It comes back to me in the blink of an eye. Bits and pieces...like the dream you start to forget as soon as you wake up.
First, I became aware of the clapping. The slow, perhaps a little sarcastic metronome bouncing off of the walls.
Then I was aware that there were no walls. There was nothing, at all, physically. It was a place of nothingness. I had no memories of anything, nor could I perceive anything but the metronome. We think "nothingness" and we imagine the color black. This wasn't that. What I saw, what I felt, this...absence, of anything at all. I could barely conceive of it then while immersed in it, let alone now. Actual nothingness. It is frustrating. To feel the thing so strongly and so clearly but to be entirely incapable of expressing it in any of the languages I know.
Anyway, I was certain that prior to that moment I had entered a brief period of total non-existence. I thought..."This is where we all come from before we are born, and this is where we go when we die." Maybe to be recycled in time, each and every one of us.
I heard a voice, just as a figure began to apparate before me. "Well played." This was the voice of my father. He was some distance away but his voice was everywhere. It was right in front of me, and also next to me, and behind me, and above and below. It echoed throughout the abyss, both near and far. "Rosso the Crimson, the Ultimate Opportunist. I'm proud."
I knew then that it couldn't have been my father. Just as I thought this, as if on cue the information came flooding in. The Lavaliere of Soul. Playing on my subconscious, I think. Its grasp...incomplete. It could assume my father's form, but who I really was, it hadn't any clue.
I don't remember blinking but there was a break in my line of sight, or my consciousness, and he was standing right in front of me, extending his hand for a shake. "Well played," he said again. "That was one of the finest games of...honestly, chess feels inappropriate. That was more like poker. You sat down at the table with a bevy of characters all ready to eat your young ass alive...
"And you won. How many handlers have you had now? Passed around by everyone from dear old dad to those foreign super heroes. You bested the Devil, the Doctor, you even outplayed even me!—Or did you? You even went back home to get caught up in a Yakuza civil war and made it out alive."
He was standing perfectly still in front of me, but I could swear I heard another pair of footsteps from behind, and caught a glimpse of the same man—or perhaps some other soul—pacing on both sides of my periphery, but when I turned my head to look at them there was nothing. Only my father in front. Staring slugs through my soul.
"What I'm saying, girl, is that you're someone special. This was the right outcome. You're stronger than anyone would have thought. To have endured his torment without being broken...But Grimmwald was something else entirely. I had to wrestle with him from the moment his deal was made, until an opening presented itself. You might be more cunning, but his will was far more than yours."
"Doctor was right. You really do talk a lot for a stone. Do the others talk as much as you do? I wonder if any of their owners would be willing to trade."
He seemed to find this amusing. I wanted to, but the warning was clear. Contact with the Soul Lavaliere was to be a never-ending struggle that I Was destined to lose, or a compromise.
Well, he did say I was smart.
"You will either pass the test before you, or you will succumb and be slave to my will. But for now, just what do you intend to do?"
For most of my time there I had to fight to remember anything outside of that place, but not then. At that moment only one thing was clear, and that drive was clearer than anything else I'd experienced. Ever. I'd never felt such powerful intent in my life. This, I think, is what the foreigners mean when they say "glorious purpose."
"I'm going to reclaim Grimmwald's soul and use the stone's power to hold him. He's going to endure everything that I endured in his custody, and more. I will become the Devil himself in Grimmwald's eyes. I'll run his soul ragged so that God Himself would not recognise His own child. Only then, I will return his mangled spirit to his body so that he may fully reap what he and I have sown together. But I need you to keep me safe from the crone and anything else in that Godforsaken place."
I don't know if the Lavaliere was legitimately considering my words or simply amusing itself with my anxiety, but after several minutes, or hours, it smiled. "Very well. It's...an interesting start. Now, go on and take my hand so I can show you how this works."
I did. There was the sound of fracturing glass and reality split right in front of me. My father disappeared and more souls began to pour through the crack. The crack spread and more spread in all directions. The glass shattered.
All at once I was swallowed in an ocean of souls, unable to breathe. I tried to fight it, tried to swim up, but I felt no sense of direction. Trillions of souls, possibly more, blended into a singular massive body in which my own was subsumed. My mouth, ears, nose...It flowed into me at every opening and I thought I was going to burst, or drown or suffocate, or hemorrhage. But then a voice called out to me, this one I did not recognise. I don't think it was human at all. Its language was not. But I understood what it demanded.
I let go of my resistance and the sea of spirits washed me away. I lost consciousness.
Now I'm not sure if I woke up or my consciousness descended from on high, but I was back in the Black House looking Doctor Knightfall in the eyes and almost no time had passed at all. The stone was pulsing in my hand. It's just a stone, but I could swear I felt it grinning, heard it laughing its inhuman laugh.
Valentina extended her hand across the table, palm face-up. The Lavaliere bathed their faces in its faint amber glow. Franklin took another bite of his sandwich, eyes fixed to the stone.
"I don't want to talk about that," she said, rolling her eyes. Her body shuddered.
"Were you even wearing anything in this...dream?"
"I...actually don't remember. It didn't occur to me to think about it."
"So, what you're gonna do to him...What did he do to you?"
"Don't want to talk about that either."
Franklin stared his blank, wide-eyed "processing" stare; that familiar stare he had for when some facet of interaction with humans was remote but he was working on understanding from a distance. His was a purely factual curiosity, but after several long moments he seemed to grasp that, for her, it was an emotionally charged experience. "S-sorry," he offered, gluing his eyes to the table while Valentina shoved the stone back into her pocket.
"Yeah, me too." She caressed the gem lightly with her thumb and forefinger. Grimmwald went through a lot of trouble to obtain the Lavaliere. Now she, a piece of lowly filth forcibly removed from one of the worst thieves' dens on the planet, held one of the most powerful objects in existence. But that didn't exactly mean Valentina's luck was changing. For now, all it meant was that she'd found a new Devil to dance with, another entity that sought to control her.