Exercises in Futility I
There was no turning back, Taki Kazuya thought, grinding his teeth together, the taste of blood in his mouth. This was war, a war as terrible and crushing as any fought in by previous generation; a war comparative to that of the petty proxy wars fought in border skirmishes far from Japan's shores, a war that would overshadow American and French involvement in Vietnam; this was a war for the future.
With a grunt, he pulled himself up, rising shakily to his feet, his fingers tightened into fists, balled at his sides. The hair on the back of his neck bristled, and he ducked, turning with a further grunt and bringing his fist up in an explosive punch, the shotgun shells he had loaded into his custom knuckleduster erupting on contact with the Combat-Roid's blood red helm.
Too late he sensed another presence closing in, the ugly, swollen shape of Utsubo Otoko rising up behind him, rank water pouring from its unseemly body. Too late to reload the Ballistic Fist, too late to lift his leg and slam his foot into the oncoming monster's chest, he groped helplessly for the shotgun bound to his side, his heart hammering in his chest—and stopped, an arc of sickening blood spattering against his leather jacket as the hideous creature was bisected, its form losing coherence and dropping in two shuddering chunks to the ground at his feet.
His eyes widened as he found himself confronted by a tall woman, shaking the corrosive blood from the steel of her blade, a fringe of dark hair over one eye, her gaze fierce as she turned to glower in his direction.
Her presence was intimidating, the open collared black shirt, the immaculate white lab coat, and the terrible grace with which she presented herself, the absolute dispassion for the violence she partook in.
"W-Who are you?" he gasped.
She looked at him long and hard, her expression unreadable.
"Someone who saved your life, Taki Kazuya," she said at least, returning her blade to her side. "Remember that when next we meet."
Without warning, a wall of blistering mercury rose up from the soil behind her, its surface shifting and warping as it rushed suddenly forward, engulfed her, and then dissipated into nothingness, leaving Kazuya alone but for the sound of battle ringing in his ears.
Alarms screeched in terrible warning as Geiz's Time Mazine smashed into the ground, the roar of violence about it, the shape of a sickening and impossible black pyramid rising up in the distance.
"Warning," came the machine's curt HumaGear voice from the console, "detecting dangerous inconsistencies in the space surrounding the anomalous structure ahead."
Geiz lifted her hands from the control yoke, stealing a look at Tsukuyomi and Sumire before reaching forward and flipping a switch on the board before her, the chest of the great machine groaning open to reveal a heady conflict between numerous armoured figures and a host of impossible creatures.
"Are those—?" Sumire began.
"Kamen Riders," Tsukuyomi said, with a nod of his head.
The young girl at his side—the future Oma Zi-o, she reminded herself—swallowed hard.
"I-I never knew there were so many," Sumire murmured, "not at this point in history."
Geiz offered her a disparaging look.
"There's a lot you don't know about your legacy," she said with spite.
If Sumire understood the meaning of the words, she did not respond, her attention held by the bloody battle before them, the host of armoured figures and their hideous opponents.
"We have to help them," she said, rushing to the open hatch of the Time Mazine, the RideWatch already in her hand, pausing only to look back at Sumire and Geiz before half-jumping, half-running down the side of the great time machine.
Without looking at him, Geiz reached into the pocket of her trowsers and dug out a crystal RideWatch, gesturing towards Tsukuyomi.
"Take it," she announced. "There's a spare Ziku Driver and a Geiz Ridewatch, dated 2038, in the storage space between the console."
Tsukuyomi smiled wryly as he accepted the RideWatch.
"And you're telling me this now, because?"
"It might come in handy," Geiz said, bristling with discomfort, "and I don't trust Spade. Things seem to be a lot more serious now than when we first encountered Sumire."
"Are you sure this is okay?" he asked, looking up.
"No," Geiz replied, "but I don't want to be caught off-guard again, it puts me in a bad mood."
An understatement, Tsukuyomi thought, trying to hide a smile.
"I get you," he answered, "and thank you."
"Just don't break it," Geiz said, stepping forward to the open hatch. "I never used it because I didn't understand how a Geiz RideWatch could exist with a date from before the suit was developed, but I'm guessing it was a prototype that Oma Zi-o's lackeys were trialling."
"Probably," Tsukuyomi agreed, reaching down and opening the compartment below, its doors sliding apart with a hiss.
"Just don't break it," Geiz said again, and then leapt out of the open chest of the Time Mazine, slamming her own RideWatch into her belt.
His fingers knotted together behind his back, his hands interlocked, as he narrowed his eyes, taking in the details presented by the vast stereovision screen before him, the shape of the unfolding conflict. Within the fire and the dust, one figure stood out, black armour adorned with silver and purple trim, a blade flashing in the bright light of the sun.
With a grunt of displeasure, he turned away from the screen, eyeing those he had summoned into his presence—Mikage Eisuke, the finest of his generals, the silent healer forever hovering a step behind him, her armour only marginally different from those of the Commando Roids. At Mikage's side was Yuuki Jouji, his one remaining hand clad in a leather jacket, the empty sleeve of his jacket pinned up against his right shoulder. And then, at last, there was their visitor, his swollen red armour, his black stealth suit both familiar and anachronistic.
"Combatant No. X," he growled, his voice low, full of displeasure.
The armoured man stepped forward and saluted.
"Yes, Kurayami Taishi."
The older man's thin lips twisted with displeasure, he turned and gestured at the screen, the faint figure in the black and silver cutting through a line of Combat-Roids.
"This is the boy of which you warned, this Kamen Rider Zi-o?"
"Yes, Kurayami Taishi," the solider said once more, offering a curt nod. "This is the boy who ensured the downfall of Time Shocker."
Again, the older man grunted. When first Combatant No. X had approached them, he had been uncertain as to his story. The notion of a revived Shocker, a Shocker that thrived in some distant future even without the guidance of the Great Leader unsettled him. If the future that this man spoke of was to come to pass, it meant that the entirety of the Badan Empire was destined to fall, that the Great Leader would never be revived.
Yet it was plausible, he thought. After all, the Space-Time Break System, its core thriving on unstable Badancium 84, its shell fashioned from Satanium, was known to have a disruptive effect upon the flow of the universe. That, it had been reported, was how Combatant No. X had come to be amongst them after the defeat of Time Shocker, and that was what, in turn, had drawn this new Rider to them.
"If Zi-o were to obtain the ZX armour—" the traveller began.
"I am aware of the significance of ZX, soldier," the older man growled with fierce disapproval, a warning that the other had overstepped his mark.
Hastily, Combatant No. X bowed his head.
"My apologies, sir."
Dressed in his own archaic uniform, the conical helm that rose up from his shoulders, Kurayami Taishi did not deign the other with a reply, his gaze fixed upon the screen.
"Yuuki Jouji," he said instead, his voice a low growl.
The other man turned towards him, an expression of curiosity upon his face. It irked him how at home the younger man seemed, how carefree and casual he seemed to be standing here after having spilt so much blood on previous battlefields to stand against such as Badan represented.
The Great Leader JUDO, vast as the vision they represented was, had nonetheless suffered a number of defeats at the hands of the instruments that such previous organisations as Shocker and Destron had fashioned. It was part of the plan, Kurayami Taishi had been told, yet he remained hesitant, unwilling to directly contradict the Great Leader, yet similarly unwilling to accept all as it had been explained to him.
"Yuuki Jouji," he said once again, turning to face the man, "do you feel nothing at the sight of your former comrades struggling against the might of Badan?"
A lopsided smile crossed the younger man's lips.
"It's very impressive, I'll give you that," he admitted, though in his tone Kurayami Taishi sensed something insincere, something mocking.
"Perhaps you would feel more comfortable if you were out there on the battlefield."
Mikage let out a snarl of protest, and hastily the older man turned to glare at him, silencing him utterly.
"I wouldn't wish to deprive you of my expertise here," Yuuki said with a smirk.
He was a fool, the old man thought bitterly. Hadn't it he himself called Yuuki to Badan? At every opportunity, hadn't he given the younger man the benefit of the doubt despite the part he had played in the downfall of both Destron and countless of its successors? Why would he have changed his plans now, what was it that could have caused him to so readily abandon his former friends and side again with those in service of the Great Leader?
The older man drew a deep breath, his lips twitching in a snarl as he spoke.
"Perhaps a demonstration of your loyalty is in order," he remarked.
For the longest moment Yuuki met his gaze, and then, at last, Kurayami Taishi turned away, apparently done with suggesting his doubts of the younger man, and instead glaring at Mikage and the woman standing a short distance from him.
"Go," he said to Mikage, "eliminate this Zi-o."
The other man cracked his knuckles, the leather of his gloves creaking.
"What about Murasame Ryo?"
Again, Kurayami Taishi turned with disdain towards Yuuki.
"He will come to us," he announced, a cruel smile flittering across his lips. "After all, he has friends here."
'Zi-o!' the belt called out, its voice resounding across the battlefield as she pulled her hand away, a second RideWatch affixed at her waist.
'Zi-o!' it called out again. 'Zi-o II!'
Her hands reached out, seizing hold of a fresh sword as it took shape before her, particles of light gathered upon the silver of the blade. Effortlessly, she turned, instinctively aware of unfolding events, her sword cutting down the lumbering, lurching shapes of vaguely arachnid, vaguely chiropteran creatures, beating them back as they swarmed about her.
Never before had she seen such a place, the towering structure of the vast black pyramid ahead of her, the swarms of creatures defending it to the last—and there were so many Riders, men in dented and scarred armour she had never known of, had never even imagined, yet whom she felt an instant kinship with.
"Watch yourself!" Geiz shouted, slamming her fist into the face of a creature with a head like a budding rose, petals falling from its shoulders as it staggered back beneath the weight of the blow.
She glanced over at her friend, smiling beneath the mask of her helmet.
"Thanks for the save, Geiz," she beamed.
The two of them stood back to back, a crowd of slithering, sighing creatures surrounding them, approaching with outstretched arms.
"If anyone's going to defeat you, it's going to be me, remember that, Zi-o," Geiz responded with surly dislike.
Sumire's smile did not fade.
"I knew I could count on you," she said playfully, "you're a good friend."
"We're not friends!" Geiz shouted, darting forward and smashing the flower-headed creature in the face again, sending it down into the dirt and the dust for good this time.
The other girl laughed gently. It was too easy to tease Geiz, she thought, who had bristled with anger and contempt when she had first arrived from that hideous future both she and Tsukuyomi described, her every word, every move a reaction to things Sumire could not even begin to fathom. It had been hard for her then to believe that they were the same age, so different were their experiences, yet eventually, and with the more time she spent in the present, in the world that Sumire knew, a softer side had presented itself, a gentler side.
Who would have thought that they would be together like this, fighting back to back, when first the two had met?
"Stop daydreaming!" Geiz called out with frustration, swinging her arm as the curved edge of her ax lashed out against the circle of creatures that surrounded them.
Beneath her mask, Sumire smiled, digging her feet into the dirt below, readying the blade in her hands, her grasp tight about its hilt. Around them, though they grew closer, each of the creatures seemed uncertain, unwilling to initiate combat. They were so much like Another Riders, she thought, and yet they were also so distinct, so unique, more like the Gurongi that they had fought previously when Spade had transformed the young Kuuga into Another Agito.
What kind of world was it, that had struggled against such monsters so regularly? Around her, they grew closer and closer still, the muscles of her arms tensed, the weight of the Saikyo Girade suddenly heavy in her grasp. It concerned her that, for the longest time, she thought the notion of Kamen Riders to be a recent thing, a lineage that dated back on as long as the past 20 years or so. Her encounters beneath the ring of space-time rifts late last year had done much to disavow of her of such an opinion, and yet even then, she could not have imagined the number of men and women chosen by fate prior to her.
"Geiz, what do you think these things are?" she asked, her tone playful even if her body ached with the desire to fight.
"How should I know?" Geiz growled in response. "Zombies, maybe? Imajin? Dopants? What does it matter?"
The circle of creatures grew closer, and Sumire could hear her heat hammering in her chest, the sound of blood pounding in her ears. Just a moment longer, she told herself, just a moment longer. She could feel them now, the claws of their outstretched arms so close she could touch them, their eyes full of hollow pain and hunger.
She drew a deep breath, and then allowed her gaze to turn inward, the future playing out in her mind's eye, the sight of the creatures swarming on top of them, the slash of her blade, the cut of Geiz's ax, the weakest link in their chain, dark blood washing over their armour.
A claw seized her shoulder, and she was torn back to the present. It didn't matter, she knew what to do, slashing, tearing through the starfish creature, her eyes scanning the crowd until she found the hideous snail-thing, its shuddering antenna, its chittering groans, and she knew that if she was to cut through this one, the circle would fall into chaos.
Her body tensed, sword at the ready—and then abruptly the snail-thing was torn away, the crowd losing shape as something bigger, something fiercer tore through them on its way to where Sumire and Geiz were cornered.
She caught only glimpses of it at first, its impossibly swift movement, its tremendous power, and then, as the circle gave way, she saw it, rising up from the ranks of the monstrous crowd, fur slick with blood and ruin, a tiger, she thought, its aura blistering like the white-hot light of the sun.
The words of that old poem they had read in school rang through her head as she brought up the Saikyo Girade in a last-ditch effort to defend herself, the weight of the beast slamming into her, the blade cutting into the forearms as it pushed forward.
"Kamen Rider Zi-o," a voice growled from deep in the creature's throat—a man's voice, she thought, with sudden realisation that somewhere, beneath the bestial horror of this creature, there was a man.
"Kamen Rider Zi-o," he growled again, "I can allow you to go no further!"
Was that a jetpack on his back, she thought, almost idly. Too late, she realised that it was not just a jetpack, that those twin funnels mounted to his monstrous form were in fact cannons of the deadliest kind. She opened her mouth to cry out, but too late, light had gathered within, swelling with greater and greater luminance.
In the distance, she thought she heard Geiz, thought she head the other girl cry out a warning, words of regret, something in-between. A moment later, and the flames washed over her.
Steam rose from his knuckles as he punched down another of Badan's half-men, fighting his way closer and closer to where Hongo and Ichimonji battled their way through the swelling crowd, growing closer and closer to the black pyramid and the shrill call of that evil empire's Space-Time Break System.
He pulled his fist back, smashing forward again and again, working his way through the shuddering throng of revived creatures, blow by blow, until at last, he was there side, struggling against the creatures that swarmed them, black blood spattering against the visor of his motorcycle helmet.
"Kazuya," Ichimonji said, almost with amusement, "what took you so long?"
"Utsubo Otoko," he grunted, thrusting his fist forward, knocking teeth from the mouth of the shrieking form of Kogoensky as it staggered backwards, blood staining its white fur, its eyes dull with pain.
He loaded up a second set of shells into his brass knuckles, but already the great yeti creature was throwing itself forward. Hongo's foot slammed into the dirt, his right arm coming down in a chop to the neck that sent the beast down amidst the crowd, trampled by its fellow servants of Badan.
"Where's Murasame?" Hongo said, sparing a swift glance towards Taki and Ichimonji.
"I haven't seen him," Taki replied, a slight pang of guilt at the thought of Murasame Ryo amidst the crowd, fighting alone, all of that anger and resentment building up within him.
Of them all, Murasame was the youngest, just as he was also the latest victim of a tradition that stretched all the way back to when Taki had first picked up the case, witnessing the hideous strength of Shocker, and the desperate war Hongo and Ichimonji had waged against them.
Shocker had passed, replaced by Geldam and Gel Shocker, and eventually Destron and countless others. Yet each time, Hongo and Ichimonji had been there to stand against them, a growing number of allies joining them, men and women who had been conditioned by the heirs of Shocker as weapons of mass destruction, their strength turned against the cruelty of their former masters.
Like each of them, Murasame's story was no different, a victim of those who had not been able to accept the fall of the Third Reich almost 40 years ago.
"You worry too much, Takeshi," Ichimonji said, carefree as ever, kicking out against the shape of Kikkaijin Torafugun, the heel of his boot shattering the spines that rose up around the face of its swollen body.
"We need to join up with the others," Hongo said, swatting away a Combat-Roid with a punch, the mask crumbling inwards beneath his fist.
Hongo was right, Taki thought, alone they were outnumbered, and despite the strength and experience of each of them, it was impossible that they could stand against the endless waves of creatures that ushered forth from the black pyramid before them.
"I agree," he said, hastily looking about him at the seething crowd of creatures, "but how are we going to reach the others?"
From behind him, Hongo reached back and pulled free Yuuki Jouji's shorn bionic arm.
"I was hoping I wouldn't have to do this, old friend," he whispered softly.
There was a moment in which he was aware of the press of those around him, of the presence of his two friends, tense with frustration and anticipation. He took a deep breath, and then folded the arm in on itself sliding it down to the belt at his waist.
"Cassette Henshin!" he called out, sweat upon his brow beneath the curve of his helmet. "Power Up!"
He sensed her before he saw her, the sound of her heeled ankle boots against the stone. He did not turn to look at her, did not need to, he already knew what she had to say. Beneath the elbow, he felt the pain of his severed arm, remembered the way in which he had been held down by his colleagues before the blistering heat of an oasis of acid, the shape of Yoroi Gensui bellowing with laughter as he stood there, his arms folded across his chest.
"Why are you letting this continue?" came the voice from behind him.
Yuuki Jouji took a deep breath, and then turned slowly, a sad smile on his thin lips.
"Woz," he said softly.
In her hands, a leather-bound tome lay open, the hem of her long, frilled dress brushing her ankle boots, a bonnet of fine lace tied beneath her chin.
"At your service," she said with a curtesy.
"I'm surprised there's still more for you to say."
She raised in an eyebrow in wry amusement.
"I pride myself on being unpredictable."
"Is that so?"
Yuuki took a step towards her, one hand in the pocket of his trowsers.
"As I said last time, I'm taking what I believe to be the best course of action."
Woz regarded him with interest, as if she was somehow studying him, committing the details of his face to memory. At the last she sighed, rolling her eyes as she did.
"It would have been easier for me if you weren't intent on being so heroic," she remarked.
He remembered his childhood, remembered the instruction of the Great Leader, the shape forever concealed, the spirit trapped within a proxy body; he remembered the first sensation of searing pain as his hand had pushed into the acid.
"It's what we do," he said at last, his voice heavy with the weight of recollection. "But you should know this, after all, aren't you a Kamen Rider too?"
From behind her back, Woz pulled free the glistening silver and blue of the Woz Miridewatch, tapping it lightly with her index finger as she held it out on display.
"I prefer to think of myself as a courtier, of course."
Yuuki nodded, and turned away so as not to look at her.
"It doesn't matter what you call yourself, Kamen Rider, armoured hero, what matters is having faith in your comrades; knowing when to act, and when to step back." Slowly, he began to walk away. "My friends are fighting for a better world. You might not believe me when I tell you that my goal is the same, that my feelings on this matter haven't changed, but I'm asking you to trust me, and to trust in the fact that I know what I'm doing."
"You know this better world of yours has changed?" Woz called after him. "You know the Space-Time Break System is interfering with the flow of things?"
He raised his hand, waving at her, but not looking back.
"I know," he answered.
"I can't allow anything to endanger the future coronation of Her Majesty!" Woz said, taking a step forward, her Miridewatch clasped in her hand.
"Trust me," Yuuki said again, his voice growing fainter as he kept on walking straight ahead. "I know what I'm doing."
"You keep saying that, but I wonder if you really do," Woz murmured unhappily.
She watched the shape of him grow fainter and fainter, and then begrudgingly, stepped backward, shrinking into the shadows, the darkness erasing any trace that she had ever been there.
Outside of the pyramid, Yuuki Jouji could hear the sound of the battle growing all the more ferocious.
His cry was shrill, an enraged animal, his claws tearing at the ground as he scurried forward, knocking all in his path out of the way. At his back, stood the other, his horned guise, momentarily obscuring the sun as he lifted his arms, electricity sparking about him.
"Charge Up!" cried the other man, his armour shimmering with charge, streaks of silver flashing across his hefty red mantle. "Super Electro Speed Diving Punch!"
With tremendous swiftness, he slammed his fist forward, an explosion of light and colour about the knuckles of his gloves, the weight of the punch smashing into the chest of a sickly, chameleon creature, the blow catching it midway between a futile attempt to camouflage its presence, blood pouring from its mouth as it collapsed and shuddered in the dirt.
Ahead of him, his comrade rose into a stooped hunched, the bright, red eyes of his mask wild with anger. Beneath the weight of his armour, Jo Shigeru took a deep breath, lifting his head, looking out over the endless wave of creatures gathered in the shadow of the black pyramid.
"Friend Shigeru is worried?" the other man asked, his armour almost like a second skin, his body transformed into the reptilian shape he now possessed.
How different they were, Jo thought; how different were their transformations, despite being brought about by the same philosophies—and yet how alike was their goal. He nodded his head.
"You could say that."
The other nodded also, never rising to his full height.
"Amazon worried too. Amazon think friends cannot win this fight alone."
"I agree," Jo said begrudgingly.
As he tried to form words, to suggest an alternative plan, he noticed suddenly a commotion in the distance, a figure in weighty armour punching and kicking his way through kaijin as they clawed and bit at him, clinging onto him, trying to weigh him down.
Alarm crossed Jo's face.
"Is that Hongo?"
Amazon turned, staring out from the massive eyes of his transformed features.
"Friend Hongo looks very different!" he exclaimed.
"You don't say," Jo murmured.
In his wake, Jo could see Taki and Ichimonji, both men struggling to keep up. Jo tightened his right hand into a fist, placing his left hand on Amazon's shoulder.
"Come on," he said, striding forward.
"What is friend Shigeru's plan?" Amazon called out.
With a single chop, his hand smashed the teeth out of Pranodon's open jaw, ignoring the mutant as it cried in pain, incapable of hindering his departure.
"We're going to join up with Hongo!" Shigeru called over his shoulder. "We're going to fight as one, instead of wasting our time with these petty weaklings!"
Amazon nodded enthusiastically, scurrying along the floor.
"Amazon likes friend Shigeru's plan! Amazon thinks is good plan!"
"Yeah," Jo smirked, gut-punching a staggering eagle-creature in his way, "I think so too."
They were silent, still as statues, frozen in place before one another, and then, with cries of anger and frustration, they were thrown apart, like magnets rejecting one another, Sumire's feet upturning the dirt as she slammed backwards and Geiz only just managed to catch her, to keep her upright.
"It's pointless!" the tiger creature crowed, likewise supported by the shuddering crowd of monsters around him. Spreading arms wide, the creature gestured at the crowd, at the towering black pyramid behind him. "You don't understand yet?"
Throwing his head back, he howled with laughter.
"The Space-Time Break System allows Badan to change the flow of time," he roared, flecks of spittle on the fur of his chin. "Every time you read the future, we change the past. You can't succeed."
"H-How could you know?" Sumire asked uncertainly lowering her blade.
A flash of contempt crossed Tiger-Roid's face.
"Oh, we know all about you, Zi-o," he snarled. "In fact, you'll find we're very well informed."
"I've had enough of this," Geiz growled, tearing a RideWatch from her wrist, hearing the affirming and satisfying sound of its connexion with the belt at her waist.
'Kaixa!' the belt cried out. 'Armour Time! Standing by! Complete! Kaixa!'
Narrow lines of neon yellow burnt into the red of her armour, her shoulder pads turning black, the sharp lettering upon her helm shifting from their original colour to a deep, rich purple. With a snap-hiss, she shook free a blade of blistering yellow light from behind her back, snatching it up by the hilt and launching herself forward, the air vibrating as she moved the blade closer and closer to Tiger-Roid's features, the scent of burnt fur upon the wind.
With each slash of her blade, Tiger-Roid stepped effortlessly back, his bestial features smug with arrogance and pride, until, at last, he raised one hand and seized hold of Geiz's wrist before the blade could swing down. Even as she pulled back and swung again, she felt a sense of apprehension when it came to using the Kaixa RideWatch. It wasn't as if she had any personal experience of the company that had manufactured the original armour upon which it was based, nor had she ever met any of the original guinea pigs that had been used to test its functions, but she had read widely, and there was no way she could consider the man most associated with that armour, Kusaka Masato, to have been a good man.
She lashed out again, and effortlessly, Tiger-Roid once more snatched hold of her arm, holding back the fall of the blade, despite how much Geiz leant into the strike, unable to push forward. Beneath the monstrous features, she thought she could sense a human presence, a man who had long since abandoned himself to anything but feelings of hate and loathing—just like Kusaka Masato, she thought.
"I told you," Tiger-Roid growled, "everything the two of you do here is pointless."
A shot rang out, and surprise flashed across his face, his grasp on Geiz slipping as he turned, acrid black smoke rising from the ruptured fuel tank on his back. Standing before him, a gathering of Combat-Roids cowering about him, was a tall man in a flowing white coat, his blaster pointed straight ahead.
"How about three of us?"
Behind her mask, Geiz's eyes widened, and she threw herself back into the dirt. Moments later, the tank on Tiger-Roid's back exploded, a howl escaping his lips as he tore it free and staggered forward, his fur bristling, the remnant burning in the sand, acrid black smoke rising slowly up to the heavens.