Prologue: Deathbout

Black combat boots ground into the gravel, halting as a rumble of thunder broke through the oppressive silence. He glanced up at the sky, a grimace twisting the corner of his mouth, before returning his attention to the fine grains strewn out before him like powdered ash. A barren landscape complete with varying shades of grey lay sprawled out in front of him, dehydrated and parched. Arid like a desert except not nearly so colorful.

And, of course, not nearly so safe. A twinge of self-doubt sparked briefly in his mind before he snuffed it out. Still, out of all the places, out of all the hundreds of possible locations—why the hell this one? Sure, it was far out of the reach of prying eyes, but was a volcanically-active region entirely necessary?

As if to support his misgivings, a fissure hidden behind a ring of rocks took the chance to expel a deep belch of fire, the orange glow casting a warm pall over his otherwise dull surroundings. Smoke spiraled into the atmosphere, grasping like ethereal fingers at nothing. With a frown, he wiped the sweat from his forehead and coughed up the itching sensation in his throat. The acrid odor of sulfur and soot burned through his nose, made his eyes water—and he was getting no closer to finding him.

Damn you. Staring out at the monotonous environment, he picked a direction and began walking again.

A storm was coming, he knew—was already upon him. Lightning sputtered and vanished and returned with the sound of a cracking whip. He felt the earth tremble beneath his feet, as if a train was passing by underground. The world flashed in and out of sight: A large clearing. High boulders that squatted like shadowy sentinels around the outskirts. Grey dust and grey ash and grey dirt.

A harsh shrill. Metal cutting through air.

His mind snarled a warning. He unsheathed his gunblade, pivoted, met the attack with an overhand block. Metal clashed against metal; a silver blade screeched against a black blade; Lionheart collided with Hyperion in a shower of sparks. As he strained for control, his ambusher's angular features and dancing green eyes leered at him from out of the darkness, the man's hot breath puffing into his face—and then the man leaned forward, gave a final push, and retreated with a smirk.

Knees bent and weapon still upraised, he eyed the man's figure warily, unwilling to let his guard down for even a moment. The man, for his part, straightened up, laughed, and drew a gloved hand over his short blond hair. His slender gunblade, Hyperion, dangled at his side, its tip digging into the dirt.

"Rule number one: always be ready, alert, vigilant," the man said. "Your enemies won't pull blows like me." A pause, but then, at his silence, the man's mouth stretched into a grin. "Nothing to say? Well then"—and here he shook off a glove, tossing it to the ground—"the gauntlet's thrown. 'Til first blood. Let's dance." Hyperion rose and leveled itself at him.

A soft flapping. A clap of thunder. A flare of lightning. His rival's aristocratic face lit by the lurid light. A hot wind blew through the clearing, ruffling the white fur on the collar of his jacket. Rain started pelting from the sky, a few fat drops at first that rapidly multiplied, becoming a downpour. Water sprang off Lionheart's broad silver length and pattered against the rocks. The dual winged lions engraved into the sides of his gunblade bellowed their defiance into the storm.

And then the man attacked, weapon whirring and whistling as it sliced through the air.

In an instant, Lionheart snapped up to block the stroke, turning the blade aside. His rival drew away. Boots rasped on wet gravel. Black metal glistened with rainwater. He ducked as the blade hurtled towards his neck, brought his own silver gunblade up to deflect another blow from Hyperion only to find it rushing at his chest. At the last moment, he parried—but not before the tip of the man's weapon caught the white fabric and tore through his shirt. Shaken by the close call, he fell back, breathing hard through his nose.

"A little slow there, eh?" the man called over the din of the rain. "Shape up! I want a challenge. I didn't lose all that sleep just to kick your ass in half a minute!"

He glared back at the man, blinking water out of his eyes. His clothes hung heavily against his body, completely soaked through, the chilly cloth plastered to his abdomen. The metal chain and pendant around his neck burned his skin with the cold. He could hardly see. With narrowed eyes, he rushed forward, lunged, swore as he almost lost his footing. But his violent action had the intended effect; his rival stumbled backwards. With the extra space to work with, he recovered and pursued the man. A brutal cleave across, Lionheart gleaming with silver fire—

—and Hyperion slashing through the air to meet it. More sparks. A roar from the heavens. Blinding white light. The man disengaged, parried, riposted. The black blade rested itself against his throat, threatening and dark.

"You'd have your head cu—" the man began, and then Lionheart swung up, swatting Hyperion aside. His rival retreated, an expression of surprise flitting across his face.

His mouth thinned in grim satisfaction as he studied the man's motions through the haze of rain. Sloppy, careless, relaxed motions—a ruse. Under all that blasé attitude, the man was poised to strike. Squinting, he tried to track his rival's movements but all he could make out were the crimson dagger-like crosses emblazoned on the upper sleeves of the man's grey trench coat. Very well, that would do.

Suddenly, the twin lines of red streaked towards him. The man was moving! He fended off the attack. Blades intersected. Muscles strained as they each tried to gain control of the bout. A shove—they were separated again. The man attempted an agile thrust that he deflected with ease. He swung Lionheart at the man's head, but the man ducked and lunged for his foot from his crouch. He stumbled away.

"Tsk, tsk. So clumsy," the man said as he straightened. "Let me teach you a bit about style!"

Rushing in with an inhuman speed, the man made good his promise. He spared a moment to wonder at the rapidity before his mind was forced back to the battle. Hyperion darted about in a flurry of blows that threatened to jar Lionheart out of his hands. He gritted his teeth. His rival had control of the tempo. Not good.

Suddenly, the sound of a gunshot split the air. Lionheart shuddered. His grip loosened.

A fatal slip, but it was too late. The man jerked Hyperion up, sending Lionheart racing skywards.

"You used your trigger," he said. He drew back. Kept his eyes trained on the arcing object overhead.

"Your enemies won't follow your rules. You'll thank me when you're not dead on the field."

He shot a glance at the man, shook his head—Arrogant bastard!—and turned his attention back to the airborne gunblade. The silver weapon flew upwards, reached the peak of its flight, came crashing down point-first in the soil. It sank into the earth. He seized the handle and pulled it from the dirt, his fingers scrabbling over the slick handle. He adjusted his grip to compensate.

"Come on, I don't have all day!"

With his gunblade held off to the side, he charged, Lionheart sweeping rapidly in. But the man batted the blade aside and launched an attack of his own: a maelstrom of stabs and strokes. He fended them off in the nick of time. The man grinned as he withdrew.

"Tired already?" the man asked. "I haven't even started yet."

Spinning around stylishly, his rival charged. His light blade struck Lionheart's silver steel. The two broke away again. As the man stood there recovering, he ran in, gunblade upraised, trying a stroke that Hyperion deflected. His rival smirked as he attempted another easily sidestepped rush.

"Thought you were faster than that!"

He spun around, boots kicking up clumps of dirt and pebbles and digging impressions into the ground. The man smiled and gestured with a free hand, gunblade held tip-up towards the sky, exposing his undefended body.

He feinted low as he came in, aimed a blow at the man's head. But his rival spun out of the way just in time. Another stroke, another parry. The silver gunblade came down onto the man in an overhand swing, but it never reached its target, blocked as it was by Hyperion. With a rough shove, the man kicked him in the chest and used the opening to throw Lionheart off.

"These dirty tricks'll save you someday!" the man said. He picked himself up, blew water off his lower lip as he focused his vision on the shape of his rival's body. "You'll see when I'm alive and you're dead!" And with that, the man dashed forward. With no time to defend, he retreated. A sneer darkened the man's face.

"Scared, are you? You finally learned your lesson!" The man advanced with long strides.

Overconfident, arrogant son of a bitch. He sprang and took the opening. Silver met black and threw up gold once, twice, three times—but the man succeeded in checking all the blows somehow.

A thought struck him. His rival—the man was junctioned! Snarling, he sprinted towards the figure, throwing all he had into that one act.

But at the last moment, a shimmer of heat in the man's hand caught his eye. Except he couldn't stop. His momentum carried him forth.

And then the fireball struck his chest, throwing him backwards into a boulder. Lionheart clattered to the ground. A black blade descended towards his face.

Death trumpeted triumphantly in the empty recesses of his mind. He tried to move but found himself rooted to the ground. Horrified, he watched—

—and fire erupted between his eyes. A roar of pain. A burst of adrenaline. He reached for his gunblade, fingers scrabbling over the pebbles and mud until they met the familiar revolver-like handle. The man chuckled, a hollow sound.

With an immense effort, he grasped it and swung it upwards. There was a terrible scratching sound over the rain as the metal scraped against stone. The hilt was slippery from the water. He hazily worried that it would slide out of his hands. Then Lionheart's tip struck the man between the eyes and carved a valley up to the temple. A river of crimson fluid burst from a dam and flowed down the man's face.

Lionheart, bloodstained, clattered from his hands. Dazedly, he glanced at the dirt. It too was stained with blood. He fell to the ground.

"Son of a bitch!"

The cry had come from above, almost hidden by an answering rumble of thunder. It echoed eerily in his ears. Darkness encroached on the edge of his vision. He struggled to hold it off.

"You bastard," he said.

Then he fell into oblivion's greedy and wet grasp.