the shuriken exploded like a firework! I couldn't even get over the shock of the event before a demented form of baseball ensues soon enveloped the entire complex in fire and flame!
Over time I eventually managed to keep up with the throws and with almost the same focus as before surpass it, not only directing the shurikens to my enemies but also my contender as I aimed one directly at him! But with speed almost equal to mine, he caught it and threw it right back at me! But I already answered the call as I drew Gungnir and fire! Though it seemed in a way that it was my bloodlust, that was too much as the explosion still sends both of us hurtling.
I didn't know how long I was out for, but I at least had enough to bask in my work. With my returning strength, all I saw was fire, brimstone, and bodies. Overall a pretty average day of death and destruction for the Paladin. Seeing that my enemies were starting to catch the wind, I instantly spoke my code word to envelope the entire warehouse in smoke. I then grappled up another railway and quickly pounced to another man trying to get his bearings. My momentum instantly sends him crashing against the wall as another man started to approach. But unfortunately for him, I was the faster one, proven with a timely shot that sends him colliding with the other man with a spinning roundhouse for good measure. I then finished up my brutal combo with a grapple that throws him on a one-way judo flip onto the railing and ground below. I thought I had finally gotten my ticket home, but once again, my enemy was able to crash into me! In our combined tumble, all I could do was turn the momentum against him and push him off!
And amid such a struggle, I was able to pull off the mask of my would-be an assassin and saw a sight that stopped my heart in its tracks. Because the man I saw wasn't another face amongst so many others, but that friend that in some way had every right to be here today.
"Kai, is that you?" I say in almost complete disbelief.
And I swear at the very mention of his name my friend turned into something almost unrecognizable as his familiar rage burned even brighter.
"Is that all you have to say? Or is your heart so vile that you never even thought that you would ever pay for what've you've done?!"
An uproar of emotions rattled my skull more than any explosion, but in many ways, you could say that I had expected this to happen, that I already knew what to say and what to do.
"No, I haven't, there isn't a single minute where I don't wish that night didn't happen. And I didn't leave the village to avoid justice, I left to dispense it, and the people who killed them are all dead, you don't have to go down my path Kai, it's already been done."
I've never been the best at picking up on emotion, but I could see a hint of relief, but even more unstable rage as he raised his Dao toward me.
"If you truly cared about us, Sarah, if you wanted repentance, then why are you still alive!?, he said with a mix of heartbreak and spite.
Every part of my brain told me to force him to leave, make him submit, run away, literally anything else than answer him. And no matter how much it hurt, I knew I still had to face everything, no more cowardice, no more displacements. I took off the mask and spoke from the bottom of my heart.
"I don't want repentance Kai; I don't want to be forgiven for what I did. Ending it all would be reinforcing everything you hate me for now because I would be denying all of my sins and denying the reason why Mei saved us that night."
At the very mention of her name Kai's sword started to shake, but it was already almost too late as we soon started to pile up and for once reason takes hold.
"Every breath you take is an insult to everything Mei stood for, but if you truly want to repent, if there was even an ounce of truth in what you say, then you will meet your end tomorrow, where you truly dragged us into your life. Either way, Sarah, I will be the one to take your life, no one else," he said as he vanished in a puff of smoke.
And with his departure, what was left of my defenses crumbled. Tears streamed down like a river with my entire body itching from stains that I could never clean.
For a full minute, history once again repeated itself, as I sobbed over the true loss of another friend amongst the sounds of violence and chaos. Though with other enemies closing in, though, I summoned what little strength I had left to fulfill a role even more arduous than a killer. And that was the role of a survivor; because no matter how hard things got, no matter how many opponents I fought, it was always I that managed to walk away. Only I bear the burden of the kill, to let others claim the spoils of my victory. But now more than ever, I was the Paladin, a role that carried a terrifying question. Will I die for the people that made me who I am, or live for the people I seek to protect?