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Chapter 9 - Anger & Analysis

'Nine!'

Three ran over to her, his voice hoarse with agony and grief. Her forehead, hands, legs...her entire body was stained with blood, dripping from a thousand scratches and cuts. It was a fate far too cruel for such a young girl. No matter how many times Three called out to her, she didn't respond. He had sworn to protect her. He had promised himself...promised her. But now...

Three felt himself overcome by shame and regret.

I'm too weak, he thought to himself. Too weak to help anyone. Too weak to save anyone.

As if to seize upon his distress, the Emperor spoke once more.

'So one of you ended up making it. If you're smart, you'll stop here. Deliver the final blow, and your life will be spared, just as before.'

At those words, Three felt a creaking in his mind. It was harsh, like the sound of metal scraping against metal.

'I imagine she'd take some sick satisfaction in being killed by the same person who killed her brother, anyway.'

The Emperor's mouth twisted into a perverse smile, the depravity in his eyes clear even through the shadow cast by his helmet.

It was then that something snapped inside of Three.

'RRAAAGH!!! DIE!!!'

He exploded, as if the boundless rage coursing through his veins had at last found an outlet. His legs and arms snapped into operation. A primal rumble burst from his throat. His bones creaked, and his blood boiled. Pure fury ignited his entire body, inciting it to action, and before he knew it, he had launched himself at the Emperor. He unleashed a whirlwind of attacks, his strikes faster and more powerful than ever before.

The Emperor met the charge head-on, altering gravity as he went, but Three adapted to each shift almost as fast as they came. His body was running on pure instinct, sharpening his senses to a razor-sharp edge and giving him almost preternatural adaptability. The Emperor, on the other hand, found himself working harder and harder to handle Three's hail of blows. He managed to block the oncoming strikes, but his attacker showed no sign of slowing down.

'Like a wild dog,' the Emperor sneered. 'A tool with a will of its own is a useless thing, to be sure, but seeing you foaming at the mouth like this is pathetic beyond measure! You truly are fated to die as you lived--a mere THING!'

Even in the face of Three's enraged onslaught, the Emperor had hardly taken any damage at all. He still held all the cards. Three was little more than an annoyance, like a flea biting a wolf.

Three's thoughts bubbled back up to the surface. He found himself remembering something Nine had said.

It was his natural sense of composure that allowed him to recall such a timely memory--composure he did not possess three years ago. He continued to let his anger drive his body, but maintained a calm mind, not allowing his thoughts to slip away in his rage. He could have stopped himself at any time, but found his current rage beneficial, and wielded it ably, as though it was simply another weapon available to him. Three himself was unaware of this, but such an ability to not only control one's emotions, but turn them into power, was rare, indeed. It was a skill that did not come easily to even the greatest warriors. Yet, Three had managed to master such a complicated concept at his young age.

'...armor that absorbs the force imparted by attacks the moment they're received...'

That was how Nine had described the Emperor's armor. Sure enough, just as she described, no matter how many strikes Three launched, nothing seemed to get through. It was then that realization dawned on him.

If the armor was immune to external force, then what he needed to do was induce internal force.

Anyone else may have given up at this point, but Three could scarcely imagine a more suitable target for his unique skills.

He combined his blades into one, squaring off against the Emperor yet again. The defining characteristic of Three's weapons was their ability to internally induce an arts-based explosion in their target. To do so, he needed to strike the same point with each blade separately, and then a third time in their fused form. By this point, he had already landed a number of hits on the Emperor's armor and, luckily for Three, a decent amount of those hits overlapped. All that remained was the final step in the process--making contact with those intersecting points using his fused sword.

Three attacked the Emperor with the same rage and power as before. This time, though, he failed to land a single hit. He was just a hair's breadth off, every single time.

The first steps in his weapon's process were relatively simple. He simply needed to land a strike with each weapon, creating two perpendicular lines that would paint a target for the orbment. The next part, however, was far more difficult. He needed to use the fused blade to hit the precise point where the two lines intersected. This was a much smaller target area, making the task that much more demanding. Still, Three was confident in his aim, and knew he had the dexterity to pull it off. In spite of his skill and confidence, however, he continually found himself failing to land the decisive hit.

The Emperor cackled in delight as he watched Three struggle. To him, Three's plight was nothing short of pure comedy.

'I know my tools inside and out,' he said, a dark grin spreading across his face, 'Your methods of attack, how your weapons work--I understand these things even better than you.'

As if proving the Emperor's point, Three's next attack fell short as well. The Emperor launched a counterattack with his staff, swung at the perfect angle.

Three had figured out his foe's tricks. Right before each of his attacks would land, the Emperor would make a subtle change to gravity. His timing was exquisite, and the trick was executed in such a way that Three had no time to correct the angle of his sword. Further, the gravity wave emitted by the Emperor's scepter did nothing at all when it failed to connect, but if it did, the resulting damage would be enormous. Thus far, Three had been able to evade or turn away each incoming swing, but he knew it was only because the Emperor was allowing it.

He had yet to land a single effective attack, and the wear on both his weapon and his own body was steadily mounting. The outcome of the battle seemed clear, and by all appearances, there was nothing that could change its course. Thanks to his impeccable defense, the Emperor was nearly unscathed, whereas Three was barely holding on, looking more and more like he could collapse at any moment.

In between clashes, a momentary calm settled over the battlefield. As Three was weighing his options, a voice broke the silence. It was a lazy drawl--one that Three had heard many times over the past year.

'Analysis complete.'

Nine struggled to her feet, looking as though she could fall back down at any moment.

'How...?' The Emperor's genuine shock escaped his mouth in a low hiss.

'Nine! You're okay!' Three exclaimed.

At once, he understood what had happened. Nine hadn't fallen unconscious, she had simply feigned doing so in order to analyze the Emperor in secret. She had given Three no indication of her plan whatsoever. After all, had she done so, the Emperor may very well have caught on to her plan.

'Just fine,' she responded. 'I used my wires to cushion the blow of the boulders by shredding them into smaller pieces. In the end, the rocks barely scratched me.'

Judging by the amount of blood that covered her, it would have been clear to anyone this was far from the truth, but the fact remained that she was both alive and conscious.

Three disengaged from the Emperor and moved closer to Nine, making sure to keep his eyes trained on his foe as he did so.

'There's a moment where he's unable to respond to anything,' she explained, 'That's his power's fatal weakness.'

'What do you mean?'

'His gravitational manipulation doesn't require casting like an art would, but after he uses it, there's a period of time of about a second before he's able to use it again. That's why he wasn't able to immediately prevent the falling rocks from burying him earlier.'

'But the way he's changing gravity is so precise,' Three said, thinking back on their battle. 'How could he have managed that?'

'He was just reading your movement, S. He knows how you fight like the back of his hand.'

'Wait, what?!' Three exclaimed, the surprise in his voice clear.

'It's true,' Nine responded. 'The way he manipulates gravity is determined before you even start your swings. He knows your tendencies well, and uses that knowledge to predict your actions.'

'Is that... Is that even possible?' asked Three, his mind racing.

'It is, unfortunately,' Nine responded. 'And he's not using an artifact for it, either. His mind just works that quickly. He's a monster through and through.'

The Emperor let out a low chuckle.

'A sound analysis, but it will avail you nothing. I know your techniques inside and out. The same speed, the same power, the same angles. Each and every time. There's no way you can possibly undo years of the habits we so painstakingly drilled into you.'

'S,' Nine looked up at him, knowingly.

'Right,' he responded. 'Let's end this.'

The duo nodded in agreement and turned to face the Emperor once more. Three charged at him again, renewing his previous assault. He raised his sword overhead, attacking at a high angle. The Emperor dodged it effortlessly and sent forth a counterattack.

Their deadly dance continued as before, but as things were, both sides knew where it would ultimately lead.

The Emperor sensed an incoming attack and prepared to manipulate gravity. Just as he predicted, Three attacked a half-step faster, aiming for one of the spots in his armor that had been previously marked. As the sword raced toward its target, gravity shifted and the sword's trajectory was altered. Despite this, it somehow continued on its original path regardless, as if the altered gravity had been predicted and compensated for.

'Impossible,' the Emperor muttered under his breath. He hastily jerked his body out of the blade's trajectory, with hardly a second to spare.

Three's movements had changed, somehow. As the Emperor mulled the changing situation over, Three's next attack came speeding in. The Emperor again predicted the speed and trajectory, and manipulated gravity accordingly. However...

BOOM.

A muffled explosion rang out, and the Emperor felt his armor crack and pain course through his left arm.

BOOM.

'Wh-What?!'

Another flash.

BOOM.

His right leg was now damaged as well.

The Emperor was at an utter loss. Had Three managed to correctly predict his spatial manipulation? How was he suddenly able to alter his strikes to compensate for the gravity?

Had the analyzer been analyzed, himself?

Cursing Three's name, the Emperor's thoughts grew frantic.

As he desperately looked around for a clue, he realized what was actually happening. He glimpsed a number of barely-visible cords extending from Three's body. Naturally, Nine stood at the other end, controlling them. She wasn't pulling him to and fro like a marionette, but was instead nudging his attacks slightly, guiding his direction, timing, and angle to create the perfect strike. The Emperor may have been predicting Three's attacks and making adjustments, but Nine was doing the same to him in turn. It was her guidance that allowed Three to score direct hit after direct hit.

Her superior intellect was, of course, a major reason this was possible, but her relationship with Three was their true secret weapon. The two knew each other better than anyone in the world, which allowed her to predict his reactions and movements with incredible accuracy. She used her natural understanding of her partner to help him adapt his combat style to fit the situation at hand. In that sense, the secret behind the upper hand they had suddenly gained was as simple as could be.

'You little bitch!' the Emperor let out an enraged growl, laced with bitter hatred. Neither Three nor Nine had ever seen him like this before. He tried to launch the same rocky onslaught at Nine that he had before, but found himself bereft of munitions.

He could not be sure when it happened, but at some point, the duo had led him to a different part of the area--one where he could no longer weaponize the terrain. With furious bloodlust, he lowered the gravity near him and rushed at Nine.

'Finally,' she smirked, 'I've been waiting.'

A giant boulder appeared in the air above the Emperor, likely due to an art Nine had cast. The Emperor was unimpressed, however, at being subjected to the same attack twice. This time around, it even lacked the element of surprise. He easily shattered the incoming boulder with his staff once it entered his area of reduced gravity.

But it was this flippant display of arrogance that sealed his fate. As the pieces of the boulder rained down around him, he found himself face to face with a plush toy rabbit--one that had been hidden within the boulder.

'No!' he exclaimed, knowing full well it was no mere toy. His realization came too late, however. With a massive bang, the rabbit detonated. Light and heat washed over the Emperor, and his legs buckled under the force.

Just then, another explosion went off at his back. Three had landed a solid hit on his chest armor, and the resulting blast had blown it clear off his body.

'This is the end,' Three said, quietly.

The black-hearted Emperor's armor had been destroyed, and Three's blade had found its bloody mark.


To be continued

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