Grey ducked under a sloppy hook, stepping past his opponent and launching his own kidney punch. Scarlet spun past it with ease, hitting him in the side of the head with a second strike. Grey fell to the ground, already rolling to avoid the follow up kick as his power infused body thrust aside the new injury. He twisted round, switching from evasion to aggression in a moment and attempting to sweep the leech's legs- Scarlet somersaulted gracefully over it, landing on his other side and lashing out with a booted foot towards Grey's skull. Caught off guard and practically defenceless, Grey barely managed to escape the worst of the blow, picking up a bloody gash along his jawbone.
He flung himself away from the leech, trying to gain as much space as possible. Technically he was vastly more skilled when it came to unarmed combat, but the unnatural speed and strength of his foe was leaving him severely outclassed. He ignored the blood oozing out of his wounds, half-masked as they were by the dark energy flowing through his veins, and thrust aside everything but the enemy before him.
Grey never lost his head-no matter how angry he got, how injured he might be, he never let it overcome his reason. One of his first actions upon initiating the fight was to lead the leech further up the hill, out of sight, and because of that he was now able to fight at his full strength. Even now, between launching and avoiding blows, he was still planning exactly how he was going to win this one. If he could follow Scarlet's movements, or predict them at the very least, he could pull it off. And failure wasn't an option; the leech was going to pay for his transgressions.
Scarlet came at him again, a bolt of lightning, lashing out with another kick towards his face. Grey swayed backwards and the foot whistled past him, leaving a vacuum in its wake which tore at his hair and blinded him for an instant. He threw himself further back, working purely on instinct to mitigate the damage of the next kick as it cleanly broke his nose. He threw his hand down at the last instant, arresting his fall and using it to spring a few more metres away from his enemy.
He backed up against the solid support of a tree, mind racing. Outclassed he might be, but he still had his shadows and he wasn't down yet. They didn't seem to be paralysing the leech like they did most people, but then that was to be expected- trying to drain the life from a dead thing was fighting fire with fire and besides, he had never relied upon that particular aspect of his power anyway- regardless, he made up for it in this instance with the enhanced energy drain.
The leech was going for his head, always for his head, presumably out of habit more than anything else- for a being like him it would be fairly simple to crush an opponent's skull with a single blow, and he was probably still adjusting to fighting someone vaguely competent. It was that habit, however, that was going to spell his downfall.
Scarlet came at him again, not giving him a second to breathe, but Grey was ready for him. He focussed all his willpower on the darkness within and without, dominating it through power of will, forcing every scrap of it into his right hand. It struggled vainly to break free and he only barely managed to resist it- the flipside to wielding such power was that it was far harder to control than usual.
He didn't have the time or speed to react; he had to risk everything on this one gamble, on what he had learned from his enemy in the few blows they'd traded. He began to duck down into a crouch, even before Scarlet lashed out with another kick. It flew by him, whistling just over his head as he dropped, and swung round towards where he had been a split-second beforehand. With a crack like a hundred broken bones, the leech's foot hammered squarely into the tree trunk Grey had been standing just before.
Shards and splinters of maimed wood flew in every direction and a storm of leaves fell from the heavens as the tree, thicker in diameter than Grey's body was wide, shook like a ragdoll. Vibrations from the impact spread down and through the ground, threatening to topple the leech over, unstable as he was on one leg.
Scarlet stared dumbly at the chunk he had hacked out of the tree through brute force, then at his foot, hanging misshapen on the end of his leg at an unnatural angle. His eyes widened slightly in unbelieving surprise. "Oh, hells."
Grey didn't wait. He lashed out at the leech with all of his strength, hammering his fist uncompromisingly into the side of the man's body, just below his ribs. The hardened leather gave way beneath his knuckles as he drove them straight into Scarlet's poorly protected kidneys and then, even before the blow had been completed, he released all of the wicked energy which had been pent up within him for so long.
A crack rang out through the valley, a noise like an enormously amplified gunshot, and it was quickly followed by a clap of thunder. Scorpio glanced up from his trance. Chris had left to fetch Seth, the hellion's medical kit being their last hope for a comrade with barely seconds left to live, and so Scorpio had been left to watch over her while they were away. Kanus was nowhere in sight, so he was probably off mopping up the last few henchmen. Considering their lack of communication, he probably wasn't even aware of what had gone on.
He looked up at Silva, numbed of any emotion. She was still hanging there, looking for all the worlds as though she was already dead. That was the worst part; the fact that they hadn't even been able to bring her down. His attempts to hack through her glaive had met, confusingly, with not even a scratch on the wooden staff, and he wouldn't have had the strength to pull it out even with two hands. Chris, encased within his combat mech, was far too bulky to manage such an operation and would probably just have injured her further.
He didn't know how they were going to save her, considering how far gone she was, but then he didn't know much about hellion medicine; and if it provided even the smallest chance he was more than willing to take it. Really, he wanted to be out hunting down the man who had done this to her, and left to his own devices that was exactly what he would have done- it wasn't like there was still anyone nearby for him to guard her from anyway. But then Chris hadn't exactly given him a choice.
There was a thud from a short distance away, accompanied by the clanking of metal, and he looked across distractedly to notice Seth, armour clad and still cradling a smoking rifle, bounding towards him. The hellion moved in a peculiar way, leaping rather than running as his impressive leg muscles powered him many metres at a time. Chris had been left well and truly in the dust.
The hellion touched down beside him, wasting no time to throw his weapon aside and shoot over to the mutilated silvan. "Cover me. I save." He drew one of his axes and the bluish metal blade began to glow, heating up in mere seconds until it was a bright white and radiating off a corona of shimmering heat waves. The hellion grasped it in both hands and cut loose the two horses, which simply turned and looked at him as though to ask who exactly he thought he was.
He brought his axe down mountainously on the wooden staff of the glaive: it bounced off fruitlessly. Seth stepped back, confused. Swinging it down again, he slashed cleanly through the leaf blade at the tip and sent spitting droplets of molten metal flying in every direction. Satisfied that his weapon was working properly, he again tried to split through the shaft of the glaive, only to be faced with the same result as before.
He tossed his axe aside. "Strong. Wood strong." He held an arm across Silva's collar to hold her in place and then, with a spurt of blood, yanked the glaive effortlessly out through her chest, freeing her from her torture. He carried her away, setting her down surprisingly gently on her back in the centre of the road, and then reached round beneath one of the back plates of his armour to grab a large metal case.
He flung it open, spewing out an array of devilish looking syringes and needles. He picked up a terrifyingly enormous syringe, filled with almost a pint of luminous blue liquid and tipped with something which looked more like a razor sharp nail than a needle. Ripping open her leather jerkin and undershirt as though they were paper, he stabbed it straight through her chest and into her heart, depressing the contents into her faint and fading bloodstream.
The ground began to shake, and Scorpio was glad for the distraction caused by the arrival of the vanis pilot. He turned to him. "Do you think she'll be okay with that kind of treatment?" He didn't voice his true concern; that emergency first aid designed for vastly more robust individuals might just be the thing to finish her off.
Chris, somewhat predictably, ignored the question. "What was that noise?"
"No idea. I had to stay here and guard Silva."
"Well you do not anymore. Go."
Scorpio paused. "Is that a good idea?"
Chris loomed over him, seventy tonnes of threat emanating war machine. "One of us is down. Two of us are missing. If that noise is in any way related to Grey's disappearance, we cannot afford to avoid stepping in. You will go, you will investigate, and if necessary you will back him up. This is not up for debate."
Scorpio swallowed nervously, deciding it was probably best not to provoke the vanis any further. "If you say so." He set off hesitantly into the woods, stopping once to glance back at the stricken silvan. It might have been a trick of the light, or his imagination, but her colour seemed to be draining away before his very eyes, leaving her a faded husk of her former self. He turned his back on the spectacle. He had no intention of watching whatever side effects Seth had caused as they altered her before his eyes.
"Suck it, leech."
Grey fell to the ground, all remnants of his power fled, his legs too tired to support him any longer. The anger that had sustained him was gone, having vanished alongside the desperation which had kept him fighting. Releasing his power like that was always a risk; a double edged sword which, potent as it was, always left him defenceless when he was done. His body was battered, bloodied, and bruised, and he wouldn't recover fully for another few weeks, but despite all that he was smiling.
Smiling through the pain of broken lips and broken teeth, as his blood and spit slowly trickled into the earth. Smiling through the pain of every wound which had returned tenfold when he caught the both of them in the explosion of deathly energy. Smiling through the pain of losing a teammate, however much he had hated her, on the first day. He coughed weakly. "Did I not tell you, leech? I don't lose."
He closed his eyes, grateful at long last for the respite he had finally been granted. There was nothing left in him, nothing at all to keep him awake any longer. He finally gave himself permission to let it go.
Grey's eyes snapped open. There was no way- it simply wasn't possible- nobody could have withstood a blow like that. Gradually, agonisingly, he raised his head up from his earthen pillow. He could see nothing, nothing but the dust and smoke from the detonation. He must have imagined it- there was simply no way that his foe could have endured that kind of damage and still be alive, let alone conscious.
Through the haze, a silhouette began to emerge. Grey's eyes widened in fear. Slowly, ever so slowly, the figure closed on him. He was overcome by a deepening sense of inevitability. He knew exactly what was happening. This wasn't a man, a being who could be killed; this was a monster. A monster well above his league; a monster that he didn't have a hope in hell against. He was going to die here, alone, choking on the scraps of his hopes and dreams. He was done.
Scarlet stepped out of the smoke. He was moving slowly, limping on his shattered foot and clutching his side, where his leather armour had been blown apart and his skin hideously burned. His entire left side was blackened and torched, and yet he was still standing. Still walking. Still approaching.
"I think," the leech grunted through his clenched jaw, "that you crushed some of my vital organs." He fixed the lumin with a glare of utter hatred. "I liked those organs. And if it's all the same to you, I'm going to take yours as recompense."
Grey struggled up onto his knees, nausea overtaking him and dropping him down again onto his hands as he coughed up his own blood. Again he rose, dizzy and disorientated. He had no energy. He couldn't support himself. He stumbled up to his feet only to fall flat on his face. Pain flared through him and he gasped wordlessly. He felt a hand clamp around his throat, and found himself hoisted up to look eye to eye with the bigger man, feet dangling limply beneath him.
He tried to throw a punch, but it was all he could do to raise his arm at all- he couldn't even make a proper fist. Scarlet grasped his hand in his own, deathly cold, and simply squeezed. Grey cried out hoarsely, the weak noise barely audible with no breath to support it, as his fingers snapped one by one. Tears rose unbidden to his eyes- what he was crying at he couldn't have said.
Scarlet tightened his grip around his throat, and Grey found his breath cut off completely. He was thrown back down the hill, striking his head on a half buried tree root as he rolled. He saw dirt, sky, dirt, sky, and then he came to a sudden halt against a tree trunk, sending another flash of pain through his ribcage.
There was a sound from beside him. His eyes roved, panicked and blurred, and he wasn't even able to lift his head. A figure moved into his view and he flinched involuntarily. He'd known he would die young- mercenaries like him always did- but this wasn't how it was meant to happen. He had wanted to go down as a proud warrior, defiant to the last, head held high as he screamed his fury at the unforgiving world. This... a broken thing lying tearful and terrified in the middle of nowhere, with nobody there to weep at his passing... this wasn't what he had wanted. He would never have thought it could happen to him.
He started. That wasn't Scarlet's voice. The figure moved further into his view, and suddenly he realised his mistake. A shredded leather jacket. An immaculate collection of purple, spiked hairs. A pair of faded and chain festooned jeans. Oh, no.
Scorpio kneeled down next to him, and he found himself reflected in the boy's mirror-like glasses. He looked like hell. He felt like hell. "What the hell happened to you?" The concern expressed in the boy's voice was touching, but he shouldn't be here. Couldn't be here. Run, Grey implored the mutant mentally, unable to put a voice to his words. Run. Get out of here while you still can.
Of course, it was too late. Another figure emerged from further up the hill, and this time there was no mistake. The leech was upon them. Grey nearly closed his eyes again: he didn't want to have to watch this; but he couldn't quite bring himself to do it. He wouldn't, it appeared, be dying alone.
Scorpio turned, hearing footsteps behind him. He rose to his feet, finding himself facing off against another man, standing perhaps a dozen yards away. The man looked nearly as bad as Grey did, his right foot horrifyingly misshapen and his side blackened and burned, blood trickling from the corner of his mouth. It was amazing that he was still standing.
"What a surprise," the man leered, "it looks like the caster has a friend."
Scorpio growled. He didn't know about any casters, but if this man was the one to beat up Grey then he was going to suffer for it. "You did this to him?"
"No," the man laughed, revealing needle-like fangs, "he beat himself up." His expression flicked suddenly to serious. "Of course it was me. It's not like there are any other leeches of my calibre hunting here."
Scorpio's eyes hardened. So it was him. And he was a leech. If Grey was to be believed he would usually have been in a lot of trouble, but in this case he was saved by the man's grievous wounds. "And was it you who did that to Silva?"
"The silvan?" The leech clapped slowly, condescendingly. "Bingo."
"I see." Scorpio's face became an unreadable mask of stone- inside, he was in turmoil. This was the man- the monster- he had been searching for. All his fury and hatred rose to the surface of his mind. It wasn't just Silva anymore, but Grey too. He was going to melt this animal down to ash.
He raised his bonesword before him, grasping it in his hand and running his fingers over the three throbbing runes of binding. The leech wasn't getting any further. "Release restrictions-"
There was the sound of a gunshot, and he trailed off into silence. He looked down in confusion at the hole in his hand as the blood began to plummet, first a few drops and then a glistening stream. He took a step backwards, dumbfounded. He didn't know how the leech had managed it- one moment he had been standing there, arms folded, and the second he had drawn a pistol, cocked it, and fired. There had been no visible movement, no transition.
"I'm sorry." The leech made a half-hearted attempt at appearing apologetic. "I'm not sure what you were attempting, but I simply can't let you do it." He pointed his gun at Scorpio's stomach and fired off three shots.
Scorpio toppled slowly backwards, already on the ground by the time he figured out what had just happened. How had the man done it? He simply couldn't understand. But somehow, in some ridiculous way, he had lost before he even began.
Fresh tears rolled down from the corners of Grey's eyes, forced to watch the leech callously gunning down his only friend. When that event had occurred- when he had stopped referring to the mutant as a team member and started to think of him as a friend- he didn't know. Friends were not things he took lightly- he might have only had one or two in his life, and he was not in the habit of making them on a whim. And yet this boy, this arrogant, delusional, hopeless boy, had somehow made it into that category over the course of a few days.
Maybe it was that they were both misfits, both outcasts, neither of them really having a place they could call home: fellow wanderers cast away by their respective societies. Perhaps it was that shared suffering which allowed him to relate to the other boy; perhaps it was something entirely different. But that didn't matter.
What mattered was that this man had just had the balls to shoot him.
His good hand clenched into a half-fist. Part-forgotten memories rose unbidden to his mind: the slaughter of what had been the closest thing he had had to a family. The breaking of what had so very nearly been a happy childhood. The face he could never remember, for the man he could never forget. Unforgivable.
"You're just like him." It was a whisper, more to himself than to the leech, but the man glanced around at him all the same.
"You're just like him. Everything you see, you destroy."
"Thanks for the reminder," Scarlet shrugged off the insult and began to pace towards him, "Your vital organs."
"Everything you touch crumbles and dies. You can't stop yourself. You're too far gone." Numbed by his tunnel vision, supported only by his loathing, he found the strength to rise shakily to his feet.
Scarlet whistled. "You can still stand. Impressive."
Grey's right foot slid slowly, painfully, into a position behind and perpendicular to his left. He raised his good hand out before him, leaving his right dangling by his side. "I'm going to kill you. I'm going to kill you. I'm going to kill you."
"No," Scarlet stopped before him, speaking as though he were lecturing a child, "You're going to die." He lashed out with an open palm, planting it straight in the centre of Grey's chest.
Grey was catapulted backwards, ribcage broken further as he tumbled down the hill and fetched to a stop in the ditch by the side. He couldn't move, couldn't fight; but he didn't mind that. For some reason, he wasn't scared anymore.
Scarlet began to walk down the hill, but somehow he didn't look much like the leech anymore. It was as though the shadows around him had darkened, deepened, rendering him something else entirely. He wasn't a red-clad bloodsucker anymore, but a black cloaked emissary of death.
Grey looked past him to the wounded mutant. Scorpio had been his friend- he had been his friend, and yet now he was nothing more than another dead man. Scarlet had done that to him. Scarlet had killed him. Scarlet had reached out and stolen his friend away from him.
He looked further down the road to his left. Chris and Kanus were nowhere to be seen, but Seth was there, carrying Silva away from the scene. Funny. He had thought she was dead when he had seen her hanging there. The thought that she was alive somehow made it so much worse.
He focussed more closely on her. Her skin was deathly pale, colder and more forbidding than even Scarlet's, and webbed with a network a blue veins. Her hair too was white, white as snow, and how that had happened he had no idea. But he didn't like it. It was cruel. It was unnatural. She looked like a dead thing.
He glanced back at the darkness approaching him. They really were the same, the leech and the caster. He couldn't see the parasite anymore, just the too familiar figure of the man in black. "You're the same."
He heard a chuckle from within the shadows. "That's right, freak. We're the same. We're just like each other."
Grey choked. "What are you doing here?"
"Me?" The approaching figure stopped. "Why, I'm here to steal away everybody you've cared about, just like I've always done."
"I'll stop you. I'll kill you."
"You won't. You never have. You never will do. You're weak."
"I won't let you." His vision was fading; he could see nothing but the small tunnel of light before him, and the robed sorcerer standing in the centre.
"You won't stop me." The figure was approaching, coming closer and closer.
"You can't have them." There was a howling in his ears, like the screaming of the wind in a hurricane.
"I can have whoever I want."
"You can't have them." His fists clenched, the shattered and the beaten, down by his sides.
"I'm going to take them, Grey. They're going to die here, and you're going to watch, and you're going to remember it for the rest of your life."
"I won't let you." There was a pain building within his skull, a great pressure growing within his mind.
"We've been here before, haven't we? Do you remember them, Grey? The faces of those you've lost? Do you even remember who they are?"
"I won't let you." He felt like somebody had struck a match within his brain. He couldn't think. Couldn't act. Couldn't move.
"You don't have a choice." The man stopped beside him. "They're already dead."
"I won't," Grey struggled to form any coherent words, "let you."
The fragile thread that was his mind finally snapped.
He opened his eyes. There was no pain now. No pain, no tiredness, no anger, hate, sorrow, regret or resentment. He rose to his feet, fists clenched by his sides. The man was standing before him, arms crossed before his chest, face shrouded in his shadows. Grey growled bestially. There was no doubt about it- this was him.
They weren't on the road in the valley anymore. They were in more familiar scenery- the ashes of what had once been a ramshackle little community, back in the forest he had thought to call home. He felt a sudden surge of anger, but it quickly spluttered out and died. He felt nothing. He was a statue. He was stone.
"Do you know where we are, Grey?"
"And what are you going to do about it?"
"I've told you," it was as though he was a sleepwalker, merely a spectator for what he was saying and doing, "I'm going to kill you."
He took a step forwards, raising his fists before him, feeling nothing from his broken fingers or wounded shoulder. He noticed absently that his hands were no longer wreathed in shadow- rather, they were ablaze with a nimbus of pitch black flames. He paid that little attention- it didn't seem important. He took another step forwards, feeling neither strength nor weakness; simply existence.
From the man before him a pair of ebon wings sprouted, a perverse shadow-mimic of an angel's plumage. Grey didn't like that- it seemed mocking, somehow. He threw a fist towards the man before him, who caught it in his own. A viper's nest of shadows coiled from the caster's sleeve, slithering up across their connected arms and streaking towards Grey's throat.
Grey didn't like that, either. A flick of his mind and the fire around his fist became an inferno, spreading down their two arms, mirroring the other man. The snakes screeched in agony as they were baked alive and the man leaped back, clutching him burned arm.
Grey didn't give him the chance to recover. He leaped forward, surprising himself with his own strength, and thrust his hand like a spear towards the caster's torso. His flame imbued hand sliced straight through the flimsy shadow-shield the man threw up and scored a deep crevasse through the side of his chest, opening his ribs to the air.
The caster stumbled further backwards, screaming, and Grey hammered into him with a side kick that sent him flying straight into one of the burnt out houses and out the other side, emitting another thunderclap throughout the shard.
Grey kept moving forwards, bearing down upon his grievously injured and prone enemy. He grabbed the man by his lanky, greasy, hair, and raised him up to eye level.
His enemy whimpered in terror. "Please..."
Grey smiled at the culmination of his life's work. "It's too late for that." His arm fell like an axe, cutting the man before him into three clean pieces. The caster's eyes glazed over. He stared down silently at his right arm and leg, lying forlornly in the grass beneath him. Grey let him fall. "It's far too late for that."
His work done, he dropped slowly to his knees, vision beginning to blur. That was it. It was over now. His head slumped forward onto his chest, and his eyes drooped closed.
And opened again, to the sound of screaming. He glanced around, disorientated, only to find himself on his hands and knees and throwing up his breakfast. There was a legion of little black spots dancing before his eyes, as though all the blood had suddenly rushed to his head- he tried waiting for a few seconds to see whether they would clear, but they didn't. His skull felt like somebody had been using it as a drum for the last hour, and he didn't want to move for fear of setting of the mine buried deep within.
Having finished vomiting, he tried to wipe his mouth with the back of his hand. Suddenly, the pain from every one of his injuries returned a hundred times over- his gunshot shoulder, his cracked knuckles, his flaring skull, his broken nose and ribs- and he collapsed onto his front, shrieking in an agony which was only exasperated by exposing the stumps of his shattered teeth to the cold air.
Out of the corner of his eye he noticed his right arm, splayed out before him. It had been stripped of skin, and it was coated in a thick sheen of blood. His left was in a similar state, and both of his sleeves seemed to have been burned off at the shoulder. He lay there, wavering on the edge of consciousness and barely retaining his grip on reality, until his attention was drawn by a scream which wasn't his own.
He looked around to find the source, and noticed a second figure lying in the centre of the road. He squinted, trying to make out who it might be, and his stinging eyes eventually landed on a shredded and torn leather jerkin, dyed the colour of fresh blood. It was blending in very well with the twin fountains spraying from the man's two stumps, his left arm and leg having been hacked off at the collar and hip respectively.
Through the haze that was his disconnected and wandering mind, only one fact stuck in his head: it was Scarlet. It was Scarlet that he had attacked. Even through the fog of disarray which assailed him, he knew that he had made a grave error. The madness which had overtaken him, the insanity which had brought him to this- it had all been a lie, and he had fallen for it completely.
He wasn't done here- wasn't even close to being done. That man- that man- was still alive. Still hunting him. Still haunting him. It had all been a lie.
Shaking, sobbing, lying there bleeding out in a puddle of his own blood, spit, and vomit, he allowed his eyes to close one last time.