By Spinning Demon (Topman) and Gauntlet (Shadowman)
I lunged at the Harbinger, but he lifted his rune-scarred hand and a blast of concussive energy pushed me back, sending me keeling into the wall behind me. Amatista apparently hadn't lost her edge with age - she rolled into the room as she dodged my body and ended with a flourish of her hand that caused the Harbinger to cry out in pain. Sticking out of his heel was one of Amatista's earrings, a long slender jewel that she must have still kept on her person, sharpened for emergencies. I guess in this town you have to be ready for anything.
He snarled. The glow on his hand changed to a different pattern, and the tips of his fingers crackled with electricity. A bolt shot out towards her - she leapt back, but one of her hands caught a fork in the bolt and she cried out in pain as she landed.
I lunged again, hoping to catch him off-guard, but the distance was too far to close so quickly - his hand glowed anew and I could feel a force almost like Magnet or Gravity's pulls wrench me sideways, sending me barreling toward Amatista. I couldn't brake in time, but I did my best to soften the blow before I tumbled into her.
I had to hand it to Amatista, she was back on her feet as quickly as I was. She shifted into a fighting stance and pulled on a small stone on her bracelet. The stone came out effortlessly, a length of thin wire proceeding it. She palmed the stone in one hand and ran her other along the length of the wire, ready to wield it like a flail. Meanwhile, I clutched two Top Bombs in my remaining hand, the smallest ones I had on hand, hoping they'd go unnoticed by him until I had a chance to land one.
We ran at either side of him, hoping to flank him. He raised his hand and sent out another concussive blast, aimed at Amatista this time. She was too slow. Her arms had been raised over her head to strike downward, and it hit her square in the stomach. She buckled over, winded by the blast.
He hadn't aimed for both of us, though, and rather than shooting at me next, he tried to parry my kick. Big mistake. As his arms went toward his left side to block my right leg, I followed up with a quick jab with my fist. It met with one of his ribs, and he recoiled from the hit. He raised his runed hand and a blast sent me backward again, but this time I'd been counting on it. The distance was just what I needed to clear what came next, an explosion from his coat where I'd stuck one of my bombs during our grapple. He careened into the wall by the door, and fell to the floor, clutching his side.
His hand glowed in a new configuration now, and he touched it to the floor. He started to fall through it like it was quicksand. I threw the second bomb but he was gone by the time it landed, and the small explosion went off to no avail.
I moved to help up Amatista, who was just getting her breath back. "Who was that??" she gasped.
"He calls himself the Harbinger, he's the one who's been spreading KADE around the city."
Her eyes moved to her niece's bed. "No, does that mean...?!"
I didn't know for sure, but he'd said she'd "been judged". That was the same thing he said to me after he'd injected me with the virus.
I moved to help Esme, but Amatista shook me off. "No, go after him. You can't do anything for her right now. I'll do what I can for her."
I nodded, and then ran out into the hall.
We were on the sixth floor. He was one below. I could either take the elevator - too slow - or the stairs - too impractical, especially for me. But he wouldn't stay in the hospital, right? He would try to leave. He'd probably keep going through the floors until he got to street level, and then make a break for it. There was only one way I could outrun that. I thrust myself through the closest window, and felt my stomach lurch as I fell six stories to the ground.
Glass exploded around me as I heard metal groan and bend below me. I must have landed on a car. Shards tore at me as I pushed up through the debris, wobbling from the pain of the impact. It was going to take me more than a second to steady myself, but a second was all I had, as the Harbinger ran out the main entrance just a few moments after I'd stood up. He saw me and then turned to run back through the main doors, but by now the noise of my crash had people gathering to look, and there wasn't much room to run. He stopped short at the packed doorway and I sped toward him, landing a swift blow to his back before he could turn to counter.
I aimed another kick at his chest but he blocked with his spellcasting hand, and as he gripped my leg a surge of intense heat shot through my body and my muscles seized all at once. He flipped my leg forward with surprising strength and I landed flat on my back. My muscles were spasming and unresponsive, and as I struggled to rise, a burst of fire sent me ducking back to the ground. He was channeling the fire through his hand now, and I could feel it starting to burn through my synthetic skin, getting hotter and hotter. I was going to be burned to a crisp!
Then, suddenly, a loud thud came from his direction, and the fire stopped surging. I lifted my head as best I could to look - a giant fist had knocked the Harbinger flat!
"Hard Man!" I cried out. I didn't think when another of the Mechs eventually tracked me down I'd be so happy about it, but here we were.
The ground shook as he lumbered toward me. "Top, you alright?" he said stooping over me.
"Yeah, I just... can't get up yet... How'd you know where to find me?"
"We didn't even know you were here! Amatista called us from the hospital, told us the KADE killer was here."
...Amatista! She must have known that I'd be too wary to contact the Mechs. I owed her one!
"Hard, be careful, he's a spellcaster, he can..."
As I was talking, I noticed Hard had stopped moving. I'd have thought he was just standing still, but in his eyes was total panic. I could see his jaw trembling as he tried to speak.
The Harbinger moved from behind him to face both of us, me on the ground and Hard frozen in place. His right arm was outstretched, his spell keeping Hard pinned as he channeled it. I tried to get up, but after the fall, the fire, and whatever he did to my muscles, I could barely crawl.
The Harbinger kicked me onto my back, and looked down at my face. "You have already been judged," he sneered. Then he turned his attention to Hard. "But you..."
The Harbinger touched Hard's massive chest gingerly with two fingers from his left hand and breathed in deeply - the dangling scraps of skin on his cheeks flapped as he did so, and it was thoroughly disgusting. "I can see your soul," he said softly. "It's full of pain. But it's also full of sacrifice. You have lived for others. You have died for others..."
Hard's eyes turned to focus on the Harbinger.
"I can take away the pain..." he whispered. "I can send you to where you belong, to where you'll be happy. You've saved so many. Let me save you."
Hard's eyes were trembling. "I.... I want..." he struggled to say.
"No, Hard," I gasped from the ground. "Don't listen to him, he..."
"You've felt it," the Harbinger continued. "The pull... the desire for it all to end... this world is dying. We are all dying. But I can save you from that. I can save you from the pain. Let me help you..."
Hard's whole body was shaking. "I w-want to..."
"Hard..." I tried to crawl towards him. "...remember what I said... before? You don't want... more death in the world..."
The Harbinger shook his head. "'There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.' Your friends have already gone. There is nothing left for the world but to fade away. It doesn't need you anymore."
"Hard..." I winced as I scraped my burnt torso across the concrete. I was almost there. "'No more death'. That's my... promise to you, okay? I'm not... gonna watch you die..."
I grabbed the Harbinger's leg. He looked down in bemusement. "What do you hope to do?" he asked.
"This," I said, and the Top Bomb still in my hand exploded. My fingers went numb with pain, and the Harbinger stumbled backward. For a split second, the spell wavered.
"I..." Hard said, his limbs straining against the weakened spell that bound him. "I want t-to..." His arm raised to his side. "...to LIVE!" he roared, and the inert Hard Knuckle that he'd shot earlier at the Harbinger shuddered to life and rocketed back toward Hard's wrist, colliding with the Harbinger with a violent crash. The spell dissipated, and Hard fired his second Knuckle out, lifting the Harbinger off his feet and propelling him through the hospital wall.
From under the rubble, slowly, the Harbinger's arms moved, clearing the rubble from on top of him. He was badly wounded, barely moving. He touched his chest gingerly, and then opened his coat. Hundreds of small vials of something - KADE I guessed - lined the inner pockets of his trenchcoat. Many of them were shattered now. He touched his chest again, and I could see that through the cuts and tears in his shirt pieces of glass were sticking out, wet with his blood and the vials' liquid. If he'd somehow been infected with KADE and survived, now he'd just gotten ten extra doses of the stuff, maybe more.
"I.... I have been judged," he muttered. He looked out to me, and stared straight at me with his hollow eyes. "I'll see you in Hell."
He removed an especially large shard of glass from his stomach and put it to his throat. "No!" Hard shouted and bounded toward him, but he was too late. By the time he'd reached the body, that's all that it was. The Harbinger was dead.
The responses were starting to come back in my muscles, but I was feeling far from okay. I slumped up to standing and walked over to Hard Man and the body.
"I almost let him do it, y'know?" Hard said, looking up at me.
"But I was wrong. I could never kill myself just to escape my suffering... not like how he just did. I thought it's what I wanted, to see my friends again... but... how do I know I'm not done making friends here? And someone's gotta be around to save their asses."
I smiled. "Yeah, heh... thanks."
"How did you even know he was gonna be here?"
Oh no! I forgot all about Esme!
"I'll be right back, Hard!" I said, taking off into the hospital. I waited impatiently as the elevator went up the levels, bursting out as the doors chimed open. Amatista was waiting outside the room, looking anxious.
"Top, are you-"
"I'm okay. But Esme..."
Amatista's eyes were glassy as she looked back to the room, to the bed, to the girl lying there. "I guess there's nothing we can do for her now."
I remembered the sample of the virus I'd given Mags to take to Spark and the research scientists. There was no way they'd have a cure by now, but maybe they'd learned something new about the virus. Something that could help her.
"It might not be too late. There's somewhere we could take her, it's a long shot, but... but it's her only chance. It's all the way across town though-"
Amatista looked down at my skates, and then back up at me. Her face was fixed with determination, the same look I'd seen fifteen years ago when she fought us with such conviction. It was the same look I'd seen in Esme when we'd fought.
"Whatever it takes. Do it."
Amatista helped lift Esme onto my back, like I was giving her a piggyback ride. Without my other arm, I couldn't keep her balanced, but Amatista took some of the wiring from the old costume in her bag and tied Esme tightly to me.
"This is your second chance, Top Man," she said with a pat on my shoulder after Esme was securely fastened. Her voice shook. "Bring her back to me."
"I'll try, Ama-... Maria."
I bolted through the halls and down the elevator. When I got to the entrance, Hard was still there waiting for me. Only now he wasn't alone.
"Top," Shadow said menacingly, as he turned from talking to Hard to face me. He drew his katana right away, no pleasantries this time. "What the hell are you doing with... is that Hu Man?"
"Shadow, I don't know how much time I have to explain, but she's been infected. I've gotta take her to-"
"Woah woah woah, you almost killed her! Now you're trying to save her life?"
"How do you know you aren't gonna lose it and try to kill her again?"
"Look, you just gotta trust me, alright? I don't have time to-"
"I don't have to do anything, Top. You don't give the orders here. I do. And I trust you about as far as you can throw Hard. So why don't you-"
"Her life is more important than this stupid vendetta you have against me! Just let me-"
A shuriken flew at my head. I was about to duck when I realized I couldn't or it might hit Esme. My hand flew up at the last second, and it pierced straight through my palm.
"You're crazy!" I shouted at him.
"Yeah? Well you're mine," he said, and he leapt forward to strike. But his blade hit something in front of me - a Hard Knuckle that came from the side to block the hit.
"Hard?" I turned to look at him, and he smiled. "'No more death', right?"
I looked at him in shock for a second, and then nodded. "Yeah, 'no more death'."
I took off as fast as I could. I cleared the first couple of blocks and took a quick look back. Hard and Shadow looked like they were duking it out. At least that's what I thought, until...
SLASH. Something flew out right in front of me and I instinctively held my wrist up to deflect the attack, and some sparks flew off my armour with the hit. I was moving so fast I didn't even register what it was. SLASH. Again. This time I saw the distinctive red scarf. SLASH.
"... 'twas a hologram," the voice scoffed as it passed by me. It was Shadow, no doubt about it. Hard must have been left to fight it out with one of his signature tricks of light. But then how did Shadow keep getting in front of me?
SLASH. This time I saw it - he leapt out at me from the shadow of a nearby tree, struck me with his katana, and then dove into my own shadow trailing behind me. I raced down the streets at breakneck speed, but there was no escaping him. SLASH - from the shadow of a truck in front of me. SLASH. A building. SLASH. A traffic light. I was doing everything I could to block the hits from hitting vital areas, but they were taking their toll. The cuts were getting deeper, and I didn't know how many more I could take. And with Esme on my back, I couldn't spin to deflect them.
This was insane! This was nothing like Shadow Man. He'd always been logical, reserved, calculated. Now he was a ball of fury, completely uninhibited. Almost as if...
Wait. That was it. The Wily chip wasn't put in me... it was put in Shadow!
"Arrrgghhh!" I cried out after an especially deep gash opened in my left shoulder. I was getting close to the quarantine zone where the research centre was, but Shadow was beyond reason by now - him attacking Hard Man was obvious of that. This wasn't going to stop when I got Esme to safety... this wasn't going to stop until he cut me down completely.
"Spark!" I shouted into my communicator during a brief moment before Shadow re-emerged in front of me.
["...Top?! Is that you?"]
"Spark, I'm..." SLASH. "...bringing you a KADE victim..." SLASH. "...but I need..." SLASH. "...you to do something..." SLASH.
["O-okay, what do you need?"]
"When I say so..." SLASH. "...William Tell a flare..." SLASH. "...got it?"
WHACK. This time it was the hilt of the sword, and I wasn't ready for it. He hit me on the side of the head, and I heard my communicator crackle and short out. It was a precision blow.
I had to hope Spark knew what it meant. I was getting closer, and Shadow could tell. His strikes were getting swifter, but also wider, more desperate, easier to read. SLASH. I blocked a second blow with my wrist, and again, sparks shot off my armour with the blow. SLASH. SLASH. SLASH. Each one deflected with a blink of light, tiny stars dancing into my vision.
I could feel the rage building inside me. Wouldn't it be easier to just stop, to spin away this annoying insect's stings and then squash him with a counter-attack? No, NO, I couldn't stop, couldn't spin, there was something I had to do, someone I had to protect. My boots sparked with built-up kinetic energy, the product of miles and miles of running. I was so close, so close!
In front of me, in the distance, someone was waiting, someone with green hair and an orange suit. WEAKLING. The annoying insect with the stinger soared over me. KILL HIM. Wasn't there something I was supposed to do? Oh, right.
"NOW!" I shouted, and the green-haired robot fired a shot above my head. It exploded into a bright clear flash, a brilliant star right in front of my eyes. Everything around me was bathed in the brightest light, and it burned my eyes, filled me with hatred and rage. Behind me the insect slammed to the ground, without a shadow left to dive into. This was my chance.
As I turned, I released the weight off my back that had been burdening me. It went tumbling to the ground, but I paid it no more mind. I completed my 180 with a single, devastating kick to the insect's chest, and the kinetic energy of several stored-up miles exploded with a shattering crack. The insect went flying, and when it landed, it didn't move.
The light above me suddenly grew dark, and I looked up just in time to see a shape overhead eclipsing the light, massive and growing even larger as it fell toward me.