We'll get her next time lol.
Like a wolf crawling out it's den, Grimmwald emerged from the rooftop shadows of a building overlooking Black House. To avoid drawing the Shadow Knights' attention, Richard and Ashley's attention, no Orochi flanked him, and no Blackdagger hung back as his unseen generals in his war against crime and the evil he was becoming - but he had not come alone. Valentina was by his side, and his grip on the back of her neck was as strong as it was domineering. Striding forward, the Horned Saint led her to the rooftop's edge, and his eyes fell upon the ruined stronghold of the Brahma Brotherhood below. And yet, as the moon's silver glow failed to catch them, Grimmwald's dermal senses succeeded - there were people there.
A new gang of street thugs and violent drug traffickers had made Black House their home. But in doing so, they'd become his enemies. They were in his way. That he knew nothing of their presence till now, was a failure on the Orochi's part, but his as well. They were his spy network, and he their leader. They should've done better. He should've been sharper. He could not make the same mistake again, lest he one day be found by the Shadow Knights, or worse - the Strigidae. Fighting the scowl from his brow, Grimmwald held his ruby gaze on the ruins below, his dermal senses firmly locked on the vibrations made by those who walked the forgotten home of Satar. "If you love me", fear me he meant, and her torture reminded, "If you're loyal, then show me", he said to Valentina, the cold command in his deep voice clear - kill everyone in Black House.
He wanted Black House for her to hold in his stead. For her to be his eyes and ears in Gothic. So what better way to claim Black House than to have the one to inherit it conquer it? It would see the stronghold fall into his hands, and Valentina's methods were different enough from his that no detective, Richard, would link the murders to him. "Kill them all". She'd been armed, fed, and treated to regain enough strength to be useful. And when staring down the barrel of a gun, Valentina's skill was supernatural. So the Horned Saint waited, curious to see how loyal Valentina'd been made, and unaware that his brother and greatest friend lurked nearby.
The Son of the Shogun ducked a baseball bat and rolled out of the path of a burst of gunfire. The gun jammed; thugs rarely cleaned their weapons and used cheap ammo. Hawkshade smirked. A criminal with a knife lunged at him, blade flashing in the dark and the vigilante's hands flashed upward in a complex series of parries to ward the blade away ending with the blade tumbling from the shocked gangsters hand as Hawkshade parried just so and deadened the nerves of his hand.
A roll carried him under the second swing of the baseball bat and he rose from the ground like a liquid shadow, his massive fist slamming into the chin of the gunman. The man dropped. Hawkshade caught the machine pistol and bent the cheap metal over his knee as he turned to face the remaining two men.
They swallowed, looked at one another and tried to run.
It was too late.
Hawkshade left the trio bound, gagged and unconscious in the back room and continued his exploration of the former stronghold of one of Gothic's most deadly enemies.
Under the moon's pale eye, the Horned Saint was ready. Ready to claim Black House, ready to watch Valentina, his apprentice, prove her undying loyalty to him - until he wasn't. Until his dermal senses zeroed in on vibrations he'd never mistake as anyone else's but his brother's. 'Richard', Grimmwald thought, his brow scowled and his jaw tightened. He had no intention of ever seeing the Shadow Knights again, of ever seeing Richard again. They wouldn't understand, and they'd get in his way. They'd force his hand. "Wait", Grimmwald called out, his voice reaching Valentina's ears, dark and calm. Meeting eyes with her, Grimmwald continued, "There's been a change of plans. I can't send you down there".
"Not alone at least. So let's go". A hand on the back of her neck and the Horned Saint dragged her into the featureless depths of the shadow world where they slithered about till their feet walked the cold halls of Satar's fallen stronghold. He said nothing. Instead, the blood ran cold in his veins, and he walked Valentina with him, his hand gripping the back of her neck every step of the way. His dermal senses sweeping every corner like an all-seeing eye, Grimmwald knew. Richard had dealt with the gangsters. He felt no vibrations but his brother's nearby. Hand dropping from the nape of Valentina's neck as his soundless steps carried him forward, the Horned Saint turned a corner, once, twice, thrice - and locked eyes with his greatest friend turned greatest obstacle.
There he stood. Hawkshade. A bear of a man with an eagle's focus and a lion's heart. His brother. And yet, Grimmwald was unmoved. His chest did not rise from deep breaths, and his eyes never moved from Richard's. Instead, he stood there, arms held at his sides, and the shadows becoming one with the black of his horned battlesuit. "Well.. I'd say this is a surprise but we both know that's not true".
The whole thing was a setup. She knew it was. She'd been deprived – staved, dehydrated, bound, tortured – for God knows how long, her body worn down to nearly nothing. Her equipment (that which she carried at the time of the Nihonto Khan turf war) was destroyed, or otherwise outside of her ability (or willingness) to retrieve while under Grimmwald's supervision. So what, he fed her a little, gave her some water? As long as he held her without nourishment or exercise, a few days of relatively kind treatment were nowhere near enough to make up for the deficits of what she'd lost.
So of course it was a setup. Another excuse for Grimmwald and his cronies to mock and deride and punish Valentina. Not that they needed an excuse anyway. She'd surprise herself if she could hold a single shot steady, let alone take out every squatter holed up in the run-down ex-fortress.
But just as Valentina opened her mouth to complain, he changed his mind for what seemed like no reason at all. Of course, he had to grip her neck that way. She'd have rolled her eyes if she wasn't sure he could somehow sense that too and see fit to punish even the minor gesture of disapproval.
Valentina never got used to being dragged through shadow. As ever, the movement shot a piercing chill through her entire body. And on the other side they emerged opposite Hawkshade, the other vigilante appearing on her radar since her exile. The Horned Sinner spoke. Clearly they were familiar. Old friends, or bitter rivals? Valentina hoped for a prolonged conversation; at least there'd be something to learn. She remembered what Hawkshade did to Noah Noble. Or at least the state he'd left him in when she arrived. He'd seen her face then too. For only a brief moment but in that operation she was a hero helping to save the city. She hoped he'd remember her. But even then, the birth of Valor was quite a few months ago. Was he even perceptive enough to recognise the physical difference - the weight she'd lost, the composure she lacked, the trembling of her body?
Would it even matter? So far these American "heroes" were nothing like how they'd been advertised. They played a sick game. More focused on how brutally they could maim enemies without killing than they were ever focused on saving lives. Not that I deserve saving, echoed a stray thought. But even within the confines of the hurt game, who was the superior player? The excessively brutal force of nature, or the supernaturally methodical fiend who regularly made prey out of apex predators?
Valentina doubted she'd get the chance find out. More than likely she'd be spoonfed to the hawk-man or held as collateral and end up right back where she started.
She remembered what Hawkshade did to Noah Noble. Or at least the state he'd left him in when she arrived.
So far these American "heroes" were nothing like how they'd been advertised. They played a sick game. More focused on how brutally they could maim enemies without killing than they were ever focused on saving lives.
I love it when villains call heroes out on their BS like that.
@hawkshade: ^_^ It was one of my favourite parts of the post to make. It simultaneously makes a callback to what was [for her] an important event, highlights Valentina's foreignness to the Western/American culture surrounding heroes, and says "wait a minute! There's a discrepancy here..."
@rosso: Right? The current generation of crime fighters is pretty savage. I like it though. It fits. It's like an emotional response to the crime and chaos that has engulfed the CV universe for years but in the collective unconscious of the masses. Disgust. Repulsion. Rejection. And it all swells unto this massive wave that spills over into the streets and an explosion of violence directed toward anyone who is seen as a criminal-- an agent of chaos.
One set of footsteps. His old Strigidae cowl amplified the sounds of footsteps. Stride rate-- small, wide hips; female. Body mass low. Young, or malnourished. A prisoner here?
He turned the face the corner, his hands upon his utility belt ready to provide medical aid or defend himself, whichever was necessary.
Then Grimmwald stepped around the corner.
Hawkshade blinked. Shock ran through his nerves like a spike of electricity. He has always been the only one who could sneak up on me.
But who was this? Something about her prodded his memory. He started to search his memory palace and check her face against the faces, the features he had memorized but... but Grimmwald was here. His brother.
The man who had followed him out of the Strigidae Cult they had been born into.
The only man who had believed in him.
The man whose growing darkness he had failed to notice.
The brother he had failed.
Hawkshade swallowed the lump in his throat.
"Brother." He said. "I.. I didn't expect to see you here. Why have you come to this place? To punish those who now dwell here? Or to take its secrets for yo- no. No it doesn't matter. Listen to me. You have been deceived my brother. The teachings of the Secret Masters have infected your mind with their cruelty. Their brutality. You face the dragon of chaos made manifest in human form upon these streets every night and you stare into the abyss that it emerges from. It also stares into you and it has become a part of your soul. But you are not alone. Not now. Not ever. Turn back. Come with me and leave the abyss behind."
@hawkshade: Hehee, it's kinda like...millenials and the older generations.
The thing that still gets me is people like these are only a couple of years off from people like Abby and some of the others who were around back then. And just as old as, and older than, some of the others. But it's the fact that they're just getting their start in this world [the world of heroes] that makes them seem...off by a lot wider margin.
His senses caught every vibration floating in the air, felt every shape, structure and person nearby. He could feel the lump in Richard's throat. So he said nothing. He didn't interrupt. Instead he stood like a shade made into man, listening to every word that escaped his brother's mouth until there was only silence between them. Behind him stood Valentina. His prisoner, his apprentice. He would not risk her presence any longer. Tonight was not the night she would prove her loyalty to him. But perhaps, in a way, she had. She had not tried to flee. She stood by his side, aware of the consequences she'd have faced had she not. Stepping back, Grimmwald grabbed Valentina by the arm.
His eyes met hers and said, 'You're not safe here. He's your enemy. I'm protecting you'. 'No one cares about you but me. You're dog shit to everyone but me', his scowl said. And so, the shadows melded with his arm, his fingers binding them to Valentina before he shoved her through the depths of the shadow world and back to the Temple of Brahma lest she protest. Kindness then cruelty. Cruelty then kindness. It was the torturer's way of claiming a prisoner's mind, making them dependent, making them theirs. He and Valentina would speak later. There'd been a change of plans. Turning back to lock eyes with Richard, the Horned Saint stepped forward.
"Why have you come to this place?"
"Why not come here, brother?", Grimmwald asked, arms out and wide gesturing to the bloodstained walls around them. "This place's inspired so much fear. Not just in this city, but everywhere around the world. Because of one man. A madman, but a successful one. Elsewhere around the world, while evil spilled innocent blood because heroes clung too tightly to moral codes that told them not to kill, your mother was building an empire. The world's first and only mutant nation. It still stands, still shields our people from persecution. And heroes still fail, still give mass murderers second chances to spill more innocent blood", he scowled, yet his voice echoed calm and cold.
"The people willing to make the hard decisions, change the world. What hero has ever done that?", he asked. "What hero has ever done anything? People feared your mother, they feared Satar, they feared Charlemagne. And by weaponizing that fear, they accomplished everything the world's heroes couldn't. I can weaponize that fear to correct every hero's mistake and make the terrorists and villains all think twice before engaging in evil. And fear lasts for generations, inspiring superstition and legend, the kind that makes us - Strigidae - fear the Secret Masters. So no. I can't come with you. Not until this is all over".
Hawkshade listened. Really listened. He was open to hearing what Grimmwald said in a way he had never been open to the words of Musa Bashir or Alpha Dog. In some ways he had tuned them out. Brushed aside their good points. Ignored it when they said something that was undeniably true.
And what Grimmwald had said was simply and undeniably true.
He turned and walked to a broken window and looked out into the dusk of the city. Wind howled through the shattered glass.
"I hear you brother. And you are not wrong. I know. I can see that. My way.. it has been tried before. Many times. But Gothic is still Gothic. My way failed before. Again and again, it failed."
He looked at the floor and his great shoulders rose and fell with a sigh. "I know that I will not save Gothic."
"But there is more to this. More to me." A pause. "This may be hard to explain but let me try. Hear me out."
"We were not born who we are. We were made who we are. The Masters, they raised us up to be who they wanted us to be. Shaped us into the blade that they desired. Molded us, when we were so young we had no defense against it. We did not choose who we were to become. The Masters ensured only one path to survival, the path they wanted us to walk. We walked it and we became it."
"But it wasn't me. Not really. I was the boy someone else wanted me to be and I became the man who was a weapon in someone else's war."
"Put aside right and wrong; my mind was not my own. I was who I was raised up to be. Not who I had chosen to be."
"So I chose."
"And it doesn't matter so much what I chose, brother. What maters is that I chose it."
"I chose to be a hero because it is the freest thing I can imagine. I am not a criminal imprisoned by a desire for paper with dead men printed on it, as Musa was and is. I am not a madman imprisoned by an all consuming vision for the world that I must peruse every hour of every day, as Satar and the Bull were. I am not a true believer in any cause, sacrificing everything for something outside of myself, as my mother did."
"I save the lives of people who cannot possibly reward me in any way. They cannot have any affect upon me whatsoever. I need no money, I need not praise or fame, I need not affection or recognition or reward from the outside. This is not to say I am not flawed. I am. I see that. I am angry. Arrogant. Rude, sometimes. But my flaws are my own flaws, flaws born of me and not of a desire to please my father figures, the Secret Masters or a need for wealth or fame or power."
"I am free. Really free."
"You propose that my methods are less effective. You are correct. But brother I am not a crime fighting machine who exists to move the crime stats and whose value, whose worth, is only measured by how well I perform my function of reducing crime. I would still be a human being, a man with a soul and a life that had meaning on this earth were I to retire this instant and never fight crime again. Were I to accept that something outside myself, the effectiveness of my tactics, was more important than my own beliefs and values, than I would only be accepting another master. I would be abandoning my freedom in pursuit of something external metric."
"Life has value to me brother. It is worth more than the neighborhood crime stats because I have made the choice to believe it does."
"And my quest is not a quest to move those stats around. I am not fighting for Gothic's soul. Gothic's soul is already lost. I am fighting for my own soul. Gothic City is my dragon. Unbeatable. Unkillable. I cannot punch crime out of existence. But I can go out every night and fight for every life. I can face the dragon that has devoured so many and I can face it every day, again and again, without wavering, without breaking, without losing faith in my own soul until all traces of the man the Masters made me have been burned away and there is nothing but the man I have chosen to be, forged in the fires of the hell on earth that is Gothic City."
"I can be a good man, not a bloody knife in the hands of Secret Masters. Or a bloody knife in the abstract hands of the crime stats and cold efficiency." Under his cowl his eyes glistened. "I will be. And you can be too Kellan."
There, in a place where men were once butchered like pigs in a slaughterhouse, Grimmwald and Hawkshade did as brothers often do - they fought. But not with their fists. Theirs was a battle of wills. Not of right and wrong, but of life and freedom. 'Kellan... he still calls me that', Grimmwald thought, his eyes briefly glancing at the shattered window Richard'd stared out of. Arms folded over his chest, and his eyes closing shut, Grimmwald knew his next words - his chosen path - would break Richard's heart like the window they'd stared out of. "You're right, brother", he began, calm as ever, certain as ever. "I'm not a good man. But not because of the Secret Masters, or crime. But because good men do nothing".
"No...", he almost chuckled, his smile cold and dark, "Good men do less than nothing, because they interfere with the something done by better men. They create and propagate this ridiculous culture of fragility that has heroes believing in non-killing and giving second chances to mass murderers who will escape the inescapable prisons and make a mockery of the foolish codes heroes abide by by killing until they die of old age. Even worse, a culture of fragility that convinces heroes to stop not villains, but the avengers making the tough choices the heroes cannot. All under the pretense that brutality is always wrong, and kindness is never weak", Grimmwald laughed. "If only the Romans were good men, then maybe the Roman Empire would've lasted 1,501 years instead of 1,500", he mocked.
"I will never be a good man, Richard", Grimmwald continued, "I am an avenger. A careful amalgam of the deadliest ways man has learned to dismember, maim and kill. A criminal's karma closing in for every evil they commit. Their lack of a conscience, and the nightmare they'll always wake up in until they're scared to live". Slowly, a silence settled between them, and Grimmwald's words floated to Richard's ears with conviction. "I don't want to be free. Because being free means not doing this. It means allowing evil to continue unopposed. And why would I allow that? Why would I watch evil continue to be, and do nothing knowing if I have the power, will and courage to stop it while heroes don't? Because I'll be a good man? A free man?".
"If there's evil, and I do nothing, then I either lack the power or willingness to do something. And the day I no longer have the willingness, the day I do nothing is the day I become a good man - the true villain". Chin high, eyes as red as ever, the Horned Saint held calm and spoke on, "I love you, Richard. But to let evil run wild unopposed just because you want your brother back... would be selfish of me. And you. If you really, truly, oppose evil, you won't get in my way. And if I'm a slave to the way we were raised, then so be it. It's given me the tools to see the truth, to make the world better by destroying evil, and be what every good man is too scared to be - a better one".
Through reflex or an open act of refusal, Valentina acted. As Grimmwald released her arms in the attempt to drop her through the shadows and back to his forefather's temple, she latched on, grabbing hold of his wrists to keep from falling. There was too much of value here. Although she did not run, and instead positioned herself just off to his side and behind, and she listened. Offering a light squeeze on the arm as to suggest her loyalty - that she intended neither to run nor be sent away from this...whatever it may become - she listened, allowing herself to essentially fade into the background while the former brothers-in-arms battled as philosophers.
The words hurt. He swallowed the lump in his throat. Took a breath, gathered his thoughts and carried on. He couldn't give up on his brother. Not now, not ever.
"Kellan you know as well as I that I do not believe brutality is always wrong. It has its place. So does torture. Even the maiming of a criminal can sometimes be justified. But you treat these things as if they were always justified because to you the ends (reducing crime) justify the means."
"I agree that there is a culture of fragility among heroes. I agree that putting your own morality before the lives of others is selfish but none of these things refute my point."
"We were not born to be cogs in this machine-" He waved a broad, gloved hand at the world around them. "People treat putting on the costume like taking on the shape of another cog. 'By day a mild mannered accountant in the fiscal machine, by night a grim vigilante in the criminal justice machine.' They are wrong. All of them. But how can so many people be wrong? Because they have adopted a form of thought that always leads to the same conclusions."
"And so have you." He said, turning and pointing toward Grimmwald's chest.
"Almost all thought today is of the causation type. X occurs and leads to Y. Z force influences A object and causes P outcome. It is mathematical. Predictable. Modern man has fallen in love with this type of thought and it has become so universal that we can no longer imagine another type of thinking."
"But neither you nor anyone else can put forth an argument defending this type of thought that does not itself rely upon the logic of causation. Causation is right because it is predictive, they all say. X because Y."
"They are wrong. Causation logic is not predictive. (What does this have to do with superheros and crime? I am getting there.) There are many large entities and forces in the world. Nationstates worth trillions with millions upon millions in population. It must take incredible force to affect the movements of these entities, according to causation. These forces, being large, would be observable and measurable. In fact billions are spent every year attempting to predict the outcomes of elections, wars, markets and other large forces because a tremendous competitive advantage belongs to the one who can predict the future."
"But look at how many of these predictions are wrong, and shockingly so. Would any have predicted an infamous terrorist could have taken a throne with a knife throw? Or that a former assistant to Quintus would bring down an immortal? No. All forces acted against them; causation predicted the opposite."
"This implies, according to causation's own logic, that there is another force at work. Just as the orbits of distant stars around invisible points implies the existence of black holes; great bodies are only dramatically effected by great forces and when you observe a dramatic effect upon a great body you can be certain of the existence of a hitherto unknown great force."
"That force is destiny. I do not mean the will of the gods or some outside supernatural force. Destiny is not these things. It is a force that exists inside everyone that acts upon the outside world and imposes its will upon space and time. When my mother took over an empire by the most unlikely means imaginable that was destiny. The imposition of her inner force over all the logic of imperial might. When Alexander, a boy king from nowhere, toppled the greatest empire in the world it was not because some material calculation gave him unstoppable advantages it was because it was his destiny and when his destiny was expended, he passed from this world."
"I have a destiny. And so do you. You are not a cog in the machine of causation. Your life is not meant to be spent as an agent of causation, moving crime stats up and down by the rational, calculated logic of fear and terror. That is mere causation. You make yourself the biggest gear in the machine but you are still a gear. You cause the biggest effect but you are still only cause and effect."
"Do you remember that fat old Brit from the second world war? Churchill. 'The destiny of man is not measured by material computations. When great forces are on the move in the world we learn we are spirits-- not animals.'"
"You chase the numbers my brother. Reducing the murder rate. Crime down 9% this quarter. Self reported quality of life trending upward. It sounds good. But in this way you are only another gear in a machine that can never be stopped, only accelerated or slowed. Step outside. Come with me, fight by my side again. Let us stand together and fight alone against a dragon that can never be killed, never be slain. Let us stand upon principles which never compromise. Let us stand outside of space and time, unaffected by the material world, only spirits passing through, imposing the form of our destiny, our souls, upon the world and not submitting to the world-machine that forces our souls into the shape of a cog."
He offered his brother his hand.
Not once did Grimmwald's eyes stray from his brother's, not even as Valentina clung to his arm, refusing to leave. So while his dermal senses watched Valentina, his gaze held Richard. "A cog in the machine", he repeated, his voice dark and deep, words calm and measured. "You misunderstand my goals, brother. I'm not dueling with evil for how high or low murder rates can be", he said, "And I don't care about the flaws of causal logic. Like the Shogun, like Satar, like Charlemagne, I care about my destiny. And my destiny is not to be a part of the machine, but to break it - and replace it with something new. Something better". And then and there, his mind drifted to the powerful artifacts his Orochi spy network had learned of; the Universal Lavalieres.
But there was no hunger for ultimate power in the Horned Saint's heart. Only a thirst for the truth. He cared only about the Soul and Mind Lavalieres. "Just as the good Christian fears the wrath of their God, evil will fear mine. Because what is the difference between man and good? The ability to shape the world in their image. Few things shape the world like great deeds, and the greatest of deeds are worshiped", Grimmwald paused, "My great deed will be finally solving the problem of evil. We stand upon the same principles, brother, and we fight the same dragon. Only, you try to box with a beast that controls distance with fire. So you think it can't be killed. But I don't come to box. I come to hurl my spear between it's eyes and watch the unkillable beast die". And of the dragon, Grimmwald said no more.
The dawn of his culture of fear had come. He need only find the Soul Lavaliere so that he may judge the souls of the wicked in death, and the Mind Lavaliere to make good men out of the murderers, terrorists and maniacs. In his era, Gothic City will become a utopia, and then the world. "I have a plan, brother. How people think, crime stats, Gothic City, heroes and so on, none of it'll matter. There'll be no evil in my new world. Only me. Only fear". With a grip on Valentina's arm, Grimmwald ignored Richard's offered hand, and sank into the shadows nearby, dragging his prisoner with him till they returned to the Temple of Brahma. She'd heard much, but nothing that concerned him, yet they had much to discuss. She had much to be told.
The Knightfall Saint gentle foot steps could be heard echoing through the once headquarters of Brahma Bull and more recently, her ex, Kellan. Holding up her phone she turned on it's flashlight, which was not nearly enough to penitentiary through the darkness that lingered all around her. Her cobalt eyes scanned along the ground that was once drenched in the blood of hundreds of criminals who ran rampant in the old hospital grounds. But... nothing was there. It was as if someone had taken the time to clean the entire hospital. Even the stench of rotting flesh was gone.
Eventually, she somehow found herself standing in the exact, same, spot where Kellan was defeated and where she surgically removed the stone out from his chest and handed it off to someone else she trusted who gave their word to find a way to return Kellan's soul. She still hadn't heard from June... for all she knew, the stone had overtaken her as well. She closed her eyes for a moment, trying to push those horrid thoughts from her mind. She was here for reason.
Not too long ago, after the events of The Purge, Kellan and Ashley had a reunion, one that she wasn't proud of. But at the end a note was left with her giving her details of how he cleared this place of it's rubble, dust and scavengers for her to turn it's ruins into a place of healing where the good people of Gothic can be nurtured and cared for. Pulling the same note from her jacket, she looked down upon it. For several nights she fought with herself trying to determine if she should just throw this away or not. But after seeing what she had so far... she could only imagine how long it took Kellan to clean up this entire place.
Just then, a flood light was turned on in the room behind Ashley as her shadow made an appearance on the wall before her. "Hey, way to tell me where you were going." A voice came from behind her. While almost identical to Ashley's own voice, it was at a slight higher pitch.
Ashley didn't bother to turn around as she tucked the note back in her pocket. "Sorry, I got lost in my thoughts for a moment." She stood for a moment, taking a better look at her surroundings. Everything that was stated in the letter, was true. The bodies, blood stains, the rubble, everything was gone.
"This place, its... clean." Nicole walked up next to Ashley. The two of them looked almost identical, with the exception of Nicole looking younger than Ashley. Cousins, that's what they said they were, cousins.
"Hmhm." The Elder Knightfall agreed as she began examining the flooring and walls to see if the foundation of the hospital was still intact. "Did you place the other lights throughout the facility?"
"Well... the one's we brought, yeah but we still have several areas that don't have lighting yet."
"That's fine. I just need to see exactly how much money I need to invest in this. It's going to take a little time."
"Are you sure you wanna do this here? It's.... kinda creepy."
"Exactly. We are going to turn this once dungeon into a sanctuary for the people of Gothic."
Nicole scoffed as she smiled, shaking her head. "You're so weird."
Ashley turned around, returning the same smile back to her. "We are so weird."
Black House. Once home to bogeymen who preyed on man and meta alike, it had become a haven for the sick and wounded. Ashley would do a savior's work in it's halls, and Kellan - should the coming days be merciful - would do an avenger's deed in the streets. They were ideological extremes of different sides on the same coin. A coin of goodness. Though where Ashley preserved it, Kellan punished those who engaged in it's opposite - evil. Yet it was not ideology that had compelled him to return to her. It was a ghost that haunted his every memory, the specter of the Seven Secret Masters. So he lanced through the shadows to emerge in absolute silence with a devil's scarlet shroud.
His dermal senses'd sensed no one but Ashley. No heartbeat but hers. And as his eyes swept the halls like a broom, they caught only Ashley's bio-electrical energy currents. She was alone.
Ears need not listen to what he'd say to her. With a stride through the shadows, he maneuvered into her office, and their eyes met. Kellan's heart surrendered to nothing but an icy calm, a silent longing he felt for her. "I didn't say much when we last saw each other", he began, a man radically transformed by the genetic relics and skills he'd unearthed from his forefather's texts. "In fact, I said nothing", he nearly laughed, the humor quickly buried under the weight of words to come. "I have to rectify that considering I might be dead or worse in the next couple of days. I didn't come here to debate morality, because you'll never see the sense in killing a Satar just as I'll never see the sense in sparing a Charlemagne".
"I came here to say this. My life has been Spartan, worse than that. My earliest memory is by throwing into a dark cave by the Strigidae at five years old with other kids to fight to the death so that the survivor might eat tomorrow".
"I'm still alive".
"Because the skills taught to me by the Seven Secret Masters have become part of me. They are our fathers, and we're expected to treat them as such. But they're... not normal. You swear you hear them speak but their mouths never move. You know they teleport but you swear they were always there... you just never noticed. If you think the Strigidae, me, are bad, the Secret Masters are nightmares, more monster than mutant. And when you look at them, you know someone is going to die, or worse. Richard and I broke free and escaped. But the price for abandoning the Strigidae is death. And depending if the Secret Masters are feeling unmerciful, your fate'll make you wish you were dead".
"Since leaving the Strigidae, the Secret Masters have been hunting us, patiently but always. And now, right after I convinced Richard to help me find the Lavalieres so that we can destroy them... he vanished. I can't find him anywhere. It's been over a month. And I fear the Secret Masters may have found him. I intend to not only bring him back, but also kill the Secret Masters. I'm tired of fleeing and having to be paranoid. I've always wanted to, but I never thought I had the ability until I learned of my forefather's identity", he paused, allowing Ashley the time to register his every word.
"I never knew my parents, they were unknowns, no one special. But my forefather? My ancestor? I know him as Strigidae Zero. But you know him as the Brahma Bull. And to me, his descendant, he left behind texts that gave me the skill and ability to defeat a Secret Master... or at least I hope so. So my intention's to use the secrets taught to me by the worst monster the world's ever seen, and do something good by saving my brother and killing our wardens. But I might die in the process. I might be in over my head. In fact, I probably am. The Secret Masters are horrors. But I have to try. If I don't, no one will".
"So why am I telling you this? Because while things have gone to absolute shit between us, you once meant the world to me, and you still mean something to me to this day. Otherwise I'd have never given you Black House, or came to see you not too long ago, and now. And if you don't ever see me again because I died in the coming days, I felt it was only fair of you to know. Because I'd want to know if our roles were switched. So until you see me again, if you ever do, this is goodbye, Ash".
Everything was slowly coming together. While the foundation of the building was strong, the walls and rooftops were weak. But just like she was with Gothic, she refused to give up on this building. Construction workers had been here daily since she first made her walk through, when Kellan gave her that letter. She wished she could thank him for it. But here she sat, in what would eventually be her office that was already stained with the smell of coffee. She was on her laptop, her blonde hair in her signature messy loose bun as her reading glasses sat along the bridge of her nose. While construction was going nicely, it was putting a very real strain upon her finances. The Knightfall Saint was going through the income between Halo and Miftah Aljana (Her resort) and while it was more than enough to keep the Valor City Children's Hospital running, it wasn’t enough to do what she wanted to do here. It was just too much money. She was going to have to try and get some investors interested in this…
Then she felt it, felt him. It was strange, but her cobalt eyes looked up at the same time his ruby eyes looked down upon her. It was Kellan. She could feel her heart almost flutter in her chest as she took off her glasses, setting them down upon the desk. There was a silence between them, she wanted to say so much, but she also didn’t know what to say. He seemed… different… to put it simply. But before she could open her mouth he began to speak for the first time since The Purge, he spoke to her and it was his voice. Ashley stayed quiet, listening to his words, watching his expressions… expressions, was he no longer soulless? Did June do what she promised? No... he was still... different.
She gave all her attention to him as she closed her laptop, staying seated as he explained not just his life to her, but who he was, where he came from and why he was the way that he was. But then he spoke about the Secret Masters, which she knew very little about. But then he began speaking about Richard, who had been MIA for over a month. She just assumed he was doing his usual Hawkshade business as the two would go months upon months without talking. She didn’t suspect any foul play, not until now. But then he spoke about how he was going to go about trying to kill these Secret Masters, ‘save’ Richard from them. And then… he said goodbye.
"-this is goodbye, Ash".
“Wait.” Ashley finally spoke, standing up from her seat. “I have something I need tell you. Something I’ve always wanted to tell you... but never got the chance.” She walked around her desk until she was just a reach away. There was a hesitation for a moment before the Knightfall began to speak. “I've never told anyone this. So... here we go. I’m... I'm not from here Kellan… from this world.” She wasn’t sure how to go about this, she had never told anyone this aside from her this world self (aka ‘Nicole’). Her eyes diverted to the ground for a moment. “Or… more accurately, not from this reality. I come from a Universe called ‘Reality M’. My world, my home, was destroyed and somehow, I have no idea how, I ended up in this reality several years ago.” She looked back up at Kellan, a pain of what she lost could be seen in her eyes. “I… felt alone for years. I kept myself isolated to my Catholicon, I was content with what I was doing. Then… you and the others came into my life.” She gently reached out for his hand. Her always chilled hand grasped onto his. ‘Cold hands, warm heart’ is what he would tell her. It always made her smile. “You were the first person in this reality that I trusted… fully. You gave me a reason to push harder, work harder and strive to do more for this city than I ever had before and gave me a reason to try and live and not just exist. I know this changes nothing but I had been wanting to tell you this for such a long time. I… I needed you to know the truth about me if this really is goodbye. And also, thank you, for this.” She motioned to the building around them. "This is the best gift you've ever givenme."
The Red Shinigami had made a solemn but grim oath. To save his brother and be the end of the Secret Masters, or himself. The shadows pooled round his ankles as he turned to vanish into their world, and the irony dawned on him. Months ago, it was Richard whose heart clamored to save him. Now, the tables'd been turned. Fate, it seemed, was a trickster. And with a hearty chuckle, it played one trick more, sent something fleeting to stop his departure.
Her voice, it's echo, lanced into his chest - his heart. Of the little he still felt, he could still feel this. Good. Turning round, Kellan met Ashley's eyes. He hadn't prepared for this. He'd always imagined she'd have nothing to say to him. That the aura of fear he'd forged into such a lethal weapon had made him numb to her. So when the weight of truth was sat heavy in the air by her word and gaze. The love of his life was an immigrant from a dead universe. The shock, the surprise, it paled his face and wrinkled his brow. Her every word hit him like a gale force. Things had decayed between them. He believed she was too good for her own good, and she that he was too extreme to be good. It was a clash of spirit and ideology. Yet the heart wants what it wants.
And as his gaze held hers, he cursed himself for having left her in the cold to pursue his brutal justice. She held his hand, and her fingers were cold, like always. He smiled, truly. "Your hands are still cold". And pulled her into a warm embrace. His arms held her close, her head was on his chest, and he kissed the side of her head. "I don't want to leave you. I'm... different, I feel different, but if it wasn't clear last time, I'm sure it's clear now. I still love you. Things have changed and you may never trust me again, but I'd kill for you. Even if you'd yell at me for it", he laughed, calmly, the first time in an eternity. "Which is why I have to do this. For myself as much as you and Richard and everyone. The Secret Masters are monsters. Truly. And they'll come for all of you eventually".
"But not if I can help it. If I kill them, if I survive this, I want to find my soul and start over with you. But if this is the last time I see you, I'm at least glad you liked what I did with Black House for you", he smiled, warmer this time.
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