Chapter 656: Misfortune is No Excuse for Evil Deeds

    Chapter 656: Misfortune is No Excuse for Evil Deeds

    "When I was young, my family was desperately poor. We lived in a slum, rats like all the rest. There was a trash dump outside of our front door. If we went outside the smell would make you gag. Eventually I began to think the smell was getting into my pores. I'd smell like garbage forever." The Astral Phantom idly stared out of the window, her words soft and thoughtful.

    "For years afterward I had this phobia of getting dirty, a vestige of those dark days. I have this memory... me, with a piece of bread in my hand. I asked my mother 'how much bread do I need to eat to feel full?' I remember the tears that streamed from her eyes and dripped onto my face. They were hot and slick. I asked her why she was crying, but she only shook her head and said nothing."

    "My father was disabled and couldn't walk. He could only manage simple tasks. My mother was beautiful and hardworking. When they first got together my father was an excellent mecha pilot. But then he lost his legs. He was too young to have any savings. He was also an orphan with no family to lean on."

    "Mother shouldered the family's burdens on her own, but she didn't have any special skills or training. So we had no choice but to live in the slums, a hard and bitter life. But I wasn't sad - in fact I was a pretty happy child. I got to be with my parents, that was enough. We tried not to let poverty ruin our lives. Until one day, mom didn't come home. I searched all over for her until I heard crying. It was her. I dug through the trash until I found her, her clothes ripped and flesh bared. Someone had hit her so that her face was red and swollen with blood dripping from her mouth. Nothing covered her bottom half."

    "I didn't know what to do when she grabbed me and started sobbing. I couldn't understand what had happened. She cried like that for a long time... I said, 'mom, I'm hungry. Can we go home and get some food?' I was five years old. Although I was scared, the pain in my belly was stronger. She stopped crying and took me home. She didn't talk to father. She just took a shower, changed her clothes, and made us food. When father asked why she'd gotten back so late she just said she was busy at work."

    "That night I ate bread until I was full. I was still frightened but tired, so I went to bed. When I woke up the next day mother was gone.

    When we found her she was in a river not far away. It wasn't deep, but she was floating face down... a rock had been tied to her upper body to keep her submerged. The police said there wasn't any sign of a struggle. They suspected suicide."

    "When she died my father broke. He got sick and wouldn't get better and was confined to his bed until it took him, too. Later I learned that it had been a gang of vagrants from the slums that'd attacked my mom. In my mind this was all because of poverty. Because of poverty we couldn't defend ourselves. Because of poverty my father couldn't afford the bionic legs necessary to keep working. Around that time was when my powers awakened. I hunted down and killed those vagrants. I wasn't afraid, I just swore that I would become the world's strongest, richest person."

    "In time I made money. I had power and influence. I could defend myself. But there was always an emptiness I couldn't fill. I would never get my parents back, no matter how rich or strong or pretty I was. I'd lost all my money in those pursuits. Then someone told me that if I became a Paragon there might be a chance to find their lost souls and call them back. I began to regain what I'd spent. My talents were clear. I knew that if I wanted to keep getting better I need hard work and luck, but also a great deal of money. Money bought resources. The world seemed so broken and unfair, so I turned to murder. The method to make money didn't matter to me. Once I earned enough, I used those resources to break through. I never cared who I killed or why, so long as they paid me well. Nothing was more important than money. I had grown into a greedy woman."

    "When you marked my soul I was terrified. I felt like my spirit was marred by it. However these last few days that fear has passed. I realized I could slow down, be at peace. Watching Skyfire Avenue from this window, I've realized there was so much I didn't consider. This would could be as beautiful as it can be ugly. I'm tired... but I'm grateful I didn't choose death. Thinking back on it I suppose I'm lucky it was you who got me. At least you aren't like me. You aren't a bad man."

    At this point the assassin rose to her feet, and ran her fingers through her hair to straighten out the strands.

    "It makes me happy to say all this out loud. They've been poisoning my heart for over fifty years. Tell me what you wish of me, super soldier. I serve at your leisure, even my body. I've never lain with a man." She turned to Lan Qing, her face sultry with a promising grin.

    But in Lan Qing's eyes, there was only sadness and pity.

    He'd listened to her heartbreaking tale in silence. He didn't interrupt and instead let her get it off her chest. His face expressionless, the soldier slowly made his way to the window and peered out over the street. He could see the striking blue façade of Zeus' Jewelry Store.

    "You're lucky, actually." Lan Qing's voice was soft, low.

    "Lucky?" She looked at him skeptically.

    "My brother and I are orphans, we never knew our parents. Before we met our teacher we never knew what a full stomach felt like. We only knew life as pain and suffering. We were born on Earth, after it'd been ravaged and destroyed by greed. Only the most unfortunate remained. We begged anyone we could for food, convinced that just surviving made us lucky."

    Flickers of emotion raced through the Astral Phantom's eyes. She looked at him, seeing for the first time his handsome but gaunt features. His voice was calm and his features still, like he was talking about someone else's life.

    "I'd have never thought we've lead such similar lives," she sighed. Something else stirred in her pretty eyes.

    Lan Qing turned his head to face her. His deep, dark eyes fixed hers. "No, we're nothing alike. My misfortunes taught me to be strong, gave me perspective. It motivated me to chase the light. You... you became a demon."

    The Astral Phantom's face slowly went stiff.

    Lan Qing's soft voice proceeded. "You're beautiful, and your tale is moving. But none of this can hide the evil within you. In all the lives you've taken did you ever stop to consider the families left behind? Sparing your life doesn't mean I accept you - you're a tool to use against the creatures that want us all dead. The only way to clean the blood off your hands is to save as many lives as you can when the aliens come. This is your atonement. You can stop your games as well, because they won't work on me. Should I call you aunt? Or grandmother."

    The Astral Phantom gaped at him. It was worse than a slap to the face. "A - Aunt?! You bastard!" She threw her arm back, ready to slap him.

    Her movements were fast as lightning, but the stabbing pain that wracked her spirit was faster. She gurgled a pained cry and fell to the ground. The mark that was placed on her did not permit any defiance.

    A dangerous chill had crept into Lan Qing's voice. "Now that you've decided to live, make sure you get as many years as you can. Do not try to take advantage of me or this opportunity I've given you." With nothing further to add, he left her there beside the window, alone in the room.

    The Astral Phantom's childhood was a nightmare. Every word had been true and spoken from the heart. But one's pain didn't give them license to visit that pain on others. She had accepted money to slaughter countless of innocent victims in her role as a master assassin. Lan Qing was too smart for a sad story to make him forget all that.

    A full five minutes later the Astral Phantom managed to pull herself up off the floor. Her teeth ground audibly as she glared daggers at the door. Never in her sorry life had she hated someone so intensely, but she was powerless to end him. She was sure her looks and sad story would move him - if not to let her go, then at least to get close. That would have given her time to search for a way out. But calling her aunt, grandmother, was a punch to the gut. Her efforts were heartlessly denied. As a Paragon she had never known this level of humiliation. What woman didn't take pride in her appearance?

    Lan Qing didn't impose any constraints on her, but regardless she couldn't leave this place. Through the mark Lan Qing instantly knew everything she thought, said and did. Even if she left the planet she couldn't be free from his control. Her life and death were in his hands and that was the end of it.
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