Chapter 5
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Blake relaxed against the side of his temporary cave home, letting the mid-morning sun warm his cold and aching body. While better than nothing, caves lacked in the comfort category as far as bedrooms went. He tugged on another strip of meat, ripping off a portion with his teeth and proceeding to laboriously chew the tough foodstuff as his mind pondered important topics. Now armed with new world-changing knowledge and a good night's rest, he felt ready to finally make some important decisions.

The big one, the one that towered over all other concerns, was simply what he should be trying to do from that point forward. Should he run, using his incredible abilities to extract himself from the awful mess that he had fallen into, or stay, at a considerably increased danger to his person, and attempt to change this society from within? If the latter, how could he even go about such a gargantuan task?

Just days ago, the idea of staying in Otharia was absurd. But his powers meant that he wasn't alone and unprepared anymore. He could arm himself with weapons far more powerful than his opponents likely possessed, and hopefully, with just a few more breakthroughs, he might be able to build robotic weapons that could fight alongside him. Given enough time, he could likely take on an entire army all on his own. He could protect himself.

But protecting himself wasn't good enough. There was no point to risking his life if he couldn't make Otharia a massively better place to live. He knew he could accomplish that on the technological level, but on the societal one? That was a different story. He was aware of just how hard it could be to combat the kind of deep hate and religious devotion he'd witnessed in this country. Even if he did his best, it was very possible that he would still fail. In that case, did he even want to try? Did he want to risk life and limb for a country of zealots who'd already taken so much from him and shown him nothing but suffering?

Strangely, he did. Ever since his unexplained arrival in this world, Blake had been trying to figure out exactly why he'd been plucked from his toilet and dumped unceremoniously in a different dimension. He didn't have concrete answers, but he did have a hunch, one that grew stronger with each new discovery. A man appears in a world technologically stuck in the Dark Ages, even though at least some people there can perform incredible feats that would be impossible on Earth. That man just so happens to have years of experience with mechanical and electrical technology, and enough other knowledge to boost the world out of its current quagmire almost single-handedly. Then it turns out that this man can mold metal to his will, and that a certain metal, when combined with a certain crystal, could be transformed into seemingly any type of machine imaginable, allowing the man to single-handedly create a vast array of devices that could change the entire world. His ability to create would be only limited by his imagination and his intelligence, an intelligence that he suspected had been boosted like his physical abilities. Oh, and he just so happened to be able to communicate with the natives, even though neither could speak the other's language.

There were just too many coincidences here for Blake to believe this was all just random chance. Somebody or something powerful wanted to save the people of Otharia, and had chosen him and upgraded him specifically for this task. While believing in some unknown power was generally anathema to him, the idea that everything was just a gigantic series of coincidences was incredibly hard to put stock in.
Still, even if this was all just one giant set of strange happenstances, Blake still leaned towards staying. Part of it was his pity for the poor, misled farmers that he'd met. Nobody with a soul could witness such a sight and not feel some pangs of pity for their plight. As an American born and raised in an upper-middle class family, Blake had never known true hunger, and he couldn't imagine how horrible it must be to live an existence such as that.

But more than anything, what really pushed him was the children. That was where the true hope for success lied. He's seen them in the arena, sitting beside their families, watching everything around them. They didn't have the same hate and fear found in their elders. They were far too young. But he could see the way they absorbed what they were seeing like sponges, learning that the hate and fear coming from their parents was normal and proper.

He thought back to the words of the Voice. How had she put it? "We have the wisdom of Othar to guide us, and the providence of Othar's Will to protect us. We need nothing else."? Something like that. The idea that the children of an entire country would be raised to put their faith in nothing but "the providence of Othar's Will" when they were all starving to death was something that Blake could not stomach. He shook with determination. He could help them. He would help them.

He needed some way to bridge the gap that existed between himself and the Otharians, some way to help get him and his idea acceptance that wasn't sponsorship from the Church. Blake had no doubt that the Church would view him as a challenge to their authority no matter what he did, so that was most definitely out. But what could he do then?

Blake wracked his memory, trying to think of some sort of positive presence that their two cultures would share. Social Studies had never been a strength of his, so progress was slow, but eventually he came upon an idea. Heroes. Be they Odysseus, King Arthur, or Luke Skywalker, heroes helped shape their cultures through their legends. All he had to do was become a hero, and slowly people would begin to listen.

This was, of course, easier said than done, but it could not be denied that Blake had more tools available to him for the task than probably anybody else. Hell, maybe one day he'd have a full Iron Man suit and go flying around, shooting bad guys with beams and whatnot. Until then, he'd have to rely more on gadgets, guns, and, if he could figure out a few more things, robot buddies. He couldn't appear too overwhelming. Everybody likes an underdog, after all.

It was important to Blake that he become somebody that the populace looked up to and respected, rather than obeyed. The other obvious path was to conquer the country and rule it with an iron fist, forcing the populace to do what he wanted, but fear and oppression could only get you so far. He didn't have it in him to be like that, anyway.

With his new course of action now decided, it was time to create the tools he'd need. The clock was ticking; Blake's food would run out in a couple of days, and then he'd have to move on, regardless of his progress.

Blake decided to initially spend his time on several fronts. He needed a gun, some sort of trap, and a better understanding of the crystals. After spending so much time investigating the mysterious metal, he felt that he needed a little more understanding of the power source required as well.

The gun turned out to be both easier and harder than Blake had anticipated. On one hand, because of the metal's magnetic-esque properties, creating a railgun that shot out a bullet at deadly speed took mere minutes. The hard part ended up being the rest of it. Blake had never held a gun before, and designing something that was comfortable to hold and aim, allowed for quick firing, and could hold a good number of bullets proved to be more difficult than he had originally imagined. If the timing was off, the gun would jam. If the balance was off, he'd miss his target. Recoil also provided a challenge that he had to adjust his designs to compensate for.

As it neared dinner time, Blake declared his gun to be "good enough", manufactured five magazines of ten bullets each, and put it down. He'd created the weapon with his layman's image of an assault rifle in his mind, and so that's what it resembled. It could fire a single shot roughly every half-second, and, if the holes in the nearby trees were any indication, the bullets contained remarkable kinetic force. It would do for now.

After another quick meal, his focus shifted to creating a trap that met several specific conditions: it had to be dangerous but not deadly, it had to be scary, and, most importantly, it needed to be reusable. After searching as deep as he could into his temporary home, Blake had only dug up seventeen crystals, so every device he designed had to be created with the idea that it had to last through repeated use. More crystals surely existed around the country, and he'd collect them in time, but at that moment he only had a few and he needed to use them wisely. What exactly constituted "wise use" remained to be seen. He planned on looking into that subject once he had a trap that satisfied his desires.

It took him four attempts to find something that qualified. He called it "the leg crusher". It wasn't the best name, but it certainly described the device's brutal capabilities. The machine had a pressure plate with “legs” attached whose sole purpose was to grab and crush. When somebody stepped on the pressure plate, the legs would spring into action, wrapping around the person's foot and ankle and squeezing with crushing force. A set of longer legs would also grab onto the unfortunate victim’s leg and slowly crush it as well.

Blake had tested the devices on pieces of wood, rock, and even his spear, and the traps proved frighteningly effective. There were still kinks to work out, as the longer legs didn't always properly grab a new part of the limb as they swung up, but they seemed to work the majority of the time and that was good enough at the moment. The only concern he had was that they might be too gruesome. He wanted to terrify his enemies, but there were limits. Plus, it would be hard to become a hero if he gained a reputation as a butcher.

Like the gun, he decided that they would do for the moment. He could always come up with something better later. Right now, he needed to sleep. The sun had set long ago.

The following morning, Blake sat back down in the same spot as always and munched away at his smoked meat breakfast. Today was the last day before he planned on moving, both to stay ahead of any pursuers and because he was running out of food. Yesterday, he'd built up the beginnings of an arsenal that gave him greatly improved offensive capabilities. Today, it was time to focus on the opposite; it was time to build some armor.

The necessity of armor could not be denied. He'd lost one too many body parts already. The plan was simple. First he'd create the basic protection, then perhaps he'd add in some motors to assist in movement. After that, he'd start adding some simple weapons and other functions. He'd start simple, with stuff like hidden blades, or perhaps a retractable chainsaw if he was feeling ambitious. He figured that would take him the rest of the day, even in Hyper Mode.

But first, he needed to finish his breakfast. As Blake chewed away, he took several crystals and some metal and began messing around some more with circuits. His armor would likely be even more complex an undertaking than his arm, and to design it well, Blake needed more knowledge of how his crystals worked in conjunction with each other. Between his arm, the crushers, and his railgun, he was starting to run low. Maybe there were some tricks to be found involving multiple crystals?

By the time breakfast had been eaten, Blake had most of his answers, and they were pretty disappointing. Two crystals that were connected in sequence, one's energy flowing into another crystal before traversing the circuit and returning to the first one, didn't seem any different than the same circuit with just one crystal. A circuit that forked into two parallel channels with one crystal each and then recombined had twice as much energy as a normal circuit. He'd have to keep that in mind for devices that needed lots of power.

As he finished up, Blake decided on a lark to combine the two tests and see what happened. He added a third crystal to the parallel circuit so that the combined energy from both original crystals went through the third crystal before continuing through the circuit. Strangely, the energy in the circuit actually decreased. He could see the expected amount leaving the parallel crystals, but after leaving the new crystal the energy level was back down to one crystal's worth of power. Where was the rest of the energy going?

Something was wrong with the third crystal. Instead of singing, it seemed to whine, like it was complaining about its burden. Quickly that whine became a scream as the crystal cried out in a timbre higher than the human ear could hear, but Blake's new sense could still register it. It was like the stone was in pain. Blake's instincts screamed one thing at him: run. Get as far away from this thing as possible. Dropping the circuit and sprinting with all his speed into the nearby cave, he dived behind a large stone just as the crystal exploded with an ear-shattering bang. Well, at least now he knew where all that energy had gone.

As the ringing in his ears subsided, Blake thought he heard the pitter-patter of debris raining from the sky. He stepped back outside to assess the damage and couldn't believe his eyes. A crater over six feet wide and several feet deep existed where the circuit had landed. The remains of the metal were scattered across the surrounding landscape, each piece no more than an inch or two large. Just a second or two of hesitation and Blake would have been a dead man.

Well, the bad news was it looked like he was down to fourteen crystals now. On the other hand, he now knew what to do if he ever needed to make something go boom. He grabbed his three tiniest crystals, each approximately an inch long, and placed them inside a metal shell. He set up a converging connection like before, but intentionally left the connection between them incomplete. Instead, he added a bit sticking out of the side that, when properly rotated and then pressed into the shell, would lock in and complete the circuit.

He couldn't afford to make more than one "grenade" at the moment. Even that one was pushing it, but since it was his smallest, weakest crystals, he figured it wasn't the biggest loss. It would be useful if he ever got into a fight that required a bit more destructive power than normal. Unfortunately, it would probably also be quite loud, so he couldn't use it while trying to be stealthy. His gun was nearly silent, since it did not require an explosive propellant. This little doohickey, on the other hand, would draw people from all... around...

FUCK.

Blake sprinted back to the cave and began throwing everything he had into this stolen sack. That accidental explosion must have been audible many miles away, especially with the surrounding area consisting of nothing but quiet pine forest. Otharian forces had probably been on their way the entire time, while he'd just been messing around. He'd make armor later. Right now, he had to run.

Two crushers, his railgun, fifty bullets in five magazines, a grenade that probably worked, and six unused crystals along with as much metal as the sack could carry without rupturing, and a spear that he didn’t know how to use... that was all he had to defend himself. It would be enough for a few people, but no more, and Blake was willing to bet that more people than he could handle were converging on his location. Hefting his sack over his shoulder, he sprinted off again in a random direction.

*     *     *

"I have to say, I never expected the 'great Yarec' to willingly team up with any of us."

The words shocked Blake to a standstill. He'd been running for almost an hour, going as quickly as he could manage without his sack making too much noise as he navigated the rough terrain, when he'd heard the mocking male voice coming from over a nearby ridge. Had he heard that correctly? "Yarec"? The same Yarec as the man he despised?

"Yeah, though he's usually a lot more talkative..."

"We're supposed to be resting, not chatting like girls at the Academy."

That voice! It was him after all. Normally, Blake would just do his best to avoid anybody he found during his escape, but this... this was a chance for revenge. But was it worth it? He could tell from the voices that there were at least another man and a woman with him. Yarec would be hard enough to defeat on his own, and now he had backup. He slowly crawled up to the ridge's lip to take a peek.

"Oh, that's rich coming from the number one playboy during our time there," the female voice shot back. "All anybody ever saw you doing was trying to flirt with every girl that walked by."

"Why are you in such a bad mood, anyway? You've been like this since we met up a few hours ago. Still angry about how this guy got away from you?"

Sitting down below him were three people: two men and a woman. One of them was Yarec, looking as disgruntled as Blake had ever seen him. The other two were dressed much as he was and were about his age as well, but he couldn’t make out too much about them through the leaves. Three Apostles. Great, because he’d done so well with just one the last time.

“Enough,” Yarec replied. “We should focus on resting until High Apostle Atricia returns. We are close and the hunt will likely be long and arduous.”

“You’ve really changed, huh,” the woman said.

“I failed and embarrassed myself before the highest leaders of the church. Forgive me if I am not in the mood for friendly banter.”

Three people, likely very dangerous. As Blake looked down upon them, a stray thought popped into his mind. These people were hunting for him, and Yarec in particular seemed very motivated to find him. Blake knew that he was not the stealthiest person in the world. He was a city-slicker, somebody largely unused to the wilds. Between his inexperience and his sack of goodies, he was almost assuredly leaving a trail of some sort behind him. That meant that it wasn’t a question of if these people would find him, but when. And when they did find him, would he be in a better position to take them on then or now?

The idea of launching a preemptive assault on three people, all of which were likely highly-trained in combat and teamwork, was obviously a massive risk. But they had no idea he was even watching them. This was possibly the only time he would have them on the back foot. Later on, they’d be dictating the time and place of battle, not him.

"Yusari, take these," Yarec was saying as he struggled to hand a pair of very heavy-looking stone maces to the woman.

"What are these for?" she asked as she grabbed them and swung then about with apparent ease. "Ooooh, these are solid! But what's wrong with my regular weapons?"

"The man is very dangerous. He can alter metal. Your maces would be useless if he made them soft like he did with the guards' spears when he escaped."

"What?" the other man interjected. "I thought you reported him as a Feeler, not an Observer! Are you saying that he didn't rip through those shackles with his own strength?"

"No, if you look at the shackles or the portcullis you'd see that the metal appears melted."

No. Blake shook his head to clear such stupid thoughts from his mind. He had just created these weapons and had never used them in any serious way. Hell, even his prosthetic arm was brand new. He needed time to experiment and get a little experience, maybe come up with some more traps. Yes, there was a good idea. A bunch of crushers hidden about his lair, wherever it ended up being, with other deadly traps mixed in. If he could manage that, then he’d be able to fight on his own terms even more than in a sneak attack right now. For now, all he should so was keep spying on them.

Speaking of traps and sneak attacks, Blake figured that it would be wise to at least set up the two crushers he had, just in case. The area was very quiet, so he didn’t need to stay where he was; he could continue to listen to them talk about how awesome he was while he laid down his traps.

"But that's impossible!" This time is was Yusari who interrupted. "There's no way he Observed while in restraints made of tucrenyx!"
Blake paused for a moment as he quietly took out his rifle and crushers. "Tucrenyx", huh? So that was what this metal was called. He liked the sound of it.

He looked around. If somebody were to come at him, the best route would be going around to his left. Holding the crusher in his left hand and his rifle in this right, he crept down and carefully placed the trap down along the left side of the ridge before covering it with some dirt and leaves. As he did so, he kept listening.

"But he did. He also hardened a spear so much that I couldn't cut it with my blade, and then shoulder tackled me so hard that I broke my sternum. It just finished healing yesterday. He's a Weaver. Has to be."

"To think that a Weaver exists who is that powerful in both aspects..." the other man said solemnly. "And that he can act even when bound by that horrid metal... May Othar protect us this day."

"I cut off one of his arms so he should be weaker than before, but just in case, I requested a dose of chimirin."

"Are you insane?!?" the non-Yarec man exploded. "You know what happens to somebody after they take that!"

"It's only if there's no other option."

"You'd be better off dead!"

Blake didn’t understand what all the fuss was about as he slowly and quietly made his way back towards the top of the ridge. His second crusher laid on the ground just beside where he’d been hiding. Once he’d placed it on the right side of the ridge, he would be able to spy without worry.

Just as he neared his previous vantage point, he heard the sound of a stick breaking behind him. Spinning about, he was mortified to find an older woman, likely in her forties, emerging from the foliage about forty feet downhill from him. Her clothes resembled those of the three Apostles but with more a more detailed and elaborate design. With a pit of dread forming in his gut, Blake realized that this was the “High Apostle Atricia” Yarec had mentioned. He’d forgotten to take her into his calculations.

Whoops.

For a moment neither one of them moved. It was as if a spell had been cast over them both, freezing them in place. Then the spell broke as the woman opened her mouth and shouted “The Elseling is upon us!” while a ball of flame the size of her head formed in front of her.

Blake reacted nearly as fast, lifting his rifle up to point in her direction, steadying it with his fake left hand, and pulling in the trigger. A volley of bullets rocketed towards the woman with a series of pops as he emptied his entire magazine. Almost all of them missed, their impacts sending bits of dirt and wood flying into the air; Blake was not a gunman, after all, and had never fired his gun under pressure before. Still, where quality failed, quantity did the trick. One of the ten bullets shot right through the High Apostle’s throat. Her dead body fell as the ball of fire in front of her winked out of existence.

A litany of profanities running through his mind, Blake rushed the final few feet to his sack and pulled out his one experimental grenade and a new magazine. It looked like he now had no choice but to do the thing he’d just decided was stupid and shouldn’t be done. How wonderful.

Without even looking, he activated the grenade and threw it down where the three Apostles had been talking and hurriedly tried to reload his gun. The grenade bounced down near where the three had been sitting, but all three of them were already moving out of the way. The unnamed man ducked behind a nearby waist-high boulder, Yusari rolled behind a tree, and Yarec threw himself behind a small stone wall that was quickly growing up from the ground. The grenade exploded with a loud bang, the tucrenyx shrapnel shredding the nearby area, but unfortunately it seemed that all three were unharmed.

"Kirr!" Blake heard Yusari bark. "Support!"

"Aye!"

Blake brought up his gun as a floating sheet of ice appeared over the boulder like a mirror suspended in the air, revealing a man with a red, bushy mane and a full red beard. So his name was Kirr. The man was looking straight up at the mirror above him, scanning for Blake's presence. Blake aimed his weapon at his estimate of Yarec's position and fired a round, hoping that the bullet would have the power needed to punch through his hastily-created wall. Unfortunately, the bullet impacted the wall with a heavy crack, breaking off a piece around the point of impact, but the damage was largely cosmetic. Given how the wall continued to grow deeper as well as higher, it would likely take Blake whole magazines just to shoot a hole all the way through. It was a shame that he had used up his only grenade already.

"Found him!" Kirr crowed.

Blake saw Kirr's hands shoot up past the top of the wall, the hands parallel with the palms facing inward. He took aim at the man's appendages when suddenly a large and sharp-looking icicle formed between Kirr's hands and shot towards Blake with surprising velocity. Blake rolled to his right, barely avoiding his own crusher trap, which he realized with dismay that he’d never gotten the chance to set up.
Bringing his gun up again to find a second deadly icicle already heading his way, Blake swore and rolled away again. He backed up so that the ridge blocked the man's view of his position. That piece of shit was just going to sit behind their wall and fire at him with impunity, and there was little Blake could do to stop him. Plus, they could manufacture their own cover and he couldn't. It wasn't fair!

"You're clear! Go!" he heard Kirr cry. Cursing repeatedly under his breath, Blake leveled his gun and checked both sides of the ridge for opponents. He figured that the other two would come at his from his left, the easiest way around. The right side was farther away and featured rougher terrain. Those were the only two routes somebody could realistically take. The ridge itself, while steep on his side, became a sheer cliff nearly fifteen feet tall on the other side of the crest. Nobody would be coming for him that way, he thought.

He thought wrong. A shadow passed over him in the late-morning sun, prompting him to look up just in time to see a tiny blond woman descending on him from above with two stone maces in her hands and a toothy grin filled with malice plastered on her face. Judging from her vector, she'd apparently sprinted straight for his last known position and jumped straight over the cliff. Blake realized he'd still been thinking of his enemy's capabilities like they were just regular people, and that mistake looked like it would be costing him big time.

The woman fell on top of his previous position, bring both maces down at him with ferocious power. Blake jumped to his right at the last second, barely dodging the brutal attack. A tremor rumbled through the nearby ground, threatening to disrupt his balance, as twin plumes of dirt burst forth from the impacts. Almost immediately, she spun towards Blake again, swinging her two maces straight at Blake's left side. Blake gulped and raised his left forearm to block, willing his new arm to be as hard and durable as it could be. The stone weapons smashed into his prosthetic with a resounding clang, and Blake felt intense vibrations shoot through his entire body, but somehow the arm held.

"Buh?" Yusari blurted. She had obviously not expected such an outcome, and Blake was not about to let her get away with that.

Stepping forward and planting on his left foot, Blake delivered a mighty kick with his right foot to the woman's side. With a shout she flew down the ridge, crashing through branches and bushes on her way down before bouncing off a rock and tumbling just out of his view. Somehow, the diminutive fighter had held on to both her weapons. Blake couldn’t help but be impressed.

Just as soon as Blake resolved that incident, he heard the sound of footsteps coming around the left side, followed by a sharp cry of agony. Moving over to get a clear view of the situation, Blake found his personal nemesis Yarec frantically fighting with his crusher trap. Blake delighted in the sight, though he noticed that his trap seemed unable to finish the man off. The Apostle's right foot seemed somewhat crushed, but a layer of stone now stood between the trap's fingers and the foot. The same was true for the other half of the trap, which had properly latched on to the man's lower leg. Both sides of the trap were squeezing the stone with immense force, slowly breaking the material, but the stone manipulator was constantly reinforcing his protection, locking the two in a stalemate.

That was all Blake needed. The muzzle of his railgun swung upwards to point towards the one man he despised more than any other when his ears caught the sound of an object whistling towards his head. Throwing himself to the ground, he narrowly dodged an icicle coming from his right, so narrowly that an edge cut a thin line across his right cheek. He spotted Kirr coming around the ridge from the right, another ice projectile already nearly formed between his hands, and gritted his teeth. He'd hoped to avoid dealing with Kirr until after killing Yarec, but it looked like he'd have to switch the order and take out the support first. Oh well, he could still handle this, no problem.

"Heh... hehehehehehehehehehe..."

A soft voice behind him sent shivers down his spine. He swiveled around to see Yusari rise up from her landing place, blood dripping down her face from a large gash in her forehead. Chillingly, the wound didn't seem to bother her in the slightest. She wobbled as if drunk, her head cocked to one side as she giggled like a madwoman.

"Hehehehe!" she tittered, her eyes refocusing on Blake. "You are going to be so much FUN!"

Uh oh.

She launched herself at him once more, a demented glint in her eye and a delighted leer on her lips. Blake aimed his gun at the swiftly approaching figure, only to hear the soft whistle of flying chilly death heading towards his back again. Blake dodged and weaved desperately, dancing a deadly tango with his overenthusiastic partner while her friend took potshots at his exposed flanks. Together, the two of them forced him off the ridge and down into the nearby forest. At least Yarec was busy keeping his limb mostly intact. Blake had used some of his biggest crystals to power them, meaning the one wrapped around Yarec's leg probably had at least fifteen minutes of juice left.

Still, he wasn't exactly in a peachy situation. Yusari's movements lacked finesse, but she made up for that with power and fervor. To make matters worse, she was nearly as fast as he was while being far more agile. Every time he would try to get off a shot at her, she would zig out of the way at the last possible second, jumping off of rocks, kicking off tree trunks, and flitting about like some crazed, super-strong hummingbird.

When she wasn't avoiding his attempts to kill her, she was breathing down his neck, keeping him from just turning and running away. She rarely attacked with both maces at the same time after the first blocked strike, instead trying to get Blake to block one weapon with his metal arm so she could go after the fleshier parts of his body with her other hand. This forced him to dodge even more. Things could have been different if he had his spear on him, but that was sticking out the sack back up the ridge, abandoned like everything else when Yusari caught him off-guard. He scolded himself again for his rash assumptions.

Blake darted behind a tree, hoping that the foot-wide trunk could give his a second of respite with which to recollect himself. Instead, the tree trunk suddenly exploded, splinters as long as his hand flying everywhere. Only his enhanced reactions prevented a certain three-inch-long piece of wooden shrapnel from embedding into his left eye, and several other pieces lodged themselves in his arms and torso. Luckily, they didn't seem to be very deep, but they sure hurt. A cackle caused him to reflexively jump back as a mace swung through the space he'd occupied just a moment before. There was no doubt that the woman was enjoying every second of this. Blake was decidedly not.

That's not to say that his opponent was perfect. Far from it. In her eagerness and glee for battle, Yusari left herself open multiple times, but that was where Kirr came in. Each time Blake would spot something to exploit, a perfectly timed ice spike would come flying his way and force a sudden change of plans. Instead of a steady stream of ice, the ranged specialist would hold back and seal every crack in his partner's defense. Yusari would do the damage, but Blake could tell that Kirr was the one holding everything together. He needed to go down first. But how?

Sneaking a glance at the red-head Blake had a sudden flash of inspiration. The sniper had positioned himself up at the top of the ridge for the best possible firing angles, and in doing so had stuck himself just a step or two away from Blake's other crusher trap. All Blake needed was to get him to move just a little to Blake's right... and he thought he knew how to do it.

The next chance he got, Blake stepped behind a tree trunk again. All he needed was a split second where his opponent was attacking something that wasn't him, and Yusari was kind enough to oblige, smashing through the obstruction with gusto. Taking advantage of the tiny window created by the exploding foliage and his distracted opponent, Blake spun out of the way of an oncoming icicle, raised his rifle, fired a shot at the distant man as best he could... and missed. But that was fine. Given the split-second nature of his window and his complete lack of training and experience with firearms, he'd never planned on hitting the distant Apostle in the first place. The bullet struck the ground to the Apostle's right, the impact startling the Apostle, who dove to his left, his left shin landing right on the crusher.

Then the screaming started. The crusher did exactly what Blake had designed it to do as it began to compress things that were never meant to be compressed. Terror shone clearly in his victim's eyes. Blake smiled. One down. Then luck gave him an unexpected boon.
"Kirr, no!" Instead of attacking him, as he had anticipated, Yusari seemed to tunnel-vision on her squadmate, making a frantic dash towards the panicking man in an effort to save him from disaster. Maybe she didn't understand the true nature of his weapon. Maybe she simply forgot everything else in her race to save her friend. Blake didn't know, and he didn't really care. He simply lifted his gun and emptied every remaining bullet in his magazine in her direction.

"Look out!" Yarec cried. It was too late. Yusari's body shook as three wo rounds drove through her chest. She staggered but did not fall immediately, instead looking down at the holes in her torso in confusion as if she did not understand what had just occurred before finally toppling forward for good.

"Yusari!!" Yarec screamed, his voice overflowing with agony.

Blake ignored him for the moment and walked towards the prone Kirr. The ice-wielder glared at him with pain-clouded eyes, his hands busy trying to free his pulverized limb from the crusher's unrelenting grip. Blake couldn't help but look at the man with pity. The crusher was doing exactly what he'd intended, but designing it was one thing; seeing the gruesome results firsthand was a totally different matter. The prospect of mercy crossed Blake's mind. Did he have to kill such an obviously incapacitated man?

"Surrender and I'll spare your life," Blake said as he pulled his third magazine from the sack nearby.

"May your spirit rot for eternity, you heretical Elseling mongrel," came the reply.

Blue wisps began to appear in the air before the prone man's chest, slowly converging and beginning to coalesce into another ice spike pointed directly towards his heart. Guess that answered that question. With a sigh, Blake took aim and finished the redhead off with a shot directly to the head. A regrettable deed, but the man had shown that he would not relent until Blake was dead. He'd been given no other choice, he told himself.

That left only Yarec, his favorite friend in the whole wide world. Blake stepped over to his sack and picked it up with his metal hand. If he'd had it by him earlier, his fight might have been ten times smoother... but there was no use crying over it anymore. He'd survived relatively unscathed and taken out two of the three most dangerous fighters Otharia apparently had to offer. Yes, one could argue he'd gotten lucky, what with the one person he feared most getting trapped for the duration of the fight, but Blake preferred to call that "tactics". He'd created and deployed the device that bought him the time, after all.

Feeling good about his accomplishments, he took a glance at his captive nemesis, only to see the man finish downing a strange-looking vial and chuck the flask onto the ground. Yarec glared at the displaced engineer with an enmity more bitter than any Blake had ever seen before.

"I should have killed you from the start, but the call of glory and greed blinded me. An Apostle, forsaking the word of Othar himself..." the Apostle spat. "They say that those who take chimirin never wake up, if they don’t explode from the strain first. If that is the price I am to pay for my mistakes, so be it. But I will see you in the ground before that comes to pass." His eyes began to glow a radiant golden hue clearly visible even in the late-morning sunlight.

Shit, glowing eyes. If that wasn't a bad omen, Blake didn't know what was.

Stone surged out from beneath the crusher, prying the device from the man's leg with ease. But that wasn't all. Blake watched in awe and horror as every nearby rock, from the tiniest of pebbles to the boulders that comprised much of the ridge itself, melted and melded into an ever-increasing surge of liquefied stone. Quickly the formless gray enormity stretched and flattened, until Blake found himself staring up at the gaping maw of a twenty-foot-tall serpent with four eyes and more than its fair share of gigantic fangs. He despaired at the idea of having to engage with the behemoth.

A slight tremor underneath his feet broke Blake from his trance and he jumped away just the rock beneath him twisted into a mass of stony vines grasping for a hold on his person. As if that was what Yarec had been waiting for, the gargantuan snake pounced, its fang-filled mouth approaching with alarming quickness. Blake fired at the oncoming golem as best he could with only one arm free, but he might as well have been shooting spitballs at an elephant for all the good it did. The recoil altered his trajectory enough that he avoided the long, deadly looking teeth, but that didn't stop the lower jaw from slamming into him with incredible force, sending him sprawling through a tree. The sudden pains in his chest suggested that he'd broken multiple ribs. Any more hits like that and he'd be done for.

It boggled Blake's mind just how powerful Yarec had become since drinking that vial. This was the man who had needed minutes to remove the several tons of stone that he'd encased Blake in during their first encounter. He was the same person who'd been unable to do anything more than maintain an obsidian blade during their first battle, even though the entire room had been constructed out of stone. Now he was throwing around twenty tons of rock as if it were nothing, controlling its form with an absurd level of precision.

Tucking the stock under his right armpit, Blake fired a spray of bullets towards his opponent as fast as his gun could fire until his magazine was empty. As one would expect from such panicked attacks, most of his shots embedded themselves in trees and earth nowhere near his enemy, but several did make a line straight towards the Apostle. Blake watched in disbelief as a wave of fluid stone leapt up to easily intercept each bullet. Well, that sure sucked.

Yarec's stone serpent threw itself at Blake's tree, cracking the trunk and knocking him wildly off balance. Blake frantically flailed about, trying to clutch onto something, but it turned out that holding a large sack in one hand and a gun in the other makes grabbing things rather difficult. The snake opened its jaws, ready to skewer him with dozens of deadly spikes, but Blake wasn't going to go down that easily. With a kick of his feet, he pushed himself away from the trunk and flew over the serpent's head... only to be met with a vicious swipe from the snake's giant stone tail that sent him spiraling through the air.

Blake grunted in pain as he spun through the air before crashing into the hard ground. His vision blurred as he fought to keep consciousness. A succession of thumps and clanks made him aware that he'd lost his grasp of his gun and sack, the two items landing a good fifteen feet away from him. To make matters worse, his sack spilled its contents onto the ground, the tucrenyx lump and several crystals splayed haphazardly around the area.

"It's useless," Blake heard Yarec taunt as he walked closer. "You're every move is obvious to me before you even think it. You may be strong and have bizarre weapons, but I can read each amateurish move you make."

With much alarm, Blake realized that his feet were caught by something, and when he felt that thing flow up his ankles he knew that he was absolutely screwed. Flowing rock enveloped him, streaming around his body like a river of quicksand before hardening until he couldn't budge a single inch. Just like the first time they'd met, Blake found himself trapped inside a large boulder, held motionless from the head down.

Yarec was just a few feet away at this point, his eerie glowing eyes showing not a hint of mercy for what was about to come. Blake didn't know what to do. He couldn't move, he couldn't attack... as long as he was stuck in stone, he was out of options. Unless... a crazy idea popped into his head.

"So what now?" he asked.

Blake mentally reached out to his spare tucrenyx lying on the ground some twenty feet behind his captor.

"Now I put you in the ground, as I said," came the reply. A hole began to form beside Blake's prison.

"Oh, you meant that literally? I thought you were just going to chop my head off with that sword or something."

The tucrenyx began to spread out, flowing along the ground in all directions.

"A quick death is far too good for what you've done. I'm going to bury you alive so that you will suffer for your crimes."

"Did you love her?" The Apostle stiffened. Blake laughed a mocking cackle. "What a shame that she loved somebody else. So much so, apparently, that all it took was one little trap and she forgot everything to try to save him."

One by one the metal made contact with the crystals scattered across the nearby area.

"You!" Yarec growled. He lashed out with a fist, striking Blake's jaw hard as he could, but Blake just laughed his mocking laughter even louder.

"It was so simple, you know. Just aim and shoot. Just one round and she was gone. You know, I only shot her a few more times because it looked like it brought you pain."

Blake connected the crystals as best he could given that he couldn't see his work, his mind fumbling through the task like a man looking for his house keys in the dark.

Yarec covered his fist in stone and struck again. Blake's head was starting to ache from the heavy blows. "No matter what you do to me, you can't bring her back. She's gone, and you just stood there and watched it happen."

He was finished. The largest of his crystals began to whine as all the others force-fed it their energy.

The Apostle looked like he was about to explode with rage, but suddenly he stilled and took a deep breath. "I see what you're trying to do. It won't work. I told you, I can read you like an open book. No more delays. It's time I put you down and end this charade."

Blake laughed again and flashed a predatory grin. "Oh, you can read me like an open book, can you?" he said over a high pitched scream that only he could hear. "Read this!"

The crystal erupted with a cataclysmic thunderclap, the concussive blast striking Yarec with lethal force and shattering the rock that Blake had been stuck inside. The two men were thrown through the forest, careening off trees, rocks, and whatever else was in the way, until finally they came to rest nearly fifty feet from their original location.

After a couple of minutes, Blake pushed several large pieces of rock off of him and raised himself up onto his hands and knees before coughing out blood onto the rubble below him. His entire body hurt, though nowhere near as much as he had expected. It seemed like the rock that had been encasing him absorbed a large fraction of the force, as he'd hoped.

The same could not be said for Yarec. Blake staggered over to his enemy's body and took a closer look. The man who'd taken his arm from him, and just now nearly taken everything else, sprawled motionless on the uneven ground. The Apostle's eyes were open and unfocused, no longer glowing as they had before. Blake checked for breathing and found none. He was dead.

It started with a chuckle, one that seemed to escape by accident, then another, and another, each laugh building upon the previous one until Blake could barely breathe as he shook with relief. It had been a stupid idea from the start, one that had been fueled more by thoughts of vengeance than any rational expectation for victory. Take on four highly-trained fighters, three of them being complete mysteries, while completely untrained, inexperienced, and under-equipped? Sure! What could go wrong? A lot, apparently. And yet there he stood, the only person to walk away from the encounter.

Blake's personal vendetta was now quelled, and with it went much of his anger and hatred for the nation of Otharia and its citizens. There would be bumps in the road, surely, but he had confidence that logic and reason would win out in the end. The true enemy was the Church, not the people. With his grudge put to rest, there was nothing holding him back from his mission. He would become a hero to the people and sway their minds to the right path.

But first, he needed to get the hell out of Dodge. His makeshift explosion had been by far the loudest yet, a veritable beacon calling every would-be hunter for miles around. He stumbled over to ground zero, amazed at the fifteen-foot-wide crater that the bomb had created. A quick search revealed nothing but rubble and scraps. His precious sack had been blown to smithereens, and it seemed that his spear, gun, and tucrenyx reserve had fared little better. Blake found several tiny pieces of his spear, and a few coin-sized bits of what once was his spare tucrenyx. It seemed that, having been bound to the exploding crystal, the vast majority of the tucrenyx had been destroyed so thoroughly that it was a lost cause. Blake couldn't find a single crystal, either. One tucrenyx prosthetic arm, and the three crystals that powered it... that was all he had left.

"It's him!"

A call from off in the distance brought Blake back to the present. He sprinted the in opposite direction as fast as he could.

*     *     *

Blake crested a hill and paused to appreciate what he could only describe as a delightful sunset. The sun, or what little of it still remained above the horizon, lit the land in front of him in a soft crimson glow. Everything at the moment seemed especially pleasant to him as he continued to bask in the remaining glow of his victory hours before. Even his ribs were feeling much better, as if they'd mostly healed in just a few hours.

He inspected the landscape for anything worthwhile or unusual, his eyes falling upon a gorge he could see in a small nearby mountain. The giant crevice seemed to be at least thirty feet deep and more than a dozen feet wide, with rough, craggy walls that probably contained at least one good sleeping spot somewhere in there. He ventured forth towards the promising crack.

As he approached the ravine, Blake began to have second thoughts. A road passed through it, and he wasn't exactly ready to run into other people just yet. He'd already avoided two other groups of people since his battle with the Apostles. He still wasn't sure if they'd both been parties assembled to track him down or if they were simply moving through the area, but he just couldn't take the risk until he had time to prepare again.

In his travels since the battle that morning, Blake had been lucky enough to find five crystals. They'd been just sticking out of rocks and whatnot, waiting for somebody like him to run by and pull them out. Finding more tucrenyx was also on his mind, but in order to feel the metal underground he'd have to enter Hyper Mode again. Given his propensity for losing track of time and place while in that state, Blake figured it best for now to wait until he'd found a safer spot, some place he knew he wouldn't be discovered without warning. Once he found a good secure location, he would gather some tucrenyx, should there be any in the area, and rebuild his arsenal. Then he could finally get started on that armor.

Just as he was about to head off in a different direction, Blake heard something unexpected — a scream. Specifically, the scream of a young girl. The sound had traveled rather far, perhaps aided by the wind blowing through the canyon. Whatever was happening, it was happening deep into the gorge, and it most likely wasn't good. Should he intervene? No weapons, no armor... just his prosthetic arm. Blake felt like he'd already used up his luck for the day. But still, didn't he plan on becoming a hero, and leading Otharia to a better existence? What kind of hero would ignore the terrified screams of a child? His mind made up, Blake ran into the canyon.

Ten minutes later, Blake peeked around a bend in the gorge and didn't like what he saw. Off in the distance, three men in uniforms were holding down a struggling woman. They laughed as she fought, while never taking her eyes off of a fourth man holding a dagger to a young girl's throat. The two women were probably mother and daughter, he assumed, given that they looked about thirty and nine-years-old respectively. Two bloody corpses were strewn across the ground around two wagon, possibly other members of their family. Blake knew he had to act fast, but the situation was complicated by the hostage. He'd have to save the child before he could rescue the mother.

The problem was that the group was too far away for his metal-softening powers to work. He needed to get closer without them noticing. At the moment, the four fiends were all facing away from him, but just one turned around at the wrong time... Blake began to creep his way closer, hiding behind outcroppings to maintain cover wherever possible. It was smooth goings for a bit, but as he made it about halfway there, disaster struck. The woman said something to the girl before reaching for one of the men holding her down. The man's uniform suddenly burst into flame and he screamed and let go, frantically rolling around on the earth. The other men did not respond well to this action. One drew a sword and stabbed the woman in the chest. She collapsed and went limp.

Swearing to himself over this sudden turn of events, Blake immediately sprang out from his latest hiding place and sprinted as fast as he could towards the brigands. The success or failure of his rescue attempt now came down to whether or not he could close the distance between them and soften the dagger held to the child's throat before her captor used it to end her life. Luckily for Blake and the girl, the man decided to take his anger out on his captive first. He threw her to the ground and kicked her while yelling about how she would pay for her mother's actions.

That was all the time Blake needed. As the man lifted his dagger above his head, ready to plunge it into the child below, Blake arrived next to him. He didn't even bother softening the weapon, choosing instead to simply grab the man's raised arm with immobilizing strength. Meanwhile, his left hand thinned and elongated as it formed the shape of a razor-sharp blade.

"What?" the man asked in surprise, turning to notice Blake for the first time. "Who are you?"

Blake did not bother to answer. He simply brought his left arm up with tremendous force, severing the man's arm at the shoulder. Blake dropped the arm and it fell, the dagger spilling out of the hand and onto the ground nearby. Without remorse, he immediately drove his sword arm through the man's neck, ending his life in an instant.

"It's the Elseling!" one of the two remaining outlaws cried.

"What is he doing here?" the other one asked in a panicked tone.

Blake didn't care to explain his presence to murderers and would-be rapists. Without a word, he rushed at them, his eyes harsh and his sword arm ready.

Seeing him approaching, the two men standing panicked, trying to run away, but they never had a chance. Unlike the highly trained Apostles, these men were just cowards who preyed on the weak. They posed no threat to him. He was upon them before they could even take a step, his left arm slicing with vengeance for the poor souls who had been mercilessly murdered here. Two headless bodies fell to the ground with a sickening thud.

Without delay, Blake turned to the burned man nearby and dispatched him with one quick and brutal slice across the throat. The man gurgled as he tried to draw breath, but, like the others, he would never rise again.

In just a few moments, it was over. Four men, slaughtered like the pigs they were. Their fighting ability really brought home just how strong and skilled Yarec, Kirr, and Yusari had been. They'd pushed him to the brink the entire time, forcing him to risk life and limb to emerge victorious, while these wastes of oxygen hadn't even put up a fight. It was just a shame that he'd been unable to get there in time to save the mother. If he'd known just how weak these men really were, he'd have charged right in from the start.

At least he'd saved the girl. He would never have been able to call himself a hero if he couldn't at least do that. Speaking of which...

"I'm sorry this happened, sweetie," he said in as friendly a manner as he could while starting to turn back towards the girl. "Are you oka-"

A cold sharpness plunged into Blake's back, stabbing deep into his spine, and he collapsed on to his chest as if his strings had all been cut. Pain shot through his entire body and he screamed. He tried to get up, to stand again, but his legs wouldn't move. What was going on? He twisted, pushing with one arm to turn and see behind him, only to find a dagger, the one that the hostage-taker had dropped when his arm had been cut off, embedded deep into his back, and standing above him a weeping, trembling girl.

"B-b-blessed are those wh-who slay the b-blasphemer, h-h-hallowed those who s-slay the Elseling," the girl stuttered through choked sobs as she stared at him with eyes filled with equal parts terror, sorrow, and joy, "f-f-for their clans shall b-bask in Othar's love f-for all eternity."

Reality dawned on Blake and something in him snapped. He was paralyzed from the waist down, unable to move or feel. The dagger had severed his spinal cord, robbing him of more than half of his body in a single instant. Not because of Yarec, or a squad of Apostles, or an army, but because of a little nine-year-old girl. A nine-year-old girl who had been taught, all her life, that killing him was the greatest thing she could ever accomplish. A little girl who'd just witnessed her entire family murdered in front of her eyes had robbed him of his body, and yet now looked at his prostrate body with happiness.

What a fool he'd been. A society like this would never be swayed by ideas or charitable deeds, for no benevolent acts would overcome their devotion to their own ignorance. They embraced it. Celebrated it. Wallowed in it. No amount of words would sway a culture that taught its own children to rejoice in the act of killing those different from them. Blake understood that, now that it was too late. In the girl's teary, yet ecstatic eyes, Blake saw a broken world, one that he now understood to be beyond repair. A world full of people who hated him, feared him, despised him. They thought him a monster.

He'd show them a monster.

The terrified screams of a young girl echoed off the cliffs, and then were silenced.

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