Zilos Chronicles Volume Three: Prototype

The world of Marvados is on the verge of falling into chaos because of the actions of the deranged members of the Iblis Corps terrorists organization and their leader the" God of War".

The man of many names, Alec Steel, Ares, Soreil, and more has only one true face, the face of a man who craves the total eradication of humanity to replace them with some new superior race. Wither Ares's plans are based in any act of reality, its clear his desire to see humanity exterminated is clear.

Richard Zilos and his order the Crimson Tengu Ravens are some of the few people on the planet even aware of the so called" God of War"s plan, but after being unaware of the nature of the Dragon Helix Emerald's power caused Richard and his ally the techno organic dragon Greymont to go berserk and cause a volcanic eruption after being possessed by the spirit that seemed to dwell in the magical gem, the world that once saw Richard's order as hero's now saw them as more terrible terrorists then the Iblis Corps.

Richard and his allies such as Dan Nicholson, Voltaire Joachim, Claire Da Lune, and his new enemy turned ally former homicide detective Roxanne Starlin barely managed to survive the cruel betrayal of former member Troy McGuire, but managed to defy the odds and fight there way out of there own base through the combined forces under the corrupt Chief of Detectives in Los Midas, Decosta Ortega,even taking down one of the elite members of the Iblis Corps, the demon with the title of Venomous Suijin, Cucuzza Meflia .

Now on the run with most of the world seeking his dead, Richard must figure out how to ensure that the rebellion he ignited does not amount to nothing.

The Vengeful Inferno

"It is one thing to declare something. Anyone can proclaim even the most outrageous establishments of eras, impractical of laws, or impossibilities of policy. However, results are not so easily fabricated. It takes true resolve to see speeches made reality; to see movements realize their objectives."

- Andross Von Zilos, preface to address following transfer of crown of King of the Aurino Kingdom

Chapter One: To Rebound From the Brink of the Abyss

"Knock it off, Kenny! I can't get the dinos in the shot!"

On hearing her somewhat overweight husband call that out, Kenny's mother sighed and turned to her two children. "Kenny" had been trying to give his little sister bunny ears again, as he had through most of their photographs they had taken on their family trip to Dranova. A moment later, she turned and faced both of the kids. "Kenny, damnit, would you stop it? You've been ruining every photo we've taken this morning!"

"Cut it out!" his sister supplemented, turning around and smacking at him to try and get him to put his hands down.

He grudgingly did so, but not before slapping back at his sister a little. "This is boring! Can't we head back to the beach?"

"You were at the beach all day yesterday! We're getting pictures of the ruins today!"

"This is an important site!" Kenny's father shouted back as he lowered his camera to holler at his kids. "That's the tallest tower in the world, and it was built over a thousand years ago! Don't you want to show everyone you actually went and saw it for yourself?"

"You just want to show up Aunt Margret in this year's holiday photo after she got that picture at the Los Midas Treasure Chest last year…"

"Don't be a smart mouth!" his mother retorted. "Now stand still! And smile for this picture!"

He sighed as he got back into position. He, his sister, and his mother were currently at the base of said tower. More appropriately, they were standing next to its ruins.

In spite of not having the standard supports and buttresses that one would expect of old masonry and stonework, somehow the tower managed to extend in a straight, hexagonal, towering pillar straight into the sky. So high that it actually touched the cloud cover before vanishing into it.

The very fact that the tower was capable of even being built had astonished people for generations, as even from a modern architectural standpoint such as impossible. And yet, there it stood. Composed entirely of stone structural materials in an intricate column extended up and up into the heavens.

As to its origin, none could say for certain. The structure was tall and towering, but austere as well. Bearing only a rather simplistic floor plan on most of its levels that served only to support the floor before allowing one to go up or down. The only testament to its creation was its décor, the "dinos" that Kenny's father had mentioned. There were various statues of different shapes and sizes all up and down the structure, but all bearing the same general body plan.

As his family got situated again, the father sighed and raised his camera a second time.

"Dragons."

The father stopped and swerved around on hearing the voice behind him. While there was no shortage of tourists in this area of Dranova, especially since the docking station for the cruise ships and the local resort weren't far from there, this particular one had come up right behind him without him knowing.

He also didn't look like the typical tourist, as he was dressed in a neat, clean, black business suit, and he wore a rather gaudy pair of sunglasses that had lenses large enough to cover most of his face. Nevertheless, the man could make out his blond hair, cheekbones, and underlying musculature. He was definitely someone who "worked out".

"Excuse me?"

The man turned more fully toward him. "Dragons, not 'dinos'. The tower is adorned with dragons."

Noticing how confidently he gave that answer, the father raised an eyebrow. "That so? You a tour guide around these parts or something?"

The man in sunglasses paused, eventually giving a small smirk and glancing at the tower again. Like he had just heard something he found privately funny. "Oh," he murmured as he readjusted his shades, "I suppose I do have a bit of fascination with the Tower of Judgment…and everything around it." He looked back to the man, before smiling a bit more and extending his hand. "Alec Steel."

The father hesitated only a moment before accepting his hand and shaking. "The name's Burt. Burt Samson. Say, you one of those fancy historians, Steel? What with the suit and all?"

"Oh, this?" he answered as he released his grip. "No. Just on something of a business trip, is all."

"Well, you sound like you know what's around these parts, and that's good enough for me. Say…you look like a busy fella, but could you do me a solid?" He extended his camera out toward him. "Can you take a picture of me and my family?"

The man paused, regarding the camera with a strange look. His smile widened. "I'd be happy to, as long as you don't mind answering a question I have. You see, I'm actually out here taking surveys. The suit…" He grimaced as he tugged at his own lapel. "A bit much, but you know how it is."

"Oh really? You working for the cruise company?"

"Not quite."

"Well, sure. Why not? I'd love another shot at the bonus raffle."

He smiled a bit wider. "Glad you're so eager. It won't take much of your time. It's rather simple. You see, there was a report of a robbery on your cruise ship. The company is rather concerned about what this might do to its image. It's very eager to find who was responsible and apprehend them as quickly as possible. Can't have one bad apple spoiling the whole tree, you know? Anyway, so…have you seen anyone on your vacation that looked, suspicious?"

Burt blinked twice. "That's kind of an odd question for a survey, don't you think?"

Alec shrugged. "I only ask the questions they tell me to ask."

"That serious, eh? Well, sorry fella. I haven't seen anyone that looked like a mugger or a thief or anything."

"Is that so?" His smile faded as he looked a little more earnest. His voice became a bit more grave. "Mr. Samson, I know it's too much to expect most people to remember every last person on a cruise ship of this size that they've seen, but my employers are treating this very seriously. If you saw anyone who looked like they were hiding anything, it would be vital for you to let me know."

Burt simply shook his head. "Sorry, fella." He glanced around a moment, making sure his children were out of earshot, before leaning a bit closer. "I don't want the kids to hear this, but just between you and me I've been drunk for most of this trip. They can really take it out of you trying to haul 'em everywhere. So I'm not sure I'm the most reliable witness."

"I see."

"But no one I've run into seemed that fishy to me, if that helps. I mean, there was the occasional fella who made a funny face, but that's hardly worth a warrant, eh?"

He smirked and snickered at his small joke. Alec ended up smiling as well, although it seemed a tad forced. "Well…I figured it wouldn't hurt to ask. If anyone was up to something, I figured they might have disarmed themselves around you. You do seem like quite a…trusting person." He hesitated a moment, before he reached out to take the camera. Burt nearly put it in his hand when he pulled it back again, wincing a little.

"I just wanted to add that you don't have to be modest, Mr. Samson. I'm not affiliated with your cruise company, so even if you think it's the staff feel free to come forth. This would all be anonymous."

"Sorry, fella. I really didn't see anything."

Alec continued to hesitate. "And…the locals. My employers told me that there are some who are still, shall we say…resentful of the tourist industry. And you know with everything in the news lately about the disturbances when the locals get out of sorts. First Zaylor, then Los Midas, then Nilock…"

"Damn, your bosses really are running you hard, aren't they?" Burt half-chuckled again. "That may be so, but no one seemed off to me. Really, aside from the kids getting bored, this has been a nice trip. A nice getaway from what's going on back home."

"Yes, about that… I think what's really got my employers on edge is they're afraid of the same thing happening here. So…you know…" He made a light gesture with his hands. "If you found anyone that you suspected, or that you thought wasn't quite right…"

"Nah, no one like that on this trip. Even if there was a thief, I'm not worried. They aren't getting off the boat with it, after all. I think people are losing their minds over this whole thing. Sure, there's a few bad apples in every tree, just like you said, but most people are decent. I should know. I was a cop in Articos for almost twenty years."

"Oh really?"

"Yeah. And one thing I learned from working that beat: all about crooks. And crooks are crooks, yeah, but people are mostly good. Just trying to get by like the rest of us."

Alec smiled and nodded. "Ah." He once again held out his hand. This time, Burt placed the camera in his hand. He took it back and started to look over it. "Oh no…this is a newer model. Where's the shutter button? Sorry."

Burt had just about been ready to walk to his family when he paused, sighing a little at how long this was taking, but took it in stride and walked back over to Alec. He reached around and pointed. "Right there. Big button on the right side of the screen."

He nodded as he looked it over. As he did, though, he looked again at Burt through his lenses. He grew suddenly still, and when he spoke again it was in a much slower and quieter voice. One that his family couldn't hear nearby.

"Mr. Samson…Burt…just between you, me, and the camera…off the record for any survey… Don't you distrust the locals just a little?"

Burt paused, looked up to him. Through the dark lenses, he could see Alec looking him straight in the eye.

"I mean…" He paused a moment, before twisting his lips and giving a small shrug. "It's natural. People from Dranova aren't Aurino. Or Jiodisan or Rakthian, for that matter. They're different. And, well…most people keep a little bit of distrust toward someone who's different."

Burt's amiable mood dimmed. He looked a little uneasily at Alec now. "Are you trying to trick me into saying something, buddy?"

"No, no…not at all-"

"I'm not sure I really care for this 'survey'."

"Like I said, it's off the record, it's just-"

"Mr. Steel," Burt cut off, prompting Alec to be quiet and face him. "This is all I'm saying. Scared people can jump to conclusions. It happens when folks panic. But at the end of the day, we're all civilized people. It's not like a hundred years ago or anything. As long as they're not doing anything wrong there's no need to judge them, right?"

Alec paused, seeming to take in his choice of words.

"I don't feel too good about these questions. Let's say this is just how people are and leave it at that, eh?"

He didn't answer. A faraway look was in his eye. A change seemed to come over Alec. Why before he had seemed to be fairly casual, it wasn't until now that a strange calmness came over him. A look of more forced and complete composure.

"Just how people are…" he quietly repeated. After a moment, the statement made him smile, again like he was hearing a private joke. He looked back at him. "Well Burt, I can see you're one of the "good" ones."

Despite the change in his demeanor, Burt rolled with it after a moment, forcing himself to relax and smile back. "Just trying to set a good example to my kids so they grow up right. Got to teach them this stuff while they're young. Nobody's perfect, but…you know how it is. You're they're father. Got to do what you can to bring them up right."

Alec smiled and nodded back slowly. "Well, I suppose that was all I could ask from a man like you. Time for that picture, huh?" He gestured out to his family.

Burt turned and began to head over to them.

"Oh, Mr. Samson?"

He stopped and turned back.

"Could you move everyone to the left a little more? I think you'd want as much of the tower as I can get in this shot."

Burt nodded, getting behind the family and telling them to gesture to one side. Kenny still seemed a bit annoyed, but everyone else moved over, until they were right behind one of the larger dragon statues towering over them.

Alec began to raise the camera, but again paused. He smiled a bit wider. "You certainly are pulling out all the stops coming out this far from the Aurino Kingdom, eh?"

"I take it you're not a family man?" Burt called back.

Alec froze. For a moment, his smile seemed extra forced.

"No offense. Just that if you were you'd know how important these kinds of things are. I mean, sure this is not gonna be our only vacation, but you only get so many moments, right?"

The man didn't answer immediately. He looked at the camera as he slowly moistened his lips. Very slowly, as if coming out of something, he gave a nod.

"You're right, Burt," he called back a bit louder. "I'm not a family man, but I do know how important it is to get those perfect moments. You never know how many you're going to get before they're gone forever. So…"

Smiling a bit wider, a bit more than one would think so, and suddenly getting an energetic bravado about him, he flashed his teeth in a grin as he raised the camera.

"Are you ready, Burt? Are you ready to grasp this moment? Hmm?"

Burt's smile ebbed a moment, noticing the sudden enthusiasm from Alec. It almost seemed to border on a touch of mania. However, he brushed it off and simply smiled back and tried to roll with it. "Hell yeah, good buddy! Let's do it! Everyone smile big!"

Still grinning, Alec turned his head and brought the camera to his eye. "Alright then! Here it goes…"

He reached out his finger to press the shutter button. Before he did, however, he held it in the air, waving slightly with it in a circle, before pressing down to click.

Before he could mash the shutter, the quiet air was broken with the sound of a resounding explosion.

Instinctively, Burt winced and covered his ears, for the blast had gone off from not far away at all, and resounded loud and thunderously all over the tower's area. It faded after a few moments, at least enough for him to uncover his ears. He looked a little tense in response, but chased it away with a laugh. It started out a bit weak at first, but he pushed it out to make it hearty.

"Heh…heh-heh! Fireworks are starting a bit early, I guess, kids! Goddamn, this tour goes all out, don't it?" He began to turn back to his family. "What'd I tell you Carol? Worth forking over the extra two grand or…"

Burt trailed off. His wife was staring in horror to one side. A moment later, her hands raised up to her mouth slowly, cupped against her mouth, and she started screaming. Kenny's jaw had dropped, while his sister began to tear up and go for her mother's leg.

Burt's smile vanished. He slowly turned to see what they were looking at.

The resort restaurant was half destroyed and towering smoke and flames. Bits of debris were still raining down from the initial blast. Worst of all, however, was that there were a few flaming bits of human remains mixed in with them. More tourists who had seen it were likewise frozen in shock a bit longer, before they too started to scream.

"What the…?" Burt echoed back, all trace of joviality gone. He blinked a few times, as if he was seeing things. "What…what just-"

He was cut off and quickly ducked again, his body more readily cringing this time. Once more he covered his ears to protect his eardrums, but he wheeled to the right as he did. Another explosion had gone off. This one had struck the ground, but it caused the tourists in the area to break for it; scattering and screaming.

A loud roar echoed overhead, like a jet engine only much closer. Burt looked to the sky, and cringed a moment later as he felt a gust from afterburners blow over him. Soon after, a shadow loomed overhead and then passed by. He looked and saw what resembled a bird only metallic and the size of a jet streak past and toward the resort area. Like many civilians, he wasn't fully up on military technology, so he would have no idea what a Saker model aerial drone was. Yet he was more than familiar enough with movies and media footage to know that it was a Grizanaught, the mechanized animal like war machines of the Rakthia army.

It wasn't alone, either. More roars followed as additional Grizanaughts swept out of the sky along with it, sending the surrounding people into further panic. Two more explosions went out, one of them striking near the main resort building and the other hitting the top deck of one of the docked cruise ships. Amid the rapidly growing chaos, Burt could see a line of people running down the shore toward the danger rather than away from it.

From the looks of their uniform khakis, it was clear it was the troop he and his family had passed on landing. Ever since the incident with Nilock, there wasn't a resort area in the world that didn't have political ties to Aurino that didn't have an armed guard on stand by. And now, he watched as they charged into the fray.

And as he continued to watch, he saw them turned into ash and smoke an instant later.

Burt let out a gasp as both of his children screamed. He looked away from the short and traced large beams of light to the ocean. If Burt didn't recognize the Saker, it was more than likely he wouldn't recognize the Sakhalin Grizanaught models either. All he knew was what looked like metallic sharks were pushing their heads and snouts above the waters and taking aim at the shores.

At the same time, more of the Sakers hovered closer to the ground. Burt spotted individuals leaping out from within as soon as they were close enough to the ground. Men dressed in brown and green armor and carrying rather large weapons. And they immediately began to use them to fire warning shots.

Burt had begun to lose the color in his face. He started to stagger back as his body trembled. "This…this show they got here…I don't think it's that fun anymore… Maybe…w-w-we should call the captain…"

"I…don't think this is a joke, Burt…" Alec's own voice quietly answered.

While they were saying this, one of the Sakhalins made it to the shoreline. It soon began to crawl onto the beach on small metallic limbs. At the same time, a loud burst of static echoed loud enough to sound through the entire area, in spite of the explosions.

"Attention to all!" an accented voice speaking in broken Aurino sounded. "The lands of Dranova are being reclaimed by their rightful owners: proud citizens of Cratosika! We will only give one warning! Any who resist will be sentenced to death with instantaneous execution! We of the proud Cratosika Sables refuse to submit to treaties made up by foreigners and traitors! We will not let anyone get in the way of reclaiming our honor! Submit to our justice or perish in our fury!"

The militants, apparently, had a very loose definition of "resistance". By now, they had already caused several explosion unprovoked, and as people panicked and ran they seemed to interpret that as a counterattack. It wasn't long before they were shooting everyone they spotted running for their lives in the back. Furthermore, they must have assumed the buildings were likewise "hostile", because they began to indiscriminately bomb them. The aerial model swept over the resort again and again, trying to leave no building untouched with each explosive raid. As for the aquatic models, they blasted the cruise ships without remorse.

Suddenly, Burt heard a whistling noise, and a moment later was nearly blown off of his feet as a fresh explosion went off fifty yards from him. Hot debris blasted out and smacked him, and he covered his face and cringed, for a moment thinking that he had been hit by the explosion. His ears felt like they were nearly blown out and gave way to a ringing, as he staggered back. In the growing panic around him, his mind went wild, and he thought he was dead…

Yet the ringing slowly subsided, and he lowered his hands and looked around. Aside from some grit and debris, he was alright. He turned to Alec. The man was on the ground.

He had lost his sunglasses and was covering his eyes weakly, looking like he was in a daze. He turned to his wife and children next. The kids were on the ground and sobbing, with Carol on top of them and trying her best to shield them.

Gasping and panting, he looked to the sky. The Sakers had finished their run, but they were already lifting back into the sky to come around and attack again. The resort was now in flames and smoke. They were moving on to the rest of the buildings in the area. He looked back down and saw, much to his terror, what he had narrowly missed. The nearest store was half blown up. Further away, down the lane, people were screaming and running in their direction. The landed soldiers were hot on their heels, shooting them left and right.

Then, however, he noticed something else. There was a man on the ground outside the store's ruin. He was half-charred by explosions, and the shrapnel from the blast had ripped through the rest of him, leaving him to bleed out. Burt vaguely recognized him as the owner from when he had stopped by for batteries. And he had apparently been running for a set of metal double doors leading down and under the store. To a cellar or basement or something…

Shelter.

In spite of his panic, Burt's mind fired enough to realize what it was, and he turned to his family. "Carol! Kids!"

In spite of her panic and shaking, Carol turned to him. The kids weakly looked up from his side.

"Everyone! Hide in that cellar! Just get in and hunker down 'til it blows over! Just…just like that storm from last year, ya' hear?"

It took his wife a moment, but she swallowed and nodded. She looked down to the kids, saying something to them, but managed to get them up. Soon after, she began to drag them to the cellar. Burt took a few moments to steady himself, for fear was beginning to immobilize him, before he focused on the cellar. Steeling his resolve, he pushed up and began to run for it.

He only got about thirty yards before another blast went off behind him. He cried out this time as the force hit him, knocking him off of his feet and throwing him to the ground. Fortunately, being near the beach, the ground was loose and sandy and served to cushion most of his fall, but he felt heat and bleeding from behind him. He hadn't missed the debris that time, but he didn't feel much in the way of pain. Whether it was adrenaline driving him or not, he didn't know. He only grit his teeth and pushed himself up again. He got to all fours and looked ahead. Just twenty yards to go. He began to crawl his way toward it.

Carol and the kids reached the cellar, running past the bleeding man and going to the doors. She quickly seized the handle and pulled on it. Fortunately, it wasn't locked, and with some grunting and effort she yanked it open.

Burt, panting and sweating, managed to push up more. He managed to get his feet underneath him, and hobbled up to his feet. Another burst went off behind him, but this time he kept his footing and continued to run. The sounds of plasma fire got closer. Pretty soon, the militants would see him running for cover. That knowledge drove him on further in spite of his pain and fear.

As the eruption died down, his kids climbed into the cellar. Carol quickly began to follow, and soon after Burt reached it himself. He stopped only to seize the handle of the door before getting inside. Almost frantic now, he began to yank it closed.

"Burt, wait!"

He paused at the sound of the voice, looking back out through the opening. Alec had regained his footing by now, but had fallen far behind. He was running as fast as he could for the same cellar. His face was desperate and terrified, and with good reason. The Cratosika Sables had made their way up the road, and they had spotted him fleeing them. They were quickly running in behind to try and get a good shot.

The suited man reached out for him. "Help me! Please! They're going to kill me!"

Burt stared at him for one full second. His hand grasped the handle a bit tighter. His teeth grit. Finally, he acted.

He stepped inside and pulled the handle behind him. He stared at Alec all the while, seeing the shock on his face as the door slowly blotted him out of view. A moment later, with a heavy thud, the door closed.

"Nothing personal, buddy," he muttered under his breath. "Got to see to my family first before worrying about being a good neighbor."

He latched the door behind him, just before snapping back in alarm soon after. Another explosion went off, this one very close to their location. It rattled the foundations overhead a bit, but aside from some dust they held firm. He turned around afterward, breathing hard still but slowly trying to calm down.

He could just barely see. Only a single light bulb lit up the basement, illuminating some distilling machinery and a dehumidifier. There was just enough light to see his kids breathing hard while clutching Carol. They had stopped crying now but were looking fearfully at him.

He swallowed, but then held his hands up as he walked down. "It'll be ok. Everyone…it's going to be ok." He spoke quietly, barely above the level of a whisper. "Let's just…let's just all calm down. Things are crazy out there but we're going to stay here and keep our heads down. We're going to get out of this ok, alright?"

"Wh-what's going on, Burt? Why are they-"

He held up his hands to hush his wife. "Just stay calm, ok? Everyone…just stay calm. This all has nothing to do with us. I mean…we're just tourists, right?" He tried throwing in a weak smile for encouragement. "We've got nothing they want and we aren't with their government. Let's just sit tight."

Carol swallowed and nodded, forcing a weak smile of her own. She hugged the kids a bit more, trying to at least put on a calm face for them. Fortunately, it seemed to work. They both eased up and relaxed a little more. No further explosions were heard, and Burt let out a sigh of relief. He looked to the ceiling and listened, as he began to try and squat on the ground to sit.

A loud noise snapped him fully alert. Both him and his family with him. This one came from the very cellar they were in, and it made Kenny's sister scream in fright. Burt himself went upright, thinking it was another explosion. Yet while it was a huge pop, it sounded more electrical in nature. Like the breakers just blew out. And sure enough, that seemed to be the case a moment later when the distillery equipment went dead, followed soon after by the light bulb.

Burt began to sweat and breathe hard again for a moment, before he realized the only light left was coming from the cracks of the door to the cellar. He turned to it as a result, and froze again at what he saw.

There was a new source of light in the room now—in the form of what looked like purple, snake-like tendrils slowly oozing and seeping around the door. At least, that's what Burt thought at first, until a moment later he realized they weren't moving through the cracks or fissures.

Rather, they seemed to be melting in through the metal itself. There were a good dozen of them at least, all squirming and writhing their way through. The door was bubbling and dripping around in their wake with remains of liquified iron.

After a few moments, all of them had their heads and necks inside, and they all looked to Burt in unison. His jaw loosened, but his voice caught in his throat. He stared at them in a mixture of confusion and terror.

All together, they opened their mouths and hissed angrily. Right before they exploded.

It wasn't a major concussive blast by any means, although it still made Burt retreat. Rather, the fluid that seemed to make them up splattered all over the inside of the door. Hissing and smoke resulted, confirming that the things were composed of some sort of acid. And as a result, it wasn't long before the entire door was beginning to slump and denature like a piece of toast falling apart after being soaked. In moments, with a mixture of a clang and a "splortch", the door snapped free all together and onto the stairs into the cellar. The light of day shone down in all of its glory, muted by vapor from the melting.

A moment of silence passed before a quiet voice spoke.

"'Nothing to do with us'…"

Carol and the children continued to huddle in fear, and Burt nearly joined them before he recognized the voice. Not nearly as casual or conversational as before, but…

The smoke cleared. And as it did, it revealed, standing just at the top of the cellar, Alec Steel standing there. He no longer looked afraid or disturbed in the slightest. Neither was he smiling. The only look he gave Burt now was one of raw contempt. Disgust.

And right behind him, standing idle and with weapons shouldered, were the militant commandos.

Well…perhaps not right behind him. In fact, it looked as if they were trying to keep their distance.

"Oh," Alec spoke with a slowly shaking of his head, "I think not."

Burt stammered a moment. He looked from Alec to the commandos and then back again. The din continued further away, along with more screams and explosions, but none of it perturbed the men standing there. "The…the hell's this all about? What…I…how…I-I don't get it…"

"That's clear," Alec practically muttered as he held up his hand and adjusted the cuffs on his suitcoat. "I'm very busy so I'll make this quick. I wanted to play a little game, Mr. Samson. Just to pass the time. I got the silly idea in my head that, well, you know…for old time's sake and the interest of fairness…" He moved his head around a little and shrugged. "Maybe I should see if my stance on humanity should be changed before we get to the final round. I'd like to thank you for making it clear that the nature of humanity hasn't changed." His tongue pressed the inside of his mouth as he slowly shook his head at him. "Not. One. Bit."

"Game?" Burt echoed back, glancing to the commandos and hearing the sounds of destruction and dying again. "How…how the hell is this all a game?"

"Oh, very easily, actually. You see…this world is sick. Dying, in fact. It has a virus. Quite a noxious one at that. Rather deep infection. Quite festering. Damn near gangrenous. Such an illness must be purged. Think of me as a doctor in that regard. Or a vaccine. Whatever you prefer. Yet like any good doctor, I wanted one last diagnostic experiment just to be sure my data wasn't 'faulty'."

Burt was speechless. Alec moved to adjust his tie next.

"Now don't feel too special. I wanted someone thoroughly average but it's not like there's a shortage or anything. You're just where the dice landed on. Let's see…" He held two fingers to his forehead, concentrating. "Yes…Burt Samson. A man of average education who found average employment as an average member of your town's postal force." He paused a moment, glancing down at Burt. "'Former Articos police officer'…really, Burt? Anyway… Your wife…both of average appearance and of breeding that bore you two children. Truly, in every way, you're the representative of your nation's average, which itself is the average between two extremes. One of millions who live and die by your routine."

His eyes narrowed again as the disgusted look returned. His tone took on an air of loathing.

"Normally slumming among genetic dead-ends like you who only consume, breed, and die is insufferable to me." He sighed and shrugged again. "But, alas…if I wanted to say my point was in any way precise, I needed a good test case for proving the true heart of man. So here I am." He shook his head. "The suit was probably a bit much, but at least it wasn't the armor…"

"What the hell are you ranting about?" Burt finally managed to answer. "What 'point'? All that happened is that you took a picture of my family and then stuff blew up and we ran!"

Alec paused. He looked down on the man again. His muscles slowly began to tighten. "My, Burt…" he spoke, trying to sound faux casual, but already emotion leaking through. "Your memory is being quite selective, isn't it? Too many trips to the cruise ship's bar to drink away the sound of your own insipid offspring?" His hands began to clench as his teeth grit. "How about the part where I cried out to you for help? How about me screaming that they were going to kill me?"

His eyes burned with hateful venom.

"Did you forget where you shut the door on me and all but sentenced me to death? What's that you told me? We're all 'civilized people', yes? Was it very "civilized" to leave me to die?"

Burt saw the anger in the man's eyes…no, the hate. And he was surrounded by men with guns. He swallowed. He was confused and very quickly growing afraid of all of this as it slowly dawned on him what he had been caught in.

"L…look… It was nothing personal. I just had to protect my family first!"

"Really? That's the best you can come up with? You had ample time to let me in. You could have left the doors open at least. Yet you condemned me anyway."

"I…I swear it was nothing personal!" Burt stammered, beginning to realize just how serious Alec was. "I-I just reacted to protect my family! I couldn't take any chances to keep them safe! Things aren't so black and white when someone has to protect their family!"

Alec hesitated on hearing that. For a moment, the choice of words seemed to strike him.

After a moment, he smiled. He let out a small snicker, not so much as if he was finding Burt funny as he was realizing something amusing. However, it was a joyless, mirthless note. Soon after, he tucked his hands in his pockets and began to walk down the stairs, not caring at all that he strolled right into the deformed slag that was still melting and bubbling. Burt went as pale as a ghost, along with his family. They didn't dare move as he approached.

"Au contraire. I think if you think about it hard enough in that tiny little brain of yours choked by booze, cholesterol, and processed fat that you'll see it's so very black and white."

He stepped away from the slag and onto the bare steps.

"If a person knows that someone is planning to kill his family, well…there's only one choice. He does whatever he can to keep them safe. Even if that means killing that someone where he or she stands. Even if it means moving on to their own family and doing the same thing. Even if it means moving on to their family's family next. Even if it means razing their entire village to dust and grinding the ashes down into the very depths of Hell."

He hit the bottom, moving up closer so that he could get right in the man's face.

"But tell me, Burt…what happens when that person can't protect their family? When all they can do it watch? What do they do?"

Burt could barely move. He only managed a glance behind him, toward his terrified wife clutching their children fearfully. His lips shifted, but all that got was a gulp. He couldn't even manage a coherent word.

Alec seemed to like this. He let out a snicker as he held up his hand, rubbing the fingers in Burt's face. Little sparks of electricity snaked between them as he did.

"Oh…what's the matter, 'family man'? The thought never cross your mind? In that case, I'll share what I would do…or, more accurately, what I'm going to do. Better yet, how about I show you?"

A flickering noise was heard, and Burt was able to look away from Alec to his fingers. Yet he gasped and stepped back again. Fire had broken out on them. Yet not only were they not burning his hand, but the flames were black. They seemed to actually make the cellar darker, if such was possible.

"You…you're…you're a wizard…" he half-babbled, not knowing what else to say.

"Look at that. A logical conclusion based on an observation from that tiny brain of yours," Alec sneered. "You're almost right. No…I'm the end result of someone who's been through a lot of suffering and despair. Enough to where he learned to hate. I dare say hate more than anyone has in a very long time, and for far too long. It's a downright inferno at this point. And it's going to burn, Burt. Oh yes." His voice lowered a bit more. "And it's not going to stop burning until everyone knows…quite personally and intimately…just how much I've learned to hate this world and everything about it. Every. Last. One."

Burt was shaking now. Stammering.

"You wanted some excitement, didn't you, Burt? How'd you like a preview of what I'm going to do to this entire world, hmm?"

The flames doubled in size.

"Want to see just how hot my hate burns? Want to watch it as it peels the flesh off of little Kenny's skull over there?"

Finally, this snapped him into action. Out of fear and desperation, and having no other choice, Burt pulled his arm back and nearly took a swing at him.

He didn't get the chance. Alec waved his hand, and the flames seeped back into his hand only to ignite again…this time from the floor and erupting into a wall of black fire right in front of him. Realizing it had him and his family trapped, what resolve Burt had melted away into fear.

"You…you're a monster…a devil"

"Sticks and stones, Burt," he shrugged. "In the end, I'm what this world made me. If this world spits out devils...then something's seriously broken with it eh? Maybe you can see now why I want it to burn. Still…you have my sincere thanks for your contribution, Mr. 'Family Man'. You're a good test case for how noble ideals turn into savage self-preservation as soon as your fears can't be kept under a lid. Human nature at its 'finest'. And if that's human nature, well…"

His hand began to raise higher, preparing his two fingers to come down.

"Maybe you can see why I want that to burn too."

As the hand raised its zenith, Burt's eyes went to it. He stiffened for a second longer, before he finally did the last thing he could do.

He got on his knees. "Please!"

Alec hesitated. He looked down on him with narrowed eyes.

"Please, don't do it! If you hate me, you hate me, but please don't hurt my family! They're innocent! They weren't the ones who shut the door! You don't have to do this to them!"

The man didn't move. He stared at Burt for several seconds.

His arm suddenly dropped.

"You're right, Burt. I don't have to do this."

The overweight man let out a sigh like an elephant had gotten off his chest. He slumped forward. Beads of sweat rolled off his brow as the flames in front of him slowly died down. He took in several deep breaths.

Alec let him get a third out before he raised his hand again and snapped his fingers. Burt snapped his head back up in alarm, but no spell came. Instead, the militants far behind him began to walk down the stairs into the room. They kept their guns at their sides, but they smirked as they began to fill into the room. Some of them were even snickering a little.

Their eyes glanced at him, but mostly focused on his family.

Especially his wife.

He began to turned pale again. "Wh…what…?"

Alec began to smirk again. "You're quite right that I don't have to do anything to you, Burt. Truth is I'm a very busy man and I wasted enough time with slovenly piles of affluence like you as it is." He gestured around him. "If, on the other hand, these…not-so-refined gentlemen want to have their way with you, then…well…" He shrugged. "As long as they don't get in my way it's not really my problem." He made a fake wince as he looked at the commandos now in the room. "Wow…it seems like the locals have quite a lot of grievances with Aurino citizens. Guess you should have tipped them a bit more at the bar, eh Burt?"

He began to turn away as the commandos advanced.

"Please let my kids go! They're innocent-"

One of the gunmen punched him to the ground before he could finish. To his horror Steel just let out a cold, depraved laugh, to the point that he nearly keeled over. When he got up, he removed his shades to show the pure hate in his eyes." Oh now that's hilarious, you have some humor after all eh Burt? Oh but I assure you I know from personal experience that children can be far from innocent, and as many a teacher would gladly tell you, can be just as cruel and treacherous as those that spawned them.

Yes…there is no true innocent, there is no one that will escape damnation! And speaking of that, things I in fact care about beckon so I bid you a painful rest of your worthless existence Burt Samson."

The guerrillas then ran in and one wasted no time kicking Burt in the face. As one grasped Burt's wife Steel raised an eyebrow before he made a pausing gesture. The gunmen froze instantly before Steel sighed." That's right, I never did take that photo eh? I think I'll keep it for my own scrap book though if you don't mind."

The man in the business suit took the picture of the horrified family before he snickered. He waved at the gunmen to continue and walked out. While Burt cursed him he just chucked some more, delighted at hearing the screams behind him.

As he opened his suit coat up, one of the remaining commandos walked up to him. He began to reach inside it as he addressed him. "I take it your operation is meeting your expectations?"

"For the most part, it's going as planned, Mr. Steel. Although some of my men want to know what to do with the hostages?"

Alec pulled out an earpiece, pausing and looking up at the man. He stared a moment before idly shrugging. "Use your imagination, colonel." He gestured behind him to the cellar. "Your subordinates certainly are. Just inform your men not to get too distracted with personal desires."

He nodded back. He began to turn to the others.

"Oh, and Bilavsky?"

The militant hesitated and turned back.

"If you don't want what happened to the door to happen to you, you'll remind your men not to so much as litter around the tower."

He hesitated a moment, before nodding again. He turned to the men, saying something in their native language, and then turned and marched off.

Alec looked again to the carnage of the shore as he fitted the earpiece in his ear, before tucking away Burt's phone in his coat pocket. "So hungry for glory, like flies craving manure…" He murmured before he pressed a button on it. He waited a second before speaking up with a smile. "Morgana, it's you-know-who. Mind on giving me a status update on how anyone's reacting?"

A burst of static was punctuated by a sultry giggle. "There ya' go again, Soreil. Always gettin' skittish."

He put a finger to his lips. "Oh…ssh-ssh, dear. You know that's private."

A mild sigh. "Sorry, 'Mistah Steel'. Anyway, don't be doubtin' yerself. Time it takes them oversized Rakthian tugboats to get here, these boys'll be dug in deep all over Dranova. Worse part is babysittin' those two overgrown youngin's of ours… Though I can't say I blame 'em for bein' antsy. Honestly, my Fireflies want a piece of the action too." A pause. "You sure you don't want us to fry up a couple o' pigs just ta-"

"Ah, ah, ah," he tsked. "As much as I appreciate your zeal, there's a time and place for it. A multi-sided civil war with all the perks such as a refugee crisis and political power plays? Why mess up a good thing by tipping anyone off that we were in the area?"

"How 'bout Bilavsky? Don't he know a mite too much?"

"He's the best kind of patsy. Short-sighted and conceited. A true credit to his race. And he'll keep quiet if he wants his corpse to fill a matchbox. Most importantly, he'll keep everyone away from the Tower of Judgment until the time is right. Then we just swoop in and give humanity its final verdict."

"Sounds like a master plan fit for a Master-lord. So that mean your big plan to get the last Dragon Helix Emerald out of those prissy royals' castle's ready to take off?"

"Soon, dear. Very soon. It's come to my attention that a golden opportunity has fallen in my lap and I'd be a fool not to take it. Just be patient. All that we endured is about to pay off. The champions of peace and 'heroes' that are still left are either immobilized by their delusions or are desperate to stay alive. There's no one left to stop us. No one will deny us our new age now."

He was about to laugh again when a plasma bolt shot past his face and vaporized a guerrilla fighter's heart.

Steel then sighed before flicking back his hair. Almost there but can't let my pride cause things to unravel now. Almost there, all that I endured, won't be lost because of some careless error now.

Those who could oppose me are too busy staying afloat to stop me, long as I don't get lax like some savage like Bolton Steiner, I will at last have my vengeance. Now, let's take a look at the stage, before the final act begins.

Steel had lighting crackle around his fingertips as he saw all the people already dead around him and merely had his eyes widen with raw disgust." That's right, at last me, and all those like me won't be held back by you inferior scum anymore. Every last one of you will be forced to submit to what you really are, stepping stones for my glory, for the ascension of the new race! Yes, you will truly be the only thing your fit for, stepping stones to my ascension. Nero Vein!"

A aura of raw dark energy surged around the man, before it seeped into the ground. Said ground rippled for a few moments, before spikes shout out and impaled all the corpses around him. Steel cackled madly as he waved his hand like a puppeteer to hurl the bodies to become steps to the Tower of Judgment.

Steel swept some dust off his coat as he casually walked on the corpse stairway leading to the tower. The screams from those still alive just made him step on them harder." Finally, after all these years being denied because of such inferior beings, this world will at last evolve to what it should be."

The sparks of lighting around his finger tips grew more intense before flames of darkness consumed him, forming a tornado. With his presence concealed the magician of black chaos walked up to the Tower of Judgment as the chaotic invasion escalated around him.


"I'm telling you you're all makin' a big mistake! I don't care how big a deal you think you are!"

The men who Kelly Beinfeld was yelling at were not impressed. Most likely due to the fact that they had guns and they were pointed at her face.

Unfortunately, there was little she could do about that. The rest of her family and the ranch hands on duty for the evening shift were nearby and in the same situation, after all. The homestead of Beinfeld Farms, one of the oldest family-owned farms in the entire Aurino Kingdom, was about as spacious as it was productive. The business had done incredibly well, in fact; to where they now held the greatest percentage of ad revenue in the country.

They actually owned their own sub-company that had their name and iconic cartoon muffalo logo plastered on an entire chain of movie theaters nationwide. Yet being eighty percent ranch and twenty percent farm with only a smattering of administration buildings also meant she hadn't thought to invest too much in security. Not even when she made regular visits there.

Kelly was the perfect poster child for the business, dressing "the part" as she had ever since her picture was taken at six years old for Beinfeld's first margarine product. Blond-haired and in pigtails in her normal trademark ranching outfit that she wore both when conducting business and when tending the cattle. Yet she made it abundantly clear that the "cowgirl" setup was not simply for show as she defiantly glowered right down the gun barrels of her uninvited guests.

"You mess with my ranch, and you're gonna pay! I swear you'll be sorry if you walk outta here with so much as a five cent piece!"

The only answer she got from the gunmen were smirks from a few of them. Soon after, she heard a loud noise. The sound of a car door slamming. She looked up and past the gunmen toward it. It seemed two final men had exited the armored shuttle-craft that had landed outside the homestead ranch not five minutes ago.

The one on the right was taller than most of the others. Bearded, bald, and wearing a suit as well as sunglasses in spite of the fact the sun had set an hour ago. The one on the left was much younger and tanner, but still quite muscular.

A tattoo of a muffalo was on his face and his hair was tied back in a ponytail no wider than a finger. His own attire was dominated by an armored jacket covering his entire arms. While the second looked a bit wild and unhinged, Kelly's face focused on the older one. His stone cold expression seemed to unnerve her. A light of recognition was in her eyes…

"You're as hotblooded as your father, Miss Beinfeld," the older one stated. "But you better settle down because you're gravely mistaken. You're the one who wronged us, and if you want this to end as smoothly for you as it can you better get off that high horse and do as your told."

After looking at him a moment longer her eyes enlarged. "Hold it one sec…I saw you at daddy's funeral! You…you were drivin' somebody... Mr. Strickland, wasn't it? What was your name? It was Sam…Sim…"

"Mr. S will suffice. Good, you remember me. Then we can cut to the chase. Mr. Strickland isn't pleased that we have to resort to this, but you've gotten arrogant."

"Arrogant?" she half-shouted. "'Bout what? Not wantin' to do business with him?" She glanced again at the guns in her face before calming herself. "Look…it ain't nothin' personal. I just didn't want the same deal daddy had."

Mr. S took a moment to assess the area. Most of it was just the wide open ranch. There was a large home in front of him and various pieces of large equipment and factory gear that was out and being serviced, but that was all. No cameras. No alarm systems. Definitely no security. There was barely enough lighting to illuminate the route to the stock yard. Confirming this, he looked back at Kelly.

"It's more than just business, and if your father did not make you aware of that fact then I'm sorry to inform you that you inherited his debt when he passed. But it is what it is. Your father gave Mister Strickland a contract to ensure we would be supplied a very precise amount of…'ingredients'. Binding for years. A lot longer than he ended up living."

"That so? Well I don't see nothin' on paper. I already told you I ain't keen on the same deals my daddy made. Mr. Strickland wants his ingredients, he can get 'em somewhere else. Plenty o' folks across the world would be happy to sell to him."

"You are a businesswoman, right?" he grit out a bit more forcefully. "You know how good product depends on very precise, high quality, premium material? Your father supplied Mr. Strickland with very precise, high quality, premium 'ingredients'. At a premium cost. Maintaining that quality is ideal so that Mr. Strickland's profits don't change."

Kelly noticed that the men with the guns had rather smug looks. Definitely not the kind anyone would give if they were expecting a normal business transaction or new contract. More like when they were about to get something they wanted at a five-finger discount.

Her teeth grit defiantly. "If you're talkin' 'bout somethin' that fancy then I know you mean one of two things, and we don't grow no textiles 'round these parts so that means it's just one thing. Sorry, we farm a lot of crops on our ranch here, but drugs ain't one of them."

The man on the left chuckled lowly as he cracked his neck. "Your papa kept you in the dark for way too long, chica. Senior Beinfeld and Mr. Strickland had an important understanding, and it made both of them a lot of money. Maybe you didn't catch that when you dismissed him politely instructing you on just how important it was to keep that understanding going. He's not going to give it up so easily."

Although Kelly was tensing up a little by now, she wasn't one to back down from intimidation. "And if I don't want this deal, then what? If you kill me you won't get nothing!"

Mr. S crossed his arms, far calmer than his companion. "Don't jump to conclusions, miss. I don't know what kind of stories you've grow up on, but giving a entire family a " paint job" as a prophylactic measure went out with the barbarians. But it's still in your best interests to get in line or things are going to look extremely bad. And I'm not just saying for you and your family. I'm talking your friends, your business, and everyone associated with you. Because when it comes down to it, your father was not as good a businessman as you'd like to think."

Her anger ebbed a little. "What're ya' on about?"

"The fact is your father made some bad choices. Expensive ones too. Choices that resulted in him needing Mr. Strickland to bail him out before his investors and customers realized the extent of his failures. And in exchange for those loans, deals were made." He gestured around. "Take a good look. High quality real estate. Arable land. Enough for five good sized agricultural companies. Yet it's all yours and you don't even need to watch out for cow tippers. Think your family's just got the devil's own luck? Think it came for free? So you can get in line now and hand over the moffalo, or you get in line later as things get much, much worse for you."

This at last made the woman hesitate. She glanced to the right.

While moffalo in the wild would head for shelter in the evening, the more domesticated variety that Beinfeld Ranch was famous for took their leisurely time returning home until it was well after dark, where they expected to get their more specialized feed from their handlers.

One of the large and heavy-set hooved creatures wasn't far at all from the ranchers, near one of the gates leading into the stock yards with more of his brethren behind him; as tame and casual as a dog might be around his own owners.

And just like a pet would be, he knew something was wrong, and didn't care for the unexpected guests getting in the way of his feeding time. He let out a snort from his large, rounded snout and shook his head along with his thick, broad, moose-like branched horns.

Kelly looked back at Mr. S, for the first time starting to look troubled. "You...you want my moffalo?"

"Did I stutter?" Mr.S bluntly retorted. "The moffalo are part of the ingredients Mr. Strickland requires. Jiodisans are huge on having their powdered horns mixed in the product. Think it's some aphrodisiac. They'll pay up to five times as much for it."

"I'm pretty sure I woulda remembered daddy handin' over our livestock to be chopped up by some two-bit thug!"

"Watch your tongue, chica!" The tan-skinned man spat, holding up his fist and cracking his knuckles menacingly at her. "Mr. Strickland is more than just some Auro-scraping thug. If he wasn't, you'd already be dead! And wasting time with you has already made us behind schedule! If I were you, I'd sit back and keep your mouth shut before things get messy!"

The muffalo didn't care for the more aggressive-sounding man, and he showed it by letting out an angry snort in his direction. He began to paw at the ground soon after.

The smaller man looked at him with a sneer. "What you lookin' at, mutt?"

It must have not cared for being insulted either, for it immediately let out a low growl. In spite of the time of year, it snorted so powerfully that steam came out of his nose.

He smirked at it, beginning to take a few steps closer to the fence. "Yeah, I'm talkin' to you, smelly! You want a piece of me?" He smacked a fist against his chest. "Come get it!"

"What are ya', crazy?" Kelly snapped, glancing between him and the increasingly agitated muffalo. "That's enough already!"

"Big, stinking fleabag…" the man muttered, still walking closer. "Runs right up to the slaughterhouse when you call, don't he?"

"Muffalo are friendlier than two-bit muscle like you, at any rate!" Kelly roared back. "And smarter, to boot!"

He sneered. "So you gotta be one of those kinds of gals after all, eh? Well maybe you're the one who needs the trip to the slaughterhouse."

The muffalo let out a louder roar, and began to prance on the ground. It thrashed its antlers about.

"Why you so attached to these walkin' hamburgers anyway?" he went on, gesturing back to it. "They're meant to be served up with fries and barbecue sauce one way or another!"

The muffalo roared again. This time, He began to lower its head and butt at the gate. In spite of it being locked, it let out a rather loud jangle. He rammed it again and knocked it further. He rammed it a third time and began to strain the lock.

He spat at the ground on seeing it. "Yeah, I'm yelling about you! What're you gonna do about it?"

"Mr. B…" Mr. S began to say.

Before he could say anything else, the muffalo let out its loudest roar yet. It suddenly reared up and slammed both of its hooves against the fence, and as a result applied to much weight to it and snapped the gate over and out of its bolts. It clattered to the dirt ground with a resounding thud, and out of sheer instinct both the ranchers and the men holding them at gunpoint began to move back. As for the muffalo, now finding itself free, it lowered its antlers and broke into a charge right for the smaller mobster.

"Mr. B", however, didn't seem all that perturbed. He actually cracked a grin at it coming at him. Kelly, backing away with the rest of the hands, noticed his hand twitched before he straightened it out to his side. An instant later, she saw the same twitch move like a muscular spasm or ripple up his wrist, along his forearm and back arm, to his shoulder, and even into his back. Much to her surprise, a moment later the armored coat began to shift around.

Parts of it broke open and expanded while other pieces rearranged and locked themselves around his limb, like they were some sort of technical gauntlet or armor. As they attached and fixed themselves into place, they changed the size of his arm—growing it to double its former size. In particular, the hand region bulked up with additional armor until it resembled a sort of boxing glove shape, while on the end of the elbow a cylindrical piston formed.

A wild gleam came to his eye as he brought his fist around and slammed his fist alongside its head. As insane as the act would seem, it not only let out a resounding noise of metal on bone, but the piston portion slammed inward along with the sound of gears unloading to the tune of the fist swinging around. Light erupted from the contact point like a flash charge had went out, to the tune of a small eruption.

In spite of the sheer advantage of size, the muffalo was halted dead in its tracks moments before it was taken off all fours and flung backward with considerable force, like it had just been launched out of a mangonel. A faint red streak trailed through the sky as its body went back past the ruined fence before it connected with the rest of the herd. That stopped its progress, but only to the tune of bowling over the animals it struck, which in turn bowled over their companions in a domino effect. Ten of the creatures ended up collapsing together near a fresh haystack.

The original muffalo landed on its side. The side of its skull had been dented in and was bleeding. It didn't get up, but it did shift slightly. It let out a moo to indicate its distress. The other animals soon joined in, as they had been knocked over violently enough in their own right.

Mr. B, on the other hand, laughed gleefully at the whole thing. Not satisfied with injuring the animals, he walked up to the broken fence and took a swing at one of the posts. While not engaging the piston as he had with the muffalo, it was still solid enough to snap off the top of it and send half at the fallen animals. As it smacked against them, they let out another distressed cry.

Mr. B wheeled to Kelly next. She was still recoiling from the initial charge of the muffalo, but now she was clearly shocked and scared at what she had just seen. And in spite of her boldness, she reflexively took a step backward when he spotted her.

"What's that you said about being a two-bit thug? You better learn some respect real quick, ya' hear?" He pointed to the injured livestock. "That's the last time I'm gonna be 'nice' about it."

"You…you…" the woman stammered, trying to still sound tough. "You think you can just march into my home and wreck my stuff and get away with it?"

"That's precisely what I think, miss," Mr.S calmly answered. "Now don't you or any of your boys and girls here think of doing anything rash like running for it and calling the police. You're too out in the sticks. No one that gives a damn can get here in time. Besides, the cops aren't going to help much when the press finds out how your dad made his first million. You'll have a lot more to worry about then than one of these bulls having a cracked skull. So…" He held his hands out. "Do we have an understanding or not? 'Eyes open, mouth shut'?"

Kelly was shaking in spite of herself. She looked back to the others, but they couldn't help. The other enforcers had recovered from the shock and they had their guns back on them. All they could do was stare back at her with anxious looks and terrified eyes. There was nothing to back up her thunder anymore.

She looked back at Mr. S. She made her hands into fists but bowed her head in resignation. Yet even then she tried to get the last word.

"You can't get away with this… Someone will stop you."

"You've clearly been naïve about how things work, girl," Mr. S retorted. "That's your dad's fault, which is why I'm gonna let it slide tonight, but wise up fast if you want to keep what you have. Alright, getting back on track…" He turned to a couple of the men and gestured over to the fallen herd. "Go on and get it in the car. I don't care how you move it; just get the stuff in there."

He began to turn to return to his own vehicle, but paused and looked back at Kelly, seeing her still standing there.

"I'd say it's been a pleasure, but with your mouth it hasn't. Hopefully the next time we meet we'll have less…complications."

He turned to walk back to the car, but stopped again. Kelly muttered something. Mr. B also looked back, as did the enforcers who were about to move.

"What was that? Didn't quite catch it."

Kelly stood there silently.

"Go on. Speak up."

Taking a sharp breath and steeling herself, she looked up and glared at him. "I said 'go to hell."

Mr. B immediately narrowed his eyes and all but snarled. Mr. S, on the other hand, stood still as a statue for several seconds. "Then again," he finally spoke, cracking his neck and turning back around. "Maybe I need to leave a bit more of a lasting impression on you if you still got the gall to be foul-mouthed."

He held up his hand in front of his own face, so that Kelly could clearly see it. She flushed white and nearly let out a yelp when it glowed red for a moment, only (to the tune of twisting bone, sinews, and flesh transmuting into metal in a grotesque cacophony) to reform into a fully operational chainsaw. A rather large and menacing one too, and whatever craft had triggered the limb to form the limb into machine immediately began to sputter out of an unseen motor. The chain spun the teeth for half a second menacingly.

She backed up again, this time closer to the workers. Clearly nervous for them but also putting herself in between them and Mr. S. However, he only stared at her for a few seconds before he turned and began to walk over to the injured herd. A few of the muffalo on the edges had managed to wiggle loose and get back on their feet, but most of them were still in a pile, and the one that had been struck clearly wouldn't be getting up without help.

"We were gonna do this with bullets to the head. This isn't the first time we've put muffalo on this ranch down, after all. But since we're in a hurry and they'll be easier to move in pieces anyway…" The chainsaw flared again. "And as an 'inconvenience fee', I'm going to append a surcharge, although I'll let you keep their pieces at least."

Instinctively, Kelly took a step forward, barely stopping herself. "No-"

While she caught herself, Mr. S heard her. He turned back to her soon after. "So you really do care about your cattle after all, eh? You need to toughen up, miss. They were going to end up in a deli one way or another. This way isn't just as neat. Or as quiet."

"We don't cut 'em up when they're still alive! Or just go 'round choppin' their heads off!" Kelly shouted back. "We put 'em down humane! We got gear in the barn that can-"

"You had your chance for that when we got here. You can keep your pet's head to remind you to play ball next time. This is no country for bleeding hearts. No world, for that matter."

He nearly turned back when he saw a mass movement. The workers suddenly got bolder looking. Several of them tightened their own hands into fists and tightened up, like they were going to make a move. At once, the enforcers raised their guns higher and tightened their hands on the triggers.

Mr. B noticed this, but he didn't even bother tensing up. He only laughed at the sight. "You hire some loco workers, chica? Looks like they're almost dumb enough to want to play hero!"

Mr. S snorted. "Oh yeah?" He looked around the group. "You all share Miss Beinfeld's sentiments? Any of you want to take a swing at me? Get a piece of what this muffalo's going to get?"

There was a momentary pause. Silence save for the revving of Mr. S's chainsaw. Slowly, the workers eased up and relaxed.

The mobster let out a snort as he cut the saw. "Figured as much. Guess you all at least get the news out here in the boonies. You know after a couple weeks back only morons want to be heroes."

Revving the chainsaw again, he turned back to the moffalo. While it was still crying pitifully, it definitely wasn't getting up. Zeroing in on its neck, he began to lower his arm…

He only got about halfway before the haystack nearby exploded.

Giving a start, the mobster recoiled slightly, raising an arm to his face. Even with his sunglasses, bits of straw went everywhere and threatened to float around and over the lenses. Plus he still need to protect his mouth. He grit his teeth and nearly stepped back, but the straw quickly died down again soon after the initial burst. Yet he immediately became cognizant of something else as it fell back to the ground—his saw blade was no longer moving. And as the air slowly cleared again, he saw why.

A figure of a man was standing in front of him now, considerably shorter but almost completely enclosed in a black cloak. Combined with the night surroundings, it made it such that he couldn't make out anything about him at first…save for the fact that the hand that reached out and was now pinching the saw blade in its fingers so that it could no longer move was silver.

A deep voice with a metallic tone spoke from beneath the hood.

"Did you really think I wouldn't come back for you, Mr. S?"

For the first time, Mr. S truly did begin to look unnerved. Perhaps even just a little bit fearful. "Impossible…"

Sure enough, the hood rose. Before it even got high enough to see inside the red lenses gleamed from beneath, and as soon as it raised higher than that the draconic demon mask became even clearer.

"This some kind of bad joke?!" Mr. S shouted, growing in volume. "You some mook she hired?! This isn't even your turf! We're over a hundred kilometers from Los Midas!"

"That's one thing about ravens," the man beneath the mask coolly answered. "They're great at adapting. Especially when finding new prey. Your turn, Mr. S. Your time to answer for your sins. Your requiem."

Still holding onto the one limb, his other flourished outward, ripping off the rest of his cloak. In the dim lighting present on the farm, he was exposed for all to see. His silver, intricate, and overlaid armor gleamed in the faint lighting. Both the enforcers as well as their victims were soon staring at him with incredulous surprise.

"The hell… You?!" Mr. B practically spat. "Everyone on the planet wants you dead and you still head all the way out here just to meddle on our business?!" His teeth clenched. "This is the last mistake you'll ever make you rotten son of a-"

Mr. B's voice was cut off as he exclaimed in pain—the end result of getting a right hook across the jaw the sent him staggering all the way into the very fence post he hit a little while earlier. He slammed into it roughly, letting out a swear before falling to the ground.

Several of the others turned to see what had just happened, and got a bit of a surprise to see one of the ranch workers had done that. At least, someone who dressed like one of the ranch workers. None of the hands gathered was capable of running out from the group so fast that the enforcers wouldn't have noticed them, and none of them were capable of hitting that hard either.

Yet now that they were looking back at the group, both the ranch hands as well as the enforcers were noticing that there were now more of them than there had been when they first arrived. And several of them were now stepping back into the less well-lit areas and were putting on masks.

The one who had struck Mr. B wasn't nearly so modest. He threw off his work cap with the Beinfeld Farms logo to let his blond hair out before he cracked a smile.

"Yeah dude…I'm gonna have to say 'hell no'. Sorry 'bout the sucker punch, but after a couple weeks back I'm still pissed whenever I hear dogs that don't know when to stop barking."

"Man, you owned that sucker, Dan!" one of the masked hands called out.

His smile faded and he rolled his eyes, muttering a curse about 'why they even bother with code names' before he pulled a mask out of his own pocket and threw it on. "Whatever…" he said a bit louder. "Damn, that felt good. Feels like it's been years since I smashed a bastard in the face… Time flies when you're on the run, eh?"

"You mooks don't know when to quit, do you?" Mr. S sneered at the man in front of him. "Even after everything fell apart, you're still-"

He cut himself off when Requiem's metal hand began to glow. Eyes widening, he quickly tried to yank his chainsaw arm out of his grip, only to find that the smaller man's grasp was more than strong enough to hold him steady. The hand continued to gleam with light, radiating like a hot iron.

And soon it began to heat the saw blade as well. Mr. S began to struggle more frantically, but that only made things worse. A moment later, his twisting plus the thermal stress caused the chainsaw to shatter in the masked man's grip.

Yet no sooner had that happened when Requiem shot his hand, still blazing hot, forward and seized Mrs. S by the face. His eyes bulged even larger in renewed shock, before it broke out into an agonized scream. His remaining hand reflexively reached for his head only to accidentally grab the burning hand, which, of course, only served to injure him further.

Requiem, on his part, clutched harder, until the sounds of flesh searing began to peel through the air.

"Why would we give up?" he spoke darkly. "I haven't forgotten what happened. You and your boss owe us a personal debt now on top of your outstanding sins. And for your own part in the ambush that killed so many of my allies, your judgment-"

Before he could say any more, Mr. S shifted his hand again. This time, it wasn't to Requiem's wrist but rather his own wrist on his broken arm. He grasped it and clutched hard enough to trigger something, and with a latching sound the remaining fragments of his chainsaw along with the place where it mounted against his wrist disengaged and toppled to the ground. His metal hand emerged from beneath it, only now giving off an electrical hum.

Requiem glanced down at it, right before it drove forward and touched itself against his chest. A loud electrical snap was heard, complete with a brilliant flash of arclight. In response, he released Mr. S's head and took two steps back, looking mostly distracted rather than injured from the strike.

However, that had only been the beginning. No sooner had Mr. S disengaged the chainsaw when his other than glowed, this time elongating into a pair of long barrels with a pump on the base of them—essentially a short barreled shotgun. He quickly pressed both against the stunned man's chest and let out a blast.

From the sound of the resulting eruption, it was much stronger than a conventional shotgun. That also seemed to be the case from the fact that Requiem was swept off his feet, his body reacting like a wisp of paper as it was thrown back—not only going backward but flying across the field all the way into the nearby barn. It made contact with the doors soon after, knocking them both open and flying inside.

Mr. S seemed to realize that was too easy, but was in too much pain from the hand-shaped burn across his face to really notice as he quickly snapped his arm open so he could reload. "You still like running your mouth, don't you, you bastard?" He yelled at the barn. "You want to make this personal? Alright then!" He turned his head back to the mobsters. "Boys, these assholes should have been in the grave weeks ago! Hurry up and fix that problem!"

The enforcers responded by opening fire, but they were too slow for it. The Ravens had been waiting for them to act and now they sprung. They didn't even pull their triggers for the first plasma shots before Dan darted back in front of them, this time with one of his limbs metallic and flattened via the Shield Arm spell. The initial salvo was stopped cold against it, and before they could cock their weapons and fire the trigger again the Ravens came flooding out from the other side.

Two of them took shots of their own and blasted the weapons right out of two mobsters' hands. Two more let out spells, one of lightning and one of frost, right for the eyes of two more. They dropped their guns and clutched for their faces in agony. Still two more simply darted forward and handled things personally; lashing out to knock the weapons out of their opponent's hands before giving them disabling blows.

Mr. S's fury redoubled, while Dan simply smirked at him. "Aw, what's the matter, Baldy? Thought we were just going to hand around waiting for you to shoot us?"

The big man glared murderously at Dan, but he didn't pay much more attention to him. His focus turned back to Mr. B, who by now had recovered enough to start standing up again. He let out a small chuckle as he slowly pushed himself to full height.

"I can't believe it… You smartasses are still talking smack. Figured by now you little punks would have learned just how full of slag you really are…"

Dan snickered right back, snapping his arm once to revert it back into flesh and bone, then turning to more firmly square himself against Mr. B while the rest of his group continued to deal with the remaining enforcers. "Not bad for some rich boy's pit bull, dude. Being real here, I thought you wouldn't get back up after that punch."

His face twisted into a scowl. "Listen up mook. The name 'Mr. B' is short for 'Mister Bash'. They call me that because I pretty much turn anything that gets in the way of the Diamond Don's profits into road gravel." His jacket began to click and hum again, as an additional boxing-glove like structure began to expand over his other arm. "And I'm gonna enjoy beating you so hard pieces of your spine are gonna be leaking out of your asshole!"

The moment the transformation was complete, Mr. B charged at Dan like a wild bear. As soon as he was near enough, he hauled back one of his arms and took an overhead swing at the younger man. However, it was far too wild and far too telegraphed. It was easy for him to simply hop backward and let it miss him completely. As soon as it struck the ground, the piston disengaged into it with sufficient force to let out a small tremor, fracturing the dirt all around it, but it didn't so much as make its intended target flinch.

"You know, dude…" Dan mused aloud, still easy-going. "We never met before, but I swear I've seen you before…"

Mr. B, looking at him madly and the veins in his neck starting to bulge, yanked his fist out and tried a hook next. Dan again easily hopped back, and then sidestepped again a moment later when the opposite fist again tried to drive him into the ground like a sledgehammer. Mr. B was already panting hard, but getting nowhere.

"Oh, that's right!" he spoke up as he sidestepped another hit. "You're that one boxer that got kicked out of the league! Got mad about that fight against Joey Bambio and bit his nose off, didn't you?" He chuckled. "Man… No wonder you work for the Diamond Don. No one else would hire some psychopath sore loser I guess?"

"Shut up!" Mr. B roared out. In spite of already being winded, he managed to double the speed of his assault, swinging at Dan more furiously than ever. In spite of the strain, it was now enough to make him more purposely evade and sidestep him, and progressively he retreated as the mobster kept advancing.

"I won that damn fight!" he yelled as soon as he was forced to stop to rest. "Those pussy commissioners screwed me over! The Don knows what to pay a guy for taking someone apart! Including gutter trash like you!"

He let out a pair of double swings against Dan, forcing him to back up further than he had before. He managed to evade both strikes, but soon stopped as he felt something his hit back. He glanced over his shoulder, seeing himself now with his back to the fence. Mr. B noticed the same thing, grinning in triumph. He extended both of his pistons as he got ready to go in for a killing blow.

However, Dan's eyes narrowed in response—his look finally turning "serious" for the first time. While Mr. B was getting ready, he extended his own right arm, muttering a spell incantation of his own. A second later, it too gleamed and dramatically reshapened and transmuted into a limb five times the size of his previous arm and dwarfing both of Mr. B's.

Whether it was due to rage or stupidity, Mr. B still gave a battle cry and charged forward to swing. Yet Dan was the faster of the two, and with his Turbo Knuckle spell completed he responded by swinging out his own fist to intercept him. The two sides collided a moment later with a thunderous echo from the raw force.

And in the end of the clash…it was Mr. B who's feet began to drag backward and away from Dan.

"Getting real sick of dealing with jackasses who think they're all that…" Dan muttered. "You're just some glorified lap dog who think he's the top dog after his master gave him a couple treats, 'champ'."

Mr. B was straining and sweating at this point to hold Dan back, but still didn't look intimidated. "So you're the Raven Mr. S said had all the fancy body mod magic… Not bad for chump, but they wouldn't call me 'Mr. B' if I couldn't break down bit talking mooks like you."

His arms began to gleam again, this time from both limbs. Dan kept holding him back but looked at the arms. He didn't hold back, just dug in and prepared himself for whatever was coming.

What he got, however, was a bit more than he expected, for a moment later an explosion went off not against his fist but somehow driven inside of it from where the arms made contact. To the tune of a pillar of fire, his Turbo Knuckle burst out with fire and smoke. The resulting force flung the rest of him backward again, taking him into and right through the fence all together in the span of an instant. A second later, he touched down on the ground and went for a backward tumble for several feet before stopping on his back.

Several of his comrades stopped and turned to Dan when that happened. As for him, he shook his head once, looking rather sore, before glancing to his arm. While it was still transformed, it was also smoking and smoldering. Part of it was shattered into bits. He grunted once as he reached behind his head and rubbed. A moment later, he flinched and brought it back, seeing a bit of blood on the end.

A second later, the other ravens began to approach, but he silently held out a thumbs up to them. They stopped soon after, and he let out an exhale as he began to get up. He twitched his arm once, causing it to revert back into flesh and bone.

"Still think I'm just talk, wiseass?!" Mr. B spat out. "This is top-of-the-line augmentation! I got the power of explosions in these babies! And they're always locked and loaded, unlike your dinky little body mod crap!"

Dan rotate his neck once before looking back at Mr. B's arms. Steam was coming out of them, but their owner also wasn't unscathed. He looked a lot sweatier than before. In spite of what had just happened, he smirked again.

"Yeah, that's one nasty hook alright. But if you only got one ace up your sleeve, that just makes you a poser rather than a jackass." He raised his own fists. "So those arms of yours let you smash through a lot, huh? I reckon you don't know how to handle someone who can get past it though."

"And you think you're fast enough to get out of the way of my fists? You're loco if you think I'm just gonna let you run away after this!"

"Who the hell said anything about running?"

Letting out another incantation, both of Dan's arms transformed this time. They didn't take the same form as before, but rather enlarged into far more elaborate metal structures with four smaller pistons on the end of them, which instantly began to chug away and started manipulating the iron fists on the end like living jackhammers. As soon as they got going, he charged right back at Mr. B. Just as furiously, the man charged right back. The two connected a moment later and went at it.

At first, the mobster reacted with shock as the repeated, hammering blows came down on him again and again from either side. He was instantly forced on the defensive, not only forced to quickly counter the hits as much as he could but to discharge one explosion after another to try and block the hammering power of the strikes. The area around them was soon filled deafening noise between the fury of the blows and the booms from the explosions. However, as the fury continued to unleash itself, Dan's arms never gained the edge. Mr. B was able to keep up with all of them. And as he realized that, his initially surprised look turned into a grin.

Abruptly, Mr. B's head snapped forward just after deflecting the latest pair of strikes, and in spite of the reach between the two men he managed to duck in enough to make contact with Dan's head. The butting move wasn't severe, but it was enough to knock the younger man's head back, and in surprise he relented and stepped back. Mr. B's right fist quickly pulled back and wound up, gleaming as it primed another explosion. Dan recovered his footing just in time to see it, and muttered a curse. An instant later, Mr. B began to bring the arm around.

Yet Dan did something that ended up surprising him. Rather than try to directly block or counter, both of his fists opened wide into full sized metal hands and grasped the fist as it came forward. They immediately clenched down and held soon after to try and stop it. The force was too much for him at first, and while he managed to keep the fist from going into his face he was immediately pushed back along the ground. It wasn't until he reached a bit of bare rock in the field that he was able to plant his feet against that he stopped. He braced himself against the fist afterward, hovering menacingly only a few inches from his face.

While he was dripping sweat at this point, Mr. B snickered on seeing his position and continued to drive his fist inward. "Man, you really are loco if you think you can overpower me with just your bare hands! My arms are dynamos, asshole! I'm gonna keep charging this boom until it makes contact with your head and smashes it clean off! It's unstoppable!"

"Been there, heard that…" Dan muttered, before renewing his grin. "So that fist is unstoppable? That go for the rest of you, dude?"

Mr. B nearly retorted before he suddenly let out a wince of pain. He looked confused a moment, staring at Dan and making sure he wasn't doing anything to him. On seeing he was just standing there, he glanced down at his body. His legs were extended forward in his last lunge, but they were buckling. Starting to wobble. He winced again a moment later as his right knee gave an especially large spasm.

"What happens when that boom of yours can't go off in my face?" Dan taunted. "Got to go somewhere, doesn't it?"

He let out another wince, this time straining a little from the pain and letting out a small cry. His right knee began to bend against its own will. "What the… The hell…? This is… No way! You can't-"

"Oh, I'm betting that I can! In fact, I'm betting you're so used to one-shotting punks so far out of your league you never tried your fists out on something they couldn't break! Next time, read the instructions, dude!"

Mr. B's attempt at a retort was cut off as he let out a louder cry, to the tune of an ugly, wet, stretching sound coming from his leg. It only got worse, degenerating into a ripping noise. He looked back at Dan hatefully, gritting his teeth as hard as he could to try and hold back the pain. It was so strong that he began to crack one of his teeth. Finally, in a fit of rage, he let out an incoherent roar at the raven, trying in vain to assert he was the 'champ'…

Right before the failure to discharge his power not only broke his knee completely the wrong way, but snapped it off and sent his lower leg flying like a bit of dried kindling.

His yell degenerated into a scream as he was left with a bloody stump. He toppled forward and Dan released him, letting his right arm go wild and to the ground. Yet he didn't let him fall all together. His left arm shot out and seized Mr. B's loose left one, holding it tight and crossing it over its owner's chest to not only halt him but pin him back.

Mr. B continued to yell, unclear if he was still awash with his own agony or realizing what was happening to him, but it did little good as Dan raised his own right arm, thundered his pistons once again, and then brought it forward. With twice the momentum it had before, the Jackhammer Grind technique embedded in his chest.

A wet crunching sound resulted, loud enough for everyone in the area to hear, before Mr. B's own body went flying far more than Dan's body had. He was turned into a practical rocket, arching through the air past the barn and the yard all the way to the Beinfeld Ranch's original "dining bell" the farm's founder had used to signal to the muffalo that it was feeding time. His head connected solidly, letting out a resounding chime over the area, before he collapsed to the ground. He moved no more.

"Booyah! Knock out, baby!" Dan yelled, pumping his fist into the air. Soon after he spun back to the others. "Alright, alright…anyone else need some sense beaten into them? Step right up! I'm having a two-for-one-sale today!"

In response, whoever wasn't already struggling with one of the ravens or was unconscious opened fire in his direction. Even as he darted for cover, transmuting his arms back into shields, he snickered.

"We got a whole mess of sore losers today, don't we?"

Mr. S looked over to Mr. B. In the darkness it was hard to tell for sure, but one of the mounted spotlights around the antique bell had illuminated him nicely. His chest now had a dent in it that had to represent quite a few broken ribs, and his augmented arms had overheated so much that they were both smoking and deforming. His face reddened as he looked back to the rest of the enforcers. They weren't fairing much better. On the contrary, they were going down faster than their last encounter with the ravens.

"It seems the lot of you are not nearly as elite as you think you are."

Mr. S couldn't help but stiffen on hearing that dark, mechanical voice. He looked back at the barn. While he thought that had been a bit too easy before, he nevertheless was stunned to see that Requiem had taken a point-blank, double-barreled plasma shotgun blast to the chest and didn't have so much as a wisp of smoke to show for it.

Requiem reached for his signature bandaged blade. It was soon exposed and aimed forward; the tip angled right for the mobster's head. "You thought you could prey on anyone weaker than you. You thought you were untouchable. Tonight, at long last, your crimes have caught up with you."

Mr. S's composure finally broke as he wheeled fully toward him. "You goddamn…cultist!" he finally spat in exasperation. "Don't you get it by now? The justice you never shut up about doesn't even exist! It never has!"

Requiem came to a halt. However, his blade didn't change positions.

"I'm well aware of what reality is," he spoke, a bit more quietly than before. "But the only way to change the world is one step at a time."

Mr. S hissed as he reached his metal hand into his pocket. "So I'm just the one you pasted a target on 'cause everyone else is out of reach, huh?"

He ripped out an object a moment later, flinging it at Requiem for all he was worth.

"Like hell!"

Requiem lowered his sword, his red eyes immediately tracing to the object that had been lobbed at him. He reacted in an instant. His opposite hand raised as he chanted an incantation, and an aura of green energy condensed around his fist momentarily before shooting out as a projectile. While the object was still at a good distance, it connected with it and detonated.

An explosion, however, wasn't the result. At least not the kind that would have been expected from a standard grenade. Instead, on contact, the object erupted into a brilliant blast of light and piercing noise that covered the entire area, and most of the people around who were glancing anywhere close to the source of the blast quickly covered their eyes and ears yet still yelled out in surprise and agony. For a moment, all of the chaos and confusion momentarily lapsed in the wake of the flash.

But no sooner had it gone off than Mr. S spun around and broke for it.

Richard, unfortunately, was one of those who happened to be looking right at the object when it went off. And even with Greymont quickly adapting to try and mitigate the flash as well as the noise that resulted from it, the dragonlike creature could only react so fast. While it only cost him about four seconds in all, no sooner had his ears cleared when he heard the sound of heavy footsteps running away as fast as they could.

His free hand clenched in frustration. He quickly looked up and blinked, struggling to see what was happening. Yet he only got a step forward before he felt a potent impact against his chest. It was accompanied with a flash of painful heat, though far from fatal. By now, he had taken enough of those blasts in his 'career' to realize it had been a plasma bolt.

His eyes continued to clear only to see that the few enforcers who were left had turned their sights to him. Their own aim was still clearing so not many of the shots hit, but it still provided cover fire. He glanced to the armored transport, but the Ravens had cut it off. Instead, looking a bit longer, he finally spotted Mr. S running toward the larger barn structure.

Beneath the mask, his face tightened.

No…not again. You're not getting away again.

Letting out another incantation, his sword came to life with the burning light of the Aura Edge technique, and he again charged forward. The plasma fire continued to shoot at him, but this time his blade flashed out and acted as a shield for much of it, and what few blasts did connect he pushed through. One or two of the blasts even got reflected back to their source, resulting in cries of agony before they collapsed. One mobster, however, made the rather bold and foolish step of trying to tackle Requiem from the side. With a flash from his sword, he went one way while his severed limbs went another.

His red eyes blazed even brighter than the sword as he watched him vanish inside.


Kelly may have been able to be brave in the face of mobsters, but right now was pushing her far beyond her 'comfort zone'. Several of her former captors were now lying on the ground, either dead or with severe injuries. Many were smoldering from plasma blasts or spell residue, while some were just plain beaten to a pulp. And the chaos only seemed to escalate between the blasts that had gone out, the sounds of explosions, and the chorus of gunfire. In the grand scheme of things it wasn't much.

But to the people of the Aurino Kingdom who still remembered all too well the flood of stories that came out in the wake of the incident in Nilock Park, both the day of and in the days following, and on seeing the very man declared the most dangerous individual in the country right there, it was a nightmare. She couldn't move. She couldn't speak. She just looked around struggling to process what was going on and why.

"Miss Beinfeld."

The rancher blinked, finally turning her head. Whoever was calling to her had been doing so a few times, but she only noticed now. Through her addled brain, she noticed that one of the people in a mask was now standing next to her. One with red hair sticking out from beneath her hat and wielding tonfa-like weapons in either hand.

Although she made no move to use them on her, Kelly instinctively recoiled and began to shield herself.

"Miss Beinfeld, please calm down," the individual immediately stated. Her voice was even, collected, and reassuring. Almost like a police officer's. "I promise you that everything is going to be alright. I can't say more at the moment, but I need to know something right now. Are there any other non-magical ways off of the ranch? Any ones other than the main roads or the air?"

All she could do was stammer at first. "I…I don't…"

"Please. This is important. If you don't tell me, another tragedy could happen. Are there any other ways?"

Kelly wasn't sure if it was because she was still in shock, if it was because the masked woman spoke so reassuringly and faced her so non-threateningly, or if it was a mixture of the two. Perhaps she was still in a state of disbelief or incredulousness, but she managed to calm enough to think at least somewhat coherently. "There…there's a line to the sewer system… Has to go a special route to get pretreated due to the waste from the animals…"

"Where?"

Trembling a little and still uncertain, she raised a hand and pointed to the barn.

The woman raised her head and touched a hand to her ear. "Requiem, he's going to try and escape to the sewers."

"Understood, Onyx Raven. Ironic…but I know the layouts enough to make sure he doesn't squirm away this time."

A moment later, Richard burst through the barn doors. He ran in a short distance, just long enough to clear the entrance. Being the "swinging kind" the doors slowly shut behind him. When they did, it was enough to mute out much of the noise from the fight outside. He took a moment to glance about.

The area was dark, although that meant little to him due to his special lenses. He could see clear enough in infrared. He imagined the same was true for Mr. S and his "sunglasses". However, there was no sign of him immediately. The area was fairly well packed with various large pieces of processing equipment. They were cleaned and ready for their next use, but they were also cluttered and provided a large number of places to hide. It was also quite silent.

His red eyes went one way and another, but saw nothing and heard nothing. Nothing that was audible compared to the muffled noises outside, at any rate. Finally, he called out.

"There's nowhere to run. Surrender now and I promise this will end as well as it can for you." He began to slowly step further into the room. "That's a far more honorable deal than the one your Don made."

"You only got yourself to blame for that, asshole!"

Richard halted, snapping his head to one side. Unfortunately, the way was cluttered with machinery. Too much to see distinctly where the voice was coming from.

"The Don stuck to his word! You just all became radioactive assets the moment you caused the volcano to go off over Nilock and made a couple thousand corpses! And you think you can still be a hero after that? No one's ever going to trust you again, mobster or otherwise!"

Richard nearly advanced in that direction when he heard a few clicks. Soon after, loud noises began to resonate through the processing area as several of the machines came to life with loud mechanical hums and clanking of gears and tool parts. Enough to soon make the entire floor rather noisy. He whispered a curse to himself underneath the growing din.

Before he could lose his composure, his armor rippled.

Don't worry boss. A voice spoke in his ear. Its noisy but that can't hide his scent from me! I still remember the smell of that nasty aftershave from last time! He's to the right!

He took a deep breath, keeping his head forward but looking to the side. A network of pipes leading between two of the machines was right there. He glanced overhead soon afterward, noticing a more extensive network streamed over the top of the processing floor for showers and cleaning. Thanks Greymont.

A moment later, under the noise of the machinery, he whispered another incantation. This time the one for the Metal Morph technique, although he didn't betray that until a moment later when he dropped into a knee and slammed his metal fist into the ground. A ripple went through it that transmitted into the floor and, in particular, the network of piping that was spread through it. An instant later, they all rippled in unison, before suddenly exploding into dozens of small, razor sharp spikes.

And when that happened, he heard a small yelp and a curse to his right.

Immediately, he leapt out of his crouching position, using his enhancement to sail up and into the air and land on top of one of the pipe networks. His red eyes flickered down, almost immediately zeroing in on a human shape near one of the metal spikes on the floor. He picked up just a small trickle of blood nearby, not enough for a serious injury or wound, before focusing entirely on the person nearby.

Yet Mr. S hadn't been idle himself. It seemed he realized his mistake as well, and his arm that had previously been a double-barreled shotgun had changed again. Now it was much larger with numerous barrels arranged in a circle, like a minigun. And unlike the shotgun, he had a humming, gleaming core near his elbow region. No need to reload.

He immediately raised it to Richard, but Richard immediately responded in turn. His own hand snapped up and pointed straight at Mr. S, quickly shifting into a new shape as well. By the time it was pointed at him, his own arm was changed into a barrel. Only a single one, but one much larger than the individual barrels of his opponent's weapon. Mr. S soon saw it and knew what its purpose, and power, was. As a result he kept his own weapon pointed at Richard but didn't move. For a few moments, the two simply stood in their respective positions, both with their weapons extended.

The masked man broke the silence. "You should know by now that level of fire power is not going to be enough to get you out of this."

Mr. S snorted. "You're really going to nuke these rancher hicks to Hell just to waste a professional enforcer like me? Guess Mister Strickland was right. Revenge is all you really want out of this, eh "hero?"

Richard felt a lump in his throat. A coldness sank into his stomach. It had been only a few days since he was able to keep the screams from his nightmares mostly out of his head. This began to bring it back. It took all of his focus to keep from shaking his arm. He knew if he did he'd lose in an instant. Even so, he felt himself starting to breath harder.

"Things…just spiraled out of control," he finally managed to say in a reasonably even tone.

"Of course they did," the enforcer retorted sourly. "because you're an idiot who has no idea what he's doing! So how about backing off now? Unless you want these farmers to all burn to death too because you made another short-sighted decision?"

At that point, Richard realized the gun wasn't aimed directly at him. It was only aimed in his general area. The spray would likely hit most of the area around him. He didn't look behind him, but with his Dragon Lens Scanner in his helmet he only needed a moment to realize that the machines had individual power sources inside them.

It made sense, being this far from a town's normal power grid. Each one likely had a miniature kaisonite reactor powering it. And normally they wouldn't be in danger of rupturing. But subjected to plasma fire? That could cause an eruption big enough to trigger a chain reaction to burn down the entire barn. It would likely spread to the ranch afterward…

His expression hardened. "There's another option: I shoot you before you can hit your target."

"Think because I don't have your teammate in front of me you can make the shot? I've been doing this for decades! I know by now who's going to get hit first at the right distance, and don't think I'm going to just stand still and get hit!"

"Thanks for the advice." On saying that, a blue light began to emit from inside his arm. "Mr. S…face your requiem."

Mr. S actually registered a touch of surprise on seeing him go for it, but he had little time to ponder that before the end of the barrel on Richard's arm erupted. Yet rather than the beam of energy he had been expecting, it instead emitted a barrage of scattering blue energy blasts showering over the area below him.

Quickly, the mobster yanked his gun up and swerved to the right, eschewing his shot and simply going for cover. He felt heat wash over and past him more than once, and smelled smoldering in the area as a number of those bursts pierced his coat and even his suit beneath. However, he still managed to angle his body underneath a lower-hanging grid of pipework, and he saw the shots that were aimed below struck the metal but left nothing but a touch of scoring. He realized the attack had purposely been weakened to avoid damaging the machinery.

At once, he smirked at the realization. He quickly re-aimed his gun to open fire.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a yellow flash of light like an electrical spark. He turned to it, only to see the same spark in front of him a second later. He again turned back to it, but was too slow yet again as he saw the spark one final time…this time moments before it slid down the barrel of his plasma minigun. His eyes widened and he opened his mouth to let out a curse.

Too late. The shot struck the plasma welling inside the base of his arm and the reaction was instantaneous.

A cloud of high intensity plasma vapor ignited from the midst of the machines that Mr. S was hiding within, causing a deafening blast followed by a rather loud thud nearby. The brilliant flash illuminated nothing but an explosive cloud for a few moments, but then rapidly faded away. The ventilation fans within the slaughterhouse quickly went to work clearing all of the residual vapor away.

When it did, it revealed Mr. S still pressed against the side of one of the processing machines. Scattered around him were bits of metal—all that remained of his gun arm. Much of his remaining clothing was in tatters and his sunglasses were shattered. His mouth was stretched open in an expression of shock, before he began to let out a noise of agony. His body soon contorted in pain before he slid to the ground, smoking and blackened from the blast and ravaged by the trauma.

He was barely able to look in front of him to see another individual strolling along the pipe network stretched over his head toward him. This one was a bit more flamboyant than his companions. In spite of his own mask, his own full length coat was designer and definitely fancier than the disguises of his companions. On one of his arms was a hand-fired crossbow.

Richard glanced to him when he entered, to which he responded with a wave. "I think that trick shot was a bit much even for me, but sometimes I even amaze myself. Sure helped that my masked friend was being the decoy." He turned over to Mr. S soon after, noticing the shrapnel around him and the remains of his limb. "Ooo…I'm sorry. I doubt your warranty will cover that."

The masked man simply nodded back. "Great work, Jade Hawk."

Mr. S was still quite agonized, but nevertheless struggled to push up with his remaining hand. The fact it was covered with blood didn't help much, or that moving only made him cough up blood of his own. "Goddamn…vigilante…piece of…" he grunted, before wincing at how much pain it put him in. "You think this is the end…? The Don told you… Crime isn't going to roll over…just because you kicked a bigshot's a-AAH!"

He cut himself off with a scream…the result of Richard leaping down and making sure to land on one of his outstretched legs in a rather painful manner. As he was wracked with fresh agony, the masked man took his time rising tall before pointing his blade at his neck again. He waited for the mobster to recover, but no sooner had he regained his composure than he looked back up at him. As his cracked lenses fell away, he still glared at him defiantly.

"Feeling big, freak?" he hissed at him. "You were already on the ropes. Now you just made sure this ends badly for every last one of you."

"I'm already being hunted by the Iblis Corps, the Magna Centurions, and every law enforcement agency in the Aurino Kingdom," Richard dryly retorted. "I think adding some mobsters who already tried and failed to wipe me out once isn't going to change much. Besides, you're the ones who are overestimating your limits."

Mr. S stiffened a little when he heard that.

"This ranch is a far cry from Los Midas. While some would say you coming all the way out here is a sign of the Diamond Don's strength, we observed it for what it really was: a sign of weakness. A sign of desperation. You had free reign in Los Midas for a long time, but after Orion Zilos declared martial law that changed quite a lot, didn't it? Let me guess. Donald Strickland thought he could manipulate him only to find out the first son of Andross Zilos lives up to his reputation, didn't he?"

Mr. S flustered, but could say nothing in response.

"We know all too well. We were able to hack some of your transmissions. We knew you were getting more desperate. Spreading yourselves thinner. Willing to shake up a ranch that barely knew about its connection to your group. And…here we are. And despite how much you deserve judgment, I'm willing to be merciful…for a price."

He pressed the blade in slightly.

"Tell me all you know about the Diamond Don and the Iblis Corps' operations, and I'll use my remaining contacts to ensure the rest of your life is…bearable."

Mr. S's face twisted. With all the strength he still could possess, he lowered his head and let out a weak laugh. Richard patiently waited for him to run out of breath, and when he did he bowed his head and gasped a little to catch it. "You think…I'm gonna be like that rat Blackberry? Turn snitch and backstab the Don as soon as the tables turn?"

"Despite what he might have made you think you do have options that can lead to your survival!"

Tsc, like how you protected everyone in Nilock Park? I'll pass on that. I have a code of my own, and despite what you think the Diamond Don is, he has my loyalty, to the point that I rather die then live on as a snitch! Guess I'll get your spot in hell ready Requiem, make no mistake, no matter what you do from here on out, after what you did that's the only place your going to end up!"

"Maybe, but I'm going to try to the end to redeem myself, to make what I fought for more then just random brutality. And its not to late for you either. Think of it as a way to atone for all the crimes you done. Do some good in your life for once."

He paused again, breathing heavy once again. His eyes closed. For a moment, he looked almost like he had passed out. Possibly even died. At last, he spoke again.

"Fine. I got something for you."

His wrist snapped. When it did, something rolled out of his sleeve and into his remaining hand. Richard looked down, and in spite of how fast Mr. S tried to be, he caught what was in his hand this time. A real grenade. Using strength he had to have been summoning just for this, he mashed the button and held it up right in front of him.

While Richard had been hopeful that he might have actually done it, he had seen too much defiance from his defeated enemies to not plan for otherwise. In an instant, he lashed out with the end of his metal boot and swung it about, catching the grenade and hooking it to fling it away across the floor and out of the midst of the machines. Fortunately, Voltaire was even faster quick quicker reflexes.

No sooner had the grenade gone flying than he quickly moved his hand over his bow, pulled back, and let fly with an icy blue projectile. It connected with the grenade as it was still in midair, and a moment later when it toppled to the ground it was nothing but a jagged crystal of ice.

Richard spun back to Mr. S afterward, only to see what he had really been saving his strength for. With what had to be everything he had left, he had thrown himself back onto his feet, but only to limp a few steps to the right before reaching a guard rail over a conveyor leading into one of the running processing machines. Using a combination of failing effort and his own gravity, he heaved himself over the edge of it, his body limply going over the side and flopping onto the belt. It immediately took him off, dragging him straight toward one of the larger machines.

Richard was surprised for a moment, only to look up and into the machine. It took a second for his infrared lenses to make it clear to him, but he realized it was filled with a number of buzzing, bladed grinders that were already coming to life on detecting weight headed right for them.

Instinctively, he reached out toward him. "No, wait! Don't…!"

Mr. S managed to meet gazes with him one last time before his head vanished into the guard flaps for the "splatter". He saw him choke out one last thing.

"Going to be one painful ride down the road to Perdition " hero" ."

A moment later, his head reached the blades.

Richard had seen more horrible and gruesome deaths than he cared for over the past few months. Enough to where he didn't care to see any more that he could avoid. His eyes immediately shut and he looked away. The most horrific thing about the next few moments is, amid the sounds of cutting, ripping, and splattering, he caught a few audible sounds from the man being fed into the machine.

He had been alive, if not conscious, for at least the first few seconds of it. Yet the machine was well made, well maintained, and fast. It was over in less than ten seconds.

Steeling himself, Richard opened his eyes and looked back. The conveyor on the other side was feeding out again. The pieces that emerged were amazing neat and well partitioned. If it wasn't for the fact that bits of skin and hair, along with remains of clothing, were mixed in with them, one might not have seen it was anything different from the normal muffalo meat. It was punctuated at the end by the last few remains of the frames of his sunglasses.

A light touching sound hit the ground near Richard. Soon after, Voltaire walked forward to his side, glancing down over the machine. He saw the remains emerge for a few moments before wincing. "Well, luck's never been on our side. Figures we'd get the one mobster who still has enough loyalty to go out like a deli meat rather than spill the beans."

Richard sighed as he dismissed his Aura Edge and put his sword away. Soon after he turned away and raised a hand to his ear. "Cyber Raven, are we in the clear?"

It took a moment, before a small amount of static retorted. "It's all good on this end, Requiem. The jamming held. None of those crooks got a message for backup. Course…once we leave, nothing's stopping the ranchers from calling the cops. Then everything goes down the toilet."

"Good work. And don't worry…leave that to us."

By the time Requiem and Jade Hawk went outside, there were no hostiles remaining. Many of them were dead. Whichever ones weren't were incapacitated and being dumped in a pile. There was no need for any confirmation on emerging from the barn. Red Raven immediately gave them a thumbs up to let them know. He nodded back in turn, before sighing and looking to the side.

There was the other group: namely Kelly, her family, and all other ranch workers that had formerly been held hostage. The looks on their faces were anything but grateful. Quite the opposite actually. The horror on most of their expressions made it seem like they would prefer if the mobsters were still there. A few were cringing and shielding themselves, but none of the others managed to summon any of the boldness they had gathered for the enforcers.

He came to a stop at some distance, daring get no closer. He tried to look as calm and composed as possible, for all the good it did.

"I'm sorry for the trauma you just witnessed. I'm just glad we could find out about this before it was too late."

If nothing else, Kelly seemed to be put a bit off with how calm and collected Requiem addressed her. She looked at the others around, but while many of them still had their weapons or wands they didn't go for them or wield them. It took her another moment to feel bold enough to do so, but finally she looked back and addressed him. "What…what is all of this? Why did you people come all the way to my ranch?"

"To help you. And to see that those who wronged you answered for their crimes."

"You…you killed a whole lot of them, though…"

"It was my men or them. It was no different than a shootout with the cops."

Kelly shuddered a little, still not wanting to look directly at Requiem's face. Yet his own calm and composed manner, a rather stark contrast to what she had seen on the news and expected from the king's speeches, ended up causing her old bravery to resurface. Enough to firm up again.

"So…so now what? You wanna use my ranch as a base or somethin'? You wantin' to strike out from here now? Well…" She moistened her lips before she tightened further. "Well…I ain't havin' any of it! I don't want you 'round here! You ain't no hero! I saw what you did on the news! I knew people that died at that volcano!"

Requiem lowered his head momentarily. In spite of his mask, she heard him let out a long exhale. He steadied himself for a short while before he looked back up.

"I know you probably won't believe me, but despite what it seems, I assure you that wasn't me. Not my mind, at least… I also know it's going to be nearly impossible to prove that to you, so I won't try. All I want to do is atone for my mistake."

Kelly noticed that he did seem genuinely remorseful, but it didn't change her expression that much. He exhaled. "How? By makin' my ranch the next warzone?"

"I have no intention of using your property. Now that the threat is gone, we'll be on our way. And we'll take the bodies with us. As far as he'll know, the men never even made it here, but he will know that he shouldn't risk sending anyone after you again. Not without painting another target on his back for the Aurino military. Also…I would recommend, if not plead, to you not to call the police. It would make things simpler for both of us."

Kelly flustered a little at this, knowing she was over a barrel on that part. She knew full well bringing in the police would inevitably have them learn about the mobsters. Learning about that would drag out her father's secrets to the surface. And then she'd suffer the same blow to her company's reputation that the Don had threatened. Nevertheless, her face made it clear she wasn't about to admit that defeat.

"I still don't see how tradin' one bunch of crooks for another helps me! One way or another you just want to use me!"

"I'll step in here."

Kelly looked away from Requiem to Jade Hawk when he spoke up. He held up a finger in a stopping gesture, before he took a few steps forward. As he did, he reached for his own mask. "Maybe my associate here has no personal stake in your well-being Kelly, but I do. After all, I always did love your dances."

A moment later, the mask came off. Kelly's jaw dropped. The elegant face and ginger hair beneath it was unmistakable.

"Voltaire Joachim…?"

"Yeah, it's been a while since I made any covers, but nice to know the recognition is still there."

She practically stammered for a moment. "My god…this Requiem fella really did nab ya'?"

He winced a little. "Not quite, Kelly. I, um…pretty much joined him of my own free will. Think of it as a special joint venture under a humanitarian mission. Just one where the whole world happens to be at stake."

Kelly stared back at him blankly. "Oh hell…he brainwashed you good."

"Now Kelly, if I didn't get hypnotized at that 'hoe-down' two springs ago you think I would be that easily hustled by a guy who doesn't even show off any skin? Look…hear me out. The gist of it is that if we don't pull off this next move of ours some very big, mean, and ugly people who make 'Punchy' and 'the Vegematic' look like cow tippers are going to do something that makes Nilock look like grafitti."

The rancher didn't say any more, but continued to look at him uncertainly.

"I'm serious, Kelly. We're in the midst of something big and terrible with some very dangerous people, and we don't have much time. Please."

As often as Kelly had known him, Voltaire never made a public appearance or talk without putting on his playboy act. This was the first time she had ever seen him make an attempt to look sincere. And that managed to disarm her a little. She eased just a touch more before looking back at Requiem, although her distrust still hadn't vanished.

"So what then? This the part where I pay you off?"

"No, although I do request one thing from you. Your balloon."

Kelly blinked. She raised a hand to her ear, as if making sure nothing was in it. "Come again?"

"Your balloon you use for the Aurino Bountiful Acknowledgement festival parade. We'd like to borrow it."

"That's just a normal mascot balloon. It ain't nothin' special."

"Be that as it may, and unlikely as it seems, the fate of the world may depend on it."

Authors Notes: So yah...a bit of a while eh? My plan for so long was to wait till the first book got published, and things were SO close to at last taking off, but then the world had to go and fall apart eh? With virtually everything frozen, and who knows how long most of life will be trapped unable to even seen anyone or really do anything, I had to do something to have some structure to a shutdown life, so here we are.

Well, if I suddenly hear from a book agent and I have to change things I'll let you know but, my plan is to see this book through...hopefully at least some people are excited for that.

Well, if you like what you see I would be most grateful if you leave a review. Well, that's the gist of it, so hopefully till next time people. With how things are updates for now should be frequent, long as this site is not another causality to the god damn Corona Virus.

Stay safe everyone.