Chapter 21:

Crashing Down

ATLAS: Me, the Combatant, and Him, the Hero

With a hum she felt in her bones, the blade she barely turned aside cleaved through the railing beside her. Immediately, Calli brought up the haft of her now fully-deployed spear, bashing it up against the visor of the black knight.

He didn't even flinch. Reaching out with his free hand, Valkaiser retaliated by grabbing hold of her throat, drawing back his head, and –

A deafening crack shook her entire world as the headbutt connected, sending her stumbling into the opposite railing. She caught hold of it, reeling like a boxer as she struggled not to fall off the side of the catwalk.

...Once again, he could have finished her, but instead he just stepped past, bringing up his blade again to clash with the one who had been cowering behind her. While Roland held the knight's attention, Calli resolved herself to make him regret his carelessness, and swung the butt of her spear towards the back of the knight's knees.

...He jumped over her blow without even looking at her, twisted, and delivered another mighty sweep of his sword, forcing her to deflect and disengage once again. But as he turned back to pursuing Roland, chain clashing against beam in a halo of red and gold sparks, Calli's mind raced.

I'm not just imagining it.

Leveling her spear, she rushed forward again. Valkaiser must have heard her feet clattering across the catwalk, as he weaved sharply sideways, juking her first thrust... but putting him right where she wanted him. She turned her blade inward and drew it back, cutting along his right side just as Roland swung from the left.

Both attacks struck home – and once again failed to inflict any damage whatsoever. Not a single scratch was left upon Valkaiser's imposing armor as he, undeterred, slashed at Roland's overextended arm, his burning ruby blade dragging a molten trail along the surface of the coward's gauntlet as Roland hastily threw himself backward and rolled away, only narrowly avoiding dismemberment.

Taking advantage of Valkaiser's momentary distraction, Calli reversed her grip, arcing her spear back like a scythe and taking a low sweep at the black knight's legs. And sure enough, Valkaiser blocked it.

A white-hot flash blazed forth between them as their blades ground together, the knight slowly winding his beam sword under and around her spear, forcing it away from her body. In another moment or so, she would be entirely defenseless, and he could cleave through her weapon's haft and her torso in a single blow.

...That is, if her blade was the only weapon available to her. Just as he almost managed to wind around her guard, rather than trying to distance herself, Calli stepped closer and brought up the butt of her spear, slamming the shock emitter straight into the side of the knight's head.

...Once again, it did nothing.

Whether his armor was truly indestructible, or whether his superhuman resilience stemmed from some kind of Metahuman power, Calli couldn't say for sure.

But what she did know was that every time he let himself get hit, even though they hadn't so much as scratched him... Valkaiser still went to the trouble of dodging or deflecting the next few blows.

Fumbling with his free hand, Valkaiser tried to grab hold of her staff before she could strike again – but caught only thin air as instead, she retracted it completely, compressing her weapon back down to a shortsword and allowing her to move herself fully inside Valkaiser's guard.

In that one moment, his focus on their interlocked weapons had slipped. In that same instant, Calli wound her sword right back over the top of his. A shower of sparks trailed her blade like the tail of a comet as, with a shrill whine like nails on a chalkboard, she ran it up the edge of his sword, forcing it aside before her own weapon leaped free of it, and she aimed a vicious, diagonal swing right across his torso, cutting clear from his hip to his opposite shoulder.

There was a loud, sharp squeal of metal-on-metal, a distorted grunt from underneath the knight's helmet, and then, before her eyes... a long, thin scar burned its way across the black knight's cuirass.

But it wasn't deep enough. He must have realized her intentions at the last moment, for just as her blow connected, he leaped backward, turning head-over-heels and flipping high into the air in defiance of gravity – as though, seeing the hero about to be cut down, heaven itself had decided to pick him up and pull him clear up to the ceiling. He narrowly avoided being disemboweled by her blade, and just as narrowly cleared the roaring edge of Roland's chainsword as he forced himself back upright and swung from behind.

“I've figured it out! He can't take hits twice in a –” Calli's warning was cut short as, midway through his backflip, Valkaiser's sword inverted itself into a barrel again, his sights snapped onto her, and he pulled the trigger.

- - -

The reverberating electronic hum of an energy weapon discharging echoed overhead, and a shower of charred debris began to clatter to the floor somewhere nearby.

Unfortunately, Genesis hardly had time to pay attention to that, as he threw himself behind a neighboring storage shelf just moments before a second explosion went off much closer to him.

A rocket struck the floor he'd just been standing on, detonating with enough force to send him tumbling clear into the next row of shelves, even as the ones he'd just been running between collapsed inward. The entire area gave way and began tumbling into the sublevels below, the groaning of metal and crumbling of concrete heralding the towering, multi-story shelving units sinking below the ground with a deafening crash. A cloud of dust swelled up around him, but he didn't need to see to know...


Out of the smoke, the swordsman suddenly lunged, and Genesis would surely have been cleaved in two if he wasn't already moving out of the way. Narrowly avoiding the blow, he brought up his searing claws, batting back his assailant again before leaping straight up. He hit his anti-grav stabilizers just in time, as a moment later the swordsman rolled clear of the blast radius, and another rocket struck home. Tracing the projectile's flight path back to its source, he caught sight of the girl standing at the end of the row, a new missile already fully formed inside the barrel of her weapon.

She doesn't even need to reload!? That's just unfair!


“Cerulean Claw!” Twisting mid-air, he fired off another shockwave just in time to intercept the next rocket, which burst in a vibrant spiral of orange flames and azure energy. The backlash of the blast launched his weightless body sideways, allowing him to catch hold of a nearby shelf that had miraculously weathered the two blasts and remained standing.

...Then the hiss of an HF blade severing metal supports rang out below him, and, wouldn't you know it, he was falling again.

His boots stuck to the metal surface almost before he knew what he was doing. The auto-balancing systems made it a little difficult to tell whether he was moving his armor or his armor was moving him, but for once, Genesis wasn't complaining.

He sprinted up the toppling scaffolding, leaping over to the next shelf just before his current one was struck by a third rocket. Judging by the colorful nature of the explosion behind him and the sounds of countless beakers and containers shattering in the blast, they must have reached the materials storage racks.

...Oh. Come to think of it, he'd been so preoccupied dodging rockets that he had forgotten he used to work here. If that was Aisle 4, then what he was standing on now must have been Aisle 5. Which meant, another aisle over was where the heavy salvage was stored!

The last shelf hit his current perch, and began toppling it as well, but Genesis didn't mind. He once again scrambled up and jumped over to the next aisle. Through the dust and smoke kicked up by the collapse and the still-burning chemical fires two aisles behind him, he could make out two silhouettes sprinting between the falling rubble. They rounded the corner, caught sight of him, and the girl fired. As the rocket came on, Genesis reached down to the rack at his feet, picked up one of the objects neatly stacked atop it, and raised it before him.

The rocket probably could have blown clean through the side of a combat mecha. But salvaged Ascension War-era battleship armor he'd personally stocked from a lucrative load last week was a different story. The plate dented slightly, but held firm.

He grinned under his helmet. His powers weren't telling him not to do this, which meant... Well, it couldn't have been that stupid, could it? He kicked off the side of the shelf, launching himself straight at the two of them. The girl fired again, but it was no use. Against the technological marvels of the old world, her rocket launcher might as well have been a peashooter.

And against the force of the side of a battleship impacting her partner at the speed of a skycar, his own weapon was just as woefully insufficient. His sword shattered to pieces, and he slammed into the floor hard enough to spread cracks out into the surrounding concrete.

...Genesis was still trying not to kill them. When he thought about it, it didn't really make much sense to him either – but even this much didn't seem to be enough to endanger their lives. Otherwise, wouldn't his powers have said something?

...There'd be time to think about that later. The girl was pointing her rocket launcher at him again. Twisting his body, he lowered the plate of armor to his side – then hurled it at her like the world's heaviest Frisbee –



He only barely managed to adjust his aim so that the plate didn't quite catch her side on – sparing him from actually having to witness the gory image he'd foreseen when it slammed right into her gut. Instead of bisecting her at the waist, it just... cratered her straight into the opposite wall. She twitched slightly, then slowly slid down the side of it onto the floor.

Oh God, I didn't kill her, did I? Don't tell me the reason I didn't foresee her dead is because I was going to do it myself. Oh... crap, oh crap... what do I do?!

It was around that time that he realized the swordsman wasn't behind him anymore, and there were suddenly a lot of strange blobs lying on the ground all around him.

The next thing Genesis knew, the world around him was engulfed in flames, everything hurt, and the floor underneath him was effectively atomized by copious amounts of plastic explosives, dropping him and the entire surrounding area into the sublevels below.

- - -


“I'm... okay.” A series of hacking, gurgling coughs indicated that was anything but the case.

“Damn it! Atlantis, can't you guys do something? It looks like we lost the one we were fighting, but Athena's badly hurt, we're stuck in the lower levels, and the whole building's on fire!”

Calli really wished she had the time to worry about that. Unfortunately, she was a little bit preoccupied extricating herself from the crater her landing had made in the floor, and avoiding the rain of debris and burning shelving units.

The entire section of catwalk she'd been standing on had disappeared in another perfectly spherical explosion – one which she hadn't fully managed to avoid. Her armor was still sizzling as she clambered back upright, and if it weren't for her resistance to heat, she had a feeling she'd probably be boiling inside it.

Roland seemed to have gotten off little better, judging by the fact that a good chunk of his breastplate was still glowing as he, likewise, staggered out of the crater beside her.

“This is Pol! We've just picked up your signals again! Roy and Athena, stand by for immediate evacuation!”

“Wait, you have?” Roland immediately cut in. “Then they can wait! We're the ones who are still –”

“Negative,” Cas shut him down immediately. “The only two we can detect are Roy and Athena. You and Calli are still in the dark.”

...That left only one logical answer for what – or rather, who was causing the interference. Calli didn't know how he was jamming them, but unless they could get away from Valkaiser, there was no way they'd be able to escape.

Given the curses he was spewing under his breath, it seemed Roland had come to the same realization.

Speaking of whom, the hero had the high ground now, but to her surprise, rather than dropping on them, he seemed to have... disappeared? Had he gone off after the others? Her hopes rose for a moment – then a chill ran up her spine as she realized that couldn't be true. After all... he was still close enough to jam them.

Another electronic buzz rang out from somewhere above and to the left. She threw herself back as another sphere of energy carved a perfectly circular hole out of the already cracked floor under them, kicking off another massive collapse as the ground and several shelving units all tumbled inward.

She frantically scrambled away from the rapidly expanding pit as a second shot rang out. Hearing the hum of energy rapidly getting louder behind her, Calli went to throw herself behind a toppled shelving unit – only to find Roland already there.

“Stop following me!” He angrily hissed. “You're going to get us both killed!”

“You're the one he's after!” She protested.

“Not anymore, I'm not! You're the one who hurt him!”

Another explosion behind them took out their cover and cut short their argument. The sound of heavy footfalls echoed overhead as a dark shadow darted overhead, and another crimson orb descended right between them. She attempted to dodge left, and Roland went right – only for both of them to be cut off by walls of debris and fire. As the ground beneath their feet continued to collapse, they both ended up corralled into the same crumbling aisle, running side by side.

“Go somewhere else, damn it!” Roland yelped.

“There is nowhere else!” Calli shouted back.

Another shot. Another desperate leap. Then another shot from a new angle, and another mad dash for safety.

“Okay, fine!” Roland had reached the bargaining stage, apparently. “It looks like there's an open space up ahead! We split there, and see who he goes after!”

“Oh, so now you're trying to leave me to die again? Too bad you're the one who pissed him off first.” Between gasps for breath, Calli managed to force out something resembling a jeering laugh. “But if you're so desperate to let me leave you behind, don't let me stop you!”

Roland tried to make some kind of witty retort, but she didn't hear it, as Pol began shouting something at Roy about his beacon, making it impossible to make out what anyone was saying.

...The voice that addressed them a moment later, on the other hand, was significantly harder to ignore – as was the fact that the reason this area was so open was because all of the surrounding shelves and most of the surrounding floor had collapsed, forming improvised barriers in roughly the shape of a circle.

A circle that was completed as one final blast of ruby-red energy took out the floor behind them.

“Nowhere left to run,” Valkaiser's low growl echoed from all around them as slowly, impossibly, the black knight floated down from on high, touching down on the opposite side of the arena he had so painstakingly created. Walls of rubble, sinkholes too deep to see the bottom of, and a raging sea of fire surrounded them on all sides. The only way out was to fly – and as luck would have it, the only one who could do that was currently making ready to finish them off.

“Let's see... Who to kill first? The thief who ran off with my old sword, or the one who actually managed to hurt me...” He lazily pointed his gunblade at each of them in turn, and Calli found it suddenly difficult to stop her hands from shaking as she stared down its glowing barrel.

“What, no volunteers?” Valkaiser spread his arms theatrically, taking a few more steps forward. Both Calli and Roland took an equal number of steps back on instinct, until both of them found themselves on the edge of the yawning chasm behind them.

“Oh well,” He sighed, shaking his head. “At least one of you put up a decent fight this time.” He traced the scar along his breastplate, chuckling as he spoke, causing every last hair on her body to stand on end.

She'd given everything she had, and even figured out the secret of his impenetrable armor...

...And he was laughing. Like this was all just a game -- a game he couldn't possibly lose.

“Tell you what,” The black knight continued. “A little birdie told me someone important would be showing up here today. So, why don't you go and call him for me? Mercy's not in my contract, but I can at least make this quick if you do.”

Roland raised a hand to his helmet. In that brief instant, Calli found herself seeing the world with a strange sort of clarity.

When she first met Roland, he had seemed strong. Unshakable. Reliable. She had trusted him to watch her back without a second thought. Then he had shown his true colors – abandoned her – and she had almost died. She resented him. Hated him, even. His every word and action filled her with contempt. He was the last person on earth she would have wanted to have standing by her side, staring down death together.

Yet here they were. For whatever reason, all those thoughts – all those feelings – suddenly seemed far, far away.

The only thing she could see at that moment was that his hand, too, was shaking.

He flipped a switch, and when he spoke, his voice was projected loud and clear.

“There's no one else here. It was always just us.”

“So be it, then.”

Valkaiser leveled his weapon, its double-edged blade folding back out and reigniting.

Roland's trembling hand shifted upon the hilt of his own sword, and he slowly, steadily raised it. Beside him, Calli found herself doing the same, bringing up her own weapon as both of them stared down the undefeated hero. With a quavering voice, Roland began to speak.

“We've held up your world... long enough. Now, we of ATLAS shall... s-shall...!”

He revved his sword.

“Shall bring it crashing down!”

With a singular cry of desperation, both of them rushed forward together. She brought up her spear, and then –!

The next thing she knew, her strike was turned aside, sending her stumbling past her enemy. She heard the sound of swords clashing behind her, a shout... then a stifled, choking gasp.

In the time it took Calli to turn around, Roland had already been skewered through the stomach by the hero's burning blade.