Rusty and Raven followed Gamma up the marble staircase, and onto the mezzanine where Azure was chained. Beyond her, the battle still raged on. Dustyn and Ezelia worked together to tirelessly fight both the Church of Awakening, and the White Fang grunts that attacked them. Alexandra fashioned the marble floor into cuffs and walls, trapping cultists and splitting up fights that fell out of her friends’ favor. Greyson and the Phantom continued their assault on Vladimir. So far, their battle was stalemate at best.
Azure pulled back toward the three with excitement as they approached, but winced as the shackles dug into her wrists. “Rusty! And Greyson is... everyone's here!” she stammered in excitement.
“We’ve come to rescue you!” Rusty proudly exclaimed.
“That wasn’t my goal...” Gamma growled in protest. She kept watch on the staircase as Rusty knelt next to Azure. He laid his hands on Azure’s cuffs, and thick steam rose from them.
“Y-You really don’t seem like a bad person,” Raven offered Gamma. “W-We would have to talk with our leader, b-but maybe, i-if you wanted, you could join us...”
“No chance in hell.”
Azure ripped her hands free of the cuffs that restrained her from the railing. She jumped forward to hug Rusty in thanks, then Raven. She looked to Gamma, whose crossed arms and frigid posture let Azure know exactly how much she desired a hug.
“And... thanks to you, too,” Azure said soberly. “You probably don’t like me much, and I understand that. But thank you.”
“Yeah, whatever,” Gamma responded. “Hurry it up. You guys are weak right now. Let’s get your weapons and go.”
Ember stood still, a body length in front of her mother. No. The traitor, who Ember knew killed her husband in the name of some hair-brained “god.” She felt no happiness. No relief at her well-being. Only rage. The whole time, her own mother had been behind Ember’s life on the streets. She was the one who forced Ember to become the monster she knew she was.
“You... you’re one of them...” Ember accused, her contrived tone of calm masking a torrent of darkness inside. Ember felt as if her head would explode, and let out the rage, confusion, and betrayal saturating, festering in her mind.
“Please. Let’s get out of--”
“Shut up!” Ember shrieked. “Do you know what I’ve been through because of you?! I’ve become a thief. A murderer. All these years, I’ve thought I was an orphan, but I was wrong.” She raised a dagger, tears of rage flooding her eyes as she looked into her mother’s. “It’s time to make myself one.”
“Ember, wait!” Mrs. Blackburn protested. She blocked Ember’s first attack, and held her daughter off with all her might.
“How could you betray dad!?” Ember shouted. “Betray me!? We were family!”
Ember cut her mother off with a dagger jab to the abdomen. A red ripple tore across her mother’s body, and Ember punched her backward onto the marble floor. Ember’s mother rolled out of the way as her daughter lunged forward. Ember struck the concrete. Without missing a beat, she spun around, whipping two more daggers from her thigh sheathes, and flinging them toward her mother. In the time it took her to block all four, Ember lunged again.
Her dagger met her mother’s throat.
Time seemed to slow as Mrs. Blackburn fell backward to the floor, a crimson trail following her neck. Ember stood over her mother, watching as the crimson puddle under her head and neck grew. She thought to kill the one responsible for the life she had lived, the constant struggle for a meager survival, would feel liberating; like a weight off her shoulders.
Yet this felt wrong.
“Em...ber...” her mother choked. She weakly held out her arm. Ember’s knees gave out, and she knelt next to her. “I didn’t... betray you.”
“What?” Ember snapped, a potent twinge of regret and confusion mixing with her fury.
“The Church of Awakening... they did to your dad, what they wanted with your friend,” Mrs. Blackburn explained. Ember knew by the volume of blood dribbling from her mother’s neck, these were her final words. “They forced me to join them. If- If I didn’t, th-they would have used you, as... a mother...”
“Mom!” Ember yelled. She propped her mother’s head upright and held her neck, a vain attempt to fight the inevitability she herself had caused.
“I’m... so proud of you. You’re so strong. So... beautiful. I know... your father... would be proud too.”
The last of her strength ebbed away, and her head fell back on her shoulders. Ember slumped forward, her tears mixing in with her own mother’s blood.
Greyson attacked Vladimir with Blitz, then reversed upward with a second slash before firing a shotgun round with Nimbus. The first two attacks, Greyson’s foe blocked with his lance, and the last with his shield. The Phantom pounced in from behind, punching downward with a blade that extended from his hand. The attack connected, and Vladimir responded with an attempt at a spinning shield bash. The Phantom phased to the side, fired several shots with a semi-automatic pistol, then dodged a lance jab.
“This guy’s got a lot of aura to spare...” the Phantom noted aside to Greyson.
Greyson nodded once in agreement as he stared down Vladimir. “I’ve fought him before. It feels like he has more aura than back then...”
Vladimir grimaced in irritation, and launched a grenade from the barrel of Crimson Rook. Greyson rolled to the side as the concrete floor shattered, and fired another bolt of lightning from Blitz. His target raised his shield, deflecting the bolt toward the Phantom, who dodged just in time to let the bolt fly into the chest of a cult member.
The Phantom jumped, planted his left foot on Vladimir’s lance, and snapped Vladimir’s head to the side with a brutal kick with his right leg. The Phantom then flipped over his opponent, unloading with both weapons into Vladimir’s back before landing. For the first time, Greyson landed a combination of successful attacks into Vladimir’s back. As he recoiled, the Phantom crossed his jaw with a tonfa-bladed punch. Finally, Vladimir’s aura broke.
The Phantom raised his pistol, and aimed between his opponent’s eyes.
In the split second between the squeezing of the trigger, and the moment of impact, a hooded figure jumped next to Vladimir, and took his arm. In a flash of light, the two disappeared.
“You didn’t get him?” Greyson guessed, looking to the bullet’s crater in the marble floor.
“Bastard disappeared,” the Phantom growled.
Greyson looked to the Phantom in unease, still holding Blitz and Nimbus at the ready. The two had teamed up, of course. But a month earlier they had nearly fought to a bloody end. Now their common enemy had gone, there was no telling what the Phantom would do.
A second flash of light lit the area, causing Greyson to flinch. Taking Vladimir’s place amid the chaos was a thin woman in a black dress, with high cheekbones, pale skin, icy blue eyes and pitch black hair; who looked as if she had spent years fighting the inevitability of age. To her right, a severe looking older man, white hair fixed into a ponytail, grey eyes fixed straight ahead.
The room seemed to fall silent as the feeling of overwhelming power coalesced from the air. The air behind the black-clad woman glaciated, first slowing the movement of everyone caught in her path, then freezing them where they stood.
“That’s... that’s... no. No!” Alexandra suddenly shrieked. Forsaking the raging battle around her, she retreated to the back of the room. She sat against the wall, and sculpted a layer of stone over herself. She was certain. She knew the woman who had just appeared was the same one responsible for the death of the Inyan tribe.
“Phantom squad, retreat!” the Phantom suddenly ordered. “If I’m not at the ship in twenty minutes, leave without me!”
“Captain, no!” Gamma refused. Several White Fang members shoved past her as she stared into the war zone from the door.
“Raven. Go,” Azure demanded, pushing her into the mass of White Fang grunts. She followed with Rusty, keeping a keen eye behind herself.
“Gamma! This is a direct order!” the Phantom barked.
“I’m staying with you!” Gamma insisted.
“I knew you were nothing more than a filthy rat,” the woman in black hissed. She raised her arm, and it became coated in a harsh blue light. “I should have done this a long time ago.”
As the Phantom turned back around, a spear of ice shot from the woman’s hand. It pierced Gamma’s aura instantly, and lodged itself in the pit of her stomach. She looked down, breaths coming in labored gasps as blood ran from her stomach down her legs. She touched the gruesome wound with a shaking hand. “C-Captain, I... I lo--”
A second icicle impaled her neck, and a sudden stiffness wracked her body. She fell to her knees, then the floor. She was still. The Phantom rushed to her side, but knew there was nothing he could do as his subordinate lay still in a growing dark puddle.
Apparently satisfied, the black-clad woman strode forward still. As she approached Ember, who still hunched over her mother’s body, Kita stepped to Ember’s side, Kenakuma drawn. Noting the masked huntress, the woman remained out of the blade's immediate reach.
“Aww, found mummy, have you?” the woman mocked in a babyish voice. “And what have you done? She did this all for you, you know. What a nasty, ungrateful child you are!”
Ember snarled with each coming breath, and shook with rage. A look of pure hatred etched onto her blood-covered face as she stood. “Yeah. I’ve made a mistake,” Ember admitted in a voice quivering with fury. “But you... you robbed me of everything! What won’t be a mistake is sending your entire family to Hell, you repugnant bitch!”
“And a nasty mouth, too?” the woman calmly goaded. “Someone should wash it out! I guess it won’t be your mummy...”
Ember screamed with saturated rage, and lunged for the black-haired woman’s throat. She stood still, watching in fearless amusement as the crimson-haired huntress’s dagger neared. She raised a single hand.
Instantly, all but the woman, her husband, and a third hooded figure became covered in a paper-thin sheet of ice dust, and held still. Ember’s face was frozen in murderous rage, dagger just an inch from its target. Kita was close behind, intending to finish the job should Ember fail. The Phantom hunched over Gamma’s body. Greyson was locked in combat with a pair of hooded figures, Blitz blocking a dagger and shotgun Nimbus pointed to his second attacker. The woman checked her diamond-encrusted wristwatch. Eleven thirty-nine and four seconds. The thinnest hand of the watch stood still.
“Should we be leaving, Masters Garnett?” the still-animated hooded figure asked.
“Not yet,” Mrs. Garnett replied, looking to the mound of marble against the back wall.
“That little desert mouse thought she had escaped me. How cute...”
Mrs. Garnett strode past the frozen bodies to where Alexandra had concealed herself. She effortlessly rose the layer of stone to reveal Alexandra, who had frozen with head hanging below her knees, hands covering her crying eyes.
Crown Jewel was lifted from her head.
“Lucius, do you have everything you need?” Mrs. Garnett asked, turning to her husband and placing Crown Jewel atop her head with a satisfied smile.
“Yes. All that is left is the house itself,” Mr. Garnett responded.
“It has served us well, but we can find another,” Mrs. Garnett agreed. She produced a dancing ball of flame in her right hand.
“I think it’s time we move.”