Heroes of the Past
“You can’t beat me,” Kisai boasted, standing at the starting line.
“What are you even talking about, Jin? I have freakin’ asthma,” Kuan pointed out, not looking forward to the laps Tess assigned.
“Enough talking. If you possess such stamina, perhaps I should add on additional laps,” Tess threatened, walking up to the two men.
The Gatekeeper called in the friends for an impromptu training session, selecting them with her randomization program. The first part of her regiment involved cardio, just a little warm-up to get their bodies moving. Once they completed thirty laps, she would assign them additional tasks.
Kisai breezed through the laps and stood by Tess, watching Kuan struggle. She didn’t let the magic user rest for long, telling him to run more laps. More precisely, he would continue to do so until Kuan completed his laps.
The gun user finally finished thirty minutes later, collapsing to the floor, grasping his chest in pain. Kisai finally showed signs of fatigue near the end, jogging an additional forty laps. Tess displayed no compassion, allowing them two minutes of rest.
“You owe me, Kuan. Had to do more laps because of you,” Kisai joked, slapping his friend’s shoulder.
“Fu-…. not worth it,” Kuan decided, chugging his water bottle.
Tess ordered Kuan to ready his firearm, tossing him an earpiece. The man placed the communication device into his ear and manifested his handgun, awaiting her instructions.
“Jin, we’ll test your defensive maneuvers now,” the Gatekeeper announced, directing the two heroes to meet at the training grounds center.
“No magic, right?” Kisai asked.
“That is a given,” Tess replied with a slight smile.
Kuan fired at his friend, aiming for Kisai’s chest and head. The magic user avoided all the projectiles except one and clutched his right shoulder. Tess walked up to him, inspecting his injury, deeming it a minor nuisance. It wasn’t severe enough to stop the training.
“I’ll have you spar now, hand-to-hand, no weapons allowed,” she announced.
“You fucked up my arm, Kuan,” Kisai stated.
“Yeah, what about it?” Kuan responded.
“You know,” Kisai said, jumping back as his friend threw a high kick.
Kuan performed a takedown, targeting Kisai’s injured arm. Kisai slipped out of his opponent’s grasp and punched him in the stomach. Kuan coughed, remaining upright, and parried Kisai’s next attack. The gun user grabbed his foe’s injured arm, yanking it back before sweeping the magic user’s legs. Kisai fell to the floor and Kuan stomped on his arm. Kisai rolled away, bounding upward with a grin.
“You almost got me, but not good enough,” Kisai taunted.
Kuan grappled him, kneeing him in the gut five times. Kisai finally escaped the hold and kicked Kuan’s shin, forcing him to stumble. The magic user took advantage, slamming his palm into his opponent’s back. He followed it up with a chop to the neck. Kuan became disorientated, his vision blurring. Despite his reduced vision, he circled around Kisai and locked in a neck choke. Kisai gasped for breath, slumping to the floor. Once Kuan released his hold, the magic user made his move. Displaying no side effects, he tackled Kuan to the ground and pummeled him with punches. Kuan, still dizzy, failed at blocking them. Still, he rolled to his left and kicked Kisai in the face. Both men were now down.
“That’s enough,” Tess declared, raising her hand in the air.
She ran Kuan through a concussion test and found him satisfactory. The Gatekeeper halted his training and let him rest. However, Kisai was still in good shape, and she wasn’t one to waste time.
“Jin, let’s continue. I’ll be your opponent. Feel free to use your magic,” she decided.
“Facing you, Tess? You know…. alright, let’s do it,” he agreed.
“Get your ass kicked, Jin,” Kuan encouraged from the sidelines.
Tess didn’t hold back, unleashing a flurry of chains at the magic user. Magical circles surrounded Kisai, repelling the Gatekeeper’s attack. She reacted with a faint smile and snapped her fingers. The residual magic remaining from Kisai’s defensive maneuver converged into a beam, striking the man’s chest. He grinned in response, balling up his right fist, and opened it five seconds later. Tess anticipated Kisai’s attack and multiple chains linked together, forming a barricade. A beam, similar in size to the one she launched, zipped towards the hero. It struck her barricade but couldn’t pierce through. Upon contact, he pointed forward and the chains disintegrated, leaving Tess open.
“Jin’s playing a dangerous game,” Kuan commented, understanding his friend’s intention.
The beam re-formed, shining brighter than before, and traveled toward Tess’ head. She remained stationary and acted at the last possible second. The Gatekeeper predicted the single beam would split and fired off chains matching the divergent paths of Kisai’s attack. Her chains absorbed the magical energy from the beams, reducing the man’s planned attack to a small twinkle of light. Kisai foresaw her next attack but failed at blocking it. Tess’ powered-up chains shot up from the ground, wrapping around his ankles, and yanked him to the ground. He placed his left hand on the chains, hoping to dispel them, but nothing occurred.
“Damn, you got me,” Kisai realized.
Additional chains appeared, binding him. Tess appeared at his position and looped a golden chain around his neck, choking him out. Kisai didn’t struggle and the chains pinning him to the ground shattered. He grasped the chain around his neck and squeezed, destroying it with ease. The Gatekeeper leaped back and stomped her left foot. All the remaining residual magic gathered in her right hand. She charged at the man, fist glowing. The magic user leaped upward, meeting her fist with his own. The battlefield became enveloped in a blinding light and Kuan shielded his eyes. After a minute, the gun user opened his eyes. Tess stood over Kisai, a chain wrapped around his right wrist.
Kuan noticed blood falling from the Gatekeeper’s hand, a rare sight. Still, it was her victory. Kisai smiled, falling face first to the ground with a thud.
“Jin, you good?” Kuan inspected his friend as Tess dispelled her chain.
“Let’s go another around, Tess,” Kisai joked as blood dripped down from his right hand.
“You impress as always, Jin. I will oblige if you wish to spar with no magic. Still care to fight?” Tess offered with a slight smile.
“Nah, even I know when to call it quits,” Kisai responded, shaking his head.
Tess left them alone, declaring their training over for the day. She left behind a suggested regiment for both men. Although injuries from their fights usually didn’t carry over, Kisai did have a bruised hand. Tess wasn’t holding back much when attacking him.
“Trying to manipulate Tess’ magic? That’s fuckin’ crazy, Jin,” Kuan brought up as he wrapped his friend’s hand with a bandage.
“Nah, it worked, sort of. If this wasn’t an exhibition battle, there’s no way she let me plant a virus like that,” Kisai responded.
“So that was what you were doing. I’m surprised you could even inject something like that,” Kuan said, slapping his friend’s hand hard as payback.
“Just something I’ve been working on. We’ll need it fighting Ace and the Traveler,” Kisai said, his voice turning serious.
“You’re right. How’s Tomo progressing?” Kuan questioned.
“Better than I expected. She’s a quick learner. Honestly, you should be teaching her stuff,” he replied.
“It’ll be my turn eventually knowing Tess. Come on, let’s go play that new game with Darryl,” Kuan remarked, heading toward the exit.
The Gatekeeper watched the two men exit from the upper broadcast room. She leaned back in her chair, replaying the fight, making notes on areas of improvement. Ace and Traveler were certainly a threat, but the woman hypothesized something else was out there, posing just as much of a threat.
“Something’s lacking,” Lilith commented, watching Xi block Bartholomew’s attacks.
“The underlying mechanism for her defensive fields and barriers requires knowledge she lacks at the moment,” Tess stated, appearing next to the leader.
“How-, wait, Champ and Natalia were outside!” she exclaimed, staring at the Gatekeeper.
“Oh, they allowed me entry without any resistance,” Tess responded.
“You can’t just…. what do you want, Tess?” Lilith questioned with a sigh.
“Scouting,” she replied.
“Of course! Who do have your eye on?” the leader asked.
“Xi. She can further her powers by applying certain mathematical elements,” Tess answered, recording observations in her notebook.
“She’s an undecided major, but I know Xi’s an above average math student. What’s your big plan, Tess?” Lilith suspected the woman.
“No grandiose plan. Just a minor shakeup,” she responded.
Lilith didn’t believe her. Tess was calculated, not one to waste time. Most likely, the woman was gathering information for the formulation of a scheme. Still, if it meant everyone improved, the leader had no objections. Despite their lack of agreement on various subjects, Lilith respected Tess and knew she looked out for everyone wielding powers.
“Anything else you want to share?” Lilith asked.
“No. However, I hope you grant me a request,” Tess replied.
“I can already tell what you want. Go ahead,” Lilith agreed, ordering
Bartholomew to exit the makeshift battlefield.
Tess took his place, giving Xi a small smile. The Gatekeeper’s opponent stared at her in confusion and fear. Bartholomew glanced over at Lilith with a questioning look. She only shrugged her shoulders in response.
“Don’t worry. I only wish to witness your defensive capabilities first hand,” Tess assured Xi as she constructed an artificial dimension.
The Gatekeeper launched five chains at her opponent. Xi held her left hand out, repelling the attack. Tess snapped her fingers and chains burst from the ground, wrapping around Xi’s legs. She fell to the floor, hitting her back.
“You’re capable of more than this,” Tess stated, removing the chains from Xi.
“What’s she thinking? Tess must know she’s terrible at physical attacks, even worse when she’s trapped like that,” Bartholomew questioned Lilith.
“Tess is on a different level than us. It’s hard to know what she’s thinking,” Lilith responded, shaking her head.
Tess continued her assault, pummeling Xi with multitudes of chains. Xi’s success rate at blocking was only fifty percent. By the end, she collapsed to the floor, cuts and bruises across her face. The Gatekeeper held her hand out and Xi accepted her assistance.
“Shit, Tess really went hard,” a voice said, startling Lilith and Bartholomew.
Zhuyu sidestepped Lilith’s grapple, nodding at Tess. Bartholomew stared at the zero-vector user, unsure how to respond. Zhuyu ignored them, heading straight for the Gatekeeper. Lilith sighed, concerned about how her team members allowed two people to enter without alerting her first.
“You have a bad habit of sneaking up on people just like Tess,” Lilith accused Zhuyu.
“Do I? You were preoccupied with Tess and Xi, so it’s understandable,” the man responded with a small grin.
“If you’re here…. looking for Kaze?” Lilith guessed.
“No, ask Tess about it. She called me over,” Zhuyu answered, gesturing at the Gatekeeper.
“Should have known. He’s part of your little plan too?” Lilith asked.
“Yes. Xi, I know you endured my chains, but I hope you’re ready to go again after a short rest,” Tess revealed.
“Um…. sure,” Xi agreed in a low tone.
“Fifteen minutes and you’ll face off against Long. Don’t worry, he won’t land any hits on you. Recognize counter opportunities and strike! Don’t worry about him. He’s gone through worse,” Tess instructed.
“Thanks for the vote of confidence, Tess,” Zhuyu said, stretching his arms.
“Hold on! You can’t just go ahead and do things like this without telling me first,” Lilith exclaimed.
“Both parties gave consent. I don’t see any issues, Lilith,” Tess countered.
“That’s not the point, Tess! Throwing Xi into multiple fights, it’s….,” Lilith began.
“Sustaining damage and encountering difficulties is a given, Lilith. You can’t protect her forever,” Tess interrupted.
Lilith bit her lips, remaining silent. The Gatekeeper was correct. Zhuyu didn’t possess Dragon’s Mandate, no longer a frontline fighter. She could learn from an opponent like him.
Zhuyu and Xi stood in the battlefield once her allocated rest time ended. Champ, Ksi, Lionel, and Lilith’s second-in-command joined the original two spectators. Tess stood on the outside, keeping a close eye on both fighters.
“Long, your sword,” Tess ordered.
“Hold on, I don’t think that’s necessary,” the man said.
“Xi is accustomed to hand-to-hand combat because of Lionel and Bartholomew. No one on Lilith’s team utilizes swords. It’s an opportunity for her to see one in action,” Tess pointed out.
“Always on point, Tess. Sorry to take up your time, Xi. Hope you get something out of this,” Zhuyu said, materializing his sword.
“No, no, it’s not a bother at all!” Xi shook her head frantically.
The zero-vector user put on his glasses and then took a deep breath. He dashed toward Xi and slowly drew his sword out from the scabbard. The woman’s eye tracked the weapon, not focusing on his movements. In an instant, Zhuyu pivoted behind her, fully drawing his weapon, missing the woman’s right cheek by a few centimeters. He spun around, sheathing his blade.
“Why is no one surprised?” Champ inquired, shocked by the man’s speed and ability.
“Oh yeah, you’ve never seen him like this. What do you expect? He trained with Kyoi,” Lionel replied.
“I can’t believe it. He’s so different when using a sword,” Champ said, shaking his head in disbelief.
“Zhuyu Long was one of the strongest frontline fighters. His ability to sustain damage and strike back hard made him a versatile member of Tess’ team,” Ksi informed the rookie hero.
Xi waited, searching for an opening. When Zhuyu swung his sword hilt upward, she created a barrier immediately and reflected his attack. The man dropped his weapon, shaking his hand in pain. Xi took a chance, kicking away his scabbard, and formed a field around it.
Zhuyu slid towards his sword, extending his right hand outward. Her field blocked his attempt at retrieval. He closed his eyes for three seconds before attempting again. This time, he broke through Xi’s field and grabbed his blade. He flung it to his right and Xi’s eyes stopped tracking him. The zero-vector user appeared behind her, aiming a punch at her back. He pulled back at the last second, retrieving his weapon.
“Nice,” he congratulated and then his eyes turned serious.
He unsheathed his sword and swung at Xi multiple times. She already created several barriers in preparation, but the man broke through them with ease. Xi stared at him in shock and summoned her shield.
She met each of his sword strikes with her shield, eventually pushing him back. He tried to stop her movement, but the woman nullified his powers with her own. He responded with a small smile and stabbed his sword in the ground as Xi bull-rushed him. He realized the woman absorbed his attacks and was now releasing the stored energy. Her shield slammed into his blade and she expected her charge to knock him to the ground. However, Zhuyu remained upright, yanking his sword out.
“Damn, kind of in a bad position,” the man muttered.
When he swung his blade at her, Xi noticed his attacks didn’t hit as hard. She observed his footwork and arm angle but saw nothing different. The sword itself was weakened. On his next swing, she pushed his sword back with her shield, and knocked him prone. The woman slammed her shield down, bashing his legs. She then aimed for his arms. He rolled away, sheathing his blade, and blocked her next attack with his scabbard.
Zhuyu met each of Xi’s shield bashes with his scabbard, eventually feeling numbing his hands. He dropped his weapon and Xi smashed him in the face with her shield. The man clutched his nose as blood flowed out from it.
“That’s enough,” Tess called out.
The Gatekeeper tossed her team member an ice pack and pulled Xi aside. Zhuyu placed the compress against his nose, exiting the battlefield.
“You okay? This is the first time I’ve seen her do enough damage where someone’s actually bleeding,” Lilith checked up on him.
“This is nothing. Xi’s good, she just has to train under the right circumstances,” the man responded.
“Why the hell are you hiding your true power?” Champ inquired, staring at the man intently.
“No idea what you’re talking about. I’m not even ranked anymore, remember? Besides, like Shigetzu says, can’t show you everything right away,” Zhuyu denied.
“Give up, Champ. He’s obviously not going to tell you anything. They’re all like that,” Ksi said.
“She’s right. Especially with Kyoi Feng as his master. You’ll know what we mean once they get their ultimate weapons,” Lionel added.
Zhuyu walked over to Tess, removing the ice pack from his nose. They conversed for five minutes, reviewing the fight. Xi went up to the man and bowed.
“Whoa, there’s no need for that,” he said.
“I’m sorry for hitting you so hard. I really didn’t mean to. I’m….,” Xi apologized, flustered by the third sentence.
“Don’t worry about it. Feng’s put me through worst. Seriously, it’s not your fault,” he assured her.
Xi nodded, bowing again. Tess called Lilith over, handing her a piece of paper. The leader saw a list of mathematical concepts listed.
“Have her research those. She can forward any questions to my email. I’ll provide more in-depth details a few weeks from now,” the Gatekeeper instructed.
Tess and Zhuyu departed fifteen minutes later. Xi conversed with Ksi about the topics on the piece of paper. Lionel and Bartholomew sparred in the ring. Lilith sat in a chair, checking her tablet. Tess’ visit showed her the lack of progress made. Time to step things up and match the Gatekeeper’s side.