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Day Twenty-three: Duel

The war was far from over.

Nothing living could be seen where the battle had passed. The trees had burned to their cores, and what animals hadn’t been obliterated in the crossfire had fled. Even the air felt seared, somehow injured. All that was left was sterile earth and mud. In the midst of a ruined battlefield, earth torn and gouged by great blasts of flame and destruction, Frank stood, untouched. “Is that all you got?” he yelled into the shifting mists. “Why don’t you give me a real challenge?” His voice vanished into the fog, absorbed and deadened.

A moment passed, and he could hear a thumping sound. Like his heartbeat. But he wouldn’t be hearing that. Not here.

The mist parted, and a great black mechanical thing emerged from indistinctness. It was three times as tall as he was, a seared and steaming man-shaped construct of metal, glass and death. It had fists the size of small cars, and spikes in every place a spike could be. Its great feet ripped up mounds of dirt when it walked, and the earth itself shook to each footstep. As it got closer, Frank could hear heavy mechanical sounds – grinding and whirring and hissing – as it lumbered slowly towards him, fists clenched and scraping armored fingers together.

It stopped, steam hissing from great vents behind its shoulders. The helmet angled down with the screech of twisting metal, and a single red eye burned inside. It burned with rage and hate and a singular desire to kill.

“All right!” Frank said. Wind whipped up around him, lifting him into the air. “Bring it on, bad boy!” He yelled, a primal howl, and the air congealed into a shape befitting combat with the monstrosity before him. It was smoother, more organic in nature, but only in the same way a scorpion is organic. Great sliding plates of chitinous armor sprouted curving spines that glistened with poison. Six legs sprouted from a vaguely human torso, their spearlike toes stabbing into the mud and earth. Two great arms, just as armored and dangerous as the rest of the body, reached out and cracked knuckles. And then the vast complicated mouth of the creature opened, and it screamed.

The two monstrosities slammed together with a thunder that shook the world.

————————

Louise brought the coffee over to the booth. “You want a refill, gentlemen?” she asked.

The two guys sitting at the table didn’t answer her for a moment. They were just staring at each other. She thought they might be, y’know, together, but their faces made them look more like they’d much rather never sit in the same room as each other again. They reminded her of her brothers.

Without taking his eye off the other man, one of them – the guy who would be cute if it weren’t for the balding, said, “No more for us, I think. We’re just about done here.”

The guy opposite him, who looked like he should be on the road hauling speakers for some heavy metal band, was kind of breathing heavy. He said, “That’s right. Almost done.”

Louise shrugged. “Okay. I’ll bring the check.”

————————

Archer dug his fingers into the bug-thing’s armor and jammed the retractable claws home. He’d spent months coming up with this construct, working out every fine detail. If he was lucky, he’d only have to use it once.

The bug-thing howled and pulled back. And then spit acid all over him. Archer growled as the acid began to eat away at his armor, pitting and scarring it, but he kept his grip. His concentration was already being taxed, and it was all he could do to keep the thing from overrunning him completely. He didn’t have the mental energy to spare to make spot repairs and deal with minor damage like that. Fine, he thought. Frank Chesser wants to play it like that, then that’s how it gets played.

The rockets slid out of his back and ignited almost before they were clear of the main chassis. With a roar, Archer took off, pulling Frank’s bug construct behind him. The clouds swallowed them in moments. “Give it up,” he broadcast. “Give it up and maybe I won’t let you fall to your death.”

It squirmed in his grip and then laughed. It was an ugly, insectile laugh. “What makes you think that’ll kill me?” he asked. “Here? In this place?” Another of those laughs and the insect thing was just… gone. In its place was a man, free from Archer’s iron grip. He seemed to hang in mid-air until he remembered gravity. Frank Chesser fell through the clouds, gaining speed as he went.

“Son of a bitch,” Archer growled. He turned down the thrusters until they only barely held him up, and slowly descended. When he got on the ground, Chesser was nowhere to be seen, nor was there a man-sized crater in the ground.

There was, however, a rose. It was small and red and perfect, and shined against the grey and sluggish mud like it was the only living thing left in the world. In this place, Archer thought, that might be true. He dismissed the battle suit and felt lighter without its weight. The rose was gorgeous. He knelt down to look at it. Dew was shining on its petals, and its center was a seductive darkness, enfolded in an uncountable number of red curtains. It called to him, drew him closer.

“I’m not a moron, Chessman,” he said. With a flick of his finger, the rose incinerated, sparking as whatever traps had been laid within it were shorted out. Archer stood up straight and brushed off his jeans. “I hate this place,” he muttered.

———————————————

“Well, if you hate it so much, you don’t have to come back,” Louise said. “Just make sure you pay. Your friend took off a few minutes ago.”

The guy who looked like a roadie sat up straight and blinked a few times. “He what?” He looked over at the other side of the booth and cursed. “When did he leave?” he asked the waitress.

Louise had a smart reply on the tip of her tongue, but there was something about the way the guy asked. Some kind of pressure to his voice, something she didn’t like. He seemed to get bigger as she looked at him, coming closer without actually moving anywhere, and she knew that if he got too close, he’d swallow her whole. “About five minutes ago,” she whispered, and her voice was the same voice she’d used as a kid when the police came for her father.

Everything snapped back to normal, and for the life of her Louise couldn’t remember what they had been talking about. Or with who. She looked around to see if anyone had noticed her spacing out like that. The booth was empty, a twenty laid over the bill. She looked again at the total and shrugged. Not a bad tip for… for whoever had been sitting there.

“What’s the latter, Lou?” Ted came over and started loading plates into a plastic bin. “You’re lookin’ kinda pale.”

She shook her head. “Nothing. Just tired, is all.” She took the money and the check. Maybe a few more tips like this and she could get a vacation. She laughed at herself, and stopped at the next table.

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