Tournament Armoured Hero #1

Destronger cultists had held that time was a desert, a liminal realm into which the souls of immortals passed when they had exhausted themselves on Earth. In reversed binary code they had carved their litany and proclamations onto steel and flesh alike, inverted the normal operational pattern of code sequencing and turned it inside out to better express the perverse manner in which they gazed upon the universe.

The steel plates they had slid inside his head, the knotted metal of his spinal column and the burning imagination engine that replaced his heart, each one bore the embossed string of ones and zeros representing the Destronger belief in time as a destination that may be reached by immortal travellers.

Standing beneath the overhang of the jagged red mountains, the man formerly known as Yamamura Joji found the notion strangely comfortable, the precept more palatable than it had been following his rebellion against the cult.

Running alongside the litany of belief was the oft-suppressed counter argument that if time was a desert, then reality was a vast and tremulous ocean lapping at sandy shores.

During the golden age of the Destronger faith, when their temples had risen up upon the grassy plains and jagged cliffs of every nation in the world, the priests would occasionally anoint kaijin worthy of veneration and dispatch them in conical craft across the seas and into different worlds.

They referred to these kaijin, praised for their bravery in life and venerated as heroes following their departure, as heronauts.

Yet the age of the heronauts had long since passed and the Destronger cultists that had rebuilt his body following the death of his son were now in decline.

Looking out over the endless desert, the warmth of his motorcycle at his back, the man now known to the world as MONARCH found a strange calm descending upon him. It was a peacefulness he had not known in a long time, a respite from the sorrow that had besieged him following his child’s demise.

Slowly he allowed his eyes to drift across the plain taking in the three figures that stood at various points before him, their own motorcycles clustered far to his right as each rider explored the desert terrain. Each of them was dressed in the same simple black uniform devoid of both insignia and symbol, identical in every facet to his own clothing.

The tallest of the three, a wiry young man in his late twenties, uniform jacket open to reveal a plain red t-shirt beneath, approached from the horizon, a phone clutched to his right ear and his head bowed.

“No,” he said softly as he approached, lifting his head and revealing sharp blue eyes, “no, we haven’t found any trace of her either.”

The younger man nodded in the direction of MONARCH, who simply inclined his head by the merest fraction but gave no other indication that he acknowledged the gesture.

“She was here though,” the other continued, “Sun thinks she might have spent a considerable amount of time here, she says that the sand is rich with recollections of her power.”

He paused, a slow smile crossing his face as he listened to the words on the other end of the phone.

“She’s doing a lot better now, thanks. Since Star joined us, she’s been a lot calmer about the nature of her power. It’s almost as if she’s come to terms with what nearly happened during that time distortion deal when we were younger.”

Still smiling, he turned to look back over his shoulder at the young woman, her pale blonde hair spilling out over her shoulders and her arms stretched to the blue skies above. A short distance off from her stood a young boy, no older than 13 or 14, his hair dishevelled and the same colour as his own.

“We’ll keep you posted if anything turns up, until then, keep in touch,” he paused, careful not to look back towards the older man before adding, “Oh, and Hao? Take care of yourself.”

Before the other could reply, he closed the phone’s shell and swiftly slid it inside his jacket pocket.

There was silence for a moment and then, with a bemused, arch of his eyebrows, MONARCH reached up and removed his sunglasses.

“Getting to be quite the sentimental type in our old age, aren’t we, King?” the older man asked with a wry smile.

Sky Raider turned back with a faint blush warming his pale cheeks.

“It’s not about sentiment,” he rebuked sharply, “it’s about respect. Hao’s helped us out a lot over the years, the least we can do is treat him with respect.”

MONARCH nodded.

“I don’t disagree. Without Mister Wong’s assistance, we would never had been granted permission by the USMDF to conduct our investigation on American soil. We owe Hao Wong a great deal.”

Carefully, the older man replaced the sunglasses over his shimmering red eyes.

“I was merely saying that you’re very different to the young man I first met in Skydome City all those years ago.”

It had been ten years since the conclusion of the international combat tournament that had seen Saagan Town’s youthful hero, Nero Samson, crowned as the world champion. Ten long years, since the villainous Jaden Stryker, better known to the world under his nom-de-guise as the Architect, had attempted to disrupt the aforementioned tournament and kill every armoured hero in attendance.

Both MONARCH and Raider had competed in the tournament, an experience that had not only seen them fighting back to back against the Architect’s minions, but granted each man a deeper understanding of the cultures they had turned in anger away from.

Time, and the example of those around them, had helped heal old wounds.

A year after the tournament and MONARCH and Raider had begun to operate as the Royal Family, both men fighting for the faith they had both rediscovered in humanity and for the purity of their ideals. For Raider, he fought for his twin sister, for MONARCH, it was the memory of his lost child. With the addition of Star, a young homeless boy from Skydome City, the Royal Family’s reason for being had been cemented.¬† Sky Raider had taken the alias King; Sun had become Queen whilst the youthful Star had become Jack. MONARCH had, as he was wont to do, remained as MONARCH.

Together, the four unlikely heroes had become standard-bearers for justice, joining with a number of other agencies and enclaves of knights-errant to form a vital cog in a worldwide network of masqued vigilantes.

A small smile touched his lips and, despite himself, MONARCH found himself recalling events fondly. To think that such friendships could blossom from one tournament… before meeting Raider and his sister, he would have soon expected the blossom of flowers in the desert surrounding him.

Time had changed him, he reflected quietly. It had changed them all.

The ground shuddered beneath his feet, a ripple of warning running through the ancient soil and the endless red sand. He exchanged an anxious glance with Raider before the younger man turned swiftly away, already in motion towards the place where his sister and their adoptive ward stood.

A robed figured erupted from the ground to his right, Hessian robes stained with dirt and open to reveal a skeletal golden frame, only human in the suggestion of its comparison.

He recognised the machine instantly, his own metal skeleton resonating with the presence of the more advanced technology used to fashion the other. Beneath that sackcloth hood and above those cold, red gleaming eyes, there were no Destronger binary prophesies.

The ground exploded behind him, once, twice, and again twice more to his left. He turned in a semi-circle and found a skeletal, robed machine at each point, surrounding them in a circle and drawing menacingly close.

Hiram units,” he spat with distaste. “We must be getting pretty close if the opposition is breaking out such technological terrors.”

Ten years ago, during the Golden Thorn incident in Skydome City when first the Architect had revealed himself to the world, a fragment of the advanced technology used to transform him into a human machine had been left behind following his defeat.

The Hiram units were the legacy of that abandoned fragment, an army of machine soldiers developed by SUNNY Corporation and sold to the highest bidder. Usually the machines were found operating in border skirmishes between African nations, or were loaded down with explosives by terrorist factions and sent into crowded locations as lifeless suicide bombers.

They were successors to the Architect’s strength and brutality yet lacked anything that had been left over from his past as a human.

MONARCH sighed and, removing his sunglasses once more, ran a hand through his greying hair.

Whomever it was that had sent the Hiram units against them meant not only to kill them, but also to send a message to other armoured hero agencies.

“I guess,” he said with a cold smile, folding his sunglasses and slipping them inside his jacket pocket, “that we’ll be doing this the hard way.”

He felt a presence at his back, the reassuring warmth of his comrades behind him, each one facing a different direction as the ring of machine soldiers closed in about them.

“Stay close to me, Star,” Sun whispered, her voice like gentle rain.

“Don’t worry about me,” the child protested, “this is no different from that time we faced those rogue Kiyome in Battle Creek.”

“It’s a lot different,” Raider snapped impatiently. “The Kiyome had hearts, albeit black ones, but they still had hearts. They could be scared, intimidated, re-educated. These are machines we’re fighting now; no such tricks will work against them.”

MONARCH smiled quietly.

“Just like old times,” he murmured softly, drawing out a sleek mobile phone from the pocket of his trousers with his gloved hands.

Deftly he flipped the phone open, carefully depressing three specific digits before slamming it shut and attaching it to his belt buckle with one smooth gesture. With a sneer, he tore the gloves away, revealing ruined hands, flesh punctured by shards of metal and circuitry.

“Hell calls, the earth cries out, the crowds roar! All calling on me to end their undeserved lives,” he hissed, striking his hands together and eliciting sparks from the collision, “the fist of Divine Right! MONARCH!”

Particles of energy cauterised in the air 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 flocked to him, twisting about his limbs and locking into place until his entire body was clad in a featureless suit of perfect, obsidian armour, a tattered purple cloak trailing from his shoulders.

“Change! Beetle Red!” shouted Sky Raider from his right side, lifting up his own phone and dialling the activation sequence.

“Change!” his sister repeated, calmly closing her eyes and following the same pattern as her brother and mentor, “Beetle Blue!”

At the base of his spine, Raider felt the slight pressure of the minuscule hypodermic needle in the belt’s design puncture his skin, releasing the miracle 2-Xvitamin into his system upon the phone’s connection with the belt.

Likewise Sun Raider, her face a study in concentration, felt the release of the drug flood her nervous system, increasing her perception and granting her super-strength even as the phone triggered the release of plate armour stored deep within the depths of another dimension, waiting only the summons from the phone to manifest itself in the real world.

Where once had stood a brother and sister now stood two armoured warriors, their suits distinguished from one another only by the alternate shades of blue and red.

With a flash of lightning, Star slammed shut his own mobile phone, his expression one of youthful seriousness as he combined the device with his buckle.

“Lightning boy! Jack of Heaven’s court!”

His own gold and red armour tore its way out from the void Destronger cultists had consigned it to, wrapping about him and hiding his young visage from sight.

“KING!” Sky Raider shouted, lifting his fists.

“QUEEN!” his sister enjoined.

“JACK!” the boy added.

The eldest of the four armoured warriors stepped forward again, striking back one of the advancing Hiram units with the flat of his hand.

“MONARCH!” he roared.

“Together, we are the Royal Family!” all four voices joined in unison.

Tournament Armoured Hero #1:
“Coronation”

 

“And if this is a coronation,
I ain’t feeling the love.”
– Gerard Way,
‘Kill All Your Friends’

The humidity of the workshop clung to his skin, soaking through the black vest he wore and dampening the tanned flesh beneath.

Travis Triton wiped his forehead with the back of his hand and offered a shake of his head towards the immaculately dressed man in the Keravin suit who stood on the opposite side of his workbench.

“I’m sorry, Mister Concord,” he said with a sigh, his hands slipping free of the gloves, “I see where you’re coming from but this technology is just too advanced, even for us.”

He glanced down at the silver belt buckle on the bench before him, its surface unmarked by any of the rigorous tests made by Triton and his team.

“I don’t mind admitting that I was a little sceptical of your story when you first came in here, but looking at this damn thing now and having seen how well it held up to our tests, I have no doubt that this really is from the future.”

Reaching out with his fingers, he pushed the buckle back across the workbench and toward Concord.

“And you say the woman who created this buckle is alive now?” he asked again, raising an eyebrow, “Because if so she must be a genius. I wonder if I can convince her to come and work here?”

Liam Concord smiled politely.

“I believe that, at present, Ms. Fate is more than happy as a member of Cale Corporation. In the future however, who knows?”

“You do,” Triton said bluntly, pushing back his sandy blond hair from his eyes.

“Touch√©, Mister Triton,” Concord replied without missing a beat.

The other man turned his head back towards the buckle, waving the comment away with his hand.

“Please, call me ‘Double-T‘, all my friends do.”

“And your business partners?” Concord inquired.

Triton waved again.

“Them too,” he said distractedly. “You say this buckle is activated by some kind of spiritual energy, right? Have you ever thought about maybe synthesising that?”

He lifted his head and met Concord’s gaze.

“I’ve never had to,” the man in the expensive suit remarked, “I’ve always had the ability to unlock the buckle with my own power.”

“But if you’re going to mass-produce these things, you’re going to need some kind of key, right? Something that unlocks the belt for users who don’t possess that kind of power,” he paused, carefully studying Concord’s face in search of an expression. “That is what you’re trying to do, right?”

The other inclined his head.

“Yes, you’re right in your assumption, Mister Triton.”

The engineer’s lips twitched.

“Thought as much,” he murmured, leaning back and glancing over his shoulder. “Yo, Mutt Soldier, get on out here!”

From the doorway of an adjoining office, a broad shouldered man with glistening skin and dark eyes emerged, dressed in a stained army green vest, combat trousers and a red bandanna tied about his long, dreadlocked hair. Beneath his flared nostrils was a neatly trimmed beard whilst his skin bore the signs of pockmarks.

His posture, in addition to his dress, bore the signs of military training, Concord reflected. Perhaps he had been a soldier of sorts at some point, or maybe even a bounty hunter, Lord knew he was big enough to stand a good chance of fighting kaijin on equal terms.

Concord had met his sort before. He had once seen a man of similar build, the same intensity burning in his dark eyes, choke the life from a wild karura.

He shuddered, trying not to think of the event.

“This here is my second in command, Conrad Kurze. Don’t let his German name fool you; this man has got more Latin blood than half of Spain put together.”

Triton reached out his fist and pushed it against Kurze’s own, the solid gold of the broad shouldered man’s rings leaving a faint impression upon Triton’s knuckles.

“Word is bond, Mutt Soldier,” he said with a nod.

“Peace, Double-T,” Kurze announced in a low, rumbling voice, sparing a sour glance at Concord, “What kind of problem you got that you need to go and wake the Mutt Soldier from his beauty sleep, my brother?”

“This is Mister Concord of Concord Enterprises,” Triton said gesturing towards the man on the other side of the bench, “he’s got a problem he’d like our help with.”

Kurze’s lips twitched.

“Ain’t you got your own engineers, Mister Concord?” he barked, “What the hell you need with a chop-shop like Demonseed for, eh?”

“I asked Jack Ryker to recommend me the best, he gave me your card,” Concord said stiffly, his back straightening.

Kurze glowered at him for a moment and then shrugged.

“Man don’t tell no lies,” he muttered, dragging the buckle across the bench and lifting it up in his massive hands. “Now what the hell we got here? Some kind of henshizzle device, no doubt.”

“It’s called an Exceed Buckler,” Concord said calmly. “Why don’t you try it on?”

Kurze lowered the buckle, offering Concord a suspicious glare before turning to look at Triton. The other man simply nodded and Kurze, with a sneer, lowered the buckle to his belt.

“Just flip the buckle back into your hands and twist it sideways and it’ll open up,” Concord advised.

Not taking his eyes from the stranger, Conrad Kurze twisted the buckle to the side, unlocking the transformation sequence within the buckle’s miniature computer.

Without warning, an inferno of flame exploded outwards from the belt, engulfing Kurze’s figure and swallowing him up. Yet the mechanic did not cry or scream out, he simply stood there, like some horrific, flaming statue.

Triton staggered back, his expression one of concern yet Concord remained standing across from the workbench, his eyes fixed upon the burning man, the flames so close to him that he could have reached out and touched them.

Despite the intensity of the fire, there was no heat nor was there any smoke. It was almost as if the spark that had generated within the Exceed Buckler had ignited the flames of a much stronger energy.

“Mutt Soldier?” Triton said hesitantly, “Hey bro, you doing all right in there?”

The burning form of his colleague turned slowly towards him and for a moment, Triton thought he could make out the lines of his face and the braided knots of his hair. Abruptly, the fire grew brighter still, flaring up in a pillar that reached up and spilt out over the ceiling. Then, as abruptly as it had increased, the waves seemed to part, wither and fade away, leaving a single figure behind them.

The shape of the figure born from the flames was not that of Kurze. The stained vest and combat overalls had been replaced by a simple, one piece costume of an unspecified yellow material. Purple boots and gauntlets clothed his hands and feet and a decorative purple mantle and featureless masque covered his head.

Kurze turned and looked towards his employer and Triton realised that he could not see the other man’s eyes through the thin bar of black aluminiuglass that was arranged at eye-level.

“Mutt Soldier?” Triton asked again, his voice rich with anxiety.

Slowly, the armoured figure nodded his head.

“I-I’m okay, Double-T,” the recognisable voice of the engineer answered from behind the masque, “a little shaken, I don’t mind admitting, but aside from that I’m a-okay.”

He lifted his arms and tentatively clenched his fists.

“This suit,” he murmured, “this suit ain’t like nothing else I’ve every road-tested before.”

He threw an experimental punch in the air, a boxer’s right hook that betrayed the origins of his martial training.

“Even your old Delta armour didn’t feel this light, Double-T.”

Triton nodded slowly, as if weighing up the facts before turning slowly back to Concord.

“Do USMDF know about your plans to mass-produce this Exceed Buckler?” he asked, lifting an eyebrow.

Concord stiffened visibly.

“No,” he answered, “and I’d prefer it remained that way.”

“I don’t wonder,” Kurze said, reaching down for the buckle and reversing the henshin sequence. In a second torrent of flames, the armour disappeared, revealing the unharmed engineer once again.

Carefully, he detached the buckle and then, with seeming indifference, tossed in the air with one hand, caught with the other and slammed it down hard on the workbench.

“If USMDF got wind of a suit like this, they’d be all over it like honey on rye.” He narrowed his eyes and added, “Where exactly did you say you got this particular artefact, Mister Concord?”

“As I told your employer, I come from the future. The technology for these devices exists in the here and now but the buckle I brought with me is a Cale Corporation device reversed engineered from the 21st century original.”

“So if this is a duplicate, then who’s using the original buckle?” Triton asked.

Liam Concord smiled thinly.

“A man named Livingston Chance owns it. At present, he’s working as a detective in Lorrington but he has, ah, certain ties to the Intergalactic New Mages Corps.”

“And you’re asking us to, ah, what exactly?” Kurze said, mimicking the other man’s speech.

“Defeat Chance and get me the original buckle and I’ll give you the duplicate to do with as you please and later, I’ll give you the blueprints so that when the time comes to produce the belt, it will be Demonseed Innovators who Concord Enterprises commissions to design further replicas.”

“Why do you need us if you have the original?” Kurze demanded.

“Because the original is unstable, it contains a flaw that prevents it from being used consistently.”

Triton nodded.

“What about improving the belt?” he asked.

Concord frowned.

“If you think you can…”

Mister Concord, don’t you know who we are?” Kurze snapped. “We’re Demonseed Innovators! We can improve on anything!”

Concord shrugged.

“Then, if you think you can, by all means, be my guest.”

Kurze and Triton exchanged glances and then, with a smile, the team leader turned back towards the older man.

“All right, Mister Concord, you’ve got yourself a deal.”

Concord nodded, reaching up and running a hand through his straw-coloured hair.

“I’m glad to hear it,” he said, extending his free hand and offering a smile. “Gentlemen, I look forward to working with you both.”

—xxx—

Taryse Heather Leiter felt her back aching with the combined weight of the brown paper bagged groceries she held under one arm and the fidgeting four-year-old that she cradled in the other. Despite having trained and competed at tournament level as the armoured heroine Femme, Taryse had found herself ill prepared for the rigours of motherhood.

“Come on, mommy. You’re taking too long!” the four-year-old girl sighed, wriggling in her mother’s arms and pouting with dejected impatience.

Taryse bit her tongue, leaning to one side and twisting the keys in the lock.

“I’m going as fast as I can, Amelia,” she protested and then added, “unless you think you can do a better job?”

Amelia continued to squirm with impatience.

“But mommy, I need to go-oooo,” she protested, bringing her hands up and rubbing tired eyes with the palms.

“In a minute, Amelia,” Taryse snapped impatiently, feeling a sudden surge of relief as the keys clicked in the lock and the door swung open, rebounding off the wall with a heavy thud.

Relief soon passed and a new anxiety claimed her.

The house was swathed in darkness, the window at the end of the hallway open and the net curtains stirring in the nocturnal breeze.

Mommmmmmmyyyy,” Amelia protested again.

“Be quiet, Amelia,” Taryse whispered, “something’s wrong.”

Slowly, she lowered child and groceries, depositing both upon the recently hoovered burgundy colour carpet and straightened her aching back, fists balled and eyes searching for movement in the shadows.

“Stay here, Amelia,” she ordered, “don’t go anywhere.”

“But I need to go!” the young child protested.

“Go upstairs to Ms. Abe’s apartment then,” Taryse snapped, “but do it quickly. I’ll wait here until you’ve gone.”

Sensing her mother’s quiet distress for the first time, Amelia Leiter became suddenly unnerved.

“I don’t want to go to Ms. Abe’s, she smells and there always stinky cats running around,” the little girl answered with a pout.

“Go, Amelia!” her mother hissed with such ferocity that the little girl turned and ran, her tiny hands seizing hold of the stair-rail as she pulled herself swiftly up the stone steps and towards the apartment above.

Hearing the child’s pitiful knock against the front door of the elderly woman’s apartment, Taryse Leiter put all thoughts of her out of her mind, focusing solely on the murky blackness before her and the silence of their home.

Above her head, she heard the creak of a door and the shuffle of elderly feet, the old woman’s voice drifting down a moment later. Paying it no heed, she advanced into the solemnity of her home, fingers knotted into fists at her sides.

If only she had retained the Femme armour, she reflected, if only she had maintained her training regime. Yet the relative bliss of her married life and the importance of her role as a mother had risen up over the past ten years to obscure the significance of her role as a heroine.

For the first couple of years she had retained the belt, hoping one day to find an excuse to resume her role as Femme and even occasionally competing in minor league matches. Yet after Amelia had been born, she had known there could be no going back to that lifestyle. She had a commitment to her daughter now and, even if Chad continued to participate in tournaments, as he had, she knew that she could not risk the potential of harming herself in such a way that would prevent her from caring for Amelia.

Six months after her daughter’s birth, she had returned the Femme belt to Jack Ryker, with apologies.

Standing now with the chill autumn breeze upon her face and a tremble running through her tense limbs, Taryse wished she’d never relinquished her claim to the armour that had once made her famous.

She took one tentative step after another, casually brushing strands of messy blonde hair from her face and struggling to clear her mind. She tried to regulate her breathing and force her body to act as it had once done, ten years ago, when she had been a 19 year old girl standing before her friend, Nero Samson, on the eve of their quarter final tournament match yet, at her back, the spectre of age remained.

With thin fingers, she reached out for the light switch and then pulled away, thinking better of the idea and continuing on in darkness. Her simple flat pumps pushed down into the carpet, making no audible sound in the silent corridor.

At last she came to the ajar living room door on her right and, lifting her right fist up, she readied her open left hand and pushed the door wide open with her foot, slamming the light switch down as she threw himself into the room and pulled her fist back in preparation for attack.

Her movement slowed, a terrible sickness welling up in her throat as her eyes caught sight of the smear of blood. Trembling, her right arm dropped to her side and Taryse felt her legs give underneath her as she fell to her knees on the ruined carpet.

The living room had been transformed into an abattoir, after the event. Upon the walls, great arcs of vivid blood stretched from the carpet to the high ceiling. The television set lay on its side before her, its screen smashed in, an eerie spark flickering through the broken smoke grey surface.

The leather sofa was slashed open, its stuffing pulled out in random clumps, the mirror above the mantelpiece was shattered and desolate, shards of broken reflection residing now in the empty, soot black fireplace.

Her eyes scanned the ruin, heart thundering in her chest and, at last, she caught sight of the shattered photograph frame and her own smiling face beaming up at her from ten years in the past. Standing next to her was her husband and, behind them, a congregation of all their friends.

Slowly, she lifted her head, tears staining her cheeks.

Of her husband now, there was no trace.

—xxx—

His armoured fist smashed through the android’s torso, scattering gleaming shards of metal and machine components over the burning sand.

Without thinking, MONARCH turned, swatting another of the robots away with a kick that left a scar beneath its Hessian cloak, before turning again to the wounded machine before him.

Beneath his iron black masque, there was sweat upon his forehead, his breath short and painful, the result of a stitch in his side.

“Stupid old man,” he whispered softly to himself, “getting slow… getting old.”

Another of the Architect machines lurched in from his left and he was too slow to knock it away. A powerful shock of electricity ran through his armour. Sparks exploded across his breastplate as he ground his teeth and blinked away tears of frustration and pain.

At 46, he had been the oldest person competing as an armoured hero during the initial tournament in Saagan Town.
Now, 10 years later and pushing on 60, he was finding that even the technology of his cyborg upgrades was outmoded to such a degree that they were now impossible and infeasible to replace.

He was becoming obsolete, an antique of a bygone era.

Straightening up, he readied himself for another assault, only to find the shape of Sky Raider, his distinct silver and red armour glimmering in the blistering sun, standing between him and the opposing machine.

“You’re slowing down. Is something wrong?” Raider shouted above the noise, his fist smashing the android’s head from its shoulders.

MONARCH shook his head, grunting his reply as he brought his own fists to bear upon another of their relentless attackers.

“I’m fine,” he hissed sharply, tensing his leg muscles and leaping up into the air.

Sky Raider said nothing, throwing his body upwards in a forward somersault before steadying himself and driving his foot forward, completely in time and at ease with the older man’s own movements, his youthful body and gleaming armour a mirror of MONARCH’s own ageing form.

Together, their feet smashed down into the remaining android in a devastating double kick that tore the machine apart, its body literally crumbling beneath the assault.

They landed together, the ruins of their opponents laying shattered about them.

Raider turned, quickly exchanging nods with his sister and their youthful ward and then reached for his belt, disengaging the Red Beetle armour and allowing it to phase once more out of existence.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Raider questioned, turning towards the older man, his face still hidden behind the black masque he wore, “If needs be, we can ask Demonseed to…”

“I said I’m fine, King,” MONARCH spat in response, “I don’t need Triton and his fools playing doctor with my insides again. I am operating at the optimum level.”

It’s just those machine parts are 15 years old now, he thought darkly to himself, and even if the parts were in perfect order, it was not the technology that was slowly failing him…rather, it was the flesh.

“I’m sorry…” he whispered softly, “I… I didn’t mean to shout…”

Sky Raider offered one of his rare smiles, extending his hand to the other man.

“It’s okay, Joji. I understand.”

Without warning, a wall of blistering mercury rose up from the soil behind the armoured man, its surface shifting and warping as two shadowy silhouettes appeared behind the veil.

He turned against the stifling air, his engine-heart slowing as fear took him and, once again, he found himself too slow to avoid the attack of an opponent.

A rusty blade tore across his breastplate, peeling the armour open and lashing against his chest. His nerves screamed in pain, machinery sparking and igniting, blistering his insides with acrid flame as his implants struggled to maintain themselves and ultimately failed. Before his eyes he saw spots of dancing light, sparks like ghost flame on the waves of a distant ocean… the same ocean that had taken his only child from him.

The head of the Royal Family dropped to his knees, blood seeping from the wound in his chest and staining the ruined shirt he wore.

From beyond the veil, the two figures emerged, gaining substance as they passed through from the shuddering surface of the division between worlds and stepped out onto the dry sand of that ancient desert.

MONARCH lifted his head and, through the haze of pain, he saw a figure in heavy wrought iron armour, his masque carved in the likeness of a carrion bird. At his side, a young girl with a leopard fur coat and vibrant red hair tied up in a loose ponytail draped herself over him, cruel eyes studying the fallen warrior before them.

With one hand, the stranger hefted up a mammoth sword, its blade tarnished by age and rust.

“I have come to take from you your name,” he whispered in a deep, rasping voice from behind the cold likeness of the foreign bird. “Defend yourself!”

The decaying blade descended once more.

Leave a Reply