City Hall wasn’t as well guarded as it probably should’ve been.
Well, originally, it was. They had fully armored guards, complete with loaded machine guns. Even the Auburn Demon couldn’t break through that barrier. After a while, however, the guards began to clear out, having not spotted the winged cretin for several weeks. They had come to a consensus that the mayor was not a target, and suspended most efforts to keep City Hall under lock and key.
It wasn’t more than a day after that decision that I made my move. The secretaries and interns that attempted to stand in my way got their chests sliced open faster than they could make any legitimate effort to help. I kicked open the door to the mayor’s office with a scowl on my face and a dagger in my palm.
“What did you do?”
“T-Travis?! I- I do-”
“Don’t play dumb with me. What the hell did you do?”
“C-can I ask w-what you’re referring to…?”
I approached, grabbing the mayor by their suit collar and slamming him into the office wall, making an incision on his shoulder with my blade.
“You’re hiding them from me.”
As the wound started to bleed, the mayor continued to spout off his lies. “I… I- I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
I made two more deep cuts, one in the mayor’s cheek and another in his arms. He tried to scream, but I stifled them by moving my hand to his neck.
“We had an arrangement,” I reminded him, closing my grasp even tighter. “You keep the miscreants in plain sight and the police off my ass. Now you’re walking back on me?!”
I brought the blade to the mayor’s eye, “You are going to call off whatever operation you started. Now.”
Removing my hand from his throat to allow him to speak, the mayor gasped for breath, before delivering his response. “Never.”
“What did you say to me?!”
“I said, never. You’re not killing another one of my citizens… They’re tucked away. S-safe from you! I got the word out to the National Guard… You’re done for, Travis. Done for.”
“Why the sudden change of heart?! Their blood is already on your hands! No amount of self-righteous bullshit will abstain you from that!”
“I-I…” The mayor met my gaze. “I wouldn’t be able to l-live with myself if I let anyone else die…”
“You’ll pay with your life for this, you bastard!”
“…It’s worth it…”
I drove the blade through the man, and as he lay, bleeding out against the wall, I stormed out of City Hall. My only regret is that I made his death too quick. The Auburn Demon halts for no one. I wasn’t going to let a little ignorance stand in the way of me and my destiny.
It took more effort than I would care to admit in order to track down the safehouses. The officials were more intelligent then I originally gave them credit for, and kept the bunkers’ locations out of the mainstream. Of course, courtesy of the traitor, the police likely had my photo, so there was no chance of me feigning stupidity and just asking for directions.
After a while of blindly searching, I just resolved to hold a knife to a poor fool’s throat, forcing him to get a location and parrot it back to me. I had to silence him once all was said and done, but it was all worthwhile in the end, now that I was staring down a house full of sinners. They had disguised it well, but nothing could slip past the Auburn Demon.
After taking down the guards, I forced my way through a barricaded door and into the sizable living space. However, it was almost pitch black, with the only light being from the wide-open door I had just kicked down. The fools inside must’ve all dove into whatever hiding space they could find, because there wasn’t a single sign of life.
I cupped my hands together, materializing a matchstick and a corresponding matchbox. As I struck up the match, a brilliant flame emerged atop it. But it was no mere flame, as its luminous glow gave off a bright purple tint. Holding the light in front of my face, I began to wander around the safehouse, closing the door behind me to prevent any kind of escape.
“Hello…?” I called out. “Hello? Anyone here?”
“I know that you all are here. You’re just stupid enough to think that the walls of a living room could hold back the forces of Hell.”
“I’m going to find you all, no matter what defense you try to mount. Is this truly the legacy that you wish to leave behind? Hunted down and slaughtered like fish in a barrel? I would like to think that you all have a tad bit more dignity than that.”
“But then again, perhaps not. You’ve all heard so much about me from the media... So, now, let’s talk about you all for a moment… Tell me if this starts to ring any bells: Star-crossed lovers, destined to meet. As if the universe was made so that these bright youth could be together. Why, it’s so perfect, it must be fate!”
“I’ve heard it all because I’ve said it all. I believe that ‘I would die for you’ is also quite common. Well, I’ve been flying around for quite a bit, and I have seen many souls perish on that very mindset. They’re all lies. Filthy lies.”
“Apparently, love is supposed to be this all-powerful entity. One that shall be able to triumph over any evil. Yet, now that evil has finally arrived, your love is nowhere to be found. It’s secluded itself in the shadows, cowering in fear. You all are afraid of me, and afraid of what I’ll do, right? Now, this doesn’t make sense! Your love is supposed to protect you, but instead, it’s justified all of your fears!”
“Oh, but worry not! You can ease the pain! Turn the lights back on right now, and I promise you, your deaths will come quick, and honorably! But if you continue to shroud me in darkness, I might start to get nervous… My hand might slip. That won’t be good… Instead of a merciful end, you’ll be left to drown in a pool of your own blood. That doesn’t sound very fun…”
“Even if I can keep my hand steady, this darkness is starting to mess with my eyesight. I can’t even really tell who is who anymore. In these conditions, I better hope that I don’t make some kind of awful mistake! Oh, what if I stab an innocent child instead of their much more deserving parent? That would just be heart wrenching, I would barely be able to live with myself!”
“Alright, let’s cut the crap. You all know why I’m here, and you all know that I’m not going to leave until I can have red footprints trailing me on my way back home. But, for as much as you think you know the Auburn Demon, there’s so much more underneath this purple mask of mine, more than you could ever dream of…”
“I, too, knew what it was like to feel that blade pierce right through my skin and strike my very being. To be torn away from this world, right into one that was somehow more cruel than the one that we had departed from... I still don’t even think I ever made it to Hell. Trust me, the safety net that I hot won’t be there for all of you. I've suffered too much loss and tragedy to let my unique circumstance go to waste.”
“Some say that it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. Let’s test that notion, shall we? What if I had never loved at all? Well, I wouldn’t get to discipline your asses, that’s for sure! And I wouldn’t have gotten these cool wings! The world would be a much, much, stupider place, and that’s not good for anyone.”
“What if you imbeciles had never loved at all? That one’s easy. You wouldn’t need to hide in the shadows, fearing that your last sight will be of mismatched eyes… You’d be at home, living your own lives, your own lovely little lives… Free of husbands and wives and demons alike.”
“Here’s the fun one. What if the world had never loved at all? First one to figure it out gets a prize!”
“No one? Come on! Everybody loves a good prize! What is your problem, guys?! Lighten up a bit!”
“Heh… Fine. I’ll tell you all. If the world had never loved at all, I wouldn’t have to take down this perfectly fine house!”
I dropped the match I was holding. Immediately, the carpeted floor was lit ablaze in a lavender inferno. The fire spread to the furniture, and then the walls. Soon enough, the fire had engulfed every single room in the house. I watched it all from outside, having flown out before the chaos could begin to take shape. Screams began to fill the air.
“Oh, so now you dare to speak?!”
Quite a few tried to escape out the front door, or through the many windows, but I had thought ahead and blocked them all. Firefighters came to threaten my masterpiece, but I made quick work of them. Eventually, the smoke and screams faded away, while purple embers still burned the crumbling foundations.
Better to have loved and lost my ass… If this didn’t send a message, then nothing would.
“Have you ever noticed how pretty the sunrise is, Ava?”
The recollection of Cynthia’s lovely and reassuring tone was a rare source of comfort. Cooped up in Tockman’s back room, panicking while awaiting any kind of development, I scrounged through my brain for a memory that could soothe me back to a sense of a security.
What I landed on was an instance, back around when Penny first cut herself off from us. Cynthia acted as a light for me during that particularly dark moment…
Cynthia stood beside me on her cabin’s wooden porch, trying her very best to keep me distracted. She wasn’t succeeding in the slightest. The only thing the sunlight illuminated was the legion of dead flowers and decaying treetops, stripped bare by the winter’s gale.
I hadn’t stepped foot on the Montgomery residence since Travis’ return, and the second I saw the look on Cynthia’s face, I regretted coming in the first place. I had figured out that her husband was gone before she had even said a word, another victim of the Auburn Demon…
Call it wishful thinking, but I held out hope that Travis had enough humanity left in him to at least skip over his parents. They raised their boy to be the best that he could possibly be, and that demon returned the favor in the only way he knew how… He was a monster, pure and simple.
“W-with all due respect, Cynthia, I didn’t come here to talk about the sunrise… Your optimism is greatly appreciated, but pretending like the demon doesn’t exist isn’t going to help anyone.”
Cynthia dropped her fabricated smile, displaying a more genuine expression of sorrow. Still, her friendly and cheerful-minded aura would never quite go away, regardless of how she was feeling.
“You’re probably right, but… What is there left to talk about? Everything I once held near and dear to my heart… Gone. It’s all gone. And the perpetrator of this calamity is my only child… At least I still have you, Ava. I’m just sorry it took something like this to get me to open up a bit more.”
“N-no… I’m the one who should be apologizing!”
I didn’t have enough fortitude to suppress my tears. Even as they made their way down my cheeks, I still kept talking. “I didn’t love Travis enough to save him, and now… He’s punishing me… All of this is to punish me! It’s all my fault!”
“Oh, Ava… You shouldn’t think like that! It-”
“Cynthia… If you’re going to say it wasn’t my fault, p-please save your breath… All those people would still be alive if it weren’t for me, and that’s not up for debate. All I can hope to do is make up for it, and that’s exactly what I’m going to do!”
Cynthia wanted to argue with me. She seemed to be under the impression that some quote-ridden speech would snap me into her perfect world. Her mouth opened for just a moment, but no words spilled out. She could tell that it wasn’t worth trying to change my mind. In fact, the woman didn’t respond at all, until…
“Y-you’re going to kill him, aren’t you? You’re going to kill Travis…?”
Striking down the Auburn Demon was a goal that had been at the forefront of my mind since their arrival, but hearing the words through Cynthia’s grieving tone… It made it all much more real, and I flinched, questioning if I had it in me to accomplish my greatest ambition…
“Yes, Cynthia… I… I was-”
“Did you come to ask for my blessing?”
“W-would you have granted it to me?! Y-your son already died once because of me! Demon or not… You’re really okay with letting him die again…?”
“If there was any man that deserved a second chance, it was Travis Montgomery… And then came the miracle. My son was granted an opportunity to live the life that he rightfully deserved! …And he tarnished it. He slaughtered countless innocents, just because he felt like it!”
I had never heard Cynthia raise her voice like that before. Bottled up emotions were finally reaching the surface, and the result was certainly intimidating, even to someone like me that knew Cynthia couldn’t hurt a fly, even if she wanted to.
“…My son died on August 3rd. Beyond that, everything else is just a cruel subversion of reality. Anything you have to do to make sure my son can return to his heavenly peace, to a world far kinder than our own… Go for it.”
Cynthia’s pure heart, which I once deemed unbreakable, shattered by her own son’s sick and twisted methodology… Why her? Why any of them?! How could a man once of pure heart somehow justify these acts of treachery?!
“I’ll do it, Cynthia… I promise. I’ll kill the demon, and I’ll get justice for all those people who never got to experience it before! That includes Travis…”
“…I hope you’re not insinuating that you deserve some kind of punishment,” Cynthia noticed where my train of thought was going, and attempted to derail it before it reached the next station. “It really wasn’t your fault, Avalonia, please.”
“How can you say that with a straight face, Cynthia? If you can do something, and you can’t, isn’t it your fault, too…?”
“Do you want to know the best lesson that I was ever taught? You will always be the worst judge of your own character. And Avalonia, someone like you, so full of ambition, unrelenting on every goal you set your mind to… You have an impeccable character. Had Travis not been tainted by this world’s cruelty, he would have welcomed you back with opened arms.”
“You really think so…?”
“I know so. Look at you, Avalonia… Travis loved you for so many reasons, but most of all, he loved that courage in your soul. I can even see it in your eyes… Look how far you’re going just to do what’s right for him and for the people of Auburn. If you don’t let any of that courage die out, I assure you, the world will end up being a much better place because of it. My only request… I want you to feel just as special as I know you are.”
“Heh… You always were the best at cheering me up, Cynthia. I can’t thank you enough for all of this… For everything. Take care of yourself for me, alright?”
“Anything for you, Avalonia! Now, get back out there, and show that demon why he never should’ve crawled out of Hell!”
More than Travis, more than Tockman, even more than Penny, it was Cynthia’s words that gave me enough strength to face the Auburn Demon, both in a literal and metaphysical sense. Never again would Travis get the better of me. If there was to be another confrontation, the Auburn Demon would undoubtedly be struck down. That was the confidence that Cynthia inspired in me.
And I would need that confidence more than ever. When I caught word of what the Auburn Demon had done earlier in the day, there was no going back.
This is where the future of the world would be decided.
“…What kind of a cat likes to go on walks?”
I fulfilled Penny’s request to take Cine out for daily exercise, and I had been for the past few weeks. Of course, my question went unanswered, as the cat didn’t even look back at me as it continued down the sidewalk. Even with the ball of energy attached to me via a leash, I could barely keep up with it.
“You take after your mother,” I spoke, cracking a smile. Cine dragged me around for a few blocks before we ended up circling back around to the clock shop. I took the cat’s harness off, setting him free within the shop, where he immediately fell asleep in one of the corners. Previously, I had wrapped up all the clocks in order to prevent any monkey business from occurring.
Inside, Avalonia was bent over Penny’s desk, her eyes focused on her phone and on a recent news report about the Auburn Demon. I didn’t even think that the girl had noticed me walk in until she addressed me.
“Can I ask you a personal question?”
“Did you actually believe Travis had a point?”
“…No, absolutely not.”
“Then why did you-”
“I don’t know, Ava. I really don’t know. I watched Penny almost kill herself for some boy, and… I can’t just dream up an invention to solve that. I really wasn't lying when I said that I loved no one.”
“Not even Penny?”
“I hoped not. Love has never treated me well… I haven’t seen my mother in years, and I had to bury my own father. I could never condemn her to the same fate. Even still, she was willing to die for me…”
“Tockman… You didn’t beat Penny to near-death, that was Travis! He’s far from the only demon that haunts us all, and we have to face all of them the same way—together!”
“What if Penny had died?”
“But she didn’t! Because you ran a spear through a winged sociopath!”
“…And once I kill that thing for good, I’m going to do all the things I never could before.”
“Does that include a date or two?”
“If I find a guy that’s right for me, then maybe. And then… I’ll make all the time in the world for him.”
Ava and I exchanged a glance as I returned the question, “I could ask the same of you.”
“I know I’ll never find another Travis, but I don’t want to. Whether he was poisoned by his soul, or whether he poisoned it, the man I loved is gone forever, and I need to stop pretending like he’s not. Even still… Dating him was the best thing to ever happen to me. I have enough faith in the world to believe that another good person is out there.”
“Forgive me for being pessimistic, but do you have enough faith in the world to believe that destiny will keep you safe?”
“Love doesn’t kill, Tockman. Tainted love can create hate, and only hate is strong enough to claim a life. The Auburn Demon let himself become a catalyst for hatred, and still slaughters in the name of love. Will more hate come? Absolutely. Will more lives be lost? Of course. Will that change how I feel? Not for as long as I live.”
“You’re very wise, Ava.”
“Some would call it wisdom. Others would call it ignorance.”
“…Perhaps they’re not mutually exclusive.”
“That’s the last thing I would’ve expected to hear out of you.”
“If everyone knew everything that there is to know about the world, creativity would be null and void. And innovation, in a rapidly changing landscape, will always be the most important thing that one will be able to provide. Say what you will about humanity, but there’s only so much that one world can offer. Rose-tinted glasses will offer a new outlook on it.”
“I never thought of it that way.”
“No, but you likely thought of it in a unique way. Even something as miniscule as a difference of opinion creates branching paths, and completely separate lives... These paths then intertwine in different and complicated ways. That’s how humanity keeps itself functioning.
And that’s where Travis is wrong. Taking one side of a scale off sends the other side downward, not up.”
“I’m lucky I didn’t fall off balance…”
“We balanced your scales for you.”
“Save your thanks for Penny, she deserves them more.”
“Don’t say that, Tockman… I care about you a lot, y’know.”
“That’s… Thoughtful of you, Avalonia. I appreciate it.”
I patted Avalonia on the back, and we both smiled, happy to be in the company of one another.
“So, when Travis is dead, you intend to resume your time travel research?”
“Of course I do. It’s been my dream since I was a child! I’ve made so much progress, it would be wasteful to stop now. I’m getting so close that I can almost taste it… Do you think that you’ll return to acting?”
“I dunno. Maybe. If the opportunity presents itself, then I’ll definitely keep pursuing it. It’s just that… Nothing will ever be the same ever again. Who knows what the future holds?”
“Glass half-full, Avalonia. The future will be just fine as long as we’re around to make it so.”
With the spark of hope present within us both once more, the day seemed to move on faster than usual. We spared and ran a few flight exercises, and nothing was too out of the ordinary until the bell above the door chimed a familiar sound…
Doc was visiting me a lot once he gave the cog necklace back. He told me that he was taking care of Cine, like I asked, and I was honestly shocked. I expected him to go “Yeah, right…” as soon as he left my room that first day. I didn’t really talk much when he came, and he didn’t want to talk, either. Probably because he wanted to “listen”.
I kept my nightmares and lack of sleep and status of recovery from him. I could tell he knew how bad things were when he saw my face, though. I must have had raccoon eyes with all the bags underneath ‘em… After a while of being stubbornly silent though, I had to admit, it was bothering me. I was never the person to keep shit in if the going went rough, and things had been nothing but for months…
Doc and Ava were the only ones I knew who I could talk to, as my friends, family, and Zinovi were in the bunkers. I couldn’t even talk to Cine while in the hospital. As I practiced sitting up slowly and getting up to walk around my room, as I had successfully forced myself to be able to do so as I recovered, I reflected on things a bit.
I needed to be out of the hospital as soon as possible to kill Travis and get my life back on track. I probably needed some serious therapy, too. But before that, there was a question that came to me one day before my routine room laps, and it almost made me trip over my own two feet.
Why not forgive him?
I think I threw up in my mouth a little bit when that thought first popped up, but once it was there, it wouldn’t go away! No matter what I did, it just stayed in the back of my head, making my stomach drop whenever it decided to ping into existence again. I had to admit though, once that was constantly bugging me, my urge to talk to someone grew stronger and stronger. I blame my lack of sleep. It was making me delusional and over-emotional.
By the time I was discharged and walking home, though, I had made up my mind. I used to hate it when people told me to shut it, but here I was, forcing the same stupid rule on myself! And I hated it, as usual! I couldn’t deny that the old Penny wasn’t exactly around anymore, but I wasn’t an entirely new person, either. People change, and I refused to believe that my changing was for the worse.
Getting home, I put my things on my desk in my room. I leaned against the wall and panted. It would take a bit before my lungs were used to me moving around again, and things weren’t completely painless yet. I still had my arm in a sling from when Travis dislocated my shoulder. Once I caught my breath, I combed my hair without a mirror and went to leave again, but I stopped when I glanced at the gear on the cord on top of my notebook on my desk.
I stared at it for a while before sighing and walking over, grabbing it and putting it in my pocket as I headed out for real. To be completely honest, I didn’t know why I was going down the familiar route as I was doing so. I was exhausted and wanted to sleep in my own bed. Doc promised to bring Cine on walks, and since he wasn’t home yet, he was probably out on a walk, so I didn’t need to worry about him. I got to the door and stopped, looking the building over and reaching for the doorknob.
I had one more chance to back out and go home. I hadn’t told Doc that I was discharged today. Maybe if he saw I was gone and I didn’t tell him I was leaving once he tried to visit me after walking Cine, he’d just drop my cat off and leave me alone. The annoying voice in the back of my head perked up again.
But would you really want him to go?
Gritting my teeth, I swallowed my pride and turned the doorknob, walking inside. The bell rang as I opened the door and walked in. I let the door squeak and close behind me as Doc and Ava looked up to see who walked in. Doc looked more shocked than Ava, but Ava had a certain look on her face… Once I recognized what it was, I clenched the fist in my pocket. It was pity.
Doc looked like he wanted to speak, but was holding back. I was shrunken down and looking to the side. The heavy awkward tension in the air was uncomfortable and it wasn’t helping whatever it was I planned to do next now that my feet weren’t on autopilot anymore. Realizing that the fist was clenched around the cog necklace, I decided that would be as good an opening as any. It was a start, at least.
I turned back towards Doc and Ava, opening my mouth to speak as I began to take my hand out of my pocket, when I froze. I stiffly walked past Doc and Ava, going to a mirror on the wall. I had been right. I looked like hell. The stitches on some of the gashes on my face may have healed up enough for the stitches to be removed, but I still had scars on my forehead, cheek, and chin. My nose looked crooked and seemed off from when it had been broken. With a careful shaking hand, I pulled my sleeve up as much as I was able to see the scars and some still healing stitched up wounds on my good arm, taking in the arm in a sling. I pulled my shirt up to see a long white scar across my stomach. On my chest there was one, too. Above where my heart was. Despite me combing my hair before, the wind had tossed it all over, making it crazy. And the bags under my eyes paired with their now dim color made it look like I hadn’t slept in years…
The tension hadn’t lessened from the discovery of myself. In fact, it had only gotten worse. Now I could see why Ava had looked at me like that… I stiffly turned my head to look back at the two. Doc looked just as crestfallen as I felt, which I didn’t think was possible. After all, he wasn’t the ugly one. I slowly took the cog necklace from my pocket, Doc perking up once he saw it. I went to ask him for help in putting it on again, but a knot formed in my throat.
Doc seemed to understand though, because he nodded and walked over, taking the necklace and untying the end so he could tie it around my neck like it used to be. I watched him fix it in the mirror, putting my hand on the cog once he stepped away. I felt another necklace under my shirt and pulled on its chain to have it rest where it could be seen. It was actually two: the necklace Zinovi gave me for Christmas and the necklace that had the charm from my great grandmother’s collection. All three necklaces were together again.
I turned back around to face Doc. He was smiling sadly at me. And that’s what broke the waterworks. Lip trembling and all, I grabbed Doc in a tight hug and started sobbing, shaking from it. He stiffened when I did so, obviously not expecting me to do such a thing.
“It’s just a hug, Tockman,” I heard Ava say. “Haven’t you been hugged before?” After a few moments, I felt Doc relax and hug me back. I felt some droplets hit the back of my shirt and I winced, but that didn’t make me pull away or stop sobbing like crazy.
“…Not for a long time…” I was a bit surprised at hearing Doc’s trembling voice, but I was too focused on getting rid of the weight on my chest and the knot in my throat to focus on that much. “I’m-… I’m so sorry…!” I choked out, holding him tight like he was my lifeline, which in this instance, after weeks of me denying it, he was.
Doc held me to him just as tightly as I was holding him. He pat my back and sighed shakily.
“No… It’s my fault… You were right, Penny… I was treating you like garbage, and I was blind to everything…” We stood there hugging it out for what felt like a while. Doc evidently stopped crying way sooner than I did. By the time I was done, the front of Doc’s coat was wet with my tears. My exhaustion hit me like a bus once everything was out of me. I was less hugging Doc and more leaning against him. He must have noticed when this started happening too, because he shifted his grasp on me a bit to ensure I wouldn’t fall.
Resting my head against Doc’s chest, I heard his heartbeat. It helped calm my breathing and started to lull me into a deep, deep sleep… Finally…
I snapped awake when I heard a news bulletin start up. A ‘meow’ made me direct my attention to the desk, where Ava was standing and holding Cine. She had popped open a video report on her phone. I felt the color leave my face and I gasped in horror as I listened to my worst fear realized.
“This is an emergency news update! Not hours after the mayor was assassinated, bunker number 12 was just attacked by the Auburn Demon! Police and several FBI agents arrived on the scene to find the safehouse turned to nothing but smoldering ash. Several bodies have been found burned, many of the deaths relating to asphyxiation and heat exhaustion if not burning.”
…This couldn’t be happening… If he found 12, then that meant…! I turned towards the others.
“We know where he is. We have to go! Now! Before he finds another bunker!”
“Penny, are you crazy?! You’re still in a sling! You almost passed out on top of Tockman!” Ava looked worried. I shook my head, going to the back room to grab a fencing blade.
“It’s now or never! We can’t let him torment the people anymore!”
Doc came over to me and placed a hand on my shoulder. “Penny, Ava is right. What happened to those people is tragic, but you’re not fit to fight yet. I won’t lose you for real this time!”
I shook my head again, taking Doc’s hand off my shoulder as I teared up again. “Doc, you don’t get it!” Before Doc went to argue again, I squeezed his hand tight. “Bunker 12 is close to Bunker 14! That’s where my family is!”