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How these guys manage to put up with each other is beyond me.
Previous chapter | Chapter start | Next chapter
How these guys manage to put up with each other is beyond me.
Terzich’s Note: This prose was originally written back in 2014 before I had even considered drawing it as a comic. It has been mildly proofread by a third party, but there will still likely be a bunch of errors hidden in there. Feel free to point them out, really. There are also almost no dialogue tags, only context clues that should be easy enough to follow. While there are differences as this is my official report of the events and the comic is how The Metal tells the story to people, this does spoil the story of the comic as a whole for those following along. You were warned.
Blinking on and off was an only slightly dysfunctional digital clock sitting on the bedside table. As the display flickers on and off, a click could be heard noting it was probably just a loose circuit as the clock still read the right time. It was turning to the eighteenth minute after the first full hour of the day and all was dark in the dreary, sea viewing hotel suite aside from that one inconsistent display. Slipping slowly into a sound slumber in the bed next to the pulsating timekeeper was a tall and slender young man with curly brown hair, tired from his drive to the coast. It was within this state between sleep and wake that the room itself became a haze. A soft, lilac-colored fog showered gently out of the air vents, thickening the atmosphere of the chamber yet somehow relieving any thoughts of panic. Gradually a bulk of the gaseous substance drew together over the nodding man and taking form. Within seconds the cloud began to appear more and more like a sensual young woman lacking attire and hovering in place before him. When the trance-like state had lowered his guard as low as it would reach, fangs popped down like spring-loaded blades and the woman’s face became frighteningly grotesque with her pupils vanishing and her jaw spreading wide open. The drastic change shook him from the trance but it was of no avail, for though his mind had awoken his body was still asleep, paralyzed so he would not injure himself during that circadian rest. The creature went to strike down like a viper aiming for the lad’s heart to spill the bulk of his blood.
“Booyah!” came echoing from the other side of the door as it came crashing in from a mighty kick. Standing in the frame of the door was another young man, much smaller than the would-be victim with blonde hair and an all-black karate gi, who tweaked his brow a smirked with ill intent at the malevolent vixen, as if the party had just begun. The loud bang of the door coming down prevented the siren from landing her execution. Startled and panicking from the aggressive heat the smaller man gave off, the monster spread wings from her hips to her fingertips and burst a hole through the exterior wall. Not giving it a moment’s thought, the blonde crowned man leaped out through the gaping maw left on the side of the structure grasping at the banshee’s feet.
Earlier that week in a cab on the freeway rode the curly-haired man, desperately wishing to get home after a tiring flight. He fiddles through the recesses of his carry on impatiently for the key to his front door, whose use had been long overdue when he remembers that he could just enter through the garage. The young man lazily dragged his luggage for the month through the house, not exactly caring about how much noise he made being that no one else should be there at this time of day. He opens the door to his old room, flips the switch to the light, and finds that it isn’t quite the way he left it, for sitting on a revolving chair before him was a youthful-looking, blonde-haired man in black sweats, a black jacket, and a white shirt with the Chinese symbol “金”, or Jin, on the front.
“I’m not going to ask how you got in here since I know how pointless that would be, but why are you here Metal?”
“Oh, just paying my best friend a visit since it is the first day I get to see him in forever.”
“Don’t give me that crap.”
“Fine, it’s a job.”
“It figures. I’m not even back from the other side of the globe a whole day and you are already trying to drag me into work. Why couldn’t you rope someone else, like Buck or The Kidd.”
“Actually, The Kidd is coming too. Besides, you know you were always the only one with the proper allure.”
“Every time. Every damn time, I’m bait for whatever half-baked, life-threatening plan you’ve cooked up.”
“Hey, you’re still alive, aren’t you? Now grab a vehicle. I already told your folks we’d be gone for a couple of days.”
“I never really had a choice did I?”
“Not since the third grade my friend.”
Later on, the two friends were found heading down the interstate in a white, four-door pickup along with another young man who clearly resembled the one referred to as “Metal”. This was obviously The Kidd, The Metal’s younger brother. Over an hour of driving has led into a ruckus with the cabin of the vehicle.
“I’m telling you, it has to be a succubus. All the signs are there: everyone who went missing was male, blood was splattered everywhere yet no body was found, and there were no signs of forced entry.”
“And I’m telling you that is bull shit, yo. What the fuck is a succubus, a Greek whore? We are in Texas.”
“Actually, succubi appear in numerous mythos including Christian lore…”
“Don’t bring up your fact shit. It could very likely be a Chupacabra.”
“How would a Chupacabra even get all the way to Texas from Latin America? At least Succubi are lust demons, they could be anywhere.”
“Will both of you listen to yourselves? Have you ever thought that maybe, I don’t know, it could be a commonplace serial killer?”
The two brothers turned to the driver with a stare of the utmost shock and disappointment as if silently saying “what the heck did you just say?”
“Sentri, what exactly is the purpose of our little business here again?”
Letting out a big sigh he answered the question. “We are professional freelancers, or private contractors of sorts, taking all the jobs that get left behind. The requests that puzzle the rest and the ones no one takes seriously. We especially consider opportunities including the supernatural, paranormal, government conspiracies, or free food.”
“Yo, you actually memorized his stupid mission statement?”
“You mean he hasn’t made you?”
“Like I even listen to half the shit Metal tells me to do.”
“Anyway, could you run us through everything one last time?”
“Of course. So the hotel manager has complained that guests in room 615 are mysteriously disappearing in the middle of the night with only blood spatters left behind. No sign of forced entry, no sign of a struggle, and no sign of the body being moved or dragged away, as well as only male victims since every woman starts to feel uncomfortable and requests a room change. The cops have investigated and put out missing person listings on all that vanished, but without evidence, the cases each go cold.”
“So that is where we come in?”
“Yep. The plan is that Sentri stays the night in the room in the room to lure the succubus…”
“…whatever it is out and before it gets the chance to kill you we bust in and beat the sense out of the thing until it stops being.”
“Okay, as questionable as this plan is on every front, what if it is a succubus?”
“I’m not afraid to hit a girl, much less one that is a demon.”
Sentri just let out a heavier sigh than before while slamming his head on the steering wheel. From experience, he knew that whether The Metal was right or not, there often isn’t any use in arguing a decision he has already made. The companions drove until they reached their destination in the renowned city of Corpus Christi. As per the pre-agreed arrangements, the hotel room adjacent to suite 615 was reserved and fully stocked with tea and steaks because The Metal wouldn’t work for less. As the hour grew close, Sentri prepared to spend the night in the next room down when The Metal’s disappearance worried him.
“Shit! Kidd, where did your brother go?”
“Oh, he said he had to pick something up from the front desk, but he’d still have plenty of time to get back up here before you need him.”
“Typical. He always pulls this kind of shit every time.”
“Well, with the track record you might as well get ready anyway.”
So with deep regrets filling his head from each of their past marks and the torment he had to endure, Sentri headed to room 615 and readied to sleep. Just as the door shuts, The Metal returns to their base of operations now wearing a black martial arts gi without sleeves and the symbol for jin small on the front above the left pectoral as well as covering almost the entire backside.
“Bro, what’s with the karate uniform?”
“I just needed a change of style. I figure if I’m developing my own art I better dress like it.”
“So that’s what you are wearing on missions now?”
“Oh no, I bought like fifteen of these. I’m wearing this all the time.”
“You’re retarded. Anyway, where is Sentri.”
“In the room sleeping as planned.”
“Oh shoot, what time is it!?”
The Metal sprinted out the door just as the minute changed. Without any hesitation, the promptly dressed man spun around and delivered a kick the knocked the door straight off its hinges. His eyes glistened as he saw the succubus above his periled friend knowing that he was right. Just as The Metal was ready to attack the monster, she panicked and flew through the side of the building leaving a gaping hole behind. It wasn’t in him to let an opportunity like this get away, so The Metal did the only thing he could and jumped out of the fifth story grabbing the demon by the ankle, dangling along as she swirled through the cool coastal sky trying to shake him loose.
Back in the room, Sentri still laid petrified when The Kidd finally showed up. He slapped Sentri across the face so hard it looked like his brow hopped off for a second. It was enough of a shock to wake his body up and reunite it with his state of mind.
“Where the hell did the succubus go?”
Sentri just pointed out the unmistakable gap in the wall that spanned the width of the room.
“Okay, and where did my brother go?”
He let out yet another sigh as he left his hand pointing in the same direction. Only having enough time to slap his palm on his own face, The Kidd followed Sentri out the door, down several flights of stairs, and into the truck. Whipping down the side streets much faster than the clearly noted limit, The Kidd pulled out his phone and began dialing.
“Who are you calling?”
“Who do you think”
*ring* *ring* *ring*
“Ahoy, you’ve reached The Metal. How can I be of service?”
“Where the hell are you!?”
“About a hundred feet above the city.”
“Wait, is he talking to you with one hand and dangling with the other?”
“Just activate your tracker and we’ll come find you!”
“Oh yeah, I forgot we bought these.”
The succubus must have dragged him over five miles away from where they started, twisting and turning through the buildings nearby while periodically gaining and losing altitude. She made a tight turn and managed to drop the stubborn hunter when he slammed into a water unit atop an apartment structure. Tenacity is one to The Metal’s most defining traits, though, so he quickly got to his feet after piling through the tower.
The others finally caught up to the tracking signal, but The Metal was nowhere to be found. All they could see above them was the creature. They kept on its trail to the best of their ability, but they lacked any equipment for taking it down.
“Do we have anything to at least throw at it?”
“Yeah, I’m gonna be able to launch this tire iron a few stories up with just my arm.”
“Damn it, where is The Metal when you need him?”
And as if mentioning his name summoned the devil inexplicably, The Metal leaped off a rooftop onto the back of the beast. After placing his tracker on the succubus before falling off, he used the truck to keep aware of where she was heading. Now hanging from the neck of the demented feminine figure, The Metal began laying punch after punch into her kidneys if she even had any. Screaming in agony, the succubus suddenly plummeted sixty feet into an alleyway with the young man still on her. Drifting around the corner, the truck came to a complete stop with its headlight illuminating the otherwise atramentous dead end. The rubble from the crash moved and Sentri revved the engine in case the survivor wasn’t who they had hoped it would be. The Kidd let out a terrified scream when the succubus’ head arose, only to make him pissed to see it detached from the body held up by his brother’s hand as he snickered uncontrollably. They would have punished him for that, but sirens were blaring around the bend and they needed to leave. After loading the succubus into the back of the truck, the group hopped back on the highway until the sun eventually peeked over the horizon as it always did.
“What is Sentri?”
“We never stopped back at the hotel to get paid!”
“What are you talking about, I was paid a week ago upfront. We could have literally just shown up and did nothing and we’d still benefit.”
“Then why did we go through all this!?”
“Like I would pass on the opportunity to kill a demon with my own hands. This trip was fun.”
And after that they rode in silence for the rest of the ride, forcing The Metal to ride in the bed with the decaying body of a postmortem demon.
The borough of Uptown Dallas was busy as always on this most whimsical of Summer days. Cars packed the market streets both East and West of State Highway number 75, which had a smooth flow to itself being between rush hours in the midday. People outnumbered the cars, walking in and out and up and down the storefront ways; they filled the parks too, if and so you would believe it. All was in line with the norm, that is until The Metal showed up. He never really had much renown, but the few that recognized him knew that despite how peaceful things may be now trouble was soon to follow. The young man, still dressed in his rather new attire he ordered in bulk, caught the stares of many as he tried to find a particular office above one of the outlets. He doesn’t blame them for staring. Regardless of his specialized garb that would be almost nonexistent to the area, it isn’t every day you see a youthful chap wandering around town barefoot across concrete in ninety-five-degree weather. That’s just the way he likes it, but he doesn’t want to cause more trouble than what will already come his way so he keeps a pair of cotton shoes on him in case he must head inside.
The Metal finally finds the spot he so diligently pursued, only to see that his contact was already at street level awaiting him. She was a woman only a few years older, though instead of wasting most of her time waiting for the next opportunity to arise like a certain blonde-haired lad and more likely spent tons of hard-earned money to get through university. She had her auburn hair professionally pinned up in a bun and wore a black pantsuit to give off that aura of, “hey, I’m the boss!” The only reason he knew she was his contact was because within her arms was a messenger bag containing a package for him to deliver, just as the dossier had mentioned.
“Ah, you must be that ‘professional freelancer’ I hired.”
“Yep, my name is…”
“I don’t care. Listen, half the amount has already been transferred and if you get this to the American Airlines Center before sundown the other half will be placed in your account.”
“Okay, that just gives me five hours to get to the other side of Uptown, no sweat.”
“Don’t bore me with the details, just get going already.”
He was a little irked by her attitude, but let it slide while understanding the problem. The files said that a man has been intercepting this shipment for nearly a week and that this was the fourth time they would have to purchase and ship it to the center. Not only was it coming out of their wallets, but this was the last day the delivery could be made before it ruined the company’s reputation. The Metal’s operations do get around the grapevine from time to time and with delivery trucks failing at every chance he seemed like their only option.
Walking seemed like a good method since he had plenty of time left to go and it would allow him to observe his surroundings for that malevolent crook easier. The Metal looked around and noticed that he wasn’t that far from Mockingbird Station, one of the many hubs for the Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART), so it would be quickest if he headed towards the Katy Trail since it would lead him right to his destination and in way less time than he had to spare. There would still be quite away to that notable jogger’s path, but walking is how he spent most of his time. It was alright up until he came around the bend to the far end of Mckinney Avenue, when suddenly what seemed like a rocket jolted by and almost seized the package. The human bullet stopped many yards ahead of him and turned so The Metal could see who it was. The man was very tall, pretty slender, and rather dark with special rollerblades strapped to his feet.
“Kavi! You’re the one stealing the packages… but why?”
“Do you even know what lies in that bag you carry!?”
“That’s not part of my job, I’m just paid to deliver it, though I’m guessing you do with how many you’ve taken.”
“Open it up and you’ll understand my reasons.”
“Sorry, that’s against my professional policies.”
“Then I guess I’m just going to have to take it from you.”
“As if you even could.”
Kavi clicked his heels together and electrical sparks began emitting from the wheels on his blades. He kicked off at The Metal with the speed of a Thoroughbred, which astounded the young man that he could even move that swiftly. Luckily The Metal’s reflexes were quick enough to evade the dash, but Kavi immediately spun around and tried again. The courier took off toward the Katy Trail as fast as he could, but he was only known to hit up to around twenty or so miles per hour on foot while his pursuer had to be going at least fifty. He couldn’t fathom how Kavi got so much faster in such a short time, but as the speedster gained on him, he noticed the sparks on the skates as well as an emblem that had a magnet, two gears, and the words “Pitaya Labs” stamped on it.
“Ah-ha! I see Pitaya amped up your blades a bit.”
“Just happened he was working with magnets again last time my birthday came around. I normally prefer to get faster on my own, but I wasn’t about to turn down electromagnetic rollerblades that charge as they ride.”
“You know, something in me doesn’t blame you.”
Kavi dashed at The Metal trying to knock him down, but luckily for the courier, his reflexes were still a bit faster despite the massive land speed differential. If he could manage to keep dodging and steer their swift, yet so far non-contact, combat in the direction of the parcel’s destination he’d make it there in plenty of time, but there were other factors at hand. Not only was The Metal’s breath falling short from running at full speed as well as trying to outmaneuver the irate skater, but rolling around at such speeds keeps overcharging the circuitry which Pitaya designed to release as ambient electricity, because I guess why not, so every time Kavi missed loose lightning would jump from his blades to the bare feet of the ever-persistent internuncio. The Metal is a tough and conditioned martial artist, but it is quite a task to run while your feet keep cramping tight from a surge of electricity and trying to avoid the lightning as well caused him to change paths many times and lose ground by five minutes in the opposite direction.
He had to change the trajectory this encounter was heading in if he was to complete his job. He knew this wasn’t the best idea, but it was the only one he had. As Kavi came bulleting back at him, The Metal made a feint on the direction he was going to dodge and kick Kavi in the gut while he was trying to adjust to the repositioning. Kavi lost control for a moment and went flying into an unkempt shrubbery, but striking an object with so much more momentum resulted in The Metal landing elsewhere as well. Kavi wasn’t down for long, but by the time he resurfaced from the tattered bush filled with litter and sharp twigs The Metal was nowhere in sight. Speeding off to scour the area, Kavi failed to see that he was hidden inside a nearby convenience store, which in itself was oddly convenient.
“That should give me an hour or so,” he said to himself whilst examining his battle-damaged feet. “It is a good thing I don’t scar, but I really need to avoid more of this. Where is my phone?” He reached into the recesses of his dōgii and pulled out a cheap old phone that could most likely only make calls. “Come on, pick up!”
“Hey Metal, did you wanna hang out today?”
“No man, I’m working. I actually need a favor.”
“Figures. What is it?”
“I need you to run to the sporting store, buy a pair of size forty-five rollerblades and some lubricant, and then meet me this 7-eleven near the Katy Trail. Oh, and all in less than an hour.”
“Less than an hour? I’m all the way down in Midlothian helping the church right now, how do you expect that? Can’t you just use that weird fetish delivery service you always use, I guarantee you they’d be there in about five minutes?”
“One, it isn’t a fetish delivery service, at least I don’t think it is. Two, I’m on a delivery myself and you know they’d try to hustle me out of my job for more than it was worth. Just charge it, the gas, and any ticket you get on the way to the business account. See you soon!”
“Metal. Metal! Ah, here I go again.”
So without much say in the matter, Sentri did exactly as his -friend- demanded and made it there without so much as ever being pulled over. He asked if The Metal wanted his help finishing the job since he was already there, but he told him that this was the best way he could help. The Metal slipped on his skates, lubed the wheels up as much as he could, and as Sentri pulled away he could hear his friend’s crazed laughter echoing throughout the town.
Following the sounds of laughter, it took only minutes for Kavi to pinpoint the source. Barrelling on in, he noticed that his adversary was moving along a lot faster than before. Though his electromagnetically enhanced blades still gave him the edge in speed, the difference had now become so little that Kavi was finding it hard to gain on him.
“How are you going so fast, you have to at least be going forty?”
“I don’t know. My stomach is cramping up, my breaths are short, and sweat is pouring down my spine, but I’m doing it.”
“But it doesn’t make sense!”
“Ever since I was young I’ve always seemed to pull out that extra burst of strength when I needed it. I don’t know where it comes from, possibly my ass. Maybe I’m so good at bullshitting it comes true. Regardless, there is only one thing you need to worry about and it isn’t this.”
“Yeah, and what by chance may that be?”
“Stopping me within the next mile.”
Scanning ahead, Kavi became aware of just how close they were to the American Airlines Center. As he panicked and reach for the package, The Metal surprised him and managed to speed up even more. A normal person would have broken already and gave up, but there was just something about The Metal that made him too stubborn to lose, even if it was what was good for him. Kavi, now putting his own strength into his strides, caught up alongside the determined courier and slammed his elbow right into his ribs. Between the stress his body was under and the blow, The Metal coughed up a few ounces of blood, but if it was a fight he wanted it was a fight he’d get.
The two laid strike after strike into each other all along the final stretch. Kavi even planted blades across The Metal a few times to really let the electricity set in. Both of them were battered, bruised, and bleeding, but they kept on down the road avoiding cars as they fought. At the end of the mile was the Airlines Center. Kavi failed to stop The Metal from reaching his destination, but looking at the arena up close he concluded that he was too late.
“Ha, all was for naught. I still won! You failed to get the package here before the show started, so you might as well hand it over now.”
“I would, but I don’t have it.”
And just as he said that Sentri came walking out from the back entrance of the edifice with a receipt of delivery.
“You see Kavi, I knew that even if I could keep up with you pushing myself on the blades, even by the time Sentri got them up to me, I would lack the necessary remainder to deliver it. So, I stuffed my messenger bag enough to look like I still had it, gave the package to Sentri, and started laughing as loud as I could to get your attention as I played decoy. I think my plan went pretty well, wouldn’t you say so Sentri?”
“You look like you are about to die, and for what, all to make sure some childish pop star gets her limit edition pony that she refuses to perform until it arrives?”
“Eh, I’ve been through worse. Now to get milkshakes!”
Sentri shrugs as they both walk off to his truck so they could go purchase the aforementioned dairy treats. They pull away and Kavi fell to his knees as if everything he knew was wrong. All he could do was mutter to himself,
“But… she doesn’t deserve it.”
As it grows closer to the autumnal season it is not expected for the weather in southern states such as Texas to follow the patterns that transpose into Fall. Usually, even sometimes up until the middle of November, the days remain warm and unbearably sunny to some, with random precipitation sneaking its way in here and there resulting people complaining when it rains and complaining when it doesn’t. This was far from the case, for much to The Metal’s delight the air was cool and crisp enough to warrant normal people to shroud their bodies with some form of jacket. That is to remind everyone that The Metal is definitely not normal as if that needed to be said, but any excuse to wear a jacket and not be questioned was pleasing to him. As pleased as punch as he was, his associate gave off the impression that he would rather be anywhere in the entire universe than here right now. The Metal’s friend was a bit shorter than he was, stockier too, wearing blue jeans and a zip-up jacket appropriate for the weather for sensical reasons and not just because he wanted to. Distressed as to why they were wandering around Oak Cliff at one in the morning, he turned to his more spirited accomplice and questioned everything.
“Look, I know I used to live in this general area, but that was ages ago and this isn’t exactly where I’d choose to spend my free time.”
“Relax Buck, we’re here on business.”
“I gathered that much. I’m just wondering why you dragged me along instead of one of your brothers or Sentri.”
“Simple, I thought you could use the exercise.”
“Very funny,” Buck said in a moderately irked tone.
“I’m being completely serious. From what the job described, things could get pretty violent and I thought you could use some action.”
“Don’t things always get violent when you are around?”
“I don’t think you understand. I was hired by Dallas P.D. for this job.”
“The police department doesn’t hire freelance agents to do their job for them.”
“Not on paper, but there are things that they just don’t want to deal with.”
“Shit, what kind of mess have you gotten us in this time?”
“Okay, so here is the thing. Apparently, there has been a group of hooligans running underground fights in the area that has been causing a decent amount of panic.”
“Wait… Metal, you are a hooligan that has participated in numerous underground fights. Why do you even care?”
“Mainly, since I’m still here, the victors of those fights didn’t wind up missing the next day.”
“Great! And I suppose you already have some plan on finding this gang too.”
He flips a card out of his sleeve toward Buck almost preemptively prepared to answer his question before it was asked.
“Of course, you would be personally invited to such a thing, why am I not surprised!?”
As it often was the case, The Metal didn’t dignify Buck’s last comment with a response as he kept walking toward the sketchiest part of the neighborhood. Though it was a residential area, the two men seemed to wander into an alley that belonged between old storefronts in a bigger city. Buck grew nervous at the sudden change in surroundings, but The Metal knew all too well what was going on. The path stretched for what looked like a mile. Patterns of Jolly Rogers, Circle-A’s, and Pentagrams, as well as other lesser-known emblems, appeared on the walls of the alley in luminescence as if reflecting a black light, but clearly, none was there. Buck’s nerves peaked when teenagers wearing equally luminescent clothing started showing up hanging out along the sides of the walls, but their threatening looks diminished upon seeing The Metal’s invite he wisely left clutched in his hand.
“Dude, where the Hell are we? I didn’t even know this part of Oak Cliff existed.”
“Actually, it doesn’t, at least not in the way you are familiar with. This passage is a transit path, or highway so to say, between spaces that allow beings to swiftly bypass distances or other dimensional barriers to get where they are going. To put it short, we are in a subspace.”
“Oh come on! A few years back you tried convincing me that the reason the old Cowboys Stadium was destroyed was because you and Pitaya accidentally woke up a pandimensional being there and had to kill it. Last month you told me that you beheaded a succubus after diving off a ten-story building. Now you expect me to believe that subspace is a thing? Are you really as crazy as we all say you are?”
“In fact, yes, but that is beside the point. Subspaces are very real and you are currently in one. Why else would there be no sky?”
Buck looked up and then down. He did this a couple of times to realize that the tops and bottoms of the buildings weren’t there. They faded into a blackness that was both their ceiling and floor. They were walking on nothing, yet there was still definitely a ground or plane of some kind to walk on.
“Don’t worry yourself, though, I’ve actually been through this transit before.”
“Oh yes, because that is comforting at all.”
“The exit should be about half a mile and we should wind up in Norw… wait a minute. That’s new.”
Though The Metal had indeed been through this shortcut past traditional space, it had been altered since the last time he fancied its usage. Before them stood a caged arena in the middle of a warehouse inconveniently placed partway down the highway. Surrounding the cage was many more of those brightly dressed teenagers who were cheering viciously at a large shirtless Norseman as he savagely threw an adolescent into the fencing until his back bled heavily and the boy stopped moving.
“You aren’t really planning on fighting that are you?”
“Like I could resist. I’ll be fine, don’t worry about me.”
“It’s not you I’m worried about,” Buck replied as he found a sturdy iron crate to hide behind.
The Metal approached the cage while handing his invitation to the person who appeared to be in charge. They were excited to have such a prestigious underground combatant in their midst, but they required he fit the dress code before competing. First, he removed his boots, because a hard padded surface on a strike would be unfair. Then he removed his jacket so there would be nothing at all shielding him from strikes and that was when the problem arose.
“What are those?”
“Oh, these are my training weights. I wear them to add restriction to my body so my training is more beneficial.”
“I don’t think you want me to…”
“Remove them or leave. No body armor of any kind.”
“Suit yourself, but I warned you.”
He started by detaching the immediately visible weights strapped to his forearms and tossing them into the attendee’s hands causing him to flinch. Next, he took off the weights strapped to his calves, which he too tossed to the attendee who was now struggling with his balance. Finally, The Metal removed his shirt revealing a compact weight fastened upon his torso. After removing it, he threw the heaviest of the weights to the attendee which resulted in him collapsing to the ground unable to carry it all at once.
“Ahhhhh, feels like ending a month-long piggyback ride!”
“Dear lords, do you wear that all the time? How much is that!?”
“Pretty much I guess. Let’s see, twenty-five on each limb and fifty on the torso, so it’s only like a hundred and fifty pounds. If your attendant has trouble catching that you should really get a new one.”
Skipping into the ring feeling lite as an up quark, The Metal took an energetic stance that almost looked like he was dancing.
“You are a strange one my friend, are you not?” asked his larger Norwegian opponent.
“I’ve been told so a few times, yeah.”
A chime had rung and the monstrous man came charging at him like a grizzly bear with his arms out wide. Swooping in to grab the young man like a pair of pincers on a crab, the giant nearly succeeded but The Metal slid through the gap between his legs at the last moment. The Norseman continued attempting to seize the comparably blonde twig, though it was useless since The Metal so much smaller and faster, especially without his weights on.
“You know little man, you can only run for so long in here before I eventually catch you.”
“Mistaken you may be, as I’m sure one of us would expire before you ever caught me.”
“Ah, but if neither of us hits the other, how will anyone ever win?”
“You bring up a valid point.”
He stopped darting around and casually signaled the robust man over to him. The Norseman ran at him again to grab him powerfully with both arms. The Metal stood relaxed up until the man closed in. Just before he could grasp the young martial artist. The Metal’s stance shifted swiftly as he wound up and struck the goliath dead center in his solar plexus. His momentum was instantly reversed with his body flying backward to the other side of the cage and the man laid there unconscious and out of wind. The Metal left the arena before even being declared the winner.
“Should have let me keep my weights on, maybe the fight would have been a little fair.”
“So is that it,” asked Buck strolling over from his safety spot, “Can we go home now?”
“Not quite. While that is the way these events usually end, the guy I dealt with was only human.”
“Only human, what were you expecting?”
The cage locked and began slowly closing in on the unconscious man still lying within. He expected that it was expected that the loser would either be dead or dragged from the arena by now with the victor accepting praise. The Metal knew he would be the last match of the night, but he couldn’t let that unsuspecting Norseman take his place in death. As he made his way back over to the battlegrounds, the luminescent teenagers reemerged to block his path. All but their clothes grew pitched black and their eyes then glew bright as their fanged mouths twisted open.
“Hmm. Okay, Buck, I’ve got a job for you.”
“I hate you…” he said as he grimaced in discontent.
The Metal hopped on and then off Buck’s shoulders like a springboard and proceeded to leap from head to head of the demonic teens on his way to the arena. The crowd turned after the young man, but that is where his friend’s “job” came into play. “I hate my life!” is what Buck screamed as he plunged fist first and began to stampede through the crowd. Like a stout boxer, Buck forced his way through the herd of glowing thugs, slamming the guts of anyone that tried to stop The Metal. This led to many attacks being focused toward Buck as well, which also helped keep the aggression of his friend.
“God, sometimes I hate being your meatshield!”
“Yeah, here, let me correct that.”
Buck gave one of the creeps and uppercut that he finished off with a flip of the bird to The Metal. He left Buck there to fend off the hoard alone as he landed on the roof of the ever-shrinking cage. The bars were already too small for him to get through from the start, but even if he could get in how would he manage to get out with the arena gradually decreasing in size. Then a not so brilliant idea struck him. The Metal leaped up to the ceiling of the warehouse enclosure and hung upside down gripping a light.
“Welp Metal, time to live up to your title. I just wish I was wearing shoes for this.”
He crouched up, kicked off the ceiling to toward the ground, and flipped mid-air as if he was going to kick the cage like a knife plunging into a tin can when the proper utensil can’t be found. Striking with enough force, he plummeted through the cage and even cracked the ground as he landed.
“Ow! Now I know how the can opener feels.”
He ran over to his fallen adversary, but he realized he couldn’t escape the same way he entered. Punching the man in the sternum hard enough knock whatever remaining wind he might have still had, The Metal woke the Norseman and directed his focus as to what was happening to them. Angered, the two of them grabbed the bars of the door and tore it off, breaking the lock in the process. As they left the arena, the cage started to melt along with all the lingering ghouls of glowing features still assaulting Buck. The melting objects converged into a black liquid mass in the center of the room, which also morphing from the inside of a warehouse to that of a big top circus tent. The liquid mass flowed upward and took shape into the silhouette of a twenty feet tall, husky man. And then, where the face would normally sit, eye glowed out and a mouth formed like the on the thugs earlier, but when the luminous clothing formed into that of a ring leader’ so did equally bright markings on the face like clown make-up.
“Guwah haha haaaaah!”
“Oh great, as if things could get worse. Metal, are you okay? You look kinda mad…”
“Three things I hate all balled up into one: vampiric beings and clowns.”
“Wait, but you said three. What is the other thing?”
“ANYTHING THAT TRIES TO EAT ME!”
He charged at the beast full steam ahead, jumped up, and kicked it in the jaw. While the creature screamed in agony, The Metal reached into his pants and pulled out an orange canister the size of a soda can. After tossing it down the beast’s throat, he kicked off its head and landed down to pick up his weights. Throwing them in his jacket like a sack to be efficient and quick, The Metal ran past both Buck and the Norseman yelling, “Get the Hell outta here!”
“Why, we didn’t even kill the de… Metal, what the hell was in that container?”
“Oh, just about twenty kilotons of explosive chemicals.”
“Jesus Christ! There is no need to go all Nagasaki in here!”
The Metal ran back, gripped Buck by the shoulders, and, with the most serious and irate face he has ever seen the man give, he said, “I. Hate. Clowns.” Then he took off running again. The others soon followed suit, since even though the foreigner didn’t speak the language well, almost anyone knows the words “kiloton” and “Nagasaki” aren’t usually used in the most pleasant of ways. They were reaching the end of the alley they in which entered and they could hear the detonation going off. Just at the entrance with the blast closing in from behind, they noticed the doorway was closing. The atomic blast must have destroyed the fabric holding this subspace together.
“Metal, what are you doi-”
He grabbed his friend and the Norseman and threw them through the gateway like a practitioner of Jiu Jitsu. On his flight out he saw his friend barely pass him up on foot and the gateway shut just short of the blast reaching them.
“What the Hell were you thinking!? We could have died back there!”
“Yeah… but we didn’t. Okay, Mr. Scandinavia, let’s get you on a plane back home. To the Airport!”
“Metal. Metal! That wasn’t cool! You can’t just do shit like that! Metal! METAL!”
“Nobody make a move! We don’t want to have to kill anyone, but if you don’t do as I say you’ll all soon be filled with lead.”
The ground floor of the Chase Tower in Dallas was the center of attention this afternoon for a group of madmen armed to the teeth with fully automatic weapons and anti-ballistic armor were holding the level hostage until their demands were met. There was no uproar nor panic as everyone did exactly as they were told without hesitation. The crowd was oddly complacent during such an event. No one even broke into a sweat as a couple of the men rushed up to several floors just to swipe a case of compact disks.
“Okay, got those docs. It was pretty easy really.”
“Yeah about that. Where are the cops or swat? Not that I’m really complaining, but you’d think there’d be something.”
“You guys aren’t from around here, are you?” interjected a security guard still with his hands behind his head.
“With law enforcement as vigilant as this I’d be proud to say we’re not.”
The mercenaries stormed out of the complex in a militarized fashion and loaded up into their bus. After double-checking to make sure they weren’t being pursued, the driver shifted in gear and pulled away leaving the city at eighty miles per hour. The frontman kept peering out behind them expecting the armed forces or at least the police to be picking up their trail and hounding them down, but instead there was nothing. It was unsettling at first, but after they were clear outside county lines and on their way to Arkansas he eased in and chalked it up to the goddess of luck.
It wasn’t but two minutes later as everyone was going around joking about how easy the job was and what they’d do with their cut of the bill that when their presumed luck ran dry. The caravan jerked to the side and served back into the lane as some undefined shockwave zoomed past them. The boss ran to the front of the bus and consulted the driver rather angrily.
“What the hell was that Bernie, you could have gotten us killed!?”
“It wasn’t me Jim. Something sped past us, but I’m not sure what.”
“Sped past… what could have sped past us? We are going more than eighty and we are the only thing on the road as far as the eye can see in either direction. Are you sure you weren’t spooked by our own shadow?”
“I swear Jim. It was small too.”
“Like a motorcycle? Something that small would get wrecked if it hit us.”
“No, like a… like a kid.”
“That’s it Berns, the corporate sabotage business is getting to you. I’m putting you on a mandatory vacation when we get back. A kid…” he muttered as he walked back to his seat.
It was only a few seconds later that the driver was interrupted again, but instead of sonic pulse, it was a tap. The driver side of the vehicle was being knocked on, but Bernie couldn’t see another vehicle next to them. He rolled his window down and peaked his out. Low and behold that below his standard view was a small child, roughly the age of an elementary student with bright blonde hair and pale skin. He wore a red tee-shirt with a black cape sewn to the shoulders and shorts to match. But that wasn’t the astounding part, it was the fact that he was keeping up with the bus and he wasn’t even panting.
“Excuse me mister, but I’m going to need you to pull over!”
“Buzz off kid, you have to be at least this tall to ride,” he hollered while placing his hand at the height of the window before rolling it back up. Before he could focus on the road again however, another knock came from outside.
“I really need you to pull over. I’m placing you under arrest!”
“Fuck off kid. We’re busy.”
The man rolled up the window again, but this time the kid had an irate look in his eyes. Noticing Bernie’s peculiar activity, Jim made his way up front again.
“What the heck are you doing now Berns?”
“Dude, I was right. There really was a kid outside.”
“That’s it. I’m taking you off the wheel and putting Stewart on. There is no way a chi…”
Before he could finish his statement the bus halted to a complete stop and everything toppled over. Jim gave the driver a nasty look assuming it was his fault, but there was no way their breaks could stop a twenty-ton vehicle going that fast on a dime. No one else had time to explain that it wasn’t their fault since before their eyes the back end of their armored bus was torn off like the lid to a can of tuna. Standing there with the back of the bus in hand was the kid, who tossed it aside like it was made of cotton. He hopped into the vehicle with the same angered look still stuck on his face.
“You said a bad word. I stop being nice to people that swear at me!”
“What are you waiting for,” Jim screamed immediately, “shoot that kid!”
The men unloaded full magazines of armor-piercing rounds at the boy, but he stood unharmed. The bullets didn’t even ricochet off him, they just compressed into themselves upon impact and dropped to the ground as if all their momentum was displaced by his body. After all of the ammo was expunged from the guns, the kid started walking toward them slowly. The bandits panicked since they couldn’t comprehend a man immune to gunfire, let alone a small kid. Many of them got up from their positions and charged at him with blades they had concealed on their persons, but various knives broke and blunted upon striking the boy’s flesh. As they each ran up to him, the boy would flick them upon their crowns and the men would collapse into a state of unconsciousness from the force. The kid kept walking until nothing stood between him and the pack handler.
“I’m sure we can strike a deal, I’m former Commander James War-”
“I don’t care. All that matters is that you took something that doesn’t belong to you and now you must own up to the penalty.”
“Come on kid, there’s got to be something we can work out. How about some candy!” the man yelled as he threw several smoke bombs to the ground. He was going to use the coverage to scurry, but when the smoke subsided he found that he was slipping around in the same spot with the boy holding on to the back of his collar.
“You know, that might have been a problem if I saw things the same way you did.”
Jim flipped out a knife and cut loose the fabric the boy was gripping. He proceeded to run out of the bus, but the kid wasn’t too far behind. They stood fifty feet from each other when the lad stopped and questioned James.
“Where do you plan to run; the land is empty for miles and I’m pretty fast?”
“Oh,” Jim gasped out while catching his breath, “I don’t need to run anywhere.”
The boy looked confused until he caught the sound of something high up in the air. He swore it said “Heat signature locked”. Within the time it took for him to notice where the helicopter was, two air-to-surface missiles spiraled down at him releasing more than a ton of explosive force each on contact. A hoist lowered down and lifted Jim into the chopper before the police arrived to collect the knocked out terrorists. The dust settled with the boy rising from his planted rear and stretching out his limbs. Several officers ran over to check on him.
“Are you okay Valor?”
“Yeah, nothing’s damaged but my pride.”
“We apprehended most of the criminals and claimed all the discs, you don’t have to chase an armed gunship for one guy.”
“Now if I gave up that easily, where would all the fun lie?.”
The boy took off running again, clearing all the remaining dust from the road with the shockwave he left behind. Back in the helicopter, Jim unveiled that the compact discs weren’t his target after all.
“It took you guys long enough to get there, but it’s fine. Despite that freak of nature showing up, I’ve still got what we set out for.”
James pulled a device the size of a man’s thumb out of the lining of his boots and shows it off to the others in the aircraft.
“What the hell is that?”
“Yeah, looks pretty worthless to me.”
“I’m not surprised you boneheads don’t know what it is. You guys can hardly turn on a computer. The device is only a couple years old now, but it is called a Universal Serial Bus Flash Drive, though some of us just call it a Jump Drive.”
“I don’t get it.”
“Of course you wouldn’t. It is a form of flash memory that based on its state can store exponentially more data than many of your CDs, while being completely rewritable. This little sucker here has the schematics for our big project. Is the satellite ready Sara?”
“Yeah, but you might want to hurry!”
Jim looked out and behind them to see the brat who had spoiled his day thus far gaining on their stolen militarized aircraft.
“Holy shit, how is that kid still alive? I want you to fire everything we’ve got at him. The little punk might have taken our standard armor-piercing rounds and couple tons of TNT, but how he handles our anti-tank ballistics.”
No longer being in the age of fixed direction weapon mounts, the bottom hanging gatling turrets pivoted around and fired at the charging child. The bullets tore into the road with all of them missing the kid within a fraction of an inch.
“Sara, haven’t you ever heard of ‘leading your target’!?”
James took control and set the turrets directly into Valor’s path. As the ballistics made contact, they appeared to be slowing him down but not really damaging him. Annoyed by the constant fire, the boy stuck out his hand to the turret and a glowing ball started growing in front of it. It was blindingly bright, like a miniature star. He shot a softball-sized shining sphere at each turret, which exploded violently on contact.
“I’m not sure what he just did Jim, but the kinetic shock is really fucking with our systems. Any more of that and we drop like rocks in a pond.”
“Then drop the cavalry.”
“No Jim. That’s like a kiloton of dynamite. Everything in the mile would be demolished.”
“I don’t care, we are in the middle of nowhere. Drop it!”
They lifted higher into the sky than before. Once they reached a safe altitude, Sara flipped up a hatch and pulled a switch the opened a trapdoor on the back of the chopper. Out of the hatch, a bomb dropped close to Valor. It didn’t hit the lad, but upon striking the ground the detonation lit everything around it into the normally lethal dosage of chemical combustion. The flames soared high enough to tickle the underbelly of the aircraft, but overall they were safe.
“Good riddance. Things like that brat shouldn’t even exist as far as I’m concerned.”
Just as James wiped the sweat from his brow, a figure shot up from the cloud of smoke and landed hard on into the helicopter. The boy was covered in first degree burns, his clothes were tattered and scorched, with still some small flames on them, and his face expressed what could only be described as pissed. As he strolled over to Jim, everything from his body to even the clothes he wore began healing back to the way they were before their very eyes.
“H-how… how are you still alive!? You’re not human, like some kind of monster or god!”
“No, I’m just a boy.”
That was all Valor said before he knocked Jim and all of his associates out like the other before. Of course, then the boy realized quickly how dumb it was to incapacitate the pilot.
Before they lost much altitude, Valor used the helicopter like a springboard and leaped downwards faster than gravity could grab the ship. Upon landing, he repositioned himself and caught the chopper in the nick of time. While waiting for the law enforcement from the closest county to arrive he muttered to himself, for that is all who was conscious to hear, “I know I’m only nine, but I really need to think these things through better.”
The next thing Jim and his gang remember was coming to just as the police arrived. Valor was long gone and when he tried to explain what happened as he was being shoved into the back of a secured vehicle, they thought he and his goons had gone mad. It appears no one outside the Dallas/Fort Worth area knew who Valor was or that he even existed and that puzzled the man. It led to many questions. Who or what is Valor? Who was keeping him secret to those outside the city and why? Were they afraid the world isn’t ready for him or were they trying to keep him for themselves? But it ultimately, it didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered to James H. Warren was that before Valor took them down, the transfer was complete.
The Parks Mall was always exceptionally quiet this time of year. With the children still in school and parents busy preparing for the holidays, the only people with time to hang out in the food court were losers and unemployed hacks who have nothing better to do with their time except to blow it off loitering.
“Metal, not that I mind you treating us all to lunch and all, but what is the occasion?”
“Oh god no!!!” Buck screamed as The Metal walked up wearing his custom dogi with their chicken strips in hand.
“The Metal is wearing his gi… in acceptable jacket weather.”
“Wait, what month is it?”
Sentri pulled out his phone and opened the page for The Metal’s shared calendar. His eyes grew wide and white like the ghoulish remains of an obese baker who fell in the flour as his heart finally gave while working. He, The Kidd, and Buck jumped up as the epiphanic awareness of the situation at hand hit them, but it was to no avail as they could see all the exits to the building were securely chained off.
“We aren’t going anywhere are we?”
“Nope, the festivities are about to begin shortly, so just find a safe corner, sit back, and enjoy the chicken.”
“Why even invite us if today is -the- day!?”
“Well, I need someone to show off to.”
And before the guys could run off, The Metal gripped the table and swung it at a young man flying foot first in their direction. Slamming directly in the center of his stomach, The Metal sent the young man flying onto a hibachi grill. canning the scene they could see many other fighters of various ages, races, and even gender, crowded around with eager looks toward the self-proclaimed martial artist.
“I suggest you guys run before this heats up.”
Buck, Sentri, and The Kidd made a sprint for Santa’s Workshop and hid amongst the construction. Crouching where they presumed was a safe spot, they could only hear what was going on. Tables and chairs crashed and banged throughout the food court. Glass shattered and railing collapsed. They felt pity on the few normal people who decided to occupy the mall that very day, but you never really know when these things will happen anyway. That is unless you are the cause of them.
“What the hell is going on Sentri?”
“Well, every year there is an underground fighting tournament that The Metal participates in that starts around this time in the late fall.”
“He knows that dumbass. He meant to ask why are they all attacking him at once.”
“Oh yes. See, apparently, during the preliminary round there are no rules over how many combatants can participate in a battle at once, so I guess this year a grand majority of them decided to gang up on The Metal since he is the five-time reigning champ.”
“What kind of jackass would allow that!?”
“I do believe The Metal is chief of the committee.”
“Uh…” Buck opened his mouth to comment, but he dismissed the notion knowing that he should have seen all this coming. In all the years he has been alive, Buck has concluded that The Metal is the only person he’ll ever meet crazy enough to set up a circumstance years in the waiting just so he could have more people than he could count on his hands and feet attack him at once. Whether it was part of the guy’s charm or not was debatable, but regardless, it was still very much who he was.
“Woohoo!” sounded off by their friend in the distance closely followed by the echoes of crashing clothes racks and shoe stands breaking throughout the stores. Despite their normally greater desire to avoid pain, the three of them peaked out of their stronghold out of curiosity of many of the sounds. One most in particular were the grinding of the rails along the second story catwalks.
“When the heck did he learn to skateboard!?”
“My guess: just now. Heads up!”
The Metal came flying into the ill-constructed safe haven, ditching the board on entry. He carried that same smug look of being both serious and not all at once he always had on.
“So, how is everyone enjoying the show?”
“You lunatic, why would you agree to all this!?”
“Actually, this wasn’t their idea. They each sent me individual challenges the other week and I set out a group email scheduling it all today at the same place.”
“You’re officially insane…”
“And you act like this is news, Buck.”
The rear wall came down as they were conversing with a large and mostly naked man walking through. Judging by his knotted hair, rolled loincloth, and the near four hundred pounds on his person, it was assumed this man was a professional sumo wrestler. The Metal ran up and punched him directly in the sternum, which pushed him back but insignificantly.
“Hmm, that usually does it.”
Mister Sumo gripped The Metal by his shoulders and threw him twenty feet through the air. He scanned the other boys but quickly noticed that none of them were registered targets and began walking to The Metal again. As he walked away a young woman strolled in through the entrance the heavy wrestler created. She was freckled with bright green hair up in curled pigtails and dressed in abnormally trendy clothes from brands and designers almost no one has even heard of.
“Well hello Sable, it sure has been a while.”
“Sentri, who is that?”
“Milana Collins, one of The Metal’s many unrequiteds.”
“He means stalkers, Buck.”
“Yeah, she never really took well to him turning her down fifteen times.”
“He stomped on the flowers I gave him!”
“So, you’d have to be just as psycho as him to be interested in the first place. Anyway, we -thought- we lucked out a couple months back when I was able to drop the package off to her agent instead of her, but I guess that was hoping for too much.”
“Wait… a couple months back? You mean that this is pop-rock idle Laney Lin?”
“If she has a thing for my brother then I guess it is true that insanity is a requirement of being a celebrity.”
“Sadly enough this isn’t the first time she’s tried to kill him off either.”
“Kill him? These matches are to K.O.”
“Actually, the rules state that it goes until someone can no longer battle. K.O., T.K.O., death; all are viable ways to win even if some are less desirable than others.”
“It scares me that you are a serious competitor in these competitions, Laney.”
While they were yammering on uselessly about the numerous times she had tried to end The Metal’s life and her irrational reason behind them, the man everyone was talking about was having problems of his own. Grinding across the catwalk railings and running up and down the walls, he was finding it increasingly difficult to avoid the goliath while dealing with all the stragglers he was still supposed to be fighting. It wasn’t like many of them actually posed a threat. Most of them were either thugs and hooligans looking to cash in on the grand prize or just those that spent most of their lives to this point in a commercialized studio and think they have a grasp of a martial art. Regardless, enough ants could bring down tarantula given the numbers and time, especially with a giant bullfrog chasing it down. Using his environment as a tool to defeat his foes, The Metal darted into the sporting goods store and flipped over the jumbo bin of basketballs. They bounced everywhere in an airtight madness causing people to stumble left and right. The sumo, unafflicted by the chaos due to his sturdy legs and low center of gravity caused by his massive posterior, followed the free dribbling herd of inflated rubber and plastic back to the basketball area in search for his mark but found not what he sought.
“Heads up fatso!”
Mr. Sumo looked up to the top of the goals for sale and realized that the young man had cut the wiring propping them up so that punks couldn’t do exactly what he was about to do. He leaped off kicking the furthest one and knocking it over on his way down. The rest toppled like dominoes onto the overweight athlete and The Metal began walking away sure of himself. Not but four steps away he heard a mighty crash and the wrestler burst out of the pile of titanium and netting.
“You know this whole plan is just going to backfire on you, Laney.”
“I hired the 2020 Champions of the Chinese Freestyle World Open to kill the boy that refused to go out with me, how could this go wrong?”
“Because you hired him to kill the most stubborn psychopath on the planet.”
At that moment The Metal came crashing in riding the sumo wrestler’s face like the skateboard he had earlier.
“Hey, I thought I heard someone talking about me.”
“How did you knock him out!?”
“Oh, well I find kicking most people in the face at forty miles per hour off the second story would lead to the same result.”
“Or, you know, kill them!”
“Hmm… guys, what is Looney Lin doing here?”
“She’s apparently registered in your stupid competition and was the one that hired the dude to kill you.”
“Kill? Laney, we talked about this.”
“You talked about this, I just nodded my head from the train seat you tied me to.”
“You tied her to a train!?”
“Trust me, Buck, if you ever get stalkers you’ll understand.”
While he was busy rationalizing his actions to his friend, Laney pulled a microphone from her hip that was circled up like a bullwhip. In one motion it uncoiled as she snapped it toward The Metal’s face. It made a loud crack but failed as he caught it with his hands, the jack barely an inch from his eye.
“Well, it seems you are the last combatant standing. I don’t have to fight you. Win or lose I’ve gained enough points today that I could go on vacation until the semi-finals. Though, regardless of how much fun it was to fight Mr. Sumo, I don’t take kindly to hits on my life.”
He yanked the cord fiercely, jolting Laney all the way to him whom he gripped upon arrival. She blushed from how close they were her only to be thrown clear out of Santa’s Village by the irate martial artist as her guard was lowered. Breaking a heel from the fall, Laney removed her shoes and jacket, untied her pigtails to fasten her hair back into a more practical ponytail, and gripped a guitar that was on display for one of those mall giveaways.
“Fine, you wanted a real fight today, did you not?”
As Miss Collins grasped the neck of the guitar it shone brightly and mystically changed forms to become a fancy zweihander of the same fashion and style.
“Woah, how the hell did she do that!?”
“Duh, everyone knows descendants of Baldor can use musical instruments as weapons.”
“But Baldor didn’t exist!”
Hahahahahaha,” The Metal chuckled almost uncontrollably as he turned to the side as if speaking to someone who wasn’t there, “He really thinks Baldor wasn’t a real person.”
During his laughing fit, Laney ran up on him and nearly cleaved off The Metal’s right arm if he didn’t slide out of the way in time. She too reacted fast enough and kicked him in a spin, catching him in his own movement. The strike knocked him back quite a bit putting a small crater in the wall he planted on. This brought a smile to his face for The Metal was all too used to fighting off normal humans without any real force or power. He relished any chance at a fight that actually could endanger his life, especially an opponent whose ancestor was likely an Æesir. He considered heading up to the local knife store to even the playing field, but he knew that they were all replicas and would never last more than a few seconds against a real blade let alone a mystically created one. Instead, he decided to take the head-on approach and ran at her the same as she did before. Laney took an awfully wide swing that would be difficult to avoid without retreating backward. Then the blade was stopped with a clinking sound upon The Metal’s arm. It had caught the training weight on his left forearm and cracked the two-handed sword on impact.
“Oh, a week ago I could feel the resistance of my weights losing its effect on me, so I increased the amount I wear for training. Couldn’t really find any when shopping, so I had hollow out an old set and fill it with this really dense cast iron I had a buddy whip up for me.”
“Wow… are you sure you won’t consider courting me?”
“Yeah, pretty positive on that one.”
The Metal knocked the sword out of her hand and knocked the wind out of the adoration struck popstar. When you are gasping for air, everything seems so sudden and blurry that it is hard to follow what goes on until your breathing stabilizes once again. By the time Laney’s equilibrium was regained, she found that the boys had left the building and that she was tied to the still unconscious, quarter-ton sumo she hired by the microphone cable she carried around. Barely reaching her phone, Milana started texting her people and got as comfortable as she could being strapped to a smelly wrestler of more than healthy proportions until they arrived to get them.
“So Metal, you said you gained enough points to coast until near the end, right? Can we maybe actually take a break now?”
“Nope, no can do. Today put me back and I’m sort of tight on cash.”
“Well, he did kind of buy us a total of forty chicken strips.”
“Sure, we’ll go with that… Anyway, I’ll be in deep if certain people find out how much I spent.”
“So what are you gonna do?”
“Same thing I do every week. Tomorrow, I look for another gig and I’m dragging the lot of you with me.”
“Awwwwww, man…” the other three said in unison, slouching in their walk back to the vehicle.
“And after the madness that ensued in the Parks Mall yesterday, it seems everything will be okay. The damages remained under twelve million dollars and idol Laney Lin was found relatively unharmed. It is still unclear what her involvement was exactly, but she will not receive charge as she was tied up and clearly a victim of the fiasco…”
Knocking was heard on the door to the room. It had only been a day since The Metal’s competition completely totaled the local mall and it was bound to catch the attention of the media, but for some reason he never seemed to catch the blame for these things. the others knew fully well he wasn’t hurting for cash like he claimed. The Metal might have blown all of the allowance he lets himself spend, but Sentri was sure that he had loaded offshore accounts since he always seems to pull money out of nowhere whenever he needs it. Whether it was the case or not didn’t matter since the three of them showed up anyway as if they really had no choice.
“So, how are we going to -find- a job?”
“Usually I just wait until the job finds me due to the nature of the business, and believe me there is never a shortage, but sometimes I need one immediately and there is always one place I can check to get something.”
“And where is that?”
The Metal took his remote and flipped the channel over from the local news station to a different report channel all the back in the nine hundreds.
“The nine hundreds, isn’t that usually where they keep all the porn?”
“Welcome to Blackwatch News and this is your morning report,” the announcer said in a commanding voice.
“Paranoia stations? You can’t find a job from the tabloids!”
The Metal ignored his stout friend and kept his attention on the television.
“Hello my fellow foil hats, I’m Alfred Yankovic, it is breakfast time, and this is your daily food for thought.”
“Wait a minute. So Weird Al hosts the paranoia news?”
“Who else would? Now shut up, I’m trying to hear this.”
“First off, more evidence comes in to strike against the skepticism towards our President’s nationality. It has been clear to us for months the citizenship documents were forged because you couldn’t be born in the United States if you weren’t even born on this planet. a residue discretely recovered from the toilet adjacent to the Oval Office suggests the homeworld is in orbit of Proxima Centauri, the closest system to our own. Orbiting a red dwarf such as PC would have a planet tidally locked with one side in a perpetual day and the other night, explaining the President’s long hours and irregular naps.
Our next bit comes from a fellow foil hat in Dallas, Texas who goes by the username hoodrat04. He sent us a radioactive shard of what he claims to be a compact nuclear weapon. He tells us that he has spent many nights in his university’s lab analyzing the shard and that the original container was likely no larger than a can of pop and had a payload equal to that of Fat Man used back in ole’ World War Two. He says the thing that confuses him the most is that the activity suggests it went off within the last couple months and hasn’t moved much since then, but that would mean it exploded within the Oak Cliff area, but the place is still intact. He’ll keep looking into this matter, but come on, some people will believe anything.
And now back to aliens and government cover-ups. We all know of every extraterrestrial visitor’s favorite airport, Roswell, New Mexico, but many of us aren’t aware of the many other landing sites in the area. Just today black vans and helicopters have been spotted just outside Counselor and then shortly after the city went silent. In through traffic permitted and route 550 and the detours extend as far as from Farmington to Albuquerque. Boy, just thinking of that place sends me back. There was this one time…”
“Pst, Al. There is a caller on the line.”
“Oooooh, a caller. Patch him through! You are on the air fellow foil hat, what peaks your concern today?”
“Oh… it’s you. What do you want Metal?”
Shocked, everyone turns over and realizes The Metal was on the phone with Weird Al. They didn’t even notice that he was dialing.
“Well, I was hoping to inquire you about the story you were just on.”
“Looking for money again are we, mister pandemonium incarnate? I probably shouldn’t after last time after you accidentally burned down the only sasquatch den we’ve ever found, but the audience loved it, so if you get us some footage of what is going on in Counselor we’ll pay.”
“Excellent. Your foil hats will have a full story by the weekend.”
“Well, you heard him. What mysteries lie behind the shade of our own shadow govern…”
Turning off the tube, The Metal hopped to his feet and started digging for his camcorder. While he was scurrying about, his comrades still sat there astonished by the situation as a whole, but partly because The Metal once burnt down a sasquatch den. He was still digging around as they slowly gathered a grasp of what happened when noticed all the gear laid out before them.
“What is all this junk?”
“Camera equipment, press badges, disguises, knives, a couple guns, some law enforcement grade zip ties, smoke pellets, some canisters of tear gas, the equivalent of a few hundred tons of TNT in compact explosives, radio earpieces with sixteen-mile radius, and pizza money.”
“Because it’ll be a long trip and I’m hungry.”
“Not the pizza money! Why do you even have all that stuff!?”
“While I’m sure he’d tell us, I don’t want to know. Come on, let’s load up. We need to leave now if we want to get there by tonight.”
They took all the gear, very carefully at that considering the payload it contained, and securely housed it in a large spruce blue van The Metal just happened to have on his property. As per the norm, Sentri got behind the wheel and they set out to one of the states that nobody in their right mind ever visits. It wasn’t that long of a trip even though they had to basically cross the entire longitudinal distance of New Mexico just to get into the state from Dallas, but Buck kept bringing up how he was born in the area despite how clear everyone made it that they no longer cared. The pizza was long gone before they crossed state lines and the gang was growing antsy. Tired, restless, and hungry, they rolled up to the blockade just as night fell. The guard stopped them at the gate they set up. He appeared to be of military in uniform, but not the national guard who you would assume would handle these matters. The Metal wheeled down the passenger window and displayed his press pass for the soldier to see. The guard examined it thoroughly before radioing his superior.
Not giving Sentri time to process what he said, The Metal hopped over into his lap, shifted the van into reverse, and sped away from the checkpoint. They span 180 degrees and around and the sound of bullets bouncing off the back of the vehicle echoed in their ears. He had noticed just barely in time as the other units mounted their rifles for an attack.
“Good thing I had Pitaya bulletproof this thing or else that could have been ugly.”
“What the hell was that!?”
“Oh, yeah. About that. I just realized who is in charge of that camp and he really doesn’t like me.”
“Metal, what did you do this time?”
“It’s not my fault! I was just taking Chrysanthemum out for a test run and his gunships fired at me. I simply took defensive measures.”
“What the fuck is a Chrysanthemum.”
“Well, a Chrysanthemum is a genus of flowers, but in this case…”
“Eh, that is a story for another day. Right now we need to get out of here without lead poisoning.”
“Heheheheheheh, get out of here. You’re funny.”
“Metal, listen to me. You are not getting us involved with that madman Jerome or the U.S. Air Force. We have responsibilities now, we aren’t kids anymore.”
“Sentri, I value your opinion more than anyone’s, but look at it this way. This isn’t a job anymore. If -he- is involved, you can bet someone is in trouble.”
“Ugh… I hate it when you pull that card.”
“You aren’t seriously going to let him risk our lives like this!?”
“Sorry Buck, he’s got the only point that matters.”
Mr. Sable took control of the vehicle again and looked over at his longtime friend with nervous anticipation.
“We doin’ this?”
“Yeah, we doin’ this.”
Sentri flipped the end of the gear stick open revealing a shiny red button. The Kidd, with concern on his face, swiftly hopped off the open floor and into a seat in the back, fastening his safety belt just as quickly. Buck knew not of what was going on but joined him in fastening his own seat. Pressing the button with great zeal, Sentri floored the accelerator setting off the overdrive. He took the van up a naturally formed ramp and flew off a cliff face well over the checkpoint.
Sentri’s loud hollering alerted the troops below, who opened fire upon them. The soldiers loaded into their jeeps and continued the pursuit, not relenting for a moment with the gunfire.
“Hahaha, that feature I added myself!”
“Are you guys insane, we have enough explosives in the van to level a small town!?”
“No Metal, we are here to help people, not kill.”
“These goons were specially picked by Gallagher himself. All of them have done heinous acts to innocent people,” he explained while grabbing light blue canister and opening the side door. “Besides, since when have I ever killed anyone?”
“Oh, I must be confusing you with a Spectre.”
The Metal flipped up on top of the automobile and waved at the opposition with the bomb in his hand. They continued firing, which he found extremely rude, so he took the canister, pulled the tab, and bowled it back to the ground forces. As the container began ticking, he hopped back in the van and slammed the door shut.
“I’d turn that overdrive back on if I were you.”
“Wait, what color bomb did you throw?”
Just as the caravan approached it, the canister went off. The detonation itself was subtle, but almost instantly a liquid flash freeze covered the ground in highly pressurized ice. The rubber of the tires froze and popped immediately upon contact with the ice, with each jeep spinning wildly out of control on just their rims. Once they reached the edge of the frozen ground, friction suddenly kicked back in and all the soldiers launched from their toppling machines. There was no way they could follow them now, but the boys needed to get out of sight before the reinforcements arrived. The Kidd spotted a cave in the distance, so they pulled in to hide for a while.
“I swear to God, between Pitaya’s crazy inventions and your homemade explosives, I’m surprised you two lunatics haven’t destroyed Dallas County yet… or at the very least taken it over.”
“No intention, but he did seize an island.”
Everyone jerked their sights to him as if that information actually caught them off guard after all this.
“What, he was fed up that I refused to call him Lord Pitaya because he didn’t own any land to be a lord. I still won’t call him that; it just sounds dumb.”
Before anyone could interject on the matter, a clankering was heard in the far reaches of the cavern. Not even giving it thought, The Metal geared up and ran after the noise with his companions regretfully trailing behind. It wound inward like helix coming to a large dome in the middle. Bright lights and sparking metalloids were found within as before their eyes sat a ship built to traverse the heavens and its pilots working on repairs. They were stout, furry critters, hominid in form yet animalistic in features. Standing at around three feet high they were clearly of mammalian descent, just not any kind that was familiar to Earth. Three of them were running around in jumpsuits frantically trying to fix their evidently wrecked spacecraft. From what they could tell, two of them were masculine in gender and the other feminine. The Metal approached them without hesitating and the shorter male flipped out.
“運行地球人!” he said fleeing into the ship.
“放鬆Belry,也許他們可以幫助我們。” the woman responded sincerely.
The taller man walked up to the fellows and began speaking to the boys, but they couldn’t quite understand what he was saying.
“您好地球人,我可能有你的時間了一下?” he said but no one replied. “做任何你說普通話嗎?”
“Buddie, you are in America, gonna have to speak English.”
“Now Kidd that’s just rude.”
“Ah, English. Though everyone in your system should learn the common tongue, I do remember English from foreign studies.”
“Does everyone in the galaxy speak Chinese?”
“I don’t know what Chinese is, but it is called Pǔtōnghuà and it is spoken amongst all planets in the Universe who wish to participate in the major trading guilds. Anyway, you guys look like some decently tough fellas; would you mind giving us a hand?”
“Sorry, we don’t have any experience working on interstellar ships.”
“Speak for yourself Sentri.”
“No, that’s okay since we are almost done with repairs anyway. The actual matter is that my father is missing. We brought him along on our road trip and when we took a pit stop here on Dìqiú he wandered off for snacks. You know how old people can be. When we went looking for him we found that he was shanghaied by local pirates and we just don’t have the means to rescue him.”
“Um… those aren’t pirates.”
“Yeah, that’s actually our territory’s military.”
“What kind of tactless planet are you guys running here!?”
“Beats me. Listen, as an ambassador of this land, I will personally return your father to you.”
“Thank you. At least there are some nice people on this rock.”
“But we might need your help. Just take this radio and get your ship ready for lift-off.”
The Metal and crew ran back to their van and made their way to the largest encampment just outside a local Navajo village. They commenced in unpacking the back of the vehicle as their previously established deranged leader broke down as much of his plan as he was willing to share.
“Okay, so here is the deal. Kidd, you are going to take this rifle and stay up on this vantage point with Buck as he captures the entire event with this long-range camera and provide cover fire for us in case things get too hot.”
“You want me to kill those guys?” The Kidd said with an almost sick face.
“Of course not, I thought we already went over this. That mag is filled with tranquilizers whose potency lasts an hour and takes effect within moments.”
“Oh good,” he sighed with relief.
“Come on Sentri, let’s go do this!”
“Do what exactly?”
He didn’t get a reply, instead, he was forced to catch up to The Metal as he scurried down the hillside cloaked in the dark of night. They moved fast and without relent. When they came upon the ten-foot fencing, The Metal slid to a halt and acted as a springboard for his friend. As Sentri flew over he saw The Metal leaping through the air gaining on him. The men sneaked their way past the patrol and around the sides of the buildings until they reached a quickly constructed storage facility labeled: Special Clearance Only. The Metal punched the control panel and they forced the door open. Not even a second on the inside and sirens went off.
“What did you expect to happen?”
“Just about that, only I was still hoping it wouldn’t.”
“Take this and shoot anyone you see in either the chest or the head,” he said pulling out a blue and white pistol and throwing it to Sentri while he kept a red and black duplicate. “Don’t worry, they don’t shoot bullets so you won’t need to worry about their lives.”
“Do these even shoot anything? They are light as a feather and don’t even have an opening for a clip, magazine, or a single bullet.”
“Hahahaha, a true work of art ain’t it. I really have to give him credit this time. I told Pitaya I wanted a way to incapacitate someone from a distance, but I absolutely dread guns. Meet the Azrael and Uriel Electromagnetic Psionic Pistols. Instead of bullets, the EPPs used the living energy of its user to fire condense, concussive, electromagnetic blasts based on the user’s own mental fortitude. The ammo is virtually limitless, but be careful and make every shot count since your life is its source and can start to take its toll.”
He was finishing up his explanation as the facility filled with armed soldiers. They ducked behind some titanium ammo crates and returned fire upon goons. It was apparent that blind firing wasn’t going to get them anywhere and they needed to get into the other chamber. The Metal turned over to Sentri giving him a serious look and then breaking it with a psychotic smile. His return gesture was one of instant regret, but he took the other pistol from The Metal and followed his lead anyway. The martial artist darted out from behind cover as fast as he could, jumping on and off crates, bouncing off support beams, and distracting as best as he could while avoiding a bullet to the brain. With the focus off of himself, Sentri unwound blast after blast upon the grunts. Within seconds his arms began burning from the pressure of using the EPPs. The Metal, taking out as many units as he could barehanded, signaled his friend and Sentri tossed the guns over. Backflipping and spinning through the air, his barrage of bullets hit like a storm of hail. Sentri wasn’t having as successful of a time barehanded, and while he was still managing The Metal whistled at him and tossed the guns back over. The two danced and flipped around, juggling the guns between each other and confusing the focus of the peons. They fought in sync as if they hand been thinking the same thoughts, or more likely they knew each other long enough to react to the other’s thoughts. It wasn’t long until Sentri took the handle of the gun and knocked out the last goon.
“Um, Metal. I think one got you.”
He looked at his right triceps and noticed the edge was bleeding.
“Darn, one grazed me.”
They both let out a wild laugh. It had been a while since both of them have done something this crazy together. It took them a little bit to let the laughter die down.
“Yo, this just reminds me of how much I hate guns.”
“Oh, because these things were definitely meant just for the guy who never seems to run out of energy.”
“A gun is still a gun. Rather use my feet or fists.”
“Fine, then when this is over give them to me.”
“You can have them now for all I care.”
He tossed the EPP he carried to Sentri and continued to the other room. Within stood a large cage with just a barrel resting in it. They looked around and saw nothing else. After a couple of seconds passing a noise could be heard. The barrel was snoring. The old man had been sleeping in there this whole time. Making the job easier, they unlocked the cage and rolled the barrel out. It seemed like a clean getaway having dispatched pretty much all the soldiers that could do anything about it. They were home free. That is until they nearly reached the front gate. Standing before them was a large man wearing a mechanized power suit that looked like its original purpose was to load and unload shipments but had been repurposed as a weapon like any other practically useful thing ever invented.
“How in the hell that I live in did I have to deal with you today?”
“Hello, again Jerome. How are your pilots?”
“Retired with medals thanks to you. I’d say hand over the alien, but it’s irrelevant since I’m not letting you leave here alive anyway.”
The Metal kicked the barrel and then Sentri out of the way predicting that the colonel would rush him right away without warning. He was sent flying backward into one of the camp structures causing it to collapse on impact. Colonel Jerome Gallagher had issues with both losing and anyone who didn’t take everything seriously, so obviously he had many problems with The Metal. The mech rider waltzed over and lifted him up by his neck, possibly to crush it in the suit’s grip. Then pulses struck his back in rapid succession. He dropped The Metal to see Sentri offering cover fire to his friend. Gallagher launched a short-range missile at him. Of course, Sentri avoided the explosive, but it greatly yielded his ability to return fire since the more he reacts the less energy he has and the larger the strain on his body using the EPPs becomes. Jerome turned back to his target of choice and received and punch to the face. The Metal let off a fury of strikes to his exposed core, nearly knocking the officer off his mechanical feet, but the machine’s leverage was strong. He grabbed The Metal’s leg and tossed him several yards. Jerome ran over to deal more damage but was distracted by a dart suddenly in his neck.
“What the hell,” he snarled.
Upon the hill from his vantage point, The Kidd radioed into the pair of not-so-short-sighted heroes.
“Yo bro, I can’t really tell if this plan of yours is working out or not.”
“Just keep doing what you are doing, I got this.”
The colonel released his right arm from the control sleeve to pull the dart out of his neck. He seemed a bit hazy, but the tranquilizer didn’t look as potent as The Metal claimed it to be.
“Fool, I’m former Special Operations. I’ve been conditioned to resist toxins of all sorts. You’ll have to do better than that.”
“Fine. If you say so,” The Metal responded as he began removing his weights.
Gallagher snickered at the idea of him removing protective armor until he was punched off his feet. The Metal hopped on his chest and pounded on it until Jerome coughed up some blood in a heavy wheeze. He flicked the fighter off him and got up. The colonel didn’t look in such good shape, but neither did The Metal. Jerome sped over to sack the man as hard as he could, but he braced for it and was only forced back seven feet leaving grains in the ground from where his bare feet were gripping it. They exchanged blows, knocking each other around. Eventually, they caught each other’s hands and ended up in a power struggle.
“Just give up, there is no way you can match my power suit in raw strength. You are as good as done.”
The Metal grew pissed and his eyes appeared to almost turn red as he replied, “If there is one thing I can’t stand in this entire existence, it is people telling me what I can and can’t do!”
He stiffened his root and pushed back even harder. The hydraulics in the suit were busting and the titanium began crinkling under the pressure. In a fit of passionate rage, The Metal tore the hands off the end of the mech’s arms and delivered a kick that sent Jerome into the storehouse. He changed the frequency on his headpiece.
“Head on over now.”
He and Sentri pulled the old man out of the barrel, who of course was still sleeping through all this. Then, Colonel Gallagher stormed out of the storehouse and bleeding from his gut charged toward the guys. The Kidd fired off a few more darts, but nothing seemed to slow down this determined career militarian. The Metal entered the game of chicken and ran at him as well. They sprinted with great intensity and just as they were within reach a blinding light came from above. Jerome stopped to see what it was and was awestruck by the alien spacecraft. Reacting in the moment, Sentri hurled the elder traveler into the air above the confused officer. Jerome noticed what was going on and went to reach for him, but only found The Metal’s foot on his face. The young man kicked up off his face after catching the alien and threw him high enough up to be picked up by the ship’s tractor beam. They flew off soon entering hyper speed and all Jerome had to vent out on was the guy responsible next to him.
“This is the last time you cause me trouble, boy. I’m going to rip you apart limb by li-”
He was interrupted when Sentri chucked a pistol at the back of his head.
“You have a gun and you decided to throw it at me instead of firing. Are you an idiot?”
“Nah, I’m feeling pretty smart right about now. Don’t you think so Metal?”
Jerome turned back at The Metal who had caught the EPP on the rebound. The gun was gleaming with a radiance that poured from the barrel as if it were charging up. He winked and made a click with his teeth as he unleashed a blast so big it tore the armor apart as well as Gallagher’s right arm. The Metal blew into the barrel of the gun like he was in a western, tossed it back to Sentri and they headed out the main gate to join up with their other friends. On the way out they heard Jerome speak once more in his remaining moment of consciousness.
“How… how are you even alive?”
“I’m The Metal, bitch.”
The Autumnal season drew near its end and with it, the semifinal matches of the tournament The Metal participated came, too. These final rounds were what he looked forward more than anything to each year. He was so overzealous about it all that he insisted that Buck and Sentri be there when he received the name of his opponent. Being that he acquired the most points in the competitions, no matter who his opponent was they had the right to select the location since it is assumed the lower scoring fighter deserves the advantage. It is a stupid tradition that has never made a difference in the performance of either fighter before, but since it was harmless no one on the committee felt there was a need to remove it. The air was still as they stood there waiting for the last ten minutes. A swift gust of wind passed by nearly knocking all but The Metal down.
“Finally it is here!”
He held a small slip of paper in his hand that no one else had noticed appeared until he mentioned it. Buck looked around every corner trying to find who dropped it off, but he saw nothing.
“Don’t bother, the papers are handed out by The Metal’s favorite delivery service. To this day I’ve still yet to see the couriers and I only believe they exist simply because he keeps getting packages from nowhere.”
“Eh, I’m sure I’ll order something that requires them to stop so I can sign for it someday.”
“Pray then I am around on such a day. Whose name is on the slip anyway?”
He unfolded the piece of paper and his eyes grew wide with anticipation the instant the name was visible. The Metal didn’t even answer Sentri’s query, he just simply started laughingly in a hysterical fit and walked in the direction of the fight. They pestered him the entire walk from the Uptown Village in Cedar Hill to the destination. It wasn’t until they reached downtown Duncanville that Buck realized what was happening.
“No… No. You have to be kidding me.”
“Sadly my friend, this hardly surprises me at all. You planned this, didn’t you Metal.”
“What? No. I can’t say I ever intended on fighting him, but at the same time, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t curious. This should at least be fun.”
They strolled up to a nice sized house that would otherwise look completely normal if it weren’t for the edifice affixed to the rear. All that you could make out on the building were large letters that succinctly read “The Lab”. Waiting for them at the front door was none other than Kavikaru, today not wearing his overcharged skates.
“I guessed you’d be here.”
“Ha, like I’d miss this if it’d kill me. I even brought snacks and a drink.”
“Kavi, do you think this is a joke?” asked Buck genuinely concerned.
“Not yet at least. Come on in, he’s waiting in the back.”
The troop avoided walking through the domicile to prevent unneeded chaos to those who did not require it. There was a front entrance just past the house, which probably wasn’t the best one to use if he was in the back since there were warehouse doors back there, but The Metal always enjoyed the detour and touching all the things labeled so people wouldn’t. When they finally passed all the potential inventions and improvements he was sitting backward in a metal folding chair with one arm over the shoulder of the seat and the other raised to his mouth as he carefully sipped his tea.
“I’m ashamed in myself that I didn’t notice your name in the list of registrants.”
“Come on, there were like 500,” the large man stated while rising from his seat and grinning. “You’re getting sloppy.”
His opponent stood just above six feet tall with more than enough weight to back it up. To most, they assume it was mostly flab, but anyone that knew the man well enough was aware that is was just a thin layer disguising the bulk of his muscle which was only really apparent in his arms due to his sleeveless lab coat. He had long, blondish brunette hair on the crown of his head and short, scruffy facial hair that was unkempt from spending too much time in the laboratory. He had the look of a mad scientist who was a little too into fighting to fit his career path.
“So Pitaya, how do you want to do this, first to give or total blackout?”
“I told you time and again, it is Lord Pitaya.”
“I’m not going to call you Lord no matter how much land you buy. It is ridiculous, isn’t it guys?”
While The Metal’s back was turned as he asked the others, Pitaya grabbed his folding chair and hurled at the back of his head with enough force to send him sliding across the ground fifty feet back.
“Total blackout it is,” he said bouncing to his feet and running to his massive foe.
Pitaya carefully set down his glass of tea on a nearby counter as not to spill its valuable contents. He caught The Metal’s fist in mid-swing with a hand large enough to grip the smaller fighter’s skull firmly. This is why The Metal was so excited about this fight. Pitaya isn’t like most people he gets to tango with, he is a bit beyond the capacity of the normal human. Like himself, Pitaya has a genius-level IQ, which makes it very difficult for them to blatantly out-think each other being that both can normally find a counter solution to most situations. Not only that, but Pitaya is enormous by comparison, which generally comes with sacrificing speed for such a size. This was not the case for he trains against Kavi regularly and has adjusted his physical reflexes to match his mental reaction time and the agility of his speedy sparring partner. Worst of all, Pitaya’s favorite method of combat was grappling and throwing, such as in most wrestling arts, and he is considered an expert in this craft. All these factors made it extremely dangerous to get within his reach, which was the only thing The Metal could do to fight having more than half a foot under him.
The scientist grabbed him by the throat and tossed The Metal clear across the lab. He crashed through many yards of titanium shelving covered in parts and scraps, coming to a stop on a prototype for a hoverbike Pitaya worked on last year. Confident, Pitaya walked back to the workbench and resumed sipping his tea.
“Ha, this about how I thought it’d go. Can’t believe The Metal thought he was a match for Lord Pitaya.”
“I wouldn’t be too sure of that Kavi.”
“You wanna place money on it?”
“Yeah. Two hundred says Pitaya doesn’t win.”
“Fine, you’re on.”
“Sentri, you just lost two hundred dollars,” Pitaya calmly said still drinking his tea. “There is no way he still has much stamina left after that.”
Hearing the sound of clanging steel and noticing the shadow eclipsing the overhead lights, Pitaya leaped to the side narrowly avoiding his own hoverbike prototype from planting him in the ground.
“You almost made me spill my tea you asshat-”
Pitaya’s speech was cut off as he was nailed in the jaw by something much smaller than the bike flying through the air with enough velocity to knock him off his feet. It was his folding chair he threw at The Metal earlier. He peered into his empty cup and sprang to his feet enraged.
“Okay, it is rude enough to throw a man’s own chair at him, but my tea man. For the love of Thor, my tea!”
Pitaya ran at The Metal who was already doing the same to him. Once there were within arms reach Pitaya went to grab the lean fighter but missed when The Metal slid under his legs. He kicked the back of the muscular inventor’s knee and punched him in the spine. It wasn’t enough to drop him to the ground, so Pitaya took The Metal’s collar and launched him at the nearest wall. He hit it hard but bounced back struck Pitaya in the sternum on the rebound. He tried grabbing the little irritant again, but this time The Metal struck Pitaya’s arms away swiftly with a second counter strike to a pressure point with the opposite hand after each attempt. Pitaya enjoys throwing people and grew increasingly upset between the damage he was taking and the grapples that were being deflected. Coupling his hands together, Pitaya hammered them down upon The Metal and drove him to the floor. He gripped his ankle and began whipping The Metal around across the ground back and forth like a child who ran out of interesting activities for his slinky.
“Why is he letting Pitaya grab him so much?”
“What do you mean Kavi?”
“I’ve fought The Metal plenty of times because of business. No hard feelings, it just happens due to the nature of both our work. Pitaya is fast for a big guy, abnormally so, but I know speed and The Metal shouldn’t be getting touched. He isn’t still wearing his… oh.”
“Hey Metal, take off your damn weights!”
“What… are… you… nuts…” he replied while still being slammed about.
“What does he mean by that?”
“You must be insane as well. It is too late for you Sentri, you’ve known Metal far too long.”
“Not at all Buck. Normally The Metal leaves his training weights on because he doesn’t respect his opponent’s ability to fight, but this might very well be the first time that he’s left them on because he does.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“The Metal is faster by far, but he knows that this match isn’t about who can out brawn or outspeed the other. It is about who can out-think the other. Pitaya is exceptionally good at recognizing patterns as they emerge, so The Metal didn’t want to risk relying solely on speed and possibly falling into a repetition that could be exploited. No, he came into this with a plan because obscure plans almost no one can follow is his strong suit. He is actually relying on Pitaya grappling him.”
“That doesn’t make any sense at all.”
“Doesn’t it. How much weight does The Metal currently wear on him?”
“I don’t know, a hundred and fifty pounds.”
“Not since over a month ago. He had his old weights replaced with an especially dense cast-iron filled set because they just weren’t doing it for him anymore. Between him and his weights, Pitaya has to be slinging around five hundred pounds right now.”
“The hell… how does he wear all that, get thrown half the length of a football field, and still remain conscious?”
“Well, Metal is the most stubborn person I’ve ever met. The real question is whether his tenacity will hold out longer than Pitaya’s torment. Right now I can’t tell who do taking more damage, Metal from being thrown around so much or Pitaya from exerting himself so hard to deliver it.”
The Metal hit the ground again, but this time as he was getting slung up he grabbed the leg of a nearby desk. Once in mid-swing, he slammed the table across Pitaya’s cranium forcing him to release his ankle. They each took a step back and faced each breathing heavily as the fight has clearly been taking its toll on both of them. After a second or two, The Metal grinned and let out a big laugh before engaging in combat again
“Look at that wackadoodle, he is actually enjoying this.”
“He actually hates this.”
“That’s not what it looks like to me.”
“You should know by now that you can’t trust The Metal’s body language or his tone of voice. While most of us do the majority of our communication that way his body lies just as well as the rest of him. It’s actually one of the things that makes him such a scary fighter. His body gives away nothing, but that’s not to say he is incapable of being read.”
“I know what you mean Kavi. I couldn’t ever really place it, but The Metal -feels- loudly if you know what I mean.”
“Not sure I get that.”
“Like, as long as I’ve known him, even if he seems calm as after a big storm or a happy as a sunny day, you can feel when he is sad or even hear him scream internally; believe me it is deafeningly loud. It is like he has this presence to him that if you actually pay attention to your environment you should be able to tell how he feels despite the way he acts. It can even have an instant effect on a room when he walks in if he feels strongly enough.”
“Exactly, and in all the times I’ve fought The Metal because of business, all the times he has assaulted me with a grin on his face, I could feel the fear.”
“I can’t really believe Metal is afraid to fight anyone.”
“He isn’t afraid of me when we fight, he fears the possible end. You can feel that he doesn’t enjoy fighting his friends because he values their company and doesn’t want to lose the relationship, but his internal ego is too big to take the loss.”
“The Metal tells me all the time that it is a terrifying place inside his head and the more I see these encounters the more I understand. He probably came into this fight wanting to hold back, but knew he couldn’t and still win.”
“This can’t end well.”
The Metal kicked Pitaya into a collection of shelves and crates, taking out main support in the process. He sprinted over and hopped on the fallen scientist’s chest, pounding into it hoping to incapacitate him through sheer physical shock. Pitaya balled his fist and punched his opposition clear through the forty-foot ceiling. He jumped up, catching The Metal in mid-air, and began taking him down with him like a professional wrestler.
“GRAVITON SLAM!” he screams in a deep roar as they struck the ground with The Metal positioned beneath him.
The entire laboratory came crumbling down on top of them as all that remained was a large crater filled with technological rubble and chunks of foundations. All that stood was the adjacent house completely unscathed. There was no sight of anyone for minutes until Sentri and Buck dug themselves out of the wreckage, dragging the resistant Metal from the area. Just after they could see Kavi help Pitaya out from under a large boulder. Both combatants were still conscious and The Metal was not pleased with this result.
“Let me go you assholes,” he screamed squirming in their arms. “It’s not over, I still have to win!”
“Shut the hell up! Do you see what you’ve done, all that senseless destruction? Just take the draw today and finish it some other time!”
“But I can still beat-”
Then, before Buck could holler at their friend again, Sentri gave The Metal a look while shaking his head that emotionally hurt the guy.
“Fine. I’ll finish this later, but I won’t take this sitting down.”
Meanwhile, Pitaya was taking everything much better than his irate foe. He was not without his fair share of battle wounds, but it seemed nothing went too far from the plan.
“Huh, for someone who just lost his entire laboratory, you sure seemed pleased.”
“A minor setback, but I held it here expecting as much. The entire lab was insured to Helheim and back with coverage that’d payout even if an extinction-level event flatten the entire area.”
“So this was the plan?”
“Not entirely, I expected to win and much sooner at that, but this works just fine. To The Metal a draw is just as bad as a defeat and having never actually lost a fight he’ll be back more heated than ever to rectify this issue. When he does, I’ll crush him so hard it’ll knock him off that pedestal he thinks he sits on.”
“Wow, is that really necessary?”
“Everyone that gets like that needs to be taken down a notch. If that ever happens to me, I’d like to count on you to find a way to set me in check. Until then, I’ve got some building to do.”
It has been over a year now since Valor first began intervening in the affairs of the crooked denizens of the greater Dallas-Fort Worth area, yet it seems no one outside the metroplex even knew he existed. This notion didn’t bother him. The way he saw it, this kept him a vigilante and not official law enforcement. The local police don’t mind, in fact, most of them love having the kid around occasionally making their jobs easier. This just meant he could spend most of his days playing games with his friends instead of patrolling the city, which is the very last thing he wanted to do the last day of Summer Vacation.
He was in play clothes: sneakers; black shorts, a red tee-shirt, and a black mesh jersey on top. When Valor wasn’t flying around he spent his time at the park near his house like a normal boy. He, his brothers, and his two closest friends ran up and down the wooden playground equipment playing tag and pretending it was ship flying through the sky. For some reason, it was really easy for him to act like he was powerless to make it fair for his buddies. They were having the best day to close out Summer they could think of, up until Valor’s attention was taken away from what he was doing, just as he ran headfirst into an iron gymnastics bar.
“Tommy,” as he was called in his civilian life, ”are you okay!?”
“Yeah, yeah. I’m cool. Just heard something downtown. No grown-ups are around, right?”
“Aww… you have to leave?”
“Sorry. There was a loud boom and it just doesn’t -feel- right. Make sure my brothers get home okay if I’m not back before my dad gets there. If not, he’ll be really mad.”
He flipped his jersey inside out as it was attached to the shoulders of his cardinal red tee-shirt, revealing that he was wearing his cape, if you can call it that, all along. Valor made one last scouting of his surroundings so that no one he knew could see him and then crouched down like a runner ready to kick off from the starting line at a race. Becoming nothing but a blur to his compatriots, he was off northward leaving behind a mighty gust of wind that knocked his youngest brother off his feet. In just ten minutes of running between the traffic on highway 67 he had arrived at Turtle Creek Park, the scene of the commotion, and what, or more so who he saw left Valor in a state of bewilderment.
In the center of the street was a man of average height and lean build with slicked back, spikey, platinum blonde hair and bright blue eyes, like an older version of Valor almost, tossing cars around with his bare hands and laughing psychotically at the chaos and destruction. He work boots and blue jeans, but left his upper half indecent with just a crimson red vest hanging from his shoulders. In the midst of the panic, he noticed the one who called out his name and was overjoyed. In fact, he was so pleased to see Valor that he callously chucked a truck into a nearby residence without aiming and skipped over to greet him.
“Ah, well if it isn’t the guest of honor himself,” the man he called Mack zealously said leaning in with his hands on his hips, but quickly shifted back waving his figure like a scolding mother, “It took you long enough to get here. I almost thought you weren’t going to come entertain me.”
“What are you doing here Mack, and why do you look so different?”
“I don’t look that different, do I? I mean this is close enough to count, right? Anyway, right, what was the other question? It didn’t seem important so I forgot.”
“Why are you here,” Valor asked with a face so serious it could kill a bureaucrat.
“Oh yes, yes, that. To be honest, it was just getting boring in Limbo. You know how slow time goes by there. With a millennial to every annual, I just couldn’t let you have all the fun for another ten thousand years.”
“And the havoc?”
“I told you, I want to have fun.”
“You can’t just do whatever you want Mack, there are rules here.”
“Ah, and who is going to enforce those codes, you,” Mack cried sarcastically.
He lifted his arm up and small nova grew in front of his palm as he looked for a satisfying target. He caught his eyes on mother pushing a carriage while dragging along a few more children and grinned maliciously. Just as he was about to fire, Mack lost concentration and dissipated the nova after feeling a tiny hand wrenching his wrist hard enough to crack a copper pipe. He turned stared at Valor, very displeased.
“Fine. If you wish to be that way, then you’ll be my plaything.”
Mack balled his fist and struck the boy in his right eye. He was immediately sent soaring backward through the city like a missile drilling into each building without losing much momentum for a good mile and a half. Valor got up out the surrounding rubble, having a black eye slow heal after that brutal wallop.
“I guess I’ll just sit here and tune this while you take your sweet time getting back,” Mack taunted while twisting the tuning knobs on a crimson and gold guitar he seemingly pulled out of nowhere.
The child charged straight back through the holes his body created in all the walls between Mack and him. Though his vision was well enough to see the boy at a mile away, Mack still tuned his guitar nonchalantly. Reaching speeds that only made the apertures wider simply by passing back through them, Valor returned to the baleful being with his tiny fists clenched and ready to strike.
“Ah, there’s the pitch!” Mack gleefully rejoiced as he finished tuning his guitar and struck a powerful chord. Waves of energy that would be invisible to all but the two combatants pulsated from the strings of his musical axe that tore at the ground and sent hurtling back through most of the same edifices he had just returned from. Local law enforcement had the block isolated from incoming traffic since before Valor showed up, but it was only now that Mack realized the local S.W.A.T. units were closing in. Completely surrounding the devious agent of destruction, their orders were to silence the threat immediately. They opened fire without hesitating, unloading hundreds of rounds from various assault rifles and submachine guns at him. It was to no avail. Mack let out a maniacal fit of laughter while their bullets simply ricocheted off him at all angles and damaged many nearby objects and even a couple officers. After the first friendly fire was spotted everyone ceased activity and took a defensive stance while treating the wounded.
“You call those guns? Ha! Welcome to the gun show!”
The guitar that had been hanging from his torso energized into two crimson and gold machine rifles that were each large enough to require two large men to carry and should otherwise be mounted upon the top of a vehicle, but of course he held them effortlessly tucked under his armpits. Mack let loose his canons which would annihilate everyone in their paths, but he only heard the bolts of energy collide with heavy metal. In his line of fire stood an empty armored S.W.A.T. truck being propped up by none other than Valor.
“You know, this hero complex of yours is really getting-”
With his speech being interrupted by an armored truck batting him into the sky, this time it was Mack who was sent rocketing into the distance. Valor glanced over and noticed the hurt officers and even recognized one of them. He rushed over to help them knowing there was no way medical attention would be readily available the way things were. Leaning over the men, a shimmering white glow spread over their wounds. Slowly the bullets sifted up and out of their bodies like an air pocket in water and the wounds closed up almost like they hadn’t been there at all.
“What is that you are doing,” asked Officer Anderson.
“I call it reversion. It takes quite some time for your soul to catch up with changes to your body, so as long as I act fast I can fix most things. I can’t fix anything though. It takes a lot of energy for something this small and recent, but the longer and greater the damage the harder it is to fix.”
“Well good thing you showed up, that dirtbag would have likely wasted all of us.”
“I don’t get it though, Mack used to be so nice and playful.”
“You know that guy? He is a monster!”
“I’ve known Mack for as long as I can remember, but I guess -he- is no longer the way -he- was. In fact, I remember this one time-”
Valor vanished from Officer Anderson’s sight in a flash before he could finish what he was saying. Mack held the boy by his cape as he ran dragging Valor face down across the city streets. Not appreciating this very much, Valor drove his fingers into the ground pulling them both to a grinding halt and flinging Mack back in the opposite direction. They both got up and stare the other down for about a minute. Mack once again summoned his crimson guitar, but this the chord he played transformed it into a weapon of seemingly minimal devastation: a pair of metallic knuckles of the same design.
“Come on Mack, we don’t have to do this.”
“What, and ruin all the fun we’re having!?”
Energy as bright as the sun gleamed around Valor’s fists and both combatants wound up in a battle stance. In the time it takes to blink the two jolted at each other with their predominant left fists impacting. The explosive force from the collision destroyed the overpass they stood upon in its entirety. The two took little time after to continue exchanging blows knocking each other around the city. Valor tried his best to direct the battle away from heavily populate parts of the city, but he could only manage to control that factor so much against an opponent just as strong as himself inside a town as large as Dallas. Finally, however, Mack’s excitement got the better of him and he missed a very wide punch at a very small target. Valor seized the opportunity and drove his knee into his opponent’s stomach. In the flinching moment, he flipped around Mack,popped him in the lower back, and sent him flying into the Trinity River. Valor wouldn’t let him get the upper hand again, so he ran to the landing zone prepared to continue the fight.
“Ech! Ew! Gross!” Mack shrieked like a little girl.
“This river tastes and smells like poop! You know how much I hate icky stuff!”
Mack was regressing in behavior and let his true demeanor out. Valor had known Mack for a long time and though he always preferred to take different forms as the shape-shifting demon he claims to be, he always lost his poise when he got too emotional. Mack slunk out of the waste ridden mess that is the Trinity River wiping goop off his brow with a very indignant look upon his face.
“You’re mean Tommy. I just wanted to help you today, but I’m not having fun anymore. I’m going home!”
Valor let out a heavy sigh of relief at hearing this. Mack only ever left after he grew bored or frustrated and though he was hurt to see his friend leave so upset, Valor was glad that his plan prevented the full extent of his possible rampage. Just before leaving, however, Mack turned and said one last thing to the boy.
“But I’ll be back real soon. And trust me, everything is gonna get a lot more interesting. I guarantee it.”
He reached his hand to the sky, letting off a blinding explosion. And with a bang and a cloud of smoke Mack was gone, most likely back to limbo where he lived. With the chaos settling, Valor ran back home and let out a weighted sigh on the way.
“I hope it’s not too soon, I’ve school tomorrow…”
A few days after the big fight, Sentri arrived at the airport to fly abroad for business. He was only supposed to be in town for one month in the Summer, but it seems that once again The Metal’s fiascoes have kept him busy all the way through to the late Fall. It was approaching on two decades now that they’ve known each other and he couldn’t believe that he still allows The Metal to talk him into these misguided adventures. Sentri just shrugged it off though, seeing as regardless of whether it’s for business or not, his trip overseas would be a nice vacation from the collective chaos that surrounds his crazy friend. He was looking down at his ticket as he stepped off the bus so he could recall which gate he needed to be at, but as he looked up there were two bizarrely dressed individuals with luggage waiting for him.
“What are you two doing here and why are you wearing Gung Fu Saam? Metal, shouldn’t you be training for a rematch with Pitaya or something?”
“That’s actually what we’re here for.”
“I don’t follow.”
“We, as in Buck and I, are going to China… to train,” The Metal said slowly as if speaking to a young child.
“Yeah, just so happens we are on the same flight as you since we have a layover in Hong Kong.”
“Wait… how did you guys get the visas needed to enter China, especially after that incident in North Korea?”
“We don’t talk about that Sentri. It never happened. Besides, I’ve got local property and people in the Chinese government who owe me favors.”
“What, when, how!?”
“Two Octobers ago, the job at the Dallas World Trade Center.”
International flights, specifically to Hong Kong, were less expensive at this time than prior ever since Dallas was opened to some non-stop routes a few years back. Unfortunately, the TSA has become even more thorough about its boarding policies after reports of an unidentified man illegally sneaking Japanese forged swords into DFW International Airport multiple times. To speed the process up as much as he could, The Metal despairingly left his training weights at home. The most recent set was filled with extremely heavy metals, so there was no way he’d get into the terminal even with them in his bags. They all found it pretty funny when they asked The Metal to remove his cotton shoes temporarily since he only put them on to enter the building in the first place. After the irrationally long boarding process, the trio finally made it into the aircraft to locate their seats.
“Well, guess I’ll see you guys after the flight.”
“Yeah right. After the flight…”
Sentri didn’t like the way The Metal said those words. As the others walked to the rear of the coach cabin for the furthest back seat physically available since The Metal is paranoid of people he doesn’t know being behind him while he is trying to relax, Sentri strolled up to first-class only to find someone was already in his seat.
“Excuse me miss. I believe you are in my seat.”
“I thought so too, but the attendant told me otherwise.”
“ATTENDANT!” he shouted with a furious concern.
Moments later Sentri found himself in the back seated in the empty seat directly across the aisle from Buck. It appeared that someone had made some last-minute changes in the system stating that Mr. Sable had requested seat change, which would normally be against company policy, giving him all the information he needed to assume who’s fault it was for that. Waving joyously from across the aisle was The Metal, to which the only reply Sentri gave was, “Don’t fuckin’ talk to me for the rest of this flight.” The Metal was no moron. He knew perfectly well why Sentri was mad at him, but he was also kind of a prick that let his friends bubble up to the brim until they exploded. No one really knew why maybe life was just more interesting to him that way.
The flight went as expected for many hours with The Metal and Buck playing the current model of family-friendly handheld video game systems with each other while Sentri slept through most of the trip. As someone that made these sort of long-distance trips regularly for business, Sentri has always found that sleeping helped him the most with the transition across the international date line since day and night schedule was really off-kilter to begin with. Everything was fine, up until they approached within an hour off of Hong Kong International Airport. First, he was awoken by a soothing, but somehow still discomforting scent followed shortly the feeling of being lighter. Not exactly being lightheaded per se, just overall lighter. When he opened his eyes, Sentri noticed that not only were the vast majority of the passengers unconscious but the only other two people up and moving around were already bolting to the front of the ship. He leaped up without a second thought and attempted to catch up to his associates. Though by the time he caught up with them, they were already trying to pry the pilot’s cabin door open.
“What on Earth are you doing? Hijacking an aircraft is highly illegal!”
“Relax this isn’t a hijacking, this is a rescue attempt.”
“Beg your pardon!?”
“You see all those sleeping plebs back there? Yeah, that’s not my doing. I’m just trying to fix an unfortunate situation.”
“If you didn’t do this, then why are we still awake, huh?”
“Yeah, why are we?”
“Oh,” said The Metal struggling to open the vault-like door, “that’s because I’ve been slipping you guys nonlethal doses of various toxins in your meals for years. You know, so you’d not die, or worse be useless, in a situation like this.”
“Why are we friends with you again?”
“Because we don’t have a say in it. Metal, you aren’t going to open that door with your bare hands. They make those things practically blast-proof at this poi-“
“Were you saying something,” he asked as he dropped the hefty cabin door to the side.
“How heavy have your weights gotten again?”
Without wasting much time answering Sentri’s meaningless question, The Metal pushed the unconscious pilot out of his chair and pointed at his talking friend to do the same to the co-pilot.
“For the love of God, please tell me out of all the usually useless things you know, piloting this aircraft is one of them.”
“Umm… how hard can it be?”
“Dang, and the last thing I ate was soup. I knew I should have paid extra for the chicken meal, what a waste.”
“Buck, is that seriously your last regret?”
Buck simply shrugged.
“Listen, I built Chrysanthemum and took her out on plenty of test runs she disappeared. I’m sure I can handle,” The Metal interrupted himself just before the craft took a nosedive that caused the other two to scream in a panic until it leveled out again. “Okay, forward is down and backward is up. That’s an archaic and dumb design choice, but I get it now.”
“How many times has he almost killed us now?”
“Frankly Buck, I’ve lost count.”
Then to their surprise, a dinging sound played over the intercom.
“Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaattention, hopeless morons!” rang an excited yet somewhat groggy voice of the speakers.
“Oh. Oh God. Not him.
“This is the one and only Pirate King sending you reassuring messages as I was confident you’d avoid impending doom.”
“You’ve got some nerve, Joe,” The Metal stated agitatedly into the ship’s radio. “What the fuck do you want?”
“Excuse me, but you will refer to as Pirate King or Pirate Lord, peasant.”
“I’ll refer to you as Ass-wipe or whatever the Hell else I want until you return her to me, you little piece of shit!”
“Yeah…” Buck began to interject on their behalf before Sentri pulled him away signaling that it’d be best to stay out of this affair.
“Now listen up you little turd nugget. The only reason you’d go to this extent to get my attention after the shit you pulled would be that you are in desperate need of -my- help, so maybe it is you who should speak to me with some respect.”
“Still the same as always. Fine, Metal, since that is what you go by these days, I really need your assistance. It is a case of certain jeopardy.”
“Sure Joe, but it’ll cost you.”
“As if I don’t have anything anyone could want. What is your… Wait a minute. No, I’m keeping her!”
“I mean, I could just land this at Hong Kong International and be on my merry way. You know we’ll be gone long before the authorities arrive even if you notified them now.”
“Very well, Metal. I’ll text you the coordinates to meet me at and we’ll… negotiate your terms.”
The intercoms went silent and then finally dead moments later as The Metal gained a wide grin upon his face.
“Ahahahahaha! Darn. I’ve never heard him cave in so easy without aggressive negotiations prior to a meetup. He must be in some serious trouble.”
“Why are you laughing as if that is a good thing?”
“I already told you. For me, this trip is for training.”
The rest of the flight went fairly smooth, aside from the panic that ensued between his colleagues when The Metal struggled to figure out where the landing gear was operated only moments before landing. With everyone still out cold and the authorities clearly on the scene by now, The Metal rushed them all into the cargo bay to retrieve their luggage. Not even a minute later, a chunk of the aircraft blazingly erupted open with two men dressed as luchadors sprung out on an oiled up life raft being propelled across the ground by a third wrestler on mechanical rollerblades. They were gone and off the property before anyone could properly react.
“Why are we heading out on foot now, won’t they follow us?”
“Relax Buck, they’ll be looking for luchadors on a raft in Hong Kong. After we ditch this stuff it’ll be worse than trying to find a gemstone thrown into the Gobi desert.”
“He knows the latter part from experience, trust me.”
“Well, I guess thank God your paranoia forces you to have a contingency plan for just about everything.”
“Yeah, and now you two are on your own.”
“Don’t be that way Sentri. Don’t you want to see what kind of trouble Joe is in?”
“No. I don’t care. Need I remind you I’m here for business purposes? Business that I actually only have to do because of you and your hijinks. Business that I’m also a couple months late for because of you as well. Can’t you at least be a little bit appreciative and let me do the actual thing you need me to do? This is a stressful job. Who else is gonna run around the globe and do damage control on the messes you cause, Buck here? No offense Buck.”
“None taken. The manual labor portion is more my cup of cocoa anyway.”
“But Sentri, it could be really dangerous. Life-threatening even. Are you really going to let me go off and do this without you?”
“It’s okay dude, I’ll be there to watch his back.”
“No, dammit. He’s right, I can’t. Again, no offense Buck, but in the off event Metal actually did die and I wasn’t around to even attempt to prevent it, I’d never hear the end of it. Remember, I’m responsible for this asshole as far as they are concerned.”
“Suh-weet! We’re not even far from the meeting ground. Maybe five minutes at a brisk pace.”
And lie he did not, for within a few minutes of walking they found themselves in a very sketchy part of Lantau Island’s forestry that they didn’t feel comfortable being in, with both legality and self-preservation in mind. At exactly the longitude and latitude that they were told to meet there was nothing but a post-it note on the ground.
“What’s it say?”
“Without looking, and judging solely on the clacking of those jackboots and the clicking of that gun, I’d have to say it reads ‘look behind you.’”
“How very astute of you, Metal. I believe now we can begin our… negotiations.”
“Turn around slowly with your hands visible and I promise not to shoot you… yet.”
Gallantly, yet somewhat devilish, stood a young man whose stature was not so much different than The Metal’s, just slightly more stout. He had long, curly, dirty blonde hair that was practically brunette rolling halfway down his shoulders, as well as gleaming eyes, are blue as a calm sea. This same color scheme was prevalent through his attire as well. He wore a royal blue, pirate garb, including the standard bandana, with leather gloves, boots, and belts strapped all over his body. The man was known throughout the world by this time by the eight billion dollar bounty placed on his head for stealing the entire Statue of Liberty a couple of years back; in his defense, he was always curious what she looked like under the dress only to be disappointed upon realizing it was just stairs and girders. He went by Joe the Short, the Pirate King, and he currently had a pistol, similar to Azrael and Uriel differing only with the large sword fixated just beneath the barrel, pointed in the direction of the daring trio.
“Hey Joe, it’s been a while.”
“Indeed. We didn’t exactly part on the best terms.”
“Best terms? You stole my fucking airship! The one I built myself!”
“I prefer the term commandeered.”
“Yeah, but civilized semantics.”
“Well, I want it back. Now.”
“I’m sorry to say, but the Chrysanthemum isn’t here right now. I came via… alternative methods. You’ll just have to settle with some other compensation. Besides, what more use would you have for an airship than a sky pirate?”
“Not an option.”
The Metal and crew charged at Joe, who planned on it and unleashed heavy fire upon the group as he made his retreat. Though the pistol spit out what would be many magazines worth for a normal gun, the life force toll seemed to have little to no effect on the pirate at all. Sentri was of little use being zoned off by the concussive blasts, but Buck plowed through them with ease. He had always had a high resistance to pain and constantly being around The Metal has only developed that trait further. With the stout boxer closing in, Joe felt his negotiations needed a swift retreat and threw capsule to the ground that released a thick cloud of noxious gas. As the putrid smoke cleared, it soon became apparent that Joe had failed to escape. He was standing in the exact same spot with The Metal holding him in a headlock and screwing his fist into the pirate’s head like a dental drill.
“Oh God, stop! I give, I give!”
The Metal dropped the man on his rump and backed away so they could speak comfortably.
“Fuck, I forgot you don’t wear your weights on plane trips. Fine. You can have your damn ship back -after- you help me, but I still need custody when you aren’t using it. I have very important work to attend to.”
“Okay little bro, now that you aren’t being a little shit, how can I help you?”
Both of the men’s demeanor changed instantly after that. Sibling quarrels never really die and it had been no less than a year since The Metal had last seen his youngest brother. The Kidd had been actively trying to seek Joe out to haul in the reward and teach his brother a lesson, but for the most part The Metal was done with his antics until today.
“I need your help because someone is after me.”
“Well, with a bounty like yours I’m not surprised. I don’t really anyone being a problem for you though. I mean, why waste my time when you could just-”
“It’s the Hexhunter.”
“Let me explain, as this is one of those bits of information that will make you two rather uncomfortable to know. One of the most bizarre events, that even puzzles me, is the story of the man who escaped Hell. Well, not actual Hell. That club isn’t operating yet. Until it is though, condemned souls are sentenced to walk the etheric planes, but the worst of them are trapped in a place we call Limbo for lack of a better term. Limbo is supposed to be an impenetrable zone whose gateway only flows one way. For some reason, Jonathan Graves would be the only known exception to that rule and believe that I of all people would know. Records of his death are vague and sealed tight, but they have police suicide marked all over them. He was a cruel man that killed over a hundred people before being taken out, and all just to die himself. Apparently death wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, so somehow someone from the other side managed to send him back. I’ve been trying to avoid this guy personally.”
“Why? Fighting something like that seems right up your alley for weekend fun.”
“He only goes for postings marked DOA.”
“And none of them have been turned in alive.”
“Come on guys. We’ll just get Joe home and stick him in a safe house. He’ll be fine until this guy can be safely taken out.”
“Nah. I think I’ll just kick his ass.”
“Are you kidding me? You just said you were avoiding this guy. And for a very good reason!”
“Yeah, but now he is after my family and it is personal. It’s like fate is telling me to take him down.”
“I can’t believe this, you don’t even believe in fate! Fine, I guess he can’t be all that tough compared to the other shit we’ve seen. We’ll need to set up a trap right?”
“Something like that.”
The next night
“Hey! You can’t just leave me chained here! This isn’t funny!”
Joe the Short tugged at the iron links that bound him tightly to a grungy back-alley dumpster. His obnoxious screaming had drawn the sort of attention he had been actively avoiding for the past few weeks. His eyes grew wide in terror and he struggled harder to break free as he saw the pale, seven-foot giant stroll down the alleyway in his direction. Studded in leather and long black hair draped in front of his face, the Hexhunter arrived to claim his bounty.
“I wasn’t expecting that retrieving the most wanted man on the planet would be this easy, but I’m not one to look a gift horse in the mouth.”
“What does that even mean?”
“Never cared enough to find out.”
The Metal plunged down from the roof of a nearby structure with the other two slowing climbing down behind him.
“Horse gums recede with age, so an efficient way of checking a horse’s age would be to check its gum line. Though that would be rude to do as the horse was a gift.”
“Who the hell are you?”
“Just my jerk brother WHO CHAINED ME TO THIS FILTHY TRASH CAN!”
“The Metal is the name, fighting punks like you is my game.”
“Hmm… The Metal? Nah, never heard of you. I’m just here for the reward and this guy’s soul, so if you stay out of my way no one else has to die.”
“Soul? So that’s what you’re after.”
“Then you know what it is I do.”
“I for one am totally lost as usual.”
“Isn’t it obvious Buck?”
“No… none of this shit is ever obvious! What is this, some Saturday morning cartoon where everyone just happens to know whatever they need to know at the right time!?”
“Buck, do you forget that if he isn’t either training or taking on jobs all The Metal does in his free time is research the most seemingly irrelevant topics for hours on end?”
“Well one of us needs to know what we’re doing! Now, as I was saying, Mr. Graves here is a relatively small fish compared to what is locked away on the other end of where he came from, no offense.”
“None taken. I’ve seen things that could level a planet, maybe even a solar system.”
“Of course, there are Renegades and fallen angels in there after all. So my best bet is that whoever managed to squeeze you out wants out themselves and needs a lot more for them then what it took for you. Since raw power comes from the soul, it only makes sense that you hunt the largest bounties you could find. Clearly these individuals are powerful enough to even have this outrageous rewards placed upon their heads and no one would even miss them if they were gone. Doesn’t hurt that you get to set yourself up nice and rich while you do it.”
“Very astute of you runt. The world probably needs more clever thinkers, so run off now before I decide to kill you. You’re starting to remind me of the little brat that put me in this mess in the first place and we wouldn’t want that.”
Jonathan crept ever closer to Joe the Short, readying his unnecessarily large shotgun for the execution.
“Um, Metal, your brother is looking pretty bad right now.”
“Aww, come on Hexxy, don’t you want to play with the big boys? I guarantee you my soul is at least ten times the worth of his.”
“Scram kid, I ain’t buying what you’re selling.”
He took another step toward Joe and aimed for the shot.
“Kahthunk!” was the sound a small dumpster made as it crashed into the Hexhunter’s temple. The Metal was not fond of being ignored. Without hesitating, The Metal ran over and broke the chains constraining his brother. Before he could accomplish much else there an enormous hand clenched around the top of his head. With a jerking motion, he was flung far behind Graves. The Metal ran back to him and delivered a kick to the face that would snap the neck of a normal man, yet Jonathan was unphased. He looked at his brother and friends, mouthed the word “run”, and tackled the giant at his center of gravity. Joe didn’t even wait to see if they went down and took off running.
“Yo,” Buck said running after the pirate, “we can’t just leave him there. That guy is a genuine monster.”
“Hahaha, fuck him.”
“That’s messed up Joey. How many times has he covered your ass and you’re just going to leave him?”
“That asshole is more than capable of taking care of himself. If he wants to get away he can at any time. The fact is that he is so full of himself he -wants- to fight Mr. Trunks For Thighs over there. Right now I’m concerned for myself because that guy could kill me the instant he gets a chance. I’d look after myself if I were you as well.”
“Damn… Sentri, even you’re leaving him?”
“What? No! I’m putting some distance between us before setting up cover fire. I can probably create a sniper post on the roof of one of these buildings.”
With the sound of youngster riding their first roller coaster, The Metal flew overhead screaming as he crashed into a storefront.
“Or we just keep running instead. Running sounds good.”
Twisting and turning through a labyrinth of back roads and alleys, the men found themselves at what appeared to be the site of a crash between an abandoned fish market and factory strike. Boxes filled with rotting meat lined their sights along chain link fences and padlocked gates wrapped Chinese warning tape. As far as anyone could make it out they had landed into a dead end. Joe attempted to climb up the fencing but dropped down immediately after three pounds of cluster shot from the Hexhunter’s gun clanged against the top.
“You know, I have to admit this was rather entertaining. I’ve never had to work this hard for a mark. It’s usually three seconds then boom, I’m on my way back to the HQ.”
“That’s what she said.”
“And then the snot-nosed brat ruined it. Oh well, can’t expect everything to end as well as it started.”
Graves cocked his massive gun and lost all look of enthusiasm before Joe could finish his statement. He was ready to pull the trigger, but he missed as his arm was jerked up by The Metal landing on the ghoul’s shoulders like a small monkey. Jonathan struggled in a tantrum to shake the guy off until he was able to grab The Metal by a leg and whirl him into another wall. The Metal sprung back in a dashing leap toward the goliath.
Bckowh! That was the sound the barrel made as the rounds left it and flew through the daring martial artist’s head in point-blank range. His body fell limp as it slid across the ground in the same path he was already heading. The others stood there in a shocked state similar to when a child finds out that Santa Claus is a man in a suit hired for their parents’ holiday shindig.
“Okay, now that I don’t have to worry about the rooster anymore, it looks like the hen house will be easy pickin’s.”
As The Metal’s sensation of this world faded swiftly, he could only make out Graves strutting slowly toward his friends and brother, the sound of them screaming in distress for him, and the cold wet ground of the alley beneath. Then it was black. The only other sensation was an audible voice that couldn’t have been coming from the world around him.
“Are you really going to let him kill brother? I thought much better of you than that, such a pity.”
They panicked. Jonathan Graves crept ever closer with all three of them boggled with different worries. Buck couldn’t comprehend how that asshole he’d known all these years would get shot down in a back road in Hong Kong. Being the first mate he’d always been, Sentri was mostly focused on how he could get himself and the others out of this mess as well as how he was going to explain this to the folks back home. But Joe, he had a bizarre thought going through his mind. Of course, he was filled with all the anxiety, fear, and dread anyone with a death sentence should have. The strange part was that there was this loud and overlying feeling of disappointment, anger, and resentment in his brother. After all, the oldest brother was always supposed to be there to fish the younger ones out of a jam, and yet now he was just there lying on the ground: useless. Don’t think it a selfish thought, that just the way the world is supposed to be.
“So punk, any last words?’
“Yeah,” Joe said looking toward his brother’s corpse, “Get the fuck up you useless son of a bitch!”
“You don’t quite understand how this all works, do you? Oh well, at least it’s not the same final phrase I always get.”
The men shut their eyes and braced for their inevitable reunion with The Metal. Graves pulled the trigger, yet events didn’t proceed as expected. The gun backfired on him scarring his hand and arm in the process. Standing there with the barrel bent up in his clutch was The Metal covered in blood leaking from a fair-sized hole in his head.
“But… I killed you!”
“Yeah, well I got better.”
“What kind of monster are you!?”
“Oh, you’re one to talk.”
“No matter, I’ll just kill you again and then take care of the brat.”
Jonathan drew a hefty revolver filled with bullets large enough to tear apart an engine block from within his jacket, but The Metal’s leg flew like lightning and kicked the gun clear over several buildings. Within the same spinning motion, he shifted to his other leg and struck Graves in the chest and sent him across the length of the alley. He jumped along after him and began speaking as he threw the fiend back and forth down the back roads.
“Listen, buddy. This goes to you and anyone else that might have wild ideas in the future. There is a long line of people that want to kill my brother, but it starts behind me.”
After only a minute of beatings, the Hexhunter was sitting against a wall barely conscious with The Metal standing over him. The others caught up, still in shock, and wondered what they were to do with the guy.
“I know I promised I wouldn’t kill anyone, but does it count if the creep is already dead?”
“You know,” he said tossing Joe’s bladed gun to him, “fuck it. This is one story I’d rather not have to tell people anyway.”
The Metal flipped off a restriction plate within the gun and let off a blast of plasma that would melt an armored bus. There were no remains of Jonathan Graves. The Metal plopped on the ground and tore off the legs of pants and began bandaging himself up with what he had. Despite clearly being fit to fight they all stared at the man they were sure should be far past critical condition.
“How in God’s name are you even alive?”
“Yeah, you were shot in the face with the biggest shotgun I’ve ever seen!?”
“Come on, it couldn’t have been that bad if I got back up, right?”
“Dude, I could see through the back of your skull all the way to that creep’s ugly mug for a second.”
“You’re exaggerating, I’m fine.”
“At least let me take you to a hospital. We have the funds to get you to the best in the territory.”
“Sorry Sentri, we’ve got no time. Our barge leaves in two hours. Come on Buck!”
He flipped his stocky cohort on his shoulder and took off into the sunrise toward the northern coastline of the island.
“I swear to God, what am I ever going to with that guy?”
“You’re preaching to the choir Sentri.”
Leaving the Shaolin monastery of China, we find The Metal and Buck heading deep into the Song mountains nearly three weeks after the incident with Jonathan Graves. Fitted back into their typical dogi and loaded with survival essentials locals were able to spare, the two trekked off to finally get to the training they originally sought.
“I still have no clue how you managed to hustle us a stay at the Shaolin temple.”
“No hustling involved Buck. I’m actually a regular at the Shaolin Summer Boot Camp these past few years. I’m even personal friends with the temple master.”
“Of course you would be, why do I ever ask? So, how long till we get there?”
“Not much longer from now. Maybe an hour at our pace.”
“Oh, that’s not bad.”
“Not all. And then we’ll be on foot in the most dangerous landscape in the country for three days.”
“I knew it, there is always a horrendous catch you. I can never get just good news!”
“Hey, at least we won’t be alone. I have an old friend meeting us up here. He spends most of his time in Japan these days for training, but he is also as familiar with this area as I am.”
Just as he said, there was a darker man of average height leaning on a sign and waiting for them at the entrance of a trail into the thicket. Much to Buck’s surprise, he was wearing a tailored version of the same training uniform he and The Metal always wore. It was different though. Despite being the same ultra-strength material of an onyx tone bearing the calligraphy for Jin, or metal, on the back, it was the only version he saw with the sleeves still attached. The Metal custom-ordered his tops sleeveless and Buck usually just ripped his off, but this guy actually preferred them intact. He rose from his slouched position and greeted them feverously. Mainly giving The Metal the hug one gives childhood friend.
“Metal! It has been so long since we have last seen each other.”
“What do you mean? We were both at the boot camp last Summer.”
“More than a year is a really long time.”
“An Aussie? I was expecting a local when you said he knew this area as well as you did.”
“Calm down Buck, you haven’t even been introduced to each other yet. Buck this is Shadow. Shadow, Buck.”
“Ah, yet another person we don’t get exchange real names with because he’s been a part of your troublemaking past.”
“Come on, you know by now these identities are for the best and more accurately relate to us than our given names.”
“Whatever. How do you have the displeasure of knowing The Metal?”
“We used to fight the forces of evil with one ‘nother!”
“He is a childhood friend of mine from back in school.”
“An’ we took out the Ring of Fire!”
“I don’t even want to know what that is, let’s just get going.”
“We can’t yet.”
“My airdrop doesn’t come in for another half hour.”
“Oh trust me, you’ll love it. Just um… I don’t know, look around or chill until then.”
Not being much for mindless socializing, especially with people he had only just met, Buck took The Metal’s advice and wandered around the trail entrance while the others caught up. There really wasn’t much to explore without diving into the path itself, which so dense with foliage you wouldn’t even think it was the way except for the sign marking it. Sign might be an understatement for what it was. There at the start of the training trek was a ten-foot-tall bulletin that read “那些誰完成了試驗場” and had painted portraits of three people hung on it. The first had to be no less than a millennium old and was of a Chinese man labeled “孫子“. The second was maybe a few decades old at most of a caucasian man, likely American, with auburn hair labeled “杰拉爾德蓋恩斯·傳奇”. The last was much more recent, within the last few years due to the condition of the paint. It starred the image of a young caucasian woman with long cherry blonde hair who was making a silly face by gripping her cheeks and sticking out her tongue and was labeled “塔瑪拉麥格拉思·寶”. Buck studied these images for a bit and then wished to himself that he knew how to speak and read Chinese. He could swear he had seen the girl from the last one somewhere before, but just couldn’t place it as hard as he tried.
Far above they spotted a wooden crate coasting to the ground via a parachute but riding it was something neither Buck or Shadow were prepared for. Descending with the container was a young woman with inhuman features. For the most part, she looked like any other attractive young lady, except for button nose with whiskers coming out of it, the pointy ears popping out of the top of her head, the short calico patterned hair all over her body, and of course, the tail sprouting out of her skimpy excuse for a traditional Chinese dress.
“Nyeko, Meowt Yo Nyeeds! Customer satisfaction gyaranteed!”
“Hey Nyancy, how’s work?”
“Oh It’s foine Meotal, Thyanks for asking,” she said while handing him a receipt to sign, “So what did you meorder this toime?”
“Training gear Nyancy, training gear. The whole reason we are even out here.”
“You’re so silly Meotal. Okay, you all have a geod one. I’ve gyot a lot meore deliveries today.”
She then opened the top of the crate, pulled out a jetpack, and took off. The other two stood stunned at the exchange for a few moments until Buck turned to The Metal angrily.
“Hey asshole, were you flirting with the catgirl!?”
You two were talking like a bunch of emotionally repressed teenagers in a weeby chat room.”
“She talks like that because she’s practically a slave that was raised to fulfill her position since birth. I’ve told all of them they don’t need to do that cutesy crap to keep my patronage but they really can’t help it. No need to be a dick about it.”
“Yeah, well why did you do it back?”
“I’m still not following.”
“Nyancy. You called her Nyancy!”
“That’s because that’s her name. Pretty much all of them have names like that. The owner of the company thinks that by making everything a cute and sexy as possible they’d get more returning customers. I just like the fact that I can get same-day deliveries on across the world and no one asks any questions.”
The Metal shattered the rest of the box and released packing peanuts all over the ground. Within the crate was a new set of weighted gear that he spent almost no time waiting to get on. He struggled to move around in them even the slightest and one step in the soft soil left a noticeable dent.
“We waited all this time for that, seriously?”
“Oh yeah, just try to pick me up.”
“Jesus Christ, Metal,” Buck hollered while attempting to get him off the ground, “how much is that!?”
“Roughly, I’d say a ton.”
“They look really nice!”
“Don’t fucking encourage him Shadow. You said just surviving in this place would be training enough for anyone and now you can barely move! Why?”
“To me, a draw is as good as a loss. I don’t lose fights, especially in a tournament I invented. Pitaya is probably back home figuring out some way in which he thinks he can easily crush me. That is exactly what I would be doing if I were him, but I’m not gonna let that happen. I’ve got to be prepared for anything and that means wearing a literal ton of weight in one of the most dangerous training grounds on the planet.”
“Yeah, well tell me some real news why don’t you.”
The journey started rough. Walking through the Chinese mountain scape would be tough enough as it is, but the journey through what is loosely translated as the “Proving Grounds” was sacred to martial artists and must be done without any equipment that would ease the trip. That even included shoes. The ranges of the Henan province were covered from base to nearly the peak in dense trees and shrubbery. This rough terrain didn’t bother The Metal’s feet since he was barefoot far more often than not as it already stood, but Buck and Shadow felt each and every prick against their pampered heels and toes. After he noticed the strain that climbing up and over many of the rock faces and wading creeks was putting on his cohorts, The Metal started clearly a spot for the night’s camp.
“A campground?” Buck spoke in bewilderment.
“Yeah, this trip is going to take a couple days and you guys are looking a bit weary.”
“That actually brings up a point. How are you not?”
“I had a big breakfast and pace well.”
“No seriously. You are wearing a literal ton weight and don’t even look winded when you should be exhausted after all the hiking we did.”
“If it is any consolation I’m in intense pain wearing this. But yeah you’re right, I’m not tired, haven’t been since the night with Hexhunter. I haven’t even slept since then.”
“Dude, that’s not good. You’ve been up for half a week already. Maybe it’s an issue with your adrenal levels spiking after that shot to the head, but we should really get you to a hospital or at least head back to Shaolin.”
“Ahahaha haha ha… no.”
“Come on, I’m just trying to look out for you, don’t be difficult.”
“You could always try to make me go. I wouldn’t mind starting this sparring session early.”
“Yeah, didn’t I tell you already? We’ve got an hour of sunlight left. I’ll give you half of that to catch your breath and then both of you will attack me, together.”
“Oh, that sounds fun!”
“Shaddup Shadow, no it doesn’t. Metal, this ridiculous. You can hardly move in those weights.”
“I know, isn’t it great? The air is denser here in the mountains and I haven’t eaten since breakfast to boot. This is the perfect time to train.”
“As much as I would love punching you for all those times you pissed me off, I’m not going to hit a sitting duck.”
“What’s the matter Buckhead, you afraid you still couldn’t even land a shot even such a hefty advantage? Guess your mom was always right about you. You’d probably just trip and hurt yourself anyw-”
The Metal was soon interrupted by Buck’s fist jabbing his torso weights into the cross sections of his abdomin. Buck had a stern angle to his brow that spoke of gratification until his friend stopped wincing and began laughing.
“Oooo, that’s nice. I didn’t expect you to cave in so fast. I’ll admit that actually hurt a little, but not as much as this will.”
Buck wasn’t sure what was happening, but before he knew it The Metal had seized hold of his collar and tossed him clear across their campsite. Lucky for him Shadow was already close enough to catch Buck and help him to his feet.
“Bastard. I guess like always I don’t really have much say in the matter. Come on Shadow.”
“Yippee, this will be fun!”
“Fun… is not necessarily the word I’d use for this.”
The two approached him slowly, not taking any chances. Buck has taken hits by moving vehicles before and walked away, but at this point, he was almost positive The Metal could throw one if he really wanted. Getting impatient, the first strike was delivered by Shadow. A kick at head height flew swiftly but was intercepted. In a single spinning motion, The Metal swept out Shadow’s other leg and came back around to drop his heel in his chest. A flurry of punches landed in The Metal’s back, shifting the momentum of each punch through his training gear. Buck was just hoping it hurt his asshole of a friend as much as did for him to hit that gear. He turned around and delivered a backhand that sent his stocky friend crashing back. Buck had sparred with The Metal many times before, but a lot had changed between his fights with Pitaya and Jonathan Graves. The strike pulsated through to his core as he plummeted into the dirt. Looking back at The Metal, Buck noticed Shadow already had him in a full nelson.
“Careful Shadow, I’ve never seen that hold end well for the person using it, especially against Metal.”
“That’s okay Buck, I’ve actually trained with The Metal before. I’m wearing a titanium cup this time.”
“Damn, that must be heavy.”
“Says the guy wearing a literal ton.”
“I’m only holding him hear so you could get some hits in, you know.”
Sliding in, Buck landed a hefty hook into the groove between The Metal’s thigh and pelvis. He then let out yet another flurry of jabs, this time into his friend’s facing side. He could feel Buck’s fists clenching harder after each strike and even heard his knuckles cracking in an unpleasant way. The Metal had obviously planned for his weighted gear to be as much of a training hazard for them as it was for himself.
“I wonder if you guys are going try something effective or just stick to this rush down strategy that is -clearly- working.”
He lunged both legs in the Buck, sending him flying, and then flipped Shadow over him as he planted back into the ground.
“Oh yeah, well what do you expect either of us to do against a freak of nature with an ego the size of this mountain range?”
“Well, for starters, I’d avoid hitting any spot covered by the weights. Sure that gets rid of vital shots to the core, but it’s better than breaking your own hands. Second, I’d probably avoid striking the upper arms and thighs as those muscles are tougher to wear out if trained right and will just hurt you trying. That basically leaves my neck and face. Well, you could try stomping on my toes, but you know that won’t end well.”
“How the hell do you expect us to hit your face?”
“We could do it together Buck. We can do anything if we really try.”
“Where do you find these people, Metal? Do you rip them straight out of a Saturday morning special? Whatever, guess it’s worth a shot. Just stay opposite to me and don’t let up.
They relentlessly attacked him from both sides. Most attacks were blocked, but many blows indeed landed. They formed an interesting dichotomy with Buck preferring his fists and Shadow throwing out kicks whenever it suited. It was unnerving to Buck for every time they managed to actually hit him The Metal just grinned even more. He finally decided to attack back and sent them soaring yet again.
“Don’t get up for a bit.”
“Oh, now that we are actually doing something you want us to stop!?”
“No, it’s just you ran out of time. Look at the sun. It’s nearly out of sight and we still need to finish setting up camp.”
“Shit, you’re right.”
“Okay, take just a minute to recover and get to work. Shadow, you gather some brush for beds. It’s gonna be clear the whole time we’re out here so we don’t need a lean-to.”
“Buck, you gather some stones and wood. If you can’t start a fire by the time I get back I’ll get it going.”
“Get back? Where are you going?”
“Deeper into the brush for food. I’m the only one who can see without any light at all and we need a hearty dinner. Gotta make sure we eat and sleep well tonight, only get worse from here on in.”
“That… is very unsettling.”
“Okay class, today we’re about to get a bit radical. That’s right, we’re going to be diving a bit deeper into division and learn how to deal with those pesky remainders.”
Class always seemed boring compared to the vigilante life, but that is exactly the way Valor preferred things stayed. Even though he often found it fun and exciting to help people and ward off danger, he does it for the sake of those weaker than him. If having to sit in class as plain old Tommy and wait for everyone else to catch up learning on concepts that came more naturally to him meant that people were already safe that day then so be it. Besides, division isn’t so bad, right? What would be truly awful would if…
“Frick,” Valor muttered under his breath.
“Is there a problem?” asked his close friend Aaron.
“Yeah, downtown. A fire in the industrial area. I’d get there about the same time the firemen, but it didn’t feel like a blast from a normal accident.”
“Mack?” asked his other friend Rhys.
“No, no. It is definitely natural, but it was caused by something weird. I better check it out.”
Valor sat still and focused really hard on what he wanted to happen. Within moments blood dripped slowly from his nostrils and he raised his hand. His teacher noticed him and sighed.
“Another nosebleed Tommy?”
“I’m sorry. It’s not like I want this to happen,” he said believably. Valor was a really good actor when he needed to get out of class.
“Okay, it looks like a bad one. Go to the nurse’s office and have them call your mom to come to get you. Even if it stops you’ll need a clean shirt.”
Luckily for him, the fourth-grade classes took place in a portable classroom set up just outside the main elementary school. He used this excuse so often that Ms. P didn’t even follow up with the nurse anymore to see if he went home or not since he always did, which just made it easier for Valor to start his run for the inner city. In a flash, his clothes shifted to his heroics attire and he was off. Meanwhile, things in Dallas were already heating up.
“Target is evading pursuit!”
“At what speed?”
“Well over five hundred miles per hour, sir.”
“Continue pursuit. Keep the choppers high and don’t lose sight of him.”
Black helicopters flooded the sky like a murder of crows swarming around. These weren’t the sort Valor was used to the local law enforcement using. These had to be issued by the federal government and that worried him. He was still too far off the scene to focus on what they were vulturing for. All he could make out was a slender figure in black dive out of one of the warbirds.
“Sir, I can’t keep track of where he is moving. This is like trying to read the sponsors on a Nascar as it drives by,” calmly stated what a young woman in a skin-tight, black jumpsuit. For some reason, she had black arm and leg warmers over the suit even though they would serve no purpose. She had a decent build to her at around five foot nine and had to be about a hundred percent lean muscle.
“I didn’t know you fancied the races, Carol,” spoke a man of her age over her earpiece.
“It’s Agent Rivers on the job, sir… and yes, a girl can have hobbies can’t she?”
“Of course she can. You know Texas Motor Speedway is just a bit away. Since we’ll be stationed here for a while you and I could…”
“Sir, I’d rather not discuss these matters at work,” she explained as she pulls her shoot and drifted to street level.
“Fair enough. Can you give me a report on his actions? Is he dangerous?”
“More like perverse.”
“I still can’t make anything out due to his velocity, but it appears that he is just running around flipping up women’s skirts to grab a quick peek at their undergarments.”
“Really? Shame we didn’t send you in your street clothes. Might have caught this guy easy that way.”
“Ha ha, funny sir,” she said sarcastically as she landed on the sidewalk and her voluptuous, dark blonde hair settled back into place like in an old 80’s action flick.
“I’m going to attempt to lead him to the extraction point. Have the team ready, I’ll turn the feed back on when I get there.”
Agent Rivers took the earpiece out and funneled the wire back into the collar of her jumpsuit. Sprawling back like an Olympic athlete before the dash, she took off as quick as a cheetah while following the trail of screaming ladies.
“I don’t know what’s going,” Valor thought to himself, “but Mack and I aren’t the only superhumans in the metroplex anymore.” The fire department could handle the burning building, but this conflict was likely the reason he felt so uneasy. So instead of heading into the more industrialized area out of town, he shifted direction to follow the blonde G.I. into the uptown district. For the lad wanted to find out exactly what he was getting into, he slowed down to the pace of the cars on the road and kept out of sight of the one he tailed. He could very easily follow the trail of this other guy since the way he was traveling at such high speeds was distorting the flow of energy around his path, but it was not only because he was moving faster than Valor or anything he’s ever seen. At this point Valor was sure who was a bigger threat to the people around him: the ultra-fast prankster pervertedly flipping up skirts or the highly trained government agent who was only running faster than any normal human but also armed up to the nines.
Just as those thoughts ran through Valor’s mind, he noticed that Rivers knocked a man off his motorcycle and commandeered it to gain more ground. That despicable act would be a waste if it weren’t for the fact that the target covered little ground despite his overall speed. It doesn’t matter how fast you are going if you keep zig-zagging around for free peep shows. Caroline drove up and pulled an automatic pistol out from a holster strapped to her leg. Valor had never even seen a pistol that could fire automatically before. Even most militarized criminals and terrorists always carried automatic rifles and such. She unloaded an entire clip into the air to scare off civilians and to alert her target of her presence. After reloading she began firing at the ground where the quickster was running, but it was a wasted effort. As soon as the first bullet hit the pavement he took off faster than her shots could even travel. Caroline was knocked off her stolen vehicle by the sonic boom left behind. Hitting the pavement rolling, she swiftly returned to her feet and set her communication link back in her ear.
“Sir, I think we have a problem.”
“What is it? Did you read a local report canceling the upcoming races, cause I can find us something else to do?”
“Sir, this is serious. He outran my gunfire.”
“You are using the pistols we made you right?”
“Yes, sir, the ones from the lab.”
“Shit! Okay, how fast do you think he is going?”
“It’s hard to tell since my eyes had trouble tracking him, but I’d estimate at least thirty-five hundred.”
“That’s troubling. I’m not sure we have anything that can catch that. I’ll phone in the local law enforcement to get everyone off the streets so we can use the choppers to lead him from all possible angles. Just meet at the rendezvous point.”
“What if we can’t contain him there?”
“It’s fine, Plan B shows up shortly after you do.”
Agent Rivers sprinted toward the West End and Valor continued to tail behind her. Regardless of how she received her physical enhancements, Valor was still perplexed by how she could run seventy-five miles per hour in manmade high heels. He could probably do it and even faster, but he and his clothes aren’t exactly bound to the same stipulations. Even from the great distance, he slacked behind to keep cover, he could see her sweating and hear her heartbeat. She was definitely faster and stronger than any normal human, but if he had to guess she was at just about her physical limits already. Agent Rivers really had no business running alongside this other guy. Frankly, Valor wasn’t really sure he did either.
They were coming to an underpass, a long tunnel that let the highway cross beneath many local roads. On the other end, the near hypersonic man entered to escape the barrage of bullets hailing down from the helicopters above. Valor could empathize with the man since not too long ago he was in a similar predicament. Then, as Caroline ran in, two humongous setal grates were flipped up to seal the entrances to the tunnels. They must have been flown in via helicopter amongst the chaos since even Valor didn’t notice them being set up. He didn’t want to compromise their trap, so Valor split to go locate a different way in.
“You’re trapped in here now. Nowhere to go so you might as well come in peacefully. We don’t need to make this rough,” Agent Rivers coldly stated pulling a single-edged short sword from behind her back with each hand.
“Woo, this is a pretty tight spot,” he said nervously.
“Maybe we got off on the wrong foot. Let’s take a few thousand steps back and start over. Hi, I’m Robert. And you are…”
He disappeared from sight and became visible again as he knocked out one of the many government agents trapped in the tunnel with him.
“Oh, that’s right, Unconscious. Such a bizarre name, I can’t believe I forgot it.”
“That’s it. Terminate him!”
Every agent reached for their guns, but Robert whizzed around incapacitating everyone except for Miss Rivers. Next to the unconscious agents also sat their guns, the magazines from said guns, and each bullet placed side by side pointing to the sky. The man just stood there and gave Caroline an expression that read “What’re you gonna to do?” Rivers was not the type to give up on a mission, so she rushed him with her swords in hand. Of course, as she approached he just moved to the side and tripped her at a speed even couldn’t react. She slid for a bit before coming to an abrupt stop at a wall.
“You know, I don’t think I could take any of you trained soldiers in a hand to hand fight otherwise, but lucky for me you’re too slow,” he exclaimed while strolling over to her.
Agent Rivers didn’t like his taunt and attempted to slice his leg off, but he merely leaped over her sword and landed square on her chest. With all the wind pumped out of her, Caroline passed out. Just as the conflict subsided, a heavy plasma blast drilled a hole straight down into the tunnel from the upper level. Robert vanished from sight as Valor plopped down the hole. He saw Rivers on the ground and rushed over to revive her.
“Hey lady, get up!”
“Hmm… oh hey, you’re that boy that’s been following me around all day. You go by Valor, right?”
“You knew I was behind you this whole time and didn’t try to take me out?”
“We were told you weren’t a threat, you’ve got quite the reputation around here. In fact, my superior has been watching you. Him being stationed is the only reason we were on the scene so fast after the incident.”
“Well, don’t get too worked up about it. You were our backup plan, but we really should have let you handle it from the start. We let him get away and likely set you back a bit. I don’t get how he broke out of here before you came in.”
“What do you mean, he is sitting right over there?”
“Great, this kid’s a wacko.”
“Hey, I might be crazy, but I’ve got perfect eyesight and a better grasp on reality than any human. You’re just blind because he is in the street right across from us.”
“Wait, you can see me? Remarkable.”
“Wait, I could hear that! Is he moving too fast to see or something?”
“Not even close. He is perfectly still. I can explain it though.”
“Oh please, share with the class, it’ll save me some breath.”
“You see, the reason he can move so fast is the same reason he is able to cloak himself from your vision. He has the ability to distort energy up to an inch around the surface of his body, so even if you had heat vision tech you’d still miss him. Of course, if he did get away it wouldn’t be hard for me to follow with the trail he leaves behind.”
“You hit it right on the mark, but why is it that you can still see me? Can you run in the same way? This was an experiment gone awry, but I’d love to study someone born like this.”
“Trust me, my powers are a bit more complicated than that. For example, my vision is not limited to just the spectrum of matter and energy.”
“Fascinating! Then I have a proposal for you, young man.”
“Tag, you’re it!”
Robert tapped Valor lightly on the head and then took off jumping upward through the same hole the boy came in through. Valor ignored the challenge and scurried over to resuscitate the other agents. Before he could finish reverting all of their injuries the gates dropped and an armored truck drove in. Several more agents stormed out with odd medical kits as well as a rather suave man with hay colored hair wearing completely black business attire.
“Carol!” he hollered with his arms sprawled wide.
“What happened baby, did he hurt ya?”
The man ran in and glomped onto Agent Rivers with what looked to be an unwelcome hug. She tried to shake him off for a second but then soon gave in.
“I’m not responding to that.”
“Ferris,” she spoke changing tones and finally being allowed some breathing room. “Is this really an appropriate way to relate while at work?”
“There she goes again,” the man said turning his head to Valor, “always getting all hissy when I give her special treatment on the job. Don’t you think a guy has a right to get worried when his fiancé gets knocked out by some deranged hooligan?”
“Umm… I guess?”
“Oh sorry, how rude of me.” He reached out to shake the boy’s hand. “My name is Commander Ferris Thompson, but you can call me Ferris.”
“Oh… um… I’m…”
“Don’t worry, I don’t need your name Valor. You’re lucky I was assigned to you. Anyone else would have tried to round you up by now, but I’ve actually become quite a fan of your deeds.”
“I want to talk with you more, but I need you to catch that man. Robert Duran was one of our researchers working on possibly recreating the process for making super soldiers like Carol here. I guess he had plans of his own. Could you bring him in to us? Do you think you can catch him?”
“Maybe, I don’t know. Fastest I’ve gone is seven-fifty, not even supersonic. I’ve never had to go faster, so I couldn’t tell you.”
“It’s okay, just go out there and try your best.”
Valor leaped up through the hole in the street and hit the trail after the fastest person he’s ever seen. As he stated before, following Robert would be easy since his powers left a trail of distorted entropy that only Valor could see. Valor wasn’t sure if taking him in was the right thing to do or not. Duran hasn’t done anything lethal. Sure he knocked all those agents, but at three thousand miles per hour, he could have easily thrown his fist through any of their chests and killed them. He had to do something regardless. Even if Robert wasn’t a threat to public safety, he was harassing people and abusing their privacy. If women wanted people to look at their panties, then why would they even bother wearing skirts that you had to flip up? They’d just walk around half-naked.
The trail led all the way to the other side of Fort Worth, which took no time at all to reach even at just Valor’s previous record. Luckily the guy had resorted to his habit of the day and was slowed down significantly by all the ladies dressing appropriately for the Texas weather. Valor failed to get the jump on the man and he took off immediately. Desperate, Valor shot out a plasma blast at the ground many yards in front of him. The blast got there before Robert did and the destruction of the terrain tripped him up. The boy sped over before Robert could get up and held a ball of plasma in his hand pointed directly at the man’s back.
“Wow, superheated plasma. Fascinating! You had to have launched that a few hundred thousand miles per hour to hit that spot first from all the way back there. And with such precision! I have to admire the tactic. I’d be able to divert the heat and radiation off such a shot, but if the mass were to hit me.. I wouldn’t even want to think about it.”
“Praises aside, I really don’t want to have to arrest you.”
“You don’t say?”
“To be honest, I don’t think what you did was worthy of being shot at for, you didn’t even touch anyone. But, still, you can’t continue doing that.”
“So you’d let me go as long as I stop pestering the ladies?”
“As long as you stop harassing just about everyone, why not.”
“Okay, then I got a deal for you. If you can beat me in a race I’ll vanish and never flip a skirt ever again.”
“Yeah, and what if you win?”
“Well, then I’m going to split and go pull pranks on people somewhere else since you clearly can’t keep up anyway.”
“Fine, where to?”
“I’ll let you pick.”
“Okay, from here, back through the tunnel from earlier, and to… do you know where Virginia Weaver Park is?”
“Yeah, my folks live around there.”
“Okay then. I’ll throw this piece of debris up in the air. When it lands we’ll take off and the person sitting in the tire on the swingset wins.”
Valor lobbed the chunk of pavement, possibly a little too high up but it gave them time to ready up. A couple of seconds later it hit the ground and they were off. Valor was keeping up so well he would have been surprised if he wasn’t concentrating so hard on it. They both took to Highway 30 like bullets dodging raindrops. It was packed this time of day with all the business and airport traffic from the surrounding area. DFW is a central hub after all. They took different paths while snaking in and out of traffic, but made sure not to lose sight of the other for too long. Within no time the hit Uptown and ran their way onto Highway 75. When they made it to the tunnel they cleared it with such speed that the shockwave knocked all the agents still cleaning up off their feet.
“Sir, did you see that?”
“Not really, but I have an idea of what it was.”
t wasn’t much longer until they were sprinting down Highway 65 and moving through Duncanville. Moving so fast they couldn’t even tell when they transitioned into Cedar Hill, but they saw the Tidwell crossing coming up and started running against traffic to get up the right ramp. A rig split them up and after it passed Robert lost sight of Valor.
“Eh, guess I was too much for him. Can’t let up now.”
Within the second he made it to the park after cutting through a field behind a local school. Duran went to sit in the tire swing and claim his victory, but once there he stopped dead in his tracks flinging gravel everywhere. For lounging in the swing was Valor eating a bomb-pop.
“Took you long enough,” Valor joked before taking a lick. “You left me enough time to snag a popsicle from the ice cream man over there. Though I had to just leave the money on the counter with a note or else I would have lost.”
“Wow kid, really showed me up. Guess I’ll have to practice with these powers more and beat you next time.”
“Really, you tried your hardest!? Does that mean I was able to break thirty-five hundred?”
“Kid, you really weren’t paying attention to how fast we were going, were you? Try multiplying that number by ten.”
Valor dropped his popsicle out of shock. If what Robert said was true, which he would have every reason to believe a man of science, then they had to have broken Mach 20. If they didn’t leave off on such bad terms he’d love to tell Mack, but his friends will just have to do. Not like his younger brothers could even fathom such a speed yet to tell them.
“Well, I’m a man of my word Valor. No more free peep shows for me.”
“Guess you’ll be leaving then.”
“Yeah, but I won’t go too far,” Robert said while tossing Valor a small object.
“It’s a phone so you can get in touch with me. I figure someone ought to help the little boy scout running around here all by himself.”
“There is no way this tiny thing is a phone, it looks like a stopwatch. Where are the keys?”
“It flips open. Only the government is using these, so I swiped me a few on the way out… Among other things. Don’t worry about the service either, they’ve got so many there’ll never know to shut this one-off. Just hit 2 and dial and I’ll answer.”
“Thanks, but why?”
“I don’t know, man. You’re kind of cool for such a scrub. Besides, if I can’t call you, how will I get my rematch?”
“Okay Robert, guess I’ll see you around.”
“Meh, that’s a boring name. From now on, call me Diaphanes.”
Valor stood there giving him a blank look.
“It means transparent; like the wind.”
Speeding back at his newfound speed, Valor reunited with Commander Thompson and Agent Rivers still positioned under the empty bridge.
“…and make sure that replacement molding dries before we leave. I don’t need other bureaus getting on to me. Oh Valor, you’re back. Was he too fast for you after all?”
“Ah, then you left him tied up somewhere?”
“Okay, you’re going to have to work with me, otherwise I’ll be guessing all day.”
“He let him go, you sarcastic doofus.”
“Hey, no need to be rude Carol. Clearly I realized that when he came back alone. I have to cover my own ass, too.”
“Are you mad at me?”
“Not at all. As I said, I’m a fan. I trust your decisions. This just means more paperwork for me.”
“Good, you love paperwork.”
“Sarcasm isn’t pretty on either of us, missy.”
“I’d like to keep in touch, do you have a phone? No, I guess that’s a dumb question to ask someone of your age.”
“Actually… I do.”
“Good, then take my card and leave me a message so I can get your number later. Would you like us to drop you off at home or at school?”
“Are you kidding me? I’ve been moving around so fast today that if I hurry I could still make it back by lunch. I’m on my own, see ya!”
“I didn’t know rhinos were native to China!?”
“Just shut up and keep running!”
Darting frantically through a foggy bamboo grove, the spry travelers were narrowly avoiding many unwanted keratin injections from a rampaging horde of thick-skinned beasts. Aside from the fact that rhinoceroses have not been native to China since the days of the wooly mammoth, there was something wrong about this encounter. Something almost unnatural if you should say. He wasn’t positive as to if it was the fog, the bamboo grove that wasn’t visible yesterday, or that black rhinos aren’t actually black, spew smoke from their nostrils, or have glowing red eyes, but what Buck was sure of was that somehow this was all his friend The Metal’s fault.
“Well Mister Always-has-an-plan-up-his-ass, can you do something about this!?”
“Something tells me they would be a lot harder to toss than a motorcycle.”
“Is tossing heavy objects your only solution?”
“Well, if it works…”
Instantly regretting his choice of words, Buck found himself aside Shadow as they rocketed through the treetops. He was a bit too preoccupied prior to this to even realize they were running so close to a cliff face. From above he saw his comrade still evading the stampeding specters, which gave him a slight smirk.
“Hey, how do you expect Metal to join us up here?”
The determined martial artist leaped up the rock side and began climbing. Grasping his mitts around the crag appeared to be working up until the point that his mass pulled back against the structure. The ton of weight was more than the loose stone was willing to hold and began crumbling under his grip, causing The Metal to ragdoll back to the herd of rampaging rhinos.
“Clearly not like that. Heh!”
He was flipped into the air by the trampling tyrants and returned to his sprint shortly after he hit the ground again. The Metal scoured for options, but he realized he was soon running out of earth. Taking it as his best choice to any alternative, The Metal dove forward into the river before him. The rhinos followed off but vanished into a shadowy mist over the water. The two peered down into the water below waiting for their friend to resurface.
“Hey Buck, do you think he knows how to swim?”
“God I hope not.”
“What!? How could you say such a thing?”
“Trust me I’m not that lucky. Besides, I stopped questioning what this asshole can and can’t do a long time ago.”
Emerging from the waterfall next to them, The Metal spat out a small fish and gasped for air.
“Case in point.”
He rose out of the stream and stripped off his uniform revealing just the weights strapped to his chest and each limb, as well as a bathing suit.
“Did you actually plan on going for a swim while we were out here?”
“What? Oh, no. I actually always wear swim trunks instead of underwear these days. This way I’m prepared for anything. That and the netting gives me proper support boxers lack. Best of both worlds, really.”
“You know, I now regret opening my mouth.”
Not really knowing where their destination was in the first place, they decided it was as good an idea as any to follow the river upstream until they felt progress would be better made doing anything else. Aside from nearly being trampled to death by things that may or may not have actually been rhinos, it was a rather pleasant day outside. They took a break for lunch and The Metal agreed to catch their food since he was still a bit wet anyway, as long as they set the fire. It was a genuinely peaceful meal. Buck was even surprised he didn’t have to earn it by sparring. Shadow was a bit let down. They were just about to put out the fire and get moving when The Metal lunged at his companions, tackling them both flat to the ground.
“What was that for!?”
He simply pointed to a large steel dart fixated to a chain that was dragging back to where it came from. Following the line back to its master, they saw a slightly older Chinese man dressed in extremely traditional garb for a warrior of his land.
“Why is everyone speaking Chinese!?”
“Well, to be fair, we are in China?”
“Jīn, you associate with those who do not speak the common tongue? More shameful than I had thought previously.”
“Oh, like you’re one to talk Zheng. You think it isn’t shameful to try and kill someone who’s done nothing wrong?”
“Nothing wrong? 不要讓我發笑. 今天的青年認為他們可以逃脫任何東西.”
“Metal, who the hell is this douchenozzle?”
“Oh, Zheng here? I actually don’t know him all that well. Or what I mean to say is that he seems to know me a hell of a lot better than I know him.”
“Oh, wait! Isn’t he the one that attacked you after the Shìjiè Jǐnbiāosài?”
“Yeah. He got his ass handed to him then and about six more times after that. He has some beef with me for no real reason.”
“沒有理由, 他說. 哈! I told you before, but apparently it did not sink in. You let public a secret kept for longer than ten times you being born.”
“He means like three centuries ago.”
“This isn’t still about the style thing, right? I told you before, I never took any oath. Hell, I didn’t even learn it from your dumb hidden order.”
“Then you shall tell me the man that taught you before I kill you, so I may return the favor on them as well.”
“Ha, trust me, you wouldn’t be able to find her if I told.”
“Very well. Your life shall have to make do.”
Zheng dropped his chain while unsheathing a sword from his waist. He went flying at The Metal and the two engaged in a wicked display of combat The man’s blade bounced cleanly off his adversary’s arm weights. The Metal’s gear was so very dense to be able to weigh as much as they did that they’d likely deflect bullets that flew head-on into them. Not that he would care either way. After getting back up from a punt gun to the face, he really didn’t fear much a steel blade had to offer. Still, he was finding it difficult to return a strike onto Zheng. He was already aware that the man was a master of his craft.
“You were there when this shit started happening, right?”
“Yes, indeed I was!”
“Mind telling me what happened that day so I might try and wrap my head around all this?”
“Sure thing! Well, it all started the day of the most prestigious tournament in martial arts. It is typically invite-only, but Metal managed to get in with a referral. The only problem was…”
Back at the tournament
“What do you mean it’s been filled!? I was told there were fifteen spots open.”
“There are,” stated the clerk, “but as per the rules of this event, only one entry per discipline.”
“Okay, so what’s the problem?”
“All major disciplines from the last ten recurring competitions have been spoken for. So unless you happen to be fluent in one of the older styles left up, you better scram. And each contestant that makes it to the semifinals must display a routine from their art for the audience, so don’t bother lying.”
“Oh wait! I know that one!”
“Bak Fu Pai. Put me down for Bak Fu Pai.”
“There is no way you know White Tiger Kung Fu. That was only taught to the Emperor’s elite guard. What you probably know is a sloppy form of Bak Mei taught by some wannabe hack.”
“I’ll bet you thirty-two hundred kuai that I’m legit and make it to semis for the demonstration.”
“Ha, fine. Not like I have anything to lose here. Easiest money I’ve ever made.”
“And he did make it to semis,” Shadow exclaimed, “nailed the demo, and eventually won the whole tournament.”
“I had no idea he knew such a secretive style. Do you know where he learned it?”
“To be honest, no. But that’s exactly what Zheng and his goons were wondering as well.”
“What do you call yourself, arrogant boy,” Zheng asked on that day after the tournament.
“People around these parts call me Jīn. What’s it to you?”
“金… like your golden hair. I see, I see.”
“Yeah, sure, we’ll just go with that.”
Then the group of men drew out many different sorts of weapons.
“I have to ask you a thing before we get to why we came here. Who taught you that style and let you air it blatantly in public.”
“That’s none of your business, but it was my oldest friend.”
“That technique is forbidden to those outside a certain circle, so after we dispose of you, we’ll take care of him as well.”
“So from what I gather they’ve been trying to kill him ever since.”
“This may actually be the only time I don’t blame something directly on The Metal.”
In the entire time it took Shadow to regale Buck with the tellings of their past, The Metal had not once landed a blow on his accuser. Sweat was seen hastily dripping down his nape. He never had trouble against Zheng before, but he also usually ran into him without any training equipment on whatsoever.
“Why don’t you just take those blasted weights off?”
“Well, I tried,” Buck muttered to himself under his breath.
It appeared that The Metal blocked the sword with his training gear one too many times, for as they clashed the blade snapped and gave Zheng the opportunity to lunge the busted edge into his side. He spat out a couple ounces of blood giving Zheng a smirk of satisfaction. The smile swiftly left his face as The Metal grabbed the assassin’s arm and neck.
“Now, I’m going to show you why you need to stop fucking with me.”
He took Zheng’s arm and after yanking the jagged edge from his gut then twisted and dislocated it from the joint at his shoulder. After slamming him to the ground by his neck, The Metal took his weighted arm and punched Zheng in his left thigh hard enough to completely fracture the bone in two. The Chinese man squirmed on dirt writhing in pain but he refused to scream or shed a tear over it, for that is what he was taught to do.
“Metal, will he be okay?”
“If you’re asking if he’ll ever be able to fight again, not sure but probably. While lacking in excellent urgent care, Traditional Chinese Medicine is leagues ahead of what we can get back in the States as far as long-term recovery.”
“You know damn well that’s not what he meant.”
“Yeah, he’ll make it back to civilization. I left his opposite arm and leg intact so once the pain settles some he can hobble out of here on a large stick or something. Trust me, if it was anything like mine his training was far more grueling than the pain he feels now.”
Before walking away, Shadow ran over and set next to Zheng a bark basin filled with water from the river and some fish he was saving for a snack later.
“這還沒有結束…你明白. 我們永遠不會停止… 狩猎你失望.”
They continued on their way through the mountains. Though once they were out of earshot of Zheng, Buck had a question that was a burden to his thoughts.
“It was something Shadow said to me.”
“Oh please don’t bring me into anything, I’d rather avoid unnecessary punishment today.”
“Whatever it is I’m sure it’s fine, just ask it.”
“When Zheng asked you back at the tournament who taught you Bak Fu Pai, you replied with ‘my oldest friend’. Who might that be, do I know them?”
The Metal twitched as if a bolt of lightning ran down his back and his face dropped from its usual playful demeanor to a dark look that pierced your soul.
“For how long?”
“Until I say stop.”
“What? No, that’s ridiculous.”
He turned and punched a tree next to them, which knocked it over.
With The Metal chasing from behind, Buck and Shadow took off with haste and no clue where they were going. All they knew was that they had no choice but to go forward and what they were seeking could be found somewhere in these mountains.
“Those flames are blue, why are they so hot!?”
“Actually Shadow, being that blue is in the higher end of the visible spectrum flames of that hue would be far more intense than their red counterparts.”
“Will you two focus!? I don’t care what color it is, I just don’t wanna get burned!”
The three training travelers zealously made a break for a small cave near the top of one of the lower peaks. The fire breathing fiend roared in rage for being unable to fit even a single claw into the mouth of the cavern. In a fit it unleashed its blue blaze into their newfound safe haven, forcing them to retreat further in. Luckily enough, the cave twisted and turned for a good klick or so. After the flames stopped approaching they stopped to catch their breath. Unlike the day before, this morning was a lot less eventful.
Several hours prior to being on the menu for a pernicious serpent of irrational scale, Buck is awoken by what sounded like a tree cracking in half. He jumped to action stressing about what trouble they might be in this time. Catching up to Shadow, he witnessed The Metal kicking a cumbersome tree repeatedly with the rising sunlight revealing the path he created.
“I slept through all that!? How long has he been at this?”
“I’m guessing all night. I passed out from exhaustion ‘swell, so I only just got up.”
Buck jogged over to see what was up with him and potentially stop him from deforesting the entire valley.
“Hey man, what’s up with all this?”
“Oh, um… nothing. I was bored of just lying there, so I got up and started training.”
“That doesn’t seem like a bright idea. Don’t you want to get some sleep before we head out today? From the last two days, I’m gonna take it you’ll need your melon running right.”
“Probably, but it wouldn’t do any good,” The Metal said carelessly as he went back to kicking.
“And why is that?”
“Cause I haven’t been able to sleep since Hong kong.”
“That… that was like two and a half weeks ago.”
“Yeah, about four hundred and fifty hours without a wink now. I don’t even feel tired.”
“That’s it, I don’t care what training you’re here for, we’re going to a hospital now.”
The Metal dropped what he was doing and strolled up close to Buck.
“Even if you knew which direction to go, the nearest licensed medical center is like a day away if we walked non stop, you know. Besides, how are you even going to get me there?”
“I’ll drag you kicking and screaming if I have to.”
“Is that so?”
He grabbed Buck by the collar and tossed him across the clearing he made that morning.
“Shadow,” The Metal hollered over, “We’re heading out a bit earlier than planned!”
“Gotcha! I ‘lready found a bite thinkin’ we might.”
After that Buck dropped the hospital business. It was starting to be clear that worrying about The Metal’s health was hazardous to his own. It was quiet for quite some time while they strolled through the thicket. Well, as quiet as it could be between the forest life and The Metal, who never stops singing if no one is holding up a conversation. It would be obvious to anyone that he’s had far too much time to memorize as many songs as he knew. The others didn’t find it too annoying though. Travel and music go together finely and The Metal could definitely have a worse voice to listen to.
Eventually, they stumbled upon a natural trail at the foot of one of the smaller mountains. Far from the base where they stood was a stone buddha on a marble slab. The Metal stared at it for a bit, walked over, and forced the hefty statue to turn around.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m fixing it.”
“This statue is facing West. I’m no Buddhist, but I’m pretty sure he is supposed to face East because of something to due with meditating beneath the rising sun.”
“Don’t you think whichever monk maintains this stuff knows what he is doing?”
“Have you seen who they let in these days? Even just five years ago the standards were better.”
As he finished turning the statue everyone could hear it clicking in place. The ground beneath them trembled viciously, scaring off all the local wildlife. Up ahead the sound of stones sliding against each other could be faintly heard. Upon further investigation, the travelers could see a blinding light shining from the mountain’s peak. Moments after, something else presented itself from beyond the summit. Soaring into the sky was a gigantic serpent clad in gold that stretched for a mile and was at least thirty feet wide. It slowly veered from its rising trajectory and shifted directions toward them.
“No Shadow, we’re in China.”
“Oh yeah. Jīnlóng!”
“Guys, be serious for once. I think that light is coming from an opening on the mountain top. Like a cave or something. If we run and keep our heads down we can probably make it there unharmed.”
“I mean if you want to go ahead. I’m gonna kill this dragon.”
“How many chances am I gonna have to say I beat a dragon in a fight; especially one of this magnitude?”
“You can’t be serious.”
The Metal ripped a tree out of the ground and gripped it like a baseball bat.
“Oh my god, he’s fucking serious. Screw that, I’m running!”
Buck and Shadow darted off without even looking back at The Metal. The colossal serpent came soaring down the trail with its maw opened fully. The two dipped to the sides of the path, letting the dragon continue on its way toward their friend. On their way up the mountainside, they heard something loud and fast gaining on them. They both turned to see The Metal running swiftly behind them with the dragon many yards back.
“What happened to your tree plan?”
The Metal held up a stub of wood no larger than his forearm that had been burnt to a crisp.
“Oh… well, got any other ideas?”
“Yeah, keep running until I think of some more!”
And that was basically where the day caught back up to them. The chase led up the mountainside and into the cavern where the intense fury of the dragon’s flames couldn’t reach them. Taking long, deep breaths, the group took a couple of minutes to straighten their bearings. It was then that Shadow noticed his friend was trembling all over.
“It’s okay Metal, we’re scared ‘swell.”
“He’s not frightened, you moron. He’s shaking from overexertion. You would be too if you were wearing a literal ton on your body… actually you’d probably just be dead, but that’s not the point.”
“What is your point, loudmouth?”
“My point is that you still have that look in your eyes that you want to fight that thing, even though we are already here. I get it, you’re a fuckin’ nut job, but you could at least drop the weights. We made it the whole route, it’s okay now.”
“No, no it’s not. Winning is meaningless to me unless I know deep down that I won purely because I chose to. That may not make any sense or mean anything to you, but that is just how I am. Now I’m going back out there and ridding this world of a mystical entity that no one believes in.”
“I’ve heard you say a lot of crazy shit in the time we’ve known each other and that just about tops it, but I know if I don’t go out there with you I won’t get to hear you top it again.”
“Thanks for understanding, man. C’mon Shadow, we’re going back out!”
Heading back up the route toward the flying, flame inducing, snake as large as a subway tunnel, The Metal wasn’t the only one shaking. Though the fires had ceased flooding the cave entrance, an internal panic still crept up within those who seemed a bit more attached to this life than their comrade. There had been far too many life-threatening events dragged into his life these days for Buck’s taste, but fists clenched the three of them stepped back out into the light of day. Almost immediately, the dragon became aware of their surfacing and twisted back into their direction.
“Metal, I assume the only reason we came back out here so soon is because you actually have a plan this time.”
“More or less.”
“More or less? What does that fucking mean!?”
“It depends, do you think you could throw me?”
“Are you dumb!? Most I’ve ever tossed isn’t even close to half the weight you’re carrying.”
“I could help!”
“I doubt that’ll make much a difference!”
“Well, we’ve only got seconds to decide.”
“Fine, we’ll throw our backs out, but you better put your legs into this too.”
The Metal crouched down lifting his arms for the others to grasp. Each taking a wrist and different end of his belt, all three of them put as much effort as they could muster into this launch. He must have shot up thirty feet like a rocket aimed at the beast that was still diving to him. With its maw held wide open, The Metal tucked back and his shoulder slammed threw one of the monster’s gigantic teeth. The serpent slammed his mouth shut as the hopeful warrior kept flying directly down its throat.
“Welp… ‘ere goes that plan.”
“Knowing him that was the plan.”
Seconds later the dragon dropped to the Earth, crashing into the side of the mountain abruptly. The two ran over to examine the front end of the corpse, but on the way, a bulge on the creature’s back squirmed awkwardly. Suddenly a sharp object ripped through from within and carved a truck-sized hole from the hide. Emerging from within the dragon was The Metal carrying the broken tooth in one hand and in the other, held above his head, was a twelve chambered heart as big as an automobile.
“You know, they say that those who devour the heart of a dragon can live forever. Guess I know what we’re having for lunch.”
Shadow let out an impressed glee while Buck just rested his face into his palm. Despite how disgusted Buck may have acted, I assure you the heart of a Chinese Dragon tastes much better than it sounds, especially cooked into a good stew or over steamed rice. After lunch, they ventured back into the cavern since there was no longer anything preventing them from finishing this trek. Deep down inside the mountain sat a stone slab on a small island in the center of a pond. Still covered head to toe in guts, The Metal immediately dove headfirst into the water and made his way to the middle. The only words on the slab read, “這往往需要一個目標, 實現一個旅程的價值.” Upon reading this The Metal chuckled loud enough to bring a strangely settling echo to the cave.
“It’s not one of those ‘you had it in you the whole time’ thing, is it?”
“Nah, more like a ‘destination is only worth the journey’ type thing.”
“Well, I sure hope it was damn worth it!”
“Yeah, I’d say it was. Let’s figure out our way back home. I think I’ve figured out some things to show you guys on the way.”
From an outsider’s perspective, it seems almost arbitrary and nonsensical that a trip through the mountains with no clear focus could achieve such a thing, yet like the few before him, The Metal established his own art form upon completing the Proving Grounds. The real reason may be that those the make the journey had it stirring within them already and just needed the trip to take it out of them. He named it 星隕石拳, or loosely speaking the “Orichalcum Fist” because you need to become like a strong metal that looks simple to observers yet still can never truly be figured out. They made regular stops to train in this new form here and there, but ultimately they were finally on their way back home. And now, not only was The Metal ready for a rematch, he was eager.
For the last month, the Dallas/Fort Worth area has been what was only recently considered abnormally calm. It’s not that crimes or strange occurrences don’t still go on without him, the world keeps spinning after all, but it seems The Metal causes the bulk of the chaos in town. Back at Pitaya Laboratories specifically, Pitaya and Kavi enjoyed the peace with some tea and sushi from their favorite specialty shop a couple of towns over. Of course, as you know by now, nothing stays quiet for long.
With a mighty crash, the wall exploded open with The Metal plummeting through and planting his bare feet into their food. Expectantly upset, Pitaya grabbed him by a leg and tossed the smaller man across the length of the Lab.
“Sorry, we would have used the door, but you know how he is.”
“Ah Sentri, you came back to town for this?”
“Like I could miss it.”
“Besides, Metal wanted the same audience as last time. A salty runback of sorts.”
“Hey,” The Metal said as he strolled back after landing spryly. “Don’t talk to them, your focus is over here big guy.”
The mad scientist turned back to him and slowly picked up his momentum toward The Metal. Like a Mack Truck, Pitaya charged down the main aisle of his laboratory with the palms of his hands wide open and ready to do what he enjoys most. Following his lead, The Metal too ran down the aisle opposite of him. Meeting in the middle, the two caught each other’s hands and tried to overpower the other. Having the grip he needed, Pitaya went for the toss. The Metal saw what was happening and slipped back his weight, as well as that of the heavy training gear he was wearing, and countered him with the Tomoe Nage: a notable Jiu jitsu suicide throw wear the user tumbles backward flinging their opponent clear over their body. Pitaya tore through fifteen warehouse shelves before coming to a stop in a collapse of yet another storage unit. Quickly getting back up, Pitaya lept back over at The Metal in a single bound while carrying a twenty-foot, titanium support that previously helped make up one of the fallen shelves.
“Batter up!” he hollered as the bar swung into The Metal’s torso, sending him flying yet again. “Aw, you bent it.”
“Ugh, you got faster.”
“Well, I figured you wouldn’t just sit on your ass for a couple days and come back for the exact same results. It’s been quite some time. You trained, and in a way, I did as well.”
“Guess it wouldn’t be fun otherwise.”
Pitaya leaped over to him for a second time but The Metal, who was still on the ground, snapped back and launched the large man through the roof with both of his feet. Not but two seconds later he came rocketing down through a different part of the ceiling. Both stood up, huffing in and out as smiles crept upon their faces.
They ran upon each other again. This time Pitaya revved up for a backhand that he unleashed like a sledgehammer. Ducking under the swing, The Metal popped up and delivered an uppercut to his exposed jaw. He slugged him a few more times in the chest, but then Pitaya dropped both of his arms upon him. The Metal fell without much resistance. He felt his leg being tugged at and soon found himself at odds with centrifugal force The mad scientist span round and round, treating the martial artist like a kid treats a yo-yo when he doesn’t understand how it works.
“Jesus, how does he handle that? I’m getting sick just looking at it.”
“Remember when we were younger and we’d see who could stay on the rotating tire swing at the park the longest before giving up or throwing up?”
“Oh God, don’t remind me,” Buck replied almost vomiting a little in his mouth.
“Yeah Kidd, and your brother would always win because he’s a stubborn asshole.”
“Which is exactly why I’m wondering how he’s still so stubborn that he won’t take his weights off yet.”
“C’mon guys, didn’t we go over this last time?”
“Well Kavi, it’s not exactly the same as last time, now is it?
“Metal is wearing about four times the mass than last time, but Pitaya isn’t even straining at all.”
“Yup, mah boi seems to have the edge this time around.”
For some reason, The Kidd took that as a personal insult, even though the fight had nothing to do with either of them.
“Okay, let’s have a bet. I’ll put down a hundred on Metal to win.”
“Sure, why not? I could use an easy hundred.”
“Hey bro!” The Kidd screamed with a devious grin. “I’m starving, can we wrap this up soon and grab a bite?”
The Metal tightened his body and started unfastening the equipment from his left arm. Pitaya was so busy whirling him around that he didn’t even notice what was going on. With a punching motion, The Metal launched the now loose sleeve into Pitaya’s head. He didn’t quite think the idea through fully, for when Pitaya let go due to the force of a three hundred plus pound sack striking his head at a hundred and fifty miles per hour, The Metal was no longer at odds with centrifugal force and zoomed off into a wall.
“You know, that actually hurt,” Pitaya exclaimed shortly before he was hit with the one from the other arm. “Rude!” Prepared for the legs, he dodged both of the other weights and let out a loud, “Ha!” A celebration that was a tad too early since immediately after Pitaya was pegged squares in the chest by the near seven hundred pound torso weight and was planted back on the floor.
“I really didn’t want to have to go there, but honestly the more time I spend here, the less time I’m spending back at Sam’s Pizza devouring several extra-large pies.”
“Blarg,” Pitaya grunted getting back up, “I was wondering when you’d stop holding back. I can’t stand intentional underperformance. But I warn you,” he spoke almost whimsically while slipping on gilded bracers to his wrists, “I won’t be holding back anymore either.”
He tapped the bracers together and black liquid spewed out towards his fingertips, wrapping his hands like vinyl gloves. The air around his new gauntlets was intense and unsettling like molecules were dancing around at a much faster rate in the immediate vicinity. Pitaya jolted at The Metal again, trying to grab with the full extent of his superior reach. Suddenly having flashbacks to racing Kavi, the faster fighter of the two was not having any of what his opponent was trying to give him. The difference in speed was almost unfathomable. Pitaya would lunge out and The Metal would already be under and out of the attack before the onlookers could blink.
“Damn, I didn’t think you were that fast.”
“To be honest, neither did I. My youngest brother dropped us off, so not going through customs I haven’t taken those weights off since my trip to China. The others made me go through a carwash before coming here.”
“That explains the fresh pine scent. C’mon, you smell nice enough, let me give you a hug.”
“Normally I’m happy to oblige in your grappler gimmicks, but I’m not fond of electrocution or third-degree burns.”
“Wait… how did you figure that out?”
“I kind of took the full load of a shotgun to my skull a while back. Almost thought I died, but ever since I got back up I’ve seen the world… differently. I can visibly see how your gloves are agitating the air around them.”
“Interesting. Though hate to break it to you, that’s me doing that, not my gauntlets. I haven’t really had time to get the hang of it all yet, so let’s just say these AMP-lify the effects.”
“Oh, now that sounds fun.”
Every time The Metal avoided one of Pitaya’s attacks, he made sure to smack him across the cheek with the backside of his hand. Not only did he feel insulted, but Pitaya is a man of science and was not about to let his desire to try out his new toys on someone directly overwhelm his much stronger desire to rattle The Metal’s ego. Devising a more effective plan, he picked up another titanium beam. Gripped firmly, the beam turned a bright, glowing copper color and then a pinkish white. He snapped it down to a more manageable eight-foot length and swung it swiftly like a Katana even though it was closer in size to an Ōdachi.
“One point nine thousand Kelvin. That’s how high I can go before this bar melts.”
“Guess I’m just lucky titanium doesn’t conduct electricity very well.”
“Yes, this effort feels only half baked, but it’s better than none.”
“So tell me,” The Metal interjected while still dodging the oversized hair straightener, “How did you get these powers anyway? Did you nearly die too and just woke up stronger, faster, and with abilities you previously lacked?”
“Please, I don’t leave matters like these to chance. I built a machine designed to reset the human potential by bringing one to their peak and letting them grow again from there.”
“And you just jumped into something like that?”
“Of course not! I let Kavi go first to see if it was safe.”
“I’m faster than both of you!”
“Nobody cares,” said everyone in the room in unison.
“So, does this mean that the machine is still operational?”
“Duh, like I’d strip something like that down for… wait you want to use it, don’t you?”
“You’ve really intrigued my curiosity.”
“Unless you get passed me, I don’t see that happening.”
“Okay,” The Metal shruggingly said catching the heated titanium in both his hands.
“What the fu-” Pitaya was cut off as The Metal swung the beam he was still hanging on to, launching him through the exterior wall on the far side of the Lab. Soon after the fighter lost composure and started blowing on his hand feverously.
“Joke’s on you, I recently found out I could survive flames twice that heat!” he screamed toward the hole in the wall. “Now, where is this machine. I’m gonna guess the one with the person size container next to it.”
Skipping over to the device, The Metal noticed a whole slew of controls and settings. They were all previously switched to maximum output and he really didn’t see a point in changing that. Pitaya didn’t spend much time outside and sprinted over as fast as he could, but he was too late. The Metal had already started the countdown to one second, dashing inside the unit in the blink of an eye. A heavy sigh was let out by the machine’s creator as it did its work.
“Just turn it off.”
“I can’t. I designed it to run through completion and it’ll be done before I can disable both the main and backup power units.”
“Wait, so you can’t just unplug it?”
“Yes Kavi, because I would totally risk wiring such an important process to our city’s faulty electrical grid.”
“Fine, I’ll take care of it,” he groaned before unleashing into the door a couple of hundred electrified punches within a couple of seconds.
“And… I may have designed it to handle more damage than anyone could possibly dish out after it did its job. It seemed like good planning at the time, but I didn’t think this jackass would try to use it; during a fight no less.”
The glass window steamed up, becoming opaque, and the device started making ominous sounds. Heavy bolts of lightning and smoke extruded from the back of the chamber. The noises picked up in frequencies but scanning the monitors no one could figure out what was the issue. After the last glance, Pitaya turned around and made a run for the back of the Lab. The others soon followed suit realizing something must be up. Before anyone could make it too far on their own, they were swept forward by the erupting explosion of the machinery behind them.
The Lab was filled to the brim with smoke for not even a minute before the emergency ventilation systems went to work. As the smoke cleared, everyone got up to make sure each other was okay. Then they all recalled The Metal was still inside the canister when it went off. Rushing over as the last of the smoke was clearing from the epicenter of the blast, they saw a faint figure in the cloud. The problem was that it wasn’t The Metal… at least, they were pretty sure it wasn’t.
It was the time of night when the full moon stood in the middle of the Dallas sky and could litter its reflection into an otherwise dark alley in the inner city. Illuminated was a struggle between a large, greasy man in a blazer that was so worn it had to be from a second-hand store and the buxom blonde who was screaming as he held her down and tried to undo the zipper on his jeans. As he wrestled with his fly, a strange mist flooded the passage between the streets. What made it most strange was that fog formed and you could see the moonlight despite the fact that it had been raining since yesterday.
“If I were you scum, I would unhand that woman before you call upon the wrath of Luna, Goddess of the Moon.”
From within the mist, an average-sized woman clad in black leather armor and crimson, hooded cloak emerged. Her hair was a long and deep brunette, skin pale like the moon itself, and her lips were painted to match her cape. The color of her irises couldn’t be seen since her eyes glowed like tiny stars planted in her skull. She made a motion as if drawing a weapon from her hip and a sickled blade made of hard light formed in her grasp. The man jumped up and snapped, like coming out of a daze. Looking around, he saw the cloaked woman with her impossible weapon and took off running without knowing what was going on at all.
“Darn. I only suppressed his will to lure you out here, but I was actually hoping he’d get further before you showed up,” explained the women who previously looked to be the victim of this circumstance.
“What… what do you mean, I came here to save you, ma’am.”
“Which is exactly what I hoped for, Luna. Oh, I’m sorry, we haven’t formally met,” She said as her clothing and form slowly shifted. Her long blonde hair shortened to slicked-back look that barely reached the nape of her neck. Her denim skirt became loose jeans as her blood-red fur coat and white tube top morphed into a leather jacket and tee-shirt of the same colors. The heels of her boots flattened down and became more suited for combat as well. And finally, her make up faded away as her body transitioned to that of a lean man only five and a half feet tall. “My name is Mack, nice to meet you.”
Woken violently from his nightly slumber, Valor had a bad feeling about that night. He could always tell when Mack was causing trouble, though up until recently it only harmless pranks on the family and house guests like flicking light switches and rearranging their stuff when they turned around. Normally the windows in his house open without much noise, but with the storm, he’d never get away with it. He’d have to sneak out through the sliding door in the back so his parents might just think the other one was letting the dogs out. Already changed into his uniform, if you could even barely call it such, Valor closed the door behind him and froze up when he saw his dad on sitting on the back porch having a smoke. He didn’t know what to do. If he told his dad what was going, would he even believe him and would he freak out? Even if he didn’t believe it, there is no way a kid his age should be sneaking out this late. For someone who could tank a miniature nuke without being phased, Valor was terrified by the thoughts running through his head.
“So, are you gonna go do what you gotta do or what?”
“Listen, Tommy, I wasn’t born yesterday. It was more like thirty-six years ago. Most people probably don’t want to see it and your mom is just an idiot, but I’m not. I can recognize my own son running around the metroplex helping people and showing up on every news channel. You think I didn’t put two and two together when you started easily earning badges the older and bigger scouts physically had trouble getting?”
“So you aren’t mad?”
“I will be if you aren’t home before your mom’s meds wear off. Now scram before I have to smack you for not doing the right thing.”
Valor took off into the rain, flipping off the fence to their yard and hitting the streets. He summoned his new phone and hit the speed dial.
“Hey kid, wasn’t expecting to hear from you so soon. Checkin’ in on me, cause I swear I’ve been on my best behavior, mostly.”
“No, that’s not it. I know it’s only been a weekend, but I could sure use Diaphanes’ help.”
“I remember the offer, but what could you of all people need my help with.”
“It’s a… family issue. Normally I wouldn’t ask for help with this, but I think there might be more than I could handle alone.”
“You could say that again. Just meet me near the West End. Pretty sure you’ll see where to go from there.”
Back in downtown, Mack continued to egg on the self-proclaimed moon goddess while doing what he did best; fighting. With time being so much slower in Limbo, Mack has had more than enough time to study most forms of combat. So while a hooked sword would typically trump most other melee weapons in single combat, he decided to show off by turning his guitar into a pair of chains just because he knew better. Luna swept in fast like Mack or Valor would; quick enough cut through the air itself. The resulting sonic boom sent leaves, litter, and other lesser things flying as well as setting off all surrounding car alarms. An attack that would be unavoidable and lethal to just any mere human, but for Mack…
“Psh, child’s play,” he said wrapping his chain around her blade. “My usual sparring partner is way faster than that. You’re gonna have to step it up, little missy.” He then snagged her waist with the other chain and swung her around. The chains lengthened as she flew into a brick wall. Livid, she rose to her feet and rushed down her opponent once more.
“How is this for stepping it up!?”
“Yawn,” he said avoiding her reckless swings with ease. “You’ve got the strength, the speed, the pizzazz, but you lack any form. You lack experience. And most of all,” Mack uttered slamming his fist into her gut, “you lack the attitude it takes to win.”
Luna popped off the ground and bounced a quarter mile down the road. Mack turned his back and started to walk away. He had bigger fish to fry anyway. Being no great fool, he new Valor would show up soon enough. He has a funny way of finding Mack anytime he shows up on this plain, but the guy wouldn’t have it any other way. As he strolled off to find a more fun place to fight the real challenge, a sudden searing pain arose in his shoulder. All he saw was white light erupt from the other side.
“Ow! Now that was unexpected,” he exclaimed turning back at the girl who gripped a bow of hard light. “If you have tricks like that, you should really lead out with them. Especially against someone of my stature.”
“You’re stature? Bah, you’re barely as big as me. Besides, I am a goddess of the night, you could not com…”
“Hahaha, who are you lying to? Me, yourself, or the other one?”
“You mock me, after that shot?”
“You are no goddess, just as I am no demon. We might spin the fib, but such titles are beneath us.”
“Then what have you call us?”
“A good friend of mine refers to our likes as…”
Mack was cut off by a small fist crashing into his jaw at upwards of Mach 12.
“Anomalies,” Valor said with a rather displeased expression.
“Ah, speak of the devil, if it isn’t my favorite person.”
“Mack, why in God’s name are you back so soon? Any other time you were fine with leaving me all alone for months on end, but now that you decide to start trouble for everyone else it’s a good excuse to ‘play.’”
“Oh, don’t be that way. I told you, I came here to help. It’s just now I found a new plaything and really wanted to take her for a spin.”
“Yeah, right, you sure are helping by making a mess of everything and possibly ruining lives. Thanks.”
“Anytime, think nothing of it.”
“Hey!” They both looked over to Luna still holding her bowstring taut. “I’m still here you know.”
“I’ll deal with you in a minute after I send off this jerk.” Mack gave off a posh look of shock to sarcastically woe toward Valor, but Luna wasn’t happy to be dismissed like that. She came out to help the meek and feels just as capable as anyone else. She released her arrow at Valor to show that she was not to be put off so easily. The arrow flew as fast as the light it was made from. Within a blink of the eye, an explosion of light and plasma let loose at the boys’ location. As the light dispersed, it became clearer to see the tiny star resting in Valor’s palm.
“Very nice, I wasn’t aware your reaction time had gotten so fast.”
“How,” Luna muttered in confusion, “how did you do that?”
“Oh come on, it’s simple. He did it the same way you do.”
“Ease up on her Mack, she clearly doesn’t understand how her powers work, she just acts.”
“Wow, that’s pretty sad. Even you managed to figure out what you were doing without me explaining it.”
“Not that I’d even figure out that I could without you showing up.”
“Oh you, give yourself a little more credit. I only sped things up for you.”
“Will someone please tell me what just happened!” Luna screamed in anger. “Why didn’t my arrow pierce you?”
“I’ll explain it. After all, I came here to have fun tonight and I simply can’t pass up a chance to monologue.”
“I’ll give you this, but make it quick so I can send you home and go back to bed.”
“Ha, that’s if you even can. Like you, I learn,” Mack retorted before vanishing. In a fraction of a second, he reappeared behind the young woman. “Boo!”
“AHCK!” She screamed and fired her bow from the anxiety. Mack easily vanished and appeared again between each shot until she calmed back down and he rested in a nearby tree.
“Physics are a touchy thing you know,” he stated while apparating an apple into his hand and taking a bite.
“Lot’s of complicated math involved, but if really make the effort, maybe build a fancy doodad, there isn’t much you can’t do. Smash atoms, terraform planets, reach near proximity to the speed of light; all of this is possible through conventional means. Much of what we do, falls outside of those limitations. And I know what you’re thinking because you’ve had to have been told stories in your life, but it’s not magic either. With magic you can defy the means of thermodynamics, but not the ends. It’s like a shortcut or a backdoor. Magic could bring me everything I need for a fire and spark it up right where I want it, set electrons to fly off for a bolt of lightning from my fingertips, or perhaps even lift someone through the air, though I’ve yet to witness that last one. Even with all it can do, the system still reacts to magic in the same way as everything else and the magic fades as soon as you stop putting energy into it. But there is something more fascinating than anything else. The father-code of the system itself… um, what was it you called it again?”
“Ah, yes. Existencience. Such a beautiful word, isn’t it? Anyhow, existencience allows us to mess with the world at it’s most base level. Run at speeds greater than anything built by man without our bodies and clothes being torn up by the forces of friction. Alter our clothes and form without even thinking about it. Creating stars so small they’d burn out instantly or never even form in the first place. Or in your case, condense light into a solid object without it gaining mass or losing volatility. The fabric of the universe adjusts to our actions and unless we will it hard enough it not to, it stabilizes itself to the best of its ability afterward.”
“Welcome to the club. Sorry, but we’re out of membership cards.”
“So that’s how you guys work.” A familiar voice echoed from the alley Mack and Luna were previously within. “I was awfully curious before, but this really has the gears turning now.”
Diaphanes finally made himself known, although they were all aware that he had been standing there since before Mack gave his little spiel. This time he was wearing a new, blue and cyan, spandex costume, likely to look more traditionally heroic since he agreed to give Valor a hand. He even had the Greek letter Delta embroidered on his chest since it was the first letter of his new name.
“Oh, I’ve been watching you. You’re really fast, and pretty cute, too.”
“Um… are you coming onto me? I’m sorry, I don’t play for that team.”
Mack looked down at himself and started laughing since he forgot.
“Don’t worry, I usually don’t either. Though I do have a weakness for the fairer sex from time to time. Speaking of, where is my new plaything? Ah, there you are!”
With a grin, Mack ran to Luna ready to have his fun. She readied her sword again, but before she could try to defend herself Valor popped up between them and kicked him into the night sky. Before he could turn around, the young lady swung at him. Valor rolled swiftly and she only cleaved his cape. It grew back as he stood there and reassessed the situation. The girl was confused and ready to attack anyone for her own safety and Mack was going to be returning to the ground any moment.
“Diaphanes, you handle the girl and I’ll send Mack home.”
“Actually,” Valor retracted his idea after remembering why he met Robert in the first place, “I changed my mind. You distract Mack and I’ll take care of her.”
“Party pooper. Fine.”
As Mack landed, Diaphanes grabbed him by his jacket collar and took off at Mach 40. They were out of town in seconds flat. Meanwhile, Valor found himself narrowly evading swing after swing from Luna’s hard light khopesh. Anger steamed out of each slash as if he could hear internal screaming.
“Why are you so upset?”
“I’m not,” she grunted in the midst of her attacks,
Valor stopped evading and grabbed the blade. She tried moving it, but he didn’t budge a millimeter while giving her an unimpressed look. She dissolved her khopesh and fell back a bit. Recomposing herself, Luna formed two small daggers and dove back in.
“I just.. hate… bullies,” Luna uttered after each motion. “A boy your age wouldn’t understand.”
“A boy my age? You’re like two years younger than me!”
“What?” She was caught off guard, tripping and landing face-first on the pavement. “How… how did you find out?”
“Oh c’mon, Mack likes to play pretend, too. It’s not hard for someone with my powers to see you for who you really are.”
Luna sat there stunned. She thought her form was flawless, yet she was still apparent to those two. She can’t even touch the guy if he didn’t want her to and with that, all her hopes of holding her own in the fight were gone. She hadn’t even been helping for long at all; not even but few weeks had she been out here each night. Now Luna feared it was all over. With her disguise blown anyway and her concentration on the persona fading, she couldn’t help but start crying.
“Listen, I’m not a bully. Unlike my counterpart Mack, I didn’t strike back realizing the difference in our abilities. You don’t have to fight me.”
“It’s not that. I was bad and made a mess of things. Now yer gonna put me somewhere I can’t leave and I’ll never be able to help people again.”
“Shh,” Valor uttered softly as he moved and held her around the shoulder, “No, it’s alright. This is Mack’s fault. You were just trying to stop him. It was a stupid idea, I’ll you give that much, but not your fault.”
“I only started doing this because I saw y’all’s fight on TV. I figured if there was someone as strong as you out there that more heroes were needed. I just wanted to be tough, like everyone else.”
“You don’t have to be tough.”
“You don’t have to be tough. Mack and I aren’t tough, we just don’t feel emotions in the same way other people do. Makes it easier for us, I guess. You just gotta be you. Doing the right thing helps, too. Wish Mack would understand that.”
“I think I can be me… once I figure out what that is.”
“Yeah, not even sure I know myself yet. Bit of advice though: stay positive. Crying on the battlefield or lashing out in frustration can lead to mistakes you don’t want to make.”
“And we wouldn’t want to be making mistakes, now would we,” Diaphanes snarked returning just in time to hear that last part.”
“Mack got bored that fast?”
“Yes… and I feel violated.”
“Sorry about that. Hey, do you have any more of those phones?”
“A bunch. Girly here joining the side of awesome?”
“That is if she wants.”
Still wiping the tears off her face, Luna shook her head rapidly.
“Okay, but they’re all back at my place.”
“That’s fine, I’ll run back with you. How long could it possibly take at our speed?”
“Like two and a half minutes. I found a nice loft in the Big Apple.”
“Stay right here, Luna. We’ll be back in five.”
The two took off like they were racing again, covering the expanse of the United States in the time it would take to brush your teeth. Robert’s new apartment was set up like a live-in lab. The only spot that wasn’t a total mess was his workstation that housed chemicals with names Valor wasn’t sure he could even pronounce. Without his sort of vision, he was surprised Diaphanes could find anything in that dump, yet he got to the phones first.
“Got ‘em. Now let’s get back to that lovely little lady.”
“Ew. First off, she’s like seven.”
“Huh?” Diaphanes questioned in complete disbelief.
“And secondly, don’t get too attached to her.”
“Are you holding out on me, Valor? Because if I’m going to assist you against mystical beings that could kill me, like Mack, I’m going to need you to be upfront with me.”
“She’s not real… well, not in the sense that you or I are.”
“I don’t follow.”
“She’s a projection. The personification of a young girl’s subconscious, or at least part of it. As far as I could tell by looking at her soul, the girl is like me or Mack but doesn’t know it. Luna is the part of her that wants to overcome her troubles brought to life.”
“Wait a second. Are you saying you can look at people’s souls because as a man of science I find it unsettling at the thought that they even exist.”
“Oh yeah, and the real kicker is that not everyone even has one. What I’m getting at though is at anytime Luna could be gone. If the projection is put under too much stress and destroyed or if the girl stops needing her, she ceases to be.”
“So, let’s not let her know this info and keep our emotions distant enough. Until that time, she’s just part of the team.”
<End of Act I>
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Did he just kill those guys… would that kill those guys?
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Well, at least it wasn’t that orange can this time. How many of those things does he have?
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If those guys aren’t security forces, then who are they?
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Fun fact: after all daylight hours of driving, about 80% of that trip was just leaving Texas.