Chapter 23:

Heroes and Villains

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

Leaving Roland where he lay, Calli struggled in vain to raise his chainsword to defend herself. Her arms twitched as her damaged suit's synthetic muscles spasmed uncontrollably. Valkaiser took a deep breath, his own arm steadying as his aim at last settled upon her.

“I'll give you one more chance to make this easy on yourself,” He growled. The eerily friendly tone he had used before was gone, leaving behind only cold, simmering spite.

Tapping the side of her helmet, she turned on her own microphone. Since he seemed to be in a talkative mood, maybe she could stall for time – but as she moved, he never took his aim off her, and she never took her eyes off the gunblade.

“I'll pass,” She said, loosening her grip on her sword. Being weighed down by a weapon she couldn't even use was worse than being empty-handed, and she no longer had the luxury of worrying about her odds. If she dropped it and lunged forward, she might be able to disarm him before he could shoot her. But even if she did, what then? She could hardly stand, much less fight.

“You are annoyingly stubborn,” The hero sighed.

“That should be my line. I don't suppose you'd be willing to put this off for another day? Neither one of us has to die here.”

Valkaiser merely chuckled at her empty threat, and tensed his finger on the trigger.

So much for talking. Calli braced herself, preparing to cast aside her sword and meet her fate. But before she could...

“Get the hell away from her!”

Bellowing at the top of his lungs, someone slammed into Valkaiser from behind, delivering a flying tackle that bowled him completely off his feet, sending both of them tumbling across the floor.

“Roy...!?” She gasped. Why was he still here?! He'd had his chance to evacuate long ago, so why was he still...?

“Calli!” A fist struck him in the face as Valkaiser tried to wrench his sword arm free of the boy's grip, but Roy clung on with all the furious determination of a bulldog. “Atlantis, I found them! I'll distract Valkaiser, so pull them out now!”

He came back for me.

“Slippery little –” Valkaiser snarled, grabbing the boy by the neck and hoisting him clear into the air. Yet even as he gasped for breath, Roy held on tightly to Valkaiser's arm. No, not his arm... He had reached down to the sword in Valkaiser's hand, and –

She couldn't tell whether it was intentional or an accident, but Roy must have hit the switch to transform Valkaiser's weapon. Right as he managed to force the sword into Roy's side, the blades folded inward, harmlessly bouncing off of the boy's armor. Tucking in his arm, Roy used his entire body to twist the newly-formed barrel downward, pointing it right at the floor beneath them.

Then he pulled the trigger.

A globe of red light enveloped both of them as Roy let go, throwing himself backward. He tumbled back out of the blast, trailing smoke from his scorched armor as somewhere within the detonation's heart, Valkaiser gave a cry of pain. His grip must have loosed on his weapon when the explosion went off, because as Roy stood up and the blinding light cleared, the hero's hands were empty, and Roy had his sword.

Over her damaged radio, and through the haze of pain that was rapidly overtaking her whole mind, Calli could hear Pol's voice cutting through the static. She could make out the words “can't detect” and “beacon.” They still couldn't evacuate – but maybe they didn't need to. As Roy raised Valkaiser's sword, she felt hope swelling within her once more.

Roy took aim at the wounded hero. His finger coiled around the trigger.

...But for just a moment, he hesitated. It was just a single instant – but in that moment, Valkaiser's posture changed. He lowered himself like an animal ready to pounce, and then...

Roy fired. Valkaiser lunged. The crimson bolt arced wide, and with a resounding clang, Valkaiser's fist connected with Roy's gut. The boy stumbled, but kept his footing, flicking the switch again. The blades of the sword flashed back to life and he brought it back down – but Valkaiser twisted and weaved aside with almost impossible grace for a man she had thought to be heavily wounded, guiding Roy's arm out and then –

Valkaiser swept out his foot, and Roy flipped head over heels, slamming down hard into the floor. A cry of pain echoed over the comms as he rolled awkwardly back to his feet. Another swing – another dodge – another flurry of punches that struck once, twice, thrice, battering Roy relentlessly.

“Now we're having some fun!” Despite his injuries, despite being disarmed, despite everything -- the hero spread his arms wide and laughed, louder and more raucously than ever before.

He wasn't afraid. If anything, he rejoiced in this turn of events. It was almost as if...

He wasn't relying on his sword to begin with.

“No role to play for the cameras –” Roy brought down the sword again, but Valkaiser just batted it aside by striking the flat of the blade. “Nothing to protect or get in my way –” Lowering himself under Roy's next swing, he plowed into him with a devastating shoulder tackle, sending him tumbling across the floor. The moment he tried to rise, the black knight was already upon him.

“And no need to rely on half-baked gadgets and shitty merch when my fists do the trick just fine!” Valkaiser roared, catching Roy in the jaw with a mighty uppercut that launched him a good several feet into the air. When he skidded to a stop next to Calli, he was completely motionless.

“Roy? Roy!” Calli shook him, but all she got in return was a quiet utterance that couldn't even be called a groan.

“And that's KO.” The hero held up his hand like a boxer, triumphant over his fallen foe. Then, slowly, he turned his gaze back to her, and brought it back down, cracking his knuckles.

“Now, then... where were we?”

Calli tried to stand, but between the pain, the weight of her broken armor, and the fatigue, she didn't even make it more than halfway upright before falling to her knees again.


“Seriously, this whole job's been one disaster after another. The target's a no-show, and I even got blown up. Hey, how am I supposed to explain this to my boss, huh?”

Come on, move!

“You're too lucky for your own good, really. I could have put you out of your misery at least a dozen times by now, if you only knew when to quit.”

I can't. I can't do anything.

After her hopes had risen only to be dashed so many times, Calli didn't even have the strength left to panic. Her life flashed before her eyes – her home, her family, her reason for fighting. She was going to die here, and none of them would ever know what had happened to her. She hadn't even been able to repay her mom yet, or do anything for her brothers. She was going to leave them all alone, just like their parents had.

“And now I guess I have to kill this one, too. Should have saved himself the trouble and run away when he had the chance.”

He reached down towards where Roy had fallen – towards the hilt of his sword. But before he could grasp it, a voice suddenly echoed down the corridor.

“Wait! Don't do it!”

“Oh, what now!?” Valkaiser groaned. Out of the ruined corridor behind him, another figure had emerged – this one clad in familiar blue and silver armor.

Calli didn't dare to hope. And yet...


“They can't even fight anymore. There's no need to kill them.” His voice sounded strangely desperate – out of breath – relieved.

“Oh, don't even start,” The black knight growled back. “They're just small fry. Even if we arrest them, they won't have anything useful to say, even assuming their boss doesn't just cut his losses and hit their kill switches.”

“You don't know that for sure!” Genesis protested.

“Look, I'm in no mood to get blown up again. If you're not going to do anything useful, then head back upstairs and make sure everyone's evacuated. I'm going to send a little message to whoever's behind this exactly what happens to those who try to beat an invincible hero,” He ordered. Genesis, however, didn't budge.

“So that's your real reason!? You've going to butcher defenseless people just because they hurt your pride?!”

“Pride?” Valkaiser scoffed. “No. My image. A hero's reputation is his lifeline – but I wouldn't expect a rookie like you to understand that.”

“If this is how a hero behaves, I don't want to understand it!” Genesis tried to hold him back – but the black knight shoved him aside, reaching once more for his dropped sword.

Then he froze.

Not just him, but Genesis too. There was a sudden tension in the air, and underneath her armor, Calli could feel her every hair standing on end.

Down the hallway, a broken cable began to spark and twitch again – but the light it gave forth wasn't gold anymore.

It was crimson.

“What the hell –” Valkaiser's muttering was cut off as both he and Genesis were suddenly forced to their knees by an immense, unseen weight.

With a horrible groaning rumble, the concrete above their heads peeled back, rebar bending, dragging stone and cement along in its wake as a long, narrow gash revealed itself – a gash that was just moments later carved wide open by a swathe of energy. Molten metal and cement dripped down like rain, as, with the full moon at their backs, two figures descended through the breach.

One was wrapped in countless writhing plumes, displaying innumerable eyes that still simmered with the power they had just unleashed.

The other was wreathed in crackling lightning, and clad head to foot in crimson steel.

Valkaiser tried to force himself to his feet, only for a fresh burst of magnetic force to send both him and Genesis skidding backward. Slowly – deliberately – Sigma unfolded his crossed arms, and shrugged back his cloak over his shoulders.

Next to him, Panoptes swiftly knelt, looking over first Roland, then Roy, then finally coming to Calli herself.

“Ar...gus?” Her head felt heavy, and to her surprise, it suddenly seemed very hard to speak.

“I told you to call me Panoptes while we're on the job,” He chided. She felt something wrapping around her waist, and the next thing she knew, she'd been hoisted gently up by one of his plumes.

“Panoptes,” Sigma demanded. “Their status, if you would?”

“All three are still alive, my lord.”

What sounded almost like a sigh of relief filtered through the overlord's mask.

“...Good,” He said at last. “Prepare the warp gate.”

Panoptes nodded obediently, but several of his plumes turned their eyes towards the black knight and the blue wolf. “And what of the heroes?” He asked.

“They're mine.

“Don't fuck with me!” A sudden roar interrupted their conversation as the black knight recovered from his tumble and leaped towards Sigma... only to stop in his tracks as crimson lightning surrounded him. He strained against his electromagnetic cage, then suddenly with a final effort, forced his way through, the lightning around him simply disappearing into thin air. He raised his fist and –

And that was when Calli's eyes stopped being able to follow either of them.

When Valkaiser had fought the four of them together, he hadn't even moved faster than a brisk walk. When disarmed by Roy, he had displayed surprising speed for a man she'd thought to be wounded as badly as she herself was – but still, everything he had done had been within the realm of what she considered possible.

But as the whole corridor shook around them – as countless blows were thrown and received in the blink of an eye – as a red flash and a black shadow collided again and again with such overwhelming force that each deflected punch felt as though it could have leveled a mountain, Calli knew.

So this is a real battle between a hero and a villain.

Panoptes' plumes curled around them, shielding them from debris as the warp gate began to form. But even as exhaustion took her, she forced her eyes open – unable to avert them from the impossible battle unfolding before her.

With a single mighty blow, Valkaiser launched Sigma into a neighboring wall – only for a crimson blur to emerge a moment later and knock him clear through the opposite one. The overlord of ATLAS prepared himself to follow, but was interrupted by a voice from behind him.

“HOWL AT THE MOON! REACH FOR THE STARS! GO! GO!” Twisting his bracelet, Genesis flared his claws to life, leaping at Sigma from behind. The overlord raised his own hand in response – but rather than blocking the strike with his powers, he inserted something into his own gauntlet... and a matching voice played in return.


“Cerulean –!”

Crimson Claw.

In an instant, the wolf's howl from Genesis' bracelet was drowned out by a lion's roar from Sigma's gauntlet, and the arc of azure light unleashed by the hero was overwhelmed by a torrent of dark red energy mixed with crimson lightning. Genesis gave a muffled cry as he, too, was launched into a wall – only to be suspended there a moment later as bits of iron rebar warped out of the concrete, twisting themselves into shackles to bind him in place.

Valkaiser erupted from the rubble a moment later, and with a roar of rage and pain, launched another furious assault – but Sigma blocked him head on. They grappled furiously, the ground shaking beneath their feet from the force of their struggle.

Then Sigma delivered an uppercut with his still-glowing talons, and Valkaiser went flying, skipping like a stone across the floor and landing face down beside Genesis.

Calli's eyelids began to flutter as wisps of darkness coalesced into a twisting hole around them. Panoptes said something and Sigma answered, but Calli's exhausted mind could hardly process it. The overlord of ATLAS cast one final glance over his adversaries, as Genesis at last cut his way free of his bonds, and Valkaiser shakily forced himself to his feet.

Then his gaze focused on Genesis in particular, and he began to speak.

Her eyes closed by themselves, but she forced them open with one final bit of effort – and in that singular moment of clarity, she heard his words plainly.

“Give your master a message for me, dog of Orbital,” Sigma said. “Tell him that the dead do not sleep beneath the waves, and that his reckoning shall soon come.”

“Wait! That gauntlet... just who in the hell are you?” Genesis gasped, stumbling after them as Sigma stepped back alongside the rest and into the opening gateway.

“I am the second Guiding Star, Sigma Octantis – your enemy.”

Then the portal closed around them, and darkness took her.