Jade went back into the cave, leaving the frail controller outside staring at the horizon. She woke them all up, explaining to them what was going on, what was to happen, and the choice they had to make. Metal Core and Lil Smoke refused flat out, while Wild-Star had doubts about remaining in the shard for the rest of his natural life. Jade who was finally asked what she thought, found herself torn between her loyalty to her people, and the taste of freedom. If Voyager could pull it off, really get them all out of here and back home, it was a chance she was willing to take. On the other hand, once they did make their way home, they would never again know peace as they did, for the heroes would hunt them down and capture them, another jail in a way, was awaiting them, the jail that has no bars, only running. Her train of thoughts was broken by Voyager, who stood once more in the entrance, leaning heavily against the wall.

“Have you decided?” He asked them, fiery red eyes looking at them, through them, all was resting upon their choices, and he hoped they would choose wisely. Metal Core looked at his friends, looked at the old controller, then took a step forward and walked ahead, to come and stand in front of Voyager.

“We have… We’re not going.” He stared him straight in the eyes, unafraid and defiant.

“Do you speak for all of them, or do they have a voice of their own?” Voyager looked over Takeo’s shoulder to see if one of them wanted to come home, but was afraid to say so, maybe due to peer pressure, maybe due to heroic ethics, the "one for all and all for one syndrome.” Yes, one wanted to go home, lost in thoughts and shifting eyes, were his clues.

“All right, I understand. I would require to be fully healed before I take on the Rulaaru and Human armies out there.” He spoke that last one with carelessness, while taking a few steps inside the cave, to stand between Metal Core and the little group, looking into Jade’s eyes.

“No, old man, you leave us alone now, you will get no help from us anymore.” Metal Core followed him in, grabbed his shoulder and spun him around. Voyager had gotten a bit closer to the group, and nodded to himself, one of them wanted to leave this place. He was turned around, and faced once more Metal Core, but this time, he smiled gently upon him, like a father to a son.

Takeo fell to his knees, grasping Voyager by the forearms, wind knocked out of him, endurance drained almost completely. He moaned once more, and fell back on the rocky floor, feeling heavy and slow, drained of all speed. The fiery eyes controller turned around, while at the same time throwing cinders all over the vicinity, choking everyone but himself. The Exiled coughed and hacked, tears blurring their vision, he was holding them. The controller turned on himself, looking down on Metal Core, he used him to fully heal himself. A few seconds after it began, all the heroes in the cave were locked and rooted in place, unable to take action and trapped in fire cages guarded by imps, all but one that is.

“It’s a good thing that I noticed you were having second thoughts, if not, all of you would be dead right now.” Spoke the old man.

“Don’t hurt them anymore, they are helpless and at your mercy. If there is any decency left in you, leave them be, they are my friends.” Answered Wild-Star who was shaken up by the fast and furious action the controller had deployed. The fire controller had shown a side of himself they hadn’t seen yet, that of a merciless foe willing to show no quarters, and Jaden was taken aback by such conduct. Voyager had shown his true, selfish disposure. He didn’t care for them one second, he cared only about going home.

“They would’ve let you go, you know, they didn’t want you here in the beginning.” Wild-Star came to stand next to Jade Rade, she was unconscious and trapped in a ring of fire, beautiful and pale.

“Why didn’t you try to stop me, blaster?” Asked the controller, surrounded by fire and imps, looking more like a demon than a man.

“Because… Because I have to go back to earth, and prove my innocence. I was sent out here for crimes I didn’t commit, they accused me of things I never could bring myself to do.” Wild-Star answered passionately, clenching a fist to his sentence.

“We are all innocents here, none of us deserved the fate the city bestowed upon us. I’m returning to earth to finish what I had started, and when that’s done, Crey Industries and the countess will burn in hell.” Voyager decided to play the sympathetic card, empathy was important when forming a new friendship, and this young man fit into his plan so well, he couldn’t afford to loose him now.

“Your friends are not hurt, only subdued. I needed their energies to restore myself, going home will be dangerous, and if we are to succeed and live, it had to be done. They will awake in less than ten minutes, it‘s better if we were not around when that happens, they are powerful, and anger comes easy when we wield too much power. Come Wild-Star, when the Rulaaru host reaches the base, we have to be there and ready.” Voyager ran for the exit and flew up into the orange sky, eyes burning with anticipation. He felt elation, the kind he hadn’t felt for a very long time, as he looked behind and saw Wild-Star follow him. When he would shift the armies and take in all their power, next to him would be the best channelling vessel he have, a blaster. The controller looked ahead, towards the base, and smiled.

“General Hammond is in for a surprise today…”

“On your knees, hands behind your heads, now!” Yelled officer Johanson while pointing his .38 special at Shadow-Step and Marrowsnap.

“Hey Vic, we’re heroes tonight, haven’t you noticed.” Spoke the Skulls leader as he was kneeling down and complying with the policeman’s orders, a bit of derision in his voice.

“Shaddup Marrow, we got enough evidence on you to put you in jail for a mighty long time. And as for your friend here, he’s going back to the Ziggurat as soon as I can locate a transport.” Officer Johanson was taking out his handcuffs, and was about to use them, when a hand restrained him.

“Not tonight Victor, they are helping us, and we need all the help we can get.” Chromium Man who had been trying to console a broken up Cavalier, had overheard the commotion, and came to the rescue of the two criminals. “They saved those children Victor, that’s gotta count for something, at least a delay in their arrest?” Victor Johanson looked at the armoured hero, property of Winter Industries and most surely the playboy son of the company’s owner, and nodded.

“All right, until this situation is under control, they are free, but after that, you two clowns are mine, you hear that?” Went on Johanson while pointing a menacing finger at the two unlikely heroes. Putting his gun away, he turned around and yelled orders left and right while walking away.

“I would suggest not being here once we resolve this situation, gentlemen.” Chromium Man then turned around and returned to stand next Cavalier.

The two of them nodded and stood up, Shadow-Step letting out a long belch as he did so, which clearly smelled of whiskey. They went to the food and coffee trailer that had been provided freely by Good Will Foundation of Paragon city, and helped themselves to a free meal. They both ate and drank their fill without shame, appreciating it all, in a caveman sort of way.

While close by, sitting on the ground and crying shamelessly, Cavalier relived the last few minutes of Mary’s life. She had looked at him, eyes telling that she trusted him to bring her to safety, so little, so fragile. The look on her face when Ghost Starr’s blade had started slicing her neck, the terror that had taken root in her brown eyes, while he just stood there and let it happen. Why had he hesitated so, why? He felt tortured and ashamed, angry at himself and his failure to save one little girl from a horrible fate. Countless of times in the past, he had been faced with similar situations, where the life of an innocent was hanging in the balance, and always, he had prevailed and saved the day, always. What had occurred tonight had broken the very core of his being, his reactions and reflexes had failed him, even with all the training and years of experience, he had failed when he shouldn’t have. Looking about, he saw the looks on the faces of the people present, darting in his direction, the lack of understanding or forgiveness in their eyes was there.

“Cavalier, man, you gotta pull yourself together, we need you.” Spoke Xanthion, who felt a bit awkward at having to say this to the one person who had subdued him. For Xanthion, Cavalier was the only leader he followed, obeyed only his orders and none other, and to see him broken up like this, shook him up to say the least.

“I failed her, failed everyone here, failed myself.” Cavalier held his head between his hands, tears freely flowing, looking down on the ground like a kid who had just lost a very important toy, realisation of his failure was crushing him.

“Get up, they’re looking at you, stop crying over her, she’s dead.” Xanthion, always one to speak bluntly and true, couldn’t stand the sight of Cavalier like this. He stood up, wiped the tears from his eyes, took a long breath that came out shakily. Sheathing his sword, he looked at Mase, Darklightning, Chromium Man and then Xanthion, looked at the ground in shame.

“I… I resign my commission, leadership is yours Chromium Man.” He turned around and used his super-speed to run into the tunnel, heading towards Independence Port. Everyone present felt the words Cavalier spoke, and most just stood there trying to comprehend what had just happened. He had walked away from a fight, from the field of battle, and abandoned them to their fate, him of all people. Sure, they understood that he had just suffered a great defeat, and they all felt it in a way, but since the beginning of the night, all of them had lost something, be it a family member, a friend or a piece of their innocence.

The great Cavalier had retreated, given up on them and himself, Ghost Starr had stricken a terrible blow without killing him. Ghost Starr had managed to injure his soul to the core...

Kings Row: hour 5

Cavalier ran and passed the train station heading towards Bell Point, speeding down the streets, he was soon running through the factories of Wave Landing. He knew what was going on in his mind, recognized the situation, he was in a total state of mental distress. He had seen it happen to others, seen how it turned them from day to night, from good to evil in a matter of moments. Xanthion and Voyager could be regarded as good examples of what goes on in your head when battle stress gets to you, in Xanthion’s case, it turned him into a somewhat good guy, from the street thug that he was, fighting amongst the Skulls’s ranks. In Voyager’s case, it turned the man into a non-caring fighting machine, cold and merciless with no regard for public safety, only results. And at this moment, he was going through the same process, an inner battle was going on inside, and try as he might, mingled through all those thoughts, he kept seeing again and again, little Mary’s head being sliced through.

Reaching Industry Pier, he turned south towards Patriot Wharf, still running like the world was on fire. He passed in front of Wilson Eziquerra, his old friend and contact from the early days without stopping, passing him and the two corn silos in the background, Cavalier burned down the street. The smokes stacks and chimneys were giving up their black smoke, ships were docked and waiting for unloading, all of this he saw as he ran, but Mary’s eyes were still looking at him. He sped through the coal yard, black soot dust lifting as he passed through it, high in the air, he looked in the distance at two flashing beacon lights, high in the sky. The road sign indicated Terra Volta in a mile, he turned and followed the boulevard, passing the fence and guard post leading to Valor Bridge, dismissing the heroic statues in the distance, he ran onto the bridge and came to a stop right between the stone lions that ornamented the causeway.

Breathing fast, hearth pounding and sweating profusely, Cavalier looked at the scene in front of him. Two figures of angels were guarding the way to the bridge, one holding a shield, the other one wielding a sword, symbols of valour and dedication that decorated the condemned construction. He walked ahead, not caring for the graffiti on the walls, eyes wide and wild, he came to stand beneath the angel statue with the sword. Unsheathing his own sword, he looked at the angel, looked at the hold Latin inscription on the blade :“Tantum dignus mos habitum mihi” he whispered to himself, words he hadn’t said aloud in years, not since finding the sword in the old cave near Newcastle, back in England, lying and waiting on the dusty floor for someone to retrieve it. Stepping forward on the bridge, he came to a stop in front of an official city plaque, like the ones they installed all over, to commemorate a moment of importance. Brushing away the debris and garbage that had piled on it, mostly due to the wind that was ever present on the bridge, he read it :

"When the Freedom Phalanx became the first legally recognized Super Group in 1953, Statesman held a conference at Valor Bridge. He said: The valiant hero Atlas died defending the city on this very bridge. I do not know how to thank you for your faith in the Freedom Phalanx, except to say that I, too, am ready to die in your defence.”

In a burst of anger, Cavalier punched the plaque with all his might, denting the metal and crumbling the granite that housed it underneath. He started running again, and jumped onto the access ramp of the suspender cables, streaking upwards, towards the top of the first tower. He ran screaming like a lion, using his sword to cut some of the hanger cables, which sent sparks flying into the night. Upon reaching the top, he stopped, the beacons were signalling in a regular pulse of red lights. In the center of the tower, stood a lone yellow light held by a metal shaft, about twelve feet high, Cavalier sliced it off and watched it fall to the ground. The metal beam went down silently, until it disappeared from sight far below. Falling to his knees, he cried freely, Mary’s face still haunting him, asking him why he hadn’t reacted fast enough, why he had not saved her. He screamed again to the heavens, unable to contain the rage, to refrain from the pain that was visiting him.

He stayed there a good while, until his cell phone rang. Without looking, he took it out of his belt pocket, and threw it in the distance, towards the water. He took a few steps facing the east, to come and stand looking towards the Kings Row tunnel, where his friends and fellow citizens were fighting for the survival of the city. He looked long and hard over there, his eyes reflecting anger and despair, red from crying and tired from being up so long. He took a step back, and was about to launch his sword into the air, but something held him back at the last second. Stopped from discarding the ancient bladd by some unseen force, he looked at it once more, the Latin inscription glowed a soft green, making the engraved words stand out in the night.

Tantum dignus mos habitum mihi, Only the worthy will wield me.” He spoke those words aloud, looking at the sword he had been using for the last ten years, sometimes even speaking to the ancient blade as if it was a person. “I am not worthy anymore, old friend.” He whispered to it, then turned around, and proceeded to plunge the sword into the eastern saddle of the bridge. The blade emitted a long groan, as if complaining at Cavalier, when it entered the granite, where it was pushed in to the hilt. Cavalier then let it go, and backed away, looking at it through a blurred vision. He felt some of his strength abandon him, as if the sword was taking his life force away. “I’m so tired, so very tired. A worthier man than me will come for you.”

He turned around, looking in the distance with Mary’s ghost still haunting his mind, relentlessly present everywhere he looked, reminding him of his ultimate failure as a hero. “I’m so sorry kid, I should’ve saved you, should’ve died in your place.” He was now standing on the edge of the tower, looking down below. Spreading his arms, he let himself fall towards the dark water of the Independence Bay, hoping to find rest and tranquility…
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