Chapter 21: By the Horns
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Mhaieiyu

Arc 1, Chapter 21
By the Horns

The dust began to settle down, unfolding the scene before him. The place had become entirely indistinguishable through the mayhem of gunfire, magical annihilation and physical destruction. Vehicles had been reduced to crushed chassis; barriers had pulverised into dust, the floor was littered with raised bricks and holes formed in the beast's wake... The soldiers had retreated entirely from combat, relying entirely on the Minotaur's wrath and brawn to dispatch the invaders and escapees. To what end their retreat served was a mystery, though Emris had caught a glimpse of a considerable amount of ruckus just outside. Either they had been dispatched elsewhere, or the soldiers themselves understood the hopelessness of standing against a force so strong; unknowing of Noire's ceasefire.

After a good observation of the rubbled, dust hazed environment, Emris' attention was robbed as Xavier shouted:

"Emris! Where the hell... were you?!" Between laboured breaths, the First Brigadier complained, stumbling towards his subordinate.

"Oy, ye interrupted my internal monologue there," Emris teased, giving him a sleazy grin and an elbow bump, defying the seriousness of the severity of their predicament. "Looks like ye had a party in here."

"You were supposed to assist in this goddess-damn conflict! Where did you and the General run off to? You didn't even respond!"

Rubbing his head awkwardly, the Third Brigadier grinned. "Aye, sorry 'bout that. Had to finish somethin' I started. I'm here now, aren't I? Looks to me like the General's busy with his own shité."

To Emris' chuckles, Xavier's exhausted mind refused to yell back at. Falling to his knees, spent, the Brigadier gave one puff of air.

"Aye, I know. Let me handle this," Emris snickered, keeping his stance as relaxed as possible as he made his way inward. Despite his relaxed attitude, several cuts continued to heal on his face, with blood blotching his chest and arms. Whether that blood was him or someone else's was anyone's guess.

Raising from the debris to Emris' approach, the Minotaur flared a smirk that mixed both arrogance and fury — a display no standard being would ever wish to run into, particularly when facing such an abhorrent being. Despite this, the Brigadier stood directly before the Cryptid, waiting for it to stand with hands in his pockets. While he refused to show it, Midas did feel a slight degree of intimidation by his unholy bluff, coupled with his inhuman boldness. For this, his crooked smile broadened.

"You some kind of jester, smiles?" the bull huffed.

"Hah!" the man snorted, arching back. "Aye, to some, I'd bet."

"Do ya know who's talking to ya?"

"A lean machine with skin to peel clean?" Emris simpered, before being met with a thundering jab from Midas. The blow was so direct and sudden that it whistled through the air it flew through, with a punch so fierce it could knock a human's head right off its neck. And yet, instead of meeting flesh and bone, the nigh-on instant assault met its end upon a force of invisible origin, which pushed against the bull's fist with some slack.

Confused, the bull kept pushing forward, raising his gaze to Emris' eyes. The Brigadier's casual complexion had turned into one fierce and mischievous, with a face so twisted it almost made the beast pull back in a recoil.

And with that... "Oi, shit stain. Yer talkin' to the fuckin' Guardian."

With the shield dissipating the attack, Emris leaped upward, slamming him back with a countering right cross; the impact of his blow demonstrating a biology-defying superiority in practice which rivalled that of Midas — as ridiculous as that may seem, coming from a middle-aged drunkard.

The four-armed monster reeled back at the hit, feeling a shock wave permeate throughout his skull, making him light-headed for a moment. Even through the pain, the Minotaur stumbled forward and swooped both of his southpaw fists in an aggressive return, swatting Emris with tremendous force in a similar fashion to how he'd been doing to the champion.

The Guardian's body flopped and flailed as it collided with several protrusions on its path, eventually rolling to a stop.

"Emris!" Xavier yelled, dragging himself to his feet to try to follow his trajectory, before meeting Midas' overwhelming presence, blocking him off with a taunting smash of his fists. Dragging his boot against the crumbled stone as he halted, Xavier gave a sigh.

"Are you folk always this unlikeable?"

"You're hurtin' my feelin's!" the Minotaur mocked, grinding his teeth together in a perverse enjoyment of their dwindling strength, his fears vanished upon witnessing the unimpressive Emris' capabilities. Figuring his dead, the bull launched a sequence of punches from each of his arms, each narrowly avoided by the weakened Brigadier.

"We can hold up all night, human!" Midas cackled, moving faster and smarter so as to catch the man off guard. "It ain't changin' shit. Once I'm through with ya, prison's gonna look like a fuckin' kindergarten——"

"Oy!" Emris yelled, having stood from his collapse with unsightly features. Midas swerved, knocking the champion back far enough so as to keep the two in range. Plunging his flask into the sky, Emris shouted: "Ye dented my fuckin' swig, ye horns-up-the-ass bastard!"

With a raised brow, the Minotaur growled. "You folk're lastin' too long for me tastes. What was that about eatin' me up, dwarf?!"

"Oh! Shité, that. Slipped my mind, thanks for remindin' me," Emris jested, flailing his frustration through his arms as he stepped forward. "Ye should know, I'm an alcoholic."

The Minotaur relaxed his stance in confusion. "Th' hell're ya tellin' me for?"

Pounding his chest and showing off those jagged teeth of his, Emris snapped back with a spine-rattling yell. "Aye, well yer standing between me and a keg of ale!"

"What——?"

Emris broke into a lively sprint, dragging that hellish smile with him on every step of the way. Midas snarled, raising his four fists high in a defensive posture, only to drop his jaw as Emris started to fizzle in and out of existence. Like sparking electricity, his body made instantaneous shifts from one place to another, still running in the same direction, making his position about as predictable as shooting fish in a barrel; a magical tactic of melee combat used by professionals in the arts of rapid-fire teleportations. 'Zapping', as they called it.

By the time the veteran reached the beast, his energetic speed uncanny and unfitting a man of his age, the Minotaur had no chance of determining his invasive entry, taking the full heat of the blow with shielding arms. Even with his best efforts, there was no way he could successfully prevent the impact, and as the Brigadier instantly fizzled through and behind him, the back of his skull met the full force of Emris' earth-shattering strike, hurling Midas forth. In a frenzy, the beast turned back to meet the offender, unleashing each and every limb in a wild bout of rage, each dodged by Emris through arrogant and risky dodges, tilts and 'zaps'.

Seeing an opportunity to assist, Xavier maintained a safe distance and a strong footing, before casting forth a variety of perplexing aerial wizardry to either paralyse, slow down or distract the rancorous horned biped; occasionally leaping into the fray to let loose one or two mild blows.

The three continued to exchange their assaults, with the pair overwhelming the bull through tactical prowess and a practised talent for murder. To say the brute was a meagre weight to lift was far from true, as the occasional whistling strike would meet and deteriorate Emris' body after shattering through his magicked shields, but their combined efforts would surely soon fell the monster. And even as a machine gun—propped up during their time of wrathful exchange as the dust steadily cleared from the air—suddenly sprayed a metallic rain upon the invaders, a swift flick of a hand was all it took for Noire to hurdle a barrage of bricks toward its barrel, denting and putting it out of use before annihilating its user. To the surprise of the Syndies who could spare a glance in such trying times, even as the dust vanished, not a single soldier stood to face them; the prison courtyard left deserted if not for the resting corpses of the previously dispatched.

 


 

In the midst of distant woodlands, the worrisome sounds of a teenager's frustrated grunts disturbed the peace of the humble wildlife, worsened by the constant clashes of metal of swords. The youngster, who's skin was dampened in sweat and whose complexion raged with a determined flame as he struck against his opponent's iron yelled out on each remorseless impact, using anger as a means to overpower and push back at the more knowledgable man.

While his advances were vehement, and his will impressive, his capability to fight was clearly lacking; striking with inexperienced swings and rough slashes. Each attempt to hack at the man was thwarted as the adult parried with his own broadsword, having grown used to the youth's ired ways. In due time, waiting for the teen to slack after venting away his hindrance to the New World, the bulkier man swung the heavy blade like a hammer, letting it bash against the lad's foil and send him to the floor rolling.

With that, the logger dropped his sword to the ground, huffing so as to recover from today's brawl. Just another unfortunate day, as had become usual.

"That's enough, Xavier!" the lumberjack yelled, watching as the teen struggled to stand up.

He muttered a few words between his teeth, still demanding more even as he was a wind's breath from collapsing. Seeing this, the man sighed.

"This is starting to annoy me, boy. You should know well enough by now," the labourer commented with a huff, scratching his long, ginger beard.

"I made you sweat," Xavier pointed out, dragging himself to his feet. "That's promising."

"Yes, and I'm also getting old. Sonny, we can't keep sparring forever. Soon enough you'll have to pick up the axe and get to work with the rest of the men; we can't keep at this."

"I refuse," Xavier spat.

"Son..."

"I said no, goddess-damn it!" the lad shouted, baring his teeth.

"I know you don't like it, but trust me, you'll grow to. It's all about practice; finding the joys of getting the perfect swing. You might even compete with the blokes, it'll be a right old fun time——"

"This isn't about fun, you oaf."

"Son!" the man shouted, offended.

Before he could continue, Xavier cut him off with a raised voice. "Shut up! You people choose to wait behind the gates, wasting your days hitting trees while the world dies around you."

"Xavier, what...?"

"Can't you see? Those soldiers die just to keep our lives safe. They die, just to make us happy for a day longer."

With a raised nose, the bearded man shot back. "And you would join them? Risk life and limb just to seem a hero?! Just think of how your mother and I——"

"And worst of all?" Xavier intervened, dropping his sword to the earth, approaching his father with a piercing gaze. The man fell silent. "As the days count down, the Reds grow, to one day march onwards. To return here, and destroy all that we've built. We made it by the skin of our teeth last time, isn't that what you said?"

Stumbling, the lumberjack retreated. "Yes, but that..."

"But nothing. Dad..." Placing his bruised hand on his father's worn right, he looked up at his taller father with a look only a parent could understand. A look that singed the man's heart, crippling a barricade that for so long had imprisoned the boy on this island. Even with this burning metaphysical barrier inside of him, as if bucketing water out of a sunken ship, he clung pointlessly to its walls.

"If I go out there, you, Mom, the village... You'll all have one more person to count on to keep you all safe."

"How do I know you're strong enough!? If I send you out there, they'll eat you alive! Son, please! Just stay with us, we can live well enough. We'll all be safe if we just stay within the country...!"

To his protests, Xavier closed his eyes, focusing. The worried rants echoed and ricocheted in his mind. Unbeknownst to either of them, his chest lit up in a blue gleam, which quickly travelled up to his shoulder, down his arm, to his wrist, and then...

"...And once the work is done, and you're old enough, you can meet with your friends and share a few drinks. Live the richness in life with your compatriots. It'll be just like you're in the army, but without the gunfire and the fear of meeting your maker. If you just stay here, you can eat like a king, and sleep like one too. It won't be long before you've mastered the old axe and made a name for yourself, just like your pops before you——"

Pushing back against the man's iron-clad grip, Xavier let out a sudden war cry before unleashing a huge torrent of air at several trees, leaving his father completely speechless as six thirty-metre logs splintered, split and slowly collapsed, like buildings after demolition. As the shock waves of the fallen trees shot blasts of wind in their direction, pushing away the hair from his eyes, the man succumbed to deep thought. Such supernatural prowess was nearly unheard of in Zwaarstrich, especially from someone he had never even witness harness the most meagre of spells. For a moment, the father questioned if he was dreaming, or if he had witnessed history unfold from his own son. In fact, he prayed he was dreaming, for if this talent were ever true, he would lose all hope in keeping his child safe from the outside world; both by the curious minds of the corrupt and by his own son's misguided wishes.

Turning his eyes away from the incredible display, the lumberjack quickly rushed to his fallen son's aid, noticing as blood dripped from his nose and ears.

"Son! Take it easy, you're bleeding!" he exclaimed, easing his son to lay down on the grass before taking a handkerchief from his pockets, matting it with his son's plasma. Watching as the teen's eyes slowly closed of fatigue, the father smiled softly to himself, giving a long sigh.

"One thing's certain, lad. You're no good with a sword. Maybe you can put all that anger into something heavier, eh?" the bulky adult chuckled, looking up at the darkening sky.

 


 

Midas seethed with anger, the foam from his mouth spilling on his bare leather chest as he began charging against his foes on all six appendages — horns facing forward. He would waste not even a full second between each hit, throwing double swings, sequential jabs, four-armed smashes... anything to bring the two down. But no matter his efforts, the pair coupled up their strengths to eliminate their foe; and with an expertly choreographed, haphazardly timed chain attack, Xavier employed his wind magic to catapult the bull's face directly into the mortar's gullet: a prime swing from the Guardian himself. With absolutely no time to react, his will and stamina nearly spent, Midas took the whole blow of the impact upon his left horn; breaking the rock-hard bone off its midsection, and rattling the poor Cryptid's brain so fierce that Midas' consciousness finally faded, his four hundred kilogram body of brawn collapsing against the stone in a rumbling thud.

When the two Brigadiers finally hit the ground, their legs almost giving way in exhaustion, they gave a few deep takes of the polluted air, giving each other a brotherly glance.

"That was... eventful." Xavier spoke first, bending forward to rest his hands on his knees, sweat beading down his head.

"Aye! Lil' rotter shouldn't do us any bother at the war. Thanks for that, mate," Emris smiled hazily, letting his head hang as he caught his breath.

"As agreed, none of this is free, you know."

Waving his hand in dismissive agreement, Emris turned over to the rear entrance, noticing Corvus clutching the fallen Celestial in his arms. Seeing that the Lieutenant wasn't emotionally distraught, Emris gave a satisfied sigh.

Turning back to Xavier... "A bloody good job, but yer losin' some of yer quirks, youngster. Don't grow old yet," Emris jested, flaring his idiot grin at his superior.

"Don't go underestimating me now. I just lack the tools," Xavier defended, at the amusement of Emris.

"Bud, I don't need weapons to beat the crap out of ye."

With a raised brow and a cocky smile, Xavier played along. "We'll see when I get back, you ancient scumbag."

"Hah! I'll raise you to it!" Emris snapped back. Corvus raised a subtle hand to interject in the conflict that seemed to be seconds from unravelling, but found his throat dry as he watched instead as the veteran began to laugh outrageously, his voice so loud it bounced off the walls of the entire facility, only to soon grow louder as Xavier too joined in, slapping each other shoulders and backs in a show of scruffy, militaristic companionship. Of course, both of them were aware that such folly would likely never come to pass. Not with the hailstorm that brewed on the horizon. To take such ideas and reduce them to playful banter was simply the healthiest thing to do, as dwelling on the inevitable was ultimately pointless. As much as he disliked such youth being so much more capable than he was, Emris knew that in time, he would surely miss the man.

"I think we've all had enough of this place, don't you think?" Corvus asked, intervening in their banter. Emris gave a short, sleazy laugh.

"Oy! A party pooper, eh? But aye, I'll agree there. Your girlfriend, is she doin' alright?" Emris asked, making the angel blush.

"We're not... I'd never——"

"Where's Kev?" the champion asked, giving Emris a worried look.

Shrugging his shoulders, Emris shook his head. "I'll be honest, I haven't the faintest. I thought he'd be with ye."

"I figured the same, but then again, Kev isn't the type to just wander off on us in the middle of a mission," Xavier commented, facepalming at the recklessness of his team.

"We'd best go and get 'em, then. We need to get the hell out of this country quick — I got us a car," the veteran noted, receiving a complicit nod from the others. Except Erica. She was still conked out.

As the four made way toward the breached wall, Emris soon noticed a fifth individual gingerly tagging along. To that, he spun around.

"Hold up. Who the hell is this guy?"

"His name is Noire; we'll sort it out later," Corvus insisted, entering the back of the taxi. "Nice car, jackass. Maybe we'll crush it with your weight."

"Aye, but are we seriously just going to take a prisoner on a joy ride— Oi! It's the best thing I could catch. I'm not the dipshit who got caught by Yanksie cuckolds while fucking around with your 'crusade of shité-flighting'!"

"Victus, dude." Xavier chuckled sheepishly, stepping into the front seat while Noire entered took the rear with a dumbfounding smile on his face. Despite all that chaos, Midas' carnage and all the bullets they narrowly evaded, he seemed just as joyous as always; always with that curious, fascinated gaze of his.

Emris cleared his throat with a rough groan as he took the driver's seat. "I'm bein' honest."

Almost on cue, the sound of an explosion some distance away caught their full attention, with a trail of smoke visible not too far behind the car.

"Victus, what the hell was that!?" Corvus exclaimed.

"Let's find out," Emris muttered, removing the handbrake and starting the ignition.

"We're driving towards it!?" Xavier protested.

"Aye, I can't live with the doubt. 'Sides," the veteran started, cracking his neck before making a sharp, screeching u-turn, burning the road with tire residue. "We need our Kev back."

With that, the car was put into full gear. To their luck, and general common sense, there was a distinct lack of traffic on the roads; and obvious sign of retreat from pedestrians upon hearing news of the prison's breach. The streets made the city look almost like a ghost town, with not a spec of noise other than the raging fire a few blocks away. The taxi sped up to dangerous speeds, with the turbulent possibilities riddling the driver's mind. As the scene began to unfold before them, everyone excluding the unconscious Erica and the absent-minded Noire had their jaws drop as they witnessed several police cruisers, a few armoured SUVs and even an oil truck dropped and exploded—the clear reason behind such an explosion—litter the area, among with what could easily be dozens of police officers.

The perpetrator of such violence was still manoeuvring through the air as they arrived, gunning down the faltering number of officers that arrived at the scene with rapid prejudice, albeit with visible struggle as they fought through their exhaustion. To have caused such a ruckus on their lonesome, Kev was indeed, a truly tactically-blessed General; aided in part by the advanced armour he and his fellow superiors wore, though even it saw noticeable gashes, dents and tears. The carpool watched in awe as he dispatched yet another handful of police officers, but as a stray bullet flew into an opening in his suit, and he cried out before counter-firing, Emris immediately exited the vehicle to assist; taking his pistol in hand to gun down some of the remaining officers to the best of his ability, mumbling profanities to himself as he did,

With several more cars on the way, the brig yelled: "Fuck me! Kev! Get the hell down here!"

Nearly emptying his cartridges to eliminate the remaining threats, the General swiftly landed upon the earth once more, grunting as he almost caught his face with his knee. When he stood, he struggled to walk, showing a clear limp as he worked his way to the car. As several officers pulled up, exiting the vehicle to lay hell upon them, Emris ran over to Kev, wrapping an arm around him before quickly jogging towards the taxi. A few bullets rang through as they ducked between a few of the cars as cover, but soon ceased despite being in line of fire.

As he looked forward, he noticed Noire's door had opened, with him already outside the vehicle to assist. While untrustworthy, the man had no time to drop help, and so quickly worked the General into his seat, with the Celestial draping the other upon him to make room. Emris immediately slid over the hood to the opposite end of the car, throwing himself inside and switching the gear to reverse. Pressing his foot onto the peddle, the car backtracked with another loud shriek, before swerving around with a boost on the accelerator.

"Victus, shité! That was close." Emris breathed deep, with Xavier's face looking about as pale as paper. "Are ye doin' alright, boss?"

"I'm... ngh... fine, just grazed. Just get us out of here."

With a crack of his neck, Emris tightened his grip on the steer. "Aye, sir."

"What a goddess-damn mess! What were you fools planning?" Corvus exclaimed, dropping his head back.

"Anythin' to tick ye, compadre. Just be thankful, and we can leave this shité behind. We have a war to serve."

"When is that, actually? I lost track of time," Corvus asked.

With a pause, Emris bit his lip. "Tonight."

"You've got to be joking."

"Why aren't they...?" Xavier added, changing the subject. To their surprise, not a single car was chasing after them. In fact, as they entered busier streets, the world almost seemed to revert to a state of normalcy.

"The hell? No squad cars? They must be real booked for this war, aye," Emris mumbled, not entirely believing his words.

"We're definitely on the blacklist. There's no way they'd just let a few terrorists loose," Xavier noted, acknowledging the seriousness of this country's enforcement.

"Maybe they've finally recognised our strength? I mean, how many people did we take out altogether?" Corvus asked.

With a shake of his head, Emris smirked. "Those aren't questions ye should ask, old friend."

"Curiosity's a hag, what can I say?"

"Bitch, Corvus."

"Shush."

 

With a surprisingly uneventful retreat, the taxi made way through the modestly-sized city, with it being one of the smallest of the country. The whole journey might've lasted a full hour before they reached the edge of the forest, with the bikes having luckily been untouched. Throughout the entire time, the three militaries exchanged idle chatter, joking and sarcastic comments, as well as possibilities regarding their unusually easy getaway. It's as if Victus herself had blessed their exit, and with two Celestials rescued, such wouldn't have been entirely out of left field. Erica had slowly but surely recovered from her concussion, blessed with a resistance to damage many mortals could only dream to match. And, of course, an insatiable desire to muck up Corvus' mood.

At the very least, it was nice to see each other again, as even the little time they had served within that prison was enough of hell for anyone to endure; even such majestic beings as themselves. It goes to show that, no matter your resistances, every living thing, from the complex-minded to the more instinctually driven has a mind that can be broken or distraught with terrifying ease. As each pair took a bike to ride on, the group traversing through the Minotaur's outpost and then through the far more welcoming and familiar territory the Syndicate stood upon, the voiceless concerns of each of the soldiers regarding Kev's injuries, Noire's silent presence, the events that lay before them and, in Xavier's case, the approximation to his home's rescue lingered on their minds, making the final moments of the ride entirely silent. The group soon arrived to the Facility, and as they all split away to their corresponding duties, they all held something in mind.

The General bit his teeth, hiding his pain and worries regarding the war ahead as he inevitably faced the countless worried soldiers and, worse of all, the leader he so-dearly respected.

Xavier reminisced on the fonder years of his life, mentally prepared for the challenges ahead with goosebumps running through his skin as he remembered the country he failed to visit for so many busy years.

Corvus and Erica both smiled at each other's company, though not without thoughts of battling the Crimsoneers in the future, and whether this time, after so many years of luck and closely made triumph, might truly be their last.

Emris' mind was so full of vexation that, instead of pointlessly enduring, he'd resorted to drinking the rest of his dented canteen, looking back at Noire as he too hopped off the bike he had fondly named 'Betty'.

To his suspicious gaze, Noire simply smiled, just as he had with Corvus.

"What? Are ye mute or somethin'? If yer gonna be stayin' here, ye better say——"

"You're the Guardian, aren't you?" Noire finally spoke, with a simple question being the first words Emris had ever heard him speak.

The sun was just right. The clouds above them were parted just enough. A gleam of sunlight fell directly above the man, and with that radiant complexion of his, Emris' body shivered without explanation. A sensation of pure anxiety. Incomprehensible, unimaginable, inexplicable fear. With a shake, Emris clutched his head in pain.

"Shité, I drink too much for my own good. Aye, aye. I'm the Guardian. Welcome to paradise, I guess," Emris introduced, walking off the driveway to enter the Facility with a dismissive shake of his wrist.

The sun faded as the clouds impeded its rays. Noire's gleam disappeared, but he never faltered.

He simply stood there.

Smiling.

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