/final draft (Awaiting final edits and proof reading)Slowing the speedboat down, Karlof VonMandrake closely watched the night-time shore for activity. The less heavily developed areas of the Rogue Isles were beyond most attempts of law enforcement, not even Arachnos had the manpower to fully tame and secure the entirety of the Isles. It was this fact that Karl was attempting to use to his advantage at this moment.A perpetual fog seemed to rise both day and night off the water in this area. The Vagabond Hills had all the evidence of inhabitants on the island before the British loyalist settlers. But ever since Recluse’s rise to power, the only ones who were able to settle into the area and find out more were the Circle of Thorns. Obviously enough, they weren’t speaking of any finds.Kristina O’Sullivan sat in the passenger seat of the speedboat, her eyes just taking in the foreboding island shore. As the two teenagers neared the shore line, the outlines of distant stone structures began to make themselves known on the far side of the treeline.Kris took a sharp intake of breath that was easily heard through her facemask. “Wow… Where’d those come from?”Karl continued to concentrate on making sure no unseen mystical predators were waiting in ambush. “I suspect the 13th Century. However, many of the structures in this area seem to have either been rebuilt or newly erected by the mages of the Circle of Thrones.”Kris turned to look at Karl, and he looked back at her briefly. “Yes, the Circle is no stranger to these Isles either, Kristina.”Trying not to let her surprise show too much in her voice, she also began to search the shoreline. “Oh… Wi-will they be a problem for us?”“Nein.” Karl pushed the thrust on the boat all the way forward all of a sudden, driving the boat straight towards the sandy beach. “They rarely come to this shore, and I have no intention of challenging them on one of their more heavily held territories. However, we will be using one of their abandoned underground structures that I came across a few weeks ago.”“Oh…”Finally, Karl cuts the boat engine just as quickly as he had accelerated it, shutting everything off and letting the momentum finish carrying them in. Satisfied that none of the mystical cult had spied their approach, the young warlock jumped over the side of the boat, and into the shallow water.Moving quickly to Kristina’s side of the boat, Karl held out his hand. “Alright, let me help you out. We will be making our way to the tree line.” He gestured towards the left, where some of the forest started to thin out, “Once there, you will see a passage open in the rocks. Go in. It is important that you do not hesitate, my dear, and know that I shall be right behind you.”Kris, knowing enough of Karlof at this point to believe he wasn’t exaggerating what needed to be done, jumped out of the boat without any hesitiation. Surprisingly, as she landed in the shallow water, Kris found that the boots she was wearing were not only fashionable, but quite waterproof also. At least, it would be surprising if Kris wasn’t so focused on the instructions Karlof had given her. Running along the beach, Kris’s focus became more intense as she thought she heard a rustle off to her side from some bushes. Squirrels? A Raccoon? Or was it a bloated, malignant pile of demonic flesh who’s only purpose was to devour intruders like her? Still, she ran, faster and harder. Finally, Kristina crested the hill, the trees seeming a lot darker than when Karl had pointer them out to her before. Kris was focusing on Stasi, her friend and absolute rock. She was focusing on Lucia, the lucky charm of Quad 5. And she was focusing on Lycia….“Do not falter, Kristina! Move!”Karl’s voice, behind her, jolted her out of her thoughts. Her eyes cleared and she saw the large outcropping of rocks. That had to be it! With one last burst of strength, Kris ran for her objective. As she approached, seams in the largest of the stone surfaces split open, sections sliding away and revealing a passageway leading down into the ground.Kristina ran in without any hesitation, trusting that Karl is still behind her. It wasn’t until she was halfway down the stairway that she realized the torches along the wall were lighting themselves. However, it was only when she was down the stairs and a few feet into the hallway that she stopped to see where exactly she is.Torchlight flickered over the stone, shadow and light dancing in a chaotic beauty and revealing complex and intricate runes covering the wall and floor. Kristina had seen these runes before, and it finally sunk into her where she was standing. Once, the Circle of Thorns dwelled here. Now, it was to be a sanctuary from those that pursued Kris and her……but Kris wasn’t sure what to think of Karlof as. He was doing so much for her, but there was still so much she didn’t know about the Bloodvine student. His periods of time gone… her delivery into his hands… and the fact that he willingly lived in this place. She needed to know more about Karl, but she wasn’t sure how she could find out what she wanted to know.As she stood looking over her new den of safety, Kris heard the sound of a pair of feet coming down the stairs, and the sound of stone scraping on stone behind that. She turned, looking to see Karlof pulling one of the torches off the wall.“This is… actually kind of cool!”Karl looked at her, an amused smile on his face. “Be careful, liebshin, you seem to be taking quickly to many aspects of my home.”Kristina put a hand on her hip. She had hoped by now that Karlof wouldn’t treat her like nothing more than a tourist. “Well, I do have some sort of big bad buggaboo of a family from what my mom says. She makes them sound like cannibalistic versions of the gypsies.”Karl moved down the last remaining stairs, torch held high. "Nien. Your family is arrogant, aristocratic, pompous, and Machiavellian. I doubt cannibalism is another of their traits." Some of the amusement seemed to have drained from his smile, but it was hard to tell with the torchlight in such harsh contrast to his face.Kris ran her hand through her short hair, finding the catch for the facemask she was wearing. Removing her disguise, she smiled at the German boy she had spent the last few weeks with. “Well, there's one less thing to worry about in my dreams.”"In any case, I would not be so quick to judge the Trudeaux family as your mother does. Without one of them, you would not have escaped Arachnos."A look of surprise came across the young superhero’s face as the new information came to light. "Really? Which one? That creepy Nieves girl? I still can’t remember everything that happened in D.C. …"Karl smiled again as he moved past Kristina. Walking down the hallway, he entered into a larger chamber of some sort. His voice echoed off of unseen walls, giving it a haunting sound. "How much do you know of this Nieves?"Kris followed behind him, "I know she and I were born in the same hospital on the same day... My mom stays pretty tight-lipped about that sort of stuff. Unless she's been drinking. Then she'll tell you things you never wanted to know."There seemed to be a hint of surprise in Karlof’s voice as he asked, “Drinking? I was informed your mother was a woman of virtue." It was then that he gestured with his hand to a large basin in the middle of the room. With what seemed the merest of effort, Karlof conjured a flame into existence that ignited the inside of the firepit, the fire quickly growing and bringing light to the chamber."Normally she is... except on the anniversary. She's a miserable person on that day, almost unbearable. If she gets too depressed then she forgets to watch how many glasses she has, almost not caring.... That's when she’s had too much, and then babbles until she passes out."Karl looked up at his guest, the light of the fire playing with the angles of his face, and the shadows almost moving with a life of their own. “What does she speak of, Kristina? Please, this seems the bear down on you so much. You can speak to me.”Kris sank against one of the stone walls. There was so much more than Arachnos that she had been running from, and she had been dodging questions about who she was for so long. "Mostly about my father, and how good he made life. Sometimes she even talks about her early childhood. My grandfather seems to have been the only one who took it easy on her, and would even just take her on occasional trips to South America, and sometimes just forget to bring her back for her lessons with my great-grandmother. Apparently, my great-grandmother was a very strict Church supporter, from what she says, nearly bankrupting the family, sending money to Rome.""Ahhhh... the denial of guilt through supplication to the holy church... Tell me, Kristina, do you think salvation can be found in this way?""I suppose... forgiveness can be given if you truly repent for your actions. So, why not salvation too? Faith is powerful stuff; it makes or breaks a church."Karl turned to place the torch in a notch in the wall, continuing to gently press the issue. "But do you think that your great-grandmother performed her actions out of Faith, or Guilt?""If she is as bad as my mother claims? Guilt. Or maybe fear, even."And for some reason, at that moment, Karlof VonMandrake began to laugh. It wasn’t cruel or petty, but there didn’t seem to be any sort of amusement in the act either.A confused look on her face, Kris asked, “What’s so funny?”Shaking his head, Karl turned back to his charge. “I am thinking of how many families in Europe pay supplication to a church they do not believe in, only so they may, as Americans say, 'cover their bases'."It was almost as if Karl’s views gave Kris another burst of energy, allowing her to come back just enough to not need the wall for support anymore. "Well, a lot of Americans are just as guilty... Paying lipservice is a terrible crime to one's self, you know?"There was a spark of knowledge in Karlof’s eyes as he looked at Kris. She was rising to meet his words. Good. “Oh yes, Kristina. I do know.”The words… the way they were said almost made Kris want to shy away from this topic. "Well, then… My turn. Why you? Why did I end up with you?"His all too familiar smile returning to his face, Karlof curled a finger in a beckoning motion. His guest was getting inquisitive, and Karl felt the onset of a possibly long conversation. “First, let us sit.”**OK, Writer/Editors Note: This is a possible cut point, allowing for a shift to events either in Paragon or just with the heroes in general. If no scene cut is desired, then continue.** Walking into another room, more torches spring to life around Karl. It is in the new light that a smaller room with two cots, a few chairs, and a low table. On one of the cots, there’s a nylon sleeping bag. Sitting down on one of the wood chairs, Karl gestures for Kristina to take a seat across from him.Steepling his fingers, Karl looks at Kris. He needed to answer this right to make her see what was happening. "Well, let me answer your question with a question of my own. Have I taken advantage of you at any time you have been with me?""No," she replied. "Which brings me to another question; Why not?"Karl raised his eyebrows a bit in a well practiced manner. He wanted to look like Kris was going into an area he hadn’t expected. Looking like he needs a moment to think, he gestures to the table and summons up a plate of sandwiches and bottles of water. He then finally leans back and answers Kris’s question."I was raised in high society. My father has always expected the very best behavior of me. While this is not a full answer, it is a beginning of one."Kris leaned forward to take one of the sandwiches, her mind trying to absorb the words of the mysterious Karlof VonMandrake while her stomach ached for food.“Now, you have been quite vulnerable while in my care, yes. And I have said that what I have been doing is for your own protection also. And, when I first said these things on my plane, you did not believe me."Kris couldn’t help but feel guilty. It was true; from the very first moment she had come into his protection, he had done nothing that would have been considered anything less than chivalrous."Now, since you have learned to trust me, I have asked little of you other than that you hear the words I speak to you, and consider them. I have also shown you parts of these islands through uncensored eyes. You have seen these isles as I do; not as a Hero, or even a common citizen.”“True,” Kris replied after swallowing."We have dined, we have talked, and I would hope that we have come to an understanding. Ja?"“Yes,” Kris said, “And you were tortured by Arachnos because of me."Karlof felt a grimace sink onto his face. How he had received the injuries that he had walked into the apartment with were not something he cared to dwell on.Kris put her hand forward, touching his knee. She could feel him trying to restrain some sort of emotions. It must have been quite a strain for him to keep himself in check all the time. She had seen that emotional vulnerability was just as dangerous as physical vulnerability in the Isles. "I am deeply moved by that, Karl. I owe you."Shaking his head, Karl cleared the displeasure from his face. "Kristina, to give you over after everything I have done would have been the act of a coward. I will refuse to be a coward."Kris thought back to the grand opening of Pocket D, and the circumstances she first met the young warlock under. It was a series of events that led to him assisting a number of Saint Joseph’s students with the recovery of artifacts stolen from the enigmatic Ganymede by Arachnos. Even then, Karlof was risking much to accomplish his tasks."And you are not one. I knew that in February, deep down. They hurt you in that base, and you didn't have to be hurt. And then, when you took me into your care... You are truly a... a gentleman... I would even say chivalrous."Karl made a dismissive gesture, as if seeming to want to downplay his role in past events. "Well, my ways are my own. But, to return to your original question of why I have not made advances on you, I will finish my explanation. If I began to flirt, or to seduce, or even show you romance that I doubt few in your school would be able to show you, what would have happened to that trust if you had not wished my company in that manner?"“I suppose it would have been badly hurt.”"And where would you be able to go if you felt uncomfortable with me after those moments?"Kris’s voice got softer as she saw where Karl was going with this, "Nowhere...""And would you have accepted my advances should I have made them?""Probably not," she shook her head. "I have a boyfriend back home. And so much has happened with my friends…" All of a sudden, Kris’s cheeks became flushed, and she remembered what she had left behind."You are thinking of your friends, aren’t you?"Kris can’t help but look at the floor at this point, her emotional defenses against the many events of the past few months quickly crumbling. "Yes," she said as the first few tears fell to the floor."What is the problem? You will be with them soon?""No I woun’t. I’ll be with Stasi and Lucky…" As Kris talks, there is a pain that grows deep in her chest and moves to her throat. She could feel the onslaught of sadness coming, and she didn’t know how to stop it. Embarrassed and flustered, she covered her face with her hands. Through clutching fingers, and ragged breath, "But, she's dead! And I never got to tell her how much she had helped me! I never got the chance to show how much she meant to me, to all of us! I should have taken her advice and run away when she said to. Maybe, maybe then she'd still be alive!"Karl got up from his chair and moved to be beside Kristina. "Ah, you speak of Lycia. I had heard that you and your roommates were close, but I did not know the ties of friendship went so deep. It was not my intention to be cruel. I felt it best that you learn now, rather than when you were returned once safe passage was at hand. As for her living, who is to say what would have happened? I feel that her death was planned by a calculating and cold hand."Kris grabbed a hold of the closest person she could, needing someone to comfort her and help her. She wanted it to be Stasi or Tony, but she found Karl. And as she buried her face into his side, she didn’t even think for one moment that that was somehow worse."Then maybe I should be at rest, too," she said as she cried into his chest.Karl held the vulnerable Kristina O’Sullivan close, seeing her let go and trusting him completely. She finally had accepted his words as truth, and she finally saw him as someone to console herself in. He held her close as she hid her eyes from the world, and he briefly smiled."You will find much will go through you mind as you come to grips with what has happened. I had lost my mother only a short number of years ago."Kris slowly began to recompose herself. Hearing Karl talk about his own loss and being able to let go of the sadness…. it was helping somehow."And when you return to your school, you will find others trying to cope. But know this; punishment can only be delivered by those who need justice for themselves. Many will try to say otherwise to you."Still wiping her eyes, Kristina looked at the ground and nodded."Kristina, look at me," Karl lifted Kristina’s face to look at his, his penetrating gaze looking into her eyes, "The man who has killed Lycia will in all likelihood kill again. If the time comes to avenge Lycia's death, will you have the strength to stand in judgment of those who made it possible?"Looking deep within herself, Kris saw what kind of a hole was left by the loss of her friend. She then thought of it happening again; and thought about the pain that another close friend, or of it even affecting someone who lost something even more. She looked back at Karl with bloodshot eyes and tears drying on her cheeks, and she nodded once more."And will you have the strength to seek your own knowledge of what has happened, no matter what you are told you 'cannot do'?"“Yes,” she said as she cleared her face and took shallow breaths."Then, you will have done your friend the greatest thing you could do!"Karl then leaned in and kissed Kris on the forehead.Leaning back, Kristina looked into Karlof’s gaze and said, “Thank you, Karl, thank you.”
OK, per a request from Stasis, I'm writing up some scenes showing Karl and Kris earlier in the story. I'm sure we will be able to move it around to the front if need be (I can change the time/date stamp to change the order the entries appear in), but for now I'm leaving it here for the sake of the writers keeping up to date with what's new material.As always; please comment or ask questions here in the comments if and when they occur to you.
Second portion of the work-in-progress is up.
Fourth portion is now up for reading.
So, I'm doing a rewrite of the last few paragraphs based on discussions with characters involved. By brain is also a bit fried at this point, so please be kind. Comments are still welcome, just so long as they are constructive.
Final draft is up, and unless anyone on the project wants to run edits and/or proof reading, I think that it is ready for posting. I can post it myself, or Stasis can. But please, anyone who wants a crack at edits, please post in the comments here.