The branches of the trees were barren and skeletal, like the digits of fingers reaching up from dead frames and clutching at the grey skies outside of his window.
It had been four weeks since Jaden Stryder’s mother had died, four weeks in which the young boy had grown accustomed to the new status quo in the family home, his back raw with the fresh markings of his father’s belt and his eyes still red with tears.
He knew it wasn’t his father’s fault, he knew that somehow, despite the cruelty and unfairness of it all, his father was just expressing the sorrow they both felt now that they were alone together in the world. He understood that if his grandparents had telegraphed the money his father had requested of them then maybe he wouldn’t have to suffer the older man’s anger. This was the manner in which the world worked and whilst he was only six years old, Jaden Stryder understood this implicitly.
If you were weak, the world took advantage of you. He hadn’t understood that whilst his mother had still been alive but in the four weeks that had followed the car crash that had killed her and left his father with a permanent limp, Jaden had acquired the knowledge that would haunt him for the rest of his life.
“Jaden!” a voice from outside the room bellowed through the house. “Jaden, you little son of a bitch, where are you hiding?”
Upon the stairs, there was the sound of heavy footfalls, one boot falling against the carpet whilst the other was dragged after it, a wooden stick clattering against the handrail.
“For Christ’s sake, you little runt, where in God’s name are you?”
He felt a sickness stir inside him, fear rooting him to the spot as the sound of his father’s ascension grew louder and louder.
“I swear to God, I’m going to beat the living daylights out of you if you don’t give me a good answer soon!”
The boy’s lips parted but his tongue was a lead weight in his mouth, no words able to lift it and spur him into a reply.
Too late, he heard the sound of his father in the hallway outside and then, abruptly the door was thrown wide open to reveal a large, heavyset man in a lumberjack shirt, one hand clutching a bottle of whiskey and walking stick, the thick leather of his belt wound about the knuckles of the other.
The older man’s eyes flashed in his ruddy face, his black teeth visible beneath the coarse hair of his beard.
Jaden Stryder felt the taste of bile rising in his throat, the seat of his trousers dampening with fear as a tremble ran through his body.
Without a word of explanation, his father raised his first, light glistening on the silver of the buckle.
The boy closed his eyes and the older man’s fist descended.
Tournament Armoured Hero tome #5:
“My Way Home is Through You”
“This world could not have been the work of an all-loving being, but that of a devil, who had brought creatures into existence in order to delight in the sight of their sufferings.”
– Arthur Schopenhauer
Once more, Jessie Elias found himself pulled up by his brother, the unfamiliar mask of the other’s helmet glaring down at him and the Sword of Eternal Night dripping with sickly black blood.
“Stay with me, Jessie,” Gates hissed, turning away and regarding the cryotube before him, “you’re no good to me like this.”
Jessie nodded slowly, reaching up and pulling the remnants of his helmet from his head, detaching the faceplate first and inspecting it before reattaching it as best he could and slipping the helmet back on.
“Gates,” he asked softly, “whose armour is that?”
The younger man did not turn his gaze from the ultraviolet light of the tube before him.
“A hero from another world,” he said softly, “a New Mage named JumpMan.”
“Y-You’ve been to other worlds?” the older Elias brother stammered in surprise.
“Yes,” he answered with a growl, his left hand tightening into a fist, “and that’s why I’m here now.”
He turned suddenly towards his older brother, his hidden regarding the slight curl of Jessie’s dark brown hair and the filth that stained his face.
“Destronger have to be stopped, Jessie,” he said suddenly, his voice raw with emotion. “I’ve seen too many worlds where evil has triumphed, where cruelty and vice rule.”
Tightening his grip on the hilt, he lifted up the Sword of Eternal Night, the crow feathers of his wings twitching as he turned to face the doorway and the amassing Destronger cultists before the threshold.
“Get Alicia out of there, Jessie,” he said with a snarl, not looking back at the ultraviolet glow of the cryotube, “I’m going to carve us an escape route.”
“Hey! Hey, you guys! Get a load of this kid!”
Jaden Stryder felt rough hands dragging him forward through the crowd, the scent of stale cigarettes and soda water clinging to flannel shirts and firm hands.
He found himself presented before a gathering of five or six teenagers, each one of them four or five years older than him.
Rough hands seized his satchel, dragging him forward and tearing the flap open as his lunchbox was lifted out, his heavy textbooks carelessly thrown to the cracked pavement below.
Joseph Liebowitz lifted the lid from the Tupperware box and tore open the sandwiches within, peeling thin bread back to reveal narrow slabs of meat and pickle.
With a sneer of disgust, Liebowitz threw the sandwiches into the gutter.
“What the hell is this shit, Stryder? I can’t eat goddamn ham and pickle, you know that.”
Around him, other students sniggered as they passed on their way up the road to the school gates.
Jaden Stryder felt his face turning red, his stomach churning as he struggled not to cry.
“I-I’m s-sorry, Joey…” he murmured.
Liebowitz lifted a dark eyebrow, his lips twitching in an ugly snarl.
“Sorry ain’t going to do me no good, you little shit. You know what this means? This means I’m going to have to eat my own goddamn lunch, you know that?”
“Hey Joey,” called out one of the other boys, a fat faced teenager whose chin seemed to have been lost in the trunk of his neck. “Hey Joey, you know what? I think the little runt did it on purpose.”
Liebowitz turned slowly to regard his gurgling sidekick and nodded his head in slow agreement.
“Yeah,” he murmured softly, “yeah, Frankie, I think you might be right about that…”
He turned sharply to regard the ten-year-old boy he held by jacket lapels before him.
“So what’s the score, you little shit? Is that what you’re up to, huh? Trying to make my life hard, are you?”
He spat impatiently against the warm summer pavement.
“You know what? I think I oughta swap your goddamn ham and pickle sandwich for a knuckle sandwich unless you can convince me otherwise. How’d ya like that, huh, Stryder?”
Jaden Stryder looked up with wide eyes, his limbs trembling as the older boy tightened his grip upon his shirt. He felt his teeth chattering in his skull, the fear settling in his belly.
Without protest or complaint, he reached down and pulled out the pitifully worn velvet purse he kept his meagre money inside.
Liebowitz released the younger boy and snatched the purse, swiftly emptying the comments out into the palm of his hand in a single fluid motion.
“Two dollars? What the hell is this shit, chicken feed?”
He lifted his head, dropping the change into his pocket and glaring balefully at the younger boy.
“Don’t you have anything of worth, Stryder?” he asked, his voice full of disgust.
“No,” whispered the younger boy, his voice barely a whisper, “no, I don’t.”
Jessie lifted Alicia’s frail new body over the broken glass of the shattered cryotube, foul smelling green liquid clinging to the naked immortal and spilling out over the dank stones of the floor.
In his arms, the fragile form in which Destronger had ensnared Alicia’s spirit whimpered, a grimace of pain touching thin lips.
He tried not to think of the young man in his arms as being the same radiant girl he had first glimpsed during the Architect’s attempted invasion of Skydome City. He tried not to think of the lustre of her hair, her narrow waist and wide eyes, the soft swell of her chest and the golden afterglow she seemed to leave behind whenever she moved.
Though he could never confess his feelings, the elder of the Elias brothers had been in love with Alicia since the moment he had first set eyes upon her. He hadn’t asked to feel the way he did, certainly he had struggled with his own emotions, attempting to suppress the feelings he felt. Yet in the handful of times he had caught sight of her since the Architect’s initial campaign against them, Jessie Elias has felt the emotion grow that much stronger.
He had not wished to care for her like he did, had not attempted to place himself as an unspoken rival to Nero but the fact remained that he did feel these things and try as he might, he could not forget them.
Seeing Alicia now, wrapped in the flesh of a different gender, a hollow, cryogenically grown body altered only by the presence of her spirit within, Jessie felt a tumult of emotions that he could not express.
The body Destronger had fashioned for her as they had indiscriminately drawn the spirits of immortals from the endless sands of time had changed to accommodate her. Although those who fashioned the flesh had been indifferent to the gender of the immortals they ensnared, Alicia’s spirit passing into the organic doll had refashioned the appearance slightly, lending a hint of her previous physical appearance to the body’s face.
“Alicia,” he whispered, cradling the boy’s limp body in his arms, “Alicia, please wake up!”
Outside he heard the noise of his brother’s war against the shambling cultists of Destronger, their aimless feet carrying them forward to their death as he swung the weighty the Sword of Eternal Night above his head and carved through lines of moaning worshippers.
In his arms, the young boy murmured, soft lips parting and eyelids slowly opening to reveal dulled, blue eyes like wistful ice.
“Jessie?” he murmured, “Jessie, where are we?”
Anxiously, Jessie Elias shook his head, his bleeding face visible behind the shattered omnilens of his mask.
“There’s no time for that, Alicia, we have to get out of here.”
The other boy frowned.
“M-My body feels heavy,” he whispered, panic creeping into his voice, “and my voice sounds strange… Jessie, what’s happened to me?”
He swallowed hard, trying not to look directly into those questioning eyes.
“Alicia, you’re… you’re not yourself…” he whispered. “You’re in a prison… a prison of flesh…”
Hastily, the boy pulled himself up, his nails digging into the grooves of Jessie’s breastplate and eyes widening in panic as he caught sight of himself in the reflective metal of the armour.
“What happened?” he murmured, reaching out to touch the smooth skin of his face. “What happened to me?”
There was a flicker of disturbance in the atmosphere around them, a sensation of building spiritual energy amongst the solemn stone walls of the Destronger commune.
“There’s no time, Alicia,” Jessie hissed with urgency, hauling the boy up to his bare feet and dragging him across the filth-stained floor.
“Jessie… Jessie…” the boy protested weakly.
He struggled not to listen, not to give into the other’s imploring calling of his name.
“Come on,” he whispered, “come on!”
He felt the whisper of the Sword of Eternal Night at the back of his mind, the familiar darkness inherent in the weapon calling to him even now when it remained in his brother’s hands.
“Arc of the bastard crescent moon!” Gates roared, releasing a wave of unrestrained shadow against the mounting hordes of the mindless Destronger converts.
The corridor outside exploded outward in a shower of ruin and charred human corpses.
“Oh, god! Damn! Excuse me! Pardon me! Sorry… I’m in a hurry!”
18-year-old Jaden Stryder swiftly moved through the crowds, deftly swerving and sidestepping to avoid mingling students crowding around the entrance of Rhode Island University, the two recently transplanted yet undoubtedly ancient statues of the lion and the unicorn on either side of the entrance staring at him with blank distaste.
His eyes drifted across the austere face of the building, the weight of all his hopes and dreams heavy upon his shoulders. Through those doors of wood and glass and between the statues of the lion and unicorn was a life free of his abusive father, a life free of the cruelty of the neighbourhood in which he had grown up.
He stumbled, his foot turning awkwardly upon the paved stones and he fell forward, colliding with the back of the student in front of him.
From his hands, his paperwork tumbled like leaves from a dying, autumn tree.
“Sorry!” he apologised hastily, trying desperately to retrieve his fallen paperwork.
Slowly, the other student turned to look at him, a shock of black hair and an unkempt black goatee.
“You’re going to the university,” the other person noticed.
He stood up, somewhat embarrassed, and smiled awkwardly.
“Yeah,” he murmured, “I haven’t paid my fees yet though. I only got paid last night.”
The other student arched a single eyebrow.
“You’re putting yourself through college?” he questioned. “Aren’t your family helping?”
Stryder turned away, struggling to keep the emotion from his face.
“I… I don’t get along with my family…” he murmured.
The other student nodded, swiftly extending his hand and smiling in an attempt to dispel the uncomfortable atmosphere that had settled between them.
“The name’s Ryker, Jack Ryker. I think it’s admirable that you’re putting yourself through college,” his smile broadened and, as Stryder met his gaze and took the other man’s hand, he felt an alarming sense of camaraderie for the other student.
“I admire your spirit,” Ryker continued, “anyone whose goal it is to better themselves or the lot that life has assigned them earns my instant respect.”
Stryder nodded slowly.
“T-Thank you,” he said softly, “I… I guess I never thought of it like that…”
The other student slapped him on the shoulder and turned him away from the entrance of the building.
“Come on, I’ll take you over to the accounts office, it’s away from the main building and near the science department, god knows why. To make up for the walk, I’ll introduce you to my girlfriend, Mikuchi on the way. She’s a real looker.”
Jaden Stryder smiled and, for the first time in his life, he felt part of something larger than the introspective and declining family unit he had been born into.
Sometimes, he reflected, destiny had a way of bringing people together.
“Come on! Quickly!” Gates shouted, reaching in and seizing hold of his older brother and dragging him out into the corridor.
Clinging desperately to Jessie’s other hand, Alicia followed after, his eyes wide with terror as his bare feet sunk down amongst of Destronger cultists and the blood that ran freely over dirt and stone.
His lip quivered, tears streaming down his pale cheeks.
“They’ll be time for crying later,” Gates barked, anxiously glancing ahead, the sword held before him.
He turned his head, momentarily catching a glimpse of the familiar features of the boy’s face and his voice softened slightly.
“I promise,” he murmured quietly, “we’re all going to make it out of this and then I promise you can cry but for now, I need you to be strong, Alicia… I need for all of us to be strong.”
“This is insane, Ani,” the boy whispered, looking around at the broken, expressionless bodies of the cultists, “these are people… they’re not kaijin, Ani, they’re people!”
“I know what they are,” the younger Elias brother hissed, “but we have no choice!
The foundations of the ancient temple trembled, a tremulous thunder that echoed through those aged and forgotten stone corridors.
“Whatever was left of their minds has long since gone,” Gates continued with indifference, refusing to look down at the human wreckage beneath his boots, “if you think of them as human, you lose the battle. It’s as simple as that.”
Alicia nodded with hesitation, his every muscle screaming a warning of desperate fear in the face of the horror of that aged temple. Again, the flagstones and dirt beneath their feet shuddered with the imminent warning of something far heavier than human feet.
“Something’s coming,” Jessie said fearfully.
His brother nodded, steeling himself, his pale expression unseen beneath the mask he wore.
With hands bleeding beneath the torn metal of his gauntlets, Jessie Elias whispered the name of his ancillary sword, calling it forth from god-space and segueing the blade into the air before him in a shower of warming light. It was a perfect transition, the hilt of the sword held in his hands as if it had always been there, as if it had meant to be there.
He felt assured by its presence, remembering all that it represented and all that he had given to attain it.
Calmly, he reached up with his hand and gently but firmly pushed Alicia away and toward his younger brother.
Again, the foundations shuddered.
“Please protect, Alicia,” he said softly, glancing at his brother through the broken lens of his mask, “in whatever form she takes, she’s still important to me.”
“Jessie, you don’t have to do this,” Gates whispered, suddenly sounding youthful once more.
“I do,” the older Elias brother answered, “like you said, it’s about doing the right thing.”
Gates nodded but said nothing, his gloved hands reaching out and seizing Alicia and pulling the boy back from Jessie.
“Wait!” Alicia protested. “Jessie, no!”
The ground trembled once more and, at the far end of the corridor, amidst the ruined, maimed Destronger cultists that littered the ground, appeared a hunched figure in a filth spattered hessian robe.
“Shadow Henshin…” Jessie spat through broken and bleeding lips, “RX!”
With an alien roar of anger, the hunched creature before him lunged forwards, claws outstretched.
Gently, he kissed her lips, his hands running through her soft, dark hair.
“You shouldn’t be here,” she murmured regretfully, her accent clipped and sharp, lending an edge to the words she spoke that he had long since become accustomed to.
Calmly, he pulled away, her head still held in his hands and a smile still upon his lips.
“What’s wrong with being with the woman I love?” he asked playfully.
She pulled away, folding her arms across her chest and turning away from him.
“You shouldn’t say things like that,” she said, blinking away tears from her eyes and struggling to focus on the slow-moving hands of the clock above her head. “Jack will be back soon. You should leave before he gets here.”
Jaden Stryder shrugged, choking down all the insecurity and fear he felt.
“Jack’s my friend, Mikuchi, he’d understand about us…”
“No, he wouldn’t!” she answered sharply, turning to look at him once more. “He wouldn’t understand because he’s your friend.”
Sharply, she broke away from him, pushing against him as he leant forward, struggling to steal another kiss from her lips.
“He’s your friend,” she reiterated, “he’s your friend and I’m his girlfriend. This is… this is all messed up, Jaden.”
“It’s not,” he said firmly, leaning his elbows against his knees and staring at the coffee table ahead of him. “It’s not messed up at all. We love each other, don’t we?”
She sat next to him, within reach, her arms wrapped about her and her feet upon the sofa within mere inches of him. Yet for all the world it was as if she were a thousand miles away, her expression clouded with indecision and guilt.
“O-Of course we love each other,” she stammered, “but we can’t go on like this, it’s not fair; not to you, not to me… and not to poor Jack.”
“He’ll get over it,” Stryder announced coldly. “Jack’s a big boy.”
He reached out to the coffee table for his cigarettes, tearing foil from the carton and crushing it into an indistinct silver ball.
“For God’s sake, Jaden, have a heart!” Mikuchi protested. “You can’t just expect people to get over something like this, something like…”
He turned to her, his face repugnant with jealousy and anger.
“Isn’t that what you’re asking me to get over, Mikuchi? Isn’t that what you’re saying I have to deal with?”
Her expression wavered, tears streaming down her cheeks as she shook her head.
“I don’t want to lose you…” she whispered weakly, her voice like that of a little girl.
Gently, he reached out and took her in his arms.
“You won’t,” he whispered softly, “I promise you; nothing in the world could take me away from you.”
The foul predator unfolded from the darkness, predatory claws with three digits slicing through bloodstained brick as it reached out for the armoured warrior before it.
Beneath the cowl of its filth-encrusted robes, the beast wore a faintly bovine face, rotting animal flesh sewn deftly together in patchwork slices to conceal its true, abominable nature.
Jessie held himself steady in the face of the hideous creature, the glittering golden Wolf King Sabre held out before him, his spirit energy burning the oxygen around him, transforming his tarnished, broken armour in colour from stained silver to rich crimson and gold.
He felt the flames intensify about him, growing stronger and stronger as he forcibly channelled his very life force into the perfection of his armour.
The beast howled, a guttural, belching cry of anger, and its claws descended.
Deftly, Jessie Elias spun the glistening blade about by the hilt and sliced up through the air, clashing with the sickly claw before it could reach him.
Sickly, black spots of blood fell upon his glorious armour and the monster’s screech intensified.
He kicked out with his foot, knocking back the swollen thing in the stained robes and readying his sword before him, blade pointing to the hidden heights of the heavens above him.
“Breaking my limits!” he cried out and, in a blur of motion and flickering flame, launched himself forward.
The ground beneath him shattered; dirt and stone reduced to blackened shards and burning embers. The Wolf King Sabre clashed against the bulk of the oncoming monstrosity… and shattered into ruinous shrapnel flung out amidst the narrow stone corridor.
Jessie screamed out in frustration and horror as the hideous creature barrelled into him, knocking him down to the ground and lashing out with twisted talons.
Beneath the stained robes of the creature, the sound of a shifting, crunching physiology filled the air, an insect-like carapace cracking open, stunted wings fluttering feebly beneath their constraints. It was the symphony of a sickly alien body composed of stolen parts shifting formation at will, the whisper of an impossible physiology defying all known reason.
He slashed wildly with the broken Wolf King Sabre, stabbing both the shard of the blade and the hilt into the monster’s back and finding only the hard shell of its exoskeleton.
Slowly, the creature lowered its cowled head, details of the hideous patchwork flesh and compound eyes visible amidst the shadows.
“Don’t struggle, my pretty worm,” the kaijin whispered, its ullulating voice like a ripple across a pool of dank water. “I am not yet so lowly that I must struggle with those who offer themselves to me.”
“Get off of me!” Jessie screamed in horror, turning his face away from the creature’s fetid breath.
A high-pitched snigger escaped the creature’s stolen mouth.
“I am afraid not, my wayward friend. The devil Moloch does not release stray flies that might chance upon his web, especially not those who look so enticing.”
From beneath the folds of its robes, a second set of arms crept forth, sickly looking stunted limbs blindly reaching out for the exposed flesh visible through Jessie’s broken mask.
His eyes widened in horror, the cracked, sick-stained remnants of his helmet shuddering as the beast’s crooked claws drew closer and closer.
“G-Get away!” he stammered. “Get away from me!”
Upon the creature’s malformed face formed a wry smile revealed yellowing teeth stolen from the mouths of countless animals.
“Don’t struggle, child,” it whispered, “it would such a shame if that pretty face of yours were somehow marked, such a shame to see such youthful features marked by scars and bruises.”
From the hollow of its mouth, a mirthless laugh escaped and desperately Jessie looked about, scanning the ruinous tunnel for something, anything that he could use to throw the weight of the beast off his chest.
The claws grew ever closer to his face.
His screams echoed through the small room, dank rainwater dripping upon his face from the broken ceiling of the cavern above.
Beneath the roar of his sorrow and frustration, the sound of whirring machines blades screeched out in the darkness.
“Jaden! Jaden, get a grip on yourself!” Ryker called out from where he lay prone, his wrists and ankles bound to the operating table beneath his bruised back.
Jaden Stryder shook his head wildly from side to side, eyes wide with fear and sorrow. Above him, the blade descended slowly towards his face, spinning at such a rate that he could no longer focus upon its movements but instead saw it almost as unmoving.
“Look at me!” Ryker snarled. “For Christ’s sake, man, look at me!”
Mad with fear, Stryder turned at last to face his best friend, their eyes meeting across the unconscious form of Mark Mitsukai, his chest open and raw, blood trickling down the exposed wound they had opened between his ribs.
“We’re going to get through this,” Ryker continued, “I don’t know how, but we’re going to get through this, I promise you!”
Stryder shook his head again, tears streaming from his eyes as the saw above him continued to descend.
He struggled to remember what was happening, what had happened, yet all he could recall was the sensation of falling from the mountain face, of hands dragging him in and ghastly high-pitched calls across the rocky terrain.
The blade above grew closer and closer still and he felt his trousers dampen with urine, sheer terror filling his limbs and diffusing a shudder through his entire body.
They had gone mountain climbing, he recalled that much; it had been a competition, harmless rivalry between close friends. Of course, he had promised himself that he would win, no matter the cost, but then… what?
There was a hole in his memory, an open wound like the bleeding hole that had been hacked open in Mitsukai’s chest.
He remembered scales, a monster of some kind.
Fresh terror filled him as, with sudden blinding clarity, he recalled the form of the monstrosity that had seized them, a hideous crocodile that walked upon two legs and wore black jackboots and a heavy red belt about its waist.
He remembered the squealing, black costumed henchmen that had surrounded it, balaclavas pulled over faces so that all that could be seen of the features beneath were the dead eyes and the blood red lips.
He closed his eyes, the sound of the whirling blades almost deafening now.
“Mikuchi,” he whispered softly, “I love you, Mikuchi..”
The blade cut down into his face.
“I have to go back,” Gates hissed, his pace slowing and his hands tightening into fists at his side. “I can’t leave him like that.”
Alicia slowed, uncertainly looking ahead at the broken stone and the light that filtered in from the entrance to the subterranean temple.
“I want to help,” the young boy whispered hesitantly.
Gates shook his head, reaching down for the book bound to his side and tearing it open, revealing row upon row of unique tarot cards, each one decorated with the countenance of a different hero.
“You don’t have to,” he said simply, drawing forth a single card and flicking it between his fingers so that Alicia could clearly see the image of a featureless red helmet with a narrow black faceplate of curved glass.
Without pause, he slashed the card through the box attached to his wrist, its form dissipating into particles of light as the enhanced JumpMan armour shifted into that of the red armour depicted on the card, the suit still adorned with the additional plate armour and iron wings granted by the Sword of Eternal Night.
“The soldier of iron will,” Alicia whispered softly, gazing up the simplistic red armour beneath the emerald breastplate and darkened wings.
Gates nodded, lifting the blade up once more.
“I have to go back for him,” he murmured, his voice breaking with emotion. “I have to go back!”
With a cry of frustration and rage, the younger Elias brother turned, wings unfolding amidst the cramped corridor and launched himself back down into the depths of the earth.
He pulled sharply away from her, turning his back and gazing out at the rain that fell soundlessly against the window.
“I’m sorry, Mikuchi,” he said coldly, “but it seems that we just weren’t meant to be together.”
He had changed since his ordeal in the mountains, the indecision, the nervousness seemingly cut away along with the incisions made in his flesh. He was stronger, his once dishevelled hair now brutally cropped.
Since that horrific day when Neo-Shadows had first seized them, Jaden Stryder had been a changed man. Whilst the remnants of that brutal organisation had not succeeded in augmenting his flesh with machine parts, Stryder had yet still learnt to process facts as a machine might, to detach himself from the world and place distance between him and those that surrounded him.
The scars they had made upon his flesh had only strengthened him.
At his side, Mikuchi whimpered softly, clutching onto his arm and struggling to gain his attention.
“H-How can you say that?” she whispered. “How can you just throw away everything we have together?”
He shrugged free of her, his eyes still fixed on the falling rain, struggling to keep the emotion from his scarred face.
“Since I was kidnapped by Neo-Shadows, I’ve been forced to change, Mikuchi. I’ve been forced to fight, to get stronger, not just for my sake but for everyone around me. I can’t afford any weaknesses if I’m to succeed in my goals.”
She stared wide-eyed at him for a moment.
“And… and I’m just weaknesses, am I?” she asked, her lips trembling.
Slowly he turned to her, tears running down my cheeks.
“Yes,” he answered softly, “you’re my biggest weakness. As long as I’m with you, I can’t force myself to feel the anger I need to go on; as long as I’m with you, I can’t use my true strength, the strength bequeathed to me, without fear of what you might think.”
He cast his eyes down towards the stained white belt wrapped about his waist, the central fans awaiting nothing but the stirring brush of the breeze to cover his flesh in armour, to mask his face in bulbous insect eyes and darkened steel.
“As long as I’m with you, I can’t be the hero the world needs me to be.”
The claws reached in through the opening in his broken mask and Jessie screamed wildly.
“Don’t struggle so much, little one!” the beast hissed, saliva falling from its open jaws and spattering against the torn mask of its prisoner.
Jessie felt the weight of the creature on his chest, his ribs protesting against the strain, his heart fit to bust as he gasped for air. The confines of his broken armour felt cripplingly claustrophobic, he wanted desperately to rid himself of it, to break away from the monster’s embrace and tear free of those plates of unique metal that had saved his life on so many occasions.
He felt panic filling his every inch, a pain more real than he could ever have imagined; an agony that made all past suffering pale in comparison.
“Get off me,” he gasped. “Get off me!”
With a Herculean effort, he jammed his arms up within the overreaching claws of the beast and shoved it backwards. The claw that had been hooked within the jagged hole smashed into his helmet and at last found flesh, digging for purchase as the monster’s body was pushed away.
Jessie screamed out in pain, his voice trembling and raw as the talon tore down his face before blunting on the ruin of the mask.
Desperately, he lifted up the Wolf King Sabre’s hilt and, with the fragile remnants of its blade, hacked through the insectoid limb clinging to him, a spurt of darkened blood splashing up over his breastplate as he pulled away.
The beast let out a dreadful scream, the hood of its cloth falling back slightly to reveal numerous compound bulbous eyes in a patchwork face of dead cow flesh and stolen human features.
“Insolent child!” the devil hissed, its head rolling as it scurried to pull back the hood over its malignant visage. “I’ll make you pay for that!”
Jessie held the broken sword aloft, his limbs trembling as blood welled with the guard of his helmet.
“I will defeat you!” he gasped between ragged breaths, “I must defeat you!”
He remembered the hideous face of the first kaijin he had encountered, the monstrous amphibian abomination that had seized hold of both himself and Jack and Mark on the side of the ancient mountain they had been climbing.
The creature had been named Snappigator, he remembered that much from conversation with the men who had saved them.
He laughed at the memory.
The name seemed so stupid, so insipid in retrospect… and yet the memory of what had happened within the beast’s mountain fortress was not some mere phantasy, some drama played out in a child’s imagination. It was real, every moment of it was real and Jaden Stryder relived it every night in his darkest dreams.
He crouched down, finding traces of black sand amidst the ruined machinery of the abandoned fortress. There were traces of another world here, he realised with a sudden thrill of triumph. Within those beads of dark sand, there was the suggestion of a realm in which time stretched out in all directions, a realm in which specific locations in time might be visited as if they were geographical locations of that dark desert.
His eyes closed and he allowed the sensations and suggestions of that otherworldly domain to flow into him through the sensation of touch.
Behind his eyelids, he saw vast savannahs of wilderness, purple skies adorned by white cloud and train tracks, tribes of leonine hunters moving on two legs throughout the plains, carrying with them spears and shields and other recruiterments of a primitive culture.
“The Relinquished,” he whispered the name softly, his tone hushed and reverent.
He had been right! He had been right all along! Neo-Shadows had been but a fragment of a larger picture, a larger culture!
Everything Gomoto Takeshi had told him as he had lay dying, pressing the bloodstained white belt into Stryder’s hands, everything had been true!
Within the endless deserts at the end of time, stretched out between possible worlds, were the traces of another culture, a species far older than any on Earth.
If he could harness that power, if he could breach the barriers between worlds…
The thoughts came swiftly, his mind racing amongst the possibility of what his idle daydreams suggested to him.
If he could contact the Relinquished, if he could ally himself with that ancient species, then surely nothing would be beyond his power.
His fingers tightened about the handful of sand, crushing it within the worn folds of his leather glove as he stared down at the fist he had made.
With such power, there would be nowhere for evil to hide from him, with such power, he would be able to ensure peace and safety not just for Mikuchi, but for every living soul on Earth.
All he needed was a body that would not fail him, all he needed was flesh that would not fail him.
Jessie felt the wind escape him, his back slammed hard against the damp wall as he lashed wildly out with the broken edge of his blade.
The devil itself was inches from his face, screaming piercingly, its open maw wide and damp with saliva and blood.
He struck out with his other hand and his fist sunk deep into one of its sickening compound eyes, his knuckles breaking the surface and puncturing through into the oozing mass of substance within.
The creature screamed loudly, its head rolling as the hood fell back to reveal the full disrepair of its shrunken, borrowed flesh and Jessie felt himself dragged forwards, his fist sinking deep and deeper within the wound.
He thrust the sword forward again and at last it struck home, tearing away the stained robes and digging deep into the monster’s chest.
A plume of vomit spat forth from Moloch’s mouth, staining Jessie’s armour but still he kept his hand on the hilt of the sword, holding the broken blade fast within the beast’s chest even as he wrenched free his fist from its eye.
“I told you,” he hissed, his voice wavering, “I told you I’d defeat you!”
The monster’s head rolled in a full circle and then slowly, its remaining eye seemed to focus on Jessie’s broken mask.
“Idiot child,” it slurred, “have you any idea what you have done?”
“I’ve beat you!” Jessie snarled with triumph. “You’re finished.”
From the devil’s gullet, a low, foreboding laugh issued forth.
“You have defeated nothing!” it spat in violent return. “Though this flesh decays, my evil shall remain. Through corruption, through weakness, through infidelity, I shall be born again and again whilst you, pitiful insect, have nothing but the shadow of hope to believe in.”
With sudden swiftness, the decrepit additional limbs folded against its chest thrust forward and burrowed through Jessie’s broken breastplate, worming their way within the soft flesh.
“Papé Destronger, papé Destronger aleppe!” the beast ‘gan gabbled with clucking tongue.
Jessie felt himself lost in the raw emotion of his hurt, his identity subsumed beneath the cry of his torment.
There was no world beyond the pain he felt, no reality beyond the piercing harm that punctured the soft dampness of his flesh and broke open brittle bone.
He felt the creature’s talon slice through his chest, the barbed limb smashing through his ribs as the tip of the claw dug about within his breast, seeking out the soft, red warmth of his heart and yet still his mouth remained open, a bellowing scream from the very heart of his being.
The wound in the creature’s own chest cracked out and all at once, flames engulfed them both.
The robes fell from his shoulders and he stood naked before them, his head high and feet upon the cold, broken stone of the damp cave.
Before him, at the head of the rows of silent cultists stood an abomination, a creature of malignant intent wrapped within the rotting carcasses of women and children and the roughest of sackcloth.
Jaden Stryder did not flinch in the face of such horror.
“Ahmedabad!” he called out towards the twitching figure, his eyes fixed upon its bowed head and misshapen back. “Ahmedabad, make good on your promise, damn you.”
The twitching creature laughed softly to itself.
“Damn one such as me? Oh, Mister Stryder, you are indeed quite the catch.”
Slowly, it lifted its head and, with repulsion, Stryder found himself confronted by the disfigured features of a leopard, stitched and stretched over an abnormal skull and stapled to the remains of two human faces.
Its eyes were black, shot through with milk white liquid, the mist of cataracts forming in the rot.
“Long have we waited for one such as you, Mister Stryder,” it hissed with glee, stepping forward as withered arms moved beneath the sackcloth of its robes.
Stryder kept his eyes fixed on the monster’s own, refusing to turn away despite the horror he felt within the pit of his stomach.
“You promised me a new body, Ahmedabad,” he said, refusing to allow the monster to change the subject. “You promised to finish what Neo-Shadows started. I didn’t come here to listen to your hollow sermons.”
Again, the beast laughed sourly.
“And finish it, we shall, little man,” it whispered. “Neo-Shadows were weak, their methodology flawed, only Destronger possess the true power to unlock the base flesh human beings are granted.”
With one sickly claw, Ahmedabad reached out and stroked the blade along Stryder’s cheek.
Still, he remained stoic, never once looking away from the sickening mess of the abomination’s features.
This, he reflected, was what it would take to traverse the infinite sands of time. The new body he would receive, his insides hollowed out and filled with clockwork, would give him the strength he required to make contact with the Relinquished and harness their strength for his own ends.
By selling his soul to these very devils, Jaden Stryder would at last be able to become the very hero he had always dreamed of being.
This was it; this was the moment he had been born for. This was his ascendancy.
“Get on with it, Ahmedabad,” he snarled, “I don’t have all day.”
From behind he felt firm arms of silent cultists seize hold of him, dragging him backwards and onto a crude operating table, the stained silver of tarnished and rusted instruments gleaming in the dim light about him.
Above him, he once more heard the whine of a saw as, slowly, the mutilated features of Ahmedabad loomed into view once more, its animal face warped in an unnatural smirk.
“This may hurt a little,” it purred softly.
Stryder closed his eyes, the sound of the whirling blades almost deafening now.
“Mikuchi,” he whispered softly, “I love you, Mikuchi..”
The blade cut down into his face.
The older of the Elias brothers turned his head slowly, his eyes struggling to come to terms with the vision of red armour above him, the featureless mask so familiar and yet at once so very alien to him.
“Ani?” he whispered, his words barely audible. “Ani, is that you?”
The remnants of his own armour seemed to crumble, falling away from his wounded body like ash.
“Jessie,” the figure in the red armour murmured, “Jessie, what have they done to you?”
A slow smile formed upon the older brother’s lips.
“I… I won, Ani,” he whispered, “I beat the devil…”
“We heard the explosion,” Gates nodded. “I was coming back for you, I –”
Jessie Elias shook his head.
“Protect Alicia, Ani,” he gasped, his face flinching in pain as tears streamed down his cheeks. “Protect her… find Nero… Nero will know what to do –”
“No!” Gates snarled violently. “Forget Alicia, forget Nero, what about you?”
Jessie smiled despite the tears.
“I… just need to sleep, Ani… just need to –”
His eyelids closed and the breath curdled on his lips, his chest no longer rising.
“Jessie?” Gates called out in panic. “JESSIE!”
Yet from his brother’s lips, there were no more words to be spoken.
He shook his head, his body convulsing as he reached down and seized hold of the belt about his waist, twisting the buckle widdershins.
“I won’t let this happen!” he snarled, his face changed with blood and dirt. “I’ll fix the world! I’ll fix the world!”
Behind him, he heard Alicia’s bare feet.
“Jessie… is he…?”
“Shut up!” the younger of the Elias brothers snarled, sliding forth a card and holding it up in the dim light.
He had visited other worlds before, he had learnt to manipulate the shifting events of possibility in order to acquire new armour, new possibilities. He had learnt to fashion the present from the past he imagined and the future he desired.
The card slashed across the box upon his wrist, his armour shifting, suddenly 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 mask.
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: Dream Karaoke!” he shouted, pulling the gun’s trigger and emitting a burst of shimmering blue energy.
In the darkness above his head, a pale blue swirl formed, a building storm generated at the heart of another dimension
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 a large, both as white as the young hero’s new armour.
Instinctively, he holstered the light gun and reached up, seizing the robot as it transformed into a square panel with two dials and several ports upon its faceplate.
Before him, Jessie no longer moved.
Blinking back tears, Gates Elias gripped hold of the machine and brought it close to his chest, the new armour humming as it bounded with the summoned accessory.
He turned the dials without thinking, the blue swirl of his head shifting, a trace of mercury silver tainting its surface.
“W-What are you doing?” Alicia asked, voice trembling.
“Fixing the world,” he snarled.
‘Download OK!’ the memory unit called out in a high-pitched voice.
The swirl above his head warped, shifting in shape as new information filtered in, overwriting the context of the scene and changing it forever.
He felt his heart roar in pain, his body absorbing the horror of the change he had set in motion.
“Papé Destronger, papé Destronger aleppe!” he heard the beast ‘gan gabble in his ear, time reversing around him.
Gates Elias felt himself lost in the raw emotion of his hurt, his identity subsumed beneath the cry of his torment.
He felt the creature’s talon slice through his chest, the barbed limb smashing through his ribs as the tip of the claw dug about within his breast, seeking out the soft, red warmth of his heart and yet still his mouth remained open, a bellowing scream from the very heart of his being.
There was another world emerging, another reality in which he had fallen and Jessie had lived. This was the future; this was the shape of all things that followed.
‘Download COMPLETE!’ the memory unit announced with pride.
The wound in the creature’s own chest cracked out and all at once, flames engulfed them both.
Long, Long Ago:
The king did not rise from his throne as the rude and humble goblet was slammed down upon the table before him.
“This is it, my king,” Bors proclaimed loudly, his voice trembling and his face still smeared with blood and dirt. “This is that for which Galahad died.”
Upon his throne, Arthur remained impassive, his expression indifferent and his eyes staring ahead, beyond those who gathered in his presence, beyond even the tarnished and stained metal of the sole goblet on the wooden table before him.
Bors stood waiting, his beard unkempt and his armour decimated. At his side, Perceval remained, holding the older knight up and waiting in silence, tears in his blue eyes.
“My king,” Bors said again, “this is the san gréal, that for which you sent us out to all corners of Christendom in search of…”
Slowly, Arthur lifted his head, his dark eyes looking upon Bors as if for the first time.
“The… Grail?” he asked softly.
The older man nodded with uncommon enthusiasm.
“Yes, my liege, the Grail!”
There was silence for a long moment and then slowly Arthur nodded and turned away.
“Of course… the Grail…” he murmured, lapsing again into his own private reflection.
“Yes, Arthur, damn you!” Bors roared with fury. “The Grail! The Grail you sent us out to reclaim! The Grail that cost us the loss of the best of our number! Don’t you care for what happened? Galahad is gone, Arthur, he’s gone!”
Tears sprung unbidden from his eyes as his knees gave way beneath him and Perceval stooped to catch him, pulling him away from the throne.
“Galahad is dead!” he roared through his tears. “Taken from us! What king sends but a boy on a quest such as this, I ask you? What God exacts such a high price for a worthless trinket? Who is it that can fix the world, Arthur? Who can give us back what we have lost?”
The king did not respond, instead he remained in silence, his eyes staring at the empty table before him.
Screaming wildly, Bors struggled and eventually collapsed, his voice falling at last quiet as Perceval dragged him from the throne room and away into the darkness.
“The Grail,” Arthur whispered once more and yet still he did not cast his gaze upon it.