“Hey, it’s me,” he said calmly, surveying the wreckage of the room about him. “Listen, I’m afraid things didn’t really go according to plan.”
He paused, listening intently to the voice on the other end of the phone and nodding his agreement.
“Yeah,” he murmured after a moment. “The clone didn’t make it, sorry about that. I think that kid our friends sent out bit the dust too, quite literally. It’s a shame but, you know, it’s a battlefield out there.”
There was another momentary pause and then, at last, Randall Kalish smiled warmly.
“Don’t panic so much. Taryse is fine, Amelia’s fine too. They’re just a little shaken up, all they need is for you to ride out there in the desert and…” he paused, the smile fading slightly. “Yeah, I understand that. Well, if you can’t go out there, I guess I’ll…”
He stopped again, suddenly agitated.
“You’re going to send Mitsukai?” he snapped impatiently.
At his side, Joe Hammel anxiously bit his nails, his round face drenched with sweat and his expression one of apprehension.
Kalish opened his mouth to decry the situation and then, apparently listening further to the voice on the other end of the phone, he nodded again, sighing sharply.
“I guess I see your point. Maybe I was a little heavy handed. Still, that kid really ticked me off, you know. Don’t worry, I won’t misbehave in future.”
The scowl turned into a smile.
“Besides, we’re bros, right? Everything’s cool.”
The voice on the other end of the phone seemed to acquiesce and Kalish’s smile brightened.
“Listen, if you don’t need us out here anymore, then I’m going to lock this place down and head back to base. That cool?”
There came another pause and then Kalish nodded.
“Right. Take it easy, bro. See you when we get back.”
Without further comment, he snapped the phone shut and dropped it back into his pocket, turning once more to look in Hammel’s direction.
“Get your stuff together, Joe. We’re burning this place down.”
Tournament Armoured Hero tome #7:
“Ghost in the Rain”
I don’t believe no more,
Things start to fail inside me.”
– Hosomi Takeshi,
– ‘The Flare‘
The stench of burning hung heavy in the air, clinging to the ruin of his clothes and the trembling, scorched flesh beneath. In his mouth, he could taste copper, his lungs aching, each breath heavy upon his dry lips.
Above him was the desert sky, distant stars he would never know raining down light upon them from a thousand years in the past.
He felt something damp fall upon his cheeks, rain… no, not rain… tears.
Slowly, the features of the woman leaning over him swam into vision, her soft skin, her dark eyes, the light behind her like a halo.
He tried to reach up his arm towards her but he could no longer move.
“T-Taryse…” he gasped at last.
“I’m here,” she whispered, stroking his hair gently.
He tried to force a smile to his lips but it was painful.
“Sorry… so… sorry…”
She shook her head, tears streaming down her face.
“You don’t have to apologise, Chazz. It wasn’t your fault, it was that bastard, Kalish.”
“N-No,” he stammered urgently, his heart straining against his ribs, his breath running short. “Not… that… sorry… for… for…”
The breath seemed to die in his throat, a rattling gasp that filled him with dread. His eyes lost focus, anxiety laying claim to the beating in his chest, darkness washing over him like the darkest of oceans.
“Don’t speak,” Taryse whispered, her voice trembling as she riffled through the contents of her pockets, searching desperately for her phone. “Just…. Just save your strength. I’m going to call someone… someone who can help…”
With a great effort, he moved his hand, brushing against her arm before before it fell back down into the warm sand of his bed.
It was enough.
“Taryse…” he whispered again, the light fading from the world. “I’m sorry, Taryse…”
He felt his body growing cold, his heart slowing to a whisper in the cavern of his chest.
“Sorry… sorry for… loving you… always… loved… you…”
The words faded upon his lips, dying the moment after they were born. His head turned slowly and he no longer saw the stars above him.
The sand beneath his cold body was no longer stirred by the rattling breath from his lips.
The wind was bitter tasting, ash and dust gathering on his lips with every breath he took, every word he spoke. At his back, the cavernous maw of the Destronger temple spewed forth acrid black smoke, a pyre that rose up high into the darkened desert sky.
In his arms, the young figure wrapped up in sackcloth and dirt trembled with each shuddering step taken upon the cold sand.
All around them, the desert was silent, the ache of the bitter cold settling in their bones.
The price paid for each movement, each step, was the sorrowful recollection of all that had passed within that haunted cavern, all that they had lost for the sake of their freedom. Although he did not speak the words, Jessie Lee Elias felt the loss so keenly that it numbed every other sensation. The exhaustion, the fear, the ache of his muscles, all were supplanted by the terrible memory of his brother’s sacrifice.
As if sensing this, Alicia lifted her head – his head, Jessie reminded himself, shuddering at the horror Destronger had imposed upon that soul trapped within the cloned flesh – and looked up at him with wide eyes.
“Y-You’re thinking of Ani?” he whispered.
Jessie nodded, swallowing hard.
“How could I not?” he answered.
“Jessie…” the young boy began.
Swiftly, the former tournament hero shook his head.
“Don’t,” he commanded softly, a weight to his words that had not been there previously. “Don’t say anything, Alicia.”
A sad smile crossed his face and he lifted his head up towards the dark night sky.
“Ani’s gone now,” he whispered. “Ani’s gone, and it’s all my fault. If only I had been able to follow Nero’s orders, if only…”
His lips trembling, lips that were so familiar and yet so very different, Alicia shook his head, clutching onto Jessie’s arm tighter.
“Please don’t say that,” he whispered. “What happened to Ani wasn’t because of anything you did… it was Destronger. You have to believe me, Jessie, you’re not responsible… if anything, I am.”
His grip slackened and his pace slowed.
“If I hadn’t allowed myself to be trapped so easily, if I hadn’t been drawn out from the Sands of Time…”
Jessie stopped so suddenly that the younger boy almost collided with him. He turned sharply, pulling Alicia closer to him and drawing his face so close that they were all but face to face.
“It’s not your fault,” he said with sudden ferocity. “Whatever you look like, you’re still you, right? You’re still the same Alicia who helped us against Stryder during the Golden Thorn incident, you’re still the same Alicia that Nero sent us to rescue… that Nero cares about… that… that I care about…”
His lips trembled, Alicia’s lips close to his own.
“Alicia… I… I…”
There was a sudden eruption of spiritual power behind them, a tower of black flame bursting forth from the centre of the decimated Destronger temple and parting the clouds above.
Sand rose in a tidal wave at their back, the wind slamming against them and throwing them down to the ground with such force that Jessie felt his lungs would burst.
“Insects!” a hideous, undulating voice cried out above the roar of the wind. “Pitiful insects! Did you think you could destroy me?”
A tremendous shadow fell over them, engulfing everything.
Slowly, Jessie lifted his head, his eyes wide in terror as the devil Moloch rose up before them, its grotesque form suddenly gargantuan.
Trembling, Jessie shook his head.
“No…” he murmured. “No! That’s impossible!”
“Papé Destronger, papé Destronger aleppe!” roared the giant daemon, throwing its arms up into the heavens.
Without warning there came the roar of motorcycles on the horizon, the screech of tires, a cloud of dust.
Jessie turned his head, almost in slow-motion, as the Machine Whirlwinder screeched to a halt behind him, Hao Wong planting one heavy boot down in the sand as he lifted himself up from the seat.
“Stay down!” he shouted, raising his arm up.
The younger man blinked and then at once registered the gleaming silver pistol in Hao’s hand.
“All hail sickness! All hail filth!” the monster bellowed, tossing its head about.
“Hail this, you son of a bitch,” Hao snarled through gritted teeth, taking aim with the sacred revolver.
Moloch’s sickly eyes rolled within its massive head, slowly turning to focus on the shape of Hao Wong, legs astride his motorcycle.
Without waiting, Hao pulled the trigger and, with a roar like thunder sounding in reverse, the hammer slammed down, the chamber tuned and the first of six bullets of uncreation arched into the air, leaving behind the odious stench of sulphur and brimstone.
The massive creature opened its mouth to holler its denial but, before it could react, the silver bullet slammed hard into its chest, passing through in an explosion of light.
There was a moment in which the darkness within the beast congealed, squirming for release and then, with a whimper, the entire frame of the monster crumbled to ash.
Triton ducked and the youth’s fist sailed over his head.
In one fluid motion, he straightened up and lashed out with his own fist, his knuckles slamming into the boy’s face and bloodying the appearance of the novelty mask.
“Hate to do this to you, kid,” he apologised, shifting his weight from foot to foot, “but if you put yourself in my way, then I’m going to have to knock you down.”
With a second blow, he winded the boy, causing him to double up with a gasp of sudden pain before, at last, the older man brought his armoured elbow down against the back of the boy’s head, knocking him first to his knees and then face down to the dirty floor.
Triton stood still for a moment, his chest aching with a pain that told him he was getting too old for such surprises, despite the compensations of the suit.
Without warning, the kid in the Bush mask leapt back into action, pivoting with one palm flat against the ground as he swung his legs out and knocked Triton off balance, sending him crashing again into the table.
“You’re too easy to predict,” the kid smirked from behind his rubber mask, “all wild swings and short jabs. You’re like a John Wayne movie, Travis, full of bravado but boring to watch.”
Behind his own mask, Travis Triton felt the sweat trickle down his brow.
“Listen, kid, I don’t know who you are, but I swear you are really beginning to piss me off.”
“I think you do,” the kid behind the Bush mask retaliated. “I think you know exactly who I am, but you’re too stupid to guess.”
Hoping to catch the boy off guard, Triton lunged forward and found himself staggering past his target as the kid stepped out of the way, offering him a harmless kick on the backside as he passed.
“See,” the boy jibbed, “no economy of movement. You’re just like an old movie.”
“I’ll show you an old movie,” Triton snarled vindictively.
His hand snaked down, reaching for the weapon bound to his side. Yet before he could grasp the pistol, a shot rang out, his hand recoiling as he felt a searing hot pain against the back of his hand.
Lifting it up, he looked down at the black scorch mark with widening eyes.
Angrily, Triton turned once more towards the table littered with ruinous machine parts, his eyes desperately searching the area for sign of the absent inventor.
“Shit,” he snarled with distaste, his breath warm against the interior of the helm he wore.
He turned slowly, scanning the area around him with senses that had faded since his service days and biting back further curses.
He couldn’t allow himself to be thrown off balance like this, couldn’t let the simple distraction of a kid in a novelty rubber mask and an underhanded play by the man whom he was supposed to be in the employ of unsettle him.
With or without Concord’s assistance, he was taking Chance’s Exceed Buckler.
All at once, anxiety seemed to fill his being, a sense of panic rising from the pit of his stomach. He lifted his head and cried out in surprise once again, staggering further backwards, his face bloodied beneath the iron mask as it shattered before him.
Landing in a crouch, Livingston Chance, now wearing a suit of white armour identical in design to that which Concord had bestowed upon him, slowly lifted his head to glower at the wounded tournament hero.
“I told you I was expecting someone like you,” Chance snarled from behind his own mask.
Slowly he rose up to his full height, the young kid in the Bush mask joining him as Triton looked anxiously from one to the other.
“You’ve been conned, my friend,” the other man remarked, reaching down for his belt buckle and disengaging the system. Around him, the armour shrunk back into its native dimension, a serpent skin cast off by a slithering predator. “Whoever sent you out here to steal the OniFighter armour, whoever created that suit that you’re wearing, they’re just using you.”
He shook his head with mock dismay, turning away from Triton as he searched fruitlessly amidst the junk of the disrupted table for a packet of cigarettes.
“This armour isn’t supposed to be used the way you think it is. It’s meant solely for fighting Prometheans.”
Despite himself, Triton found himself lured in by the other man’s narrative.
“What’s a Promethean?” he cautiously asked.
“A race of aliens,” Chance responded, continuing to pick through the debris of machinery on his table, “they died out a long time ago.”
Triton felt his cheeks blaze with sudden anger.
“So if they died out, why do you need the Exceed Bucklers to fight them?”
“Because they’re time travellers, Travis,” the kid in the Bush mask explained and, for the first time since they had spoke, Triton had the irritating sensation that he should recognise the youthful voice.
“Well what’s to stop them from travelling back before you invented the Buckler and killing you then?”
“I didn’t invent the OniFighter armour,” Chance looked up sharply. “My wife did.”
“And what happened to her?”
The other man held his gaze for a moment and then looked sharply away, again searching amongst the debris scattered across the table.
“They travelled back before she invented it and killed her.”
Triton’s features creased in a frown.
At last, Livingston Chance smiled once more, his hands seizing a battered red and white packet and shaking free a last cigarette.
“Because whilst the Prometheans can move and back and forward in time, Cale Corporation moves sideways in time.”
He looked up again, a plume of acrid smoke disguising his features.
“I come from a parallel universe,” he said with a smirk. “And guess what? So do you. This is not your home.”
He felt as if he was underwater, dark water filling his lungs, his body somehow buoyant upon the shadowy waves that overwhelmed him.
He felt the darkness inside of him, slithering down his gullet, filling his intestines, exploring every inch of his fragile human body before coiling about his brain, wrapping the soft grey matter in slippery tendrils of night.
The darkness is your enemy, a small voice at the back of his mind reminded him. You are a servant of the light, twice blessed by Christ Jesus who died for your sins.
He felt his stomach churning, sickness slowly awakening within his submerged body.
Darkness came from the deceiver, the Prince of Lies. It was through Christ’s death that he was granted absolution from sin, it was through the saviour’s sacrifice that he was free from darkness.
Again, his stomach churned and, from his lips, leaked inky blackness.
Slowly, he opened his eyes, his vision swimming before him.
“I cast you out, unclean spirit,” he croaked, his voice dry and rasping, as if he had not spoke for several days. “In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, be gone. It is he who commands you. He who flung you from the heights of Heaven to the depths of Hell.”
Slowly he began to make out several forms before him, a swirling cloud of shadows, a distant car, a dilapidated hotel, and a man in a large sheepskin coat, his face pale yet familiar.
“In the name of the Father, and of the son, and of the Holy Spirit,” he continued. “By this sign of the holy cross, of our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with the father and the Holy Spirit…”
“Enough,” a voice from the darkness commanded him and abruptly he fell silent, enthralled by the voice from the shadows.
Slowly, the darkness peeled back to reveal an angry looking woman dressed in shabby and tattered clothes, both the hem of her dress and the tired leather sandals she wore now covered in dust and blood.
Her hair was long, a faded chestnut in colour, the lines of her face showing a character hardened by both age and experience.
He coughed once again and felt the darkness on his lips, a bitter taste like liquorice and venom.
“W-Who are you people?” he murmured, instinctively reaching down, searching out the worn and battered belt he had first been awarded in that tournament so, so, long ago.
With relief, his fingers soon found the metal of the buckle, warm from a recent transformation. Once again, confusion and doubt seemed to take him.
“We’re the people you tried to kill,” the woman with the chestnut hair answered sharply, placing her hands on her hips.
Desperately, he looked around, seeing nothing but miles of desert, save for the incandescence of the fading hotel lights.
“How did I get here? What happened to me?”
“We were gonna ask you the same thing, buddy,” the grizzled man remarked, retrieving a cigarette of a hand-rolled sage and clove from a worn pouch within his jacket pocket. “Trouble is, I think I can give you most of them answers, even if you ain’t none too keen on recollectin’ them yourself.”
He glared up at the older man, slow recognition dawning.
“You’re Grizzly,” he snarled.
The shaman shrugged.
“I prefer the term ‘rugged‘ myself.”
Angrily, he shook his head, as if struggling to remember details of what had happened to him.
“That’s not what I mean,” he snapped, slowly rising to his feet. “I mean, you’re Grizzly, that was the alias you used to use. You’re one of Kanemura’s stooges.”
Tex Arkana rolled his eyes.
“Well, I’ll be blessed. I’m pleased you remember. But let’s not bring Jyunichi into this, kid’s got nothing to do with what you were all mixed up in.”
He staggered and the woman reached out, steadying him with a firm hand.
Their eyes met, and at once, he tried to turn away… and failed.
“Your name is Ray Blazer,” she announced coldly, “but you prefer the name Ichthys. You received your armour from Jack Ryker upon your entry in the first Armoured Hero tournament and have retained it ever since.
“Prior to this you were a bounty hunter working for fringe evangelical movements as a member of both the Army of God movement and, later, the Hutaree group based in Adrian, Michigan. You have been arrested on several counts of grievous bodily harm, yet have been acquitted each time.
“You were raised by your older sister, who you witnessed murdered and rap–”
“That’s enough!” Blazer hissed, pulling away from Sheila with such violence that he once more stumbled, this time falling back to the sand and dirt below.
Tears stung his eyes as he looked up at the two strangers standing over him.
“Don’t you ever try that again,” he whispered. “I swear, as God is my witness, I will – ”
Sheila raised an eyebrow.
“What? Stop me from having an abortion? Proclaim me as the Antichrist? What is it, Mister Blazer? What exactly is it that your God will help you do to me?”
He stared up at her with impotent anger.
“Now, now, children, let’s not fight,” Arkana smirked playfully before turning again to his felled assassin “Now tell me, son, if you can be seen talking to an ornery devil worshipping coot like me that is, just how exactly did a good old Christian boy like yourself get mixed up with a bunch like Destronger?”
Ray Blazer stared blankly up at them for a moment.
“Destronger,” he murmured, as if trying out the word. “Destronger…”
Words and images came swimming back to him; the cowled adherents, the stench of incense and blood, the blasphemous calf upon its golden throne inviting him to kiss its behind.
“I-I was asked…” he shook his head suddenly. “No… I was paid to investigate a kidnapping, the daughter of a televangelist, a millionaire of sorts.
“She had fallen prey to evil, fallen by the wayside. Her schooling had filled her head with all kinds of nonsense, all those lies about men having come from monkeys, stuff like that. She wouldn’t return her father’s calls, wouldn’t see him… so I went in his place to bring her back into the fold, to explain to her the Good News…”
“Sounds to me like you were paid to instigate a kidnapping, not investigate one,” Arkana noted, his voice full of unusual condemnation.
Ray Blazer shook his head once more.
In his mind, he clearly saw her now, descending the altar, naked as the day she was born, blood smeared about the wound between her legs as moths with stained wings escaped through the lips from their nest in her entrails.
“I… found her apartment is disarray, found a man there, a college professor who she had become intimate with. He said she didn’t know where she was, but… I… I persuaded him to take me to her…”
He felt again the cold touch of her hands upon his face, her tongue intruding in his mouth. He felt sickness and death curl up within his stomach, the beat of wings all about him in the dusty underground cavern as the temple cultists continued their chants.
The beast upon the throne had laughed at him.
“We followed a trail to the desert… and there… there we found blasphemy…”
He shook his head again, denying his interrogators the satisfaction of a conclusion.
“I don’t remember what happened next,” he lied.
Sheila stared coldly at him.
“They raped you,” she announced.
Sickness and shame suddenly filled his face.
“Go to Hell,” he hissed spitefully.
From behind them, came the noise of a car door opening.
“Mom,” a youthful voice called uncertainly out. “Mom, can I come out now?”
Sheila Torrance did not look over her shoulder.
“Stay in the car, Lina, honey. We’re not staying here.”
Tex Arkana looked at her in surprise.
“You mean you don’t want to stay and unravel the mystery of Destronger?”
She offered him a savage glance in return.
“I don’t want anything to do with this,” she barked in retort. “I don’t need to get involved with this to know there are sick people out there, I can just go to work for that. Right now, my priority…” she paused, gesturing behind her at the parked car. “My priority is right there in that old car. I don’t want to save the world. The world can go to Hell, for all I care.”
She stopped and looked sourly down at Ray Blazer.
“At least then, one of us will get what they really want.”
Without offering any further explanation, she turned and walked once more away, car keys again in hand.
For the second time in his existence, Captain Professor found himself without a physical anchor, his spirit left to drift through the shapeless aeons of eternity.
The struggle he had been a bit part in had resolved itself, each player in the scenario meeting their eventual end, untimely or not. Civilisations rose, civilisations fell. The world crumbled into neglect, a final outpost remaining in the turbulent waters off the coast of England, and then even that too faded into nothingness. Still Captain Professor drifted through the endlessness of infinity.
Divorced from the boy who had paid host to his essence following his own physical demise, the former pirate captain allowed his spirit to be caught amidst the undertow of the universe, dragged under and onwards for all eternity.
He had died he knew not how long ago, betrayed by the crew of his ship, The Hell-Born Pride, and tied to a cursed relic before finally awakening after countless years of dormancy and finding his peculiar talents once more in demand.
Yet despite his successive deaths, he continued to find his consciousness prolonged, held in captivity at the end of everything.
Moments, decades, passed. At last, he realised he was no longer alone in the void.
‘Who’s there?’ he called out with his spirit.
There was silence, and then came a stirring in the ether.
‘We don’t have a name,’ a reply whispered, sending ripples of warning through all that was left of his being. ‘We don’t need one.’
‘Show yourself!’ the Captain demanded, his essence turning over and over, his senses stretching out in the nothingness of the void.
‘We don’t normally get visitors like yourself here,’ the voice continued.
‘Nonsense!’ the Captain roared. ‘I’m not some peasant you can terrify with this foolish circus. I’ve been here before! I am the great Captain Professor!’
There was silence for a moment and then once more the whispering voice continued.
‘Do you really think that your pathetic seat of existence is in the least important? For us it rather pales into insignificance.’
‘I am Captain Professor!’ he cried out again, his essence strained by the effort of communication.
‘Here we have no need of crude identities. We all function as part of the collective biosphere.’
‘B-Biosphere?’ the Captain’s words were suddenly heavy, weighted down by his confusion.
In the emptiness about them, the voice seemed to laugh at him.
‘You can’t even begin to understand us, Doctor.’
‘I am a professor, not a doctor!’ the Captain retorted angrily, his spirit losing form.
‘Doctor,’ said the voice, with intense sarcasm. ‘We know who you are.’ The voice laughed in a way that cut right to his core. ‘Great and mighty Doctor. How long has it been?’
His spirit shuddered, memories cast off as he struggled to hold onto that which he had cherished in life.
‘I… I am Captain Professor, commander of The Hell-Born Pride… I will not weaken.’
‘No, Doctor. You can’t get out of it that easily,’ the voice sneered.
‘I am Captain Professor,’ he said again, more forcefully, but each time, he felt more and more of his self disintegrating, dragged down into the depths of the unknown, absorbed into the nothingness that surrounded him.
‘If you had stayed where you belong, in your own antiquated realm, we’d have had absolutely no interest in you, but you came here, and because of that, you are entirely subject to our will. It is not a question of what we ‘want’ with you. Rather, of what you want with us.’
‘I want nothing of you!’ he screamed in retaliation, yet already he found himself doubting his own words.
He said ‘I‘ so very easily, and yet he could no longer remember his home, no longer remember his childhood. What had his first kiss tasted like, to whom had he once been betrothed?
‘The mighty ‘Doctor’, escaping, running away. Come to us, we embrace all.’
He had not been running, of that he was certain. Yet something had happened, something disastrous. He had perished, his essence cleaved in two.
‘Who are you?’ he gasped, feeling the last of his form slipping away. ‘Who am I?’
He asked the final question not as a means of questioning who he had once been, but rather who would now be.
The voice laughed once more.
‘We,’ it announced with contempt. ‘We are Destronger. And you are now…’
‘In the dark,’ the Captain whispered with his last once ounce of strength, abandoning at last all that he once was.
‘Yes Doctor, dark,’ the voice laughed in return. ‘That is where you are.’
He spat blood and phlegm into the other man’s face, reaching up and tearing the knife away from his shoulder, a fresh river of dark red running down his naked shoulder and staining his grubby white vest.
If he felt the impact of the blade sliding into his flesh, insinuating itself between muscle and bone, then he gave no indication. His face remained a painted scowl of intensity, his brow stained with sweat, his eyes wide with contempt.
The wound of a knife would not slow him, nor would the curve of a sword or the crack of a whip, not whilst the Black Dragondecker was bound to his left wrist and the cruel inclination of the Black Drag Claw remained upon his right.
At his waist, the onyx belt he had retained from his days amidst the weaklings that had populated Jack Ryker’s tournament still remained. With such an armoury, Long remained invincible, pain pushed to the back of his mind whilst he focused solely on the scene before him.
He allowed the knife to slip from his grasp, falling to the floor where it clattered uselessly away from its now silent owner.
Above, a lone light bulb swung, at his feet, glass was ground to dust beneath his heavy boots.
More weaklings, more cowards.
Around him, the bodies of countless would be heroes littered the bar, blood and splinters decorating the floorboards like so much flotsam and jetsam. Only Sha Jien remained, standing on the tips of his toes, his fists pulled up to protect his stained face.
Long shook his head with disgust, a note of disapproval rising in his throat.
“You can still walk away from this, dai lok yan,” Long remarked with a smile, advancing forward. “All you need to do is turn around and run. I won’t chase you… this time.”
Sha Jien narrowed his eyes as he watched the other man advance.
“You’re a parasite, Long. What the hell is wrong with you, these kids didn’t do anything to you?”
Long’s smile faded.
“They got in my way!” he snarled.
Without warning he rushed forward, pushing the older man on the defensive, his guard tightening as he struggled to block Long’s wild punches.
Born the son of a wealthy criminal and being of dubious citizenship, Sha Jien had been possessed of both time and reason for occupying himself. His childhood had been one of careful affluence As long as he hadn’t asked, as long as he hadn’t drawn attention to himself or to his father’s business, then he was allowed to do whatever he wanted.
His life had been changed the day his younger half-brother, Shin, had been brought into the family household.
Unlike their father, the young boy had not been shin-kaky?, but rather he was born of a Japanese mother. It was funny how such little things could cause such big problems.
Their father had been humiliated by the young boy’s presence and, most of all, by his responsibility to both the child and his dead mother.
The world Sha Jien had known as a child had crumbled in an instant, yet never once had he blamed the younger boy.
He moved to the side, chancing a punch, his fist rising up behind Long’s overstretched arm and striking him squarely in the bloody wound on his shoulder.
With a grunt, the other man staggered back, the wound weeping further, much to his annoyance.
“All you need to do is tell me where Koji is,” Long snarled. “Hand over Koji and I’ll let you live.”
Sha Jien took the moment to press his opportunity, stepping forward and lashing out with a following blow that was intended to further surprise his opponent. Instead, he found his hand caught in Long’s grasp.
The other man tightened his fingers around Sha Jien’s fist, sending a shock of pain through his arm.
“Where is Koji?” Long snarled once more.
With apprehension, Sha Jien met his opponent’s gaze.
“I don’t know who you mean,” he replied through gritted teeth.
Long tightened his grip.
“Koji!” he screamed, his eyes bulging. “Where is my younger brother?”
The words echoed in Sha Jien’s ears, resounding in his head. In that instance, he felt as if a dark mirror had been held up to his own relationship with Shin, as if somehow, everything he had strove to preserve had been inverted and turned back in on itself.
Desperately he struggled, kicking out with his leg in a swooping gesture that knocked his attacker off balance and brought them both crashing down to the ground.
There was a moment of calm, sawdust and dirt rising languidly in clouds, and then both men struggled to regain their footing, striking out in the hope of catching the other off guard.
Much to his shame, Sha Jien failed in pulling himself upright in time. A sharp kick from the other man’s boot caught him under the chin and sent him sprawling upon his back, his head bouncing against the floorboards.
He struggled to move once more, his legs tensing and then stopped, suddenly aware of the form of Long crouching before him, his right arm extended.
Sha Jien felt his eyes widen, agony filling his breast as, with caution, he looked away from Long’s smile, tracing the curve of his arm and finding the wicked blades of the Black Drag Claw buried deep in his chest.
He opened his mouth, but instead of words, only blood seeped out from between his teeth.
“You lost, big man,” Long sneered, “but don’t feel lonely, I’ll make sure your snivelling little brother joins you soon… and then…”
“I wouldn’t count on that!” a voice from the doorway called out.
Sha Jien’s mouth opened in a silent scream as he felt the twin blades torn from his chest, blood rising up and trickling over the surface of his shredded chest.
His head fell back once more, his vision dimming as desperately he struggled to listen to the words, to identify the voice of the man who now confronted Long.
He wanted to believe it was Shin, wanted desperately to believe that the wound in his chest wasn’t fatal, that the agony that consumed him would not be the end of him.
Yet with every passing moment, he felt his strength slipping slowly away from him.
“I’m here to stop you once and for all, you bastard!” the voice proclaimed loudly.
His eyes closed. Just rest, he told himself, just rest… Shin will be here soon… just rest…
“My name is…”
His heart beat one last time and, at last, Sha Jien knew peace.
Ishinomori reached up to the cabinet with a trembling hand and drew back the glass partition, reaching in for a half-empty bottle of amber liquid and pouring it clumsily into the glass in his other hand.
Bitter spirits splashed across his hand as he aimed for the glass, drops of sour sweet liquid running about the curve of his wrist and staining the ashen black wood of the drinks cabinet.
He knew the drink was not a solution, knew that the drink was not necessarily the best way to deal with the long nights and the restlessness of the endless autumn.
Drunkenly, he shook his head, silently chastising himself as he turned once more with his drink towards the open curtains and the falling rain that struck the window.
The academy had been closed for several years, the tournaments having been defunct for much longer. For a while Ishinomori had coasted along on the novelty of his celebrity. He had worked in show business for a while, he knew the ups and downs that came with the game. It didn’t bother him that no one remembered his singing career, didn’t bother him that for a while the only reason he was invited to be a guest on talk shows was because of his connexion with Ryker and the armoured hero academy. What bothered him was when all those things seemed eventually to fade away, when his income slowly dried up leaving him standing alone in his mansion amidst the hills overlooking Skylord City, his mortgage six months in arrears and his passion all but spent.
If only he had been more careful with whose advice he had taken as a kid then maybe he’d still be out there singing professionally, instead of performing once a year in dives like Midway Raven’s Mesa, or the Vegas Dragon Casino.
He closed his eyes, pinching the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger.
A lot of if onlys…
There was a sound behind him, a sound unknown in such a vast house since his last girlfriend had walked out on him, taking with her what little remained of his savings.
He sighed softly to himself, still not opening his eyes.
A debt collector, a private detective maybe. Better drink more to soak up the inevitable bruising that was to come later, he reflected.
With a tilt of his head he downed the glass.
“Still dreaming of the big time, Uncle Takato?” a voice echoed in the empty house.
A chill ran through him, the glass slipping from his hand, tumbling to the carpeted floor and rolling uselessly away.
Only one person had ever called him ‘uncle‘.
He turned slowly, squinting as he stared hard at the figure standing in the dim light of the distant doorway.
“D-David?” he murmured, his heavy tongue slurring the name. “David, is that you?”
The figure remained in the door way, features unseen, hair cropped short.
“It’s been a long time since we spoke like this, hasn’t it, uncle? You don’t look so good.”
Ishinomori took a hesitant step forward.
“David, I was there in the hospital… they… they turned off your life support machine…”
The younger man laughed softly to himself, tuning his head away, his face still hidden in shadow.
“Funny thing about that. Turns out I made a miraculous recovery. Who would have thought it, huh?”
“David, d-does your father know?”
The shadowed figure turned back to face him once more.
“Does my father know what? That I’m still alive?” He shook his head. “Oh no, not yet. I don’t want him to know that yet. It’s going to be difficult for him to adjust.”
Another step. Tears stung his eyes now.
“David, he’s going to be so happy. You can’t imagine how much he’s missed you, how much we’ve all missed you. After your accident, the light went out of your father’s life… it’s like he died with you….”
Again the younger man laughed.
“But I’m back now, uncle, and I’m going to put all sorts of things right with the world, trust me. We can’t depend on armoured heroes anymore, we need a new kind of strength to protect the world from the monsters; from the karura, from the wyrms, from the shadows themselves.
“We need someone who is strong, someone who can lead, but most of all, we need someone without a past.”
Ishinomori took a final step forward.
At last, the light fell upon the younger man’s face, highlighting the stubble and shaven head, the firm nose and the cruel blue eyes.
The older man felt his heart sink, his head thrown into confusion.
“Wait, you’re not….”
Before he could complete the sentence the young man had his hands either side of his head. With a savage twist, Ishinomori’s head turned sharply away, his neck snapping with one resounding crack and his body shuddering with surprise. A final dance ran through his bones, the last recollection of movement and then, as the boy let go his hands, so Ishinomori’s body dropped heavily to the floor, trowsers stained by the loss of bodily control.
Without gloating, without explanation, the boy turned and walked sharply away.
Against the window, the rain continued to fall.