Noxia 21

“P-please, get your fingers out from your… your…”

Will was staring in the complete opposite direction, yet he could almost feel her amused smirk pointed at his blushing face. From behind the glass sheet that separated them, he heard her light, naked steps against the floor; then, her fingertips tapping against the barrier.

“What? You don’t want a peek?”

Trying to avert his gaze even further, Will nearly broke his neck in a pale imitation of an owl.

“No… no thank you.”

He heard an elated giggle, then a disappointed sigh.

“Are you not into girls or something?”

Will felt like his cheeks could’ve cooked an egg at that point. He quickly raised both his hands as if to defend himself.

“Yes- I mean, no, I do like girls…! It’s just… I don’t think you’re acting very appropriately…”

“Yeesh… a choir boy. Fantastic.”

He heard the sifting of cloth against flesh. Breathing out with some measure of relief, he looked back towards the eastern girl, only to find her rather sensually licking her fingers clean of some thick, clear, mucus-like substance…

“O-oh for the love of…”

With a lewd, wet pop, she brought her ring finger out from between her lips, only to start gently licking at her still wet index finger, “So, wheres Otha? That little redheaded fag doesn’t bring his buds down here to gawk at me unless that bloated freak is with them.”

“She’s dead… or close to it, at least. I poisoned her two hours ago.” Will announced. It was only after the words had flown had he been astonished at his own callousness; even if she had been an evil pig who treated thinking, feeling beings like her own property.

The azure girl’s ears and tail shot up, the fuzz on them frizzing in turn. To Will’s awe, he even saw a blue spark or two burst out around her.

“No shit?”

“I’m a man of my word. I can’t say for sure if she’s still alive, but I can promise you my partner and I served her laced wine.” Will assured.

“Interesting… then what are you doing all the way down in this hellhole? Don’t tell me it was to pay little ol’ me visit~”

“We also needed something from Wes’s lab. But he needs to shut down whatever it is that’s powering all the machines around here first.” he explained carefully, “I followed the cord down to this room. So, is there some kind of magic crystal or something, or…?”

The monster’s impish smile evolved into a full wicked grin.

“The one powering this whole shebang?” she flourished her hands outside of her prison, then brought them back to her barely concealed chest, “That, sweetie, would be… me~”

With her boast electric crackles of the deepest blue popped all around her, throwing Will for a loop.

“You… can summon lightning? And Wes is harnessing your power?”

The lightning-clad monster nodded in confirmation, he ears twitching with each bob of her head.

“That bastard… alright, stay back. I’ll get you out of there.”

Will grabbed hold of one of the lounge chairs laid out around his side of the room. Hoisting it into the air, he took a few lumbering steps back to the glass and chucked it as hard as he could. It promptly bounced right back, clobbering him and sending him sprawling on the ground.

“Smooth.” he heard the girl coo from behind the glass.

“Damn. Should’ve figured. There’s no way any regular glass could hold you.” Will grumbled, forcing himself up as he rubbed his sore noggin, “What in the Mother’s name is that screen made of anyway?”

“Dunno. But nothing I’ve tried can smash it, and my electricity doesn’t do jack either.”

Will’s eyes followed along the panel until they hit a smooth steel door set at the very end. It wouldn’t be likely that he could bust that down either. He supposed only Wes or Otha would know where the key was. Will doubted the former would easily give out assistance and the later was dead or dying, so the archer rightly decided he was on his own.

A loud hissing broke his concentration. He looked over the lightning girl’s shoulder, over to some sort of strange, wall-mounted device hiss and blow out steam. It folded outward, revealing a metal rod that radiated a deep blue color.

“Oh. Speak of the devil.” the monster grumbled irritably, “Wes locked me down here so I can blast that thing every time his little toys need a recharge.”

“What happens if you refuse?”

She tossed back her wily blue hair from her shoulders and lifted her chin. It was only then that Will saw it; a thin, silver circlet wrapped around the circumference of her dainty neck. At its center was a small marble of the same material.

“See that switch next to you?” the monster asked. She was running one of her fingers across the collar’s smooth surface, but pointed it too Will’s immediate right at the end of the swipe.

Following her instructions, Will easily spotted it. It was by the wall closest to the glass screen’s metal door. An unassuming lever set right into the brickwork.

“What happens if you pull it?”

A smirk hooked across the woman’s contorted face. Thin as it was, it helped capture a look of borderline insanity. Her fingers tightened around the circlet, white-knuckled, sparks of azure racing across the metal, yet completely unable to faze it.

“It burns. It burns worse than boiling oil. Every time he pulls it, it feels like the damn thing is going to sear my head right off of my shoulders.”

The look of fear overwhelmed the rage and pain. William kept his dry lips shut, unsure of how to properly respond. Then she turned towards the device on the wall, ready to fill it with the raw fury of her lightning.

“W-wait!” Will snapped out of his trance, slapping both palms against the glass, “Don’t do it!”

The lightning-clad monster caught herself mid-swing, azure bolts still crackling along her fingers. Slowly, angrily, she turned to face the man behind the glass.

“Are you joking? Didn’t I just tell what happens when I don’t bend over for that bastard?”

Resolute, William tapped his fist against the screen separating them. He slowly leaned forward, meeting her eye-to-eye.

“Don’t worry. I won’t let him hurt you anymore. He’d have to kill me first.”

The girl stayed deathly quiet. They both stayed frozen like statues, neither looking away from the other. Yet the lightning still danced precariously along her outstretched hand. Will let his fingers unwind, placing both his open palms on the glass and resting his forehead between them, begging her.

“Please… I know you don’t have any reason, but you have to trust me.”

The electricity writhing around her hand died down. Then, she smiled. It was soft, sweet, but carried a static air of mischief that made Will’s hair stand on end.

“Alright, handsome. Show me just what kind of man you are.”

Nathan’s vision flashed red, sometimes almost tipping into black, but the next shock of pain always dragged him back from the brink. His entire body felt numb; with little pinpricks of pain needling at him every time the mage above him landed a blow.

Wes, frowning and glowering, wore two strange devices over each hand. Gauntlets of sturdy brass and tangles of wire, all leading into two metal bands over the knuckles. When he tapped the bands together, they sparked with amber crackles.

“Ready to talk yet?”

“You hit like a geriatric woman. Couple of sparkly gloves ain’t gonna change jackshi-”

Another punch into his gut, and he nearly vomited his meager lunch. He was still bound to a heavy wooden chair, with zero leverage to defend himself.

Pulling back his fist, Wes used his other hand to readjust his glasses. His analytical glare pierced the thick lenses and cut right into the desert thief’s battered face.

“Hmm. I suppose I’m not much of an interrogator, am I?”

“Dirt poor.” Nathan chuckled, spitting out a glob of blood, “Any goon my age has learned to take a lil’ beating by now. Gotta understand people mentally to break ‘em down… I’m willing to bet good coin the time you’ve spent holed up with your gadgets has got your time around people beat.”

“Maybe so. It’s actually rather funny; most commoners like yourself could spend a lifetime trying to replicate my work, but come out just as ignorant and clueless as they began… interpersonal relationships, though? Ah, that’s a no brainer.” Wes asserted, snorting in disbelief, “Fools. Humans are far more complex than any relic, any scientific theory, even acts of wizardry… each of those things all have a certain methodology to them, convoluted or mystical as they seem on the surface. You can study them, predict patterns and draw logical outcomes. Humans aren’t like that. They’re wild. Unpredictable. You think one loves you like a brother, but he’ll stab you in the back for something as inconsequential as eyeballing his wife. Greed, lust, envy… all these untraceable and nebulous aspects are what drives us, but no two humans are exactly the same. It’s maddening, isn’t it?”

“Maybe to you. People are assholes, sure, but you’re a few cruisers short of a full dock if you try and look at ‘em like fuckin’ dogs or something.”

Wes narrowed his keen gaze, “Logically, most would disclose any sensitive info if it meant ending a savage beating. Logically, the only reason one would persist in their silence is out of some sense of honor or duty to their partners and employers. Logically, a thief such as yourself would have no such hangups. So… why won’t you talk?!”

Nathan flashed a cruel grin, “To piss you off, you stringy little fuck.”

Wes slammed both the gauntlets against his detainee’s chest. Currents of electricity raced brutally throughout Nathan’s body. Wes pulled his fists away, staring down at the rogue’s twitching, panting body in frustration. Like a hungry child who just couldn’t manage to crack open a nut.

“You aren’t the first roach that’s tried to wriggle his way in here. Not only that, but if it was only money you were after, you’d loot Otha’s coffers before my lab. I know you have an employer. Talk, before I’m forced to take more drastic measures.”

Nathan only throatily laughed and spat a bloody glob at the mage’s feet, who’s nose scrunched up in disgust.

“Stubborn imbecile! Why won’t you just-”

The cramped little closet they were in was already far more dimly lit than the other rooms in the subterranean levels of Otha’s manor. So when Wes’s lauded automatic torches flickered and waned, his body tensed up with anger. When the light returned, an even duller ghost of its former self, the mage let the tenuous grip on his temper slip.

“That dumb bitch. I thought I had already taught her a lesson…” Wes spat out each word, his face going as red as his hair.

The door flew open, and in stumbled a disheveled man in the middle of his years. He had one hand grasping the opposite wrist, the fingers of the flayed hand on the end bent wickedly like the branches of a winter oak.

Nathan looked up in surprise, as beaten out-of-it as he still was. Wes gaped just like the thief, but quickly put back on his furious scowl.

“W-W-Wes… help me…”

“What the hell are you doing down here, Basile? Didn’t I tell you not to let that frequency gem shatter? Forget that, I told you not to bring it here at all! You could’ve brought the entire basement down atop of our heads!”

“That… that brat with the purple hair… I figured… I figured he’d try to sneak down here, so I sent Zulifqar to-”

“Why didn’t you come straight to me? Don’t answer; I already know. You wanted an award straight from Otha’s purse.”

The curt, cold interruption from Wes startled even Nathan. Visibially unnerved, Basile veered sharply away, retreating until his back was but an inch away from the wall. Wes still advanced, his gauntlets sparking with angry flecks of amber.

“Y-you got it all wrong, Wes! Please, be reasonable…”

“You put all of my years of toil, my countless sleepless nights, all at risk… and for what? Just to stuff even more coin into your fat pockets? And you have the fucking gall to call me unreasonable?”

Basile could muster up no more honeyed words to make himself the hero of the situation. With a voice thick and sluggish with pain, he could only beg, “Please! I’m sorry… I just don’t want to die.”

“And what, exactly, do you want me to do about it?”

Under the broken frames of his spectacles, Basile’s eyes went wide like two full moons.

“I know you always keep a spot of healing serum on you. Hand it over.”

Lazily but with all the hints of a careful calculation, Wes responded in turn.

“And what if I tell you you’re on your own, you vulture?”

Basile sniffled. He dropped his balding head down, tears rolling down his cheeks. Even through the muddled lense of swelling eyes and spinning vision, Nathan found it a sorry sight.

“Then… you can burn!” Basile roared, his temper flaring from a bleating sheep to a howling wolf.

He’d be ashamed to admit it, but even Nathan didn’t expect the sudden whiplash. Although, he’d probably chock that up to the head trauma.

Producing a serrated dagger from his back pocket with his uninjured hand, Basile closed the gap between he and Wes with a startling swiftness. For all of the ferocity his surprise attack carried, Wes still saw it coming and was already in motion to parry.

The tip of Basile’s dagger made contact with the hard plate on the back of the mage’s electric gauntlet. Sparks too quick to be seen raced up the blade, blasting the handle into flame and making Basile yelp out with a fresh wave of pain. The slaver relented, one hand burned and broken and the other fried to a crisp.

Wes didn’t forgive Basile’s second, more foolish transgression. Without even giving the bastard the time to sputter out an excuse, Wes slammed the opposite gauntlet into Basile’s chest.

With a grim realization settling into his mind, Nathan witnessed just how relatively easy Wes had been going on him. Basile’s body convulsed like a jittering puppet. With the sickening scent of burning flesh filling the air, the slaver tipped over, dead before he even hit the floor.

A grumble that sounded eerily more like agitation than suppressed rage left the mage’s lips. Waving away the smoke still rising from his gauntlet’s knuckles, he made his way towards the still ajar door, stepping callously over the body left in his wake.

“…I’ll be back; don’t you worry.” Wes spat towards Nathan as he made his way out, “I just need to send my Atlas to take care of another filthy rat.”

“Well? Didja pop the lock?”

The electric monster’s sweet, pleading voice did little to help Will William looked regretfully down at his last pick… or, at least, its shattered remains. He laughed nervously up at the monster still trapped behind the glass. She looked far less amused.

“Don’t worry. I promised to get you out of there, and a real man always keeps his promises.”

Puffed cheeks out, the blue-haired girl made William know she wasn’t impressed with a simple stare.

“A lot of people have made me a lot of promises, handsome. I could count the times I’ve seen them deliver on one hand.”

Will was no expert on reading emotions. Yet, spotting the disappoint in her yellow-green eyes, he knew that she felt like she was being let down. Let down after she had placed her trust in him, a total stranger of whom she hadn’t even traded names. Desperate to raise her spirits, William straightened his back and slapped his palm against the glass dividing his half of the room with her’s.

“Then… you’d better… start using your other hand!”

Even as it left his mouth, it dawned on Will that the line was so cheesy and lame that it’d fail at inspiring a toddler. Still, trying to save even the least bit of face, he kept on a shaky smile for her.

Against all odds, she only giggled at him, looking at him with a certain wry amusement. A sense of relief flooded William’s chest.

“You’re an odd one, human.”

The archer’s unnerved smile heightened into a bashful grin.

“Thank you… I suppose. The names William Highwind, by the way.”

The girl strutted towards him, gingerly laying her palm on the cool glass wall – right on the opposite side where he still had his own. It was only then did it occur to William that he was nearly two heads taller than her, with a hand nearly doubling hers in size.

“And I’m Nariko.”

Even through the thick layer of glass, William could feel the slightest traces of electricity dance across his palm and fingertips. It didn’t burn, however. He’d describe it as pleasant, even. The sensation was akin to a light tickle, sending goosebumps sprouting across his hand.

Will found himself hesitant to pull away. He stood staring unblinkingly at the monster girl behind the glass, looking so powerful and mysterious yet so delicate and in need of a hero. He wanted nothing more than to shatter the barrier. He wanted to hold her tight, squeeze her closer.

What… what am I thinking? I just learned her name!’

Gasping, Will shook himself from the odd train of thought and yanked his hand away. His body shivered, craving more, but he refused to return his hand to the screen. He had work to do.

“This is the last time I’m going to say it, Nariko… I’m going to get you out of there, or die trying. I already have other friends counting on me; and I’m not letting you or any one of them down.”

As if a challenge to William’s bold declaration, a thunderous stomp echoed from down the hallway. Another shortly followed. Then another. William’s knees turned to jelly and blood froze into a dark slush.

The furniture on William’s side of the room began rattling, the spirits and books threatening to fall from their perches. Those ghastly white greaves bigger than any man had a right to be flashed in his mind. Squaring himself, William notched an arrow an aimed it at the door.

“Shit!” he heard Nariko swear from her prison, “Atlas is coming! Don’t be an idiot, just run!”

Will wanted to ask her just where to. The only way out was through the door, and if Atlas’s feet were indicative of the rest of his bulk, he’d have very little room to squeeze by.

Nowhere to run; nowhere to hide. With his wings clipped, Will steeled himself for a tough fight.

Atlas was dashing forward, his weight tantamount to one of the elephants William had seen parading about the Hog’s Way. A few books clattered against the carpet and a glass of wine shattered and stained it, but Will’s full, sharpened focus was trained on the door.

Then, with a force that sent it rushing and smashing into the drywall, the door was slung wide open. Will’s heart practically tore from his chest as those burning blue eyes found him.

Atlas was too large to even properly make it through the doorway. Will’s relief was short-lived. With a flexibility that shouldn’t have been possible with such heavy mail, the ivory giant squeezed through. William heard metal grind against metal, and his heart sank when Atlas came out the other end and stood at his full height.

The beast easily stood at three-meters, with a chest the same width as the dining table his father and mother kept in their home. The sheer weight of his massive suit of plate-mail wasn’t the only oddity about it, it seemed almost seamless. At first, Will was just wondering how he even was able to move or flex in it with any measure of efficiency. Now, he was questioning how the hell the giant even moved himself at all.

Not to mention those eyes. His helm was nearly rectangular, with absolutely no signs of a faceplate aside from those simple, round eyeholes. A deep azure, far deeper than Nariko’ hair and fur. A blue as deep and enigmatic and deadly as a frigid, lifeless ocean. And yet, they were alight and burned like two malignant stars.

And they were aimed right at him.

“S-stand back!” Will cautioned lamely, the fear more than evident in his shaky tone.

Atlas said nothing. He let his earth-rattling stomps speak for him.

Gritting his teeth and clenching every single muscle in his body, William fired his arrow. His unsteady hands ensured the arrow slammed into his thick chest-plate, where it promptly snapped and left nothing but a small scuff. Doubling back, William fired another arrow. It was even more off mark than the first. It scrapped by his pauldron, producing a few sparks, but doing all the lasting damage of a blunt twig.

Although panic-riddled, Will heard the crackle of a living storm, and heard two small fists pounding against glass.

“You can’t win, Will! Just suck up your pride and try to outrun it!”

William wanted to tell her it was more than a mere matter of letting his ego run wild. He had nowhere left to go. He had to shut down Wes’s devices at the source; he had to free her. The odds of accomplishing that with a man the size of a tree at his tail where practically nonexistent.

Atlas advanced at a steady pace, each movement looking methodical and calculated. Will knew the giant would be ready to spring and flatten him if he tried to make a break for it, and he couldn’t of very well have just waited for him to waltz over.

His arrows had little effect on Atlas, and he was all out of Nathan’s handy flashpowder. With sweaty fingers and white-knuckles, he readied his next shot. His only hope was to hit a weak point. And yet, no matter how his violet eyes ran over the ivory tower’s armor, he couldn’t find a single joint or chink to exploit. His armor was completely free of any openings. It was almost like Atlas had been dipped in molten metal and let it harden over his skin. Although that couldn’t have been the case. Even making the wild assumption someone could live through that, his movements weren’t quite as naturally smooth as an unarmored man.

Atlas was already halfway across the room, and Will was running out of options. He felt the fiend’s azure eyes beam down at him – then William nearly laughed at how foolish he was being.

All he had to do was shoot an arrow into one of Atlas’s eyes.

The sudden plan calmed his nerves a good bit. He took aim, firing with a deadly accuracy. Atlas stopped just as quickly as the arrow flew, and with a startling reaction speed, titled his odd helm upwards. The arrow hit his cheek, pushing his head back a bit, but doing no damage.

Will’s heart sank as Atlas resumed his advance, now with a ramp in speed.

“I said run, damn you!”

The archer was still too busy to answer Nariko. With no other options, he decided the only way was to take Atlas by surprise. Nocking three arrows at once, he dashed towards Atlas and fired them all at the giant’s head.

Atlas paused again, this time seemingly more concerned. He cross his forearms in front of his face, letting all three projectiles bounce off his gauntlets. In the back of Will’s mind, he realized his hands were big enough to crush watermelons. Making a mental note to stay as far away from his ridiculous reach as possible in the future, William slid under the behemoth’s legs and was right back on his feet, hustling to the other side of the room.

Nariko had just about enough. Even with Atlas’s wide back blocking the way, he still saw blue bolts sparking from behind the glass prison. He heard Nariko scream, this time, sounding on the verge of tears.

I don’t want you to die! PLEASE, JUST RUN!

William finally managed to choke down the lump in his throat. With both feet planted in the carpet, he screamed back at her.

I’m not leaving you, dammit!

Atlas had nothing to add to the argument he suddenly found himself in the middle of. Seeming to pick up on Will’s voice, he turned and nearly dashed at William. In the havoc, Will didn’t have time to feel guilty over Nariko’s teary, distressed face.

Thinking as fast as his mind would allow while it was concerned with a wall of a man rushing him, Will grabbed the edge of the nearby liquor cabinet. It stood at ten feet, still shorter than Atlas himself, but Will was starved of options at the moment. Grunting and using his adrenaline-pumped muscles to their fullest extent, Will tipped the cabinet over and let it crash right into Atlas’s head.

The giant simply rushed through it, and Will threw himself back to avoid the impact. Atlas rammed his shoulder into the drywall, almost totally caving it in and crumbling the stone underneath. The cabinet he hustled through exploded into a rain of booze and shards of wood and glass. Will covered his eyes, thankfully avoiding any damage. Slowed only the most paltry of bits, Atlas was soon back to looming over William.

Will crawled back, his lungs pumping like he had just dashed through a desert. With bow in hand and arrow pulled back, he took aim for Atlas’s eyes once again. Just as he was about to fire, he noticed something else.

When Atlas broke the liquor cabinet, he shattered most of the bottles along with it. Now, liquids both amber, clear and deep red ran freely down his armor and stained the carpet below. Will saw the small scuff on the giant’s pauldron, remembering the sparks that flew as his arrow grazed it.

Without a second thought, William fired.

Will’s plan went off without a hitch. Sparks flew, and Atlas went up in a burst of white flame. Will pumped his fist in the air in an excited cheer. Alcohol fires were relatively weak, but William had no doubts how his metal shell would conduct the heat that surrounded him. He’d be shrieking and ripping off his armor in a short few moments.

Atlas turned to face William yet again, the sounds of metal grinding becoming more apparent. Yet, he wasn’t crying with pain. He wasn’t trying to remove his ivory armor. He didn’t so much as try to bat it out. He barely even seemed to register the fact he was totally encompassed by flames.

“Mother… Good Mother, what is he?!” Will cried in terror, hopping back to his feet.

Now shining bright through a sea of flame, Atlas’s eyes refocused back on William. The metal beast advanced, leaving an obscenely large footprint burned into the carpet with each arcing step.

William felt white-hot panic begin to set in. He didn’t even feel as frightened when Riak’s dam nearly collapsed atop his head. Staring dumbly at the giant wreathed in flame, he felt like he was bearing witness to some callous demon risen from antiquity. For a second, Will hazarded that might’ve even been the case.

Not having further time to cower, William forced himself from his stunned stupor as the giant rushed him. He barely avoided a wild haymaker, which shattered the room’s book shelf and ignited the remains. Once again, Will found his back against the cool glass plate.

“I told you to run… you just lost your only chance…”

William only heard pity and remorse on Nariko’s voice. He could only grimly chuckle.

“Doesn’t really matter anymore. Just keep away from the glass.”

In his mind, William said silent apologizes to Aaron and Nathan. He’d no longer be able to lend them assistance. Slamming an angry fist against the glass, he made a final resolution – he’d free Nariko at any cost.

Atlas wasn’t lumbering by any means, but he didn’t seem too terribly in control of his massive swings. And if his powerful punch couldn’t shatter the strange glass, nothing would.

William felt oddly at peace as he watched Atlas adjust himself and advance at a cautious pace once again, knowing that Will had nowhere left to run. At the end of it all, he supposed he had to be thankful that his death would be comparatively quick and painless, even if it wasn’t the cleanest.


Lost in a stupor, Will was surprised he could even muster up enough gall to respond to the monster behind him. He couldn’t bear to face her on the other hand.

“Yeah, Nariko?”

“You have to promise me… dodge this!”

There was such a sincerity in her voice, such a desperate plea that he couldn’t help but slowly bob his head up and down. Then, he could only mutter a small curse.

“Damn it, woman. I can’t go telling lies before the end, can I?”

It also would be far from gentile to deny an imprisoned lady of her request. There was only one thing for it. Raising his lowered brow, Will decided the only solution was to live on. His violet eyes flashed with a new spark as he ripped off his fancy overcoat, pointing a calloused finger right between Atlas’s glowering eyes.

“C’mon, you stupid bastard! Come get me!”

Atlas didn’t rise to the provocations. His advance did continue without pause, and in the longest few seconds of William’s life, Atlas stomped just within swinging distance, alcohol fire still blazing all around him.

Will waited till the giant’s arm was cocked back. Against what the vast bulk of rational men would do, against any and all fear warning him to flee, he burst forward. If Atlas had expected his charge, he certainly didn’t expect Will’s next move.

Grinding his heels into a sudden stop, William reared back the coat still gripped in his firing hand and tossed it over the giant’s helm, blocking his vision. Still in motion, Atlas launched his fist forward, aiming at Will’s previous position.

In that brief half second before Atlas had time to throw his punch, William threw himself to the side. He felt the wind rush by as the gargantuan punch just barely missed him. He could feel the hot metal barely scrape by his cheek, just missing a grisly decapitation.

Still not aware of just what was going on, and without an impact to slow him down, Atlas stumbled forward, crashing shoulder-first into the glass prison.

Time seemed to screech to halt for William. Atlas tipped over, and for a moment, it seemed the glass would be able to support his full weight crashing into it. He caught just a small glimpse of Nariko’s surprised face as she bounced backwards at speeds he could barely track.

Then came the crash.

Atlas floundered through the glass, sending tiny fragments launching in both halves the rooms and leaving a gaping hole in the middle. Will’s racing heart soared with joy as it dawned on him his mad plan was a success.

“Y-yes! I did it!” he cheered, pumping his fists in the air.

The archer didn’t have long to celebrate. Atlas forced himself back to his feet, tiny shards sprinkling off his shoulders like freshly fallen snow. He pulled the singed coat from his face. The alcohol fire around him seemed to finally die down, but his azure eyes blazed with a new intensity.

“…oh, shit.” Will whispered, realizing the job wasn’t quite finished.

Atlas came stampeding back into the ruined sitting room, smoke trailing behind his singed armor. William fired off an arrow, but he was too panicked to hit the behemoth’s eyes. He barely dodged a fist meant to crush his arm, doubling back as fast as he dared.

Then, like a complete fool, he tripped on a loose piece of wood from the liquor cabinet Atlas had smashed.

Will was just about ready to clamber back to his feet and dash the instant he felt his ass connect with the carpet. But when his eyelids fluttered open from his reactionary wince, the found five thick, ivory fingers surrounding all sides of his head.

In that brief moment, William knew he was a dead man. With a simple squeeze, Atlas would end his entire world. Staring fearful into Atlas’s uncaring gaze, he knew those burning azure pits spelled his end.

In that split second, Will felt a rush of wind, and he was on the other side of the room, watching Atlas grip down on empty air.

“W-what the…?”

He looked to his side. There, with deep blue electricity playing up and around her lithe frame, was Nariko.

“You… saved me?”

“Course I did. It was the least I could do.” Nariko snickered, winking up at him. As they both settled into a defensive stance, Atlas slammed both fists against the ground, ready to trample them both into paste.

“Got any plans on how to take this guy down?” the archer hissed in frustration, holding his bow forward.

William heard Nariko giggle almost manically. He felt something in the air change – static surged around her, making her wily hair stand on end. William was left gawking when he found his own hair spiking up just the same.

“Just stand back, sweetie.”

Atlas charged the room, shaking it with such violence he felt his bones rattle. Nariko was no less powerful, the surges of static in the air making his skin crawl. Feeling like a bug trapped between two stamping feet, Will had little recourse but to dive out of their way. And he was thankful that he did.

Squaring both feet, a look of great strain and exertion crossed Nariko’s face. The lightning surrounding her crackled and sparked all the more violently as she raised her open palms towards the behemoth stomping towards her position. The electricity danced to her tune, popping and whistling as it traveled down the length of her arms and gathered around her hands.

Then, she fired it.

The entire room seemed to flash blue for a moment. Atlas was thrown from his course, sent reeling backwards, his entire body violently trembling as sparks snapped and popped around his body. With a deafening boom, Atlas tipped over, slamming against the carpet.

Even as he thanked the Good Mother that the ordeal was over, Will still had trouble determining just what he was seeing. More than amazement at the monster’s raw power, he found himself unable to pull his eyes away from the smoldering Atlas’s remains.

There wasn’t a corpse. There was no blood. Were there should’ve been roasted sinew and blackened bone were instead smoking tangles of wires. Gears spilled out from the thing’s stomach in place of guts. As its components continued to crackle and pop, small fires bursting out around its broken armor, Will watched the intense light flicker away from its glass eyes.

Deciding the metal beast was down for the count, Will moved closer and kicked away its loose chest-plate for further examination. Where there should’ve been a still beating heart, there was a metal chassis holding a cracked crystal, not to unlike the one that had been mounted on Basile’s cane. Its veins were tubing. They snaked over its steel skeleton, and William could only guess the lifeblood they supplied was a magic he couldn’t comprehend.

The scent of burning metal sent tears rolling down his cheeks. Coughing away the thick smoke that had coated the roof of his mouth, William backed away from the wreckage.

Atlas was never a man to being with. As hard as it was to fathom, the thing was just another piece among the collection of Wes’s ancient contraptions. Some sort of autonomous relic.

Through the dark smog rising from the walking weapon’s remains, William saw the surges of azure light clear and true. With an almost gurgling puff, the thickest of the smoke billowed from the relic’s open chest.

Then he saw her face. The easterner’s ecstatic grin spoke true of how positively giddy she was. She was practically vibrating in place. William supposed he couldn’t rightly blame her. It hadn’t been terribly long, but the feelings of entrapment and isolation weren’t strangers to him.

But like a boxer who had taken too many blows to the head during the match, Nariko tipped over, goofy grin still plastered across her cheeks.

Acting fast, William raced forward and slid on his knees, catching her before she hit the ground. She groaned dozily, smacking her lips together like they were dry and she was waking from a particularly foolhardy night of drinking.

“Yeesh… shouldn’t have released all my power at once like that… guess I got a lil carried away~”

“No kidding…” Will mouthed, still in awe. He looked back towards the hunk of smoldering metal that seemed nigh insurmountable just a few moments prior. He was dragged out of his stupor as he felt the monster’s finger run flirtatiously along his jawline.

“Oh my… feeling a little grabby today, are we?”

It took William a long moment to realize what she was talking about. When he caught her, he held the small of her back with one hand. The right palm, however, landed a bit lower – right under her rump.

Hissing like he touched something profane, Will dropped the monster roughly against the ground. She pouted up at him with tears in her eyes, rubbing the bruised flesh between her long fears.

“Oww… you jerk! Why’d you go and do that?!”

William muttered a quick apology. Coughing once more, he looked around the room; fires were popping up left and right, and a thick, black cloud clinging to the ceiling was beginning to descend. Will aided Nariko back to her wobbly feet, ushering her over to the door.

“We need to get outta here before this room goes up, Nariko.”

“Yes! Please, escort me~”

Will gasped as he felt her free hand, the one he didn’t have wrapped around his shoulders, rub precariously around his thigh. Sucking in his protests, the archer and the monster made their way back into the basement, now noticeably darker with it’s power supply running free.

William knew he had just barely escaped with his life, and yet he couldn’t help but grin like a fool. Now, all he had to do was topple Wes, and the horrific night would come to a well-deserved end.

And, while even he wouldn’t admit it to himself, the grabby, pretty girl clinging to his side did wonders for his spirits.

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