Tournament Armoured Hero #6

“You’re really going to do this, aren’t you?” the French woman questioned, one eyebrow raised as she leant casually against the iron wall, arms crossed over her chest.

Sky Raider finished adjusting the metal gauntlet he wore, flexing the fingers and tightening them once more into a reassuring fist.

“Of course,” he responded with disdain. “The only way to trap this bastard is to act the part.”

Fait Accompli’s eyebrow crept slowly further upwards.

“And you believe you can accomplish this by looking like some kind of tin machine, yes?”

The young man turned to regard himself in the mirror, polished armour and flowing black cloak giving him the appearance of a knight, or a tyrant… or both.

“This is the armour you people supplied,” he offered, reaching out and taking up the horned helm in his hands, regarding for a moment the inhumanity of the visage he was to assume.

“At your request,” Fait Accompli reminded him, pushing away from the wall and eyeing him once more with suspicion. “And I must confess that when the agreement was made to arm you, no one expected that you would wish to go riding into battle dressed like King Arthur.”

“Mordred,” Sky retorted softly, lowering the helm over his head.

“Pardon?” Fait questioned with a smirk.

Sky Raider turned to her, his face now hidden by the cold metal of his mask and she stopped dead in her tracks, her smirk fading.

“Mordred,” he answered, glaring at her from behind the mask. “Arthur wished to unify a nation. My goal is solely to destroy a king.”

He turned away once more and, reaching out, took hold of a massive greatsword filed away amidst the numerous arms of the weaponry.

“I have to beat him,” he whispered, more to himself than the female Department ? operative. Before him, his own reflection stared coldly back from the polished silver of the blade. “I have to beat him, otherwise everything Joji stood for, everything we fought for, means nothing.”

Slowly, he lifted his head once more.

Fait Accompli caught his piercing gaze and simply nodded, stepping back from the door as if to indicate that she would not stop him.

“Godspeed,” she said and then, as an afterthought, added, “MONARCH.”

Tournament Armoured Hero tome #6:

“Folie à Deux”

“‘Everything straight lies,’ murmured the dwarf disdainfully. ‘All truth is crooked, time itself is a circle.'”
– Friedrich Nietzsche,

‘Also sprach Zarathustra: Ein Buch für Alle und Keinen’

“Well, this is about as far as I go,” Mikuchi Keitarou announced with an apologetic shrug.

At their backs, Pittsburgh was but a speck on the horizon, its neatly kept lawns, suburban homes and overreaching bridges now little more than a corridor that had led them out into the desert once more.

Ahead, the vastness of the great American wasteland stretched into nothingness and somewhere, amidst that whirling void of red sand and tumble-weed, resided the horror of Destronger.

“And you’re sure about this right?” Hao Wong questioned, swinging his leg free and dismounting his motorcycle. “You’re sure you’re not just trying to get rid of us because you’re sick of Jyunichi sleeping in your hallway?”

Mikuchi offered his friend a lazy smile.

“If I thought you weren’t so stubborn, I’d try and palm you off with a different location, of course,” he admitted. The smile faded slowly. “But I know you’re serious about this, Hao and anything I tell you still won’t sway you from trying to trace Destronger to their source.”

“You sure you’re not trying to throw us off the scent?” Kanemura Jyunichi scowled, eyeing his former mentor with clear contempt.

Mikuchi reached into his jacket pocket with one hand, drawing out a battered red and white cardboard carton and then lightly tapped the side of his head with the other.

“Inherited memories,” he said, placing a cigarette between his lips and flicking open a silver lighter. A wisp of smoke coiled in the air before him. “I remember everything that Jaden Stryder went through during his transformation.”

He took a deep breath and exhaled, the pattern of smoke before losing form as its essence was flooded with a wave of second forms.

“So does Asuka, that’s why she didn’t want me to bring you guys out here.”

“Your concern is appreciated,” Dreamcaster said, staring out into the desert from behind the grill of his helm. “However, I for one have sworn to defeat Destronger in all its guises. This much is the least I can do.”

He tightened his fist and lowered his gaze, glaring down at the pale white plastic and metal gauntlet that hid the scars and burns upon his flesh.

“Yeah, well, enough of the introspection, okay, guys?” Mikuchi said, trying to lighten the tone. “Of course, you didn’t think Uncle Keitarou would send you into the belly of the beast without giving you a few little presents to even the score, did you?”

Placing the cigarette in the corner of his mouth, the former academy professor moved to the back of his bike and began to pull free several packages wrapped neatly in heavy blankets.

As rope and blanket fell free to the sand and dirt at their feet, Mikuchi revealed a modest arsenal of firearms and blades, each one unique and distinct.

Hao whistled loudly, impressed despite himself as he moved swiftly closer to inspect the bundled weapons on display, pausing to pick an ornate, polished silver pistol.

Carefully, he lifted the weapon up, closed one eye as he drew a beat on the endless horizon and then, seemingly satisfied, lowered the weapon and opened the chamber to reveal six shiny silver bullets.

“Is this what I think it is?” he questioned with a raised eyebrow.

Mikuchi nodded with a smile.

“God’s Revolver, Malsumis’ original firearm of uncreation. You fire that thing at any of Destronger’s Archons and, well, I can’t guarantee it but you might at least stand a chance.”

Hao nodded, thoughtfully snapping the chamber shut and tucking the revolver into the waistband of his trowsers.

“I appreciate what you’re trying to do for us, Keitarou,” he said quietly, turning away as the others gathered by the former professor’s motorcycle.

“Yeah, well, I still think you guys are crazy… but what else can I do?”

Hao Wong offered him a faded smile, his expression suddenly weary.

“Understanding is enough, Keitarou,” he replied. “Thank you.”

—xxx—

She felt the cold against her face, despite the stature of the young man before her, his shape absorbing most of the tumultuous winds as it resisted the movement of the motorcycle through the dark night. Between them, Amelia remained crushed against her mother and the stranger’s back, her eyes wide with terror and wonder.

Taryse cursed softly to herself, the wind taking the words from her mouth.

They were supposed to have been safe when Chazz was around, he was supposed to protect them.

The image of the flames as they engulfed his body, his sharp command to leave still reverberated within her memory, a knot of emotion that should not have existed yet remained nonetheless.

“Be safe, Chazz,” she whispered softly to herself. “Please, be safe.”

Behind them came a terrible explosion, a tower of fire rising up from the heart of the city as the road ahead curved further and further into the desert.

Taryse turned and she felt the warmth rising to meet her, its touch drying the tears upon her cheeks.

She opened her mouth to cry out and then the shock-wave hit, gathering the motorcycle up in the oncoming storm of heat and noise and tossing it up into the air, the driver and his two fragile passengers estranged from the machine.

Amelia screamed in horror as her mother clutched tightly to her, the child’s fingers brushing against the back of Legenal’s jacket as he was torn away from them. Taryse turned the child’s head away from him, pushing her face into her chest as the ground rose up and she slammed hard into the dirt at the roadside, the wind drawn up from her lungs and stolen away.

A moment passed, the silence of the night dawning upon her as she came to her senses once again. Still clutched in her arms, untouched by the hard earth upon which she herself had fallen, Amelia whimpered softly.

Something had happened, she realised with horror, her body failing to respond to her heart’s desperate pleas for her to move.

Something had happened in Kellogg City, something terrible that had caused enough of an explosion that the resulting blast had knocked Legenal’s bike off the road.

Her heart hammered in her chest, her body screaming with agony as she struggled to move. Her right arm no longer moved, her fingers unresponsive to her commands as the limb lay crushed beneath her at an awkward angle.

Get up, Taryse, she chided herself silently, you didn’t get to be a Tournament heroine by laying in the dirt.

There was another warning close at her shoulder, the touch of heat passing over and then the ground shuddered again, a figure crashing down in a crouch on the roadside before her, his body a furnace of twisting tongues of flame.

“C-Chazz?” she murmured at once, her lips dry and her voice foreign in her throat.

The blistering figure straightened up, each station of his spine visible, burning bright like coal amidst the furnace.

“Chazz,” she said once again and, with an unbidden cry, lifted herself from the dirt, Amelia still clutching onto her one good arm as her other swung useless in the socket.

She could feel the pain of her body, the awakening horror of the impact registering as she dragged herself up onto one knee, the child resting upon her leg.

Slowly, the figure turned, features obscured by the flames that surrounded his body.

She felt her heart breaking in her chest and somehow, she knew that the man who stood before, the man shrouded in flame and heat, was Chazz… and whatever he had once been had now been lost.

The figure raised its fist and, mutely, Taryse bowed her head, waiting for the final blow.

—xxx—

“That’s everything, right?”

“Yes, mother,” came the bored reply, a sigh of exasperation its only accompaniment.

With a pained smile, Sheila Torrance straightened her back and glanced over her shoulder at her younger daughter, all twelve years of wayward inclination and wilful determination.

They had spent a year in residence at the old hotel, maybe longer, seasons of arid heat and desert haze dulling the sense of passing time.

It had been a far cry from the temperate childhood she had known, Sheila reflected, studying her daughter with a sad smile. Everything about Lina was a far cry from her own life.

Her smile became wistful, yearning for the warm summers and chill winters of her own girlhood.

During their time in the hotel, nothing of interest, save for the overt gestures of the overweight man in the neighbouring room, a squat, red faced man named Mister Oberon, had taken place. Despite this, Lina had remained an enigma, a person so close to her and yet, at the same time, so far removed.

She wondered briefly if other mothers felt this way, if others were as lost as she was when it came to relating to their own children.

The world, she decided there and then, was made up of two kinds of people: those who understood motherhood, and those didn’t.

Despite her best efforts, she counted herself amongst the latter group.

She felt a sudden tug of sensation, a stirring of her imagination in response to the gathering traces of magic suddenly blossoming in the desert around her.

Fear gripped her, the sensation that she was holding Lina close to her chest as her arm swung uselessly at her side.

Desperately, she reached out, her palm flat against the side of the battered, rust-ridden blue sky coloured car that had carried them so far across the desert. The metal was hot to the touch, the sensation of flame near her face.

Her legs gave way and, as she shook her head, her senses at last differing between the sensation of that other place, that other desert, piercing her defences and filtering into her consciousness, and the world around her, Sheila Torrance looked up, breathless and pained.

She felt Lina’s hand upon her shoulder, her breath warm on her face like the flicker of that terrible fear she sensed in her vision.

“… m… wha… …ong? What’s wrong?”

Sheila shook her head slowly, her face suddenly pale.

“I felt a great disturbance,” she whispered in reply. “As if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.”

Without warning, a transportation sigil flared up in the sand before them, lines of purple spirit energy burnt into the ground as particles of luminance flared up and burnt out before them.

Protectively, Sheila pushed her young daughter behind her, holding her arm to prevent the girl from anything that might emerge from the shimmering pentagram in the dirt.

A figure in white armour and fur stumbled forward from behind the veil of light, a massive kanab? trailing in the dirt behind it, sliding from the figure’s right hand as it dropped to its knees and the armour began to dissolve in fragments of white light.

Sheila felt her stomach lurch, her mind screaming in protest as the haggard yet familiar features of an old enemy revealed themselves beneath the remnant of the gold and white mask he had worn.

“Arkana,” she whispered with dread. “Tex Arkana!”

The former shaman smiled weakly.

“Pleased ya remember me, darlin’,” he smirked, his jaw making an audible click as he spoke, his teeth stained with blood.

“I’ll kill you!” Sheila hissed with sudden venom, all the assumed pliability of both her stage persona and her role as a mother now forgotten. “If you so much as touch Lina, then I swear by all that’s shrouded in darkness, all that answers to shadow, that I will kill you!”

Since before Lina’s birth, before she had allowed herself to be cajoled into bed by the hoary old magician who had claimed to be her former mentor, Sheila Torrance had been making ends meet at the bottom of the list in every cheap theatre of titillation across America.

She had swayed her hips and licked her lips for every trucker in every nowhere town from coast to coast, never staying for long, always paid in cash. It was a job, a simulation of a desire she did not posses that evoked a lonely echo in the hearts of her audience.

It paid the bills.

Seeing now the visage of the man who had sent the first shock-wave of ruination through her miserable childhood, the man whose presence had announced the change in the fragile truce she had established with her own mother filled her with rage and hate.

“Trust me, darlin’,” the old shaman murmured, the armour completely fading away, drawn up from his back like wings of fading light, “if I didn’t have to get ya involved in this, I wouldn’t, but the way I reckon it, you’re the only one who can about save me from this here predicament I find myself in.

“You’re the only one strong enough, the only one who can do what I couldn’t.”

Sheila blinked slowly.

“Save you?” she whispered, repeating the words. “Save you from who?”

A burning arrow of white light exploded in the dirt between them, throwing up clumps of soil and sand and eliciting a scream of panic from Lina’s lips.

Tex Arkana pulled himself slowly to his feet, clutching a wound in his shirt, his sheepskin jacket stained with blood.

“From him,” he answered solemnly, nodding in the direction of the endless desert. “From Destronger.”

On the horizon stood a figure in similar white armour to that which Arkana had previously worn, a golden cross dividing the chest panel into four distinct segments and a massive crossbow held at the ready before him.

—xxx—

A burst of fire exploded in the air above her head, the horrifying, smouldering figure that had once been Chazz Leiter staggering as something – someone – crashed into him, knocking him back and away from the fallen form of Taryse.

“Go!” Drake Legenal announced, three vials of shimmering silver liquid held between his fingers. “Get away from here as fast as you can. I’ll buy you the time you need!”

Around his waist, the gold and crimson Universal Monster System belt hung low, its buckle damaged in the fall he had taken from the motorcycle.

“I… I can’t leave you here,” Taryse whispered, her voice dry, looking up with tears in her eyes to see the pyre of flame that had once been Chazz recovering from the surprise attack. “I can’t leave with Chazz like this. I have to… I have to…”

“You have to protect your daughter!” the young man shouted angrily, driving the first of the three glass vials down into the middle of his belt.

A wave of his own spirit energy formed about him as the silver liquid drained from the glass tube and into the insides of the belt buckle.

Over his head, the shape of a skull formed, a spectral image overlaid upon his youthful features.

‘Long time, no see, bones,’ the skull whispered in Drake’s mind. ‘I thought you might have forgotten about me.’

“I didn’t forget,” he answered quietly, his voice unheard by any save for the phantasmal skull that had appeared over his own features. “I really need your help, Captain Professor.”

‘With that derbrain over there?’ the voice queried.

The boy nodded slowly.

‘Heh, you don’t have to ask twice, bones.’

In quick succession, Legenal drove down the remaining two vials into the belt’s buckle.

“Henshin,” he said, his word echoed by that of the skull that had formed about his head.

The spirit energy hardened into draken scale, armour imbued with both the history and strength of a race older than time.

In a flash, both the visage of the young boy and the phantasm had faded, replaced by shimmering green omnilens framed by decorative bat wings and silver scales.

With an inhuman roar, Chazz Leiter launched himself forward at his new enemy.

—xxx—

The young man kicked away from the wall, his eyes following the hulking shape of the passing armour as Sky Raider moved determinedly down the corridor towards the nearest landing bay.

“They say you’re on a mission for revenge,” Ryusei Koji called out, his voice loud enough that the new MONARCH slowed and eventually stopped, turning his heavy helm to face the younger man.

Koji offered him a warm smile.

“If you’re interested in company then I’d be interested in joining you.”

MONARCH regarded him for a long moment, taking in the youthfulness of his features, his messy brown hair, UKMDF uniform and charm laden smile.

“I’m not,” he grunted with distaste and turned away once more.

“There are a few scores I’d like to settle myself, you know,” Koji continued, catching up with him and keeping pace as Sky marched down the corridor.

“Settle them on your own,” he snarled. “I’m not your companion.”

Koji nodded in agreement but did not slow his pace.

“I’m not asking you to be as such,” he continued, “but, regardless, if this other MONARCH is, as you say, a Big Bad, then at the same time…”

He paused, the words hanging in the air as he stopped walking.

Despite himself, Sky Raider stopped also, turning again to look at the young man, his head bowed and his fists tightened.

“I can’t let you go out there by yourself. Even if you think you’re ready, you’re not.”

Slowly, he looked up and Sky met the boy’s gaze, seeing in his eyes something of himself from long ago.

“What are you looking for?” Sky Raider asked at last.

Koji did not blink.

“A reason to keep fighting,” he answered softly.

Sky Raider shook his head.

“I can’t give you that.”

Without another word, the armoured hero turned and marched away.

—xxx—

Without thought, without pause, Sheila Torrance closed the distance, the burning arrow tearing through the air as, calmly, she lifted her hand, palm open.

Quietly, she closed her eyes. From her palm, shadows spiralled outwards, a stream of darkness winding out and engulfing the arrow, drawing it into her flesh, its light dimmed to embers as she stole its powers.

With a smile, she lifted her head, her eyes slowly opening once more as she regarded the figure in the immaculate white armour.

“If you were looking for a fight,” she said softly, “you should have known better than to come after the Lady of Shadows.”

The armoured figure did not respond, its visage unreadable.

“He can’t understand you, darlin’,” Tex Arkana said, slowly rising to his feet. “Some kind of mind control’s got a hold on him. That’s what they do out there in the desert, you know. Whatever a person believes in, whatever he cherishes or holds dear, they turn it against them.”

Sheila nodded slowly.

“And that’s what this Destronger is all about? That’s what they were trying to do to you?”

Tex smiled sadly.

“S’what they darned almost succeeded in doing to me, Sheila, honey.”

She allowed herself a cruel smile.

“They should have taken you apart bit by bit. Maybe then they would have found that you don’t believe in anything.”

The shaman affected a look of mock indignation.

“I care a lot!” he protested. “In fact, you won’t find a man this side of Bowie County who don’t care more than me… about money.”

“Exactly,” she snapped, leaning forward, a staff of shadow forming in her hand as she slammed her right foot down in the sand and drove the point of darkness towards the heart of the armoured warrior.

The other lifted his elbow to block the staff and recoiled, his armour burning black as the tip of the staff exploded into tendrils of shadow that enveloped him, wrapping about his body and binding his arms to his side.

Sheila lowered her arm, the shadow staff dissipating even as the armour of their unknown attacker charred and blistered from contact with the tendrils of night.

“Now,” she said softly, her poise radically different from before. “Let’s see who you really are.”

The warrior struggled, a cry of frustration echoing from beneath the metal faceplate that hid his mouth.

“Lina, get in the car,” Sheila called over her shoulder, “you won’t want to see this.”

Again, she raised her hand and, as her daughter mutely dived into the back seat of the car, her face pale and her hands clamped over her ears, so the shadows contracted about the imprisoned warrior.

—xxx—

Fire washed over his forearm as desperately he moved to block a punch, a scar of black and blistering embers scorching the armour.

He felt the presence within his helm flinch, the other personality that had been distilled within the relic resenting the touch of fire against the remnant of its body.

‘This guy,’ the skull whispered at the back of his mind, ‘this guy ain’t like the regular creeps we used to fight.’

Drake Legenal grunted, deflecting another below as the relentless form of Chazz Leiter lashed out against him, another blistering slash upon the scales of his armour.

“He’s not one of the regular creeps… he’s a hero. Believe me,” Legenal responded breathlessly, throwing a punch and missing by a hair’s breadth.

‘Really?’ the voice in his head questioned. ‘You could have fooled me!’

Howling with rage, the intense heat of the blistering flames surrounding him, Chazz Leiter renewed his assault, fists knocking Legenal back in the dirt, blackening his armour with every blow.

‘We’re going to need to find a way to turn this around, bones… and quickly too!’ the voice warned.

“I’m trying, I’m trying!” the young man growled.

He knew too readily the limits of the UMS and its tenuous association with the distilled spirits kept within the vials attached to the golden belt he wore.

‘Switch out, bones. Give me a shot at this guy!’

Legenal shook his head.

“No. I can do this,” he answered, his head stinging as another blow from the crazed Leiter knocked him further back.

‘Switch out, bones!’ the voice insisted. ‘Switch out before you get us both killed!’

Beneath the helm, Drake Legenal gritted his teeth, his face contorted in a grimace. He didn’t want to surrender control if doing so meant losing sight of the woman and child he had been charged with protecting, even by the man who now attacked them, yet alone he could not win.

Chazz Leiter – Dark Phoenix, he reminded himself – was in an entirely different league to him. Even with the powers granted to him by the UMS belt and the spirit of Captain Professor, Legenal could not hope to overpower a foe whose strength was as overwhelming as Leiter’s.

Despite his protests, he felt the spirit of the distilled relic’s urgency, the pressure in his head mounting as he struggled to repel the feral form of his adversary. He felt his grasp upon himself slipping, his body reacting, yet his actions seemed somehow separate from his command.

‘Bones,’ the voice in his head said softly, ‘trust me on this, okay? I’ve never done us wrong before, right?’

Legenal did not reply, instead he simply allowed himself to drift off, a sensation of weightlessness overcoming him as he was freed of from the rigours of commanding his heavy limbs.

Serenity and nausea filled his being, a peacefulness marred only by the spirit’s panic at losing control. It was a sensation somewhat like drowning, he imagined; a peacefulness that defied the stimuli the mind received through the body’s senses.

Without him, his body’s reactions seemed to quicken, the guiding presence of Captain Professor moving his limbs in his absence.

His burning opponent threw himself forward again, howling like a wounded animal as the flames about his body intensified.

Legenal felt his feet move beneath him, a step to the left and the stench of burning as smoke and ash smeared his armour.

Instinctively, Captain Professor guided Legenal’s hands, twisting the buckle of the belt and opening the valve that allowed the second vial of fluid to flow down into the buckle’s mechanism.

“Punjab lasso!” the skull called out in Legenal’s voice as he raised gloved hands, a twisted length of catgut cord forming in his hands, birthed from the great emptiness of godspace.

Before Chazz could turn, the form of Drake Legenal had closed the gap between them, braving the blistering flames as he reached out and pulled the noose around his opponent’s neck.

The animal howls turned to sharp chokes, a coughing gasp as the noose ignited in flame and drew close about him, Legenal’s hands drawing it taught, his grasp unwavering even as the flames rose up around him.

From somewhere far away, Legenal became aware of Taryse’s desperate screams, of her daughter’s trembling sobs, yet he did not have the strength to argue with her, to tell her that this was the only way to save her. Whatever had happened to Chazz Leiter at the hands of Randall Kalish had left him incapable of acting according to his own desires.

Whatever they had done to him, whatever trick they had pulled, Legenal knew that the person he was fighting now wasn’t the real Dark Phoenix, but rather a puppet broken to the will of Muro Takeru’s USMDF faction… and that was why he had to win, why he had to win, and why he had to live.

Struggling against the thrashing movements of his enraged opponent, Legenal tightened the noose further.

If he could just force Chazz to lose consciousness, if, through Captain Professor’s actions, he could just beat down the tournament hero into submission then… with a roar, his enemy broke free, the noose fall apart in shreds and ash as the possessed hero turned wildly upon the man who had attacked him.

Beneath the mask, Captain Professor gasped in surprise, a wave of fire washing over the helm, turning silver black and setting light to the ornamental bat wings that rose from each side of the helm.

His body staggered, clutching the mask with heavy hands, momentarily blinded by the fire that benighted his damaged armour.

Legenal felt panic rising within him, his distant self suddenly helpless against the terror that afflicted his body.

“Bones,” his lips moved, Captain’s Professor’s words croaked out in his own voice. “Bones, I don’t think we’re going to make this.”

Legenal struggled to reply, the words crowding his mind yet never once passing his lips.

With a final howl of rage, the possessed form of Chazz Leiter brought his burning fist down and Captain Professor fell silent.

For a moment, Drake Legenal felt his bodily senses return and then, slowly, everything faded to black.

—xxx—

Taryse screamed in horror, her hand digging into the sand and dirt as she hauled herself up, Amelia still clutching her neck and sobbing into her shoulder.

Before her, the young boy in the silver armour – the poor misguided kid who had got himself involved in something far larger than anything USMDF could have prepared him for – dropped lifelessly to the floor.

The armour dissolved into particles of light that flickered once like fireflies and then dissolved like embers before the funeral pyre of Chazz Leiter’s burning form.

At his waist, the buckle of the UMS belt fell open, hitting the soil with a thud.

Towering over the felled body, the burning man howled with animal intent, his head thrown back as the flames continued to rise about him.

Simurgh, she reminded herself, her thoughts suddenly peaceful, the horror of Drake Legenal’s cold body ushering in a sudden sense of dissociation with the events taking place around her.

Simurgh had been the name Chazz had taken following the events of the first tournament. The name was Persian in origin, the title of a magical bird who, like the phoenix, rose once more in flame and fire. She had never understood why he had taken this name, save for his willingness to establish himself as an individual with his own image, rather than simply a reflection of Chad Leiter, the man from whom he was cloned.

At first she had thought that was all it was. She had never once suspected the change of name might also indicate a change of armour.

“Amelia, get down,” she whispered sharply to the sobbing child clinging to her.

Amelia did not reply, instead she simply buried her head deeper.

“Amelia, get down!” Taryse hissed.

When the child did not move, Taryse brought her one good arm and forcefully shoved the child away. In shock, her daughter toppled to the ground, her wails intensifying

Taryse did not look at her.

“I’m sorry, honey,” she whispered, desperately trying to avoid helping her up. “I’m so, so sorry.”

Slowly, the burning man turned to look at her once more.

Without pause, Taryse darted forward, bending down and pulling the UMS belt out from under Legenal’s dead body with her one good hand.

She twisted her wrist, the belt wrapping around her waist and automatically connecting as she stood in the shadow of the burning man’s flames, her hands poised above the half-empty vials still fixed within the buckle.

“Thank you,” she whispered to the fallen boy at her feet. “Thank you for everything.”

Slowly, she lifted her head, her eyes staring directly at the face now obscured by flames.

“Henshin,” she said softly to herself.

—xxx—

The young boy remained following after him, rushing forward and sliding in between the iron doors of the lift before they could slam shut.

Slowly, Sky Raider turned to regard the young officer from beneath the cool iron of his own protection.

“I told you to turn back,” he said sharply.

Koji stood his ground, his gaze meeting the emptiness of Sky’s mask without flinching.

“I told you I couldn’t let you go alone. I have scores to settle too.”

Beneath the iron, Sky growled.

“I don’t need some ‘boy wonder’ following me about and getting in my way. Whatever romantic idea you have about what’s it like being a hero, you can forget it. The reality does not compare.”

Defensively, the boy reached down and placed a hand lightly upon the belt he wore.

“We have our own armour too…” he began.

Sky Raider scoffed, turning away.

“I’ve seen MDF armour. All your K-R-A suits won’t do you any good against the man I seek.”

“How do you know I’m using a K-R-A suit?” Koji replied hotly, his temper suddenly flaring.

Sky did not look at him.

“All MDF agents wear a variation of the K-R-A armour, regardless of nationality. You don’t have to be a genius to see the shape of the standardisation your officials have introduced. If you’ve fought one MDF agent, you’ve fought them all.”

“Change! Beetle Black!” Koji said simply, pulling a slender black phone from the buckle of the belt and dialling an activation sequence.

At the base of his spine, a minuscule hypodermic needle punctured the skin of the young boy’s back, releasing the miracle 2-Xvitamin drug into his system upon the phone’s reconnection with the belt.

Particles of energy cauterised in the confined space about him, rushing to one another to form sheets of divine metal, armour burning its way into existence from the gaps between unseen realities.

He spread his arms wide and the sheets of metal converged upon him; twisting about his limbs and locking into place until his entire body was clad in a featureless suit of perfect, obsidian black armour.

Sky Raider, who had remained unmoved by the sudden flare of spiritual energy within the small space between the smooth lift doors and the wall at his back, simply nodded once.

“I see your superiors have not been slack in replicating the armour of those unaffiliated with their cause,” he said with a derisive sneer.

“It’s not replication,” Koji countered swiftly. “The Beetle Black armour was developed by Doctor Franz at the same time as the armour you use.”

He turned away, the armour peeling back in a flash of light and once more revealing his features.

“Just because you didn’t know about it, doesn’t make it any less valid.”

“It’s a moot point,” Sky growled. “Regardless of whether you possess your own armour, you still don’t know what it’s like out there. You never fought in the tournament…”

Koji let out a laugh of disbelief.

“The tournament?” he said, turning again to face the older man. “If all you’ve fought in is the tournament, then maybe I should be telling you that you’re not ready.”

“That’s not what I mean,” Sky snapped. “The events of the tournament, everything that happened in Skydome City… they’re the reason for what’s happening now. You don’t understand the context…”

Again, Koji interrupted him.

“I don’t have to. I’m a member of UKMDF. It’s my job to deal with this stuff.”

“You’re arrogant,” Sky Raider countered. “Arrogant and stupid. I don’t think you really understand what’s happening here.”

“Nonetheless, I’m coming with you,” the younger man retorted. “Even if you don’t want me there, I’m still coming.”

The elevator rumbled and ground to a halt, the doors grinding open to reveal a vast landing bay in the belly of the aged, mobile fortress.

Without pause, Koji strode forward.

“Come on,” he said, gesturing with a wave of his hand, “Kabuto Kaiser can take us wherever you need to go.”

He paused and turned, an amused smile tugging at his lips.

“I assume you know where you want to go?”

Sky Raider remained silent, impassive behind the iron faceplate.

The younger man sighed and simply turned away again.

“Fine, fine. We’ll just fly around until we find something interesting then.”

Without waiting for the older man’s reply, Koji simply marched forward, showing no sign of hesitation or of relenting.

Sky Raider did not reply.

—xxx—

She countered the first of his blows, her mouth wide open in a scream beneath the metal faceplate of the armour she now wore.

Taryse Leiter had not worn armour since shortly after Amelia’s birth. Her belt had been returned, her trophies had gone unpolished, collecting dust in the attic, supplanted by children’s toys and photographs of her young daughter on the mantle where once they had stood.

Legenal’s UMS armour was significantly heavier than the lighter, more effeminate yet no less powerful Femme armour she had once worn. The belt about her waist, the vials of trembling liquid uncertain in their fastenings within the buckle, was overly complicated, its technology a hallmark of USMDF’s bureaucracy.

Deflecting a second blow, her arm bursting into flame as she did, she brought her right fist up in an uppercut that lifted Chazz up from the ground.

Without hesitation, she manipulated the vials in the belt, driving down the centre glass and allowing the liquid to seep into the mechanism at the belt’s heart.

Her feet left the ground, a discharge of spirit energy spilling out from the vents upon the silver suit’s back, huge bat-like wings cast in brilliant white light emerging behind her as she stretched her leg out and allowed gravity and momentum to carry her forward and down toward the burning man in a decisive kick.

Dark Phoenix howled in pain, the bones of his breast shattering, boiling blood spewing forth from his open mouth as Taryse’s foot smashed into him. Within his breast, his heart ignited in flames, his legs giving way as he was forced down into the dirt.

Effortlessly, she back-flipped out of her finishing attack, landing on the ground before him, her breath ragged and strained.

“Chazz,” she whispered softly, reaching for a second vial and twisting the dial on the buckle, releasing a fresh flush of sacred liquid into the buckle. “Chazz, if you can hear me, it’s time to fight this thing.”

Within her hand, a weapon began to throb into existence, birthed from godspace, its skeletal form slowly gaining muscle and tissue, blood running through its chambers as its assumed the likeness of a gun; a gun with sickening gills, drowning in oxygen.

She lifted the gun, pointing it at the fallen man as, slowly, he lifted his head.

“Chazz,” she said, louder, “I know you’re in there. Talk to me, damn it.”

From between his lips, a low, lamenting growl issued forth, his sharpened teeth stained with blood and bile.

“We only have this one moment, Chazz. We won’t walk this stage together again. There is no eternal return, no coming back around after everything’s passed. I need to know you’re in there, Chazz. Talk to me, damn it!”

Slowly, the hideous, burning form of the man rose up from the soil and sand, his body smouldering beneath the magical flames he wore.

She kept the gun trained upon his head, pulling back the trigger as she moved her hand upwards.

“Chazz,” she cried out, tears staining her face. “Chazz, listen to me, for God’s sake!”

With a roar, Dark Phoenix launched himself forwards once more, flame and blood trailing behind him, carried away in the caress of the wind.

“CHAZZ!” she screamed.

She lost focus, her aim wavering… and yet still she felt her finger on the trigger, the ignition within the chamber, the birth of the bullet from the barrel of the gun as blood and salt water spilt out of its gills in a last dying gesture of spite.

Her lips parted in a cry of horror, her chest shuddering, her body rejecting the armour as the bullet slammed into Chazz’s chest and exploded out of his back in a shower of blood that stained the sand for what seemed like miles behind.

The belt at her waist sparked and failed, falling away a blackened ruin as the gun disappeared once more from her grasp, drawn back into the confines of godspace yet again.

About him, the flames dulled, fading to smoke and, slowly, Chazz Leiter fell to his knees.

She caught his gaze, his eyes at last unclouded by whatever control Kalish had exerted over him. Tears streaked down her face, her lips moving, yet no words escaped them.

He smiled calmly at her, his face pale, the lines accentuated as he struggled to comprehend what was happening. Slowly, the light in his eyes faded, died. Moments later, his body toppled forward, face down into the sand.

With a terrifying scream, Taryse Leiter rushed to his side.

—xxx—

Travis Triton looked down at the address on his phone and then back up at the dilapidated warehouse before him.

Surrounding him, battered by the endless winds and the dry dust, the ruins of the town of Lorrington spoke of nothing but neglect and atrophy. Whatever this city had once been, whatever people had once lived here, all of that was now firmly lost to the past.

Bitterly, he wondered why Concord hadn’t warned him about it.

It had taken him longer than he had wanted to make the trip from Shantontown in Michigan all the way to the middle of nowhere, New Mexico. A solid day of driving divided over a night and a half, the daylight hours spent in out of the way diners and no name motels.

“You’re not a young man anymore, Double-T,” he chastised himself, pulling off his helmet and dropping it onto the leather of the Thunderbird’s seat.

The sole highlight of his journey through the heart of the country had been the brief confrontation with Korajo and Kyrosai. It had felt somehow fitting to test out Concord’s new belt against the same two clowns that had given them all such grief during the tournament, all those years ago.

“Uniform or not, a turd is still a turd,” he grunted to himself, shrugging free of his leather jacket and feeling the warmth of the sun against his forearms.

Despite what he had hoped to find, the town seemed to have died several years ago. It was a wonder that there was anything left of the warehouse let alone the idea that such advanced technology as the belt Concord had bequeathed to him could have originated from such a place.

“Waste not, want not,” he shrugged the ache out of his shoulders, moving his arms in slow circles to ease the pain of his muscles.

If this Chance character had chosen to camp out in some ghost town and sit on a goldmine of technological benefits for no reason… well, he was just going to have to convince the guy that the world preferred those who shared their insights to those who squandered them.

With determination, he began to walk towards the old warehouse, his hands reaching down and tapping the buckle of his belt, twisting it once and setting it up for the second turn.

“Livingston Chance!” he shouted as he crossed the threshold. “I’m here to talk to you about the Exceed Bu…”

He stopped dead in his tracks.

Before him lay a long wooden table littered with discarded parts of machinery, some glistening, others rusting. The only light came through bullet holes in the corrugated iron walls of the makeshift warehouse, beams of illumination catching motes of dirt in the air and defining the details of random articles on the table before him.

Standing on the opposite side of the table, his hands stained with grease and his face marked with stubble was…

“Mister Concord… ?”

The man he had mistaken for Liam Concord looked up, his dirty blond hair tangled and dishevelled.

“Nope,” he said simply, reaching up and plucking the filthy hand rolled cigarette from the corner of his mouth. “Never met the fellow.”

Triton blinked.

“Of course not,” he said with a confused frown. “You’re Liam Concord.”

The other man glared back at him and slowly, Triton realised that whilst there was no doubt that this man was exactly the same person who had commissioned him to retrieve the original Exceed Buckler, he was younger than the man he had originally met.

Slowly, the other Concord pointed towards Triton with a snarl, the roll up smouldering between his knuckles.

“Listen, mate, I don’t know who you are, and I have no idea who hired you, but I’ll tell you this for free – you’ve been had.” He paused to return the cigarette to his mouth, inhaling sharply and swiftly spitting forth a stream of acrid smoke. “But, you know, I’ve been expecting someone like you to turn up for some time. That’s why I’ve made sure I’m always prepared.”

Slowly, he lifted up his stained short sleeve shirt and revealed the white Exceed Buckler belt wrapped about his waist.

Triton took a step forward and abruptly felt a terrible weight against his shoulders, a pressure in his head that drove him almost to his knees.

Staggering forward, he reached out and crashed into the table, knocking pieces of machinery flying as he turned slowly around in the direction of the door.

“Who… ?” he gasped, the word lost amidst the sound of the hammering in his head.

Standing in the open doorway of the aged shack, framed by light from the burning sun high above, stood a young man in faded jeans and a worn black t-shirt bearing the slogan ‘Rider Kick!’.

“If you think you can just walk in here and take the Exceed Buckler, you’ve got another thing coming!” the boy warned, his fingers tightening into fists.

Triton lifted his head, narrowing his eyes as he tried to focus on the kid before him. At first, he thought there was something wrong with his face and then suddenly it dawned on him that the boy was wearing a mask, a stupid, rubber novelty mask.

“Who are you supposed to be?” the older man asked, slowly straightening himself up.

“I’m Bush43,” the boy answered curtly “or George W. Bush, or Mister Bush, or Mister President, whatever you want to call me.”

The older man paused for a moment, turning his head aside as if to laugh before swiftly turning back, his hands twisting the buckle one last time.

As the armour of his own Exceed Buckler folded into place around him, he launched forwards, fist pulled back, and slammed his armoured head into the image of George W. Bush.

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