Valera sighed at Volantis's response. "Strength that I observed? What strength? Look at this sorry state I am in now, reduced to nothing but my head." She blushed deeply, rosy red filling into her pale cheeks. "Were I not comfortably nestled within my master's arms, I would fear dying of embarrassment.
For a Dullahan to lose their heads - that is the greatest disgrace they can suffer as warriors of death. I must wait an entire day before I can restore my body, and until then, I cannot even fulfill the basic duty of a Guardian Knight to defend my master."
"That's the wrong way to think about this," said Aldrich. "A warrior's job is to fight and to win their fights. You used every tool you had in your arsenal to help me win. You fulfilled your duty - where is the disgrace in that?"
"Oh, master, you have such a way with words. All your praise is never meaningless. It is always given when it is deserved. I very, very much like that about you," said Valera as she looked at up at Aldrich with gleaming red, hungry eyes.
"I am detecting elevated levels of desire from her," said Volantis. "Desire originating from vampiric tendencies is dangerous in nature. Shall I make defensive preparations, Armored?"
"You…!" Valera had enough and bared her fangs before angrily biting down on a protruding bone spike on Volantis's arm. She took care not to bite anywhere that could damage Aldrich or really, anywhere that damaged Volantis much.
The bone spikes were easily regenerated and mostly ornamental. She just wanted to vent her frustration.
"Registering damage. This woman has gone feral for reasons I cannot fathom. Preparing countermeasures-," began Volantis, his voice rising in alarm.
Aldrich smiled and shook his head at their antics. "Knock it off, you two. And Volantis, I thought I was socially stunted. Are you that dense that you have zero idea why she might be upset?"
"I am Living Armor. Form and function were the principles that guided the hands that wrought me from hellscape ore. I suffer touch to my form, and I must object. I register damage, and I must retaliate," said Volantis.
"But you do have a soul, right? A soul harvested from some mortal person who must have had their own memories and personality," said Aldrich, somewhat curious.
If he recalled correctly, Living Armor were forged by demons when they harvested the souls of powerful, battle hardened and experienced fighters. They used those souls as a 'core' over which they forged an armor around.
Of course, like how Necromancers could wipe the memories clean of arisen undead, demon smiths more often than not wiped out the memories of the souls they harvested for living armor to prevent any potential conflicts.
After all, it would not do well to have the unwillingly harvested soul of a warrior killed by demons to eternally serve demons.
Still, though, like arisen undead, Volantis should still have a core personality unique to his soul that no amount of wiping could scrub clean.
"I do," said Volantis. "And there are times I remember vagaries of the mortal flesh and blood shell that once housed this soul of mine."
"I assume you've always been a serious person, then, considering your personality now," said Aldrich.
"Indeed. But that is all I carry over, and all I wish to carry over. What little this armor of mine feels of its past flesh shell past is nothing but suffering. Pain. Then, the struggle. Endless struggle that drowned out the pain and everything else, leaving nothing but commitment to duty. To form and function," said Volantis solemnly.
Hearing this, Valera stopped biting Volantis and cast her eyes downward, likely remembering her own past.
Aldrich understood that as castaways of the dark, hunted and reviled by all, the lives and pasts of undead were mostly filled with tragedy and struggle. That was one of the reasons why he himself gravitated so much towards the Necromancer class and its lore. He saw himself in their backstories despite their struggles being rooted in a world of fantasy and his in a world of skyscrapers and telescreens.
Because pain was pain: it was universal.
Aldrich looked down at the broken streets below as Crow soared across the night sky.
Thankfully, though, there were no longer any fishmen roving about in hungry groups across these streets. Not that it made the destruction any better to see. The cars and bodies of both fishmen and humans floating in the flooded streets attested to that.
Seismic was right. The effort to rebuild Haven was going to be just as hard, if not harder, than the fight itself. The battle had taken up the span of just one night. Rebuilding would take years in an ordinary timescale. If Aldrich could secure the help of a construction mega-corp or the Panopticon and their fleets of construction drones, that time could be drastically cut.
But for that, Aldrich needed influence.
"Southside Haven. Why are we here?" said Seismic as he too looked down.
"To ask for a favor that I'm owed," said Aldrich as he steered Crow towards the Panopticon bunker where he had left the Duds and Minuteman. He glanced towards Seismic's focused face. "You aren't confused by our conversations? Mentions of demons and dullahans and the like?"
"Yes," said Seismic. "But no point in questioning it. Wastes time. I just work with what I see. And what I see is strength."
"Serious and to the point. Good," said Aldrich. "You'll work with me well. That is, if you want to."
"You would let me go if I refused?" said Seismic.
"No," said Aldrich. "This new lease on life you have is still signed under me. If you went against me, I would render you mindless so that you wouldn't have to think about what you were doing.
Make no mistake, though, I want your mind to be whole, and I want you to follow me of your own will."
"Better optics that way?" said Seismic.
"Better optics," confirmed Aldrich. "And also because I prefer having other voices and opinions around me. It would be a waste to throw away all that knowledge and experience you have."
Aldrich liked being a solo player, yes, and he knew the value of being independently strong. But he also knew that capable leaders had capable people around them as no one person could be perfect in every area. And even if he had always been a solo player in the game, he was no stranger to working with others - he still always relied on the strengths of others as a Legion Necromancer to compensate for his weaknesses.
"…," Seismic paused for a moment. "Will I get to see my son again?"
For the briefest of moments, Seismic's rocky, cold exterior cracked, and emotion leeched into his voice.
"Yes," said Aldrich. He looked away from Seismic, away from that voice, because it brought up bad memories of his own father that had left him far too early. "Yes, you will. If everything goes right, just consider yourself a hero under my employ.
When you have downtime, you can visit your son."
Seismic nodded. "It will be hard. I'm still sponsored and contracted by Hammerhead Industries."
Hammerhead Industries. A juggernaut in the construction industry and a subsidiary under the mega corporation known as triple H (HHH). In all of north America, Hammerhead Industries was perhaps the biggest player for heavy duty construction and manufacturing.
Taking it on would be a challenge, but one that Aldrich would gladly take to keep Seismic. But this was all for another time. After he established himself in a strong position in the world.
"That, we can worry about later," said Aldrich. He looked down to see the Panopticon bunker and directed Crow towards it.
When Crow neared the ground Aldrich put Valera gently down on Crow's back.
"Hover in the air gently. Try to keep her comfortable," said Aldrich to Crow.
Crow grunted in affirmation, blinking his six yellow eyes.
"Master…I can't come with you?" said Valera as she looked up at Aldrich with large, puppy dog pleading eyes.
"I'd like to take you, but, well-," began Aldrich.
"Carrying a ghastly, severed head such as the form you hold now will only elevate the stress and fear levels in the mortals the Armored is to meet," said Volantis simply.
"Ghastly?" Valera made an offended face before she sighed again. "I understand. I will be waiting for you, master."
Aldrich nodded to her before he jumped down. Seismic jumped down with him. They fell down a dozen meters and landed with two heavy crashes against the metal of the Panopticon bunker's vault doors.
There, Minuteman stood at attention, waving towards Aldrich. The hero's wounds had all been perfectly healed by now, and the Blackwater students that had stayed with Minuteman patrolled around the edges of the bunker doors where over a hundred fishmen and crabmen corpses lay scattered.
"Good to see you again!" said Minuteman as he wiped some fishman blood off his forehead. "I know you asked me for a favor, but I doubt I'll be of much help to you anymore. You already routed those fishmen, sent them back crawling where they came from - I saw it all on screen.
You saved this entire city."
Minuteman nodded to Aldrich. "Thank you."
"I'm here for that favor," said Aldrich.
"Oh? Already?" said Minuteman. "Is there another fight I need to get to that the news missed? If that's the case, I'm always ready."
Minuteman locked his shield in place against his forearm gauntlet as he put on a strong, confident smile.
"No," said Aldrich. "The fighting's over… What I need from you is simple: I need you to be my sponsor."