Tournament Armoured Hero #4

Mikuchi Keitarou stood on his front doorstep, barely suppressing a yawn, his open dressing gown swaying around his bare legs and revealing a faded JAM Project t-shirt and a pair of unassuming boxer shorts. Upon his feet, he wore the most unflattering pair of fuzzy monster feet slippers whilst in his hand he held a cup of steaming black coffee, the side of the mug still emblazoned with the old academy logo.

His hair was dishevelled, his face marked by several days’ worth of stubble and, at the corner of his lips, the stub of a cigarette still smouldered.

The breeze was crisp but not uncomfortable, full of the promises of autumn and the suggestion of spring. The great London plane tree that stood at the far corner of his garden had shed crisp leaves onto the green grass and the blue skies above were cloudless and free of any suggestion of rain.

To his left, his neighbour’s station wagon was absent from the spot it had been warming all weekend, suggesting that not only was Mister Simon Dice out, but also his wife Marisa. To the right, Sean Stemmie loitered at the end of the road, avoiding school and waiting for the arrival of friends.

All over Pittsburgh, the early afternoon sun shone down on quiet houses and places of work alike, autumn illumination highlighting the everyday routines of the joyful and the sorrowful, the content and the resentful.

The day was warm, his coffee was as bitter as his sense of humour and everything was right with the world.

With another yawn, Mikuchi looked down at his watch, staring blankly at the LCD time set as the seconds clicked over perfectly, revealing the digits ’12:12:12′.

A sudden crack of lightning hit the end of the street, a peel of thunder rattling the windows in his house as a colossal silver and white train burst out of the void and tore down the street. Rails of spirit energy fell into line before it as the colossal machine shuddered to a halt, ploughing through several parked cars in the process, a chorus of mechanical alarms calling out in the wake of its motion.

With a wry smile, Mikuchi plucked the cigarette from his lips and took a sip of coffee.

“Never a dull moment,” he murmured and, with the grin still fixed to his face, began a leisurely stroll across the lawn towards the massive train.

Tournament Armoured Hero tome #4:
“Temptation”

“I’m the Devil, I’m here to do the Devil’s business.”
– Charles “Tex” Watson

“I’m afraid there’s not much we can do for him. His body is failing, not even the mechanics of his Destronger implants can keep him alive now.”

Sun Raider looked from her solemn, older brother to the tall man standing on the other side of the narrow hospital cot, his pale hands leaning heavily upon a cane. He had a firm jaw, his head smooth and bereft of hair and his skin a curious shade of blue. It was as if his very body had been carved from ice, whittled out from some arctic glacier, and dressed in an immaculate suit of black and crisp shirt of white.

In the dim light behind him, Sun could make out the figures of the two female agents she had seen on the ramp of the giant flying fortress; a thin Parisian woman with a penetrating gaze and a sweeping fringe of dark hair, and a shorter, younger woman, dressed in wolf fur and the simple design of an Intergalactic New Mages Corps uniform.

Standing slightly aside from the two women was a man her own age, an amicable smile on his lips despite the seemingly defensive folding of his arms across his chest. His light brown hair was perhaps slightly too long, the fringe falling over his eyes and his red UKMDF uniform jacket and black trousers, whilst formal, were perhaps slightly less well looked after than they should have been.

He carried with him an air of nonchalance, an unpredictability that Sun found both unnerving and exciting.

As if to anchor herself to reality, she reached down and took Star’s hand in her own, closing her fingers about those of the younger boy and squeezing them in a gesture of reassurance.

Next to Star, her older brother and the other man they had seen on the landing pad stood together, Sky’s gaze fixed intently on the laboured rising of MONARCH’s chest and the myriad machines that kept his breathing stable.

“Will he recover?” Sky Raider asked after a while, his jaw set firmly as he struggled to suppress the emotion he felt.

The blue-skinned man shook his head slowly.

“I’m afraid not,” he answered softly, “he’s suffered massive organ failure, not only of what little remains of his human organs but also of his technological nervous system. We’ve replaced the blood he lost but it seems that, during the conflict, the oxygen to his brain was cut off.

“Even if his body were to recover, it is almost a given that the damage done to his mind will be irreparable.”

Sun squeezed the younger boy’s hand again, shaking her head with involuntary denial.

“No,” she whispered, “it can’t be… i-it can’t be true.”

“I need weaponry,” Sky said with cold detachment, lifting his head and meeting the older man’s gaze, “you people have weapons, right? I need them… and I need you to find me the bastard who did this. I won’t let this go unavenged.”

“The aspects of USMDF that Muro Takeru’s faction controls are not to be taken lightly,” the older man advised, “you shouldn’t think that you can…”

“I don’t give a shit about Muro or USMDF,” Sky hissed with unrestrained venom, “I want the bastard who did this! The man in the magpie masque!”

“If we could find this man then gladly we’d supply you with his location,” the older man answered, his tone firm and clipped, “but right now you have to pay attention to USMDF. Obviously, Muro considers you a threat or he wouldn’t have sent those Hiram units to subdue you.

“There’s an outside chance that if you go after Muro, he’ll be able to lead you to the man who did this to your friend.”

“Or,” interjected the younger man with the unruly hair, “you could just start calling yourself MONARCH. That’s why this other guy attacked your friend, isn’t it? He wanted to steal his name, right?”

Sky Raider nodded his head slowly.

“That’s right,” Star said suddenly, “that guy said that whilst he and MONARCH shared a name, they both also shared the power from it. I… I didn’t understand at the time but he was talking about magic, wasn’t he?”

The other man winked at the child.

“Bingo,” he said with a smile.

Sky nodded slowly.

“If I become MONARCH, then that bastard will have to return… and when he does…”

He swallowed hard, turning his head away.

“Mister Raider, I’m afraid I have to ask this. Despite the size of Lundunaborg, this fortress is not without limitations. I need to know… if, knowing the chances of his survival, you wish for us to keep your friend’s body alive.”

Sky’s knuckles turned white, his fingers clenched and his face taut with emotion. Gently, his sister laid her hands over his fist.

“Turn the machines off,” he whispered, “let him rest in peace.”

—xxx—

A terse silence filled the room as Hammel glared at the bolted silver metal and the hood of downy wolf fur that constituted Legenal’s masque.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about, Agent Legenal,” he hissed softly, all indecision now purged from his voice, “Professor Muro is a respected figure but to suggest that he somehow holds sway over USMDF is absurd.

“Back down and all this will be forgotten.”

The agent in the Universal Monster armour shook his head vehemently.

“T-That’s not what Doctor Coughman told me… before you killed him!”

Kalish yawned and drew a small black phone from his pocket, flipping open the lid and swiftly dialling in three digits.

“Gentlemen, lady,” he said, catching Taryse’s eye, “I really don’t have time for this shit.”

‘UMS Armour – CANCELLED,’ the phone announced in the same bleating mechanical voice used by the K-R-A 2 belts.

Legenal’s armour fizzed and sparked, dissolving in a flash of colour and leaving the bewildered youth looking wildly about, still straddling the massive black and gold motorcycle.

Kalish dropped the phone back in his pocket.

“Go on, get out of here, kid,” he said with a wave of his hand, “you can’t fight us, especially not in armour owned by USMDF.”

Chazz placed his hand firmly on Kalish’s shoulder.

“He might not be able to, but I can!”

The younger man reached for the emblem of the burning bird on his belt buckle, opening it up and unleashing the full force of his suppressed spirit energy, bathing his form in ethereal flames.

“Taryse, get Amelia the hell out of here!” he shouted, as the flames reacted, wrapping about his figure and turning him into human inferno.

He turned to look at Legenal, his eyes blazing beneath the wave of flames that disguised his features.

“Kid, if you want me to believe you, then look after Taryse.”

Legenal nodded his affirmation, pushing Hammel sharply away from his bike. Swiftly, Taryse sprinted forward, vaulting onto the back of the bike and throwing her hands around the young man’s waist as he leant toward the handlebars.

With a roar from the exhaust, the bike pivoted on its front wheel, twisting around in a circle, the back tire leaving a black smear across the ruined wall.

Chazz reached out with his other hand and seized Kalish by his jacket lapel, hefting him into the air and throwing him out the way as Legenal opened the throttle and the massive motorcycle roared out from the ruined apartment and shot out through the doorframe. With a screech of tires, the bike tore through the remnants of the Hiram units and turned abruptly right, its vast bulk speeding up the concrete steps towards Ms. Abe’s apartment.

Sneering, Randall Kalish lifted himself up, brushing the dust from his jacket and drawing out the black phone once again.

“Well,” he sighed, “now you’ve made things difficult, Chazz.”

“Trust me,” the other sneered from behind his masque of flames, “I haven’t even started.”

—xxx—

“Aloha,” Mikuchi called out, rapping his knuckles against the door of the crashed train, “anyone home?”

He took a final sip of his coffee and then placed the mug down on the lawn, ignoring the glares of agitated housewives and incredulous children as he stood in boxer shorts and dressing gown talking to the closed door of a train carriage.

With a hiss of hydraulics, the door opened slowly, expelling stale air and revealing a corridor of darkness within.

“Well, Nero,” Mikuchi said with a smile, plucking the cigarette from between his lips, “it’s been a long time since I saw one of these old fashioned Densha de Police liners.”

From the darkness, a figure in white armour emerged, his face concealed behind a curious masque with an oblong visor, decorated by four circular access ports. Behind him came a young man with a perpetual sneer, his arm around the waist of an older man, dark hair receding slightly at the temples and hazel eyes unfocussed.

Without waiting for them to disembark, Mikuchi moved forward and placed his arms under the wounded man’s side, hefting up his right side and helping his younger assistant lower him down to the grass.

“Well, Kanemura,” the former academy professor smiled, his smile like that of a content cat, “I didn’t expect to see you here and certainly not in the company of a former tournament favourite.”

“Hello, Professor Mikuchi,” Kanemura said coldly, helping the older man lay Hao Wong out on the lawn, “you’ll forgive us for arriving here unannounced.”

Behind him, the vast silver and white train shimmered and dissolved into specs of shimmering light, lost amidst the brightness of the midday sun.

“Don’t worry about it,” Mikuchi purred, “in all honesty, I was expecting someone to show up sooner or later, I just didn’t expect it to be you.”

He glanced over at the armoured figure awkwardly behind him on the lawn.

“Who’s your new friend?”

“My name is Dreamcaster, professor,” the armoured man announced, offering a curt salute, “I am a warrior from another Earth.”

Mikuchi raised an eyebrow.

“An armoured hero from another Earth riding in an old Densha de Police vehicle,” he looked thoughtful, his lips curling in a wry smile, “stranger things have happened at sea, I guess.”

“Professor Mikuchi, we were attacked by an assassin armed with some kind of crossbow,” Kanemura said sharply, turning the conversation once more to the subject of the wounded man before them, “I think that whatever it was that was in the arrow tips have poisoned Hao.”

From behind them, a figure appeared in the doorway of the house, perfect skin and red lips, her long blonde hair tied in a loose bun atop her head and an inquisitive look upon her face.

“Keitarou, is everything okay?” she inquired, glancing from the crouching form of the former academy professor to the two strangers and the felled man upon the lawn.

Mikuchi waved dismissively, not turning to look at her.

“Hey kitty, everything’s fine, don’t you worry about it.”

Her eyes narrowed and her lips pouted.

“Keitarou, are you paying attention to me?”

The older man waved again but still did not look up.

“Of course I am, kitty darling,” at last he lifted his head, glancing at the armoured figure standing awkwardly behind Kanemura, “Dreamcaster here is from another world, do you fancy making him a cup of coffee?”

“Keitarou! I can tell when you’re trying to distract me!” she snapped and then stopped abruptly, her eyes catching sight of the sprawling figure upon the lawn.

She began to march forward, her arms folded across her chest as she crossed the grass.

“Is that Hao Wong lying on our lawn?” she demanded.

Mikuchi sighed and looked up as she stopped before him, glaring down with her fierce, blue eyes.

“Yes, Asuka,” he sighed, “this is, indeed, the famous Hao Wong.”

—xxx—

Sun Raider kept her arms wrapped about her shoulders, a nervous expression of how utterly out of place she felt amongst the curious inhabitants of the colossal fortress.

She watched with tears in her eyes as the blanket was brought up over Joji’s face, the remainder of his cold flesh now detached from the machines that had been keeping him alive since the attack by the man in the magpie masque.

At her side, she heard Star’s quiet sobs, the child struggling to hold back the torrent of emotions that welled up within him.

“It won’t always be this way, ma puce,” the woman across from her smiled sadly, her voice soft and full of compassion.

When she spoke, it was with a lilting French accent, a Parisian inflection of her statements that somehow seemed to match the angled features of her face and her masculine haircut.

Sun lifted her head, her eyes meeting those of the older woman’s.

“You don’t understand,” she said, forcing her voice to remain level, “we were like a family.”

The other woman nodded.

“I do understand. Without these people here, I too would be bereft, they are like my family.”

Sun nodded slowly.

“I’m afraid I didn’t catch your name earlier,” she said, in hopes of changing the topic.

“My name is Fait Accompli,” the French woman answered simply, “have you not been introduced to everyone yet?”

Sun exchanged glances with Star and then shook her head.

“Sky has been… preoccupied,” she said, looking over to where her older brother stood, engrossed in conversation with the curiously blue-skinned man and the broad-shouldered man they had initially seen on the ramp of the fortress.

Accompli followed her gaze.

“The man with the decidedly frostbitten appearance is our head of operations, Captain Joseph Dodgson. The other man speaking with your brother is the captain’s second in command, Centurion.”

Sun found her eyes drifting once more towards the younger man in the red jacket.

“Ah,” said Fait Accompli, “and that young gentleman is Koji – Koji Ryusei, or if you prefer, Ryusei Koji.”

“That woman, the New Mage,” Sun asked carefully, “are they together?”

Accompli let out a short laugh before regaining her composure.

“It is unlikely, ma puce,” she said, eyeing the woman in the wolf skins, “she is a Hybrid.”

Sun Raider’s eyes widened.

“One of the Architect’s monsters?” she demanded.

The Frenchwoman winced.

“Monster may be a little harsh, ma puce. You will recall that when the first cache of cryotubes containing the Hybrids were uncovered, they were all still in deep sleep. I believe that the tube containing their leader, the Black Lioness Hybrid, had been intended to open immediately should their creator’s life-signs be terminated abruptly or, if no other information was available, at the estimated time of the original armoured hero tournament’s conclusion.

“The machines however had suffered some kind of damage due to the manner in which they were stored thus, when USMDF found them, the Hybrids were still in slumber.”

Sun nodded slowly, a slight frown lining her forehead as she struggled to recall the events in question.

“I do remember something,” she murmured, “they opened up one of the tubes – the Golden Eagle Hybrid, I think – and it went wild, trying to kill them all.”

Fait Accompli inclined her head in agreement.

“The famed Doctor Coughman was assigned to study Stryder’s notes and, through his research, the Hybrids were reprogrammed prior to the opening of their tubes. Thus it’s not really apt to call them monsters anymore; they have as much potential in them for good or bad as you or I.”

“Which one is she?” Sun asked, turning once more to look at the woman with the copper hair.

“The Silver Wolf Hybrid, I believe,” Accompli responded, “but you may wish simply to call her Eldritch.”

The Hybrid, as if sensing she was being spoken of, turned her dull eyes towards Accompli and Sun and glared coolly at them.

The Frenchwoman laid a hand on Sun’s shoulder.

“Come, let me take you to the canteen, the young one too,” she looked over at the sheet that covered Yamamura Joji’s fallen body. “It is disrespectful to talk further in the presence of the dead.”

Sun nodded in agreement and, without another word, was led quietly from the room, her young ward following silently in tow.

Behind them, the former MONARCH rested in eternal slumber.

—xxx—

Kalish narrowed his eyes, feeling the heat upon his face from the blistering flames that concealed the other man’s body.

“That’s quite a radical change of image, Chazz,” he said calmly, once again opening up the black phone, “what do you call that, Walking Funeral Pyre Form? Don’t you think you’re trying a little too hard to live up to Chad? I mean there’s no need to take his Burning Bird nickname so literally, right?”

“Screw you, Kalish,” Chazz snarled from behind a veil of flames, “I’m not interesting in listening to your pathetic attempts at humour.”

The older man shrugged, his thumb moving across the rubber buttons of the phone.

“Have it your way,” he sighed, flipping the device closed, “but I warn you, this won’t be easy.”

‘5-7-2-3 ENTER,’ the phone announced and Kalish slid the device down into the front of his belt.

There was a flash of light and Chazz already found his arms forced up to deflect a gauntleted punch as Kalish moved in swiftly.

‘K-R-A 3,’ his belt chimed, ‘ACTIVATE!’

The armour was similar to the standardised K-R-A 2 suits USMDF had been using for several years. The ant motif was still present in the suit’s design; yet the colour scheme had been altered to accommodate a black faceplate and breastplate, the underlying suit primarily green and white.

Reaching down, Kalish snatched free one of the three blasters holstered to his side and swiftly unfolded the weapon, transforming it into a sword.

Chazz’s flaming fist slammed hard beneath his chin, knocking his head sideways and sending him staggering back, the sword falling from his hands.

“Chad told me once that you were some kind of fencing champion when you were a kid,” the younger man snarled, advancing menacingly forward, “but you’ll forgive me if I’m not interested in a demonstration.”

Beneath the masque, Kalish sneered with contempt.

“Did he tell you I was a crack shot with a pistol as well?”

He brought his hand up, cradling the second of the blasters, a Tolc .45, and opened fire, shards of channelled spirit energy bursting from the barrel of the gun and tearing through the air towards Chazz.

Instinctively, the younger man dropped into a roll, leaping up to Kalish’s left and smashing his fist once more across the black faceplate of the other man’s masque.

“What the hell are you trying to prove here, Kalish?” he shouted from behind the veil of flames.

Kalish smashed the blaster across Chazz’s face, tearing his lips open in a spatter of blood across his chin. Through the flickering flames of his ethereal armour, Chazz’s eyes burned with hatred.

“Why don’t you elaborate on what you’re trying to prove, Chazz,” Kalish snarled, pushing the other man back, “we’re trying to help Taryse…”

“By kidnapping her?” Chazz snarled in response.

“It’s what Chad wants!” Kalish roared.

The younger man stopped dead in his tracks.

“Chad is alive?” he whispered softly.

Kalish slipped the Tolc .45 back into its side holster, the light of the other’s supernatural flames casting eerie shadows upon his scorched armour.

“If you were anything like the man you were cloned from then you’d already know the answer to that,” he offered coldly, “likewise, you’d understand why Taryse has to come with us.”

“I won’t… I won’t allow it,” Chazz hissed, the flames intensifying about him.

Kalish sighed with agitation.

“You never did quite learn to stay out of other people’s business, did you? I member when you first started making your presence known; we’d be fighting the Fallen and you’d just turn up out of nowhere and start slashing the hell out of everyone.

“It gets old, Chazz. The world has changed; it doesn’t work like that anymore. Chad has learnt to adapt to the new order, why can’t you?”

“If Chad is really still alive then tell me where he is,” Chazz snarled in response.

Kalish shrugged.

“Stop getting in my way and help me bring in Taryse and I’ll take you there myself.”

A moment of doubt filled Chazz’s mind, a sickening sensation of betrayal turning his stomach as he considered the possibility of breaking his promise to Taryse, of handing both her and Amelia over to Kalish.

Out of the corner of his eye, he failed to see Joe Hammel hastily dial several digits into his open phone.

‘Clone control – ACTIVATE,’ the device announced and abruptly Chazz felt an agonising jolt run through his body, forcing him to his knees as he clutched at his head through the veil of spirit flames.

Behind his masque, Randall Kalish smiled.

“Oh, sorry, Chazz, did I not tell you? When USMDF and SUNNY discovered the Hybrids, we also acquired all of Jaden Stryder’s research material on other matter, including the protocols for suppressing a clone if it ever went rogue and became too much of a nuisance.”

Kalish crouched down before the younger man and studied the twisted expression of suffering on his face, the contraction and spasm of his muscles as he struggled to stave off the effects of the electrical pulse that had been triggered by the phone, spreading out slowly from the centre and rewriting both personality and memory.

“I know what it feels like Chazz, to have everything you’ve worked so hard for, every last scrap of individuality you cling to, suddenly washed away with the obliterating promise of a machine designed to free you of your humanity.

“I remember how that golden liquid used to feel as it hit my bloodstream, the rush of euphoria and then nothing… annihilation… oblivion.

“But you know I always had something to come back to. I don’t think you’ll be able to do that, Chazz. That’s the difference between clones and real people, I guess.”

Chazz’s face contorted in pain, a howl of agony escaping his lips as the vibrant, twisting tongues of flame turned abruptly black.

“What you’re feeling now is Jaden Stryder’s final solution to failed research. What you’re feeling is the death of every scrap of individuality you’ve tried to claim for yourself since you discovered you were something less than human.”

With a final scream, all expression faded from Chazz’s face, his eye dull and unblinking, his face slack.

“Goodbye, Dark Phoenix,” Kalish smiled calmly, “I don’t think you’ll be coming back.”

—xxx—

Hao Wong heard the distant sound of voices, words spoken as if they were far, far away and yet insistent enough to rouse him nonetheless.
He felt as if he were beneath an ocean of churning waves, and yet there was an unfamiliar firmness beneath his back.

Slowly, painfully, he opened his eyes and, as his vision focussed, he found himself staring into the face of a smug man with long, dishevelled hair and a cigarette hanging from his lips.

“Welcome back to the land of the living, Wong,” the other man smiled, plucking the cigarette from his lips and exhaling smoke from his nose.

Experimentally, Wong moved his dry lips, his tongue like a dead weight between his teeth.

“Keitarou?” he murmured, “W-What happened?”

The older man shrugged and smiled, inhaling once more.

“You took a nasty hit from some kind of spiritual energy weapon,” he said slowly, “fortunately enough good old Kato taught me a bit about alchemy whilst we were both professors at the academy. A little bit of spirit balm and you’re cruising on easy street from here on in.”

“I feel terrible,” Wong murmured, lifting a hand to his head.

Mikuchi shrugged.

“That’s what happens generally when someone shoots you,” he smirked, straightening up and stubbing his cigarette out in an ashtray resting upon a chair.

Wong sat up and looked uncertainly about the room, his palms flat against the kitchen table upon which he rested.

“You had us worried for a moment,” Kanemura remarked, his face displaying traces of anxiety, regardless of his attempts to remain expressionless.

Mikuchi slapped a hand on his former student’s shoulder, sending the younger man staggered forward slightly.

“I knew you had a heart in there somewhere, Jyunichi.”

The younger man cast a rueful glare over his shoulder.

“Did you recognise the man who attacked you?” Dreamcaster questioned, his face still hidden by his bulky white armour.

Wong frowned and shook his head.

“No… the armour was familiar, but I didn’t recognise it…” he paused and gazed at the features of the other’s faceplate. “Don’t you ever remove your armour?”

“No,” the other answered firmly, “not until Destronger have been destroyed.”

Mikuchi raised an eyebrow.

“Destronger? Now there’s a name I haven’t heard in a while.”

Kanemura turned sharply towards the former history teacher.

“You know them?”

The older man offered him a wry smile and graciously accepted a fresh cup of coffee from his wife.

“You forget that I was Jaden Stryder’s lab assistant for a good many years before he kicked me out and set his sights on Nero,” the older man remarked, a hint of bitterness marring the casual manner in which he portrayed himself.

“The Architect made many questionable deals during his life,” Asuka remarked, placing a tray of three cups down next to Wong, “though I have little recollection of him, I remember that on the few times I was conscious during… my development… there were always others in the laboratory.”

She stopped and looked over at her husband.

“Not to mention Keitarou.”

The older man shrugged.

“We all did some questionable things back then,” he murmured.

“How was he involved with Destronger?” Wong continued, swiftly moving on from the issue of the older man’s past.

Mikuchi took a long sip of coffee.

“Destronger were responsible for transforming him into a cyborg, completing the work Neo-Shadows had attempted to start all those years previously.

“They gave him greater strength and speed, insurance against illness and disease… and all they took from him in return was his soul.”

“His soul?” Kanemura smirked with disbelief.

Mikuchi offered him a stern look.

“Perhaps you’re not familiar with the idea of a Faustian pact, Kanemura, you’re only young after all, but even you should know that if you ask a favour of the Devil then one day the Devil’s going to ask for payment.”

“Are you trying to suggest that Destronger are some kind of satanic cult?” Kanemura continued.

Mikuchi swiftly shook his head.

“You can’t think of them in terms of organised religion,” he answered, “Destronger believe… they believe that the world was created by an insane and evil god who sent down seven of His monstrous children to suppress the rebellious human race and prevent them from achieving gnosis…”

He stopped, looked again at Kanemura and smiled.

“That’s Greek for knowledge,” he offered with a smug grin.

“And what do these seven monsters have to do with Destronger?” Wong asked, a chill running down his spine.

“They sacrifice people to them,” Mikuchi said softly.

“Not only that,” Dreamcaster added, “but they believe that through their rites, the spirits of the Seven are summoned into physical flesh. They become the tools by which their insane god suppresses humanity.”

Kanemura tightened his fists.

“I don’t know anything about gods and devils, but I do know that we can’t let them have their own way. With or without, USMDF, we’re going to have to take down Destronger.”

A slow smile grew upon Hao Wong’s lips.

“Spoken like a true hero, Jyunichi.”

—xxx—

Sage Night faltered, his hands trembling as he held up his hand and, again, the stained teeth of the Black Drag Claw descended.

Too late, he realised the rashness of his actions. Beneath his fractured masque, his face twitched with discomfort, blood staining his chin from his broken nose.

He had misguidedly thought that his strength was enough equal to Long’s own power, had thought that, through his power he would be able to bring Long to justice for what he had done to Ryou. Instead, he had found the other man at the zenith of his dark power, his crazed lust for blood fuelling the obsidian armour he had worn since the earliest days of the tournament.

The clawed teeth of Long’s personal weapon of choice tore along the breastplate of Night’s azure armour, shredding metal and leaving a deep scar.

Night cried out in pain, staggering backwards and clutching at his chest with one hand whilst the other fumbled with a handful of tarot cards.

Behind the black visor, his eyes darted from card to card and at last to the advancing form of Long, flames of obsidian spirit power rippling about him.

“For a teacher, it appears you still have much to learn, Sage Night,” the younger man sneered, levelling the Drag Claw once again. “It’s a wonder my bastard brothers every learnt anything from you when you can’t even defend yourself!”

The older man’s lips were dry, perspiration running down his face.

“N-Not all lessons are about strength, Long,” he stammered, “Ryou knew that, even without my tutelage.”

“Not that it helped him,” the other snarled, “he’s dead, you know? Both Ryou and Yusei and their sickly mother, I made sure of that!”

Blood welled up beneath the torn metal, trickling slowly over Night’s blue gauntlets.

“You monster,” he whispered, “they were your family, how could you?”

“They weren’t my family!” Long roared in fury, “They were imposters, each and every one of them! All of them desperate to crowd my glory, to mimic my achievements and steal away the attention my father gave me!”

Between the teeth of the Black Drag Claw, a ball of spiralling energy ignited, flames of incandescent aura drawing on the flickering tongues of Long’s own black power.

“Tell me where Koji is,” he commanded, his voice level once more, “tell me where Koji is and I promise you a painless death.”

Sage Night’s eyes widened, momentary weakness tempting him to blurt out Ryusei Koji’s location, to reveal the secret he had been entrusted with.

Slowly, he shook his head from side to side.

“N-No,” he began, “I’ll never tell…”

From between the teeth of the Drag Claw, a bolt of burning light shone forth, puncturing Sage Night’s chest like an arrow and burning its way through his heart as it exploded out of his back. Blood spattered against the wall and Count Ryusei’s former teacher dropped to his knees, his eyes dull with pain and his expression slack.

Behind his masque, Long smiled coldly, lifting up the Claw once more.

“Good,” he whispered with trembling anticipation, “I hate it when you weaklings give in so easily.”

With a final gesture, the Black Drag Claw descended.

Sage Night’s head fell lifelessly to the damp pavement.

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