Work Header

12 Miles Below, Book 3, Chapter 13: "Tackling Apex Predators" - tighter lips, tighter fights

Work Text:

Ch 12

To’Aacar took another casual step forward, blade lit as he flicked the spear in his left hand. “It seems you still wish to play. Futility is something your kind are well known for, after all. Fine then. Come at me with the best that you have. You’ll need it.”

Cathida drew into stance, but not any I recognized. To’Aacar stopped in his tracks, head tilted. The large halo above him floated by slowly in response. “Ohhh my. Is that the stance of an Imperial Imperator?” He gave a grin. “That’s your best plan? Your hidden ace? I suppose they would be rather rare and exotic to you surface humans. I’ve killed hundreds of them. Cheap little snacks. They’re quick enough to make an entertaining fight at least, for humans.”

Cathida spoke. Out loud into the air, elderly wobble and all. “My dear, who ever said you’d be fighting a human?”

She leaped forward before he could answer, at the maximum possible speed a relic armor could move at. We were a blur in the air, with one Occult blade scything through at our side, directly for the surprised Feather’s throat.

Ch 13

Cathida’s strike was clean and quick, the sort of perfect swing that would stun a courtyard into silence.

To’Aacar took a casual step back, letting the blade flash a hairbreadth away from his throat. The spear in his left hand spun, already putting itself in position to tackle the follow-up hits. The shock on his face faded to a grin, almost as if he’d been playing it up for dramatic effect.

That scrapshit had something else coming for him if he thought that’s all we had. Occult pulsed and both Cathida and I struck as one from opposite ends. One side was her blade, and the other was my spectral copy.

The spear flicked out, expertly deflecting her strike, while he crouched and twisted under my attack, delivering a kick that sent us flying backwards, as if we’d run headfirst into a wall and bounced back hard.

Cathida landed like a cat, oft on two feet. To’Aacar remained where he’d stood as if nothing had happened, lowering his bare foot back to the ground. “I see Atius found a way to teach you some tricks. A novel use of a relic armor. Very novel. I’m impressed.” He smiled. “Not often I see something new these days. But this won’t work either. Do you know why you won’t win?”

“You talk too much.” Cathida said while she leaped forward. Occult blue licked the sides of my armor as I readied the fractal of mirrors one more time. The Winterscar blade whistled through the air, a near blur. Three ghostly blades struck at the same time, from alternate directions.

To’Aacar matched our speed - and then exceeded it. I think the spear struck back at Cathida’s attack, bouncing her off but I can’t be sure. He did something that spun the spear around in his hand, but only the afterimage was what I could remember. Things were going too fast for me to keep up, even with the Occult sight feeding concepts directly into my mind. Whatever happened in those fragments of time, To’Aacar dodged or destroyed all my own Occult strikes and somehow struck us hard enough to cause shields to flare up and the armor to groan down onto a knee. Then he kicked us away again, casually, like we were just scrap metal in the way.

Okay. I may have officially bitten off more than I could chew here.

Cathida landed hard against the ground, rolling for a moment before her hand punched out, lifting the entire armor off the ground and back onto solid footing. Her blades were back up, aimed at the enemy before us.

“I told you already, human. You cannot win against me. I am a machine. I can overclock my systems. Make time fly by as if it was trapped in amber.” He said, taking another relaxed step to follow us, as Cathida reluctantly matched his steps backwards, staying out of measure. “A second to you can be an eternity in my world. Your armor could attempt to match me, of course. A pale, sloppy imitation. My body was made to funnel and dissipate heat. Made for war and battle, optimized for it, perfected. Your armor has to deal with that squishy human inside. It was built to protect you first after all, everything else is secondary. It could never reach the speeds that I can, without hurting you. And they were never created to have such strain put on them; they lack the means to handle that strain for long. You will burn long before you even approach my level.”

“He’s right.” Cathida spoke in my ear. “I know I’m better than him. The little scraphead only has one hand and a spear bigger than his ego. But skill’s worth nothing if he can just move faster to counter anything I do. If I try to keep up, Journey’s saying I’d risk cooking you alive, deary. The armor’s worse than an overprotective parent, but having you burn to death is something I can grudgingly set my differences aside for.”

“How long can you match his speed?”

“Journey doesn’t want to even try.” Cathida said. “Goddess! It’s a pain in the ass and doesn’t want to take risks. You’re going to have to do that administration mubo jumbo to make it listen.”

To’Aacar strolled forward. Cathida stepped backwards, deeper into the cave. Like a weasel playing with a rat trapped in a one-way pipe.

I spoke the authorization, Cathida walking me through whichever it was that Journey needed, and only then did my relic armor reluctantly supply the specs it had to work with.

The answer wasn’t good. “The speed problem isn’t ever going away, there’s a physical limit on how fast I can move the armor without breaking your bones and the bastard doesn’t have that. But we can work around it. The real problem is that heat stays trapped inside the armor for a good few minutes due to the seal against the environment. Even with the overclocks turned off, you’ll still be roasting in here with whatever’s slowly going away. Journey says twenty seconds is the cut off point where you’ll live through the cool down. Thirty seven if you take off your helmet right after to make an opening for air to pass through.”

“Twenty seconds is enough.” I said. “If he doesn’t have a shield, all we need is a few good cuts to put him out of commission. It only takes a second to cut his head off with an Occult blade. We aren’t making aerogel.”

“And how exactly are you planning on deleting his shield from the equation? Because that seems to be the hard part in all this.”

“You know I can hear you muttering under your helmet?” To’Aacar said as he continued to force us to backtrack.

“Journey, do something about that?” I asked. “Cathida, time for plan B.”

Journey’s speakers began to play broken clips of speech into the helmet. Little half-words and short phrases, in my voice and Cathida’s, hopefully drowning out what we said to each other. Cathida said something, then, but I missed it. She repeated herself; Journey tweaked something in the noise so I could hear her: “Plan B it is, then.”

The inhuman machine laughed again. “Somehow I have the impression you didn’t hear me, despite my lack of helmet. Let me help you with that noise in your ears, you poor miserable little half-deaf thing: I was created to hunt down and kill deities. I’ve crossed blades with the likes of Talen, held the line with my brothers and sisters. Even weakened from madness, he’s a thousand leagues above a human cowering behind his pet armor. You cannot compete with me.”

Plan B: Cathida had sheathed a blade and now she drew the knightbreaker from the small of my back.

The Feather paused, head tilting. “You think something like a grenade is going to do anything to me?” He laughed, spreading his arms. “Go ahead, fire away. I’m right here. You can’t possibly miss.”

I gave a silent prayer to any god that would hear me, hoping that this scraphead’s ego was just wide enough he’d think to tank the shell directly. He seemed like the type to do that.

Cathida didn’t spit on an open gift, aiming the weapon without hesitation. “Goddess piss on your corpse, scraphead.” The Occult shell launched with little recoil; its payload zipped through the air directly at the Feather’s center mass.

To’Aacar’s left hand moved. The spear blurred. One moment it had been at his side — the next, it was pointing up, held high in the air, with only the afterimage of the glowing path the Occult edge had passed by.

He’d cut the shell in half. Right on the way. There was even a whip-like crack as the spear clearly passed the speed of sound to do that.

And then physics gave his dramatic counter the middle finger.

Inertia carried the shell’s split halves forward, with the grenade’s spin flinging the halves apart — but not fast enough to miss the Feather. Parts of the carefully crafted Occult chains inside were no doubt cut, but not all of them, and not all completely. The split fragments collided against his bare chest, and the chains flew out as designed.

If he had realized the danger and tried to get out of the way, he was already too late. Occult power pulsed from his body for a moment, but the chains already reached him before anything could manifest from whatever last second defense he’d attempted. His shield flared out within that millisecond — and instantly collapsed.

One chain didn’t light, damaged by the cut. The other three did, glowing with Occult energy along the edge of each link. Two had been greatly shortened, but the third was undamaged and long. The Feather’s shield collapsed instantly under their edges. Their glowing edges raked wildly through the Feather’s body.

His limp right arm was shredded in three parts, with only the chunk up to his elbow remaining, dangling from a bit of artificial skin where the Occult-edged chain hadn’t happened to pass through.

The left arm was mostly intact, but his spear wasn’t. Only the spear blade itself had an Occult edge. The handle and shaft were the traditional weakpoint of a spear, the reason spears weren’t reliable in combat. Those chains had lashed right across the shaft, where an Occult shield, of all things, flared up for a heartbeat. It collapsed just as fast as the Feather’s own shields had, and the spear fell apart, leaving the Feather holding a short and sparking metal rod.

The long chain had penetrated his chest, scything through some internal machinery before sliding out.

One short chain raked his face, blue light collapsing a glowing purple left eye and removing a cheekbone before his ear. Nothing survived wherever the Occult edges passed.

The chains zipped around further into the air, like two scribbles of blue fading out, before the shells hit the walls and bounced off, clinking onto the ground, the currents stopped and the charges completely spent. Damn did this little beauty pay off. Worth every bit of stress and money to make. The moment I’m back home, I’m ordering ten more.

To’Aacar stumbled, falling down onto one knee, now looking more like a ripped up puppet. He lifted his head to stare. Disfigured, with only his left eye working while the right side of his face looked like it had been held down against a blender. A few emotions passed through whatever parts of his face remained working. Shock. Disbelief. Anger. And hate. A lot of hate. And then surprise again, at the sight of an occult blade zipping right for that last eye.

Cathida, being both a foul mouthed hellion and Imperial crusader, had long ago learned never to pass on any opportunity to kick an opponent on the ground. The moment she’d fired the grenade launcher, she dropped it, sprinted forward, Winterscar blades tip first, one reaching to impale, while the other sweeped to catch any dodge attempt.

The broken Feather’s head shifted to the side and the blade passed an inch off target, cutting slightly into his cheek. Occult pulsed across his body for a second time, and this time flashed outwards. Cathida’s follow-up attempt to cleave down with her off hand went directly through nothing, with the rest of my own Occult Mirrors also striking through thin air. He’d vanished, but not far. Whatever that spell was, it had repositioned him a few feet to our right.

Cathida and I instantly pivoted and struck in the same motion.

I don’t know how he did it, but one of his feet kicked the broken speartip off the ground, and tossed it straight up, directly through one of my Occult Mirror strikes at the same time that he narrowly avoided Cathida’s hit. The ghost apparition faded the moment it was cut through. That didn’t matter, I’d thrown out another in that span of time. This second swing he took head on, letting it cut through parts of his chest, and carve a new gash through his limp right arm.

In exchange he threw out an open handed punch. Occult pulsed around his arm, and when he struck, it was like a massive anvil had clobbered us. Again I found my limp body tossed across the tunnel.

“You godless heathen,” Cathida snarled, standing us back up a distance away. “Just die already. It’s embarrassing.”

“This isn’t happening.” To’Aacar said, voice bewildered, not having moved an inch from the end of his punch. “This can’t be happening. How? Zero Twelve’s dead. How did you recover his chain? I saw him cast it into the mite sea, seven entire levels below, right before we killed him! Nothing comes back from that. Nothing!”

He took a step forward and collapsed on another leg. The damage to his chest was really something, a human would have been dead twenty times over by now. It was like watching a corpse move around, the body occasionally refusing to function, twitching even. “No. No, no, no, he can’t be alive. He’s dead. I saw him die!”

“I don’t know what you’re babbling about.” I said through Journey’s external speakers. “But it looks to me like you’re finished. If you don’t want that head of yours to fly off whatever’s left of your shoulders, you’re going to do the smart thing and surrender now. I’ve got a lot of questions to ask.”

He stared back, that one eye seemed as if it wasn’t looking at me, but somewhere far off in the past. “Of course.” He nearly whispered. “The mites finally spat his body back out. They must have pushed it to the surface of all places. But how did you duplicate his weapon into so many parts? Did you hairless monkeys break it apart into pieces?!”

I took a breath and smiled. “Shut up,” Cathida barked in my ear. “Don’t give information to the enemy, or did you forget that, too?” The smile fell from my face. This was not a time to gloat.

“Coöperate, if you want to find out. Maybe you’ll get a chance to meet him again.”

This time his eye focused on me. It looks like he responded well to taunts. “This isn’t over.” He said. “I haven’t lost.”

“Spoken like every sore loser at the gambling table. You’re on one knee if you haven’t noticed, and the other doesn’t seem to be working well either. Give up.”

There was rumbling behind me. The rocks he’d collapsed at the entrance shook and shifted. One tumbled down to the floor. “Scans show the fighting’s died down on the other side.” Cathida said to me, answering my unworded question. “Our side’s breaking the rocks down. Time to wrap him up and take him back home. Part of me really hates to say this, but those Knightbreaker shells of yours are on a different level. Instantly ended that fight. I’d hate to be on the other end of one of those.”

That violet eye seemed to twitch. “You made this weapon?”

Cathida’s horrified pause, and mine, gave him confirmation. He could still hear inside Journey’s helmet, despite the half-speech Journey still played. The Feather stood, slowly, creakingly, but on both legs, staring me in the face with his ruined face.

“I am To’Aacar, the one above all challenge and reach. Know this, human. Today, I acknowledge you, weaponsmith.”

And then he collapsed back on his knees. Now was my time to gloat.

“I don’t think you’re following the script here, buddy. I’ve got the sword and shields. You’re down an arm, a shield, a spear and…” I waved a sword tip in his general direction. “Well, an everything. This fight’s over. You’re coming with me, or I’ll cut you up some more. And then you’re coming with me.” Man, now I’m starting to sound like the villain here. But there was something viscerally satisfying lording over a broken enemy. Or maybe it’s the Winterscar in me that simply can’t pass up on an opportunity to taunt and kick a downed opponent.

“The fight is never over. Not until you, or I, die.” He said, oddly calm.

“Fine. Don’t say I didn’t give you a chance. Cathida, serve up another limb. And bring out the fancy silverware please.”

She complied, one blade swiping down on that last working hand of his. The crippled machine corpse once more moved with that scrapshit alacrity, twisting his whole torso to avoid the blow, grabbing the wrist of our hand, and yanking up. Quite literally, throwing us straight up over his shoulder, in a full unbroken arc, and tossing us away. Like we were a shopping bag. And relic armors weigh quite a lot. In the hundreds of pounds.

We hit the wall again, rolling back into ground. No real damage, other than our prides of course, not even the shields were triggered. But how strong was this scraphead exactly?! Even with all that damage piled up and no leverage on his knees, he still tossed us like laundry. If I hadn’t outright cheated the whole fight with the knightbreaker, I’m dead certain I’d be machine kibble.

The machine corpse tried to rise and take a step after us, but stumbled and crashed down again on his knees. He looked up, aghast. Then his eye widened. “That’s … your full name is … Keith Winterscar? You?

Need to deflect. “Sorry, wrong armor. You want the other guy.”

The feather laughed. “Do you think I care for the names of each ant you pass by? All humans are the same to me. Or were the same until this moment. I know who you are now. I’ve just read everything that exists with your name attached to it. Perhaps I was too… harsh on my little sister. You are an anomaly among humans. I see now how she could have been killed by you.”

Welp, deflection failed. “I don’t remember killing your sister? I think that would have been a memorable occasion for me.” I shrugged, “Cathida, do you have any idea what he’s talking about?”

She gave the verbal version of a shrug.

“Her name is To’Wrathh. And it was a memorable occasion to her when you killed her. She’s very interested in you. Obsessed even. She was named due to your actions. I should have read the full report long ago, there’s so much more I could have tormented her with. How I’ve wasted the opportunities.”

The rocks continued to rumble, breaking apart. Bits of light shafts began to open up. No comms chatter, though. Journey’s HUD showed that the Feather was jamming our radios.

“Still doesn’t jog any memory. Sorry. Don’t remember stabbing a machine lady to death recently. I know I have poor memory, but it can’t be that bad.”

He grinned. A wide wicked thing, like a child that had found a new toy to torment. “She wasn’t a Feather when you met her. No, she came back solely to hunt you down and finish what she started.”

“Oh! Now I get it. Is this some kind of stalling tactic? Cathida,” I said, and she again rushed the half-collapsed Feather. This time he fell over, tripped her, and kicked us into the ceiling.

We stood back up. “You’re making up a story on the spot? It’s not going to work, but keep going. I’ll admit it’s entertaining. So, what did this lady start exactly? I’ve got a … let’s say ‘checkered’ past when it comes to partners you see, can’t tell if she wants to slap me or ask me for a second date.”

Well, I was stalling too. He was immobilized, save for that short range teleport trick, and the kicks, and I was about to get reinforcements. Cathida and I couldn’t damage him alone, but he had nothing he could do to do damage to me anymore, not with Journey’s shields still being active. He could throw me again, that might work given his freakish strength. But we had reach, Occult weapons, and time, and he had no shields. The moment we got a cut in, we won, while it would take him some time to punch through relic shields.

Cathida charged again. He dodged both swords, lunged to shoulder-check us into the wall. Little bits of gravel and sand trickled down from the ceiling, bouncing off my helmet. We stood back up.

We also had the overheat trick ready to pull out in case things went wrong somewhere, and given that I’d be only able to use that once, I needed to make sure it would count. It wasn’t going to be an end-all-be-all solution; the relic armor was still hard-capped on movement speed in order to avoid hurting me with inertia, unlike the Feather’s speeds, but it would put us on a closer playing field for a critical moment.

So I reined in Cathida. We would wait for my knights to show up, and we’d dogpile the Feather until someone managed to cut his legs and remaining arm off. We’d get him eventually, dig out whatever device let him teleport around the tunnel. And more importantly - we had to make sure to get him. Tie him up and haul him back to the clan, then throw as many locks, bolts and knights as we could to keep him sealed up. Because if there ever were a round two against this monster, I’d end up as a smear on a wall somewhere for the mites to deal with.

Out of measure, we stared at each other, his broken alloy face gleaming in the glare of Journey’s headlights. Then he laughed.

“My dear little sister killed that other knight you were with. Right before you killed her in retaliation. How ironic. How delightfully ironic. Your final words to her were to ‘remember the moment.’ And you’ve forgotten the whole thing. Look at your stunned features. You don’t even know who she is, do you? I can’t wait to tell her.”

My blood froze as he spoke. Memory flashed through my muddled mind. I took a step back, almost in shock. No. No way.

“You should feel honored, Keith the Weaponsmith. This is the first time I’ve ever taken an interest in one of your kind.” He said. Occult pulsed around him. “The next time I see you, I’ll be ready. It’s a shame you can only die once.”

Cathida seized control of Journey, Winterscar sword lunging for his shoulder without word. Heat flared inside my suit as Journey overclocked its systems, reaction speeds increasing beyond our superhuman limits to the realm of the machine.

The Feather simply leered. Madness in that eye. Occult flashed, wrapping around his body in a heartbeat - and faded away right as Cathida’s blades passed through his neck.

Where he knelt, there was nothing left.

The scrapshit fucker had run.