Author Note: Sorry about the wait. I know it can be hard to bear, especially for some of you more casual readers. But I do still intend to finish this story, never fear. I've come too far to stop now. If you're worried about when the next update will be coming, you can always come to the RP forum based around The Golden Age, called World of Gundam Battle: Golden Age Warfare, found in the Gundam Seed forums. It's #2. I can frequently be found there, along with many other fans and reviewers of the story. PMs will also reach me. In any case, enjoy the start of a new arc...
New Eden, Iceland, Heaven's Base, Seaward Cliffs, May 1st
"So you hate me now, don't you?" Luna's words were almost lost to the breeze coming in off the North Atlantic, as she stood near the top of the promitory that formed the natural safe harbor wall for Heaven's Base primary harbor. She was clad in her Ruby Knight custom flightsuit, sans helmet, her face slightly sheened with sweat from a punishing simulator regime she'd been keeping to in the days since the attack on the base by Executor Yamato and his forces. She'd barely left one of the few intact training halls since the end of the battle, only to sleep in catnaps and eat frugal meals at the cafeteria. She hadn't been back to their shared quarters since the end of the battle, and she looked like she'd been sleeping in her flight suit at times. And not very well or very much, judging by the hollow look on her face and her red veined, dark rimmed eyes.
Shinn didn't reply, as he swallowed his own Red EDEN pill after laying aside his own flight suit helmet near to where Luna's lay, discarded almost carelessly on the ground. In truth he didn't know what to think, either about the revelations in the battle or Luna's reaction to them afterwards. It wasn't like his memories had come flooding back in a sudden rush or anything. He was still the same as he had been for years now. Every now and then he'd get a strange feeling like he was missing something he ought to have, or hear some voices in his dreams he didn't recognize, but those times were always ephermal, and he rarely remembered much of anything beyond snatches of them when waking up. A name here. An emotion there. Hardly any sort of revelations. Noah's mental scouring was far too complete for Shinn to recover naturally. And that had long since ceased to bother him.
"I lied to you. For years. About not knowing anything about your past." Luna rambled on, refusing to look back at him as he stood a step or two behind her. Her shoulders hunched, as if expecting a shove or a blow. "Your family... all your memories before joining the Solar Knights... all the stuff that was so important to you back then... I knew about all of it. And I didn't tell you. I actively hid it from you even! Your little sisters cellphone... your last memento of her, your lucky charm and personal talisman... you gave it to me because you thought it was mine. Because it was pink and girly. And I... I... I didn't say anything. I took it. And I destroyed it..." Luna trailed off with a shuddering intake of breath. "I crushed it under my heel until there was nothing left of it." She half sobbed after a few moment's pause.
"Every time you started having flashbacks, I would distract you. Lie to you. Feed you some line about it being old girlfriends or something, and had some especially raunchy sex until you forgot all about anything but what was happening in the moment. I didn't want you to remember how you used to be. I selfishly decided that you were better off the way you were, with no memories of what happened to your family, or all the hatred and angst you had built up inside you because of it. You trusted me to take care of you and I... I just made sure you'd never be the Shinn I fell in love with first ever again! It was too painful for me. I wasn't... I'm not strong enough to deal with the issues you had back then. The way you hated and mistrusted anyone from Orb... your own homeland... just because of your family being killed in the First Valentine War." Luna continued, tilting her head back and holding her heads steady by her sides, but Shinn could see she was trembling violently all the same.
"You loved your little sister... Mayu... so much, it was heartrending to see you tied down to her memory, to her keepsake, that damned phone! Every time you flipped it open to listen to her last voicemail, when you thought no one else was around to hear it, it was like a knife in my chest. Because I knew as long as you had that phone, you'd never get over your grief and loss. You'd never stop hating the Zala-Attha's and by extension, Orb, and anyone allied with Orb. You'd never stop thinking it was Kira Yamato's fault that your family was killed. You'd stay bitter, and mean, and rebellious and reckless... so damned reckless on the battlefield, like you didn't care if you lived or died! You showed me such kindness at times that it hurt so much more when you changed in battle, and became a coldhearted, rage driven berserker... it was like you were a totally different person!" Luna's voice caught and hitched.
"I couldn't stand it anymore. After Noah scrambled your memories to make you his pawn, and after Rey seduced me while making me think you were dead... with Meyrin gone, and enslaved by that bastard Noah... and you miraculously came back, and broke free of the brainwashing, just for me... and I saw how happy you were, how you could work together with all the people you used to keep at arms length, how you could laugh and joke around with anyone and everyone... and how happy you made me, when we were together. How safe and comfortable and wanted and LOVED you made me feel, in that time when everyone else I'd ever trusted or valued seemed to have turned their back on me... I just couldn't take the thought of you going back to the way you were. So I lied. And destroyed the only link you'd ever had to your family. Because I couldn't stand being alone anymore. That was my only reason. I loved you too much, I couldn't stand losing you. Not even to your original state of mind..."
Luna finally turned, but stared at the ground, rather than at her lover. She didn't dare see the look on his face, now of all times. "And look where it's gotten me, that selfishness so long ago. Years of happiness, but only while living a lie every day, maintaining constant vigilance against any of your memories coming back. My love for you became a prison for you, even though you never knew it, and I made sure as its jailer that you would never have the kind of contact with the outside... with your past... that you unconsciously craved. I controlled you as wholly as Noah ever did, and much more effectively. You became the perfect man in my eyes, everything I could have ever wanted in a lover and a partner. But its not you, Shinn. Its not Shinn Asuka, of Orb. I don't deserve your love, because I'm not sure you ever really cared for me the same way I care for you. Do what you want to me. Anything. I don't deserve anything but loathing after what I've done..."
"You really want me to punish you that badly, Luna?" Shinn replied at length, his voice neutral and composed. She still didn't look up to meet his gaze. "You want me to scream at you, and revile you, and even lash out at you with all my might? Would that make you feel better?" He took a heavy step forward, heaving a loud sigh. She tried not to move, but Luna couldn't constrain an instinctive flinch all the same, knowing that she'd had the man of her dreams... and lost him through her own selfish needs. Being decked by him, much as she'd decked him in the past when he'd so worried her with his conduct on the battlefield, seemed to be the least of what she should suffer for her crimes against him! She heard him reach out towards her and steeled herself... but she wasn't ready for him all the same.
"I'm sorry then. You'll have to keep feeling miserable for a little while longer." Shinn muttered, encircling her with his arms and pulling her into a tight hug. She got so stiff from shock he could not help but laugh out loud. "Oh, come on, Lunamaria, did you actually think I'd hit you? YOU? I could never hit you. Ever. Never of my own volition." He pulled back slightly and reached up one hand to rest on the top of her head, slowly tilting her face up towards his. "So you lied to me. About all sorts of things. Do you think I've been completely truthful with you in turn, somehow? Do you honestly think I'm that perfect? That I haven't been keeping you from some hard truths in turn, because I love you and don't want to see you hurting if I can help it? You dummy. You moron. You damned fool... you actually think I'd stop loving you just because you knew about my past and didn't tell me about it?"
"B-But I did it without even asking you if you wanted..." Luna protested in a stutterring tone.
"And how could I have decided what I wanted, back then, when I had no memories at all?" Shinn countered quickly with a shake or his head. "You don't ask someone who is brain damaged if they want to be treated at the hospital or not, do you? Because they're not mentally capable of being responsible for themselves. Would I have chosen, back then, to leave my old life behind? I don't know. I can't say. I wasn't in a position to be able to decide. So you decided for me. You acted as my guardian, and acted in what you felt was my best interest. Out of love for me. How could I hate you for that? How could I hate you for the life we've shared since then? Regardless of whether you lied to me about my past, Luna, you haven't lied about our love. That's only lie from you I couldn't forgive..."
"You're being FAR too reasonable about this. Not at all like the old you would have." Luna complained. "Damn you, I was so worried about this, I could hardly sleep for days! Do you really not hate me? Even for breaking Mayu's phone?"
"From your description of how I used to be, I think I'm better off the way I am right now, as a pilot and a person. I sounded like I used to be a totally immature brat all the time. Grieving for a lost family is one thing... stoking that grief and keeping the emotional wounds festering, so much so that it affected how I interacted with people just based on where they were born? I don't really like imagining myself acting like that. I'm just glad someone had the nerve to step up and SAVE ME from a life like that when the opportunity presented itself!" Shinn sighed and pushed her back a few inches so she could properly look up at him. "If it matters to you so much... don't lie to me about my past again. Tell me all about what a dick I used to be. Spare nothing. Okay? But I'm not gonna punish you for acting in what you felt was my best interest, even for what you think is a selfish reason. I don't know if the old me loved you or not, Luna. But I love you, and I cannot imagine ever not loving you. I am GRATEFUL to you for the life you've given me, more than I can ever express. I could NEVER hate you, of all people."
"Shinn..." Luna's voice was small, and her eyes moist.
"And if I lend you another cellphone sometime, try to resist the urge to shatter it into a thousand pieces." He admonished her with a small grin. "There's only one regret I can think of about that cellphone. I just wish you'd let me destroy it myself. Hurling it into the sea right now would be awfully symbolic, don't you think? I don't think any sister of mine would have wanted me tied down to such a painful memory anyway. It's important to miss the people you've lost... but not to the point where it makes you neglect the people still alive. I think Mayu would be proud of you, Luna. You had the strength to do what I could not, and you did it because you loved me so much. So thank you. Once again, you've really saved me."
"We've saved each other, how about that?" Luna answered softly, leaning up for the kiss they both really needed at that point. But something occured to her just before their lips met. "What did you mean, you've been keeping some hard truths from me...?"
"I don't remember saying that... maybe my memory is faulty..."
"Hah hah ha..."
New Eden, Himalayan Foothills, old Nepal territory, May 1st, early afternoon
"I dearly hope this isn't the sort of thing you consider "staying occupied" while I was off trying to better myself, Mouse." Zach pronounced disdainfully, as he stood in the midst of their latest ambush zone, amidst a tangle of fresh corpses, all wearing the distinctive environmental armor of the USN, even if it was painted in forest camouflage colors rather than the ceruelean blue normally associated with the Oosen infantry. A scouting detachment, versus the mainline infantry units, who always came in such numbers that there was little point in trying to blend into the background. They'd been getting more and more of the scouting forces of late, as the enemy had declined sending too many more major elements into the area, since they all kept disappearing regardless of size and disposition anyway. The Oosen recon forces were among the elite of their infantry forces, each wearing stripped down and even somewhat customized armor, and many of the soldiers were old enough to have fought on Earth before it became New Eden, so they were hardly unfamiliar with stealthy infiltration methods.
But against the Kindred and Wendigo that served as the point men and scouts for the Mori, it hardly mattered what sort of woodcraft the Oosen brought to the field. The Wendigo possessed senses keener than any but the most advanced technological sensors, and the Kindred might even be better than that. They were used to outhunting Cold Hunters after all, which could become all but invisible even while in motion due to their chameleonic skins. Soldiers in armor, no matter how sound cushioned or camouflage painted, just didn't compare. Several times, the entire scouting force had been wiped out by only a handful of Kindred, often without even being able to fire a shot, as the dimunitive Supersoldiers fell upon them from the treetops above, or rose up from the underbrush beneath their feet. Having fought the Kindred at close range herself, Lilia knew all too well how deadly they could be once they were within arms reach of you.
She glanced over at her boyfriend with a frown. This was very much the sort of thing she'd been doing while he'd been off half killing himself with his so called training, and she was quite proud of it too. In a matter of weeks, she'd managed to forge together the disparate branches of the Memento Mori... the Kindred, the Wendigo and the Custodian/Militia forces... into a seamless combat machine. All of them had started out working great with others... as long as those others were of the same culture and race as them. None of them got on well with outsiders at all. But through unstinting efforts on her part, she'd gotten all three groups to consider the Memento Mori as a whole their "group" and so they worked together with almost the same efficiency as they did in their usual cultural groups. Maybe it wasn't the biggest deal, since the Mori were only a few hundred strong all told, but it gave her hope for the future. If she could do it with the Mori components, eventually she hoped to do it with the Mori, the Shark party and the Clave as a whole too...
"I barely even had to draw a blade, Mouse." Zach continued to complain, stalking over from the mound of ruin he'd created when he'd exploded into the midst of the scouting group like a Direcat Alpha into Rex Elk fawns. Regardless of whether he'd mastered any new abilities or not from his aborted training, Zach's power compared to ordinary men and women was as overwhelming as ever. A half dozen had been dead within seconds, and the Kindred and Wendigo following Zach into the assault had massacred the others in short order, each striving harder than the next, trying to distinguish themselves in the eyes of their chosen lord and master by emulating his bloodlust and disdain for safety to the best of their abilities. Lilia made a note to drill better discipline into them in the future. She knew they worshipped Zach, but trying to emulate him was not something she wanted to encourage. It would only end in allied casualties sooner rather than later.
"Tactically speaking, that's a good thing. If we defeated them that quickly, they probably didn't have time to call in to their main formation that they were under attack." Lilia answered, unspoken tinges of resentment making her words snap as if coated with a thin layer of ice. She was still VERY irritated with Zach for "misplacing" Deathshriek somewhere. She'd gone to a LOT of effort to have it made for him, and she knew Vaul and his daughters would be quite upset if they learned one of their masterpiece items had been so casually lost, given that they'd risked their lives and sanity to make it in the first place! "Just make sure you put it back in its scabbard. Wouldn't want you losing that too. It belongs to Espadon after all, I'm sure he'd like it back one day."
The blade in question, more a long knife than any sort of sword, was carved in a single piece from the canine fang of a Megahunter, making it just shy of twenty inches long. The workmanship was both crude and yet oddly fitting, as the blade wasn't designed for ceremonial purposes, but rather for utility and combat work. Strips of dried hide from the same beast that had provided the tooth formed a simple grip, and there was nothing in the way of handguard... just a hilt and blade, with a single blood groove running from just below the triangular tip down to just above the hilt wrapping. It was sharper than a mono-saber, and a good bit more resilient, with a degree of elastic flex in the bone that no metal could completely emulate. Despite its unadorned nature, it was a highly regarded weapon amongst the Kindred, part of Espadaon's status as Chieftan, though he had surrendered it to Zach only too willingly upon finding that his Messiah had no personal weapon to hand.
Zach's eyes blazed for a moment at her tone, but he ended up letting it slide. If only because he was still upset with himself for misplacing the weapon during his sortie to Antarctica. It was the first real gift anyone had given him, and it had come from the Mouse on top of that. He would vigorously deny such sentiments as reasons for his self irritation, but all the same, he did feel as if a small part of him was missing. The same way he felt when he hadn't piloted the Kratos in a while. Let her snip at him then. It was a good sign even... after being freshly exposed to the fawning awe most of the Mori held for him, he was glad to have at least once person who would stand up to him. Fear was one thing, but admiration... he had no experience dealing with the admiration of those around him.
"Sevan Sveid." Espadon, leader of the Kindred tribe, said and nodded deeply, almost a bow, in Frost's direction as he came back from the observational perimeter he and his detachment had made around the battlezone, part of the new standard procedures Lilia had taught them. Well and good to spring an ambush, but not if the enemy force was only the bait in a cunning trap, so after the combat ended, the Kindred always melted back into the trees to keep a sharp eye out for any attempted interdiction or reinforcement from the Oosen.
The top of Espadon's head came up to about Lilia's mid upper arm, and the chief shared the wiry build of most of his tribe, making him seem weaker than he really was. His dark hair was dyed in patterns of red and white, like blood on bone, and trailed down his back almost to his belt in twin braids, a burgeoning sign of status amongst his people, as it predicated that a person had time away from matters of survival and duty to spend on their personal appearance. He looked up at Lilia, and nodded again in greeting. "Sevan Aveis."
"Sidevrab." Lilia nodded back respectfully. Learning Kindred cant had been difficult, since it was like no other language she'd ever had experience with, but she was glad she had, because it made talking with the Kindred infinitely easier, even though many of them were learning English and other common languages as well. They were the Kindred after all, those who shared a common origin with Zach, and thus the closest he had to a living family, even if neither the Kindred nor Zach saw things that way, or at least not in those words. They fascinated Lilia in those times when they didn't have her pulling out her hair in frustration. And by coming to understand them and their often alien mindset, Lilia sometimes fancied she grew closer to understanding Zach as well. "Umujoniz sajicautis?" She enquired politely. Cant had little in the way of small talk, though the Kindred were experts at inflection, so that the same words could convey very different meanings depending on how they were said.
Her words, a request for information on battlefield conditions in literal terms, could also be construed as asking after his personal health, sort of a "how are you?", which is how she'd meant it, and also as a general sort of question, a "how are things going with you guys?" sort of thing. "Alamron ajicautis. Legun smujidem." Espandon replied with a shrug that combined nonchalance with a measure of excitement. Lilia had grown used to the body language cues of the Kindred by now, and though they were a reserved people when it came to words, as Espadon's bland reply to her query showed, she could see that something had the Chief's blood roused, in a probably good way. "Ilizd karap legun..." Espadon went on, baring his filed, razor edged teeth in a grin of gruesome pleasure. "Itkan sak ijatorev..."
"Satskirdzu sruk?" Zach demanded, with a mixture of disdain and pleasure. He was still itching for a real fight after the disappointment of the ambush, and anything that the Kindred would bother to report as strange rather than just taking care of themselves might actually be enough to enjoy killing. It might suit the Mouse's needs to have the fighting over and done with in such an efficient manner, but he was Zacharis Frost, the Whetstone of Humanity, and he craved nothing more than a good conflict every now and then. Or as often as he could find or make them really. "Teitsatsen tidarap!" He forestalled any explanation from Espadon with a rare direct order, commanding the Chief to take them to the area in question.
"Udnamok suj ka, Sevan Sveid." Espandon bobbed his head and shared a bloodthirsty grin with the man he all but worshipped as a god.
"Teidiagap!" Lilia cut in with a snarl that became a sigh as she saw the look on Zach's face. "Sakitap cep iav, udos saduan. Karap sajovatag umse se."
Resignedly, she followed the two of them as Espadon led Zach towards the outer perimeter, to allow the Master of the Mori, or Sevan Sveid... literally "God of Death" in Kindred Cant... to investigate for himself the sensation of being covertly watched that had been bothering the Kindred scouts ever since the end of the brief ambush. Lilia wasn't so much frustrated that the Kindred had sensed something to be alarmed of, that was the whole point of perimeter sentries after all. But Zach, of course, was never going to just sit back and let underlings do what underlings were supposed to do, and handle the situation themselves, without sticking his nose in personally. She might almost accuse him of being a micromanager, if she didn't know full well that it was simply his aggressive spirit... if there was another fight on the offering, Zach would simply hate to miss it.
The terrain they'd ambushed the patrol in was typical of the area, thickly jungled hills, which would be mountains in their own right in country less rugged than the Himalayan foothills. The ground was often steeply sloped, and broken with detrius of long ago rockfalls and landslides, as well as upthrusted rocky ridges fomed by the same tectonic forces that were still slowly raising the whole of the Himalayan Plateau a few centimeters per year. It was not easy terrain for moving large quantities of troops, but it was perfectly suited for the close quarters, cloak and dagger warfare of the Mori, which was one reason they had prevailed so thoroughly against even large companies of Oosen infantry in the past. Broken ground or thick forests with poor sightlines always favored small, mobile bands of irregular troops over even numerically superior and well equipped regular troops.
Espadon came to a sudden halt, standing beside two trees that looked like any of thousands of other Yggdrasilwood trees that coated the area like a green and brown carpet. The Chief crouched down and if Lilia hadn't had long experience in keeping track of her charges in field conditions, she could have easily mistaken him for a small grassy hummock at the base of the trees, even looking directly at him. It was amazing how well the Kindred could go to ground, even when they sported dyed hair as eye catching as Espadon's... dye was easy to hide with daubs of mud and woven ferns after all. Lilia, who still wore her Praetorian helmet from the recent skirmish, scanned the surrounding under and over-growth, and thus had a small bit of warning before a figure dropped down to the loam almost at her side... a Kindred sentry, who'd been keeping watch on the surrounding area from the lower branches of the nearest tree.
It was still a good eight meter drop from those branches to the ground, but the Kindred, like Zach, were pretty blase about physical feats that would have probably broken Lilia's legs or worse, and the Kindred landed in a crouch with only the very softest of thumps. Lilia recognized him instantly, as he was nearly as tall as she was, almost five feet at the crown... a veritable giant amongst the pygmies, though of exceptionally lean build as well. He held a shaft of wood tipped with a fang, a crude spear almost as tall as he, and from which he derived his codename, Lance. Lance was one of the chief Hunters of the Kindred Tribe, one of Espadon's lieutenants, and even amongst the Kindred, Lance was reknowned for his ability to track targets and his sense for his surroundings. As ever, Lilia had to constrain an instinctive flinch, as her eyes and helmet sensors beheld the Kindred, while her Praetorian trained mental senses stubbornly insisted that there was nobody there at all. If Lance and Espadon had been literally translucent, it wouldn't have been any more discomfiting than their psychic invisibility was to her.
Zach of course, didn't seem to even notice, staring down at the newly arrived Kindred with his usual mixture of barely checked ferocity. His face and clothing was still dripping wet with the lifeblood of the recon team he'd slaughtered, and his posture was that of an animal about to pounce... coiled energy seem to pour off him into his surroundings. Again Lilia was struck by the sheer intensity Zach exuded during his every living moment, and especially so on the battlefield. It was frightening and exciting in equal measue, a hot metal adrenaline tang on the back of her tongue whenever she witnessed it. She dragged herself out of her micro-introspection as Lance gave his report.
"We're definitely being watched." The huntsman told his three superiors, practicing his command of other languages. His intonation and accent closely resembled that of Lilia, as she was the one who'd instructed most of the Kindred in the basics of English and other common languages. As a hunter, it was important to learn everything possible about potential prey, and since Kindred found absolutely nothing wrong with the idea of hunting other humans, for sport or sustenance, it was only natural for Lance to want to expand his command of languages spoken by other subsets of humanity. "Whoever they are, they're good. Much better than the ones we've been hunting before. I'm not entirely sure they didn't want me to notice them... they might have been watching us for some time before then. But then, why?"
"I don't care about Why's." Zach replied tersely. "Can you find them, or can't you? The How of killing them is the only thing that should concern you."
"Why's are important too, sometimes, Zach. You have to think of the bigger picture." Lilia protested. She'd gone to a lot of hard work to make the Kindred see the wisdom of military tactics and strategic assessment of battlefield intel, she didn't appreciate her boyfriend just telling them to charge ahead recklessly, regardless of circumstances. "This could be a trap of some sort after all."
"And?" Zach replied with an expressive shrug of his shoulders to show just how little that idea mattered to him. "Trap or not, its still a fight. Better even, if they think they have the upper hand, they won't be so quick to run away once it gets started."
"I know you don't care, Zach, but it still bothers me. If they have been watching us, then they MUST know what you're capable of. The fact that they're still trying to draw us in, as Lance said they might be... doesn't that warrant a second thought? That they know what you can do, and they're still trying to pick a fight?" Lilia pointed out, reasonably.
"So they overestimate their own abilities. A common failing in those who find themselves on a battlefield with me. It's nothing new or different, Mouse."
"You're not invincible Zach." Lilia saw fit to remind him.
"I never said I was, in fact I know better than anyone just how defeatable I am. But this is not my How. That's reserved for the Boytoy, should he ever be resurrected."
"Well, that's fine for you, but what about the rest of us?" Lilia snapped in exasperation. "You may be fully confident that you can get yourself out of any situation you find yourself in, but what about me and the Mori? Where you go, we follow, Zach. And we're..." The rest of her admonishment was drowned out by a rustle of branches in the near distance. It wasn't a loud noise, nor a particular strange one for the environment... any sort of animal could have made the noise in a clumsy moment. But all four of them knew that it was no animal. Somebody was out there, and moreso, they wanted them to come after them. It was blatant psychological taunting, the sort that even the rawest recruit should have been able to pick up on and reject. But Lilia wasn't dealing with raw recruits... she was dealing with Zach and the Kindred. And where prey turned and ran, they tended to follow their basest instincts, to chase and kill, even if they knew it wasn't a sensible idea.
"This one is mine." Zach purred to the two Kindred, as he drew the ceremonial knife Espadon had loaned to him, holding it low at his side. With no further warning or instructions, he bounded off into the undergrowth, towards the source of the noise, making no attempt to hide the sounds of his pursuit.
Lilia sighed to herself, inside the confines of her helmet where only she could hear. "Espadon, rally the unit and get them prepared to vacate the area. We've got to stay on the patrol. That can't have been the only recon team dispatched to this area. Find the others. Zach and I will be back once he gets this out of his system."
"As Sevan Aveis commands." Espadon bobbed his head in acknowledgement and flashed a grin full of chiseled and artificially sharpened fangs, before he and Lance disappeared into the forest background like phantoms. Taking firmer hold of her 17mm linear assault rifle, Lilia stalked off into the jungle on Zach's trail, tense and wary, and making at least an attempt at stealth, though the enemy would of course know that the prey had taken the bait. Now all that remained to be found out was who was the prey, and who the hunter. To Lilia's great surprise, she managed to catch up to Zach in a matter of minutes, having covered barely a few hundred meters from the perimeter point. She found him standing near a jumble of large boulders that jutted forth from the hillside, forming the entryway to some sort of delve or nook. There was nobody else around, much less signs of a bloody brawl, so Lilia was extra wary as she ghosted up near her boyfriend, every sense alert for the slightest hint of whatever it was that had given Zach even a moment's pause!
As she got to his side, she saw that the boulders marked the entrance to an actual cave of some sort, which wound back into the hillside farther than her helmet's light amplification systems could penetrate. She didn't need to ask if the antagonist who'd taunted them before had gone into the cave, there was simply no other place to hide. She thought about re-iterating that this was not the best of ideas, but she knew her opinion would have no more traction than the first time. Zach's blood was up, and his interest piqued. It would take a full on Mobile Suit offensive to divert him from his current pursuit now. Maybe she could put her foot down totally and bring them both up short, but she'd pay for it later, since he'd be sure to be sulky and uncooperative for days afterwards. No, better to let him have his way for the time being... she could clamp down the reins after he'd hunted down their watchers. And it wasn't like there was no military sense in hunting down enemy spies after all...
So it was with only slight misgiving that Lilia toggled her helmet sensors to thermal and low-light vision and stalked after her lover as he strode, confidently, even arrogantly, making no attempt at stealth or subterfuge, into the cave mouth, and the darkness that beckoned there. Looked like she was going to be spending some more time alone in the dark with Zach. She found the thought quite comforting, actually. Maybe he was just rubbing off on her, but with the two of them together, Lilia felt pretty sure there wasn't anyone that could present too great a threat for them to overcome...
Inside the Cave
"This is almost stupidly easy. I'm disappointed." Lexia Rymir complained, as she rejoined her roosting "comrade" in the depths of the cavern system that chewed its way through the guts of the ridgeline like maggot chewed flesh. The Revamped assassin would have pouted, had her facial muscles retained that particular contortion, but after the innumerable enhancement surgeries, the best her mutilated and augmented face could manage was a grimace. There was little of the feminine grace and beauty she had once enjoyed, before being enrolled into FEAR's cyber-assassin program and elevated to its highest ranks, that remained about her now, but at least in exchange her abilities as a killing machine had been elevated to heights that were quite literally superhuman! Lexia considered herself the truest exemplar of what it meant to be a Revamped... she was no hideaway sniper, nor a butchering brute like her companions... she was agile, quick, stealthy and utterly efficient, the ultimate in killing from the shadows and stabbing in the back.
"Our target is not known for his sense of subtlety in combat." Gerard Larkyn, the sniper specialized Master Vamp, replied, both of them speaking in subvocal whispers across a secure and very short ranged comm network. Their bodies were implanted with so much hardware and software that there was little of them that could truly be called human any more, save for a few scraps of internal meat. For Lexia, that meant she had no life signs for most sensor systems to detect, no thermal emissions, breath, sweat or other trace giveaways that might tip off an alert target to her presence. For Gerard, that meant no respiration or heartbeat to throw off his aim with his trusted rifle even the minutest fraction, he was absolutely as still as the rock around him when he desired to be, the perfect shooting platform.
"Perhaps not, but I had still expected some sort of craft or low cunning. He's no better than Pyotr, like a puppy on a string. I could have jumped off a cliff at this rate, and he'd have leapt blithly off after me, even if the gorge was filled with spikes or mines!" Lexia continued to carp.
"That is his craft, stupid slut." Pyotr, the close combat assault modified Master Vamp, cut into their communication, his voice managing to sound surly even though it was electronically generated. The hulking, gladiator like cyber-assassin was waiting in minimal concealment on the open floor of the largish cavern they had chosen as the site for their execution, while Gerard lurked at the top of a cluster of stalagmites that rose to meet one of the far walls of the cave, an Lexia would be flitting around the edges of the room, always searching for the unprotected back or unwary moment from their target. Each of them had been a killer of great accomplishment for years before coming to the attention of FEAR and being made into Revamps, and in normal situations, each of them would have been more than capable of taking on any single target, even a Praetorian, with little real difficulty. But their target was no simple Praetorian, not in the slightest.
"He knows." Pyotr continued, his surliness fading to become a sort of grudging sullen acknowledgement. "He knows full well that you are leading him on into a trap. He knows and does not care. And he wants us to know he does not care. That is how little he thinks of us. He's willing to fight us on our prepared ground, outnumbered, from a position of disadvantage. Because he doesn't think its going to make any difference. That is the surety of our target. That is the poise of a truly great monster. Were we normal people, it might even be intimidating."
"I will be glad to put an end to his arrogance." Lexia promised darkly, hand caressing the hilt of her vibro-katana, sheathed across her upper back. Mono sharp edges and a ultrasonic impeller that would heat the blade to near a thousand degrees celsius through air friction, enough to carve through even PS armored military plating like it was silk, all it would take would be a single good hit and Lexia was sure the entire ordeal would be over. It rankled to have to share a kill with the other two, even a kill of such supposed difficulty. Once Frost was over and done with, she could go back to operating on her own, just like she had always been meant to do.
"Not if I get to him first." Pyotr retorted. "I have never chopped up such a poised monster before. My blades ache for his meat and bone... I've simply GOT to get my knives into him!"
"His head will be bloody mist before either of you even breaks his skin with your crude blades." Gerard sniffed, thinking of the smart bullet currently chambered into his 17mm sniper rifle. The depleted uranium tipped, mono-fragment wire filled bullet could punch through a meter of solid granite before releasing its payload of fragmenting wire with an effect like that of a full sized fragmentation grenade, just confined within the skull of his target. A single hit to the upper body could virtually vaporize a human target, but Gerard disdained such pedestrian methods. He eliminated his targets via single headshot, or not at all. That was his calling card. And the bullet in his chamber right now was already stenciled with the name Zacharis Frost, hand engraved by Gerard some time ago, when he'd first learned the identity of his newest trophy. With that bullet loaded, the esteemed monster Frost was already as good as buried... it had just yet to happen!
Whether by frenzied hacking, surgical sniping or elegant bladework, Zacharis Frost was sure to die at the hands of the Master Vamps, the three most deadly cyborg-assassins FEAR had in its arsenal. His life was one measured in minutes... minutes that were rapidly ticking by as he followed the deliberate trail Lexia had left behind, coaxing him towards the place that would be his doom. Or at least it would if the Master Vamps had any say in the matter...
The faint echo of distant moisture dripping down from the higher reaches of the cavern system was the only sound to be heard, other than the excited thumping of his own heart within his chest, but Frost knew the prey was close. A more reasonable man might have wondered why the foe, who'd gone to so much trouble to keep just out of his clutches until now, would suddenly halt their headlong flight and turn at bay here at this spot, but Frost deplored the strictures of reason. The Mouse was almost certainly correct with her nattering about this whole scenario being an ambush or trap of some sort, but what mattered that? Frost didn't care how the enemy decided to come to grips with him, as long as they did so in an amusing and direct fashion. Playing chase was fun for a bit, at least when the prey was fleeing in abject terror, but being deliberately and calmly led for more than a few minutes rapidly grew boring.
Not to mention the sheer arrogance of his prey was simply staggering, thinking they could just run away from him and string him along like some fool. Yes, he would fall into their trap, but he would do so knowing full well what he was doing. Let them spring their surprises, let them mould the battlefield to their liking. Such things were the tools and recourses of those without true confidence in their own strength and power. It revealed, if only subliminally, just how scared they really were of him, despite their likely bravado. It would be his chore... and his pleasure... to drag out that subliminal fear and hoist it up high for them to behold in all its terrible glory, in the final, agonizing seconds before he extinguished them with his own hands.
He narrowed his eyes to crimson slits, the bioluminescent nanites in his eyes providing all the light he needed to see and more, the pitch dark cavern system as brightly illuminated to him as if they were under the noonday sun. The narrow tunnel was rapidly widening out into a much larger cavern, which was lousy with cave formations, stalagmites thrusting from the floor like abbatoir spikes, stalactites dripping from the ceiling like pillars of frozen blood falling down a stairway... everything was tinged haemologically pink by the nanites in his eyes. Even the deep and jagged crevasses that ripped through sections of the cavern floor looked like raw wounds, pink at the edges and fading to a red-back crust of scab as they fell away into the depths. Frost skidded to a halt, falling down into a predators crouch, one hand splayed to touch the cavern floor, feeling the rough stone, damp and cold beneath his fingers, like the rigor mortised hide of a drowned corpse.
Another rapid heartbeat approached from his rear, beating in stattaco counterpoint to his own more langorous but still powerful thumps. It still felt odd to have the Mouse with him like this, to have someone covering his back, ready and even willing to support him... even if he didn't really want her to. But whatever... the Mouse had more than earned her place at his side, or his back, if she preferred. He would adjust. He would change. He would evolve. That, more than anything, was his true nature, the ability to change to defeat any obstacle, to slay any threat. That was the true freedom of insanity, the ability to cut yourself loose from all the attachments of your life, all the anchors of your prior being, in order to metamorphize into whatever new being you needed to become to grow ever stronger, ever sharper! Yet could he now call himself truly insane? The Mouse was an anchor he did not wish to cut loose, did not wish to go without... even if it meant remaining weaker, duller. His original selfish desires for her company... for her affection... they'd become a double bladed sword that was plunged as deeply into his emotional flesh as it was into hers, before he'd even realized he'd been stabbed at all...
Frost ground his teeth in annoyance. This was hardly the time for such introspection. He did not enjoy the niggling feelings rattling around the back of his skull, the hormonal urges that stampeded through his mind whenever he had a single moment's pause. The desire... no, the NEED to ensure that no lasting harm came to the Mouse while he had any power to prevent it... it was like a rusted knife shoved into the back of his cranium and wriggling around whenever he was about to have fun in the simpleness of slaughter and carnage. It did not hurt... or rather, as always, the hurt was good, a sign of his continued existence, but it was distracting in the most frustrating way. He didn't see how Yamato, as the Boytoy, or Scarface, could have stood the nagging itch, the dare it be said WORRY, the constant toothache pang that came from the woman you were attached to being in danger, even if you were right there with her, and regardless of her own abilities, no matter how considerable they might be!
If this was what it felt like to be in love, Frost was glad he had not been forced to endure it until now. In the depths of his own mind, he could even admit that he found it a tad bit unnerving, this worrying about someone else's welfare thing. But perhaps it wasn't entirely bad either. After all, he was sure that this emotional ache was the true source of the Boytoy's power, the power that had slain him him all those years ago, when by rights the Boytoy should have already been defeated totally by that time. If he could but harness this ache, worry at it, like a dog gnawing at its own wounded leg, rip and tear and grind and scratch and shred at the ache until it became a full fledged agony, hot and throbbing to the slightest touch... if he could do that, then Frost had the strong suspicion that he would finally be able to tap into the depths of the Boytoy's own power. And from that point, he would be unstoppable! Even those alien Ghosts would be within his ability to crush and silence for good!
But he wasn't ready yet. He wasn't even sure HOW to be ready for that sort of thing, and to be unable to answer a HOW question was very nearly enough to drive him to depression! His imperatives were conflicting. He could not allow the Mouse to come to harm, other than the playful toughening up he subjected to her on a daily basis of course. Yet without her coming to harm, his progress at widening this emotional wound he'd found was glacially slow. He needed her to be endangered, her life to be hanging from fragile threads, in order to grow stronger while maintaining his current emotional and sanitary state. Yet the thought of her being in danger was... upsetting. Bothersome. Enough so that sometimes he actually felt himself holding back in the midst of battle, just to be sure he could step to her side in a moment if need be. Perhaps the Boytoy was even less the bastion of so called sanity than he'd once thought, if he put up with this sort of internal conflict all the time while Pink was still around! It was enough to drive a crazy man crazier!
The Mouse seemed to have interpreted his moment of introspection as wariness, and though her armor insulated everything but her heartbeat from his senses, and muted even that, Frost could well imagine her small sigh of relief. Perhaps it was this "Bond" thing she was starting to go on about lately when they were alone. A intimate psychic connection between them, a literal melding of minds, which would allow them to send thoughts and feelings directly to each other, almost regardless of distance. Frost did not like the sound of that, not one bit. He had quite enough problems just dealing with his innermost thoughts and feelings himself, the idea of sharing those moments of inner trial with someone else... even the Mouse, ESPECIALLY the Mouse, was unpleasant. Not to mention, what with the Bog-Monster already crawling around in his subconscious somewhere, Frost did not particularly want to open himself to anyone else... he supposed, in a manner of speaking, he might have been "traumatized" by being made the proxy of the Caller via force.
Additionally, while the Mouse certainly HAD survived direct contact with his memories and unfiltered mind in the past, in all such occassions it had been quite hard on her, physically and mentally. And while he definitely trusted the Mouse to survive pretty much anything he threw at her... he wouldn't be in this "relationship" with her if he wasn't sure she could do that... he still found himself assailed by that damned worry for her welfare. What if this time was the time she snapped, and broke for good? What if this Bond eroded her mind and soul away like acid, and left nothing behind in its wake? He did not WANT to lose her. He could not STAND to lose her. As she'd said back in the Citadel... they'd come too far together for that to be the How of their ending. May whatever God existed damn his soul for it, but Frost was actually AFRAID of what he might do to the Mouse's mind if they were to Bond as she desired. He loathed that sensation as much as he loathed anything... even the Boytoy himself!
And when he loathed something, the only response possible for him was anger. The desire to kill, maim, rend flesh and bone asunder... to ruin lives and massacre the hopes and dreams of those foolishly sane enough to oppose him and the necessary sharpening of Humanity's Blade. His nano-enhanced muscles tensed like high tension wires. The prey was close. Just ahead. Hardly even concealed, all but daring him to come forth with their nonchalant attempt at camouflage. He realized the Mouse was saying something, whispering in his ear. "...let's not just walk into their ambush, okay, Zach? Just give me a few seconds to triangulate their likely position and then we can..." She counseled, thinking with the sane, tactical part of her mind. The old part of her mind. The part of her that had once been so infatuated with the Boytoy himself.
Just that thought was enough to bring a snarl of fury vibrating up from his diaphragm, his lips twisting away from his teeth like a rabid wolf sighting a rival. Frost marveled at his own condition, at the hot and bitter taste of unreasonable jealousy. He knew beyond every possible definition of doubt that the Mouse was HIS, and his alone, forever. She had convinced him of that beyond anything else. It was crazy to be jealous of her past affections for the Boytoy, or anyone else. Frost found himself comforted by that irrational feeling. He wasn't going sane after all, at least not totally. A savage chuckle escaped his lips, as the snarl melted into a more familiar maniacal sneer. "Walk into their ambush, Mouse?" He interrupted her stream of tactical doggrel, not even bothering to whisper. "I never walk into battle when I can sprint headlong!"
Word became intent, intent became action, in that seamless transition that had long been the true mark of his superiority over others, the complete lack of hesitation between desire and implementation of that desire that only those who had willingly discarded their reason and sanity, and thrown themselves headlong into the abyss which swallowed all sense and logic could truly access. And even then, it was worthless without an enhanced body to fully implement the desires in question. That was the real expression of his power... neither his unique body alone, nor his unique mind alone, but only them both together... that was what made him the true Monster of Humanity! That was what made him Zacharis Frost!
He was a dozen yards into the large caven before the Mouse had even finished yelling at him to "Wait", as if he would ever have heeded that foul word, even from her. He'd told her before, several times, that he did not recognize that word in the slightest, ever, in any context or situation. To her credit though, even as she voiced her pro forma protest, she was in motion as well, bounding after him, heading for a piece of cover from which she could guard his headlong advance. She might not like his impetuous approach to combat, but she was learning to integrate herself into it anyway. But Frost had no more time for the Mouse's antics, as the enemy had at last revealed themselves, exploding up from behind a pile of stalagmites like a warped jack-in-the-box. His opponent was barely human at all, at least physically speaking, more robotic metal than flesh.
The assassin was huge, easily head and shoulders taller than Frost, and almost twice as thick across the shoulders as his lean Boytoy frame, arms and legs corded with synthetic muscles wrapped around armored titanium bones and covered in thick plates of ceramic and metal armor. His arms and legs were double jointed, his calves ending in taloned feet more apt for a Cold Hunter than a human, which dug cracked divots in the granite floor with each thundering stride the cyborg made. There was little left of the face, other than a mishmash of augmetic sensors and reinfoce armor plating, overhanging a steel-trap of a jaw that looked more like something used to chip wood than a human mouth. It was an ugly bastard by any measure of human aesthetics. And thus, it was beautiful to his eyes, a man-machine designed soley for brutal close quarters murder. There was not a single pretense about its purpose at all, unlike that new "super-soldier", the Tin Man.
Its taloned paws, each equipped with several more finger-extensions than any human hand could claim, were filled with enormous pistols, one each. Though Frost could not know it, and would not have cared if he did, these were LAP-86 'Stiletto' 15mm pistols, the same weapons designated as sidearms for the USN's new Vanguard troopers. They were designed to only be operable by those in heavy power armor, such was their recoil. Of course, a Master Vamp was far stronger than even a Vanguard trooper, so Pyotr had not the slightest difficulty in aiming and firing both weapons at the same time. Though the assault Vamp was primarily a melee combatant, his targeting software was no less precise than any other Vamp's, and even while moving at speeds that would be blurring to most veteran soldiers, against a target moving, if anything, faster still, every last one of his shots was precisely on target.
Pyotr's pistol munitions were tungsten-steel tipped armor penetrating rounds, designed for use at close range against heavy power armor or vehicle armor, most would blow right through an unarmored human frame without even slowing down. But not a single one of the shots managed to hit Frost, not even as he charged directly at Pyotr, without making even a single concession at dodging. As each bullet got within a few feet of Frost, its trajectory was altered, just slightly, but enough to cause them to zip around or above the charging Executor, missing by millimeters in some cases. As a Praetorian, Lilia had been tutored in the use of telekinetics by Kunai himself, and though nowhere near as strong as her mentor, she was more than capable of deflecting even close ranged pistol fire, at least for a short time. The heavy rounds of the Stiletto were more difficult than the much smaller Cutlass and 9mm rounds she was used to handling though. Inevitably, the strain was too much, and one round managed to slip through her TK shield.
Frost jerked and stumbled, an explosion of flesh scraps and gritty blood erupting from his left collarbone as the Stiletto bullet just barely slapped into the meat of his shoulder, before ricocheting to no effect off the quantum-crystalline structure of his skeleton. The force of the hit still would have been enough to rip the arm off a normal human, but Frost's bones were bound together by QC thread wires, and were functionally unseverable and unbreakable. A raw pulse of tightly controlled fear and anger from the Mouse oozed into his awareness and thrust him up and onwards with renewed vigor. He hadn't even considered that his concern for her... that troubling feeling... would be reciprocated by her for him. On one hand, it was annoying... she, more than anyone, should know that such a minor hit would NEVER bring him down, so there was no cause for her reaction. On the other, it was an IRRATIONAL reaction, and that was a good thing. The more irrational she became, the further along the path he'd created for her she would travel.
The wound scabbed and began to regenerate almost instantly, and the pain was merely a stimulant, a whetting of the appetite for the feast to come. The Vamp had emptied his clips and then tossed his pistols aside gladly, having hoped that the handgun barrage, however potent, would not truly harm his most desired opponent. Pyotr's mechanical hands folded aside and split down the middle, as heavily reinforced, curved falchion blades deployed from within his forearms, the thirty inch blades quickly glowing orange hot from air friction as their vibrational motors whetted the mono-edges to killing intensity. The swords were single edged, more like overlarge machetes or butcher's cleavers than real swords, meant more for chopping apart bone and splitting skulls than neat bladework. They were the brute tools of a serial murderer, not the weapons of a soldier.
Armed with only a ceremonial bone knife carved from the fang of an alpha predator, Frost met the behemoth Vamp's attack head on, strength for strength, speed for speed. He made no attempts at evasion or strategy... it had been ages, more than ages, since he'd last faced an opponent as brutally single minded about their killing as this cyborg was. It was almost endearing, this attitude. Frost knew exactly where he was with this enemy, and knew that neither of them would ever quit until they had reduced their target to a wet stain on the floor. It was... refreshing. Usually he had to taunt his foes to get them into this mindset, but no such extraneous effort was required here.
Bone skidded off implanted Transphase Shift armored plates, drawing sparks from the force of the deflection, and the scent of seared flesh and burnt blood bloomed into the cavern air, as one of Pyotr's blades skimmed along the side of Frost's chest, scorching a brief lived burn there, while the other hacked into his other shoulder, stopping against the impenetrable bone, the shock of impact almost buckling Frost's legs from the sheer power. Nanomachines went instantly to work, knitting severed muscle fibers back together, and re-routing nervous system impulses around the wound location, so that Frost's arm continued to function at full strength, despite the damage to his deltoid musculature. His bunched left fist slammed into Pyotr's gut, denting the armor plating in half an inch, forming knuckle impressions in the molecularly bonded metal, but the Vamp hardly even trembled under the impact, which would have punched right through a human and thrown them across a small room, probably in pieces. Frost's sneer grew into a full fledged grin of appreciation.
Sparks ignited around him as thunder roared through the cave, as the Mouse opened up with her heavy linear rifle, firing into the melee between Frost and the Vamp without even the slightest of hesitations. There was no need for caution, as one of the lead Praetorians, the Mouse was of course an exceptional shot, and even should she place a round wrong, it wasn't like she was going to accidentally kill him or anything. But the mono-tipped rounds from her .70 caliber rifle could find little purchase on Pyotr's TPS armored body, and the cyborg's mass was more than enough to take the sledgehammer blows of kinetic impact without breaking stride. Still, external augmentations cracked and splintered, sensory systems forced to reroute to more heavily reinforced and slightly less effective internal modules, and for a fighter of Frost's level, even a microsecond's laxity in reaction times could be entirely deadly.
Shouting with furious enjoyment, Frost brought up his right forearm to block the next downward stroke of Pyotr's chopping blades, QC reinforced skeletal structure meeting cybernetically enhanced limb with bone snapping force. But Frost's bones were categorically incapable of being snapped by raw force, and though the strength of the Master Vamp's blow was enough to slam Frost's own forearm back into his skull like a jackhammer, no real harm was done. Pyotr's other arm came pounding down from on high, only for the wrist to be caught by Frost's other hand, elbow locked out to full extension, transmitting the force of the swing downward through Frost's entire spine and down into his thighs and feet. Granite powdered beneath his heels and the rubberized soles of his boots popped like thin balloons under the impact, but Frost himself remained unbowed and unbroken.
"Is that all you have? I almost felt that one!" Frost leered at the cyborg killer he was at grips with. "But if all you have is brute speed and power, you've selected the wrong opponent. Or rather, you're a decade or so too late for THAT grudge match! Come on, ditch this warmup routine and..." Frost was cut off when Pyotr's clawlike foot punted him thirty feet back across the cavern floor into a stalagmite, blood slapping sluggishly against the stone in a rought outline of the Executor's body as the skin on his back briefly ruptured under the collision with the stone. Sparks hissed and spat from Pyotr's raised foot, where razor edged toes had been ripped free from their mountings, after being caught between Frost's ribs when he was propelled backwards by the thrust-kick. "Almost." Frost stepped out of the small impression he'd made in the stone, empty hand reaching up to his lower chest and ripping free the three toes embedded just above his stomach, holding them between his fingers as an improvised cestus. "That was almost enough to make me yawn... I've fought MONKEY's that hit harder than that!"
Howling like a hundred frieght trains headed towards the same mutual train wreck, an eardrum shattering blurt of scrap noise emitted from his vocal augmentations, Pyotr hurled himself at the still infuriatingly calm monster of a man he'd sworn to chop into little pieces like stew meat! His war scream had been specifically constructed to not only inspire terror in those who heard it, but it could even maim and kill at close range, by shattering bones and bursting interior organs by sheer sonic vibrations. Amplified inside the cave, dust and rock chips rained down across a three hundred meter radius, and even some of the larger stalactites began to crack and dismount from their aeons old perches on the ceiling.
Ducking under an eviscerating slash of Pyotr's left hand blade, Frost kicked out with the ball of his right foot, more gritty blood splashing the floor as the flesh of his foot ruptured and liquified under the force of the hit, as he kicked one of the Vamp's several leg joints sideways, shards of crushed metal and twisted armor plate spraying like fragmentation shrapnel, and hydraulic fluid and sparks burst from the damaged joint. Pivoting on his planted foot, Frost rose in a spiralling maneuver, toe-claw cestus raised in an uppercut pose, ramming them against the descending elbow of the Master Vamp. The armor piecing tips fractured and splintered, but when placed between the nearly unstoppable force of Pyotr's decending arm, and the actually impenetrable surfaces of Frost's hand bones, there was only one way for them to go... into Pyotr's arm! A second joint exploded in fragments and a rain of sparks in less than a second, and the bottom fourth of Pyotr's right arm flopped loose and limp, vibro blade already starting to cool to a hot pink from the bright orange of before.
A millisecond later and Pyotr's charging body, its momentum not checked in the slightest, blitzed into Frost's back and side and crushed him back into the stalagmite he'd struck only moments before. The upthrusted rock pinnacle, as thick as a horse was long and the height of a three story house, was riven with cracks from top to bottom as the cyborg dug out another impact crater, with Frost on the inside. Machine assisted logic circuits flickered in Pyotr's few remnants of human brain, and his left arm blade hacked off his dysfunctional right forearm at once, and the massive cyborg deliberatly stepped on the severed limb as he repositioned himself, grinding the blade and the limb itself into several useless pieces, to prevent Frost from trying to use the lost blade against him. A long rod of metal deployed from the stump of Pyotr's right arm, an extension of the internal skeletal structure, a combination club and electrical prod, capable of conducting over three million volts! It began to coruscate with blue-white arcs and sparks hungrily.
As hard as the impact had been, the actual crater was no more than an inch or two deep, though much deeper cracks radiated out from its edges. Having just been faceplanted into solid rock with the force of a small car moving at well over 120 miles per hour, Frost pushed off from the rock, spitting clots of bloody dust and chunks of rock cystal from his mouth from where he'd unintentionally taken a bite out of the stalagmite when his half open jaw was forced against it. He was probably the only human being ever to get brutally curb stomped, and have it come out worse for the curb! He was definitely hurt though, most of his skin abraded down to the upper muscle along his face and chest, nose smeared almost flat, cheeks ripped open, half his scalp hanging down the side of his neck, his clothing torn to shreds and hanging off him by threads... he looked like a zombie that had just been dropped off a roof. And he was laughing like a ten year old at a surprise birthday party, snorting and giggling as thick, gruel-like blood ran down from his erased nose and out the gaping holes in his cheeks to ooze down the rest of his torso.
He'd lost his grip on Espadon's ceremonial knife somewhere after the shoulder-barge-stomp, but he was past caring about such trivialities. Spreading the fingers of his left hand into a claw with five tines, Frost stepped into close range of Pyotr, avoiding another massive roundhouse sweep of butcher blade in the process, this time a decapitating strike that he flicked his head just barely enough to dodge, the glowing hot vibro-sword actually slicing off the flap of scalp and hair that had been hanging like a dejected flag from the side of his face. Fingers met TPS armored plates along the Vamp's abdomen, and once more, flesh proved weak, as Frost's fingertips and fingernails shredded away like a bullet's sabot as the QC impregnated bone tips of his fingers punched through the molecularly bonded armor plate like nails into soft wood, right down to the quick of the fingernails!
Snarling like some of the Cold Hunter's he'd disembowled with a trick similar to this, Frost heaved and scraped his improvised armor piercing hand-claw downwards, ripping jagged tracks edged with bloody smears in the torso plating of the Master Vamp, until after a half second his fingerbones caught on the inner edges where one of the main plates of armor met its neighbor. With a convulsive heave of his arm, Frost gripped the edge of the plate from the inside and tore it outwards and away, with an effect somewhat like a man punching his hand through a manhole cover and then ripping away the entire top of a storm drain when he withdrew it. "Hard candy shell always means soft chewy center..." Frost mused as he cast aside the chunk of armor plating "skin", and drove his balled right fist into the guts of the Master Vamp in the same motion, almost the exact same punch he'd used to nearly kill Thomas Glory all those months ago in Orb.
Before his fist could penetrate more than wrist deep into the gurgling cables and circuit boards that made up most of Pyotr's guts, the Master Vamp brought around his shock-mace and slammed it into Frot's neck, just below his right ear. The blow was delievered with such maniac force that the solid titanium rod bent like it was made of thin copper wire, forming a near "L" shape where it had met Frost's spinal column. Lightning flashed and the scent of burned flesh and cooked blood once more filled the cavern, as Frost's twitching, spark covered body was sent rolling and tumbling a half dozen meters sideways, even the mighty End of All stunned and disoriented for a moment by the impact and the electrical shock combined!
Limping on his already damaged leg, Pyotr took a pair of long strides towards the dazed Executor before jerking to a surprised halt, having forgotten in his homicidal rage that the target was not actually alone. Lilia reminded the Master Vamp of her presence by burning a trio of orange rimmed holes through the cyborg's upper back and torso, right around where the heart might be on a normal human, with her beam pistol sidearm, her linear rifle cast aside, empty and mostly worthless anyway against such a heavily armored target. With pistol braced in both hands, Lilia stood about ten meters behind the Master Vamp, having been waiting for Zach to get knocked clear of the bastard, so she could shoot unimpeded... unlike the linear rounds, plasma beams could actually hurt her boyfriend pretty bad, even if he wouldn't admit it. And they had a tendency to overpenetrate on infantry targets, perhaps all the morso heavily mechanized ones, as metal was less likely to vaporize and diffuse the heat of the shot than flesh was.
Having fought a regular Vamp before, Lilia didn't expect her attacks to actually kill the freak beating on Zach, but they did distract him for long enough for her indomitable boyfriend to regain his bearings and rise from his knees. Lilia did her best not to look at her lover... she knew better than anyone that he could survive enough punishment to kill a hundred ordinary people outright, and still be laughing, but it made her heart clench nevertheless to see him so ripped up and tattered looking. He looked like he already had one and a half feet in the grave, with huge sections of skin missing, or charred black by electrical discharge, his face all but unrecognizable, not just as Zach, but as human at all, save for the glowing red pinpricks of his eyes!
However, she could not look away when Zach took a step towards the conflicted Pyotr, who could not decide whether to pounce upon the apparently tottering Executor or turn to deal with the Praetorian ally. A single step was all her love managed before he jerked to a halt, looking down at himself in what might have been shock, had he much in the way of face to show expressions with. A long, curved, single edged katana blade, glowing white hot from vibrational friction, was suddenly protruding from his chest, just left of center, high up near the armpit. Blood welled up and drooled down from between Frost's clenched teeth as he stared at the blade that had cleanly transfixed his heart. A shadow seemed to detach itself from the deeper darkness of the cave behind him, as a second Master Vamp, this one much smaller, more lithe and discernably female, made her presence on the battlefield known.
Frost slowly reached up his right hand towards the blade impaling his chest, as if fascinated by its sudden appearance in its current location, as the blade itself twitched and scraped loudly against his ribcage as Lexia did her best to twist the sword to rip the wound wider. But her assassin's strike was stymied by the same nearly indestructible bones that had been frustrating Pyotr, and the blade refused to twist more than a degree or two in either direction before jarring to a halt against the ribs above and below. Augmetic eyes aglow with disdain and disgust, Lexia ripped her katana out of Frost's chest, slicing the blade through his left lung on the way out of his torso cavity, slapping a fan of dark crimson blood against the cavern wall in the process, pink smoke fuming off the flat of her blade as the vibrations vaporized the gore it was coated with.
"ZACH!" Lilia could not stop herself from shouting in dismay, her grip on her beam pistol wavering ever so slightly as her heart leapt into her throat upon witnesing the horrific injury. It was just the sort of momentary hesitation that Pyotr had been waiting for, his aggression fuelled brain inherently pouncing upon even the slightest perceived weakness. It would be sweet to let the damned Executor hear his girlfriend being chopped into dogmeat just before that bitch Lexia snuffed him out for once and all... Pyotr had grown sick of the uncuttable bones in the main target... he wanted to see some limbs flying apart again! Slightly hampered by his damaged leg, the brutal Master Vamp known as "The Cossack" still moved as quickly and dexterously as a regular Vamp at peak prowess, and in a bare second he was looming over the Praetorian known as Yggdrasil's Valkyrie, bent shock-mace held low to deflect or guard, butcher's saber raised for dismemberment proceedings.
But Lilia had no interest in engaging a foe with such a blatant advantage in close quarters combat and strength on his own terms... a single blow from the Master Vamp would surely rupture internal organs and pulverize her bones even if she blocked successfully, armor or no armor! A mental impulse ignited her back mounted jump jets, and, resisting the temptation to land a rocket powered knee thrust to the Vamp's head as she passed, having learned from dislocating her knee doing so the last time she'd fought a cyber-assassin, Lilia soared into the air mere inches ahead of the enraged hacking blows of the Cossack. The evasion barely bought her a second's breathing room, as the Cossack hurled himself at a nearby stalagmite, mechanized limbs digging in and leaving divots in the rock as he scrabbled his way upwards nearly fifteen meters in the blink of an eye, before pouncing off and upwards with hydraulic piston powered legs, hissing saber drawn back to cleave Lilia from shoulder to hip in passing.
However, Lilia had been quick to draw one of her own blades even as she dodged, and though her strength was nowhere near that of the Vamp, in midair she was able to deflect his strike, as the cyborg lacked the leverage to truly beat down her guard. The deflection still spat blue and white sparks like a busting firework, a millimeter notch carved into the edge of her mono-sword, and the force of the blow catapulted her sideways almost a half a dozen meters before a flaring of her back moutned jump jets stabilized her. Lilia blasted at the plummeting Cossack as he twisted and contorted to try to avoid her retaliation, but there was only so much the cyborg could accomplish in midair, and by the time he hit the ground in a thundercrack of shattering stone, he had several moe orange rimmed holes bored through his back and sides by her beam pistol.
The Cossack threw himself into one of the crevices that ran in jagged lines through the floor of the main cavern, vanishing into the stygian gloom befoe Lilia could finish drawing a proper bead on the assassin. She sent a barrage of emerald green plasma bolts into the crevice anyway, draining the remains of her pistol's power pack, but the shots struck only stone, and revealed nothing within the depths of the pit. Keeping a solid grip on her sword, held defensively in front of her, Lilia reached out with a flick of her mental abilities, telekinetically unlocking a hidden compartment along the beltline of her armor, and withdrawing a new powercell for her beam pistol. A flick of her thumb dropped the spent powercell from the pistol's handgrip, and then she slammed how the fresh one with another flick of her concentration. Hand's free reloading was one of the first skills taught to any Praetorian with a lick of TK talents.
Cautiously, Lilia lowered her thrusters output, dropping herself groundwards like a feather on the breeze, pistol raised and ready to be trained on even the slightest hint of movement. She knew the big cyborg wasn't gone. She'd hurt it, and Zach had hurt it too. But not anywhere near to the degree to take it down for good. It had merely recognized that she held the advantage of maneuverability in the open space of the main cavern. It wanted her to follow it, down into the tight spaces below the main floor, where it could back her into a corner and hammer her into the rock walls with its superior strength. She wasn't having any of that nonsense. A pair of grenades unclipped themselves from her armor's external harness points and dropped in parabolic arcs into two of the jagged cracks, before etonating with shrieking BANGS and geysers of flame and rock chips as they exploded upon touching the bottom.
The twinned explosions failed to flush her foe from hiding, but Lilia hadn't really expected them to anyway. She just wanted to give him something to think about for the next few seconds, as she turned towards her real goal. Zach. Who was currently engaged with the second cyber-assassin, the female armed with the long vibro-katana. Much smaller than the giant butcher-thing that Lilia had just inconclusively dueled with, this one was also much quicker, and fought with great skill and honed training rather than raw ferocity and brute force. However, though badly wounded, Zach was still holding strong... there was far more to him than simple brute strength and ferocity as well. Being a monster takes almost as much practice as being hero, Zach had once wryly commented to her. It was just a lot more fun.
The female cyborg used the walls and other outcroppings to continuously strike at Zach from higher ground or unexpected angles, sometimes even flipping completely over him and striking down from above as she whirled by, her mono-keen sword glowing lambent orange from air friction, carving smoking lines in the flesh of Zach's shoulders, sides and arms. The cauterized wounds barely even needed to scab over, given how shallow they were, but each and every slice was that much more of a burden upon Zach's nano-healing machines, and he was already relying on them pretty heavily to stay upright. Even as Lilia looked on, the female killer swung two handed in a diagonal downstroke aimed at the base of Zach's neck, only to have the blow turned aside by an interposed forearm, a strip of muscle and skin almost three inches long being carved away from his indestructible skeleton, dark crimson gore splattering from the raw wound, before cystallizing even before it could hit the ground, darkening to a gritty powder that began to dissolve away at once. A leathery scab of the same material was already forming over the wound at the same time.
Sidestepping Zach's counterpunch, the female assassin leaped straight up and whirled around like a top, sword held out and aimed for Zach's neck once more, clearly trying to either sever his jugular or damage his windpipe... both of which would be crippling if not fatal against a normal person. It was just the sort of blow one would strike if they favored a quick and efficient style of killing. It was the attack of a cold and calculating murderer, who killed as some sort of personal test or in pursuit of some personal goal, not merely for the joy of the bloodletting itself. Lilia wondered if perhaps hanging out with Zach so much had made her a sort of connisseur of killers... able to dissect their motivations and quirks by just watching them fight for a short time. Well, if so, then all the better.
Lilia struck the leaping assassin before she could even really begin her graceful strike, using her thrusters to barge the female right out of the air, with a flying tackle that jarred every bone in Lilia's shoulder and ribcage. Smaller the female cyborg might be, but she was every bit as solid as her larger companion, and Lilia knew she couldn't afford to turn the battle into a contest of trading blows. The other woman... though the term applied only very loosely... reacted even faster than Lilia had expected her to, and before Lilia could even ram her into a nearby rock outcropping, the cyborg had brought the hilt of her blade down on Lilia's back. Her Praetorian armor saved her from a shattered spine, but even so the blow cracked the borealite plating like a dropped plate, and drove every scrap of air from her lungs in the process.
Gritting her teeth, Lilia rode out the blow, and the following impact with the outcropping, even though it felt like she'd stepped headlong in front of a racing APC. Even with the Vamp acting as a sort of cushion, she rattled every bone in her body and almost bit off the tip of her tongue as well. Out of breath, head ringing and body aching, Lilia dropped to the rocky floor and rolled desperately. She couldn't aford to stay still for even a heartbeat, regardless of her injuries. Skidding up to one knee, Lilia just barely managed to raise her drawn sword in time to parry a downwards cut from the displeased female Vamp. But the Vamp was capable of a power and a precision with her strikes that even a Praetorian had to envy, and the glowing edge of the vibro-katana came down exactly on the notch that the Cossack had already carved out of the blade half a minute earlier. The mono-sword snapped in half, the katana barely slowing, and descended towards Lilia's head!
She could only escape by allowing herself to fall backwards into a somersault, her chest aching with the need to draw in a full breath, which would require a moment's space, a moment she did not have. The vamp was right on her however, the katana already thrusting forward to spit her through the heart, the same strike that the assassin had unleashed upon Zach upon entering the fight. A bright blue seed, veined with pulsing gold, ropped through the frozen void inside Lilia's mind and soul, before shattering aginst an invisible plane of ice that was her determination to survive. Actnic light flared in the darkness, not dispelling it, but rather enhancing its depth all the greater through contrast.
There was no time to draw her other sword, so Lilia simply slapped at the sword blade with her open hand. Zach probably could have snapped the blade in half with such a blow, but Lilia lacke her boyfriend's power, even when enhanced by the Seed. However, she was almost infinitely more skilled when it came to the application of Newtype powers, and so when she closed her hand around the spearing blae, she did not immediately lose all her fingers, having created a "glove" of telekinetic force around her gauntlet, protecting her from direct contact with the white hot mono-molecular edge. She had not the strength to stop the blow cold, so instead she put all her effort into diverting the blow slightly, just a centimeter or two to the left. The armor piercing tip of the vibro-katana rammed into her battle armor just shy of her shoulder, and about level with the bottom of her armpit. With a loud CRUNCH-SNAP it pierced through the angled Borealite without slowing, and carved through the much softer flesh and muscle beneath, before bursting out through the back of her armor as well, almost a foot of blade extending out behind her.
Lilia gritted her teeth so hard to choke down a scream of agony that blood flowed thick and wet down her lips and chin from where she'd bitten the sides of both cheeks. The female cyborg had barely anything resembling a human face at all anymore, yet Lilia was all but sure the bitch had a smug look on at the moment, as the Praetorian staggered under the force of the impaling thrust, blood already pouring down the front and back of her armor. The Vamp's claw like hands tensed on the hilt of the katana, preparing to twist it and rip it out of the Praetorian to carve a fatal wound. Eyes blazing and washed out with the power of the Seed, Lilia tightened her TK warded grip on the sword, resisting the twist, before forcing her other arm, beam pistol still clenched in her fist despite the rivulets of gore streaming down her limb, to lift and point steadily at the female Vamp.
Cybernetic reflexes made the only possible choice, as a double kill scenario was not a favorable outcome with the main target still active, and so Lexia Rymyr, known as the Eclipse killer, let go of her sword and hurled herelf backwards just microseconds ahead of the searing green plasma bolts aimed at her head and torso. Tiny adjustments in her balance and footing so her duck and weave through the volley of shots that followed, leaping with the agility of a gazelle from rock to rock, across outcroppings and over crevasses, as the Praetorian slut emptied her powercell in a fruitless gesture. Some of the shots came close, certainly, but the only thing they ever actually melted holes in were the dark stone walls of the cavern. Now seperated by about two dozen meters, the Vamp watched as the stricken Praetorian staggered and slumped, her willpower buoying her up but her body dragging her down, as the still activated vibro-katana continued to sear the insides of the Praetorian's flesh.
Eclipse flinched instinctively as she saw a shadowy form pounce at her from her right flank, her 360 degree cybernetic vision meant that she could not be snuck up on, but the sheer speed of the prime target had still allowed him to catch her slightly off guard, while she was focused on evading the praetorian's beam attacks. She hadn't even seen him MOVE, which was actually a bit troubling. One moment he was somewhere else, the next he was almost within arm's reach of her, his face twisted with an expression that showed that he was no longer having nearly so much fun with their little encounter as he had been previously. Had she a lip, Eclipse's would have curled in disdain. Men of all stripes were such simple, arrogant creatures. You could strike at them as much as you wanted and they would only laugh and fight harder, but when you threatened someone they cared about, then their feelings were hurt. THEN they felt the need to become enraged.
Before she could engage the primary target however, The Cossack made his reappearance, popping out of the crevasse that the Executor was just then leaping over, like a giant mechanical killer gopher. One fist reached up and snagged Frost by the ankle, piston driven fingers immeiately clenching tight enough to pulp flesh and grind against QC infused bone, a grip that would have shamed an industrial vice. With that hold, the Cossack whiplashed the Executor backwards and slammed him into the lip of the crevasse hard enough to break off chunks of the rock and send them clattering into the depths. Eclipse spared her "comrade" barely a glance as she bounded past him and the still struggling Executor. She'd let Pyotr distract the target for the time being, until she could retrieve her sword and then throw the bloodied scalp of the target's beloved Praetorian to the floor in front of him. If that didn't discommode him into a vulnerable fury, then nothing would...
Lilia had one hand on the sword hilt and was on one knee as she slowly pulled the long curved blade out of her body, trying to minimize any secondary damage in the process. Her right arm, her pistol hand, were both completely numb, though thankfully the blood loss was less severe than she'd initially feared. The white hot vibrations of the sword had seared the wound mostly closed. With a final choked off sob of effort, Lilia ripped the sword out of her body and collapsed forward, only barely catching herself with her extended fist holding the sword. She did what she could to block off the pain of the injury, but no amount of nerve massaging was going to get her right arm working again this side of a hospital. She was just staggering upright when a tremendous force struck her on her right shoulder, splintering the pauldron and gashing open the puncture wound beneath as she was hurled sidelong across the floor. Something snapped wetly in her right shoulder bones, not that it mattered much at this point.
Trusting to instinct, Lilia hit her back mounted jump jets, sending her skidding and bouncing across the rough stone floor in a cloud of grit, just a moment ahead of Eclipse as she came down from a pouncing leap with both feet where Lilia's pelvis and hips had just been, smashing a pair of inch deep divots in the stone. Even as she skidded along, lilia used TK to detach another pair of grenades from her harness, leaving them bouncing along in her wake, to detonate with a concussive roar and magnesium bright flash, and then a second one that sent up billowing purple smoke in a cloud between her and the cyborg. There was a third detonation in the distance, oddly muted, which seemed to make the whole cavern vibrate as it resonated through her, but Lilia had neither the time nor opportunity to see what that was as she rose to a guard position once more. Barely even distracted by the flash-bang and smoke grenade, Eclipse came stalking out of the smoke, metallic toe talons clicking coldly on the stone, before blurring forward in a straight on charge.
Lilia hacked at the cyborg with her own katana, only to have the blade slapped away just as she'd tried to do earlier, but with a lot more success, as the hilt was torn from her grip despite her best efforts and the follow up punch to her abdomen lifted her off her feet and sent even more cracks running across her much abused armor. At this rate, it wouldn't provide functional protection much longer. And even robbing most of the force from the blow, Lilia still coughed up a gobbet of bloody phlegm as she came back down on unsteady feet almost a meter back from where she'd been. She wasn't down yet though, and her hand flicked to her thigh and came up with a long combat knife from a concealed sheath therein. The Vamp came for her head on again, plainly confident that Lilia was on her last legs. Seed enhanced reflexes allowed her to duck the first punch, and even ram the blade of her knife to the hilt into the Vamp's stomach, but she must not have anything particularly vital there, because Eclipse ignored the hit entirely and backhanded Lilia across the cheek in turn.
Lilia wasn't even conscious of hitting the ground until after the back of her skull had rebounded from the stone, the front of her battle helmet smashed to pieces and the rest of it knocked clean off her head by the blow. Her head was ringing like a churchbell, and her vision was almost blocked by black and purple spots. Oddly, the thought that she was probably about to die held little terror for Lilia right then, despite all the things and people she had to live for. The pain and ache and agony of her many wounds just reminded her of just how very alive she was right then. Blinking the concussion distortion fom her vision, Lilia threw up a hand as the Vamp pounced on her again, this time holding a long dagger with a wavy edged blade, which she plunged down aimed right between Lilia's eyes. Instead of punching though her orbital bone into her brain though, the kriss instead slammed into and through her upraised palm with enough force to break her remaining functional wrist!
Smoke began to rise from where the Borealite of her gauntlet was punctured by the knife almost at once, and a spreading burning sensation began to consume Lilia's palm from the inside. The blade of the kriss had a pearly white sheen to it, and she realized the entire thing was coated with MAIDEN nanites, even as some dripped from the tip of the dagger to burn a lesion on the side of her nose, just missing her left eye. The other Vamp she'd fought had had MAIDEN laced spittle, so she should have expected these ones to use the anti-Edenite nanites as well! Bones grinding in her broken wrist, Lilia clenched her impaled hand into a fist and lashed out with the last of her telekinetic strength, striking the blade along its weakest angle, right where the tang met the hilt, and snapped the dagger's blade. Most of the kriss was still embeded through her palm, but Lilia just used that to drive the blade into the Vamp's side with a backfisted punch.
Eclipse looked down in annoyance at her own dagger sticking out of her side, with the praetorian's fist all but nailed to her. This one just didn't know when to die. Reaching down, Eclipse grabbed Lilia around the throat... carefully, so as not to crush the windpipe or spine... and lifted the obstinate Edenite up, holding her just off the ground. "I don't understand what he sees in you." The Vamp spoke for the first time, her voice an electronic simulation of the one she used to have, before the Revamping surgeries. "There's nothing special about you. You're just another filthy meatbag eddie witch. I could kill a dozen like you without working up a sweat. You're so weak you make me sick that I have to waste time murdering you..."
"Too late for that." Frost growled savagely, as he stepped out of the shadows behind Eclipse, his features ruined almost beyond recognition, his clothing ripped to tatters and the skin beneath not much better, his entire body cocooned in criss crossing layers of leathery nanite scabs. The Cossack's fist was still clenched around his left ankle, the cybrog's arm severed with surgical cleaness about three inches up the limb. His eyes glowed like the fires of hell themselves, washed out metallic violet pupils just barely visible within. That hadn't been a third grenade detonation Lilia had felt earlier. It had been Zach activating his Seed. "No one murders the Mouse except me!" Frost explained, as he lashed out with his hand... the one with the flesh abraded away fro his fignertip bones to leave them as improvised QC claws.
Eclipse was still stunned, her internal processors trying to figure out how the primary target could have moved across the entire width of the cavern so quickly that she hadn't been able to track him, so she failed to react in time to avoid having her cranium snared within the Executor's outstretched fingers like a man palming a basketball. A nanosecond later and the sound of shattering metal and glass filled the cavern, as Frost rammed the Vamp's head into the cavern wall with all his considerable strength. Not done there, he then ground the offending Vamp's head against the wall for a full meter, abrading away over half of her skull and all its contents in the process, before allowing the cyborg to drop to the floor like a collection of junk. Lilia fell along with the vamp, as Eclipse's fingers had not loosened their grip on her throat, but a second later and Zach had pried the hand loose and tossed it aside like a piece of scrap.
"The pain is life, Mouse. Treasure it. Hold it close. Bathe in it." Zach advised sibilantly, as he looked down at her consideringly. She was beaten to hell and back, that was for sure, but he was proud of her nonetheless. She hadn't given up even once, despite being outclassed by her opponents. It was resignation that killed most strong people, when they came up against someone that was inevitably stronger than them, they tended to give in to self doubt and self pity. But a weak person with the will to live... they could survive just about anything. He also was happy to feel a certain boiling unhappiness brooding within him, as he took stock of the Mouse's hurts and injuries. Snarling, he kicked the inert remains of the female cyborg, punting them into the nearest crevasse, with a sound like a dumpster full of glass falling off a ten story building.
Howing like a runaway train, the huge Vamp came barreling across the cavern floor towards the two of them, vibro-saber raised in homicidal fury, other arm ending in nothing but a shiny metallic stump, where the limb had been cut through by the quantum nanite when Frost had portaled across the room to intervene on the Mouse's behalf. "I'm not interested in you anymore." Frost informed the enraged berserker, looking down at the mostly helpless but still perservering Mouse. Her bloodied lips and battered and broken body did a lot to prompt a stirring in him... she just looked so good while she was all but writhing in agony. The good sort of agony, the kind that came from surviving a battle against tough odds. She was even slowly attempting to rise to her knees, eyes squinted in concentration and teeth grinding like millstones, loud enough to be heard, while sticky blood oozed from the rents in her armor. It was beautiful.
Too beautiful to be interrupted certainly, so Frost turned to the Cossack just as the huge bastard brought his sword down aimed at his skull. He reached up almost casually and stopped the blade cold, gripping it so hard the blade broke into a dozen shards which went whining off into the dark like white hot shrapnel. Everyone's Seed was different. Some were balanced, like the Mouse's, affecting mind and body equally. Some were more like Yamato's enhacing his mind and reflexes alone. Or the late Pink, with her Newtype powers alone being enhanced. In Frost's case, there was little to enhance about his mind or reflexes, and his newtype powers were hardly developed at all. No, all the boost from his Seed went straight into his physical strength, speed and power. Even the nanites that filled his body were driven into overdrive by the change, wounds that would have taken him hours to heal normally were already beginning to close over, open wounds becoming scabs, scabs becoming meat and scarred skin, scars fading into imperceptibility. Even his cloven heart started to beat once more, slowly and erratically, after knitting itself back together.
The Cossack drew back its stump of a sword in a manner that might almost have been surprise or alarm, if such emotions could have existed within the berserk cauldron of his mind. Instead, he merely drove the jagged stump down like a speartip at the Executor. Frost sidestepped the attack with brutal indifference, before reaching up with both hands and grabbing the extended arm by the nearest of several elbows. A quick twist and a grunt of effort saw the forearm torn off its mounting like a man plucking the leg off a chicken carcass. Rolling his captured arm around his wrists like a drum major twirling a baton, Frost brought the blade stump around and rammed it up and through the jawline of the Cossack, and into the inside of his skull cavity. Undeterred, the Master Vamp kicked out with a clawed foot, only to have the shin caught once more by the simply far faster Seed Boosted Frost.
Yanking hard on the leg in his grip, Frost pulled the Vamp off balance, lifting him up and then whipcracking him back down, just as the Cossack had done to him earlier, pancaking him into the cavern floor with a thunderous BOOM! "I'm getting very bored of this foolishness. You were diverting for a while, but you must know you can't beat me. You are not my How, and you never will be. It takes a man to beat a monster, and you are no man. You're not even a monster... you're just a broken THING!" Frost chided the cyborg as he grabbed him by thigh and shoulder, and lifted the hulking thing above his head. A moment's pause to let the enemy savor his last moment and then Frost brought the bastard down, right onto his upraised knee. Flesh shredded off his crystalline bone, but the bone itself perservered, and shattered the Cossack's reinforced spine like it was made of spun sugar, powering up and up through its innards as Frost continued to press down with both hands, until he'd literally snapped the Vamp in half over his knee! Frost discarded the two sparking and twitching halves to either side contemptuously.
He turned back to the Mouse, who had managed to rise to her knees, and broke out in a wide grin. He liked her on her knees in front of him. It soothed an ego that was ever easily bruised, even when she did it out of simple neccesity rather than subservience. It was too bad they were far from the Citadel, and he still didn't trust himself to portal her as well as him, especially in her damaged state. He would have to choke back his rising lust until she'd had a chance to recover some strength. He reached out a tattered hand, to stroke her bloodied hair, and his contented smirk grew wider as he saw her looking up at him with wide eyes. So innocent, those eyes, despite everything he'd put her through. The euphoria of his Seed was already fading, and so it took him a moment to realize that the Mouse wasn't looking AT him, she was looking PAST him! Frost turned to look at what had caught her attention over him!
Gerad Larkyn, known as the Headhunter hitman, for his habit of only taking headshots during his hits before being "recruited" into the Revamped program, had not been idle during the battle raging below his hidden blind. After witnessing the prime target's unbelievable resilience, he had realized that the round he had loaded in his .75 caliber laser guided anti-material rifle, a mono-tipped bullet filled with atomic wire shrapnel, would be of little use against someone with a skeleton reinforced with QC. The bullet was designed to penetrate the body or skull cavity and then detonate, all but vaporizing all the matter within half a meter. But that would be of little practical use if it detonated outside the target's body, especially this particular target!
So he'd had to switch rounds, something he'd never done in the field before, to a blunt tipped plasma charge round, something like a very small grenade more than anything. He couldn't get through the skull physically, but if he raised the temperature around the skull high enough, he could still flash fry the matter within, and get the killshot he desired. However, before he could fire the round, the Headhunter's OCD and sense of pride required that he etch the name of the target into the side of the bullet, which took concentration and time. The fact that Eclipse and Cossack had been defeated while he was engrossed in the engraving process didn't bother the Headhunter much... he'd never liked them anyway. And now he didn't have to share the credit for the kill either.
The target was beginning to turn towards his position, but it was too late. The Headhunter had already loaded the round, pulled the slide and engaged the action, and then pulled the trigger. By the time Frost had begun to turn, the supersonic round was already three fourths of the way to him, and moving fast enough to be a blur even to his eyes. Perhaps, had he still been fully in the Seed mode, he could have dodged it, or portaled away, but he had begun to relax after defeating the two Master Vamps, and the Mouse's state of vulnerability had distracted him further. For him, there was no option for escape. He'd been caught, dead to rights, for perhaps the first time since his first demise.
But Frost wasn't alone either, as also for the first time since his first demise, he had an ally willing to do anything to protect him. Lilia had seen the sniper move and take aim, and was already reacting when the shot was fired. No words could warn Zach fast enough, not even a burst of emotion through their nascent bond could have accomplished anything in time. The only thing she could do was reach out, with every scrap of her love, her fear and her pain. Her invisible telekinetic grip snagged the plasma bullet less than a foot from Zach's head, and it took her six more inches to bring it to a proper halt. Agony lanced her skull like an ice picked shoved through from ear to ear, and blood vessels popped in her right eye, staining the schelera as red as Zach's biolume eyes, as bloody tear tracks began to dribble down her cheek from that eye. Her balance, so recently regained, deserted her, and she collapsed forward onto her face in a semiconscious daze, breaking her nose on impact with the ground.
Frost howled beastially, spittle flying from his open jaw, as he reached up and grabbed the bullet out of the air just as the Mouse's TK grip faded, along with the rest of her consciousness. He felt it start to vibrate in his grip, so he spun towards the wall and drove his fist into the stone up to the wrist. There was a flash of heat and ruby light, and the stone around his fist turned a ruddy orange color and sloughed around his wrist, turning into taffy like strings of lava as he ripped his charred and blackened fist, denuded down to the very bones by the contained plasma blast, out of the safe pocket he'd created. And he'd just barely regenerated that hand too! How annoying!
He looked from the prone figure of the Mouse, blood pooling around her downturned face as it trickled from her ears and nose and eyes... she'd ruptured something in there while protecting him. PROTECTING HIM! HIM, Zacharis Frost! Being protected! He wasn't sure whether to be appalled, furious or madly in love. She'd hurt herself for his sake. Without question. Without hesitation. Without even thinking about the consequences. And that was IT, of course. The key. The secret he'd been looking for. It seemed so obvious, but perhaps it was just the kind of lesson that could only be learned by having it happen right next to you first. He smiled down at his lover as she lay bleeding and hurt and unconscious and helpless on the ground. A beautiful person, the Mouse. His Mouse. HIS MOUSE. And she was hurt. Someone had damaged her. Someone other than him. Someone other than him had dared lay hands on this beautiful person, his Mouse, and had damaged her. Someone else had dared try to take her away from him!
"Hehehehehehe..." Frost began to chuckle. Softly at first, but it grew darker and sharper as it went on, and on. No one was allowed to take the Mouse from him. They were connected. She was his. His alone. She was his in a way that no one and nothing else had been, or would be. She was his because she CHOSE to be his. Because she WANTED to be his. And they had tried to take her away from him. It was maddening, such a thought. Offensive. Bothersome. Perhaps even a little upsetting. It was not to be borne. "Little sniper man..." Frost intoned with bladed words. "Shoot at the Mouse. One more time. Put her in danger. Threaten to end her life..." Frost lifted a palm and stared at it, as motes of inky blackness began to accumulate within it. Within the chaotic pandemonium of his thoughts, an icy void began to propogate, darker than dark, a shadow of a shadow, through which a spot of absolute black, visible only through the faintest shimmery of golden veining across its surface, began a slow fall through the murk.
"Go on. Do it! Shoot at her! Shoot. Now! Hurry. I'm so close... I just need a little more push. Try to hurt her. Try to kill her! Try to blow her pretty little head off! Hurry! HURRY UP AND SHOOT HER! UNLEASH ME! DARE TO HURT THE MOUSE AND LET ME LOOSE! DO IT!" Frost cajoled the last remaining Vamp. And then he saw it. The tiniest shift in the sniper's posture. Little more than a flinch, but it still put the barrel of the rifle out of alignment with Frost, and edged towards the Mouse. It was enough. It was more than enough. He clenched his fist, mentally and physically, snatching the Seed out of the void, before it could detonate. It thrummed against him, wanting to explode, needing to release itself. But he denied it the easy route, confined it, controlled it! As he had once been confined, as he had once been controlled, as he had once been turned to the purposes of others, so too did he confine, control and turn to his purpose the energy of his Seed.
He was just about to thrust his Seed down into the dark soil that had apepared at his feet in his mind's eye, when the paradigm changed. The Headhunter, having exhausted his bullet, had realized that without his two compatriots around to distract the Executor long enough for him to reload, he was as good as defeated. None of his other armaments had a chance of stopping the Executor, especially not in his current, amped up state. He was not as fast or agile as Eclipse was, there was no way for him to hide or outrun his former prey. He was not as tough or as strong as the Cossack, he could not go toe to toe with the Executor either. However, his imperative was still the death of the target. So he only had one choice... he took the last resort available to every Revamped, and willingly detonated the area denial plasma charge built into his core systems.
The Headhunter blew up with almost the same amount of force as a 120mm cannon shell, a blast of sound and light and fire and concussion that ripped open the ceiling of the cavern and dislodged the small forest of stalactites that were arranged thereon! Almost a thousand tons of granite and marble came cascading down in blocks and chunks as big as a main battle tank as the cavern started to collapse. Jolted from his concentration, Frost screamed in outrage as his Seed slipped from his mental fingers, just shy of the soil in which he was to plant it, and thus bobbled the Ascended Seed activation. He'd let thoughts of his own survival intrude when the ceiling started to come down. Even a fraction of hesitation was too much to allow in such a delicate process, especially the first time he'd gotten so close.
He dived for the Mouse, tenting himself over her, locking his unbreakable bones into place as chunks of rock and cave formations piledrived down atop him. Even the smaller pieces were enough to almost pound him flat, and Frost quickly realized that he could not protect the Mouse from the cave in by such methods. He himself would survive... he could not be crushed nor suffocated under the rubble, but nothing even notionally human had the strength to hold up the tons of stone that were currently falling towards him, not high enough to avoid crushing someone else beneath him. He would be fine... as fine as he ever was anyway, but his own unbreakable skeleton would crush the Mouse as surely as the stones themselves would. There was no choice... he would have to risk it... he'd never portaled someone ELSE with Mr. Abyss before, but it had to be possible. He could not accept the thought that it wasn't. Mr. Abyss was his partner... it would understand his need here.
And then, as if answering his wish, the Mouse was blanketed in darkness more total than the cave itself could manage, and then she was gone. Taken instantly elsewhere by the quantum nanite, to the closest open space on the surface big enough to hold her. He hadn't had time to be more specific than that. And then the rocks came tumbling down atop him, and buried him in darkness and crushing weight. Frost could not breathe with such weight upon him, so there was no way to laugh. But he was definitely smiling...