I… need… more… exercise. Even my thoughts were gasping by the time I’d made it to the floor with the fight. Based on the emotions from Chloe and Cecelia and the sounds of gunfire, the fight was in full pitch but they were holding their own.
The horror from Chloe suggested things weren’t going as well as we’d hoped, but aside the brief burst of pain from Chloe early on, the girls were confident that they weren’t in any true danger. Some part of me wanted to sound the retreat, and get us out while we were still ahead. I knew better; neither of my partners would tolerate such a thing, not now.
Figuring I had time and needed to catch my breath, I exploited the stealth offered by my power to take in the scene from near the top of the ramp. The side with the crossbows appeared to be mopping up their gun-toting enemies with little difficulty.
Having spent the last month memorizing every bit of information on Heritage I could get my hands on, I recognized Parapet using her shield to cover to her mundane allies. Seeing as Parapet was nullifying automatic weapons fire, I didn’t imagine there was much I’d be able to do against her.
A man in a torn black costume body suit limped toward Parapet, heedless of the crossbow bolts fired at him. It was obvious he had some sort of invulnerability power, but his costume and the broken wood plank he was using as a crutch had several bolts caught in them. I decided he was a non-issue for now, given his injury and apparent lack of range or movement powers. Worst case scenario, we could avoid him by walking.
Cecelia was jumping around the battlefield with every bit of her agility as someone in a dark blue costume wielding a similar colored mithril sword appeared and disappeared behind her. Of all of us, Cecelia was best equipped to deal with a teleporter, so again I looked for a more reasonable target.
Chloe faced off against a man who looked like a living stone statue, as opposed to my living steel statue. I decided if nothing else, I might take Chloe’s place in that fight so she could hit another target. I didn’t have have the strength to take down Parapet’s shield, but she might, and I trusted my armor to withstand almost anything these people could dish. As Cecelia put it; if guns were still valid for them, they weren’t strong enough to hurt us.
I clenched when witnessed Salamander enter the conflict- having chosen a mundane target and ripped him open for us to watch. Could I have stopped him? If we hadn’t run last time, would he be dead, and his most recent victim still be alive? I didn’t know the answer to my question, but I resolved that he’d be my opponent this time.
Despite being several feet apart, the statue-man reached out and grabbed at Chloe. Green light swirled around them both, and sudden gust of wind hit her from behind and buffeted her hair around her. ConfusionShockPain.
She tumbled forward, pulled toward the stone man along with the dust and debris littering the floor. Even after the gale force dissipated, she didn’t stand, and I could sense nothing from her through our bond, not even the soft calm that came when she was asleep in my arms.
I didn’t stop to think as I jumped off the ramp to the concrete below. My metal absorbed much of impact, as if I was in a cocoon of water rather than a solid steel shell. A cocoon of water which announced its arrival as a thousand sledge hammers hitting the ground at once. Several people turned and shot at me, which confirmed six inches of solid steel was enough to shrug off bullets and crossbows without so much slowing me down.
RejectionHateProtect. Cecelia, too, had responded to Chloe’s plight, and stopped in her tracks. The woman in the blue outfit appeared out of nowhere, and this time her sword sank right into Cecelia’s stomach. PainVictory.
The woman shrieked in agony the likes of which I’d never heard before, and collapsed in a shower of orange lightning. Later I’d feel guilty for not worrying that Cecelia might have killed her, but for now I thought only of Chloe, who might die.
Even impaled and further away, Cecelia reached Chloe before me. WorryUncertaintyPanic. Heedless of the battle or her own injury, she had already started to remove Chloe’s decorative armor and mask.
She didn’t even look up at me when I got close. “He pulled the air from her lungs.” A pulse of lightning shot from her hands into Chloe’s chest, and then she pressed her lips to Chloe’s and began some version of CPR. I felt helpless, praying that Cecelia could do what I could not. TrustDefendDanger.
Right, the fight’s not over, and Cecelia has more important things to worry about. My own lungs screaming for fresh air, I took a combat stance. Once again, I invoked the winglike construct, shielding the girls with thousand deadly blades. In my hands, I shaped a pair of slender swords, each seven feet long. Again, I observed rather than joining the fight.
The man who may have killed Chloe was now engaged against Salamander. The pair could not have been more different in combat styles. Salamander went on the offensive, with all the ferocity of a wild animal, while his opponent stayed defensive, using his speed to evade and misdirect much like a bull fighter. As much as I hated to admit it, the bastard was good, and there were a few tricks I could use in my own style. Even visually, the man’s green aura contrasted against red scales. Neither seemed able to get an upper hand in the conflict, and I was happy to let them fight.
Parapet’s shield, normally visible only when blocking attacks, revealed itself in a storm of purple light. The invulnerable guy from before finally made contact, and his costume burned away for the experience, revealing a man who was almost albino white save for the mop of dark hair on his head. Not only had his clothes disintegrated, so had the forcefield.
A pair of unseen gunmen opened fire on the Heritage villain. One of them had the assault rifle, and sprayed her team with bullets. Though they wore body armor, it wasn’t up to the task of stopping military firearms. Parapet hit the ground, the contents of her skull spilled out around her. I almost threw up; growing up in the ghetto had taught me how cheap life could be, but knowing did nothing to prepare me for seeing it with my own eyes.
PainAwareness ReliefJoy. The return of Chloe’s emotions to my mind was joined by painful coughs on her part.
I kept my eyes on the battlefield; no sense in making a stupid mistake which might cost my love her life now that she was in the clear. “We need to get out of here while we have a chance.”
RejectionAnger. “No.” HorrorDisgust. Chloe had to struggle to rasp that single syllable. ResponsibilityDetermination. “Stop the killing.”
Cecelia, too, didn’t want to leave, though the hate and cruelty radiating off her suggested that stopping the killing was the furthest thing from her mind. Dammit, looks we’re staying. Chloe’s still more or less invulnerable, save for the air controller and Salamander, who are fighting each other. “Spark, stay with Plasma. Stop the guns.” The pair of them should have no problem with the mundanes, or the injured guy whose power let him break Parapet’s shield.
I moved toward the remaining pair of Imbued, intent on ending their fight by any means necessary. Salamander was as monstrous in behavior as appearance, and wanted for over a dozen murders, not including at least one more tonight.
Then there was statue-man who would have killed Chloe if not for Cecelia’s intervention. Needless to say, I wasn’t fond of him.
I pushed metal into my swords, extending their length even as I brought both inward like a pair of scissors, with both targets in the middle. Some part of me recognized that I was about to kill two people. The rest was confident that no jury in America would convict me. Neither thought mattered compared to Chloe, who almost died because of their actions.
Both weapons hit home, though the statue man jumped in time to avoid a blade in the back at the cost of hitting his calf muscle in a spray of green light colors. Imbalanced by the collision, he spun sideways, caught in a cyclone of his own power which sent him tumbling across the empty lot. His injury didn’t look fatal, but I expected it to keep him down for a while.
My sword caught Salamander dead in the small of the back, which knocked him forward even as blood gushed from the wound. He landed on his knees and all four hands. After a moment, he climbed to his feet then turned to face me. With a bestial roar and speed I wouldn’t have expected from any human, let alone one with half his back flayed off, he rushed toward me.
I drew in my metal, replacing unwieldy giant swords with standard spikes and blades to keep him back. He was a physical superhuman, but at a level closer to Cecelia than Chloe. A Cecelia who lacked the ability to take control of my metal. Remembering my practice spars, I didn’t bother to fight on the defensive, instead positioning to shove my spear into his gut.
To my surprise, he ran straight into the spear without so much as an attempt at evasion. A couple more steps forward, and he had my head in a death grip. Not that it mattered, since the actual position of my head was in the chest cavity of the armor. His claws sank two inches into the steel, but that left me with four more to spare. As armored as I was, I was invulnerable to his attacks.
I shaped a sword in the hand which didn’t grip the spear and swung for his head, which he had no trouble avoiding.
Speed to match Cecelia, but a lot more training. Makes sense, he’s been with Heritage for the better part of a decade, he should know how to fight. Knowing he had such skills only made his willingness to take the spear more bizarre to me.
He kicked my armor’s head hard enough that I felt the blow through the armor. Some of the spikes on the helm bent, and one even broke off in the collision.
I stumbled back, more dazed than hurt. The fact that he was directing all his attacks on a decorative piece was a huge boon for me.
I was confident I got the better of the bastard in the exchange. I had minor bruises at worst, while he was coated in his own blood from numerous wounds. Three of his claws and one foot had been shredded by the micro-razors I’d perfected with Cecelia’s help.
“Been waitin’ fer this rematch, boy.” Salamander took a step back, with newfound wariness. “I will kill you and the scrawny bitch. But not the other one. She’n I? We’re gonna spend a long time gittin’ to know each other.”
I forced a laugh, hoping the hollow and eerie acoustics of my armor disguised the fear I felt knowing his boss knew where my family slept. “You’re welcome to try, but I’d recommend you stay here with me. The worst I’ll do is kill you.”
Salamander’s own laugh, if the guttural pseudo-growl could be called laughter, echoed over the other noises of the warehouse. “Big words, but you don’t have what it takes to kill anyone.” He lifted his hand, showing that despite still being covered in shredded scraps of flesh, there was a whole and functional hand beneath. “And if you ain’t got the guts to kill, you can’t take me.”
So his regeneration is not just a hundred times faster than Cecelia’s, it can pull mass out of nowhere to replace lost tissue. With healing at that level, I believed his claim; nothing short of a killing blow would be enough to stop him.
He darted to my left, while I borrowed the stone man’s tactic of treating this like a bull fight. As long as I kept my eyes on him, I could-
Another blow to the side of my head rocked me back, and the next three only made it worse. I ducked down into my armor, folding more mass into protecting my head and adding more blades at the expense of my artistic design choices. Through the armor, it only hurt like a punch through boxing gloves, but if I lost focus on controlling my armor, he had a real chance of killing me.
“See, just like I said, you ain’t got what it takes, boy.” Salamander had backed off, out of what I could consider easy range as his body patched itself back together. He pulled a foot long strip of skin and flesh off his arm and tossed it on the floor.
He’s right, I will lose at this rate. I allowed myself a glance at Chloe and Cecelia, who were now running literal circles around the naked guy with the broken foot. I couldn’t trust them to fight Salamander, given the contact poison he was so well known for. Chances were good their powers would protect them, but I was the only one with a guaranteed defense.
Salamander started to move again, circling me in hopes of finding another moment of vulnerability. My armor was thick enough, but I had to sacrifice mass in other areas, and all he needed to win was to get a single scratch through the metal at any location.
I’m allowing him to set the terms of the engagement. If this continues, I will die. I’ll die, and I’ll never get to kiss Chloe, or see Nanna, or even put up with Beatrice. If I can’t help my family, Nanna will lose her home. God, she can’t afford the funeral costs, either. I can’t allow that to happen.
Salamander moved, again too fast for me to follow. I didn’t try, I just fell to my knees while my armor reworked itself at the expense of the spare energy I still carried from Cecelia’s power. Almost all the mass released from armor form into a three dimensional snowflake pattern of bladed death. Some spikes broke, some bent, and Salamander stopped within inches of ripping me in half, a mangled mess.
I stepped back, drawing all my metal in as Salamander collapsed in a heap on the ground. Despite the spikes which had pierced his skull, chest and stomach, his chest moved. Somehow, he was breathing. I formed some metal into a sword. I could end him now, even his power shouldn’t be enough to recover from decapitation.
I watched as the flesh and bone from one of the holes in his skull slid outward like a misshapen tooth growing out. Chunks of skin, bone and I suspected brain slid off now-healthy flesh. He struggled to his feet as a spare eye fell from his cheek to join the rest of the viscera on the floor. “See, I knew you c-urk-”
Several things happened at once. First, I felt a pain in my chest as if I’d had the wind knocked out of me. On reflex, I held my breath. Second, a popping sensation in my ears deafened me. Third, I was blinded by what seemed like gallons of blood which coated my armor. Last, I almost topped over despite the weight of my armor.
In the seconds it took for me to recover, I used my armor to clear the blood so that I could see. Several meters away the statue guy stood, his hand still stretched out toward me. Between us lay a strip of gore with Salamander’s body strewn out in the middle. It looked like every drop of blood in him, as well as more than a few organs, had been ripped out in the attack.
The statue-man took a step back, unsteady on his wounded leg. The swirling aura of green seemed to be in part responsible for holding him up. “You survived? How?”
“Breathing’s overrated.” I adjusted my armor to make it more resistant to sudden pressurization. The salty stench of my sweat was better than the metallic of Salamander’s blood, at any rate.
“Is that so?” The man punched toward me, but his power meant nothing against the weight of two metric tonnes of steel. The Salamander gore and other garbage which came with did blind me for a moment.
I pushed that out from my vision, only to catch a skull sized chunk of concrete in the face. It shattered against my metal with little more than minor ringing sound and a shimmer of green pixie dust.
I reshaped my sword into the impossibly long blade I could trust to hit him. “Is that all your tricks? Hot air and pebbles? If so, you should just surrender, because you are now second on my list of least favorite living people.” I pointed my blade at the shattered remains of Salamander. “He’s third.” Fuck, just surrender already, there’s no way I can hit you in a fight, and the longer this continues the greater the odds something will go wrong.
My opponent took a different stance, this time with both hands forward. Around him, dust began to swirl like a miniature tornado, gathering chunks of debris none of which seemed the least bit threatening. His aura went from a shimmer to a green spotlight of energy. Somehow, chunks of the concrete floor around him cracked and broke off to join the storm. Those were large enough that they might be a danger if they hit me hard enough.
“I’m afraid I must ask. Who’s first on the list?”
Before I had a chance to answer, a spear punched out of the man’s diaphragm. His innards were as inhuman as his external appearance, more statue than man.
With a casual gesture, both spear and the man impaled on it were cast aside, leaving me face to face with the murderer; a knight that looked much like myself. All I could tell for certain was his armor, though almost a mirror of my own, was not made any sort of ferrous metal.
“Why, sir.” The echo of bootsteps joined the voice. A white cowl trimmed with gold came into view ascending the ramp to the floor below, along with the yellow light of power. The faux-uniform costume with a symbol of the confederate flag was one I’d never forget. I called to my metal, willing what little was left of Cecelia’s charge for the next fight. “Ah do believe the boy was referring to me.”