The Black Freres had not prepared him for such an unreasonable foe!

Whilst those hoary old monks, despite being the most highly prized cartographers in Mithradom, had a reputation for secrecy, he had assumed they would have mentioned something as abnormal as the shuddering, transparent morass of a creature before him during their previous dealings. The fact that they had not yielded but two possibilities: the first that they did not know of the creature’s existence, an idea that, even to him seemed absurd, or secondly, that they had deliberately withheld knowledge of the creature’s existence from him.

He cursed loudly, stepping further back along the cobwebbed, narrow corridor that had led into the ruinous central chamber where his commission had been waiting for him, or any other thief or adventurer, to stumble upon.

The chamber, one of many hidden workshops once belonging to the famed blacksmith and inventor Shemaiah ben Nethanel, had long since fallen into ruin, like many of Shemaiah ben Nethanel’s other hidden locales. Such buried enclaves were not unusual per se; every alchemist or inventor of note had left a similar den behind during their short tenure amongst the living. It was the way things worked and if they didn’t work that way, then there would have been no cause for a freelance adventurer like himself to venture into the depths – for a small commission, of course.

The dungeon was old, damp and swarming with the varied and multifaceted life that the darkness of the soil, shielded from the sun by the lush grass and cold rock above, attracted. Like all other such darkened dens, it had enticed monsters as well as insects into its dark embrace. Purple worms, hell hounds and bugbears and other ambling abnormalities, all had been attracted to the embers of fading creativity and light. This was par for the course; he had not expected to delve into the depths of the earth without fighting off a kobold or two. Such reasoning had been why he had first hired Garon, the noble half-Orc companion who now travelled everywhere with him, a man who whilst once having been hired muscle, he now considered his closest friend.

He had expected monsters… and yet still the slithering, liquid creature before him had taken him by surprise.

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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.
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