Chapter 09 – Old Friends
3 days remaining before Zenith's meeting with Chronicle.
Down in the concrete, damp cells of the colony's prison Rosland and Larke leaned against their respective walls, which just happen to be right across from each other. A depressing shade of grey was all their eyes saw. The former commander crossed his legs and retreated into his serene state of mediation far away from the dingy, cavernous prison cells.
'Zenith and that girl got lucky. Damn lucky. I won't show them any mercy next time. That's what was holding me back: mercy!' Rosland's face twitched from the sound of his grating, whiny voice.
'No one gets the better of Lieutenant Kelly Larke, that's for sure. Wait until next time. Just wait until next-' Larke stopped as he heard an unusual sound from behind his wall.
'Your name is Kelly?' said Rosland, cackling under his breath.
'Yeah, that's right. Have you got a problem with that?' The volume of his laugh rose until it burst from the bottom of his belly in a loud, boisterous howl. He collapsed onto his side, holding himself.
'What's so funny?' he yelled at the wall.
'Kelly?' he spit out again amidst his guffaws. Larke crashed his fist into the old, solid wall and broke off a few dust particles from its surface. He shrilled away in pain and waved his loose, bloody knuckles through the air.
'Is that you, Kelly? Are you trying to get into my cell?' His high-pitched giggles continued.
'If you don't stop laughing I'm going to break down this wall and drown you in my toilet!'
'Try it, Kelly.'
'Don't call me that!' His scrunched face softened into a hurt scowl. 'Only my mother calls me that.'
'Close off all sectors!' a guard outside the cells shouted in panic. 'We have an intruder. Send back up! I repeat, send bac-!' An intelligible growl from the back of the guard's throat took over the rest of his sentence. The clashing of swords and flesh could be heard for a few seconds until dead silence.
'Larke!' shouted a female voice from outside the cells.
'Angie? Is that you?' he responded in high-pitched relief.
'It's me, Larke. Just give me a sec and I'll get you-'
'You!' Another unfamiliar male voice joined the conversation. 'You killed my men! I'm not going to let you leave this place ali-AHHH!' A splashing sound reverberated across the corridor followed by the dropping of something heavy.
'Sorry about that, Larke. Have you out in a jiffy.'
'That's my girl!' The door separating the corridor from the cell quarters blasted open with a concentrated thermite charge on the lock. Larke's smile dipped in a horrifying realization. The smoke from the charge had nearly cleared but Larke couldn't bring himself to be exposed to the light leaking from the doorway. He crawled into a corner of his cell and curled himself into the fetal position.
A woman with long, snow-white hair entered the room and placed another thermite charge on Larke's cell door. She was dressed in a black, skin tight space suit with a half-sized blade (wakizashi) sheathed behind her lower-back and an unsheathed, bloody one in her right hand.
'That's right, Larke. Stay low. Should have this lock melted in a few seconds.'
'Larke? What's wrong?' she said, looking down at the frightened man in a ball. 'Not even going to say hello?' she said, stretching out her arms lovingly.
'Don't look at me!' His fingers dug into his face and desperately concealed it.
'Did you hurt your face? C'mon, show me. It can't be that bad.' She grabbed his wrists and tried to pry them apart but they wouldn't budge, as if they were steel doors resisting forced entry. The more force she put behind tearing them apart the more her worries grew of what lay beneath.
'Please, show me, Larke,' she said in a soft, gentle voice. 'It doesn't matter what you look like. It won't change anything.'
'Do you really mean that?' said Larke, his voice muffled through his hands.
'Of course I do.' Angelica ran her hands delicately through his crispy, blackened hair and kissed the exposed part of his forehead. Larke's hands became flaccid, allowing his trembling fingers to be removed one by one. Underneath were darkened sections of flesh along his nose, eyebrows and mouth, and dome-like blisters around on his left cheek.
'Woah,' said Angelica with her lips pursed.
'It's horrifying, isn't it?'
'Yeah. You're pretty ugly now.' Larke's face imploded with dread and despair. He found himself unable to breathe properly as he stared into Angelica's petrified gaze.
'Oh, relax will you. I'm just joking. It's not that bad,' she said, giggling like a little girl. She pulled Larke back to his feet and gave him a crushing hug that took every last bit of air out of him.
'I missed you!' she said with an overjoyed grin.
'I missed you too, Angi-' His cheek dented inwards as an unrestrained fist completed its collision course to his face.
'That's for getting captured,' she said, still smiling. 'Moron.' She turned around and left the cell without Larke.
'We don't have long before this place will be swarming with guards so stop mourning your good looks and get the hell up!'
'Let's find Ghal and the others,' said Larke, rushing passed her. Angelica seized him by the arm.
'We can't, Larke. We have to leave.'
'Huh? Didn't Chronicle send you here to rescue the entire team?'
'My orders were to rescue you alone.' Angelica diverted her eyes away from Larke. 'And to eliminate all other members of Atmo Team.'
'Eliminate? You're going to kill my team?' he shouted.
'That's right,' she responded, coldly. 'Ghal's cell has been rigged to blow along with the rest of this facility.'
'Those couldn't have been Chronicle's orders. He has a strict, no-kill policy.'
'You still believe that?' She opened her backpack and brought out a metal black box with a fixed, digital timer on the front. The starting time was six minutes. As she flipped a switch on the back the countdown started.
'You could have easily saved them,' his voice quivered.
'Orders are orders. Unless your name comes up on the hit list I have no objections.' A slight smile crossed her face for a moment before she saw Larke's reaction.
'One of us needs to be able to make the hard decisions, right?' Angelica thrust her backpack into Larke's arms and bumped passed his shoulder.
'Keep hold of that and stay close behind. Let's go!' her voice echoed as she sprinted down the corridor. Larke looked over to Rosland in his cell. Despite hearing their entire conversation, he was utterly indifferent as he stared at his wall with tired eyes.
'You know,' said Larke, 'If you die now you'll never get to see Zenith suffer.' Rosland didn't respond.
'If you defect to our side I'm sure you'll get your chance.'
'Betray the colony I grew up on? Go to hell,' he scoffed.
'Whatever. Suit yourself, Rosland.' He lifted a thermite charge from the backpack and threw it between the bars of his cell. As it landed between Rosland's feet he couldn't help but stare at it in confusion.
'My parting gift, commander,' he said before dashing for the door. Larke made his way to the main stairs leading above ground. The guards on the way had been knocked out by what looks like Angelica's brutal, maiming fighting style. Larke's head coiled and his eyes squinted as he opened the door to freedom and saw the radiant, beaming sunlight.
A large, metal complex with two sets of chain linked fences guarding its multi-layered perimeter appeared to be their location. Black, bulky, militaristic trucks were parked on the inside of the courtyard beyond the defences and guard posts. Angelica pulled him behind one of these as he exited the facility to keep him out of sight of the patrolling guards.
'How the hell did you get in here?' Larke muttered as they crept to the back of one of the buildings. What he saw here perfectly answered his question. Both layers of the outer perimeter had been sliced open and their respective guard posts had been left unmanned.
'I've been watching this place for the last couple weeks. For whatever reason they get complacent on this side of the fence around noon.' Larke had nothing but admiration in his eyes as he watched Angelica's graceful sprint out the compound and into a forest beyond its walls. As the two came to a clearing the explosive charges in the prison detonated. The low-pitched burst parted the birds from the trees.
'We made it,' said Larke in astonishment.
'You actually doubted me?' Angelica rested on a rock and wiped the blood from her blade with an old, tattered rag she had in her backpack.
'Maybe for a second.' Larke bent over to steal a quick kiss from Angelica. 'Now let's capture The Shooting Star Zenith and get the hell off this colony.' Angelica's cloth came to a sudden halt and she turned to Larke with frozen features.
'Are you... out of your mind?'
'My original mission was to capture Zenith. How can I return to Chronicle empty handed?' Angelica stood up and decked Larke once again, knocking him into a stupor. He still didn't see it coming.
'Moron. Your mission was to prevent him from making contact with the colony. You failed that almost a month ago.'
'But I need to bring something back!'
'Larke, I get it,' she placed her hand on his shoulder, trying her hardest not to dig her nails into his flesh. 'You need to reclaim your honour. I get that. I really do. But time and place is key and this is totally, 100 percent the wrong time and place. Do you understand?' Larke slumped his shoulders in defeat.
'Yeah. I understand, Angie.'
'Good. Now let's get out of here before the colonial guard finds-'
'But you don't.' Larke snatched an explosive from her backpack and threw it into the air with an ecstatic hurl. The look on his face was one of excitement as the charge burst into fireworks in the sky above the tree line. Angelica lowered her head back to Larke in complete and utter disbelief.
'That was... just...' her wide open jaw murmured.
'Hand me one of those swords, will you?' he said, pacing back and forth and loosening his muscles, like a boxer before a fight.
'Yeah, sure. Why the hell not?' She unsheathed one of her short swords and stuck it in the ground next to Larke. She threw her hands in the air and collapsed onto a patch of grass at the edge of the clearing. With an audible chuckle in her voice she croaked 'Moron,' once more as she hit the dirt.
'Just once I wish you would put logic before your stupid ego,' said Angelica.
'A swordsman is nothing without his ego, Angie.' A green spiral of light crashed into the land between Angelica and Larke. When the smoked cleared Arclen was standing with his staff at the ready and his eyes set rigidly on the familiar face with blonde hair. Larke kicked the sword up from the ground and caught it with a confident crush of his right hand.
'What was that move you used on me in our last battle? "Collapsing sky", I believe you called it? It was good, I'll give you that, but don't think you'll land it a second time.'
'I don't know what your plan is here but you've clearly not thought it through,' said Arclen.
'My plan, Shooting Star, was to have one final duel, mono e mono.'
'That's fine by me. But you have to promise me that after I knock you out and send you back to jail you won't come looking for me a fourth time,' Arclen smirked.
'My, what confidence,' said Larke, arching his back forward and preparing to pounce. This time, with both at their full strength, the first blow will be decided by whoever is the fastest. A similar setup occurred the first time they met in the engine room of the Goliath. Arclen was hit first and smashed through the hull. He lost. This is the situation Larke thought about moments before slicing at Arclen's midsection. He was certain that speed was his advantage. No one had ever been able to beat him to the first strike. At least, not without using some sort of dirty trick.
Larke lifted the short sword and pointed it at Arclen's heart. This blade, unlike his rapier, had a curvature, and would require slight alterations in his fighting style to make work.
He sprang from his spot like a bullet. Arclen waited for his arrival and held his staff by his chest, blocking the path to his heart and in turn blocking the short sword. As its tip hit the staff he span it around and diverted its momentum to the ground, breaking it from Larke's grip. Disarmed and completely defenceless, Larke felt his knees buckle.
'Well earmed confidence, it seems,' Larke grinned and took multiple blows from the staff in succession. Each one chipped at his mana until he could withstand no more.
'That's enough,' said Angelica, coming up behind with a slash of her sword. Arclen lowered his head below his shoulders just fast enough to dodge the wild strike from above. Angelica hit the ground and immediately back flipped out of Arclen's attack range. Her movements were fluid, precise and had clear intention of ending the fight as quickly as possible. Arclen might have been taken out by this unpredictable strike had he not encountered it once before, many years ago.
'Angelica?' said Arclen, lowering his staff to get a better look of her face.
'My husband and I will be leaving now, Arclen. Don't follow us,' said Angelica with a calm, almost barter-like voice.
'Husband? Don't tell you married-' He looked over to Larke who was half unconscious by his feet. Arclen shook away his disbelief at Larke having a wife at all and turned back to Angelica.
'Are you working for the Unison? You're the last person I expected to join a group of sorcerers with what happened last time.'
'This is not the same as The Order!' she cried. 'The Unison seeks to bring about peace, not flaunt its power like The Order.'
'Chronicle is a killer, Angelica. He has no interest in bringing about peace.'
'He is a killer. You're not wrong there,' she smirked. 'But he is most definitely trying to bring about peace. I've never met a man more dedicated to such ideals.' Arclen pointed to himself with a goofy smile.
'Not even me?' he snickered.
'You're an idiot,' she said, bluntly. 'I respect what you're trying to do here with the whole 'one man army' shtick but it will never work. Chronicle has the power to succeed where you have, and always will, fail.'
'And here I was expecting to hear "long time, no see".'
'Don't take it too personally, Arclen. I've changed over the years. Now let us leave here before I show you exactly how much.'
Arclen had already decided he wasn't backing down.
The last time he and Angelica fought was over a decade ago and he remembered quite well how effective her fighting style was. Certainly, it was more sophisticated than his basic staff fighting technique. Hers employed airborne manoeuvres and high agility to defeat an opponent quickly and safely.
However, this required her to be lightweight and slender, leaving her a little low in defence against someone with force on their side. In the intervening years it wouldn't be out of the realm of possibility for her to iron out the flaws in her style and become the superior fighting. This seemed especially realistic if one takes into account her rigorous training schedule from her days with The Order.
'Not gonna happen,' said Arclen, tensing his jaw and taking his battle stance. As expected, Angelica had made the first move. She ran half the gap between them and leapt the rest with a summersault. Arclen watched the flailing blades carefully and defended himself with the staff. The first hit as expected but the second grazed his shoulder and knocked Arclen off balance, leaving him open to one of Angelica's explosive kicks when she landed.
Her heel hit below his right arm, into his ribs, and sent him flying across the ground like a ragdoll. It was a kick that could have easily liquefied someone without mana.
'What's going on?' said Larke, pulling himself from the ground and rubbing his head.
'Looks like you beat him, Larke,' she said with a mischievous grin.
'Yeah, right. I didn't suffer amnesia, you know.'
'He's out for the count so let's go.'
'We might as well finish him off, Angie.'
'We don't have time!' It didn't matter what she said. Nothing would break that stare of death he had trained on Arclen at that moment. Larke snatched one of Angelica's short swords and stormed the downed Arclen. He raised the sword above his head and brought it down with a low-pitched howl from the back of his throat.
He neglected to be wary of the glowing green staff clutched in Arclen's hands. He rolled onto one knee and let the surge of collected energy go with a heave.
'Collapsing sky!' he shouted, sending a mass of green into Larke's chest. Angelica hit the grass and watched as her partner flew helplessly through the air at a blazing speed.
She was all too familiar with this attack. She had been hit with it before. It's usually the finishing blow to a weakened opponent. It was Arclen's 'last resort' of sorts and took up an extremely large amount of his mana. This was its Achilles heel. She knew that if you managed to withstand or avoid being hit with it the fight was in your favour. She jumped back to her feet and launched a similar, speed-reliant attack from the air. Arclen was still standing, to her surprise. Her single attack was blocked.
'Still using that old trick, Arclen?' She could feel his defence weakening as she pressed on his staff. Even if he wasn't completely out he was definitely running low.
'It still works when you don't see it coming,' he said with strain in his voice.
'Throwing that much mana into one attack is foolish. Especially when there's a second opponent.'
'Yep, maybe.' His staff gave way and hit his chest. He lost his footing fast and fell onto his rear. Angelica sliced through his mana like it was butter and stopped short of stabbing him in the chest.
'Doesn't matter,' he said, spitting blood. 'Reinforcements are here.' He was right. The Colonial Guard could be seen running towards the tree line.
'Very, very lucky, Arclen.' She dipped the sword's point a few inches into his chest. Arclen let out a painful whimper before containing the pain behind his clenched teeth. Arclen grabbed the tip of the hilt and stopped the sword before it could slice any deeper. He let the blade slip into the ground between his armpit and kicked Angelica free of the sword.
'Was you about to kill me?' he asked, picking up his staff and pointing it her way. The question seemed to take her my surprise.
'I was ordered not to kill you. But, for a moment, maybe I was,' Angelica's face suddenly took on a very sincere contortion. It was a look of fright and horrified confusion.
'You murdered almost every guard at that prison, Angelica. What happened to you?'
'I-I,' she stammered, her hands and feet trembling. 'I told you, Arclen. I've changed.' Angelica shot him a brief smile before disappearing in the opposite direction.
In the back of his mind he remembered their time as allies at the The Order. After escaping from their grasp she asked him a question – "Is what I'm doing here wrong?" - and found a satisfactory answer – "Yes."