Friday, September 21, 2007

Along Came a Spider

He had been strong but never this strong.

He had never been able to punch through plate armor, the body beneath it, and the stone wall behind both.

He had never been able to wade unharmed through focused electron bolts capable of tearing about bank vaults.

And he had never been able to crush a man's skull in one hand and fling his lifeless corpse through the body of someone else.

But here he was, doing those things without even really trying, his molten armor smouldering as blood dripped onto hm and vaporized from raw heat. Bones were splintering. Armor was exploding into scrap. Everything in his path was dying...

...and at the end of his path, there was a woman in trouble.

Bloodravyn had been warned about this. He had been told, by Lethane of all people, that Arachnos was not quite the unified front of supervillains it tried to present. Lord Recluse had total control of the Rogue Isles but within his own organization, chaos was apparently the rule of the day.

The master of Arachnos delegated authority over Arachnos' various component groups to four lieutenants - Mako, Scorpion, Scirroco and Ghost Widow. Each one had an agenda, some of which conflicted on an all-too often basis. When Recluse's seconds came up against each other, shadow wars broke out. Their resources were be pitted in battle, each side trying to take out key figures like a cutthroat game of living Chess.

Ravyn caught the end of an energy mace, squeezing hard enough to shatter its red focusing element and discharging its deadly blast. He felt a slight discomfort and a pressure that forced him to open his fingers slightly. The wielder of the mace was incinerated and his dusty ashes blown all over the courtyard.

There were only four more people between him and Kalinda, none of whom were paying him any attention. They were all garbed in the protective plating and long red cloaks of Wolf Spider Huntsmen - Arachnos' elite bounty hunters. Usually they were dispatched to track down and neutralize enemies of Lord Arachnos. That was usually; today wasn't usual.

Today they were here to kill Kalinda on behalf of their master - Scorpion. Each of the lieutenants had their own forces and, more importantly, their own primary fortunada. Kalinda belonged to the only woman right hand of Recluse, the enigmatic undead Ghost Widow. Each of the primary Fateweavers had a champion, one among many who they believed was the Chosen One, the Spiritus Destinae. Either these hunstmen were here to kill Kalinda over some imagined slight or power play of Scorpion's or as a strategic move by the man's fortunada to remove both the woman and her Chosen One from the game.

Ravyn tried to tell himself that he was in a frenzy of destruction merely to protect himself. He tried to rationalize this fury and rage at the people hurting Kalinda as just making sure that his place in Arachnos was protected. In a way, that was logical. If Kalinda fell, he would surely be next. She was his only contact within Arachnos and without a mentor, he would be like blood in the water.

Or, considering the nature of this place, a lone fly in a very hostile web...

The four huntsmen had Kalinda surrounded, a nullifier band clamped to one of her arms. Even with its psychic baffles going strong enough to make the device glow painfully hot, she was generating enough mental force to keep them at bay. Ravyn could smell the burning skin from fifteen feet away. Sooner or later pain would overcome Kalinda's focus and then she would falter. The huntsmen were poised, blades at the ready, for exactly that to occur.

Ravyn "occurred" first. He reached the first of the bounty hunters, his burning obsidian talons sheering through armor and flesh with terrible ease. Even contained in a resistance suit made of the highest-grade polylaminates, the huntsman went down in a nerveless, paralyzed heap. he would die eventually but for now, the lack of intact spine would keep him out of the battle.

The other three were not so immobile. They turned, aware of Bloodrayn now. The two closest ones brandished their powered spears, coming in for deadly lunges on both sides. The other one cleared his automatic meson pistol and started his charge cycle. A leather handgun, the meson emitter needed six seconds to power up before it could be fired. Ravyn would have to deal with the two in front of him in five seconds or less; otherwise even his defenses would falter under a full quantum particle barrage.

He did it in three. One second was spent grabbing both spears and tearing them out of the huntsmen's clutches. Second number two involved smashing the butt ends into their stomachs and flipping the weapons around in each hand. The last second was bloody, violent and piercing. Ravyn leaped over Kalinda's shimmering sphere of force and landed fully on the last huntsman two seconds before the meson gun in the Wolf Spider's hand announced it was ready to fire.

Of course, the gun was in the man's hand at that point but the hand was no longer attached to an arm of any kind...

Bloodravyn, covered in the first half of his namesake, rose up out of the sudden crater to see more than four dozen more soldiers charging into the yard, weapons at the ready and targeting optics glowing red. Murmuring a curse, he felt the fires within his primal stone shell burn all the brighter. Clenching his tectonic fists, he crouched into a defensive stance and prepared to shield Kalinda with his body if need be. If he was going to die here, he would have a lot of company on the road to Hell.

A calming hand on the side of his face brought him out of the grim mood. "Stand down, my champion. These soldiers are mine." Her voice was light, only slightly echoing the terrible strain she had to be suffering.

Ravyn turned and grabbed both halves of the nullifier, glancing at her with a moment's warning before tearing it off her arm. To her credit, the fortunada did not scream. Her face completely obscured, her expression was unreadable but somehow he could feel her gratitude for the searing device's removal. Her powers returned with a flood of glowing energy, a sudden wave of psionic power filling the courtyard.

Each of the Wolf Assault soldiers at the edge of the yard stood at attention, the commander in the lead dropping to one knee. "Forgive us, your grace. We arrived as soon as we heard about your distress."

The lady in red and black waved her hand dismissively. "Of course. Return to base. As you can see, I have all the defense I need right now."

Past her, Ravyn could see the commander's face clearly. There was a man who'd remember this moment for a long time. Remember and revile. Bloodravyn hadn't made any friends tonight; that much was certain. Soldiers do not like humiliation. From the lowliest guard to the highest-ranked General, they all possessed a certain amount of personal pride. Kalinda, and thus Ravyn by proxy, had just wounded that pride.

"As you command, my lady." The soldiers all broke formation and headed away, returning to base as full march speed.

Once they were long gone, Bloodravyn let his concern show on his face. "Are you all right? Do you need to go to the infirmary?" He wanted to say something about offending the guards but this did not really seem like the right time for such worries.

Kalinda pulled her long cloak over her wounded, burned arm, hiding the injury as she stood up straight. Defiant, confident, unwilling to show her hurts. In that moment, she reminded him a lot of Anthem.

"No. I cannot afford to appear vulnerable. I will heal in time and I have you here to protect me. You are all I need right now, Lord Ravyn."

He sighed. The last woman to say that to him had done... terrible things.

Still, for better or worse, this was his home now. And Kalinda was a mystery to him and vexing in ways he didn't care to explore but she was his only link to any kind of life in this place. For now, he just had to bear the burden of painful memories and hope they faded in time. "I... I am here for you, milady. What would you have me do?"

She laid her hand on his shoulder, running gloves fingertips over the obsidian already flowing away from his body and disappearing under the plates of his armor. As more of it was revealed, she watched in silence.

"Milady? Is something wrong?"

It took her quite some time to answer. She was staring, he could feel she was staring. The sheer force of her regard was enough to make him step back. Had he offended her? Had he done something wrong?

Finally, she shook her head, the dark mirror of her helmet reflecting only his confusion. "No. Not at all. Where did you... never mind." She stood up straight again and started walking back to the Fortunes Tower where Ghost Widow's psychics maintained their residence. "Escort me to my quarters."

That much he could do. That much he understood. Bloodravyn walked behind her the entire way, watching for trouble, trying to ignore the trouble within. Everyone acted so strangely on this island. If this was where villains were forced to live, it was little wonder so many of them ended up like Lethane. The Rogue Isles were the temporal opposite of an asylum. This wasn't were insanity was kept. This was where insanity was created.

On the to Kalinda apartments on the penthouse floor, the fortunada started speaking to him. her voice was soft. It almost sounded affectionate, something that took him aback. "No one has ever defended me as you did today, Bloodravyn. You are a great man."

He did not answer for a while, waiting until they were in front of the lady's door. "I hope I prove to be the great villain you have foreseen, my lady."

She opened her door with a focused thought and paused as she crossed its threshold. "Lord Ravyn, I said you were a great man. You are... perhaps not the villain from our prophecy. You have a mighty destiny here. Of that I am certain, but the shape of that fate is yet to be seen." She turned to face him, her gaze intense enough to be felt even if it could not be seen.

He did not know what to say. "I am... sorry?"

Her hand returned to his face, caressing the side of his jaw. "Do not be sorry. What you are, what you could be, may be greater than the word villain. Than the word hero. I see so many futures for you, many bright... others brief."

Bloodravyn looked down at her bodysuited arm, watching the play of crimson-shadow silk as her muscles flexed in time to the gentle stroke of her fingers on his skin. "What would you have of me, milady? What should I do?"

She leaned closer, a gesture at once gentle and also conspiratory. Her voice became the softest of whispers. "Guard yourself. If I know your weakness, the other three will sense it as well."

"Weakness, my lady?"

Her hand strayed to his chest, resting over the front of his chestplate directly above his heart. "This, my noble champion, is not as dead as you wish to pretend."

Before he could respond, she brought her fingers to his his lips and then turned suddenly, disappearing behind the closing security door. This moment, whatever it was, had passed. He distinctly felt that it was time to leave. Walking down the stairs, he considered her warning, wondering why he was doing this for him. If he was unsuitable for the prophecy, why wasn't she casting him aside? Surely another Spiritus Destinae could be be found. Another trip to the Zig would yield her a better champion that he, certainly...

...but regardless, Kalinda was right. He needed to guard himself. And to be forearmed, he needed to be forewarned. Instead of going to his quarters, perhaps it was time to hit the computer lab. Arachnet carried files on all the notables of the Rogue Isles. That certainly included the other fortunadas, major and minor, as well as their champions.

Ravyn needed to do a little brushing up on the competition. Now.

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