Chapter 8 - Gravity & Artifacts

Three and Nine returned to the hill. Or, more accurately, where the hill used to be. It was now completely unrecognizable. A sizable chunk of it was gone, having been strewn about the area in the form of countless bits of rubble.

The Emperor stood right where they had left him, seemingly unfazed. As Three and Nine had surmised, he had sustained at least some manner of injury. Nothing major, but his ever-present robe, under which he had hidden his face, had been reduced to little more than a shredded cape.

Underneath, he wore a gold helmet bearing a crown design. In his hand, he carried a golden scepter with a spherical tip, and his body was covered in golden armor. The word 'ostentatious' was insufficient to describe his heavily-gilded countenance. Everything about him suggested both needless grandeur and wicked condescension.

'I knew you'd be back. You two aren't complete fools, after all,' the Emperor called out to them.

Three and Nine remained silent as they slowly approached.

'So, have you decided? Which of you two will gain the Organization's forgiveness?'

Three and Nine turned to each other and nodded. Three removed his hand from his sword, leaving it sheathed. Three knelt down and closed his eyes, showing acceptance of what was to come. In response, Nine pulled out some of her poison needles and silently launched them at Three's neck--or at least, that's how she made it appear. At the last second before the needles parted from her fingers, she deftly altered their trajectory, sending them speeding toward the Emperor instead.

The envenomed projectiles whizzed perfectly through the air as ever. However, as they neared their intended target, they suddenly curved downward sharply, plummeting harmlessly to the ground.

'Very well. I hear your answer loud and clear,' the Emperor proclaimed, looking up at the pair, 'You both wish to die today.'

'Not a chance!' Nine called out, throwing another volley of needles directly at the Emperor. Their trajectory suddenly shifted again--this time upward.

From his kneeling position, Three quickly shifted his stance and pushed forward off the ground with all the power he could muster in his legs. He launched himself at the Emperor, breaking into a full-on charge.

'We've had enough! You're the one meeting their death today!'

Three began slashing away at his target with incredible speed. His lightning-quick strikes grew slow and sluggish as soon as they neared the Emperor, however. With his assailant's speed so drastically curbed, the man was able to use his golden scepter to effortlessly bat aside the boy's assault.

In the same instant, Nine's second set of needles changed direction midair and began falling straight toward the Emperor. She had managed to calculate the range of his gravitational field with just a single throw. Once she understood its effect on projectiles, she was able to revise her trajectory. Moreover, she had factored in the increased acceleration from the higher gravity, meaning her needles would hit harder than normal.

Despite all that, however, her attack was neutralized by a flick of the Emperor's gilded arm. It was still not enough to penetrate his armor. It was, however, more than sufficient to rouse his ire.

'You dare defy me? ME?!'

Livid, he swung his scepter downward. Three immediately reacted, just barely managing to block the attack with his sword. Even so, the impact alone threw him back several arge.

Three could feel his brain rattle in his skull from the force of the blow--there was no way the Emperor's physical strength and the weight of the scepter alone could do that. It occurred to Three that there must have been another way he was able to manipulate gravity.

'You will be purged,' the Emperor said in a low growl.

The same words Three had heard him say a few hours ago and three years ago. When the Emperor spoke like this, it was nothing less than the arbitration of a death sentence. At the sound of those words, past memories bubbled up in Three's mind and an old terror began to grip him. His legs grew wobbly, and he started to stagger.

One glance back at Nine was all it took for him to restore his resolve, however. He forced himself back on his feet, reflexively snapping into a fighting stance. Nine continued to provide covering fire with her needles as Three renewed his assault.

Their approach proved no more fruitful than before. Even so, as Three continued to fight under such grueling conditions, he slowly became more capable. His understanding of his foe's gravitational trickery improved, and his strikes grew more swift and precise as a result. The way his muscles intuitively reacted, the angle and speed at which he swung his swords... He was slowly chipping away at the Emperor's overwhelming advantage. Though Three may not have enjoyed the same powers of insight his partner possessed, his skills in close-quarters combat were elite by even the most exacting of standards.

For her part, Nine's cover was solid and unwavering. Realizing her needles had no hope of piercing the Emperor's golden plating, she had instead began aiming for gaps between its pieces. It was an incredibly difficult task, but as she grew more accustomed to the disrupting effects of the gravitational field, she was gradually getting closer. She began weaving in offensive arts along with her volleys of needles in order to keep the Emperor on his toes. Her attacks appeared simple enough for her foe to deal with, but they still managed to pull his attention away from Three, even if only for a moment.

The fight raged on, and after a bit of time, Three and Nine appeared to have finally begun gaining the upper hand. Yet, the Emperor did not seem fazed in the slightest. His expression was unreadable beneath the shadows of his helmet, but it was clear from his body language he still believed himself fully in control of the situation.

Three managed to land the occasional strike, but even his swords seemed to do little against the Emperor's impossibly resilient armor. In an attempt to land a heavier blow, Three launched himself into the air, intending to let the gravity carry his swords downward, just as Nine's needles had. However, he found himself soaring up far higher than he had intended. Impossibly so, as though he had suddenly sprouted wings. His mark completely missed, he lost his sense of balance and began tumbling through the air. He quickly realized it could only have been due to more of his foe's trickery.

'REDUCED gravity?!'

Expertly seizing the opening, the Emperor raised his scepter overhead, then swiftly swung it downward. As if mimicking this motion, Three suddenly dropped out of the air, thrown to the hard ground below like a rag doll.

'Gaaah!'

The air knocked out of his lungs, Three struggled to catch his breath, spitting up mouthfuls of blood in between gasps.

'Get out of the way! He's not done!'

Saved by Nine's frantic warning, Three just barely managed to roll out of the way. A split second later, the scepter slammed down into the ground where he had just been. As the gravity-enhanced scepter connected with the rocky ground below, it let out a powerful blast, leaving a crater in its wake.

'S!'

The resulting shockwave launched Three to the side, knocking him to relative safety. Had he taken a direct hit, he would have been completely pulverized. Though dazed, he was still aware enough to signal to Nine that he was okay. He forced himself to his feet.

The battle had completely changed. The Emperor had begun manipulating gravity levels on a constant cycle, and Three was forced into a defensive position. Whenever he managed to get a handle on his foe's barrage of attacks, he found the gravity level altered yet again, forcing him to start back at zero. It was impossible for him to fight in such ever-changing conditions.

The situation was taxing for Nine as well. She found herself forced to constantly recalculate the field's range and gravity value, severely reducing the number of effective attacks she was able to launch.

Despite their bleak outlook, the two of them continued to hold out. Even when pressured, Three served as an excellent vanguard, consistently denying the Emperor any opportunities for a decisive strike. Nine, meanwhile, continued to back him up flawlessly, acting with a surgical precision that ensured no opening went to waste.

'S!' she called out to him as he leapt back, putting some distance between himself and the Emperor, 'I think I've figured something out.'

'Let's hear it.'

Three waited for her to continue, keeping his guard up and watching closely for any sign of attack from the Emperor.

'Have you noticed anything different from when you and Ace fought him before? Was he carrying anything in his left hand back then?'

Three glanced at his foe's left hand, seeing it empty. He thought back to three years ago...

'Now that you mention it, I'm pretty sure he had an orb with him. Purple, with a golden sculpture of a crow on it. The battle back then was completely one-sided.'

'Just as I suspected,' Nine nodded.

Three had also sensed something was different, but had simply chalked it up to the Emperor toying with them, as he didn't consider them to be a true threat to him. Factoring in what Nine had just pointed out, however, cast things in a much different light.

'Oh? So you've realized?'

The Emperor paused his onslaught, as though in recognition of Nine's keen observation.

'You see the implements he has on him now? I suspect at one point, he had four different artifacts that let him control gravity.'

'Four, huh?' Three said, taking note of the Emperor's equipment.

'Right. A helmet with a crown motif that can increase or reduce the overall level of gravity; armor that absorbs the force imparted by attacks the moment they're received; a scepter that sends out a devastating gravitational wave when it makes contact with its target; and an orb with a crow perched on it that allows its wielder to alter gravity on a target-by-target basis.'

Nine paused her explanation for a moment as she looked defiantly at the Emperor. The reason he had worn that tattered cloak was now clear. If someone were to wield so many artifacts at once as he did, it would be necessary to conceal them. Failure to do so would surely attract unwanted attention from the church.

'Now that you mention it, this time around, he hasn't been moving faster, while slowing us down at the same time,' Three said, 'When we fought him before, we couldn't even touch him.'

It was true that in their fight against him, Three and Ace had been struggling under different levels of gravity than the Emperor. There was no doubt he was toying with them in the present, but at the very least, both sides were battling under the same levels of gravity, constantly shifting though they were. As such, the pair's odds of winning were much better this time around.

'I think he either lost the orb at some point, or it was destroyed--or at least damaged--in the rock slide,' Nine explained.

The pair realized that if this were true, now was their best chance to take down the Emperor, once and for all.

'A talented tool, indeed.'

The Emperor's voice was low, tinged with a hint of perverse delight.

'The artifacts I wear are collectively known as the Monarch's Regalia. I'm impressed you were able to analyze their capabilities in such a limited amount of time. You, Nine of Swords, are truly outstanding.'

'I don't want your praise, you bastard.'

Ignoring Nine's retort, the Emperor continued on, his exhilaration giving way to a violent savagery.

'But even the greatest tool is worthless if it will not submit to its rightful place in my hands...'

His body began levitating, broken chunks of earth underfoot rising upward with him. With all the force he could muster, he swung his scepter into a nearby boulder.

'...and worthless tools must be disposed of!'

In that instant, the boulder shattered into shards of all shapes and sizes that were sent rocketing toward Nine.

'Watch out!' Three cried out.

The shards flew like a salvo of bullets from a thousand different guns. All of them, pointed directly at one target. It was a grim sight, not unlike a single soldier standing before the assault of an entire army.

Panicked, Three rushed into the line of fire. He brandished his swords and did everything he could to prevent the shards from reaching Nine. He deflected and broke what he could, using his body as a shield for the rest. But there was a considerable distance between him and Nine--one he could not cover easily. By the time he had leapt in the way, a great many shards were already too far ahead.

Three was too late.

Nine had no realistic chance of avoiding the entirety of the attack, and instead devoted her efforts to simply avoiding the worst of the pieces of stone flying at her. There were far too many, however, and one managed to slip through her defenses.

She suffered a direct hit to the abdomen, and a red mist sprayed from her mouth as she crumpled to the earth.


To be continued


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