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Chapter Eleven

In the heat of the violence
when hate pulls the trigger
the devil comes to take his share
in the Garden of Eden
time is running out so fast
into the heart of the demon....
-"Alien Nation" by The Scorpions

      Fire. Blood. Heat. Sweat. Pain.
      That was all Cye Mouri has time to think about as he blocked and slashed like a machine. Hot, fiery blood intermixed with sweat rolls down his forehead, threatening to drip into his eyes at every turn.
      He can't see the others, he doesn't even know if he has a chance to save himself in this hell. Fire licks his armor as the soldiers pressed him close to a burning building.
      Pain screams through his armor as the fire steals his strength, driving all thoughts from his head as he fights for his life. Fire-colored flashes of steel and iron leap at him like hellish lightning, trying to find purchase in his flesh.
      "A fish out of water..." Cale had once gloated. Cye chokes back an overwhelming swell of fear as he realizes that never more was that truer than right this second. Widely separated from his energy source of water and driven against his elemental opposite, he was fading fast.
      The soldiers seemed to know this and pressed their advantage. Cye blocks one, but is too slow to stop a spear that finds his shoulder. With a feral snarl of pain and half-rage, he thrusts his yari in a wide arc, cleaving the solider from groin to sternum.
      A blade-encrusted whip rattles across his chest armor, but fails to bite in. Before Cye can disengage from his current adversary, the whip wraps about his legs, throwing him to his back and half on a burning pile of debris.
      A quick flip brings him back to his feet and with a brutal slash, cuts the whip in two and then slashes through another soldier. Pain rams through him as the heat throbs against his unprotected face.
      "Damn you!!" Cye hisses, dropping painfully into an "guard" position.
      With a laugh, the whip-wielder draws a lance and drives for the kill.
      Then, like an angel of mercy, a bolt of fire red leaps out of the inferno; screaming like an enraged dragon. Ryo lands, cat-like, on the balls of his feet and is immediately airborne once more; black hair spilling out of the red helmet like the edges of a burn, and two bright silver blades slicing through the air. Coming within a hairsbreadth of cutting Cye, they cut him a swath through the soldiers. Cye falls to his knees, gasping for breath as his scorched armor pulses with raw pain.
      There was the sound of something being cut, a scream of rendered metal, then a refreshing gout of water washes over him. Ryo kicks the ruins of the fire hydrant away and moves out of the cold shower as Cye gratefully drinks from the gush.
      "You... okay?" Ryo pants, moving past him to stand in the fire once more during the brief respite.
      Cye nods and staggers a little as he sits down, and lets it pummel his aching body. His left leg feels broken, the bones scraping against one-another as he moves. He tries to remember how long they've been fighting, but it evades his grasp like a small, agile fish. It felt like they've been doing this for hours.
      A sharp series of cracks, that remind him of the sound of whip cracking - or maybe air rushing to fill a void - breaks him from his reverie. He looks up with an overwhelming sense of dread, to see soldiers appearing one after another...

Not far away...

      A wave of agony washes through him as he struggles to block. With a deep grunt of pain, Kento grips the arrow that had found it's mark in hip and yanks it free of his body.
      "Oh, poor baby. Does that hurt?" a mocking voice asks.
      "Not as much as you'd like, Warlord," Kento hisses and drops into a crouch as pain-deadening adrenaline courses through his veins. It's a man, looking about his age. But the cruel look in the dark haired man's eyes make Hardrock doubt that fact.
      The boy laughs. "Then lets end this, puny mortal!!"
      Kento doesn't move.
      I don't think I can win this one... he thinks, despair threatening to drag him down. The warlord was winning... and for a warlord to win, that meant that he would soon be dead. Guys... I'm sorry... Momma, Dad... sibs.... guys... I'm sorry. I love you!!
      The Warlord gazes at him with intense hatred. He pulls a wicked looking weapon Kento can't identify from its place on his back.
      The topaz colored gem embedded in the Warlord's breastplate shimmers in Hardrock's view, breaking his thoughts free from his visions of death. Kento shuts his eyes as he wills his vision to come from the earth itself and not his physical eyes.
      "DIE!!" the Warlord screams.
      The ground heaves and buckles like an animal in it's death throes. Pointed rock leaps from the ground, finding Hardrock's body and crashing down on him. Kento screams, blood pouring from gaping wounds in his armor made by the energy enhanced rocks. The teeth-like rocks pierce his armor with sickening crunches.
      Dizzy from pain and blood loss, Kento looks at the warlord.
      Dark yellow orange energy shining from the gem... touching the rocks with shadowy hands. Like the Warlord's will had manifested itself as a extra-spirit...
      No. It IS him... the real him. He's dead. A ghost. He isn't real... it's the jewel that's letting him hurt me...
      The warlord laughs, his voice cruel as he lets Hardrock's limp body tumble to the ground. "That was too easy! You flatter me, mortal!!"
      Kento dimly feels his dust choking his lungs as the debris settles. The feel of the rocks pressing against his back uncomfortably. Kento remembers his fight with the Sand Strikers. His energy is that of the earth itself... he only needed to ask the armor and Mother Earth for what he needed...
      Help me... I don't want to die!! Help me! PLEASE!!'
      Energy, unlike any ever seen before, kisses his skin and his armor... strengthening him, telling him what he needed to know. Kento felt himself falling... or was he rising? He couldn't tell.
      Maybe this's what dying's like... Kento thinks, comforted by the peace. He feel his muscles become the most relaxed they've ever felt before.
      The warlord raises his weapon for the final blow. Suddenly something lashes out with blinding speed, ripping something from his chestplate. Almost instantly the warlord can feel a simultaneous rise and fall of power.
      Iron Rock Crusher

Across town:

      He can't breathe well. His lungs scream with every breath he took; gasps was all he could manage. He was vaguely reminded of the first time he'd gone swimming back home in Netherworld and he'd come home with a water-logged feeling in his lungs. That had felt mildly annoying, but this was heavy and painful, like he couldn't get a full breath in.
      "Alex, C'mon!! Get up!!" Sage screams, shaking him. "If you don't get moving, you'll die!"
      Alex Koma shakes his head and curls up away from Halo. He didn't feel like he was dying. He was only cold and all he wants to do was sleep. He hurt and all he wants is to be left alone. He didn't want to be a Ronin Warrior right now; he just wants to sleep... sleep sounds so good right now...
      "ALEX, WAKE UP, DAMNIT!!" Sage screams once more.
      Alex begins to feel confused. All he wanted to do was sleep... they were in a safe area made by Rahne's shield. They were safe.
      "Sage, he's in shock... we might not be able to mov-"
      "I'm not leaving anyone behind!" Sage snaps, his voice cracking uncharacteristically with panic. "OH GOD!"
      There's a heavy, muffled thud, then Rahne's shriek as the sound of something very heavy sliding filled the air.
      "Alex, please!" Sage begs, his voice cracking even worse and filled with emotion. "Sit up!!"
      It was obvious Sage wasn't going to leave him alone. Alex sits up and immediately regretted it. The wound in his side pulls viciously, but ignores the pain as he sees something very alarming. The violet colored energy shield contracts sharply and then wavers like water.
      "Rahne!? Sage?!" Alex cries out, "What's going on?!"
      "SAGE, ICAN'THOLDITANYLONGER!!" Rahne shrieks as her shield buckles under the combined assault of the two Alex had identified earlier as Keizo and Melilah.
      They don't have any time to react when Keizo bashes into Rahne like a runaway train.
      Sage leaps in front of Alex as Melilah slashes with what looks vaguely like a katana made of some black metal. His no-datchi leaps up as if of it's own violation and blocks with a ring of metal on metal. Sparks spray the redheads face with little points of pain as Melilah hammers the sword against Sage's guard; coming closer and closer to him.
      Alex struggles to his feet and begins to run to help Rahne.

Not far away...

      Coughing and sputtering; Rowen hauls himself up onto the dock, water sluicing down his subarmor and from his soaked hair. He rolls onto his back and gulps deep breath into his oxygen starved lungs.
      Below, the water still churns mercilessly from the demon's attacks. He'd been taking hits almost constantly until his armor had simply dissolved under the stress.
      Bad combination, Rowen thinks, getting weakly to his feet. Water and Strata don't mix in any way whatsoever. If I can't beat this guy, I'm screwed.
      He resummons his armor, feeling sweat trickling down his back under his armor and runs.
      "Where are you, Mortal! We aren't done playing!!" comes the Warlord's manic sounding voice.
      Rowen flees down a street, doing his best to stay out of sight.
      "Are you THERE?!" comes the laugh as a wall of water roars down the street after him.
      Rowen leaps, his "bubble" forming around him as he hovers behind a ruined building. He watches the water wash under him, and then the Warlord appears.
      "You can't hide forever, Mortal!" the warlord screams in growing anger. A wall of water nearly as high as his cover crashes down the street in an almost surreal scene. Suddenly the building he's using for cover shudders and begins to crumble.
      With a curse, Rowen shoots across to another building that's still standing and settles on a small ornamental ledge. With trembling knees, he kneels so he can still see the warlord.
      The warlord curses angrily and gestures. A stream of water washes into a building next to his perch and seems to flush through it.
      He's trying to trick me! Rowen thinks, fighting his fear and doubt down inside him. He doesn't realize I'm right here!
      The building shifts a little and then the water shoots back out bearing with it the Warlord's handiwork. From here Rowen can see what's going on and it fills him with loathing.
      Rowen ducks back, putting the building between himself and the warlord. He squeezes his eyes shut in horror and revulsion.
      Mangled corpses churn and tumble about in the water in a macabre dance. The Warlord gestures again and suddenly they orient so they look like they're trying to tread water or swim away.
      "Take a look, Ronin!" the warlord laughs. "Won't take much to drown these poor souls!!"
      "Oh God!" He whimpers brokenly, saying a silent prayer as the Warlord tries in vain to lure him into his trap. The sound of the water, the sight of the corpses being used in the trap, and the warlord's psychotic laughter are all he can think of.
      Suddenly his armor whispers a warning that the warlord is moving. Rowen creeps backwards on the ledge and then carefully climbs over a small ornamental facade that juts out over a balcony and climbs inside.
      He locks his muscles to try to keep perfectly silent and waits. He peeks through a small hole made probably by a bird or small rodent and watches.
      "Where are you-hooo?" the warlord calls, drifting past.
      Rowen bites his tongue as he realizes that he could see through the warlord. A netherspirit? Or is he something else entirely?
      "Averon! Return to me!" comes a familiar voice, half inside his head and half audibly.
      Zanaton! Rowen thinks in alarm. If Zanaton were to sense him it would be all over in an instant. Fear clamps down on Rowen's muscles and he finds himself frozen.
      The warlord's - no, Averon's - voice takes on a whine as he speaks. "But Master! I haven't killed Strata yet!"
      "No matter! We have Anubis's brat!"
      "Alexander of Cruelty?"
      "No. This one!"
      There's silence and then Rowen can hear a child crying. It sounds tinny, as if through a bad radio.
      {"...Silence, brat!"} comes a voice that he hasn't heard yet.
      Probably another Warlord, Rowen thinks, clutching an arrow against his chest.
      "I see you can actually do something right, Crag," Averon's voice says mockingly.
      {"Shut up."}
      {"I WAN CYE!! I WAN MY DADDDDDDDIIIIIIIIIEEEEEEEE!!"}
      Rowen gasps in shock and then clenches his fist in anger. "Saen!"
      "HEAR THIS, RONIN! WE HAVE THE CHILD, SAEN! IF YOU WANT HIM ALIVE, COME FACE US!" Zanaton's voice booms.
      {"YES! WE WILL BE WAITING FOR YOU!"} comes Crag's voice.
      A vision of a massive building fills his mind, its field vaguely in diamond shape. Rowen gasps as he realizes that it's the baseball stadium.
      Then all goes still.
      For long hours Rowen stays hidden in the facade, not daring to move. Finally as the sun sets and the stars rise, he ventures out. He takes deep breathes and leaps to the top of the building. A cold winter wind blows past him, moaning as it blows across the ruins.
      Tonight, the stars offer no solace. They only seem to drive home with all the more force that he's alone. Strata shivers and wraps his arms around himself.
      "I'll find you..." Rowen whispers to the wind.

*****

      The pain in his chest from broken ribs reminds him that he's still alive...
      Keep going. Have to keep going.
      The pain in his hip and broken leg reminds him how far the stadium is.
      Can't stop. Have to keep going.
      His bad leg makes a scraping sound on the ground as he uses his yari as a crutch to speed his movement. His leg had gotten worse; only his armor was allowing him to walk on it.
      The moon was rising over the ruined city, lighting the city in an eerie bluish light. A shiver not borne of cold travels down Cye's spine, and he drags himself onward.
      Here and there he could see the distant glow of firelight and the voices of survivors regrouping. Joyful screams and long wails of grief echo and intertwine through the frosty air.
      At least there are survivors, Cye thinks miserably, I was worried for a while there.
      He'd never managed to walk as far as he was going to have to, and he doubted he'd ever want to again. At the speed he was able to walk right now, he knew he could make it there if he walked all night.
      His bad leg made soft dragging noises against the rubble at his feet, but he forced himself. A child was counting on him.

That night...

      Jagged pinnacles of rock stand like monuments in the middle of what was main street. A short while ago there had been the boom and cracking of cooling rock, but now all is still.
      Buildings lay crumpled on their foundations as if they were deflated, while others had leaned over until they'd broken apart. Their exposed girders rise into the murky sky like the bleached ribs left after a lion's feast. The trees in a small park lay scattered about like mere twigs after a storm instead of trees that had been older than most of the inhabitants of this once mighty city.
      A chill wind stirs through the broken windows that gape at the ground like empty eye-sockets; making a low, long, despairing howl.
      Danie hugs herself against the cold, wondering what had happened to her friends and boyfriend. It was too quiet.
      A low moan catches her attention. She looks behind her and bites her lip, trying to rein in her treacherous emotions. She had to be strong for everyone... no matter what.
      They'd snuck past military blockades and tougher things to find the others. What they'd found was devastation. Sharra met her eyes and pulled her thick jacket closer; still tending to the young man they'd found in an alley, unconscious.
      "I-I don't know if he's going to make it," Sharra said, her mouth a thin, straight line.
      Danie nodded and looked down at the green haired man on the street. His left hand was clamped around something; but what it was they couldn't tell. The muscles had locked up, making it impossible for them to break his grip.
      What was strange was that she was certain she knew him. Yet that was impossible... wasn't it?
      In a shimmer of light, a meteor streaks across the sky like a falling angel; and all is still.