Tournament Armoured Hero #2
Tournament Armoured Hero #2

Struggling, he lifted himself up from the foulness of the water, his armour rusted with the rot and sin of the world around him. What little of his face that could be seen behind the mass of tangled hair and the wiry curls of his beard was now spattered with filth and blood.

His sword lay he knew not where, lost within the undertow of those murky waters and, likewise, his strength had also deserted him. All that remained was his determination, his will to drag his battered and bruised body onward through the endless toil and achieve that for which they had been tasked with.

A blinding flash of light filled the dour skies above and Sir Bors, who once dwelt in riches in his own native land and now seemed consigned to rot with the foulest of sea creatures, lifted his head at last to catch a glimpse of the heavenly youth standing but a short way from him.

Time seemed fractured, the stream of filth momentarily like liquid metal, dragging him down beneath the surface, filling his eyes with images of a thousand other worlds before he broke free once again, clawing his way up through the roiling liquid and turning bloodshot eyes to where the youth remained.

A second flash of light filled the heavens and, on the horizon, he saw the immaculate young man in his spotless white armour reach up to the skies, drawing down something solid from those higher realms.

“Galahad,” he croaked, his voice little more than a dry whisper as he reached out for the figure in the distance, “Galahad!”

The heavens swelled and another burst of light broke against his tired eyes, momentarily burning the scene from his sight and filling him with an insurmountable dread.

He felt the waves of metal wash over his ruined armour once more and suddenly the world returned, that youthful figure, his head rich with curls of dark brown hair and his armour unhindered by the dirt of the world around, crouched down before him, reaching out and taking hold of his hands.

“Bors,” the youth said, his voice calm and patient, “I ask of you to take this to the King.”

The older man felt something rough and wooden pushed into his hands, a cup of some kind, a goblet, a grail!

“Take this to the King,” the boy commanded, “I go now to meet with my Father.”

“L-Lancelot?” Bors stammered in confusion, “Lancelot is with us?”

The boy shook his head and smiled sadly as if such understanding was beyond the older man.

“No, Bors, I go not to meet with my earthly father but rather my Father who waits in Heaven.”

Bors opened his mouth to protest but the younger man was already rising, his armour unstained despite contact with the filthy waters. Desperately, Bors reached out.

“Galahad,” he murmured again, his voice rising. “Galahad!”

There was another flash of light and once more, the beautiful youth was upon the horizon, an insurmountable distance from his fallen companion. He turned and spared Bors a faint, disinterested smile.

From above his head, the older knight imagined he heard the sound of chariot wheels and horses descending from on high…

Tournament Armoured Hero #2:
“Siege Perilous”

“My good blade carves the casques of men,
My tough lance thrusteth sure,
My strength is as the strength of ten,
Because my heart is pure.”
– Alfred, Lord Tennyson
– ‘Sir Galahad’

With trembling hands, he reached down for his sword, tearing the sheathed blade from the buckles and scabbard that kept it bound to his hip.

Desert sunlight caught the metal, reflecting his masqued opponent and the curious, youthful consort at his side.

“Who are you people?” the armoured hero demanded, his tattered purple cloak moving in the dry wind, “What do you want with us?”

Without reply, the other launched himself forward, the sand and dirt exploding at his feet as he closed the distance between the two of them.

Their swords clashed, the unknown other lashing out with his rusted blade and smashing the metal against MONARCH’s own sword.

The wounded hero staggered beneath the assault, the wound in his chest burning like fire as his armour struggled to reunite across the divide, fragments of jagged metal filled with restless spirit particles now attempting to repair the damage.

Desperately, MONARCH parried once and lashed out with his foot, missing the passing stranger by a breadth and instantly regretting his rash retaliation. Before he could turn fully, the other’s blade crashed down again, smashing into his back and tearing asunder the fluttering purple cloak he wore about his shoulders.

MONARCH fell to one knee, the internal components of his cyborg upgrades screaming with such alarm that he felt the feedback in every one of his five senses.

Again, the stranger’s blade fell and he only just managed to lift his own sword in time, parrying the blow yet feeling the shock of connexion running through his worn and tired arm muscles.

A savage kick caught him beneath the ribs and he was knocked to the ground, the sand rising in clouds about him as his head reeled and his body screamed in agony.

He lifted up a hand and gingerly brushed his fingers against the carapace of his helmet. The masque was cracked upon the right side, a forked lighting bolt scar etched in metal, allowing desert sunlight to pour in and pass over his dark eyes.

In his chest, he felt his lungs burning, the wires that bound them to the central processing unit along his spinal column now severed and sputtering sparks within the depths of his damp innards. He no longer had the fortitude of one whose breathing and heartbeat was regulated according to machine tempo and, for the first time in 15 years, MONARCH found himself struggling against his body, his heart hammering wildly in his breast.

A shadow crossed the filtered sunlight that now filled his helmet and quickly he moved, pulling his trembling body up and leaping away as the other man’s sword sliced through the place where he had previously fallen.

He lifted himself to his full height and quickly found himself forced on the defensive, his worn blade clashing with the tarnished decay of the other’s sword.

Again, the blow reverberated within him.

“Who are you?” he gasped.

Cruel blue eyes stared out from behind the carrion bird masque.

“I am your successor,” the other answered simply, his voice full of knowing cruelty.

Beneath his own fractured masque, MONARCH frowned.

“My successor?” he repeated.

The other pushed against the blade, driving MONARCH slowly back, one step at a time.

“Your name,” the armoured villain repeated, “I’m going to take it from you!”

MONARCH blinked, struggling to keep his opponent talking in the hope that he might somehow find an opening, a way to distract the villain and again win the advantage.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Sky Raider reaching for his belt and then, in an instant, the girl in the leopard pattern coat was at the younger man’s side, a drawn wakizashi at his throat.

“Don’t waste yourself,” she hissed with venomous glee.

“Why are you fighting me?” MONARCH said, returning his attention to the shape of the armoured villain bearing down on him. “W-What do you need my name for?”

The other man pushed harder against MONARCH’s sabre.

“Because whilst you still exist, the power inherent in the name you have taken flows to both you and me. Removing you from the equation will divert all the power of that name to me alone!”

“The power… of my name?” he repeated.

The sabre groaned beneath the weight of the other MONARCH’s rusted blade.

“Your name no longer!” the invader roared and, with redoubled strength pushed harder against the weakening blade.

With a sickening crack, the armoured cyborg’s sword fractured and the colossal weight of the larger sword pushed down, slicing through the obsidian armour and biting deep into the flesh beneath.

MONARCH screamed in pain, long dead tear ducts suddenly opening within the musculature of his face as an arc of blood rose up from the wound in his chest and sprayed across his opponent’s tarnished armour.

With a soft laugh, the villain tore the blade free from its moorings and the older man dropped to his knees, his suit crystallising and shattering just as the sabre before it had done.

“Yamamura Joji,” the new MONARCH sneered, “you no longer have any right to the name you once claimed. If you should attempt to use it, I will know and I will kill you. Consider this your sole warning.”

He lifted the blade and slung it over his shoulder, stepping back upon the burning sand as, once more, a torrent of mercury erupted behind him.

Yamamura simply stared blankly ahead, his machine eyes dull as the light within them faded and the machinery inside of him sparked, fizzled and burnt out forever.

“You bastard!” Raider screamed, driving his phone home at the centre of his belt, “I’ll kill you for what you’ve done here!”

MONARCH lifted his head as the girl once more moved to his side.

“You have much to live for, Sky Raider,” he sneered, stepping backwards into the void, “don’t throw it all away for the sake of one dying old man.”

The shuddering violence of the churning liquid metal intensified and then, in an instant, it dissipated.

Yamamura Joji remained, yet MONARCH had departed.

—xxx—

Hao Wong closed the phone with a smile, slipping it deftly back within the folds of his jacket and turning to the younger man who waited impatiently beneath the glow of the Mokorri City streetlamp.

“Sky thinks they’ve found a lead,” he remarked, running a hand through his thick, dishevelled hair.

The younger man scowled and looked away, his hands deep in his jacket pockets and his collar turned up against his chin.

“What do I care about the whereabouts of immortals?” the boy smirked with pretend disinterest, “I only agreed to come with you so I could evaluate the merits of the Emperor’s Fist fighting style.”

Wong affected an expression of wounded pride, clutching at his heart with one hand.

“Jyunichi, you wound me! Seriously!” he protested.

Kanemura Jyunichi eyed the older man with distaste, his lips curling as he watched Hao Wong mime through the stages of his own exaggerated demise.

“I had neglected, of course, to take into account the immaturity of your behaviour,” the young man sneered. “Had I considered that then perhaps I would have taken my chances with Reina Lang.”

Wong’s posture stiffened instantly, his expression darkening.

“Let’s not talk about Reina,” he said in a quiet voice, his tone suddenly a far cry from the playful mannerisms he had affected only moments earlier.

Following the tournament, Hao Wong and Reina Lang had been something of an item. Former childhood friends, their relationship had quickly intensified over the course of the tournament only to peter out a year or so after the event.

Hao had not been surprised the day Reina had told him she was planning on accepting the job offer CyberTek Industries had made her in Seattle. He hadn’t tried to stop her, it had been easier not to get in the way.

The last he had heard she had settled down with Mark Mitsukai. He hadn’t been too keen on hearing that particular piece of news.

“My throat’s suddenly dry, let’s go get a drink,” Wong said quietly, “I hear Spike Campbell opened a bar around here, I’m pretty sure we can find it.”

“If it is a drink you require then allow me to quench your thirst… WITH JUSTICE!” cried a sudden voice from above them.

Wong cringed and Kanemura lifted his head, glaring up at the lamppost and the solitary, armoured figure standing atop, arms folded across his chest.

“Who the hell are you?” the boy demanded with alarm.

The stranger’s armour was immaculately white, seemingly untouched by age or use. Upon his belt were holstered two weapons, a gun on the right side and the handle of a fishing rod on the left whilst, likewise the right shoulder bore the pattern of a unique blue swirl just as the left bore an orange swirl.

The helmet he wore was featureless save for a wide rectangular visor decorated along the line where his eyes would have been with four round ports, each one seemingly providing the option of connecting additional devices to the masque.

Wong found himself reaching for his waist, calmly drawing the silver transformation belt he wore out from the abandoned dimensional void of ‘god-space’ in which it was stored when idle.

“Way of the Agito…” he began, muscles tensing and all melancholy now forgotten.

The masqued other unfolded his arms, drawing the rod handle from his belt and flicking a switch. With a snap-hiss, a shaft of shimmering orange light burst forth from the hilt.

“Armoured Hero…” he said softly, lips twitching in a smile behind the masque, “DREAMCASTER!”

—xxx—

The phone bleated shrilly from the folds of his coat, a piercing cry that caused his lips to twitch in distaste and moved his hands to hastily retrieve the device from his pocket, flipping it open and lifting it to his ear without bothering to check the display.

“Speak,” he commanded firmly, his eyes never once leaving the sight of the four figures, huddled amongst the crowds and the pelting rain in the doorway of the Elated Emperor nightclub across the street.

From where he sat across from a window table in the Pacific Diner, Chazz Leiter was afforded a view of the whole of 34th and Easterly Street. Yet regardless of the view, it was the small huddled group of four, faces hidden by the hoods of their jumpers, which held his attention.

Like MONARCH’s Royal Family, Wong and Kanemura, and countless other clusters of armoured heroes, Chazz Leiter had been commissioned by Nero Samson’s Densha de Police to ascertain the location of a missing person.

Each group of friends, colleagues and companions, all connected to the Densha de Police by previous association with Samson had been employed in the search for a woman who had once before been threatened by the machinations of the man known as the Architect, and who Samson feared was in grave danger once again.

Chazz Leiter, a former tool and later target of the Architect himself, had been one of the first people Samson had approached.

From the end of the phone came a muffled sob and, in disgust, Leiter pulled the phone away, glanced in alarm at the name and number and then quickly returned it to his ear.

“Taryse? Is that you? Is everything okay?” he asked anxiously.

The voice on the other end of the phone whimpered, a sickened sound of despair and agony.

He felt his stomach churn, bile rising in his throat.

“Taryse… has something happened to Amelia?” he asked, choking back the nausea that suddenly filled him.

Even though he could not explain the connexion, even though Amelia was not his child, the mere idea of her suffering seemed to cause him such anguish that the pain hurt more than any physical wound ever could.

A-Amelia’s fine, Chazz…‘ the disembodied voice of Taryse Leiter whispered back across the miles, ‘but… but Chad is… he’s… oh, Jesus, Chazz, there’s so much blood. How am I going to explain this to Amelia?’

Despite himself, Chazz felt a guilty kind of relief wash over him. He glanced once more across the diner table with its polished surface and his empty coffee cup and again stared out of the window at the four young figures, each dolling out their mixtures of drugs and money to one another.

Sorry Nero, he thought quietly to himself, Alicia is going to have to wait… this is family.

He turned away from the window.

“You’re still in Kellogg City, right? I’ll be over there in half-an-hour.”

Slowly, he rose up from the table, dropping a handful of loose change onto the table and not bothering to turn back towards the bored, bespectacled waitress and the overweight chef in the grease stained apron behind the counter.

Chazz… I can’t ask you to…‘ Taryse whispered, her voice betraying the relief she felt at the idea that someone else was offering to shoulder the responsibility of dealing with the situation.

“Phone the police,” he said and then, on second thoughts added, “get in contact with Joe Hammel from USMDF as well.”

Just in case this turns out to be bigger than either of us is hoping for, he added silently to himself.

He paused, licking his dry lips as he reached for the door and pulled it open, the bell over his head ringing once and drawing the attention of the four, drug addled miscreants across the street.

Chazz Leiter met their gaze unflinchingly and then quickly looked away.

“Taryse, I hate to ask you this but… is there a body?”

He could hear her shaking her head on the other end of the phone.

No,’ she said softly, ‘just… just the blood.’

“That’s good,” he remarked, a smile forming on his lips, “that means there’s still a chance the old burning bird is still out there and, if he’s out there and he’s anything like me – which, of course he is – then he’ll still be fighting. Don’t give up hope yet, Taryse.”

She laughed softly at his poor sense of humour.

Thank you, Chazz… thank you so much.’

“It’s not a problem, Taryse, we’re family… almost,” he smiled sadly. “I’ll be there in half-an-hour. In the meantime, make sure you call the police.”

I will do, thank you once again, Chazz, I don’t know what I would have done without you.’

He felt his cheeks redden with blush.

“No worries,” he said hastily.

On the other end of the phone, he could sense her smile and somewhere within his chest, his heart stirred unexpectedly. They bid their final goodbyes and swiftly he slipped the phone back into his pocket, the smile still on his lips as he reached his motorcycle.

Pain erupted suddenly in the back of his head and he fell awkwardly forward, brushing the damp leather and cold metal of the bike. Yet before he had finished falling, his body had already begun to change direction, turning to face his attacker and reaching up with one hand to probe the place on the back of his head where he had been struck.

Standing behind him was a nervous youth, a kid with a wiry frame and scared eyes, a metal pole held tightly in his trembling hands.

Chazz pulled his fingers back from the wound and found them red with blood.

“I-I’m sorry, Dark Phoenix,” the boy stammered, “but I need you to come quietly.”

The older man glared at the damp stain across his fingers. It had been a long time since he had found himself looking at his own blood.

“So why didn’t you just ask?” he snarled, straightening his back.

“I…I…” the boy stammered helplessly, the pole falling from his hands and clattering loudly on the ground. “I’m sorry, my em-em-employers…”

He reached down revealing a gold and crimson belt wrapped around his waist. Chazz instantly recognised it as a variant of the Universal Monster System that he himself had once used.

Across the street, the four youths turned their attention towards him once more.

Great, Chazz thought darkly, so much for being subtle.

“What’s your name, kid?” he snarled, pulling back his coat to reveal the depiction of a bird rising up from a torrent of flames etched into his own belt buckle.

“D-Drake,” the kid stammered in return, “Drake Legenal, sir.”

“Well, Drake,” Chazz said with a sneer, “I’m in something of a hurry so I’m going to need you to get the hell out of my way otherwise you’re going to get hurt.”

Legenal swallowed hard, his youthful face, still marked by acne around his nose, seemed to pale further as Chazz Leiter reached down and took hold of the golden belt buckle, pulling it apart and releasing a surge of burning spirit energy.

“My employers gave me specific orders, sir…” Legenal protested, producing a thin glass vial of fetid black liquid, “I have to bring you in, I’m afraid.”

Chazz shrugged, turned and then, without even transforming, lashed out with his fist.

His bloodstained knuckles slammed hard against the boy’s jaw, sending him staggering backwards, the vial of liquid falling from his hands and shattering in the damp gutter.

“Tell your employers that when they want to play nice, maybe I’ll come and see them,” Chazz remarked, swinging his leg over the bike and mounting the machine, “until then, you might want to rethink the way in which you approach people you want to win over.”

With a smirk, he turned the key in the ignition and kicked downward, spurring the heavy, rumbling engine into life once more.

He glanced once more at the gawking youths in the doorway of the Elated Emperor and then opened up the throttle and tore away, the bike’s heavy tires leaving their momentary imprint in the puddles of rain that stained the road.

Watching as he left, Drake Legenal sighed wearily and pulled himself to his feet.

—xxx—

The shaft of orange light clashed against Wong’s forearm, blistering the golden gauntlets of his armour and leaving a smudge of black soot.

To his right, he caught sight of Kanemura, his faintly absurd and antiquated green and black Oni armour appearing all the more absurd beneath the flickering, artificial glow of the Mokorri City streetlamp.

With an effortless movement that stirred something akin to jealousy in Wong, Kanemura brought up his katana in a deadly arc… only to find the blade edge blocked by the barrel of Dreamcaster’s sidearm.

Still pushing the rod down against Wong’s arm, the mysterious hero turned his masque towards Kanemura and pulled the trigger.

A bolt of blue energy sparked from the gun and exploded in Kanemura’s face, knocking the Oni backwards against the damp, red brick wall.

Thankful for the distraction, if not comfortable with the manner in which it was achieved, Hao Wong drove his free fist into the other man’s gut, sending him staggering back as he had done to Kanemura only mere seconds before.

The boy’s blade moved swiftly, its owner cautious now of the gun in the costumed other’s right hand. Shimmering metal damp with rain struck Dreamcaster’s back, tearing a deep gash in the other man’s armour and revealing the suggestion of an orange boiler suit beneath the armour.

Dreamcaster staggered but did not fall, struggling to turn even as Kanemura’s katana descended again, viciously slashing along the line of the recently inflicted wound. Flecks of blood spattered like summer rain across the surface of the white armour yet the mysterious other held his own, lifting the gun once more in his trembling hand.

“You can’t win,” Kanemura sneered from behind the jagged, obsidian masque that adorned his own helmet.

Behind the faceplate and the ports of the visor, Kanemura had the distinct impression that Dreamcaster was glaring at him with dislike. The sensation caused the young man’s lips to ripple in distaste, his nostrils flaring as his breathing became more irregular.

“All of you heroes are the same,” he hissed darkly, “you all think you’re the only ones who can turn back the tide against impossible odds, the only ones who can save the world from impending doom. You sicken me, all of you.”

“I was the only one who could save my world,” Dreamcaster snarled in return, “and I failed! Now, Destronger rule it, our cities turned to furnaces in order to power their blasphemous engines!”

Destronger?” Wong repeated quietly to himself.

The muzzle of the light-gun flashed once more, a second shard of blue energy rocketing forth. Deftly, Kanemura brought the blade up before him, metal refracting the light in a series of fragmentary darts that slammed hard into Dreamcaster’s gut, piercing his armour.

The hero grunted, dropping down as Wong lifted his knee and caught the man beneath the chin guard of his helmet, knocking him sideways and away from the wall.

Unceremoniously, Dreamcaster crashed to the ground, his white armour darkened now with dirt and smears of oil.

“We don’t want to fight you,” Wong said from behind his own masque, “I think we might even be on the same side.”

Dreamcaster turned his featureless masque towards his two former opponents, the four ports in his visor as expressionless as the rest of his guise.

“I want to fight him,” Kanemura protested with disgust, “I hate his type. All that noble-sacrifice-for-failing-to-save-a-world nonsense sickens me. If you’re not strong, you shouldn’t be fighting.”

Carefully, Hao Wong stepped forward, ignoring his partner’s remarks and extending a hand to the fallen hero.

Hesitantly, Dreamcaster deactivated the fishing rod’s shaft of orange light and accepted the proffered hand and allowed Wong to help him to his feet.

“I apologise, I thought you were both miscreants…” he answered softly, bowing his head.

Wong shrugged the apology off.

“You don’t have to apologise,” he smiled beneath his own mouth-less masque and then added, “if I came across someone as shady as Kanemura in a dark alley at night, I’d assume he was a villain too.”

A sudden screech silenced whatever response the young man might have thought to make and lifting his head, Kanemura Jyunichi found himself staring up at a murder of crow-feathered karura, their pale flesh sickly in the dim moonlight.

Wong followed his partner’s gaze, his eyes widening as he saw the withered human frames and avian features of the amassed karura surrounding them, their ranks filling every rooftop above the burning streetlamp.

“What are they?” Dreamcaster murmured in awe, once more removing the rod from his side, the glow of orange light flickering across his white armour.

Monsters,” Kanemura spat in disgust.

“There was a man called the Architect who, a few years back, made a habit of messing around with biotechnology,” Wong elaborated, “at the time of his death, a few of his projects were at earlier stages of development than others. Both the karura, and another race called the Kiyome, were two such examples. The Kiyome appeared about a year after his death, the karura followed about a year and a half after that.”

Dreamcaster glanced at Wong in alarm.

“T-There was a man named the Architect on my world too,” he remarked, his voice shaken, “he… he was our finest armoured hero, before Destronger killed him.”

“I guess our two worlds are nothing alike then,” Kanemura snarled, readying his blade.

Wong stared at the squawking ranks of bird-creatures, a chill running down his back as he struggled and failed to estimate their number.

“We have to fall back,” he murmured, “there are too many of them.”

“No!” Dreamcaster said sharply, “There is a way!”

Reaching down to his belt, he removed a small device with a grey LCD screen, swiftly pulling the cap off and revealing a line of elongated plastic and metal teeth. Without pause, he slid the device into a gap in the back of his light-gun and pulled the weapon from its holster, lifting it up to the heavens.

“Dreamcaster Accessories: Mouse and Keyboard!” he shouted, pulling the gun’s trigger and emitting a burst of shimmering blue energy.

In the darkness above the city, a pale blue swirl formed upon the clouds.

Within seconds, a funnel of light appeared at the centre of the swirl, widening until the twisting colours of another world could be clearly seen within. From out of that morass of churning illumination leapt two small machine-creatures, both as white as Dreamcaster’s armour.

The armoured hero drove the gun back into its holster and reached out as the larger of the two creatures galloped across thin air towards him, its legs folding inwards and its body transforming into a perfectly white keyboard.

Dreamcaster lifted up his right arm and the keyboard slid into place on his forearm. At his side, the additional memory unit connected to the gun chimed merrily.

The second creature folded its partner, squeaking as it flipped in the air and transformed itself into a simple two-button mouse.

Effortlessly, he reached up and snatched the device from the air, clicking down upon the right button even as the gun’s memory unit chimed once more.

A shimmer of light distorted his form as several ghost echoes of his armour rippled outward, filling the alleyway and surrounding Dreamcaster, Wong and Kanemura like a party of royal guards.

Mouse Mania!’ the memory unit called out in a high-pitched voice.

“Taryse had a trick like that,” Wong murmured, watching as the army of Dreamcasters launched themselves up towards the roof, “Ani too…”

“Harbinger also possesses such a technique,” Kanemura spat with distaste.

Dreamcaster moved his right arm, sliding the fishing rod back into place and placing his hand upon the keyboard’s layout.

“Dreamcaster Dynamic!” he shouted, “Typing of the Dead!”

The memory box chimed again.

Typing of the Dead!’ the machine mimicked.

Even as the army of clones engaged the amassed karura, so words and numbers began to appear in the air above their heads. Frantically, Dreamcaster’s fingers hammered the buttons, typing out each letter and word as it emerged and triggering a series of climatic explosions that tore apart those monsters so marked by his unusual technique.

“I’ve never seen anything like that though,” Wong murmured, watching as gore and feathers rained down in chunks against the dimly light alley.

“He’s leaving us behind!” Kanemura growled.

With a mighty leap, he bounced up towards the roof, moving between the two buildings until he was amongst the faltering karura and the massed legion of Dreamcaster clones.

His blade flashed in a series of exaggerated movements, blood spraying over the sharp black and green angles of his decorative armour as he carved his path through the hideous bird-creatures. Each turn he made, each step was a carefully balanced movement designed to emphasis not only the strength of his blade but also the elegance of his training.

As a child, Kanemura had been a prodigy on the stage, his earliest performances exciting audiences all over the Kanto region. His true fame had however been cemented with his portrayal of the tragic heroine of Sonezaki Shinju. He had thrown it all away for a place in Jack Ryker’s armoured hero academy, causing dissension and division in his family.

The former actor had only added to their woes when, a year after enrolment, he had been expelled from the academy for attempting to kill one of his teachers. It had not been a conscious decision, rather it had been a situation that had escalated faster than even he had been able to predict. Pride had prevented him from backing down from his stance once events had unfolded.

Behind him, he heard the sudden screech of something larger than the average karura, a terrible, undulating scream that rolled out in waves over the city rooftops like ocean waves crashing against the shore.

A shadow reached out towards them, engulfing the myriad Dreamcasters and the remainder of the karura and obscuring the stars in the skies above.

Slowly, Kanemura turned, his heart pounding in his chest and his knuckles white beneath his gauntlets.

Rising up on the horizon, towering over the buildings of Mokorri City was a colossal karura, its curved beak stained with blood and bile, wide eyes swollen and white with cataracts.

Around him, the Dreamcaster clones seemed to shimmer and fade away, leaving Kanemura alone with the wounded and dying legion of lesser kaijin.

The giant beast threw its head back and howled, flame blossoming in its gullet and threatening to spill out in drizzles of liquid flame down its neck.

“Grande…” Kanemura whispered in awe and fear, “karura-grande!”

—xxx—

“Joji!” Sun Raider cried out in fear, swiftly crossing the dirt between them and falling to her knees at the older man’s side, “Joji!”

The former MONARCH simply lay against the burning sand, his machine eyes staring blankly into the distance as blood pooled beneath him.

Standing a short distance from their broken comrade, Sky Raider clenched his fists, Star standing awkwardly at his side.

“They’ll pay for this,” Raider hissed, “those bastards, they’ll pay for this!”

The years seemingly peeled back from him, all the good that had been achieved since the close of the tournament now cast aside as the age-old hate and disgust welled up within him.

“W-Who were they?” Star stammered weakly, looking down at his own trembling fists.

Humans,” Sky spat in disgust, “they were simply humans, like you and me.”

His lips twitched and he looked away, staring at the place where the mercurial wall had risen up from the scorched sand.

Anxiously, Sun turned and glanced over her shoulder, her heart swelling in her chest. Since meeting Hao again during the tournament, Sky had done his best to fit in, to bury the feelings of rage and contempt he felt towards others. Hearing him now it was as if the clock had been turned back, as if he had shrugged off everything that had taught him to respect and cherish life and his heart had turned once more to anger.

“Sky,” she said, her voice trembling, “Sky, help me.”

He turned to gaze at her and at once, the darkness faded, an expression of concern reclaimed from the mires of hate and contempt.

Swiftly, he was at her side, one hand on her leg and the other one on Yamamura’s shoulder.

“Joji,” he said softly and then added, “MONARCH.”

The older man’s eyes flickered red, a trickle of blood running from his lips and staining his face.

101010101010101010,” he whispered, his voice faint.

Sky exchanged a worried glance with his sister.

“Joji, I-I don’t understand…”

10,” the former MONARCH answered, “1010.”

There came a sudden rumble from the skies above them, the roar of vast imagination engines and an abrupt darkness as something massive passed over the glaring sun.

Without hesitating, Sky Raider rose up, hands at his waist once more, preparing to transform and release all of his hate, all of his anger against any new opponent daring to challenge him.

Directly above them was the shape of a colossal fortress, wrought from black iron, a tower at each point revealing hermetically sealed gateways to the fort’s interior. Its underbelly was covered in dried seaweed and dead crustaceans as if it had remained beneath the waves of some restless ocean for countless years.

Instinctively, Sky Raider recognised the fort’s neo-Baroque architecture as being a hallmark of recent Cale Corporation structures. There was no other company on Earth so arrogant as to fashion its military outposts in the manner of cathedrals.

Within the dark façade of the fortress, a door opened, giving way to dim light and the figure of a slender woman dressed in what he recognised as the purple and white one-piece uniform of an Intergalactic New Mages Corps member. Around her shoulders, and hiding the details of her face, she wore the skin of some dead animal, a large dog perhaps, or a wolf.

Stepping out onto the platform, Sky caught sight of long, vibrant red hair moving beneath her dead headdress.

She stepped out of the doorway and onto a ramp of sorts, a landing platform for smaller vessels. From the dim light two other figures emerged, a broad shouldered man with a curved, roman nose and a slender, graceful woman with short black hair, her appearance feminine despite her masculine haircut.

“Who are you?” Sky Raider shouted up above the noise of the imagination engines.

The man stepped to the forefront of the group, looking down at Sky with a calm, calculating gaze.

“We are UKMDF Department ?,” he said with authority, his lips slowly twitching in a smile, “we’re here to rescue you.”

—xxx—

Desperately, Jessie Lee Elias swung his remaining Satan Sabre once more, its blood red blade tearing through one of the chanting, expressionless cultists as they pushed ever forward.

Overhead, the light of dim candles flickered upon the walls, sickly incense clouding the air and filling his stomach with nausea and his nostrils with its pungent odour.

He staggered forward again, roaring with his hoarse voice and swinging the blade once more. Another cultist fell; another soon rose up to take his place.

His armour had rusted with the rot and sin of the dank cave, silver now tarnished by scorches, broken and twisted metal slick with human blood. What little of his face that could be seen behind his smashed and ruined masque was spattered with filth and dirt. The emerald green omnilens of the masque’s right side had shattered long ago, revealing his own terrified eye and the smears of unnatural colour that stained his face.

Wearily, he thrust forward again and someone seized hold of his arm, snatching away the Satan Sabre and casting it away.

He staggered into the crowd, groping for his belt and smashing the glistening emerald gem at its centre into two equal halves. From the broken stone, the hilt of a golden sword emerged and, exhausted, he seized hold of it, pulling it free from the dimensional pocket within the emerald.

“Shadow Henshin…” he gasped, the words a dull mantra on his dry lips, “RX!”

Light congealed about his body, searing the faces and limbs of the gathered cultists as they pushed against him. He heard their screams and cries, felt the warmth of their blood as the light disfigured them, tearing through their features and leaving bone and organ exposed to the luminescence unleashed by both his sword and his oath, but he cared no longer.

Black shoulder-pads, an emerald breastplate and additional shin and wrist guards emerged from the burning light, burnt onto the soiled silver of his armour even as iron wings of black crow feathers sprouted from his back.

Haphazardly, he lashed out with the sword, his wings moving as more and more of the cultists pushed against him, bending the additional limbs back at such an angle that he felt fractures begin to appear upon the battered armour.

All around him, the chants of their prayers whispered in his ears.

Praise be to the masters of cruel and unusual death. Praise be to the sycophants of illness and torture, the worshippers that drink from the weeping sores of the unfettered breast of naked death.

Praise be to hideousness, to animosity, to infant death, to animal cruelty, to the rape and massacre of nations.

Praise be to vindictive sadism, to exhibitionism, exploitation and slavery.

Praise be… to DESTRONGER!’

The crowds parted and at last, Jessie caught sight of his younger brother, standing with his back to him, beyond the crowds of chanting cultists.

Time seemed fractured, the crush of filthy hessian robes momentarily like liquid metal washing over him, dragging him down beneath the surface, filling his eyes with images of a thousand other worlds before he broke free once again, clawing his way from the grasp of the frenzied bodies around him and turning bloodshot eyes to where his brother remained.

A second flash of light filled the cave, independent of the stone at the centre of his belt and beyond the crowd, he saw his brother, turning, his long, black coat unfurling around him as he lifted his right arm to reveal the box of polished wood and metal strapped to his wrist.

In his left hand was a playing card, the features of some unknown masque depicted in illustration. It didn’t matter, Jessie already knew the technique his brother would use, though the fractured wooden masque that covered part of his face and the box through which he slashed the card were unfamiliar.

“Ani,” he croaked, his voice little more than a dry whisper as he reached out for the figure in the distance, “Ani!”

The heavens swelled and another burst of light broke against his tired eyes, momentarily burning the scene from his sight and filling him with an insurmountable dread.

He felt the waves of metal wash over his ruined armour once more and suddenly the world returned, that youthful figure, his neat, brown hair unmoved and his dark clothes unhindered by the dirt of the world around reaching out and taking hold of his hands.

“Don’t call me Ani,” he snarled, seizing hold of his brother and hauling him up even as he lashed out with his free hand at the gathered cultists, “Ani is a child’s name, Jessie, and I’m not a child!”

The older man blinked slowly, his expression one of hurt and regret.

“My name is Gates now,” the boy hissed, tearing the sword with the golden hilt from his brother’s hands.

Raw energy erupted about him, the aftershock slamming into the cultists and throwing them backwards to the ground. Beneath his shoes, the earth shuddered, shards of dirt and stone rising up about him.
A field of throbbing white hot energy rippled around him, a glistening one-piece uniform of purple and white, its chest adorned by a simple, pale purple circle denoting membership of the Intergalactic New Mages Corps.

Whatever armour his brother had called forth from the card, Jessie instinctively realised that it was not the younger man’s own, but rather a form borrowed from some unknown other.

Energy crackled once more and Jessie watched as waves of spirit energy wrapped about his brother’s face, hardening into a simple, featureless helmet with a narrow grill decorating the protruding visor.

There was another flash of light and once more Jessie felt the pull of the Arch-Angel Form armour he had summoned as it deserted him in favour of his brother, reappearing over the purple and white uniform the younger man now wore.

Deftly, Gates Elias swung the Sword of Eternal Night out, the blade singing in a golden arc and felling the uncoordinated cultists as they struggled to recover from the burning light of his transformation.

Reaching back, Gates seized his older brother by the wrist, dragging him deeper into the cavernous temple of the cult.

“Why did you come here, Jessie?” he snarled from behind the unfamiliar masque, tearing through the ranks of Destronger cultists as they swiftly passed through rubble-strewn corridor after corridor.

“I-I came looking for you,” the older man stammered weakly, “An… Gates, it’s been a year since any of us saw you… I… I was scared you were dead…”

Gates Elias snorted loudly.

“Not dead, big brother, just stronger.”

He came to a halt before an aged oaken door sunken into the rock at the end of a narrow corridor, turning slowly to face his brother.

“Do you remember that time back when we were kids in Grants Pass? Do you remember we used to go down to the woods on our trial bikes and how, one time, we found that cat that had been run over, the dented metal of its nametag the only recognisable feature amongst the clumps of fur and flesh?

“Do you remember how, instead of ignoring it, you called up the number on the tag and told the owners what had happened, how you made us wait for them to come and helped them bury the body even though you knew they thought you were responsible for the animal’s death?”

He turned away, glancing up the corridor as more and more of the cultists gathered in the narrow corridor, preventing their exit.

“Do you remember how I told you shouldn’t phone them, that we should just leave it and get the hell out of there, let someone else deal with it but you told me that wasn’t the right thing. The right thing was to call them, to let them know their cat was dead, even if they hated us for it, that’s what you said.”

He turned, looking towards the wooden door once more and hefting the heavy blade in his hands once more.

“Well this is me doing the right thing, Jessie; this is me not walking away.”

He brought the sword down in a terrible arc, smashing through the door and spraying chunks of rotten wood across the dirt and stone beyond the threshold.

At their back, Jessie could still hear the terrible chanting of the relentless cultists yet before him, a new and more terrifying horror captured his eye and chilled his blood.

Bound to an aged high-back wooden chair by a series of wires, cables and rusting iron clamps around his wrists and ankles was the last remains of what had once been a man. The skin was translucent, paper thin, revealing the shifting of cogs and gears beneath the surface. The hair on the head was present in clumps of fine fibres and the eyes, watery blue, streamed constantly with acrid tears.

He was naked save for the remnants of a white robe, long since daubed with faeces, blood and urine. Weeping sores and open wounds decorated his flesh, swollen with puss and dried blood and, at various junctures, the wires and cables grew so dense that it was impossible to see whether there was any kind of flesh left beneath them.

Trembling, Jessie followed the cables with his eyes, tracing them up into the rotten rafters and then down towards the back of the room and the sole, dimly light cryotube, ultraviolet light spilling out from the capsule’s onboard life support.

Jessie did not dwell too long on the shadowy, human shape floating limply in the waters of the tube, his eyes instead drawn back towards the human wreckage imprisoned before him.

Dry lips parted, a gasp of stale air and, in the faintest voice, the prisoner whispered, “Kill mekill me…”

A jolt of shock ran through Jessie’s body as he suddenly recognised the voice.

“J-Jaden!” he gasped in horror, “Jaden Stryder!”

The former Architect’s head lolled, drool and blood spilling out over his thin lips and pooling in his naked lap.

“Kill me,” he rasped once more, “please… kill me.”

Without any sign of disgust, Gates Elias crouched down before the old man.

“Stryder, this is important, I need to know where she is.”

Stryder’s eyes met his own, tears stained his mutilated face.

“Kill me,” he repeated, “kill me…”

The young man swallowed hard, closing his eyes and turning away.

“I will,” he said softly, “I promise, I will, but I need you to tell me where she is first.”

There was a sound at the back of Stryder’s throat, a rasping gurgle that could have been a sob or might have been laughter, it was impossible to tell.

Slowly Jessie found himself drawn forward, passing the horrific remnants of the man on his wooden throne and towards the eerie glow of the tube at the back of the room.

“T-They pulled her out of the desert,” Stryder whispered, his face contorted with agony, “wrenched her from the endless sands between moments, drew her spirit down into the material realm and wrapped it up in a synthetic body…”

Jessie felt his stomach muscles clench, a bitter taste rising in his throat as he gazed up at the floating body suspended at the heart of the tube.

“They ensnared her soul in a body that was not her own, they tarnished her, brought her down to their level and perverted the divine spark within her. Now she is the heart of their engine, the tool through which they have distorted the oceans of reality and driven worlds together.

“Now she has been made impure, forged in their image.”

Ultraviolet light spilt over Jessie’s face and, without warning, he wretched, bile and vomit spraying from his bruised lips and spattering against the inside of his helmet.

He toppled to his knees, head bowed and fists pounding the dirt as, before him, the limp body of a naked boy, scarred and burnt by years of torture, floated solemnly in the water of the glowing tube.

“Alicia,” Jessie whispered in horror, “oh, Jesus Christ… Alicia!”

At the other end of the room, Gates Elias hefted up the Sword of Eternal Night and brought it down in a devastating arc.

Wood splintered and blood spilt out across the stones of the dirt-stained floor.

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