05: The Decisive Battle II

Decisive Battle II

CODE NAME: KESSEN

BATTLE PARTICIPANTS: DEATH STAR GALAXY vs THE JOURNALISM CLUB

STAGE: CEMETERY SAVANNAH

Death Star Galaxy Circle Appointments The Journalism Club
Guardsman Railgun (4) Leader Klein Apprentice (4) is Tsuboi Ryoutarou
Mirage Zealot (3) Sub-Leader Luka Extinguisher (3) is Shokuhou Nozomi
Danube Lancer (2) Member Green Guardian (3) is Ichijo Tatesuke
Neon Slicer (2) Member Spring Renascentia (2) is Gekkagawa Mikiseki
Whiskey Asura (1) Member Cul Artillery (1) is Kitamura Misawa
Glade Crusher (1) Member Turquoise Duro (1) is Kihara Gunsou
Smalt Hunter (1) Member

Note: The number in brackets denotes the player’s Level.

The hot sun blazed in the sky, and all Gunsou could think of was how wrong this day was.

He had been ranked near the bottom of his class in the latest Mathematics test, causing him to be the subject of much gossip and rumours. Then, Ryoutarou and his group had forced out the news from him that he had duelled – and lost – to Guardsman Railgun, the very player they were desperately fending off. Misawa seemed to have joined them too, leaving him very much alone in his failures.

Massaging his aching eyes, Gunsou sighed as he proceeded down the stairs to the locker area. With sloppy movements, he pulled out his shoes and let them fall to the floor, turning them over with his toes before slipping them on. Beyond the doors, he could see five familiar people gathered at the gate: Ryoutarou, Nozomi, Tatesuke, Mikiseki, and Misawa. Their heads were huddled together in discussion again.

Gunsou shuffled up to them with all the enthusiasm of a prisoner walking to the firing squad.

“…inimise the chances of being tracked, we’ll split up from here,” Ryoutarou was speaking in hushed tones. “Stay close to someone else when you walk out, and turn towards the bus stop. Don’t get together too fast. We don’t know when they’ll strike.”

And then Ryoutarou turned to Gunsou. “My apologies for earlier, Gunsou, but the plan still stands. You will stay close to Miki and protect her at all times. Don’t leave her until we tell you to. That okay, bro?”

He held up his fist, waiting for a bump in acknowledgement. Gunsou merely blinked twice before slowly touching his knuckles together with Ryoutarou’s. Satisfied, the latter nodded at the group and they dispersed, leaving Mikiseki alone together with Gunsou.

They stared at each other briefly before Gunsou broke eye contact, his eyes looking down and turning just a shade redder.

“Mikiseki, I…”

-I don’t want to do this.

“Don’t worry. Everything will be okay.”

She might have said that with a reassuring smile, but as she turned and tugged Gunsou towards the school main gate, her emotionless eyes seemed to say otherwise. Above, the clouds darkened to a steel gray.

The Tired Boy: Kihara Gunsou

疲れ果て彼:木原群壮

The six of us stepped out of the school gate. A notification appeared in the corner of my vision: [»Now connected to: GLOBAL NET]

Lightning flashed in the sky directly above. The clock in the toolbar read 2.05pm. One moment, I was standing outside the school gate-

BASHINN!

And the world turned blue the next.

-Who the heck is it now?!

Is this some test dreamed up by Ryoutarou? Were they just waiting to jump on me all at once the moment we get out of school?

…No. Ryoutarou had said, “We don’t know when they’ll strike.”

Who are ‘they?’ And why is the stage taking so long to load…?

I blinked several times and pinched my wrist; a queer sensation of hard metal is felt, although my fingers tell me they’re touching bare skin.

But why is this stage so dark? I can’t even see myself!

“Duro? Where are you?”

Mikiseki’s panicked voice rises an octave from somewhere to my right.

“I’m right here to your left, Renascentia.”

“Where are we…?”

“The stage loaded, right?”

Ryoutarou’s voice suddenly cut through the darkness: “Everyone, calm down now.”

Nobody moved in the pitch-black darkness. All I could see was my Health Gauge on the left side, and the right corner – where they enemy’s Health Gauges should be – are completely blank.

The clouds above seemed to part, and illuminating moonlight greeted our eyes at last – revealing row after row of tombstones.

I sucked in a breath in fear. Dozens of unmarked, identical graves in rows of twenty make up the entire ground in which we’ve materialised in. A huge, gnarled tree towered over us, dead boughs casting sinister shadows over our group. The full moon shone weakly through a twilight sky, and where it fell upon our clearing, I could see something else moving beyond the graveyard. It was waving about feebly, it looked like… like…?!

“Are those skeletons!?” Misawa gasped upon realising what they were. Apprentice narrowed his eyes and audibly clenched his jaw. Green Guardian lifted his huge Tower Shield, tensing up and straightening his back.

“Stay… Stay on your guard, people. I’ve never seen this stage before.”

“And it could become a familiar sight soon enough, eh?”

A voice that belonged to neither Guardian nor Apprentice smoothly parted the silence of the cemetery. Young-sounding like a kid, but it trembled with… No, it was shaking with excitement?

“Well well. Please ta’ meet you guys an’ gals at last.”

From the cover of a fallen tree, a dull yellow avatar stepped out, licking his lips and rubbing his hands.

So many hands! I did a double-take. It wasn’t that this avatar’s mask was strange-looking, but… I don’t know, just What? Because where this avatar’s arms began from his shoulders, there was one more arm below both arms, giving this guy four arms in total!

What was more, as he spoke each of his (four) hands moved independently of each other with just as much dexterity and control as someone with two hands. How is that even possible?! How can someone make use of something they don’t have in real life, unless… I don’t know what!

“Who are you?” Apprentice drew his sword in an instant. “Why did you challenge all of us at once?”

“Aah, sorry ’bout that. Guess it’s rude ta’ make an appearance without intra’ducing myself. I’m Whiskey Asura and it’s my ultimate pleasure to meet you all…”

Whiskey Asura bows low with all his hands mimicking a formal gesture. Something about him gives me the chills, but what?

“And nope, I ain’t the one who challenged ya’ll. That would be quite the silly thing ta’ do, amirite?” Whiskey Asura smiles widely. “Nope, ya’ gotta hand it to our Commander and Subcommander for arranging this wonderful opportunity for our fated meeting.”

I glanced at the right side corner, hoping to see something, anything; there was none. Only Whiskey Asura’s Health Gauge was there above his head when I turn back and look at his freaky four-armed avatar.

“You back the hell off right now, Whiskey Asura!” Luka Extinguisher raised her hand and aimed it straight at Asura, “Get out of my sight!”

“My my, what strong words for someone you’ve never met, Miss Extinguisher. Why the hate? Shouldn’t we at least be given the privilege of being able to introduce ourselves?” Asura chuckled to himself.

If this guy is unknown to Apprentice and Extinguisher, and yet they’re so afraid of him, what is that supposed to mean? And why is it that his Health Gauge isn’t in the usual place in my screen’s upper right corner, but only above his head?

The answer to both questions presented themselves three seconds later.

“Come out then, Cap’n. We might have a little more to do than originally expected, but no trouble. It’s just two more newbies.”

Dry grass rustled from all around and a single familiar silhouette emerged directly ahead of me. In that moment, my heart must have dropped to my stomach; though the rest of his body was hidden in shadow, his baseball cap and face mask were all too familiar. I just duelled with him yesterday; how could I forget him?

If Guardsman Railgun was surprised to see me, he didn’t let it show at all. He merely stood there dispassionately while more guys emerged from all around us. As I turned my head frantically to look, their names, Health, and Special Gauges all appeared individually over their heads too:

Right behind Railgun was a dark blue guy, so dark he almost appeared black. He appeared to be unarmed. His name read ‘Mirage Zealot.’

To my left was the aforementioned Whiskey Asura, and to my right, a bright red duel avatar, glowing faintly as though he was luminescent, stood there with a strange gun in hand and a wicked grin on his face. His name explained the glow somewhat: ‘Neon Slicer.’

Slowly turning around clockwise, a blue avatar nearly as tall as I was leaned on a weapon I faintly recognised as a spear. This guy’s name read ‘Danube Lancer.’

And the last two unknown opponents hefted large weapons in their hands: a dark green, heavyset player named ‘Glade Crusher’ and a small, stocky duel avatar who seemed to only understand the dialect of fists. Smalt Hunter’s small, red eyes glared at me, and his hands, almost laughably short, twitched towards a massive greatsword on his back.

-This is who we’re fighting? Never before, not even when I was fighting Railgun himself, have I felt so weak and powerless in comparison. The battle hasn’t even begun, but these guys clearly have fighting power and experience beyond my imagination. Reflexively, I gulp in fear and anxiety.

The standoff lasted for only a few seconds, but it feels like eternity. Whether he was unable to take it anymore, or simply decided to make a move, I will never know. Apprentice took a defiant step forwards towards Railgun:

“So. You’re here.”

“Damn right you are.” Guardsman Railgun tapped the edge of his baseball cap. “I’m here and today, you’re all getting creamed.”

“How’d you find us?”

“Oh? You didn’t hear those rumours?” Railgun leaned in and cocked his head to the side. “Y’know, the one about Burst Linkers disappearing after they duelled a particular somebody?”

“That’s your work, I believe.” Apprentice growled, never allowing his sword to waver from his initial position.

“Nope. That’s actually just one of you who led us straight to you… Mister Tsuboi.”

The wooden sword trembles as its owner sucked in a breath. “How… How?!”

“Don’t look at me. Ask your girlfriend over there,” Railgun callously pointed, “Nozomi, I believe.”

Extinguisher abandoned all restraint and lunges at Railgun at this; only Apprentice and Guardian grabbing her at the last second stood between her and certain death.

“What?! How the heck did you find that out!” She shrieked.

“You’ve all been «Indicted», that’s what.” Railgun stated as though it was the most obvious fact in the world.

“You see my buddy Zealot? — He gestures at the dark blue avatar, standing silently in the shadows. — He’s the one doing the dirtiest work I’ve ever seen, and he has my appreciation for that. Since I’ve gotten all your real names, addresses, ID and such, I guess it’s time to return the favour with some information.

He paused. “Zealot’s sword ain’t no ordinary sword. It’s the Enhanced Armament «Judicator». The moment he touches you with it, if he wants to, he’ll mark you as his. Even when the duel is over, he knows when and where you last Accelerated to use Brain Burst.”

“With all these Social Security Cameras around, he can determine who was standing at that very spot when we duelled. And through some kind ‘o magic he pulls outta his butthole, he hacks into your ‘unhackable’ Neuro Linkers, and pulls all that information like candy from a baby.”

“So if you really wanna blame somebody for giving away your personal info, blame Miss Pinky over there. It’s thanks to her that we’ve got your addresses, names of parents, phone numbers, a whole lotta stuff that I really would have to kill you over. If we can’t finish this today, we’ll follow you home and wrap up our shit there. As long as we like, as much as we like.”

“..!”

The revelation is astounding. I might not have understood everything, but his last phrase stands out: Railgun has the ability to track us to our home. Even that sanctuary where Misawa and I grew up is within his reach. We’re no longer safe from that guy and his goons.

“I’m gonna make you a proposition, Spring Renascentia,” Railgun turned and spoke to Mikiseki directly. “You know as well as I do that it’s an offer you can’t refuse.”

“Join our group, and you’ll gain our protection, our trust, our friendship. We may not look like the best bunch ’round town, but we’re the strongest. Nobody hits on our turf nowadays, unlike your little circle that has to fight daily to cling on to your school area.”

“Shu…Shut up!”

Apprentice’s shout echoed emptily around the graveyard. Was that true? Were they having that hard a time in the game?

Mikiseki simply shook her head. “Thanks for your request, but no. I think you know that these are my real friends, so-”

Abruptly, she hooked her arm around mine and tugged me closer. “I’ll never abandon them willingly! I will stand by their side forever!”

“–Please, take care of me. I’m all yours.” Mikiseki whispered to me softly.

Guardsman Railgun’s only reply is an unreadable nod of his head. He pulled his baseball cap lower still.

“Go.”

ZIING!

A powerful flash of red light, bright as the sun itself, left the muzzle of Neon Slicer’s strange weapon, cutting right down the middle of our group towards-

WHAM!

“Argh!” Green Guardian took the brunt of the blow, lifting his entire body up and into a huge gnarled tree!

“Ughh…”

“G-Guardian!” Renascentia squeaked.

“I’m fine, don’t worry,” He said, “Nothing I can’t walk away from- wait, what?”

Guardian attempted to sit up, only to find that his hand was now suddenly wrapped in a thick branch.

“Holy-” Apprentice visibly recoiled. “Get out now! Now!”

“I’m trying!” Guardian yelled. “But- Frick! I’m stuck!”

Taking on a life of their own, those things creep over and under Guardian’s struggling body, slowly but surely tying him down.

“GO!” He pleaded. “Run for it!”

Nobody needs telling twice. Renascentia grabbed my arm and pulls me into the darkness.

Railgun looked on at the chaos unfolding before him, a bored expression on his face. Watching Duro and Renascentia escaping to the right, Apprentice and Extinguisher splitting up, the last new player, Cul Artillery, shooting him a glare until she too ran away into the woods, he took it all in and adjusted the gears turning in his head.

Turquoise Duro and Cul Artillery, both unknowns who have joined the group late enough for Mirage Zealot to not know about them. Duro, he knew enough about him: he was a mook, but a strong and fast mook. The reason for pairing him together with Renascentia is obvious.

Cul Artillery, however, is definitely the more dangerous of the two. It’s hard to tell colours apart in the «Cemetery Savannah» stage, but she was clearly a bright red colour. And ‘artillery’ most definitely implied that she possesses powerful, long-range, indirect firepower.

Interesting as this was, first things first. Take care of the knowns.

“Slicer, block off the end of the street.”

“Hunter and Crusher. Go bring back Renascentia in one piece. Duro isn’t much to worry about.”

“Extinguisher is all yours, Zealot. Get Lancer to assist you if you need.”

“Hey boss, any way I can help out?” Whiskey Asura put two of his hands together. “It’s kinda boring if I just stayed here…”

“Sure. Come with me.” Railgun bent down to pick up a piece of bone, still bleached white under the moonlight. A quick snap broke it into two sharp fragments, perfect for throwing.

“We’re going to hunt Apprentice down.”

Duro bashed through the fiftieth (or it felt like it, at least) tree in their way when-

“Oof!”

Something wrapped its fingers around his ankle, pulling him face-first into soft ground!

“Ugh! What the heck is this?!”

Flipping around, Duro immediately saw the problem: a pair of waving skeletal arms, sticking out from the ground, one of which had latched on to his foot and was trying to shorten his life prematurely.

“Not today, no!!”

Lashing out with his foot furiously, Duro kicked at the mass of rotting tendons and bone, but the thing possessed an unnaturally tenacious grip and refused to let go. Twisting around, Duro screamed in frustration as he tried to uproot the nefarious hand from wherever it came from–

And instantly wished he hadn’t when the rest of the skeleton materialised from the earth. Withered and crumbling from the waist down, its empty skull leered closer, its jaw snapping with one tendon remaining. Wide-eyed, Duro barely registered the slim Health Gauge and name that appeared in his vision above it: «Decomposing Remains».

“You’re- dead- and- you- should- stay- dead!!” Duro yelled. Scrambling backwards as much as he could, Duro embedded his toe into the creature’s skull (or where it should be had the thing been alive), shattering the monstrosity’s head into a dozen shards.

The now-headless enemy roamed with outstretched hands, but fortunately it was stumbling away from Duro. His heart hammering a tattoo against his chest, he leaned heavily against a dead tree trunk.

His thoughts turned to the girl he was running together with. “Renascentia, where are you-”

He never finished. From some ten metres away, a young man’s voice screamed:

“TIMBEEEERRRR!”

Again, Duro was forced to dive to the side before the tree collapsed on him with an earthshaking BOOM! The resulting dust cloud make him choke and cough out bits of dirt, but it also masked the footsteps of the wannabe woodcutter:

“So, you’re the new guy? Lol, you don’t even have a weapon.”

Said speaker was a massive dark green fighter wielding a grossly oversized hammer in one hand. True to his namesake, Glade Crusher seemed to have closed the distance between himself and Duro the only way he could: by flattening each and every tree standing between himself and his quarry into little more than a pile of matchsticks.

Duro got to his feet. “I didn’t even have one. Though if you’re kind enough to surrender right now and hand that hammer over, I’d be very pleased.”

Crusher just laughed, the kind you hear from a bully cornering a new kid in the playground. “But of course! Everything can be solved when you ask for it politely!”

Duro had just raised his fist into a ready position when-

CRASH!

All the wind was knocked out of him as the other guy, unnoticed by Duro, had a running start from which to launch himself into his unprotected flank. Duro blinked furiously and spat dirt out of his mouth again; raised high above him was a huge sword wrapped in a blue glow, poised to part his head from body in a single blow-!

“UWOOAH!”

Smalt Hunter slashed down with all his strength. Only a life-saving roll to the side kept Duro alive, and when he got to his feet, he found that the massive sword had buried itself halfway into the ground.

“Well, shite! Not again!”

Now, both Crusher and Duro looked on in disbelief as Smalt Hunter hurled curses freely and tried in vain to pull his sword out.

“Need a hand?!”

Smalt Hunter looked up just in time to see Duro’s blue-green fist thrusting at him like a bullet. With a satisfying CRUNCH, Duro knocked Hunter back into a patch of compost – the very same patch, incidentally, where Duro had spotted a skeletal arm waving around mere moments earlier.

“Oh, you sonova-!”

Five or so arms quickly emerged from the pile and ensnared their new quarry. Twisting violently, Hunter did his best to free himself, but the more he thrashed, the deeper he sunk.

Duro grinned darkly and grasped the handle of Hunter’s greatsword. Holding it close to his chest, he sucked in a breath and heaved – and the sword came free with a metallic SHIING!

“So you think anybody can just pick up an EA and use it like that, eh?”

Glade Crusher snapped back into action and raised his hammer above his shoulder.

“Let’s see how you like this! «Earthquake»!”

Five metres away from Crusher, Duro was too far to do anything, and could only watch as Crusher brought his hammer down unto the ground-

BOOM!

“Ahh!” The shockwave knocked Duro to the ground, and at the same time, an unpleasant tingling from his legs assailed his senses. Crawling, Duro tried to stand up using the sword as a crutch, only to fail as his feet gave way from under him!

“Why can’t I stand?!”

Crusher’s only answer was a low chuckle. “Lemme sculpt you down to size now, newbie!”

With the grace of a lion despite his bulk, Crusher hopped over in a single bound, hammer raised high. His feet refused to respond to him, so Duro had no choice but to raise Hunter’s sword to block:

CLANG!

“Ow!” Feeling as though his arms have been pulverised, Duro dropped the stolen weapon, which allowed Crusher to grab his neck one-handedly and throw him against a sinisterly bent tree.

-Oh no, not this again!

The image of Guardian being bound by the zombie tree surges afresh to the front of his mind. Adrenaline gives Duro the push to stand up and clear the tree before a rogue root can reel him in- but the paralysis from Crusher’s Earthquake keels him over before he can take another step.

-Wait.

Duro, once again, is unarmed and immobile. But if he could just use that tree, capable of trapping even Green Guardian, to his advantage…

Crusher bent low and charged right at Duro, fully intending to turn him into a splatter of blue-green paste in his next hit. He knows he has just the one chance, and if he messes up, Renascentia will be next-

“UWOOHH!”

“Now!”

Pushing with his arms, Duro flipped his body around on his butt, bringing his useless legs to bear. Crusher raised his hammer high, and Duro kicked out with all his hopes pinned on this one hit:

“Wah?!”

Crusher’s hammer swings down squarely onto Duro’s left foot, and it exploded with pain, making Duro cry out. But his right foot comes into solid contact with Crusher’s abdomen; changing his momentum and lifting Crusher off his feet, introducing to him flight without an engine for a brief second-

CRASH!

-and Crusher landed in the grasp of the undead tree, which wasted no time encasing Glade Crusher in an above-ground burial of roots.

“No! Lemme go! ^$*@^*#&#%^#”

Fortunately, a tree root gagged and cut off the rest of Crusher’s words before he could further expand Duro’s growing vocabulary of swearwords. Feeling broken in twenty different places, Duro heaved a sigh of relief and struggled to stand, hoping that the paralysis had finally worn off.

“Hey. Nice fight!”

Duro froze for a second before he remembered that Death Star Galaxy has no girls. Renascentia, having tucked herself away in the hollow of a few dead trees, had been saving her Special Gauge for this moment.

“Hold still, Duro.”

As her hands rest on his shoulders, a shudder ran up Duro’s spine. Even though they’re technically in the middle of battle, he can’t help but remember that this is still Mikiseki laying her hands on him, and the memories of her touch in all its intoxicativeness came to mind.

Perhaps she was aware of that, which is why when Renascentia laid her hand on Duro, her voice audibly lowered in volume in a way you might call ‘seductive’:

“«Paramedical».”

“Uuhh…”

An intense green glow burst forth from her hands, and Duro really couldn’t help but groan: multiple sensations sprang forth from where her hands touched to each part of his duel avatar that had been visibly damaged in battle. Soaking in a hot bath, drinking warm soup, relaxing in bed; all these day-to-day pleasures were felt as though they were actually happening, and not merely a conscious recollection.

“So… Good…” he groaned.

Duro’s Health Gauge rose from seventy percent to full, shining brightly in the darkness of the stage like a beacon. The glow from Renascentia’s hands faded, but she didn’t move her hands away.

“Ahh…”

“It’s done. Thanks for your hard work, Duro!”

His eyelids half-closed in delirium, Duro turned back to look up at Renascentia.

Has she ever looked this beautiful under the moonlight? The soft, assuring green colour of her perfectly proportioned cheeks, the gentle curve of her eyes, the softness of her fingers as she stroked his face-

“What on earth are you two doing?!”

Running at full tilt through the forest, a bright red avatar chose this moment to burst out from her flight and drop right into the atmosphere; Cul Artillery, breathing hard with pistol in hand, glared at the couple. At least Duro had the sense of mind to spring apart at that very moment, but Renascentia tried to reach out with her hands once more.

“Get away from him!”

BANG!

One warning shot and her expression was all the signal needed for Renascentia to scurry away from Duro. “That’s not very polite of you!” Artillery yelled.

“He’s doing his job, that’s all! Nothing to get jealous about!” Renascentia fired back.

“There’s no need to get that close either!”

“What is your problem?!”

Duro looked back and forth between the two quarreling girls, his hesitation only serving to escalate the conflict between them. The sound of muted footsteps reached his ears just as Artillery aimed her pistol directly at Renascentia-

“«EMPLACE-”

“Get down!” Duro cut her off mid-word and lept forward, picking up the fallen greatsword. At the same time, a bluish blur burst out from the trees, brandishing a weapon aimed directly at Duro’s heart:

CLANG!

Danube Lancer’s strike, instead of piercing his chest, was deflected to the side and grazed Duro’s right arm, shaving off a fraction of his newly-recovered Health. His eyes widened in shock for the briefest instant, but he recovered quickly and held his spear up, ready to strike again. Duro stood his ground, likewise, and stole a glance behind:

The two bickering girls, ready to tear out the other’s throat mere moments ago, were gone. He was all alone again with nothing but a stolen weapon between him and an experienced spear user.

“It’s just you and I, Duro. Look at me!”

Lancer’s youthful voice filled the small clearing in which they faced each other down. Bouncing on the balls of his feet, the tip of Lancer’s spear traced a pattern in the air as he spoke, betraying an itch in Lancer’s hands to carve a signature into Duro’s face. Duro narrowed his eyes and stepped back to gain ground, watching out of the corner of his eyes for anything, anybody

“Hyah!”

Lancer struck straight and true, the spearhead flying forwards at a terrifying speed. Duro had barely a second to deflect the hit, but no sooner had he begun to move his sword than Lancer withdrew his spear- and struck again! A flurry of stabs and lackluster blocks ensued, until the spear’s business end made a clean, solid hit and buried itself in a crack in Duro’s chestplate; the feeling not unlike being stabbed with a box cutter!

“Augh!”

More out of instinct than anything, Duro twisted to the side, one hand grasping the spear in an attempt to extract the offending thing. The outcome, therefore, stunned Duro when he ended up jerking the spear out of Lancer’s grip, and now armed with not one, but two stolen weapons!

“Hey! That’s mine!”

Duro saw little reason to return such a dangerously skilled owner his weapon and tossed it into the waiting darkness. Lancer’s eyes followed it as far as he could see, looked back at Duro, and swore loudly.

“Well, if it’ll please you, how about I throw away this sword too, and then we’ll be even-” Duro began.

“«Fist of Phalanx»!”

A reddish light enveloped Lancer’s fist as he charged. By the time Duro realised it, the unarmed blue avatar already closed the distance between them and struck:

CRUNCH!

Sinking his fist deeply into Duro’s gut, Lancer triumphantly lifted him up off the ground in one blow and grasped him by the neck. Duro choked and struggled for air that couldn’t reach him, his vision was surely blacking out and dots were appearing in its center-

A pair of fresh, light green hands appeared, wrapping themselves around Lancer’s armoured chest and waist.

“«Clear»!”

“Wha- ARGH!”

BZzZzT! Lightning sprang from Renascentia’s hands, arcing beautiful curves over and under Lancer’s body and leaving charcoal scorch marks in their wake. Dropping Duro to the ground, Lancer clutched at his devastated chest as he sank to the ground, his Health Gauge reduced to half and a tiny yellow icon with a lightning bolt appeared besides it: «PARALYSED».

“Th..Thanks!”

Making sure Renascentia had backed off far enough, Duro picked up his dropped sword. The unfamiliar weight strained his wrist as he raised it above his head.

“Please… No…”

The low moan from Lancer stopped Duro in his tracks for the briefest instant.

*schick*

An awful, wet sound. Hot, blazing pain. His spine itself burned and ignited his very soul-

“AAHH!”

Duro looked down in time to see the point of a black blade disappear back into his body. With a eerie metallic shing! sound, Mirage Zealot extracted his sword and stepped out from the cover of a gnarled tree.

“Ughh…”

Renascentia stood rooted to the spot, her eyes as large as saucers, while Duro struggled to stand and bring Hunter’s sword to bear. Zealot looked on expressionlessly at his adversaries and said nothing. Finally managing to get on his two feet unassisted, Duro gritted his teeth and placed himself between Mirage Zealot and Renascentia, fighting the urge to keel over from the pain.

“Amateur.”

Had Zealot not moved his mouth, Duro may well have mistook it for the tree speaking. His voice was low, so low, and tinged dark with hate. The black sword flicked upwards in the blink of an eye.

“Be judged.”

Tired, anxious, and nerves firing on high alert with his pain, Duro had neither the self-control nor the patience to wait for Zealot to strike. Swinging the heavy sword with both hands, he yelled something in the general likeness of a curse and attacked.

Mirage Zealot smoothly ducked, rolled forwards, and thrusted in a single fluid motion. Again, his sword found and penetrated a single point that wasn’t shielded by blue-green armour. Duro screamed again.

“You-!”

Fighting Crusher, Hunter, and Lancer was nothing compared to Zealot. Where the trio had basically thrown themselves at Duro and hoped for the best, Zealot timed his dodges and counters in a way one could only call ‘refined.’ While Duro swung his unfamiliar sword uselessly and constantly missed, Zealot instead slashed and cut one-handedly with surgical precision and drew blood every single time.

The disparity was obvious, and soon Duro was down to 40% Health, in very bad shape, and lay flat on his back while Zealot was more-or-less unharmed. For all of Duro’s efforts, all he had to show for it was a single nick on Zealot’s right forearm, a flaw in his otherwise dark blue armour that seemed to melt into the shadow itself.

Raising the «Judicator» high, Zealot’s full Special Gauge depleted. A black-blue light lit up the blade from within and instilled pure terror in Duro’s heart.

Is this…the end? He thought numbly.

“-«Emplace Gun».”

A soft whisper, far away, reached his ears. The ground quaked, but Zealot, pre-occupied with marking his next victim, failed to notice.

Who’s voice is that-

“Gun One, FIRE!”

Dead leaves and dirt scattered in the wake of the supersonic shell; a hole opened up magnificently in Zealot’s chest and he was blasted back.

Footsteps drew closer. Unable to fight the pain, Duro simply closed his eyes and let the warmth wash over him.

“–«amedical».”

Duro came to with the most heavenly sensations he had ever experienced, even in reality. Only the sight of Renascentia’s calm eyes, reminded him that this was still a game.

“Ahh…”

“Tch. It feels good, huh?”

Misawa – Cul Artillery’s voice, furrowed with annoyance, reached his ears and pulled him firmly to earth. Blinking, Duro realised he was no longer lying on the ground, but instead had been propped up against a tree. A distance away, Hunter’s prized greatsword lay shattered in pieces; how, and when it had been destroyed, Duro could not recall. The constant battling had grinded away his memory.

His Health recovered to a respectable sixty percent, Duro nodded at Renascentia and she let go, drawing herself back to a standing position.

“We… We should rejoin the others.” She suggested, “Hopefully, we can draw with Galaxy with so many of their people down…”

Artillery nodded in agreement and stowed her pistol. “C’mon, let’s go.”

Offering her cherry-red hand to Duro, she motioned at him to come along. His mind temporarily blank, Duro gazed up at her green eye lenses.

Artillery clucked her tongue and said, “Get up, idiot. There’s still ten minutes left.”

Wordlessly, Duro took her hand in his and she pulled him up.

The three of them retraced Artillery’s route, reaching the clearing where they had first spawned when the battle had started. Nobody seemed to be there and no Health Gauges appeared as they scanned the clearing.

“Should we try shouting for them or something?” Duro suggested.

Artillery shrugged, and had just opened her mouth when a familiar voice roared-

“«CERTAIN DEADLY RAILGUN»!”

BOOM! An explosion sounded, deafened Duro, and tossed him like a doll ten metres forwards. His mind racing, Duro scrambled to feel all his four limbs, and came to an awful conclusion when he heard her cry.

“…Duro…”

Artillery lay some fifty metres ahead of him, and under the moonlight, her destruction plain to see: her right leg was completely missing along with all of her bright red armour, leaving ugly patches of rusty brown underneath. Bloodred sparks fizzled from her hip and her eyes were half-closed.

“No!”

Renascentia rushed to her side, her hands outstretched and a single phrase on her lips, when two disembodied arms flew out from nowhere, caught her in their grasp, and brought her along for a brief, rocket-powered flight. The two jets at the base of each arm flared brightly with a FSSSSH sound effect as they pinned her to the trunk of a large tree.

But none of that mattered to Duro anymore.

His world had turned grey. Crawling forward on arms that felt like lead, he made it to Cul Artillery’s side and his lips formed her name.

Misawa…

“Idiot.”

Artillery was literally on her last slivers of Health. Only a thin slice of red separated her from life and death.

“It’s just…a game. Go get ’em…” she croaked.

Duro shook his head, unwilling to speak. He wanted to bring her back, he’d give her his Health if he had to-

“Just finish the fight, Gunsou…”

At this point, Artillery eyes – Misawa’s eyes – rolled up into her head and her eyelids closed peacefully. Her presence itself seemed to drain from her duel avatar, as though she had gone to sleep.

Yet, Gunsou simply didn’t let go and cradled her body, mouthing words that weren’t words, thinking thoughts that refused to be said out loud. If a duel avatar could cry, there would be a veritable river pouring from his eyes right now. The simulation of Cul Artillery’s blood pooled around his legs and soaked him in their warmth.

Little sparkles, glittering like stars, floated to the empty sky, and Duro’s gaze followed them upwards. As they twinkled into nothingness, the jumble of thoughts in Gunsou Kihara’s mind clambered over one another, fighting for priority over the other until at last, some sense of order was achieved:
 

I take it back. I take it all back.

I’m sorry I hurt you

I love you. I only want the best for you.

There’s nothing I wouldn’t do if you ask

These feelings from the bottom of my heart will never change as they have been, since that day.

You moved into our house and I called you ‘sis’

Let me do my duty. Let me make good on my vow to protect you.

I have to be strong I will be strong I will be strong for you

[»YOU GOT A NEW SKILL: SAINT’S FIST]

-!!!
 

CRACK.

Like a gunshot in a sleepy town, Guardsman Railgun watched impassively as Asura drove the point of a certain wooden sword into the tree, right next to Renascentia’s head. Held up by her hands with two of Whiskey Asura’s detached hands holding her in place, the reference created by her postion was obvious, but it didn’t matter to him.

Klein Apprentice was no trouble. With a good stroke of luck, Neon Slicer had knocked his sword away, allowing Whiskey Asura to pin him with «Rocketing Limbs». They’d then tossed him into one of the stage traps and left him to die.

Luka Extinguisher had been put down in a brilliant display of teamwork by Mirage Zealot and Danube Lancer. Zealot accumulated Special Gauge by killing the Stage’s enemies while Lancer kept her busy with spearwork. One shank in her back was all it took to incapacitate and decapitate her.

A half-power Railgun shot to Guardian’s unprotected face had wiped out what remaining Health the tree couldn’t take from him. Unfortunately, among Railgun, Slicer, and Asura, none of them had the strength nor ability to carry his monolithic «Tower Shield», so they left it as it was.

Glade Crusher, Smalt Hunter, Mirage Zealot, and Danube Lancer were nowhere to be found, but it didn’t matter to Railgun. After firing another half-power shot to take out Cul Artillery, he figured Whiskey Asura and Neon Slicer could take down Turquoise Duro while he negotiated with Spring Renascentia. ‘Negotiating,’ in his dictionary, would mean offering them the choice of living or dying, and outright uninstalling Brain Burst should the latter choice be favoured.

Of course, Renascentia had to stop crying first, which is why he decided to shock her and drive home his point in the punniest way possible.

“So,” he said, “Which is it? Your friends are strong, but they can’t work together. Look at us- look at my team – he spread his arms wide to gesture at Asura and Slicer – we work together. None of us are weak when we play to our strengths.”

“You’re strong, girl. If you join us, we will be the strongest crew that Accelerated World will ever see. Discover yourself, make new friends, do whatever you like! Only with our teamwork can you have the freedom to do all this. I promise you.”

The girl sniffed and hung her head, unwilling to respond- then opened her mouth and said something Railgun never expected:

“Let me down, please.”

Blinking, Railgun nevertheless snapped his fingers to get Asura’s attention. Asura concentrated; a split second later, his arms let go of Renascentia, letting her collapse to the ground, while they floated back to their owner and reattached themselves with the grace of a ghost.

“Ah, that’s betta’,” Asura remarked to nobody in particular.

Renascentia heaved a sigh. This close, Railgun realised that Renascentia stood merely a head shorter than him.

“I…” she coughed, and continued. “I… formally accept your offer.”

If Railgun had wings, he would have flapped his way up and pump his fist in delight! Controlling his smile, he nodded and stepped forwards, his hand outstretched. “A good decision, Renascentia. Let’s work together-”

CRACK!

Neon Slicer jumped at the sound, echoing around the clearing. It wasn’t natural-sounding; not like when Apprentice’s sword had skewered the tree, this sounded more metallic and-

CRACK! A low groan reached his ears, and he identified it somewhat as a groan of discomfort- no, a cry of pain.

“Err…Cap’n?” Whiskey Asura pointed a shaking finger. “It ain’t us, but look o’er there…”

Further away at the edge of the clearing, Railgun spotted Turquoise Duro’s kneeling form. He was carrying the girl in red, Cul Artillery, in his arms, seemingly murmuring something. Suddenly, a silver mercurial liquid gushed from his arms and encased Artillery in a matter of seconds; but it was soundless. The cracks had clearly come from Duro, but what?

CRACK!

And now he saw it: one of the bluish-green armour plates on his back seemed to fracture into two, smaller pieces. Now that he was aware of it, many small points of blue light seemed to be running under Duro’s armour, pulsing and blinking like a heartbeat.

“Ah..Ahh…Ahh!”

Crackcrackcrackcrack! Forced to his feet in pain, Duro arched his back and stretched his arms, where the armour plating likewise glowed and made tessellations of themselves.

“…!”

A single, silent scream from his mouth. Then, Turquoise Duro exploded

No, that wasn’t right; His armour seemed to take on a scale-like texture, then reformed and settled into their original shape, and then broke up again! No piece was smaller than his palm, and yet they travelled freely up and down his body and joined with a dozen other plates to form a single, coherent shape. The process repeated itself, faster and faster, until Railgun had no idea what was happening anymore.

“Asura. What the hell is going on?” he demanded.

“No way,” the yellowish avatar breathed. “That… Now, why?”

“Explain,” Railgun practically screamed, “I want to know!”

“You remember playing those old-school MMO games?” Neon Slicer spoke up, just as unnerved as Railgun was. “Where you didn’t always learn skills by levelling up?”

“Yeah, so?”

“That’s what’s happening now,” Slicer said shakily, “Like sometimes, you just happen to learn a skill in the middle of a battle…that guy is finding his own new skill right now.

But new skills can only be learnt when Levelling Up! Railgun screamed inwardly at the unfairness of it.

“Asura. Slicer. Put him down for good.” Railgun said, barely controlling his irritation. “And you – he swung around and aimed his railgun at Renascentia’s chest – don’t try anything funny with my back turned.”

Her eyes blinked and she lowered her head in submission. Railgun turned around-

Turquoise Duro had recovered and was staring at him too. Yellow eyes, devoid of emotion, stared emptily at him. As though seeing through him.

Railgun shuddered involuntarily.

“Come here, buddy! Let’s take this guy out!” Waving his weapon in the air, Neon Slicer put on a brave front and charged with Whiskey Asura in tow. In a two-on-one battle, and Slicer and Asura possessing ranged skills against a close-range fighter, this battle should be quick and painless.

“«Range Cut»!” Slicer cried. His weapon glowed brilliant orange and spat a bolt of fire, flying straight and true- until Duro raised a fist and punched back, rebounding towards-

“Oww!”

Whiskey Asura clutched at his melting chest, smoke stirring from where the bolt had hit. Dumbfounded, Slicer lowered his weapon and saw Duro’s absurdly large fist and the scorch mark on his knuckles.

And then the armour reverted. Breaking down into individual small plates, a dozen pieces of armour scuttled over Duro’s outstretched arm and reformed the sections where they had come from: his shoulder, upper arm, and chest.

“Uggh! Asura, watch out, this guy’s new skill is-” Slicer stopped mid-word, unable to think of a suitable description.

“«Rocketing Limbs»!”

Activating his Special Move, Whiskey Asura fired all four of his arms and sent them screaming for Duro. He stood there motionless, or at least until his shoulder pauldrons broke down again, and twenty pieces of armour rushed forwards to his hands-

CLANG!

In a single action, Duro plucked two arms out of the air, blocked the other two, and forced them to terra firma. The jets deactivated the moment they touched the stage, which allowed Duro to raise one foot up – massively enlarged with plates from his chest, abdomen, and thighs – and crush them with a single step.

“No… way…”

Even if Whiskey Asura’s arms were weakly armoured, they still hadn’t shattered when Railgun had accidentally fired low-power shots upon Asura and Klein Apprentice earlier, and several times at that. Turquoise Duro had destroyed all four of them in one blow.

Calmly walking towards Neon Slicer, thick roots crumpled underneath his steps. The plates quickly retracted back to their original positions as Duro closed in on Neon Slicer, bound by nothing but his own fear.

“No… No!”

CRUNCH! A single uppercut, reinforced by seven extra plates, was all it took to part Slicer’s head from his body.

“Th..Th..Those who run, live to fight another day! Bye Cap’n!”

Whiskey Asura turned tail and disappeared into the woods, as he rightfully should when presented with superior strength. Turquoise Duro turned towards Guardsman Railgun.

“Tch! I knew you were a dangerous bitch!”

-No choice now. I have to use that trump card!

With fast, practiced motions, Railgun opened his Item Storage. Selected an option and confirmed his choice. A bright green bottle of pills flashed for a second in midair and faded out; Guardsman Railgun’s empty Special Gauge instantly filled to the brim in a split second!

“That thing cost me a hundred Burst Points! «Certain Deadly Railgu-»”

“«CLEAR»!” Renascentia screamed.

Blue lightning flashed and mingled with Railgun’s screams of agony.

The battle wasn’t quite over yet: Railgun’s Health remained at thirty percent. Drawing his knees up to his chest and whimpering in pain, his baseball cap had come off and revealed his otherwise plain head.

“-Normal Move, «Defibrillator».” Renascentia stated. “The most damage is when I place my hands besides your heart, but…”

“Go **** yourself.”

Duro stared in disbelief as Railgun cursed them, among other things, to wish they’d never be born the next time they met.

Armour split apart and gathered at his fist. This new skill of his needed neither voice commands nor Special Gauge to operate; it simply did as he thought. He would need to check his movelist later, wouldn’t he?

“Duro? Please do him the honour.”

Railgun looked up at his executioner clad in reliable blue armour. “‘Turquoise Duro,’ huh. I’ll remember your name.”

CRUNCH!

A single, emotionless strike.

[YOU WIN!]

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