((86 — Building Steam With a Grain of Salt))
July 2nd, 802 AT.
Kasby braced one foot on the creature’s chest, and pulled his crystal sword out of it. He collapsed against the wall, panting. He looked at his leg, where a bullet had grazed him, and confirmed the injury wasn’t too bad. He closed his eyes, took a shuddering breath, and looked at what he had just killed.
It was obvious it had once been human—and just as obvious that it no longer was. Its skin was black and leathery-thick, like charcoal. Its clothes had melted into its flesh, becoming a carapace of sorts. Exposed veins still pulsed eerily glowing red blood through it. Its right arm ended in a twisted hunk of metal—a pistol, fused into the hand that had once gripped it, now all part of the same creature. In life, in humanity, it looked to have been a man, of maybe Kasby’s own age. Now it was just another dead demon.
Slowly, Kasby pulled himself to his feet, took one last look around the shattered lab, and walked out. A crew of scientists would be here soon to perform an autopsy on the creature. He had other places to be. He retraced his footsteps, going back the way he had come, towards the Bioresa tram station.
He had lost track of time, by now. Night had come and gone. He had slept at some point. The hours were blurred together, a vague swirl of trails of blood and corpses and crystal. Every few hours, a new report would come in of someone sighting a demonic assassin, and he would set out to hunt. Two more times it had been Jaz, and both times she had escaped handily. Other demons had gotten away similarly, but he had killed three of the things now.
He blinked, and realized he’d already made it back to the tower, lost in thought and memory and sleepless haze. The tram car door opened onto the central platform of the transit terminal. In the last few days, it had changed drastically, from a bustling place of activity to a nearly empty hall. Most everyone was either in their homes, bolting down and readying for war, or in the streets, rioting. Kasby, cold as ever, strode through the almost abandoned hall to enter the central tower.
The radio at his belt crackled, and Mercuria Barret's voice came through. "Bellwood."
Kasby lifted the radio from his belt, and held it up. "Almost back." He sounded more than just physically tired—exhausted down to his core.
"Don't come back. Got a report in from down in Haraya, of more nonhuman activity." Her voice was terse, to the point, as always, but he could hear the strain of three days running the city by herself beginning to wear on her. "Likely another assassin. Take the 63 Tram down there and check it out."
"On my way," he said, his tone as neutral as he could manage.
"Good. Barret out." The radio clicked off.
He turned around and walked to catch the 63 tram. The tram swung away from the dock without incident, sliding down the wire with an audible hum. The car swooped down, taking him towards the flats of the city, where the lower classes lived, those who could not afford the nicer houses on the quartet of crystal spires that dominated the landscape. Kasby stood in the tram, holding onto the guard rail. He stared straight out at the passing landscape as if it was keeping something from him.
The street was practically empty. Ramshackle houses stood around her, shanties and lean-tos comingling with more solid buildings. Here and there a store or restaurant eked out a quiet existence. They had slammed their doors to her, people fleeing the streets before her.
Skunk clenched her fists and tried to ignore the fearful stares of her fellow humans. In fact, she was starting to doubt she was quite human any longer... She shook her head in irritation. The day since her arrival had been spent aimlessly wandering the city, watching as humanity turned its collective back on her.
From a nearby door, a young boy stumbled out, not older than eight or nine. He clutched a sword made from two pieces of scrap metal glued together, and brandished it halfheartedly at her. "S-stop!"
Skunk glared at him incredulously. "What the fuck you want, punk?"
The boy shrunk back at her words, almost stumbling.
Despite herself, she paused. Softening her tone slightly, she added, "You can forget the the sword, kid."
"I... I won't let you kill my dad!"
Skunk's brow furrowed. "I don't have anything to do with your dad. What are you talking about?"
A man's voice hissed from the door the boy had come out of. "Daniel! Daniel, get back in here!"
Skunk held up a hand. “Daniel. Hold on. Just answer me, I won’t hurt you.”
"Y-you're gonna kill 'im! Like you killed all the people over 'n Storm, an, an, an, an daddy says you killed the Council!" The boy stammered, but was fierce and defiant, his own words seeming to inspire him.
"Look, punk—Daniel. I've been here a few hours maximum, and since I've been here I've done nothing but walk around. I don't know what you're talking about." She paused. "Why do you think it was me?"
The boy frowned. "... your skin. You're not a person, like we are."
"How did I know," she muttered. “Your dad is wrong.” She sighed. "You know what? If all you're gonna do is brandish a stick at me and accuse me of things I didn't do and don't plan to, I'm leaving."
Overhead, a tram car whirred down a cable, settling into a dock a block or two away.
"I'm gonna--" The boy was cut off as his father ducked out through the door, grabbed him, and pulled him back inside.
Skunk blinked. "Oookay," she muttered. Turning to the cable car, she walked over to investigate. The tram building was extremely dilapidated and worn-down, like everything else in the area. The windows were all broken, and large sections of wall and flooring were gone, looking as if they had been pried off with crowbars. She could hear someone moving inside.
Skunk stepped through the door into the tram room, and found herself face to face with the business end of Kasby's pistol. "Fuck! What the hell, Katsby!?" Skunk held herself still, resisting the urge to jump away.
As Kasby made eye contact, he froze for a moment. He let out a breath, and lowered his weapon, but did not break eye contact. He looked... tired. But maybe for the first time in a long while, a little bit relieved. "Skunk. Holy hell.”
"Nice way to greet a friend," Skunk said scathingly.
Kasby almost smiled. "You're alive. Thank the Void... you'll have to tell me what happened later."
"Sure, assuming there's a later." She looked around the room. It was small, with a patchwork roof that let bits of light shine through. "What's happening here? Some kid just tried to kill me. Ranting about how I’m a monster.”
"I'm not surprised. This city's been thrown into chaos... and you don't exactly look human," Kasby noted, gesturing at her metallic skin.
"Thanks, I get that." Skunk's tone was light, forced. "What's happening around here?" she repeated.
Kasby's expression hardened. "....Assassin. Of the demonic variety. Took out almost all of the Council, and now it’s running amok. Not to mention the Swarm is practically at the gates." He looked away.
"Demons come in the assassin variety? I thought they were all ravening beasts.” She sighed again. "I saw you on those, uh... screen things.”
Kasby looked confused. "Televisions? I was on the television?"
"At the assassination thing," clarified Skunk. "I saw you guys."
Kasby blinked. “How long have you been in Sector One?”
"A few hours, I guess."
"On that note, where are Spider and Owl?" his voice was laden with concern.
"Spider? Not sure. Owl is probably still in the library," she added, almost guiltily. "We landed there, and I'm betting she'll stay there as long as she can."
Barret's voice came from the radio clipped to Kasby's belt. "Bellwood! Report."
Kasby grabbed the radio off his belt. "Situation has been handled, Barret. How many reports of non-human activity in this area, again?"
"Just one. Good to hear it, too. We've got another report in from over at Enjaya. Reason to suspect they're trying to take out the reactors."
"On my way," Kasby repeated for the third time that day. He clipped the radio back to his belt without replying.
"Good. It's barely a kilometer away, you should be able to run there. Head straight outwards from your current position, towards the spire." Barret’s voice came through the radio. “Good hunting. Barret out.”
Skunk looked at him, one eyebrow raised. "Where are you going?"
“Demon hunting,” he replied, expression neutral.
"I could do with a bit of a fight," Skunk hinted. "This city pisses me off."
Kasby looked hesitant, for a moment. "...Alright. I don't have time to argue. Just... follow me." With that, he broke off back towards the spire.
Skunk followed, looking distinctly more eager and bright-eyed than she had been.
((87 — Battle of the Heroes))
The direction they were headed was drastically more industrial. A cloud of black smoke hung over the district, drifting out of angry smokestacks. The crystal spire rose dramatically, pointing outwards, away from the city center like the spoke of a wheel. Buildings, factories, and industrial complexes covered it, sprawling up its face.
They hadn’t even been running five minutes when they began to hear the first screams. Kasby’s pace increased. He darted towards the scream, swerving around corners and ducking under pipes as he navigated the industrial labyrinth. Skunk strained to see the source of the screaming, but followed Kasby.
Up ahead, a single large building dominated the base of the crystal. A large pair of double doors opened into the base of the building, hanging open. Two guards lay by the doors, dead of matching slash wounds to the chest. Kasby pulled the dartpistol from its holster once more and skidded to a stop a few feet inside the building.
Skunk glanced at the corpses, then began forming her left hand into a blade. With her right hand, she caressed the whip at her side. Another scream came from inside, cutting off abruptly.
Kasby walked carefully through the interior of the building, his pistol aimed in the direction of the scream. Inside, a quartet of ladders lead upwards, toward a series of catwalks.
Skunk stepped up beside him, peering at the ladders. “That’s… crappy. If we get trapped on those...well, it won't be pretty."
From further inside came another scream, as if falling from a catwalk, ending in an electrical hiss.
"Fuck it,” Skunk swore. “Let’s do this.”
Kasby nodded. "Don't get caught in close range." He was already bounding up one of the ladders. Skunk climbed up beside him, cursing as she re-formed her hand back to its normal shape.
The building was full of an electrical hum, with static electricity setting their hairs on end. As they reached the top of the ladders, they could see down into the center of the building. A trio of massive crystals, glowing with orange light, floated there, rotating in a slow circle. Huge arcs of lightning leapt between them, and to rings of dynamos and collectors lining the room. Metal-lined wooden catwalks stretched outwards from where they stood, overlooking the reactor core. At the center of them, a control platform hung from the ceiling.
"Okay...what's all that? And what should I be expecting from these demons?" Skunk hissed.
In response, Kasby just pointed to the control platform. Half a dozen scientists cowered on it, looking in fear at the figure advancing towards them.
She--it--walked slowly them, crystal blade at her side. The leather clothes, the walk, she short-cropped hair. It was unmistakably Jazrill Quinn. Or what was left of her, anyway.
Kasby raised his pistol and took careful aim.
"Fuck," remarked Skunk, too anstonished to even sound surprised. She took out her own gun as well, cradling it lovingly. "Do you want me to...?"
It took another step towards the scientists, moving slowly, taking its time with the kill.
Skunk kept her tone neutral. "Kasby?"
Kasby wore an expression colder than any Skunk had seen on him before. It might have been that absence of emotion, more than anything else, that showed Skunk the turmoil, the rolling storm inside him.
He pulled the trigger. His hand was steady, and this time, the crystal shard flew true. It thudded into the square of the creature's back, sending it sprawling forward against the catwalk, bringing forth an angry howl. Bracing itself on the catwalk with its blade, it reached its one hand back, grasping at the wound. Slowly, its whole body tightening visibly, still hissing angrily, it pulled the chunk of crystal out. The crystal hadn't gone more than an inch deep, most of the impact taken by the leathery armored skin that had once been a flight jacket.
There were two parallel catwalks running towards the control area. "Run past. Protect the scientists," Kasby ordered Skunk, gesturing to the unoccupied bridge. He broke forward towards the creature, raised his pistol and fired again. And again.
"Got it." Skunk crossed the room in as fast a run as possible, considering their height. "Good thing I grew up on Face," she grumbled.
It was still pulling itself to its feet as Kasby fired, its hand still tight around the first shard. The next shot went wide, but the third and fourth slashed across her sword arm. Jaz dropped again to the catwalk as the arm holding it up was shot out from under it. Kasby continued his frenzied advance, and ripped the crystal sword from its sheath at his side. He flew into Jaz full force.
Skunk didn't stop until she had reached the scientists. They huddled behind a control panel, and one let out a yelp of terror upon seeing her. "P-please..."
"For fuck's sake, I'm here to fucking save you!" bellowed Skunk. "Now MOVE!"
The scientists, a group of mixed-gendered elderly people, blinked at her for a long moment. Then they obeyed her order as one, leaping to their feet before her commanding voice. The scientists took off at a run down one of the other catwalks, fleeing at high speed.
Skunk turned towards the demon, in time to see it bringing its feet up, catching Kasby hard in the face with a kick. Skunk formed both arms into long, hooked blades. She advanced more cautiously than Kasby had, waiting for a clear shot.
Stumbling back, Kasby landed half on the catwalk, one leg slipping off of it. He slipped and teetered, for a moment over the edge.
Jaz took a step towards him, grinning as if meaning to shove him, and in that moment Skunk struck. She darted in close and stabbed with her blades, one after the other.
Jaz swung to face Skunk, bringing her crystal blade up to block both blows. Her wounded arm was moving at half speed, though, and barely managed to knock them aside.
Skunk danced just out of range, grinning manically. The thrill of battle.
Hissing angrily, the creature got fully back to its feet, and took a few steps back, now focusing on Skunk. A yellow sheen passed over the goggle-lenses that emerged from the skin of its forehead for a moment, but it shook its head, clearing them back to their normal red.
Skunk moved in, feinting and then going in, aiming for the creature's belly, under the wounded arm. The distraction of whatever had happened to her was enough, and Jaz couldn't block fast enough. She managed to fall backwards, though, away from the slash, past where Kasby was stabilizing himself. The blade's tip still dug into her chest, flitting away a long line of blood. It hissed furiously, almost spitting with pure rage.
"Did you see that?" Skunk yelled.
Kasby pushed himself forward and regained his balance. He dashed forward towards the combat, ducking under Skunk's arm as he lunged. She attacker as well, and they lunged in parallel, blades extended.
Jaz put a foot back and brought her blade up, free hand wrapping around the base of it for support—
The three blades met with a loud clash, ringing out over the hum of the reactor below.
Skunk grimaced at the shock, but pressed in, striking again. "I can hold her, Kasby!" Jaz blocked a strike, a second, a third, alternating between the two attackers.
"So hold her!" he almost screamed back as he continued to trade blows.
The yellow glow flashed over the lenses above Jaz’s eyes again, looking like another pair of eyes, watching her. A shudder ran through her, and she dropped back, pulling her sword arm away from the three-way-clash. She took three quick steps back, away from the fray, and raised her blade high over her head.
Skunk rushed in with renewed power. “Gotcha!”
Jaz’s hand dropped, sweeping out a full arc, swinging around below her, rending through the flimsy metal of the catwalk. With a horrible creaking, it began to bend downwards, pulled down by its own weight, no longer supported from both sides.
Skunk's eyes widened. "Oh SHI—" Skunk’s momentum carried her forward, into the hole. She stretched with her hooks, and just barely managed to dig them into the wooden catwalk on the other side of the gap. "Fuck!"
Kasby's mouth dropped open. No.
Jaz fell forwads, dropping through the widening gap, down towards the three spinning crystals below. Kasby lunged forward, throwing himself against the catwalk and extending his arm as far as it would go. He grabbed onto Jaz’s arm as she plunged downwards.
Jaz hung, dangling from the catwalk, held up by Kasby's grip. Slowly, she turned her head to look at him, eyes bathed in dispassionate yellow glow.
“Please. Not again,” Kasby said, whispering.
"Kasby, what are you doing?" screamed Skunk. Her blades slowly began to cut through the catwalk, inching her downwards.
Jaz's blade arm flashed upwards, swinging at Kasby's wrist, where it held her tight. The blade bit in deep, throwing blood across the catwalk. But Kasby did not let go. He shook his head, silently, mouthing one word. Please. Please.
She fell away from him, dropping away towards the reactor. Kasby's hand still clutched her wrist in a dead man's grip. As she reached the crystals, there was a swirl of yellow smoke, and she was gone.
"Touching!" yelled Skunk frantically. "Now fucking get me out of here!" She attempted to claw her way towards Kasby. Her motions only pulled the catwalk down further, creaking louder. “Little help?”
Kasby watched the beast that had once been his lover fall into the reactor below. He felt everything. And yet....shock. He looked at the bloody tattered sleeve where his hand once had been.
If only the catwalk were metal, instead of wood boards, she could've bent it into shape, but—another crack. Another crack. The wood itself was beginning to crack, where Skunk's blades dug into it. “Kasby.” Skunk’s voice was quiet, hard to hear with the hum.
Over the creaking of the collapsing catwalk, and the reactors, Kasby managed to hear Skunk. Ungracefully, in the midst of all this, he stumbled to his feet and backed away from the broken edge. "....Skunk. Skunk!"
Skunk gingerly kept her hold on the other side of the gap, a meter away from Kasby. Skunk could feel her heart pounding, adrenaline rushing through her.
Kasby rushed forward again and held out his uninjured hand.
"Grab hold!" He was close enough that she could probably reach him, but it would mean pulling one of her blades out of the woodwork.
"Cocksucker," she groaned. She could almost hear Owl’s voice in her head, saying “language!” The thought threatened to bring a bitter smile to her face, but she fought it off. "Okay, gimme a sec." She cautiously pried one hand loose. “I don’t think you’ll be able to pull me out...”
Kasby looked around in a panic. The pain was beginning to cloud his thoughts. He had to act quickly. The captain ran back to the control panel, and went to work at the display to try and turn the reactor off. "Hold tight!"
“Kasby!” Skunk yelled. With only one hand dug into the wood, she was slipping faster. "Oh, fuck..." She cut an inch deeper into the wood, towards the edge.
The controls were complicated, covered with switches and dials and readouts. "Fuck!" Kasby shouted, before dashing back to Skunk.
Skunk, starting to give up on Kasby, unclipped the whip from her belt with her free hand, and tossed one end away from the gaping hole. She concentrated, melding it with the metal edge of the catwalk.
Kasby skidded to a stop, grabbing hold of the secured whip with his hand. The catwalk frame groaned under the weight, but held. Kasby stabbed the crystal blade into the wood platform and used it to brace his leg. "Alright, Skunk!"
"Okay, no problem," she groaned. She reformed the other blade into a hand once more. With nothing holding her to the catwalk anymore, she fell down, swinging under it, held up by the wire. Skunk grunted, holding onto the whip for all she was worth. She squeezed her eyes shut, just briefly.
Kasby threw himself backwards, bracing against the sword to hold Skunk above the humming reactors.
Between Kasby's grip and the metal bonding, Skunk didn't fall. Not quite.
Kasby could feel the pain beginning to overwhelm him, though, darkness dancing at the edge of his vision, and knew he couldn't hold on for long.
“Okay,” she called up. “Good. Very good. Not dying. Excellent.”
“Hurry, Skunk,” Kasby rasped through the fires that had ignited in his nerves.
“Goddamn demons,” she half-whispered, struggling up the whip. Reaching the catwalk at last, she collapsed onto it, gasping.
As Skunk reached safety, Kasby let go of the whip. He swayed, upright, for a moment, before collapsing to the catwalk.
They lay, side by side, now alone with the massive whirring crystals below them.
"Kasby?” Skunk panted. “You still awake?”
The only answer from the unconscious captain was a slowly expanding bloodstain in the woodwork surrounding his left wrist. Skunk stared for a moment, then picked him up carefully. She was still trembling, but she managed to get him over her shoulder, carrying him away from the hole. She walked towards the control area, the catwalk still making ominous creaking sounds with every step.
The radio at his belt hissed and crackled. "Bellwood!" The voice was the same as before--a harsh, older woman.
She jumped at the radio's crackle, right in her ear, but pushed the talk button. “Uh… hello?”
"Who is this? Where's Bellwood?"
"If you mean Kasby, he's here. Badly injured. Here, I mean... shit, what did he call it?"
There was a pause. "But the reactor's still online."
"Yeah, the reactor. We’re at the reactor.”
"Alright. I'll dispatch a medical team. They should be there within fifteen minutes.”
"There was a fucking demon-thing, and it cut the railing, and then...well, his hand is gone. It’s dead, though, it better be dead.” Skunk knew she was babbling.
"Good. Barret out." The radio hissed static for a moment, then went silent.
Skunk took a deep breath. “Okay.” She lay Kasby down in the center of the controls, and collapsed against a bank of controls herself.
She stared blankly up at the ceiling, settling in to wait for the medical team. “…fuck.” This time, there was no Owl to scold her.