Hank had to roll again to the side as one of the suits swiped at him. Several more moved to corral him, but they were having a hard time of it. His repeater fired constantly, shots glancing off armor and barely damaging their defenses at all. But there were a few cracks, and some strange colors of blood pumping out of wounds where Hank had been able to cluster several bullets.
His hands flashed mechanically as he reloaded and began to fire once more, never stopping his movements. He only Dodge Rolled when absolutely necessary to save Stamina, but even so, he was realizing that he couldn’t sustain this pace.
And the only reason that Hank had been able to go for this long was that two of the exosuit monsters pursuing him had broken off to help with Thaddeus. For all that he was an ass, Hank had rarely met a person with a higher talent for violence. Not only were his plasma bolts much more damaging than Hanks bullets, but Thaddeus was also a master of a strange sort of close-range violence.
As one of the exosuits approached Thaddeus from behind, Thaddeus casually shot two plasma bolts at other enemies. Only at the last second did he smash the butt of his plasma rifle back into the attacker’s face. That flowed into a flaring elbow that knocked away another oncoming attack, giving Thaddeus enough time to leap to the sky and shoot several more plasma bolts.
Their exosuits hissed as the plasma ate through their armor, but the extra two that had switched sides were tilting the scales towards the exosuits. And all the while, Ezekiel intermittently shot Poison Arrows to keep either Hank or Thaddeus from landing a killing blow.
But in Hank’s mind, music was rising. It was his ballad. They had struggled, and it was time for the music to rise.
Sharp Left didn’t even phase these fuckers, so Hank had to resort to using Hard Right three times in a row to knock one of the suits to the side. Burning metal claws raked along his ribs, ribbing and cauterizing three long gashes. But it was an acceptable price.
Quick as a spark, Hank drew and fired all 6 bullets from his revolver. His blows had all four of the remaining monsters that were fighting against him in a clump, and the leading exosuit raised its arms to defend its vital points. But by the time it had done that, Hank had loaded his strongest bullet into his revolver and fired with Trick Shot.
The bullet accelerated forward and struck the last bullet and ricocheted forward. In quick succession, it had struck all of the other bullets and each one shattered into dozens of high energy pieces. The shrapnel smashed the leading exosuit back into a bloody heap. The exosuit behind that one had its right arm and torso ripped to shreds. The third exosuit stooped down and began to help the first to its feet again.
As Hank saw this action filled with comradery, his heart twitched. But the music was calling for it, so he continued on his path. “Mana Detonation.”
The Mana he had shoved into those empowered bullets exploded outwards. The first two struck with the actual shrapnel where turned into a mist of blood, and the one helping the other had its arms and face ripped to shreds. It collapsed, spineless. It was only the fourth and final of the exosuits that had survived unscathed. It paused, looking down at its companions briefly.
But then it looked up, its eyes flashing with that strange fire. Before it could move, Hank twisted and reloaded his revolver. As the last exosuit ran towards him, he fired 6 Lawman’s Guillotines into the sky towards where Thaddeus continued to struggle.
He turned around just in time to meet the exosuit. Its attacks were so fast that Hank could do little in the way of high-level thinking; all that existed at that speed were instincts. He became a blur of punches and point blank shots with his repeater. Attack after attack from the exosuit monster just barely missed him, so much so that he could smell the acrid smell of burning leather. Fighting so close was severely disadvantageous to Hank, but he refused to back down.
If he was hit, he’d hit the other guy harder. If someone took risks, he would raise the stakes. That was the man he had been always raised to be by his father.
Hank felt it now, that strange logic his father used. He could not fail in this fight, because of everything he had gone through before. If he died now, he would be making a lie of everything he had accomplished so far. He was a man who survived and thrived. If he failed at that, then his entire existence would crumble away.
Hank’s right hand broke, but the exosuit stumbled backward. It had only been twenty seconds of brutal blows, but his Stamina was basically gone. With the last of his strength, he raised his repeater and put several bullets into the exosuit’s helmet. Only the last one broke through the armor and inflicted damage, but you only ever needed one good bullet.
Which meant that Hank was turning away from his kill just in time to be smashed sideways by a literal boulder that was careening towards him.
He felt his ribs crack. Blinking rapidly, Hank tried to cope with the sudden rush of sensations. Abruptly, he realized he was on the ground; he must have passed out briefly when the boulder had hit him. Ezekiel took a step and was standing over him.
Every second was vicious agony as Hank rolled to the side and avoided the hatchet Ezekiel had produced from somewhere, but it was fucking better than being dead. As he stood and his bones ground against each other at a volume that even Ezekiel looked confused, Hank was tempted to reverse his opinion on the previous statement. But he pushed that away. Instead, he just grimly regarded the man in front of him.
Ezekiel was just staring at him. Very slowly, Hank could feel his ribs shifting as his Vitality pushed him towards healing, but it was an impossible task to have him recover his fighting strength. It was disappointing, but the broken ribs completely shut down his mobility. Now, he would need to rely on precision and power to grasp victory.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” Ezekiel said quietly.
Hank didn’t bother answering. If anything, he hoped that Ezekiel would indulge in more emotions or acidic barbs so he would have more time to recover. And in fact, it seemed like that was exactly what Ezekiel was intending.
“I hated you when we first met. Because you’ve got a… something. A foolishness. A straightforwardness. But dammit, that’s exactly the reason that I started to admire you. You just don’t turn away from trouble. I… I’m not that person.”
Hank considering drawing and shooting Ezekiel in the stomach, but then he guiltily realized that both his repeater and revolver were currently empty. He had been so focused on killing that exosuit fucker that he had blacked out in the immediate aftermath. Hank had a sour feeling that this was the sort of mistake that got you killed.
“…but I’ve realized it’s not my fault,” Ezekiel announced. “You know… all of this. This is just… a sad coincidence. The day I got a Class, well the night before, I had a weird dream. It was an old memory, a car drive with Rand from before… from before everything went bad. Or it was the beginning of the end. In my memory, we sat the whole time in silence. And the whole time I felt so bitter. I could tell so clearly how scared and upset he was… and I couldn’t open my mouth to say a single thing. I was just a mute. I left my son alone in that dark backseat.
“But this time… in the dream… he spoke to me. We started talking, and I felt him open up because I talked. I explained how complicated things were… and I finally said something that I don’t think I’ve ever actually said to Rand. I said no matter what happens, I would never leave him alone. Maybe I was thinking of that very memory, of the real one. And he said the same to me. And then… then I felt
. I felt whole.”
There were several wet thunks as Hank’s Lawman’s Guillotines descended and smashed into the people harrying Thaddeus. Ezekiel didn’t even seem to notice; he was really working up a head of steam now.
“It was the best feeling of fulfillment I’ve ever felt. I felt… well, I knew it would all be okay. Then I woke up. And that feeling was gone. And you know what the first thought I had that morning? I thought, ‘You will never feel full again. That dream will never come true.’ That day, I went and got my Class, and it was the biggest fuck you I’ve ever seen. The world was confirming everything I’ve always feared. All I’ll know is hunger… I’ve been cursed. I’ve been-”
“Just fuckin’ admit you messed up,” Hank said, finally fed up with Ezekiel. “If you keep fooling yourself into believing that it wasn’t your fault, do you think it will ever get better?”
Ezekiel’s eyes were infinitely tired as he glared at Hank. “You would never understand. The blessed never do. I must say, it will be fucking enjoyable to consume you. I wonder what Skill-
Hank’s fingers flicked. A Smoke Bomb hit the ground and billowed outwards. Standing in the same spot, Hank calmly began to reload his revolver. He sensed Poison Arrows instantly whizzing outward to the side. Hank had to admit that Ezekiel had a great sense of space; his strikes landed exactly where Hank would have been had he Dodge Rolled to either side.
Hank pulled the hammer back and fired into the smoke.
When the smoke cleared, Ezekiel stood there, clutching his right chest. Hank grimaced. Looked like the bullet had ripped a hole in his chest cavity and destroyed his right lung. Even with the System, it would be an agonizing and slow recovery. Doubly so with the higher physical demands that Stats placed on the body.
He had meant to hit Ezekiel in the heart to end him. Was it a sign that he had missed…?
But the music was falling away into a low hum. Hank turned and found Thaddeus standing unsteadily above 8 bodies of the exosuit monsters. His right arm hung useless at his side. His plasma rifle was nowhere to be seen. Most of his chest and upper leg armor had been ripped away, leaving spandex and bloody skin. But in his left hand, he had his plasma pistol, and nothing around him was moving.
Ezekiel gasped and sobbed on the ground as Thaddeus hobbled over towards Hank. Both men produced Health Potions and drank them. They restored their Health and replenished their blood supply, but the wounds would remain sour for a while. Neither had a Skill that could help ease the transition.
“Thanks for those shots,” Thaddeus said. “That killed three of them instantly and wounded two more. Good timing too. Most of my exosuit was scrap by that point.”
As if to emphasize his point, he pulled a dangling bit of machinery off his thigh. It came off with a snap, and Thaddeus grimaced. “You don’t want to know what this piece of debris was worth before. Ah well. What are we gonna do about him?”
Thaddeus indicated Ezekiel. Hank paused. He waited two seconds. Then he shook his head slowly. “No man has the right to pass judgment on another. Leave him. For now… let’s go see why my feet brought me here.”