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Building A Stronghold [IC]


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Monday, October 5, 4PM

Haukea grimaced as she ducked into the main branch of the Freedom City library, looking at April and May as she came out of the weather. The teenager was very, VERY grateful she had remembered to bring along an umbrella- and a coat, for that matter. She was used to Hawaii, not the cold, damp...

Okay, she was rambling again. Focus, where had Cobalt Templar said they were meeting again? One of the side rooms, of the... second floor. Right. Haukea put her umbrella on the stand and checked her coat, remembering to thank the coat-checker (noting to herself to check if that was what they were actually called... she spent enough time in libraries that you'd think she knew), then heading up the stairs and to the side room Cobalt had said he'd be in... and arriving 15 minutes early. She smiled. "Better than being late, I suppose..."

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A bit less than 5 minutes later, the door quietly opened to admit the person who had selected the location for the meeting, and Haukea got her first up-close look at the young hero known as Cobalt Templar.

He didn't quite look like he did in the pictures and videos the Hawaiian girl had seen. The lack of classical armor and fluttering cape was the biggest difference. Instead, he'd opted for a business-style suit that looked tough enough to take small arms fire. Heavy workboots somehow melded with the look, as did the somewhat-larger-than-normal belt buckle, the bolo tie, and the Boss-of-the-Plains hat. All of it was in that bright, shining blue, with the darker red accents he seemed to favor. Covering a fair portion of his face was a metallic blue mask that, combined with the hat, disguised him almost as well as the helmet-and-mask combo he usually wore. No one would miss him in that outfit.

Seeing as he was the size of an NFL fullback carrying a stylish leather briefcase, it wasn't likely he'd have been missed anyways. He showed no shock at Haukea's presence, his eyes acknowledging her presence, but otherwise ignoring her. He pulled out a chair on one side of the table, setting the briefcase down and opening it for a few moments to extract a couple of folders. He glanced her way and gestured at a chair on the opposite side of the table.

"Have a seat, please."

'Just play it stoic, Corbin. Try to think like Trevor would.'

His face remained impassive as his eyes, which held enough of a blue glow to wash out their natural color (and indeed enough to leave them just a step away from being blank blue orbs), observed his guest as she sat before dropping to the folders, which he opened and scanned.

It was 4 minutes and 30 seconds before put the documents to one side, folded his hands in front of him, and gave the young lady his undivided attention. For better or worse.

"You called this meeting, Ms. Kawena. You seem...legitimate. The request for a meeting was unique enough and sincere enough it seemed polite to fulfill it. But you were quite vague on details. So. Why the meeting?"

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As Cobalt Templar entered, Haukea blinked, expecting the full armor. That he didn't... was surprising- a bit, but... seemed to confirm some of her suspicions, anyway. A couple of the rings, from what she had read, seemed to be able to create objects. Visibly nervous, she sat on the other side of the table and waited, remarkably patiently, as Templar looked over his files. She was early, after all, so he probably wasn't completely ready. And she was trying to think over what to actually say, what to ask. Thinking about stuff beforehand helped a lot in social situations. New social situations.

This counted big time.

After Corbin spoke, Haukea breathed in... and out... before starting to speak. "Well... um, as I said when emailing the League, I'd been doing some research on some magical rings, and your ring... seemed similar to them. I know they've been around since ancient times, at least since about... 50 AD. Anyway, your ring seemed similar to some of the records I dug up of one of the rings- the Blue Ring of the Determined Leader. Especially the color scheme.

Plus, one of the supervillains that attacked Hanover about... a year ago had powers that are similar to what I've read of the Red Ring of the Courageous Warrior. And she had a ring, according to news reports. Um. Given the first fact, I figured you might know some more about the rings?"

...and all that was sprouted out from memory.

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Cobalt Templar had listened passively as the young woman spoke, though as she started to name very specific details, his eyes narrowed slightly. By the time she was finished, he was sitting very still and didn't even seem to be blinking. It was almost a minute before he spoke at all.

"I think I'm uniquely qualified to report that your facts seem to be in order. Which is also why I have to say I'm both impressed and concerned. Impressed, because that takes a lot of research, period. Considering the resources generally available to people barely old enough to drive, well...Seems to display a bit of tenacity."

He leaned forward.

"Concerned....concerned because those rings aren't items to be trifled with, yet you've spent hours, days, weeks of your life digging around for every scrap you can get your hands on. Why?"

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Haukea blushed, both at the compliment and... well, a bit of embarrassment, which went away fairly quickly as she started talking, focusing on the words instead of who she was talking to. Always helped when she did that.

"I find something interesting, and I try to find out more. And yeah, I can get a... bit focused on finding stuff out.

...make that VERY focused. But I spend a lot of time reading and researching stuff anyway. And... yeah, they were interesting. Partially because of the difference in purpose and how a lot of their wielders used them. I mean, they could be used for so much good and they've been wasted far too much."

A quiet tone entered her voice. "It's... good that at least once of them's being used for the right reason.

And plus, moving to Freedom City, might as well find out a bit on the people I'd be seeing flying in the sky. I'd read a bit on the rings before dad told me, but... well, I knew I was coming here, and I had an inkling of something that might have been relevant.

...yeah, it's... a pretty nerdy reason when I say it like that."

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"Wasted, hm? Yes, I supposed they can be, at times. But seeing as you've never used one, I'd imagine you don't realize quite what it's like."

For just a moment, ethereal fire flickered across his whole form, there wasn't a single speck of soot or scorching left when it winked away. His gaze remained level the whole time.

"These rings aren't party favors. They tap into vast wells of power and connect their users to fundamental forces and concepts of the world. Any sentient, sapient being would face temptation from that. I certainly agree it's tragic many of the rings have been misused. But it's not a simple task, if someone were the caretaker of an unclaimed ring or rings, to find a proper bearer. I appreciate some of what you're saying, and would encourage you to use your researcher's tenacity in your daily school life, but I'm not sure exactly why you felt we needed to meet in person about this."

His tone wasn't harsh or hateful, but it was clear Templar was trying to close down the conversation.

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Haukea blinked at his response. "Sure, they're a temptation, I get that, but... surely there'd be people you could trust to use them to protect others? Teach them how to use the rings- okay, maybe you don't have time for that, but there's got to be someone- and make sure they know why to use them as well, protect the innocent instead of... just using them for their own ends.

It's just... the rings deserve more respect than to just be locked away in a vault gathering dust."

She looked up to meet his eyes, her quiet but strong will coming through beneath the slight awkwardishness he would have seen when first entering the room. "And more than to be held by selfish people. I... maybe you could set up some methodology of searching for suitable people to hold them. I get that it's not simple, but...

Is anything worth doing simple?"

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"The rings aren't people, Haukea. They don't even have simulation of intelligence. The closest they come to "choosing" someone is how they tend to "sync up" with someone who uses them frequently. They're tools that happen to run on mystic energy. Very powerful tools. They don't "deserve" anything."

Despite the rather blunt, even harsh reply, something had shifted a bit. It was like Cobalt Templar was almost...evaluating...her.

"It's easy for an outsider to say "you should go look for bearers". But the truth is, it's not like this world, this city, is hurting for heroes. Heck, my ring was out of commission for quite a while and the world kept turning merrily. I'd rather take a decade or two and let things settle before picking someone, as opposed to rushing into it perhaps a year, or even a couple months, after acquiring a ring, and then risking another rogue ring user.

Putting aside my life and responsibilities outside of hero work, my hero work is quite a lot of responsibility itself. I understand where you're coming from, but I'm not sure I have the time, resources, or inclination to set up a group to search for potential ring users. It seems a bit small of a return on investment, really. I'd be more inclined to consider candidates if they came to me, perhaps, but still."

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"Still, more people couldn't hurt, right? And yeah, I know they're not sentient or anything, but they were still made for a reason, and ignoring that, calling them 'just tools' is probably how a lot of the people who use them for selfish ends view them."

Haukea still spoke with a quiet intensity. "And again, I get that there are a lot of heroes in this city, this world. But..."

She paused, trying to find the right words. "More people willing to use their abilities responsibly and protect people who can't protect themselves is always a good thing. At least in my opinion..."

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"More people genuinely willing to help would be a good thing, yes. Sometimes the trouble is figuring out how genuine some of them are..."

The hero in blue lapsed to silence again for long moments. Finally he nodded, as if coming to a decision.

"So, am I correct in thinking you've been working your way around to asking me how you can prove yourself worthy of a Ring?"

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Haukea nodded, and was about to speak when Cobalt asked his question. And as he asked, the young teenager's jaw dropped a little in surprise.

After several seconds of stunned silence, she spoke again. "Um… actually, no. Let me just figure out how to put this, Mr. Templar…

I wouldn't turn it down if it was offered or I found it, but I really didn't go into this with the intention of getting a ring."

She paused for a moment. "If you think it'd be a good idea to try, though, I wouldn't refuse."

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Cobalt Templar sat back a bit. He'd apparently misread things a bit. Still, perhaps...He made sure when he spoke, his words carried the proper gravity.

"These Seven Rings are items of great power and responsibility, Haukea. A bearer must be completely certain about their possession, for good or for ill. One does not simply casually pick it up."

He stood up, suddenly towering over her as he leaned forward over the table.

"I have faced death and torment and confusion and fear and despair and the Black Flames of Entropy, in just a bit over two years of time. I ask you, Haukea Kawena: Do you think yourself worthy to bear one of the Seven Rings? Would you take up this burden, this power, if it were offered you?"

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Haukea's forehead furrowed in thought, the young teenager considering for half a second.

Before she looked up, her voice confident. "You mean the Terminus, right? ...mom and dad've told me about when the Invasion happened. If I can help protect people against that... yeah. Yeah, I'd take up the burden if it were offered."

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"Yes, I mean the Terminus. More than once. And plenty more beyond that. Worse than anything your parents could tell you, or at least worse than the details they could possibly provide."

Cobalt Templar's tone was firm, but never mocking. It was clear he was trying to impart the serious nature of the conversation to her.

"I will ask one final time, so that it is assured you know what is being offered and the stakes involved. Would you take up the burden of a Ring, the burden of never again having your life entirely to yourself, of bearing the duty of protecting others whenever you can? Would you step up to such a challenge?"

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Suddenly he's clad not in a fanciful suit but in his armor, ethereal red cape moving slightly in a non-existent breeze. There's no flash of light; one moment he's an oddly-dressed businessman, the next he's a classic image of a superhero. He takes a step back and crosses his arms over his chest, speaking in a low rumble.

"Then answer this. Would you be a Builder or a Warrior? Protective or Courageous? Earth or Lightning?"

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A slow nod was Templar's response.

"That's fair. Sadly I don't have all 7 in my possession, to offer you a nearly-full selection. Of course..."

A humorless smile crossed his face.

"I can't just give you one of the seven most powerful ancient artifacts kicking around the globe, can I? No, we need to determine if you've got what it takes."

He pulls a business card out of the briefcase, packing the rest of the material away. The card his deposited in front of Haukea.

"Call that number first thing in the morning. It will confirm where you need to go. Be ready for anything."

With that, Cobalt Templar took up his briefcase and left the room.

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Haukea nodded, taking the card and sitting there for a few moments after Cobalt Templar left the room, processing how far beyond her intentions the meeting had actually gone. Then, she stood up, walking out of the library and to the subway, before catching the train home. She needed to talk to mom and dad...

A talk that went well into the night, her parents... discussing with her the events of the afternoon. To her relief, neither tried to make the decision for her- although late that night, dad told her that that was mostly because he thought she understood the ramifications of her choice. The decision made, Haukea went to bed.

The next morning, Haukea got up early, a bit jittery with nervousness, but managing to get through her morning routine just fine...

Then she called the number on the card.

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The conversation with Cobalt Templar was short and to the point; she was given directions to go to Freedom Hall, and her test, or tests, would be administered there.


The Next Day

Freedom Hall was the same shining beacon of hope it had always been. It was easy enough to get inside, where Cobalt Templar was waiting with one of the staff members of the facility.

"Good, punctuality."

He nodded at Haukea, and then the staff member, who began to walk.

"Walk with us, please."

Once they were on the move, he began explaining.

"I've arranged for some time in the Wreck Room here. I think it's the best way for us to test the things we need to test while keeping all parties safe and sound. I've laid out how things should go, but trained professionals will be making sure it goes right. Understand, Haukea. You can step back at any time, and I won't hold it against you. I'm not going to stop you, but it's a hard life you're stepping up to and no mistake. You have to be 100% sure."

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Haukea chuckled as they walked. "My parents said the same, in about as many words."

She smiled. "Like I said to dad, I'm sure. This might be an unexpected calling... but it's one I intend to answer.

All right... I suppose you'll be testing how I react in an actual super-villain attack, then?"

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Cobalt Templar merely raised an eyebrow at her question and remained silent during their elevator ride. When it stopped, he gestured for Haukea to follow him. They walked down the hallway a short distance before turning into an automatic doorway that led into a rather small room. It was sort of like a high-tech coat room. There was a uniformed technician present who handed the young woman a set of wrist and ankle bands, as well as a thick belt. As Haukea was fastening them on and the tech was checking some readings, Cobalt Templar spoke.

"During this exercise, you will be acting as a member of the Reserve Freedom League deployed to Hawaii. While you are unpowered, these bands will help the Wreck Room simulate a basic power suite; strength, endurance, resistance to injury, and improved leaps. Nothing more; this isn't about how you use particular powers, but how you react in situations you might encounter. You'll start off as if in the back of one of the Reserve jets that's deploying on-location, and move from there. We won't begin the simulation until you assure us you're ready. There is a restroom right there-"

He pointed to a clearly-marked door.

"Just in case. Once your'e finished in here, step through the main door. You'll have a few moments to relax and focus, but don't take too long. When you're ready, raise both hands in a thumbs-up gesture. If at any time you experience sudden backlash from the bands, where they stop working or start hurting you, yell out "backlash". We promise there won't be anyone with that codename in the scenario, so we won't mistake your words. If you need to stop because of injury or because you wish to cease, say "Confirm Stop Now", in precisely that word order. If you go unconscious or become too injured, neither of which should happen, we will stop the scenario. If it simply shuts off without any of the above reasons, it's a technical issue and won't be counted against you.

The safeties are on, so I don't expect injuries beyond a couple bruises and scrapes, but we tried to cover every situation."

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Haukea nodded. "All right."

She headed into the restroom, taking a few moments to relieve herself, then came back out. "Ah- what would I know about the situation going in? Or will that be a part of the scenario?"

Inwardly, Haukea was almost- but not quite- jittery in anticipation. She figured she might have to go through something like this- Templar'd be a fool if he had just given her a ring, after all- but to actually have to go through with it was... something else. He's given me this opportunity, so let's not stuff it up, hmm?

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CT smiled slightly, but it wasn't exactly the smile of a friend; more that of a teacher about to give a pop quiz on unsuspecting students.

"Full briefing, such as it is, will commence once the simulation starts with you in the back of the transport. Now, unless you need a moment, best to head on in."

As soon as Haukea went through the main door, CT left the WR tech in the "coat room" and headed up to the control and observation room.

Haukea found herself in a not-quite-featureless room with metallic walls, covered in grid lines, ports, what were likely holographic emitters, and other such tools to help create the Wreck Room's nearly-unique virtual environment. High up at the top of one wall, behind a slightly shimmering force-field, she could see a few techs sitting at consoles, as well as Cobalt Templar standing near the window, observing. One of the techs pressed a button, and their voice came on the line.

"Just let us know when you're ready."

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Haukea nodded, walking into the room, looking around curiously. And with a hint of awe, to be honest. After all, how many people would get to run through a simulation here?

On the other hand, Haukea knew she needed to focus. She was being tested, after all. The teenager took a few deep breaths, then gave the window a double thumbs-up, smiling.


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