Man, can't believe so much time has passed already. Seen a bunch of movies as of late. Creed 3, Mario, John Wick 4, Suzume, Honor Among Thieves are all great. Cocaine Bear is a masterpiece. Puss in Boots 2 is an unexpected triumph. The Menu was one of my favorites from last year. Brendon Fraser was great in the Whale (haven't seen most of the other oscar movies, but Everything, Everywhere, All at Once is also a masterpiece). And I liked 65, just Adam Driver shooting dinosaurs.
Mercury had had a truly terrible time. During the attack on Beacon, he was supposed to lay low while the world around them burned for a little bit. Then his hotel room door exploded.
He wasn't very surprised that it was Enclave. The second he saw their bug-eyed masks storm in, he knew what had happened. He saw it coming—they all knew someone would betray someone else eventually, just not so soon or during such a critical moment.
But Bishop was batshit insane, and so was the Enclave.
Now here he was. In a cell. In a dark basement. His legs taken away. Shackles around his hands that hadn't been taken off in weeks. The skin under them was bruised, scarred and raw. His ribs and spine jutted out from think, tight skin. Yellow and purple bruises as big as baseballs covered him. Matted blood stained his silver hair.
The days slipped by, impossible to track. The only source of light were bulbs in the hallway that forever flickered dimly. He had gotten used to sleeping with them on. On the cement floor. No blanket or pillow. A hole for him to use as a toilet.
At first, he spat in their faces. Fought back. Refused to say anything. After all, if he immediately snitched, then Salem's forces would kill him themselves when they eventually overran this base.
But time dragged on, and there was no rescue. There was only pain. Gruesome things that left him shaking and unable to sleep, no matter how tired he was. Scalpels and tazers and blowtorches and fists.
When he finally fessed up, they thought he was mocking them. That made them even crueler. But it was all he could say, and all he could repeat, and that had given them pause. For a while now, no one had bothered to visit him other than the silent guard who came to slide a bowl of chunky gruel through the bars.
Until today. This morning, they had come by again and given him a fresh beating that pulverized his already shaky aura into a fine powder.
Now the door down the hall opened. He heard something creak and squeak, like a wheel that needed to be greased.
That turned out to be exactly what it was, as some hulking Enclave guard pushed a wheelchair-bound individual up beside the cell. He stayed just beyond the direct range of the dangling bulb, so Mercury couldn't quite tell who it was. He saw a mountain of blankets and a whole assortment of tubes and tanks connected to the back of the chair, funneling into whatever lurked under the blankets. A pair of beady eyes stared at him through cloth and linens.
A raspy voice, a weak one. "You…" A drawn breath. "Magic… maidens."
"Is it really the truth?"
"It is!" Mercury felt embarrassed at the desperation in his voice, but how could he not be desperate for them to just accept his answer already?
"Quite an odd truth…" mumbled the shadowy figure. "But I know… of even stranger."
"Then you believe me?"
The blanket shifted and rustled. The bulky guard leaned over, but a slim whisper stopped him. Something that Mercury did not hear, but it made the guard pause.
Then he flipped a tray connected to the side of the wheelchair, one presumably used for food or books or the like; he drew his pistol and placed it there—then he left.
The door shut heavily.
"You have to believe me—"
"You killed two of my men," said the wheelchair-bound figure.
"We…" Mercury grit his teeth. More than a few of the punches and cuts and burns had been done in the name of the couple of aura-less Enclave grunts that had attacked them. "I'm sorry."
"You're not." A shaky breath. "Not really. Or… I suppose you may be sorry, insofar as you now have to face the consequences…"
"I don't have any excuse," Mercury said. He had learned that those only made them angrier. "All I can say is that I can help. I know things, I can do things, I'll help you however I can." And if I get a chance to escape, I take it.
"Of course. But you… you of Cinder's plot… not well known for loyalty. Take your partner, for instance…"
Mercury grit his teeth. He tensed up just thinking about Emerald.
"What did she do to you, again?"
"When the fight went south," Mercury growled, "she kicked me in the back, right into some of your guys. Then she jumped out the window."
"Such a poor display. You would never see that from one of us…" He cleared his throat, a rough action that prompted even rougher coughs. The whole pile of blankets shuddered.
"Yeah," Mercury said, "that's why I folded so quick to you guys. They didn't give me any reason to stay loyal after that."
In all truth, he absolutely would have thrown Cinder and crew under the bus the same way he had already—even if Emerald had fought by his side until the end or sacrificed herself to save him.
"Of course," the man said.
Mercury felt sweat roll down his temple.
"I understand that," the man continued, voice cold. "I just wanted to come one last time and confirm all of this maiden business." A quiet breath. "To hear you say it yourself. Otherwise… I couldn't believe it."
"It's the truth!" Mercury grabbed the bars and hauled himself closer as he pleaded. "It's the truth! I'm helping you!"
"That you are." The mound of blankets rustled. "I believe you… I see it in your eyes. Hear it in your voice."
"I have much experience now… in this way of things. In getting dead men to tell the truth."
Mercury's smile fell.
"The absurd magic of this world… explains how the bitch managed to beat me on that tower…" A gloved hand reached out from the blankets; thin fingers tapped the pistol. "A wonderful world… far better than Earth ever was. Although… often frustrating. Hard to understand…"
The fingers curled around the pistol.
"I can help you!" Mercury said. "I can! I really can! I'm a hell of a fighter—"
Bishop raised the gun.
"No!" Mercury threw himself from the bars. He did his best to squirm further back into the cell and martial what pitiful aura had managed to regenerate—
Bishop pulled the trigger, and he did not stop until it was done.
Jaune had never been one for ocean travel. In fact, he had lost a few meals already over the side of the ship.
He found himself now in that precarious, nauseous situation. One hand tightly gripping the rail; the other, his gut. He hunched over the edge and looked down at the blue waves lapping up against the rusty hull.
Much of the ship was rusty. Too much, honestly. An old skipper that had enough room in the hold for a couple bunk beds and plenty of crates stuffed with illicit material. In their case, it provided enough room for Orion and them, along with the rations they had stowed onboard. Not a lot of space above deck to wander around, but they could at least stretch and stand and try to run through some exercises.
But Jaune wasn't much concerned by their vessel's poor shape—it was still better than most of the stuff on Earth. Certainly better than the rickety piece of scrap that had taken him out to Point Lookout. And, obviously, much better than Rivet City's cracked-open carrier.
He remembered disliking the trip to Point Lookout, but that paled in comparison to this. The real ocean.
Oh sure, he had been mystified by its beauty when he first dragged himself out of it that one fateful day… which felt to be years ago. But now it was just another obstacle to be overcome.
He belched, then sighed in relief when nothing else came up with the air. He heard the deck's thin steel plates creak and groan behind him, and he knew who approached.
"Hm." Orion hummed out of empathy—or perhaps amusement—and stopped beside him.
The deathclaw easily swayed along with the boat and had never once shown any sickness. Even Neo had looked ill a couple times during the rougher patches. Otherwise, only their experienced, unwilling pilot was impervious to any ocean sickness.
"Hm?" Jaune tried his best to imitate the deathclaw's rumbling hmm, a sound that rolled up from the chest and got funneled through up through his throat and out his nostrils. It didn't sound very similar.
"A week at sea," Orion eventually said. "And you're not used to it."
"Humans aren't as adaptable as you guys," Jaune said. "We had to go through evolution the hard way."
"Hm." Orion shrugged his bony shoulders. "I suppose not."
"Nope." Jaune sighed and ran his hands back through his hair; feeling cold wind on his scalp, he'd found, actually helped ground him a bit more. "And got nothing much to distract from… just, bobbing around."
"We could sing some sea shanties," Orion proposed.
"You know any?"
"Yo-ho, yo-ho, a pirate's life for me," Orion said in a monotone way that defied any application of rhythm.
Jaune raised his eyebrow. "You know how the rest of that goes?"
"I do not."
Jaune cracked a grin. "Yeah, me neither. Something about rum, I think… Actually, when I went to Point Lookout, the sailor sang some stuff but mostly to himself." He sighed and gripped the rail again, squeezing when he felt his stomach gurgle. He grimaced. "And I haven't been out at the ocean here on Remnant, either, so never got the chance to learn anything new.
"But, honestly, I'm not a fan of Remnant's music in general. I listened to the Achieve Men, which I hated. And some other stuff… nothing as good as Elvis, though."
"What, you listened to Elvis?"
"Of course," Orion said. "In the Enclave's lab, they gave us a record player with history's greatest music. From Bach to Sinatra. But Elvis was my favorite."
"No shit, he was mine too!" Jaune leaned back on the railing, smiling openly now.
Orion was glad to see that.
"What was your favorite song? I always liked Jailhouse Rock."
"Hound Dog," Orion said, "of course."
"Absolute classic… tsk." Jaune looked over his shoulder at the vast expanse of ocean, disapprovingly. "This world is better than Earth in a lot of ways. Every way—but not every way. Not in terms of music. None of it compares."
"Maybe that would be our nostalgia," Orion said. "I have heard several good artists played by the others in the village, and I have grown to like a lot of it. But… nothing will match up to the King.
"I remember dancing with my family and trying to dance like Elvis. It is not easy for a deathclaw to move his hips that way."
Jaune barked with laughter. "No shit, you trying to do the Elvis dance? Wanna give a demonstration?"
Orion's silence was his reply.
"Oh fine," Jaune said, still grinning. "But yeah, that reminds me of nearly every party back in the vault. He'd be played, at least a few times, every time. Just… nice. I had all his tracks downloaded on my pip-boy." His smile fell.
Jaune looked at his wrist, bare. There had been a noticeable, wide tan-line from when he first left the vault. That had faded after donning the armor of the Lone Wanderer. It had disappeared entirely by now.
"I… well, I downloaded everything from my pip-boy onto my scroll." He frowned and patted his pocket. It had quickly become instinct for him to routinely pat his pocket and make sure that the scroll was there. Now it wasn't.
"But I smashed that and left it behind when Qrow said it tracked me." Jaune rested his arms on the railing and looked overboard, just taking in the waves hitting the hull. "So I guess Remnant really won't be having any of that."
"Your pip-boy may be okay."
"Nah, probably crushed in the ruins of Beacon," he said. "If not, then people will just think it's junk when they find it and throw it out."
"One of your team might recognize and preserve it."
Jaune scoffed. "They would've thrown out everything related to me."
"Weren't you close?"
"Yeah, we were close." He closed his eyes. "Or… I like to think so. Maybe not. Maybe it was all in my head, and they're glad I'm gone.
"Gotta be honest, a big part of me still thinks they were just being nice to me to pity me. And now… they got nothing to pity, right? Just some random monster. Ruby will have told everyone what she saw me do…"
He opened his eyes. The foamy water looked dark.
"Guess smashing somebody's head into pulp and talking about all the people you've killed isn't a good way to keep people… I don't know. Liking me? Pitying me? Wanting to be around me at all?"
Looking at the waves and all their directionless swirling was starting to make his head hurt, a pinching pain around his frontal lobe. He turned and leaned his back against the railing, so he could look up at the much calmer, cloudy sky. Grey all across.
"The girl I loved more than anybody else is gone, and the friends who I started to think were my family are gone, too."
"Family," Jaune said. The word tasted bitter in his mouth. "Especially Pyrrha. You know, I never told her any of this but…
"My dad told me that he and my mom joked about having boys and girls. He wanted boys and she wanted girls, of course. Well once she said she wanted a bunch of daughters, and he wanted a couple sons. And she said that they were going to have more than a couple. He asked, 'how many kids?' She said, 'I don't know, seven?' My dad was like, 'Seven, really?' And my mom said, 'Yeah, seven daughters.' Can you imagine that? Seven damn kids? And all daughters?"
Jaune rubbed his forehead. That headache was starting to get worse.
"My dad told me that once, and ever since I thought that having a sister would be pretty nice. I thought… I thought that maybe Pyrrha was like a sister to me. Nora, too. She was super nice but… Pyrrha and I. We were partners, you know? We spent more time together, felt closer and just…"
Jaune rubbed his wrists into his eyes. "Damn sea salt," he muttered, not expecting Orion to believe him but not wanting to admit the truth. "I thought about telling her that. But I thought, no that's just a bit cringe. Now…"
"You wish you had?"
"Hell no!" Jaune snarled momentarily, before regaining his composure. "No… no, I'm glad I didn't. If I did, it would have just made her uncomfortable. Maybe she would have gone with it, for my sake. You know, since I'd probably just look sad. But no. It would have made all this even worse. So I'm glad I didn't."
"Hm." Orion crept forward and twitched his claws. He was considering giving Jaune a reassuring pat on the shoulder.
But Jaune, instinctually, looked suspiciously at the monster's claws. For just a fraction of a second, he tensed. Just an instant—Jaune himself probably did not notice his own reaction. But Orion did, and it made him pause. He shied back.
"But damn…" Jaune shook his head. "Orion, I gotta say… I'm jealous of you. Like, really damn jealous. It's just been eating at me and I guess I can admit it now."
"Jealous of me?" The deathclaw tapped a talon against his chest.
"Yeah, I'd be jealous of anybody with their shit together. I mean, you got a home. A real one. People who respect you, think you're part of the community. They know who you are already, and they accept you. That's a lot. It really is."
"Sorry for taking you out of it—"
"I would have been beyond furious had you not contacted me."
"It's beyond just revenge for me," Orion said calmly. "It's about doing the right thing."
"Yeah…" Jaune nodded. "Yeah. The right thing."
"Although," Orion said, "I must admit that I am feeling homesick already. All of these 20 years in Remnant… I've never been away for so long. I would go on hunts or scouting missions and the like, for days or weeks at a time. But this…"
"The long haul. Yup… hopping across continents is going to take a while."
"Certainly the farthest I've been."
"I also…" Orion hesitated.
Jaune raised an eyebrow.
"I always knew that people from outside wouldn't accept me," Orion said. "But, I've never met people from outside. Not really. I would ambush looters, traffickers or White Fang, and they wouldn't see me coming. Or it would be moments, just moments. They would shout and maybe I would see the panic in their eyes but that would be just a moment.
"Seeing you… trying to talk to you at first. And then Neo's reaction. And his"– Orion shrugged at their navigator in the ship control –"all just reinforce… my difference. I've felt like a normal person for years, but now I must admit…"
"Ah." Jaune sheepishly looked away. "Sorry for how I acted… and sorry if I still give those vibes. Of being cautious about you or something."
"Scared. Hm." Orion's nostrils flared as he exhaled. "I don't like scaring people."
"I mean," Jaune said, "you are scary."
Orion looked at him flatly.
Jaune swallowed, instantly regretting the words.
"What I mean is…" He started feeling uncomfortably warm. "It's us. Our monkey brains just tag you as a predator, something to be afraid of. And that's, you know, not your fault at all. That's, that's all us."
"Hm." Orion looked away.
Jaune ran a hand back through his hair, appreciated the cold, salty ocean breeze cooling him down. Breathe deep, hold, release.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't mean anything by that. And I'm gonna tell you right here and now that I trust you to have my back in this."
"You're no monster, and I know that… and well, I guess it doesn't matter if me or Neo or anybody knows that so long as you know it, right?"
Self-confidence, Peach had told him about it a lot. Well, told him to work on it.
"That…" Orion tilted his head to the side. He seemed preoccupied by something far out on the horizon. His beady eyes scanned left, then right, then left again, then still. Looking for something, anything on the open sea to focus on. He blinked. "That makes things a problem. If I don't believe it myself."
"When we fight," Orion said, "I prefer to be as 'civil' as I can. Be quick about it. Cuts to the head and chest." He licked his lips; his tongue, long and forked. "Sometimes, I just can't help the urge to bite. And the taste of blood—" Orion's teeth clicked together when he closed his jaws, quickly.
Jaune could imagine how the sentence would have ended.
He resisted the urge to scoot away.
"I mean, in the heat of battle, everybody feels a lot of things," he said instead.
"I told you what I did."
"But, for me, it's so instinctual… even my semblance."
"What about it?" Jaune said. "You can sense people, that's a pretty damn good one."
"It is a predator's power," Orion stated. He rested his claws on the railing and scraped them to the side, scratching off a layer of rust with the razor-sharp blades. "To sense and track prey. A semblance reflects one's soul. One's nature.
"I think that is why I have some additional sympathy with you, Lone Wanderer."
Jaune flinched at the name.
"Yeah…" he muttered. Just a couple of monsters, huh? I guess I've probably done shit worse than anything he has, though. So who's the bigger monster?
But Jaune figured that trying to out-do each other's misdeeds was hardly going to make either of them feel any better.
Instead, he thought a little bit about Orion's semblance. His brain ticked amid the awkward silence. Then he remembered something that didn't quite fit with the deathclaw's hypothesis.
"Nah, I don't think you've got a 'predator' semblance."
"I mean, when we first met, your sense helped confirm that Ren was okay, and where he was. You helped rescue someone with it. That's not just a killing sense."
"And what, you guys never had cave-ins or people going missing? Bet you were the lead on rescue efforts."
Jaune grinned. "See? Don't beat yourself up so much."
"Hm." Orion turned to him. "I should say the same to you. You are better than you think you are."
Jaune's mouth opened, although he had nothing to say.
Before he could think of something to spit out, the door to the lower decks opened. Neo, looking disheveled after a lazy morning of sleeping in, yawned and slunk up onto deck. She didn't look at either of them, instead stretching and waking herself up amid the chilly breeze.
Orion and Jaune looked at each other.
"So…" Jaune said. "Think I'll… I don't know. Take a nap or something. Feeling tired again."
Jaune meandered away and trudged down the stairs. He stumbled off of the bottom step, for the portholes in the small underside were grimy, scratched and fogged over. He blinked and afforded his eyes a little time to readjust, then still managed to nearly trip over his own feet. In all fairness, the ship rocked from side to side once or twice, and his sea-legs were still refusing to grow.
He slumped down into his bunk and closed his eyes. He had lied. He wasn't tired.
Well, he was tired, just not in the 'needs sleep' kind of way.
He huffed and tossed in his bed. Then he turned. And then his eyes landed on something unpleasant again.
At the far end of the hull. Hung up on a rack, was a gas mask. The pilot had explained that it was in case any gas leaks sprung; then someone could work on it while the others evacuated above deck. It was the kind of plastic, black mask that would fully obscure one's face. It looked dusty and never used. The kind of thing people would literally kill for back in the wasteland.
Its glass lenses stared into him.
He quickly yanked his gaze away from it. Instead, he swung his legs over the side of the bunk and reached under it. Unzipping his duffel bag, he pulled out none other than Crimson Arc. The lightning rifle had saved him in the fight against Arthur.
He didn't like looking at it very much. Or holding it. It reminded him of her. How couldn't it?
But it was also the strongest weapon he had; and when he finally got his hands on some lightning dust again, the weapon would thunder once more. So, he began disassembling the gun again to check in on the components. As he had every day.
And, like it had every day, the process made him remember all the time spent with her in the gun shop assembling and testing the thing. It made him want to smile as much as frown.
Before departing from Vacuo, a message had been sent ahead to Haven's headmaster, Lionheart himself. It detailed thusly:
The most esteemed Master Ozymandias, formerly the Keeper of Order in Vacuo, will be arriving in Mistral. His actions are in accordance with his semblance.
He hadn't written it. If he had, that 'most esteemed' nonsense wouldn't be there. And neither would the 'Keeper of Order in Vacuo' title. Sure, it was the official name, but he had never liked having a euphemism. Everyone knows what an executioner is, no matter the branding.
The letter had gone on to detail when and where he would arrive, as well as a request for some guide to help him on his way.
Ozymandias had also objected to that, but Fatu insisted on making sure he would have some accompaniment in uncertain times. Honestly, he objected to the whole letter. He would have liked to just go and show up at the Arch of the Rising Sun himself.
"But that is Haven's territory," Fatu had said. "They will hardly be happy to know that a high-ranking member of the Vacuo Brotherhood is in their background without their knowledge, let alone with no reason given."
Ozymandias had grunted. "When I was first inducted, politics like this did not get in the way. Knights and Paladins ought to travel freely, with help from their brothers and sisters, unconditional."
"Seventy years is a long time," Fatu had said. "And you haven't been involved in the political side of things, nor have you traveled. The Brotherhood isn't as unified as it once was, I suppose."
"You suppose correctly. What with Ozma playing favorite and the veterans from the Great War dying. If only things were the same as…
"No, I shouldn't do that. I really shouldn't. I've always had a habit of thinking the past used to be better. That's disastrous thinking."
So, an official letter and request for escort. And a token reason for the journey.
In accordance with his semblance. Not much of a reason. Most people would have no idea what it even meant—which was the point. If the message was somehow leaked, then virtually no one would know the truth. But Lionheart would, and that sufficed.
When he finally landed in the airship port and found his designated hotel, only a letter awaited him it spoke of an old safe house used by hunters on watch in the area. He would rendezvous there with a huntsman loyal to the Brotherhood, who could then point him to the safest roads and arrange his travel.
Straightforward; Ozymandias appreciated that minimal effort was being spared for him. Others might groan at the need to travel on foot, but he appreciated that too. The ruggedness reminded him of earlier days, and the views were beautiful.
He was deeply displeased, however, with the number of breaks he had to take to breathe. The number of coughing fits that forced him to hobble to a tree to lean on. Stark reminders.
Yes, he thought, stark reminders that I really need to hurry up.
Thankfully, he was familiar with the destination. A spacious cabin overlooking a cliff and a river far below. Thick forests gave way to dense, green temperate jungles on the far horizon. He had stayed there a couple of times, long ago.
A few days travels was all it took, and there he was.
"About damn time…" he muttered to himself as he crested a ridge and saw the lodge in the distance. He wound his way up along an overgrown trail crept higher and higher up the cliffside.
He stopped a few times to sit on some helpful rocks and breathe, but he reached the top of the cliff after another hour of toil. He was rewarded with a marvelous view and a rundown shack.
The former was quite nice. Seeing the greenery sweep out to the edge of the world like a rougher, darker version of its blue ocean counterpart. The shack? That wasn't as appealing visually—or appealing in any way, really. Drab, broken and abandoned. It reminded Ozymandias of Vacuo.
Or… another place. From further back.
The windows were shattered, and the sharp fragments that jutted out from the panes like jagged teeth bore scratches and grime. The roof slumped to the side. Moss and vines grew up along the walls. Rotten, cracked wooden planks formed a staircase up onto the porch. The first one Ozymandias stepped on cracked in half.
He was not stupid.
Ozymandias drew his sword. The dark blade, dark as the black hide of any Grimm, whispered when he drew it from its sheath. He looked over his shoulder. The forest loomed near the house, reclaiming the clearing that had been cut and made decades ago just for this now abandoned place.
Ozymandias moved around the side of the lodge. He slid his backpack off and set it carefully to the ground. He stopped once and stifled a cough, cursing himself for the huff that still escaped his mouth and fumed out his stoic lion's mask. He wasn't particularly sneaky anyway, with grass and twigs crunching underneath his feet.
He craned his neck and looked carefully into the cabin. The place seemed thoroughly abandoned. He peered through the cobwebs that crisscrossed the broken windows and saw nothing but rotting old floorboards and some simple, dusty furniture. A table with no chairs, a kitchen with the pantries all open and empty, a mold-covered couch and a stand where maybe there used to be a TV or radio. Dark rafters infected with bird nests. A raccoon in the corner.
He crept around the side, seeing nothing other than the vacant kitchen and living room. A door had fallen off its hinges, revealing a dark toilet. No one had lived here for a decade.
Perhaps Lionheart had just picked this place without doing his research first. Maybe he looked at an outdated map of Brotherhood-friendly safehouses and saw that this was closest. When Ozymandias had met the man, he had definitely given the impression of someone more adept as a teacher and administrator than a frontline huntsman.
Ozymandias kept his sword drawn and kicked down the back door. He marched into the room, twisting to get his bulky frame and square shoulders through the narrow entrance. His eyes darted left and right, and he kept his aura up and on guard. He gripped his blade firmly with his right hand; his left held his scabbard, which hung loosely off a hook on his belt.
The floorboards creaked underneath him with each step. He listened beyond those sounds, ignoring the racoon's skittering and the birds' flapping as they fled. Scuffling rose from beneath the floorboards, likely a possum that had hidden underneath the house. He stopped in the center of the room; only his raspy mouth-breathing made a sound.
He scanned the floor, but the only footsteps in the thick layer of dust were his own, and the imprints of little paws and claws from assorted wildlife. No one had been here before him for a while. The letter said someone should be waiting for him. They could have gotten sidetracked but—
A gunshot cracked through the silence, and a bullet whipped through one of the windows, shattering a shard of glass and whizzing over Ozymandias's shoulder. It cracked a pantry door and embedded itself into the wall.
Ozymandias whipped around, marshaling his aura to his front and raising his sheath—
Wood cracked and splintered behind him. The floorboards bent and shuddered beneath him. Something had torn straight up through the floor.
And before Ozymandias could turn around, he felt a red-hot, searing pain erupt in the middle of his back, driving through his thinned aura. It felt like a blazing fire poker had just plunged through his armor and into his flesh, those flames quickly fanning out and spreading under his skin.
He grit his teeth together, crushing any gasp or wince. He pushed through the moment of shock that the pain had forced and spun around, swinging his sword in a tight arc.
"Whoops!" The assailant giggled and crouched under the sword, then flipped back when Ozymandias followed through with a downward chop that thudded into the wooden floorboard.
"You…" Ozymandias breathed the word out slowly, caustically. He glared at Tyrian Callows.
"Oh no," the assassin said. "It seems I tripped and misplaced my tail!" His scorpion's stinger hung in the air over his head. Its sharp tip glistened with a bright green fluid.
As well as blood, or what might have been blood; a viscous, yellowish substance congealed on his stinger, also.
Ozymandias would have rushed straight in, but a hole now formed in the middle of the floor, wooden floorboards shattered and cracked upwards. His adversary had been hiding below like a rat.
"Bye, bye," Tyrian cooed with a demented smile. He drew his bladed gauntlets, switch up the guns in them and pulled the trigger—
Ozymandias hefted his scabbard up and clicked a button along the shaft, so that the whole thing swiftly unwound itself into a mecha-shift flurry.
Bullets collided against and then pinged off a black kite shield that Ozymandias now wielded before him.
If he was surprised, Tyrian didn't let that on; he certainly didn't seem mad. No, he cackled after letting go of the triggers, his wicked smile ever wider. "Oh if only you had that shield ready a second ago!"
His stinger waved high in the air as he stalked to the side, around the hole in the ground. Ozymandias circled likewise, keeping his shield before him and his sword raised—ready to stab.
"Oh come on, tough guy," Tyrian said. "Just admit that I got the drop on you and give up. Give in. You have to be feeling it now, right?" His stinger dipped down beside his face. "My venom? You just got a nice big dose."
"Callows," Ozymandias said, "it will be a cold day in hell before I let you best me." Ozymandias staggered, making Tyrian tense and ready to pound. But the old man regained his stance quickly, readjusting his sword in his grip and pointing it at his foe.
"That so?" Tyrian said with a laugh. He slunk to one side, then the other, smoothly prodding Ozymandias's flanks. "Because you're past your prime, old master." Tyrian spat down onto the ground, as if just saying that title had put a bad taste in his mouth. "You may have chased me out of Vacuo when I was a kid—"
"Some twenty-year-old wannabe hitman who I choked half to death," Ozymandias said, "before throwing off a roof because his partner was more dangerous. A partner I killed."
"A long time!" Tyrian hissed, his deranged smile twisting into a furious sneer as quick as a light switch turning a bulb on or off. "A long, long time. And now I have my Lady to give me power."
Tyrian's soft smile was his answer. A grin like he had just smelled fresh flowers; that was her name to him.
"I suppose you have some fellow cultists out there"– Ozymandias pulled in a long, shallow breath –"shooting at me?"
"A nice little distraction," Tyrian said. He clicked his blades together, getting antsy. "Got you to turn around. But they'll hold now, wouldn't want them pinging off of me, eh?"
"I suppose not. You—" Ozymandias stepped, but his knee seemed to lack the strength to keep his whole weight up, caving in for a second. He again almost stumbled—and Tyrian again almost pounced—but he regained his footing and his stance, hefting his shield up.
"A long, long time," Tyrian taunted. "Have to say, you're acting a lot more stoic than most people when I hit them with that much venom. A tinsey bit impressive." Tyrian licked his lips; he brought one of his blades to his mouth and ran his tongue along its edge. Undoubtedly already tasting blood.
"You…" Ozymandias stopped moving. He breathed loudly, quickly.
"I…?" Tyrian giggled. "Are you going to finish that thought?"
Ozymandias dropped to his knees. His shield fell from one hand; his sword, the other. Both clattered onto the floor. He fell face-first then, slamming onto the floorboards and sending a shudder through the house's old rafters.
Then it was very still.
"Oh, what a shame," Tyrian huffed, and then mumbled, "Looks like my stuff stopped his heart outright…"
There was no way he could be faking it, the venom would have anyone trembling; it was the unavoidable physical reaction between nerves and chemicals.
"I really thought I could have some fun here." He ambled by Ozymandias's body and kicked his side. There was no reaction. "Pah! And to think that Lionheart gave me a whole lecture about how you're still dangerous." Tyrian put his gauntlets away and spat on his enemy's body.
"Oh well…" he turned his back to the corpse and let his aura slip down from its battle readiness as he relaxed and stopped focusing. He had known he would win against the old man, but he figured it would last at least a few minutes. Who knew—
Ozymandias's hand shot out and clutched Tyrian's tail, yanking it back at the same time as he picked up his sword again. He held the tail in place, twisted and exposed it.
Tyrian stumbled back. "What the—!"
He screeched when Ozymandias chopped down, severing his tail with a perfectly placed cleave at one of its insectoid joints. The black blade's sharper-than-sharp edge sliced through and thunked into the floorboards.
Ozymandias lurched to his feet and drove his shoulder into Tyrian's back, tackling the man and charging him straight into the kitchen counter. They obliterated the rotting old wood and crashed into the cabinets, smashing through the wall and collapsing on the other side and into the bathroom. Tyrian twisted away and smashed head-first into the toilet, shattering the porcelain with his face.
Ozymandias huffed, got to his knee, gripped his sword's blade with his free hand and drove it toward Tyrian's ribs with all his strength and weight behind it.
"Gah!" Tyrian pivoted quickly enough to stop the point from hitting on mark, instead making it grate through his aura and deflect onto the tiled floor. "You bastard!" Tyrian flipped and kicked Ozymandias in the side, sending him back out into the kitchen.
He went with momentum and rolled, getting quickly to his shield. He drove his sword into the ground, took a deep breath and strained as he propped himself back to his feet. He stomped on the edge of his shield, flipping it back up and catching it once more with his free hand.
"You—you, how!" Tyrian clenched his jaw and bore his sharpened teeth. His eyes were wide with rage, surprise and an unhinged third emotion known only to his broken mind. "My venom!" He looked at his tail, which still twitched and squirmed on the floor, leaking blood and green ooze.
Ozymandias laughed. "Poison runs through this body's veins, fool."
He squared his shield in front of him and charged as Tyrian drew his bladed gauntlets again.
"Believers!" Tyrian shouted, so loud and rough that it must have torn his throat. "Come and kill! Rah!" He pounced at Ozymandias, wildly flailing his gauntlets and slashing with blistering speed at the metal, driving the elder back.
Ozymandias grunted and moved his shield in time to deflect every strike, while carefully ensuring that Tyrian couldn't sweep to one side or the other to flank around his defense. Anyone with lesser expertise than he could very well have succumbed to such a rapid barrage.
He glared down his opponent, analyzed his movements. He glanced around once or twice to get a sense of the environment and…
Breathe deep. Hold. Release.
"Hmph!" Ozymandias grunted and countered one of Tyrian's strikes by sweeping his shield out. The assassin crossed his arms to block it, but Ozymandias piled through with enough force to send him stumbling back—
Straight down into the same hole he had burst out of. Tyrian fell a couple feet, landing on his ass; and Ozymandias had the high ground.
The old master rushed in and started stabbing down, while Tyrian flung his gauntlets out to block the strikes. Several of them still got through, slashing his wrists and forearms and draining aura. A couple even got down to Tyrian's shoulders, gouging out bits of aura so that nothing got skewered.
Ozymandias huffed and puffed, and quickly surprised himself by how his arm started to burn with the effort, and his lungs contracted. One of his stabs went wide, a bit sloppy.
"Bastard!" Tyrian slapped the sword aside and finally pounced back out of the hole. He landed on all fours and scrambled around the side to leap onto Ozymandias again. And once more, it became a battle of Ozymandias deftly angling his shield to blunt or deflect each slash and stab.
He felt his arm getting sore from every thud as the blades impacted. He grunted and swung out, forcing Tyrian onto the defensive with a few solid swipes, only to be put on the backfoot again.
Tyrian flipped over him, spinning and getting a cut into the back of his shoulder. Ozymandias grunted, but a flash of aura stopped blood from being drawn. He spun around in time to parry a wild stab from Tyrian—
Allowing him an opening to swing his shield around and crack its edge against Tyrian's jaw, sending the man tumbling down.
But not for long. The assassin rolled away as Ozymandias chopped at him and sprung to his feet. He snarled and thrust forward, forcing the old master to take cover behind his shield again.
And again, he analyzed his foes movements. He saw how he pivoted on his left heel. He devised a counter strike that he could do to exploit that.
Breathe deep. Hold. Re—
A hacking cough barreled up from Ozymandias's lungs, through his throat and sputtered out his mouth faster than he could think. And it continued, loud and violent. The coughing fit made his shoulders shake, and he hunched over. For a moment, all he could feel was the pain in his throat and just how extraordinarily loud and quickly his heart was pounding.
Tyrian delivered a round-house kick to his head that sent him flying into the wall, splintering the boards there and sending the broken glass in the nearby windows flying out their frames as the whole house shuddered. He collapsed to the ground, gasping for air.
Tyrian screeched and dove for the kill, with Ozymandias raising his shield to block both of his blades only just in time. He threw the assassin off him with a grunt. His chest felt like it was going to explode as he held in his breath and smothered more coughs.
With a bit of distance afforded, He drove his sword into the floor again and pushed himself to his feet, wobbling unsteadily when he did. More coughs escaped.
Tyrian laughed. "Old man, dead man!" He ducked low and drove in. Ozymandias shook his head and prepared for the blow; but his brain was foggy, and it took him a couple more seconds to realize when Tyrian brought his arms up that there was no low blow intended.
The assassin flipped over him again, and this time Ozymandias didn't move fast enough. Tyrian crisscrossed his blades mid-air, landing a vicious pair of cuts between and across his shoulder blades. Aura shined, but the blades got through enough to tear cloth and even draw some blood.
Tyrian twisted and landed on his feet, then darted in once more.
Ozymandias spun and raised his shield, so Tyrian leapt at the last moment, curled up and delivered a drop kick; both of his feet slammed squarely into the shield. Ozymandias reeled back, thrown off balance.
He fell to one knee. His lungs burned. An itch clawed all up along his throat. His heart thumped impossibly loudly, so strong that he felt it in his head; as if someone was slamming a hammer against his skull in time with every beat.
"Die!" Tyrian jumped in again, bringing his blades downward into a nasty chop.
"Go to hell!" Ozymandias hoarsely cried, sloppily throwing his shield up to rebuff the attack.
Blade met shield, and both men's arms went wide. But then Ozymandias saw a new target.
He hauled his shield back down and drove its edge straight onto Tyrian's boots, smashing his toes. His foe growled and recoiled, giving Ozymandias just enough of an opening to twist around. He fell onto his back, using that momentum to swing his sword up into Tyrian's face.
"Gah!" Tyrian's aura flared but was not enough to completely stop the sword's bite. The blunt force itself was enough to send him reeling away.
Breathe deep. Hold. Release.
Ozymandias used all his focus and effort just to rise back to his feet. He used his sword like a cane.
When Tyrian turned back around, it was with an even more concentrated fury in his eyes. He shook all over with rage. A cut across his cheek seeped blood.
Ozymandias readied his sword and—
Raised his shield just in time to block a bullet. Out the corner of his eye, he had seen a man just outside a window raise his gun. Another appeared in a different window, and another still arrived in the cabin's doorway. All with rifles trained on him.
They looked like normal men and women, but with a determined hate in their eyes like Tyrian's own.
"Kill him!" The assassin screamed. He clicked his gauntlets back into gun mode and opened fire.
Ozymandias raised his shield against the hail of bullets and mustered his aura. Bullets pounded against the shield, but these people weren't stupid. His shield wasn't big enough to cover all of him. He had to crouch, that it would cover most of his mass. Still, they grazed his arms, pinged off his mask and slammed into his legs.
This is so extremely bad.
A desperate, terrible plan cooked up in his head, and it was all he could go with.
He retreated, rising just enough for his legs to scurry away, keeping his shield raised against them. Feeling all the while his aura dip lower bit by bit as their bullets got through.
His back slammed against the wall, conveniently just as most of them ran out of ammo. They all unloosed their guns' magazines. The three backup cultists—as Ozymandias could only reason them to be—were sloppier about it, wrenching the magazines free and fumbling in their pockets for replacements to jam back in. Tyrian flicked his out quickly and produced new mags almost instantly to slip back in.
Ozymandias didn't spend that brief respite waiting. He lurched to the nearest window and threw himself out of it.
"Hurmph!" He grunted when he slammed ignominiously into the dirt. He pushed his shield into the ground and took advantage again of his sword to hobble to his feet. Gunfire tore through the wall behind him, pounding a couple stray bullets into his shoulder before he raised his shield again in time.
Where the bullets contacted, he felt bloody welts beginning to form. He felt his aura straining. He saw the edge of the cliff not far away.
"Get back here!" Tyrian roared. The cabin's wall exploded as he hurled himself straight through it in a shower of splintered wood, torn vines and decayed flecks of paint. He landed and grit his teeth when he saw Ozymandias sprinting for the ledge. "You coward!"
He ran after his prey, shooting as he did. But his bullets pinged off Ozymandias's shield, and the old master didn't slow down.
Without hesitating, he reached the cliff and dove off.
"Oh no you don't!" Tyrian shouted. He threw himself down to all fours and bounded for the ledge, leaping off it without missing a beat.
The two foes plummeted toward the frothing river below.