CHAPTER II

In a darkened room, a single candle is mounted on a metallic saucer, which hangs from the ceiling by a fine chain some twelve meters above the floor. Suddenly a flame erupts from the candle's blackened wick, and the light it casts off is reflected downwards onto the floor by a mirrored bowl, which is suspended no less than three centimeters above the candle's uppermost end. This light falls on a tall man who has an arrogant and derisive posture. He is clad in a yellow and olive drab armor that covers every millimeter of his body, but that also appears to be light and easily accommodating to any movement its wearer makes. From the shoulder blades of this armor project twin extensions that serve the armor's wearer as a rocket propulsion system, and its right arm is comprised entirely of a fearsome triple-barreled blaster rifle. Both of these factors would, under normal circumstances, conspire to give this man an appearance that he is not to be trifled with.

The current scenario, however, is anything but normal.

Directly in front of this armored man is an intricately carved, inhuman-looking throne, on which sits an elderly man in a black robe with red trim. His withered hands clutch the throne's armrests tensely, digging his pointed red nails into the carvings.

"He did what?" he asks the one in armor.

"He destroyed Ouroboros," the armored one replies. "I saw the remains myself."

"How is that possible?!?!" the throned one nearly screams. "Ouroboros has decimated entire legions of my troops before; and even one as skilled as yourself has only battled it to a stalemate: both of you were exhausted and collapsed! How could this...youth...have slaughtered it?"

"He fought it for nearly half an hour before it attempted to entrap him in its death circle. It succeeded, but he stabbed it through the neck before it had a chance to catch him with its hammer or sickle. He is very agile; Ouroboros could not match his speed."

The one on the throne leans forward and extends a hand in an inquisitive gesture.

"Who is this youngling?" he asks.

"He is a Strider, called Hiryu. We have discovered that his father and mother were Lord Hayate and Lady Kaede," comes the reply

"So...it is Strider Hiryu..."

He positions his elbows on his knees and clasps his hands before his face. He sits in that position for a long moment.

"Sir?" the armored one asks, after waiting for a bit.

"He will never leave Eurasia alive! Do you understand that?"

"I got you."

The armored one turns and leaves the chamber, but man on the throne continues to sit in his previous position, pondering these developments.

"Strider Hiryu, eh?" he muses. "He should have never been born..."

He crooks his left index finger, and the candle's light goes out.



The alternate exit from the mosque had led Hiryu to a parking lot, and he had hot-wired a motorcycle and driven it as far away from Kazakh as its fuel supply allowed. The road he chose led him out of the city and into the mountains, where he had been caught by an unexpected snowstorm and had skidded off the road into a gully. Fortunately, he had leaped clear of the cycle before it had collided with an outcropping of jagged rocks and exploded, but he had bashed his rib against a tree trunk as he did so, aggravating the bruises he had gotten from Strobaya and Ouroboros to no end. Adding insult to injury, the snowfall was thick and blinding, and wind chill threatened to freeze his skin if he did not find shelter soon. He found some relief in a forest of pine trees, and pressed onward from there.

As he made his way through the forest (which had a thick carpet of snow despite the branches overhead), he thought about Ouroboros' last words to him, particularly the part about him never being able to defeat "the lord". Who was that? His assignment had been to assassinate the prime minister of Kazakh, but he had not been informed about the cabinet's ability to transform into Ouroboros. That formation was the stuff of ancient legends, and implied that there was a supremely dark power behind it.

Also, there had been no mention of any sort of "lord." Kazakh's prime minister had been uncommonly evil, mounting several vicious genocidal assaults upon the minority races of Eastern Europe, and it was not unclear as to why he needed to be removed. But...this talk about a "lord" caused Hiryu to think that the prime minister had not been the one masterminding those genocides, but that perhaps they had been the schemes of someone else...

A rustling noise behind and to his left caused him to snap out of his ruminative state and come back to reality with a start. A wolf stepped out of the bushes near where the noise had originated from and snarled at him, baring its teeth. It was large, about twice the size of a German Shepherd, with long, shaggy fur hanging all over it like an ill-cared-for bearskin rug. Hiryu drew Falchion and brought it to bear on the wolf, as five more stepped out of the underbrush, each one only slightly smaller than the one that stepped out before it. They began to close in on him, meticulously drawing their circle tighter as he pivoted rapidly to keep them at bay. He let them draw in close enough that the tips of their tails would have touched if they were wagging, then sprang straight up into the air, somersaulting to kick off of a branch some three meters above the forest floor. He ricocheted off the branch, passed directly over the pack leader's head, and sliced completely through the length of its body as he rushed by. The maneuver dropped him directly behind the now-dead pack leader. No longer having an established leader, the wolves charged at him at will, and he ran away from them as fast as he could manage with his bruised rib cage. Which, all things considered, was still pretty damn fast; he covered fifty meters in under four seconds, running straight into a sheer cliff face. He attempted to scale it, using his hook, but when he thrust through part of the snow-covered rock, it rang as though it were made of metal. He stepped back and regarded it quizzically.

He shot a glance over his shoulder. The wolves were catching up to him; he hadn't left them that far behind. He replaced his hook, drew Falchion, stabbed it through the "rock", and cut a hole large enough to fit through.

"This seems familiar enough," he grunted, as he completed the hole.

He crawled through, and another sheet of metal came crashing down on the inside, trapping him inside and preventing the wolves from leaping through.

"Security system, maybe?" he mused. "Why do I have the feeling that keeping the wolves out was not what it was originally designed for?"

He heard a loud, metallic clanging off to one side, dropped into an offensive crouch, and drew his cypher once again. An extremely oversized metal hand reached out from the shadows and began groping for him, but only succeeded in swatting Hiryu to the side and sending him rolling along the floor. He pushed himself up into a standing position, drew a signal flare from his weapon belt, pulled the string, and hurled it in the direction the hand had appeared from. The flare flew in a short, concise arc, revealing that the hand was connected to a particularly beefy-looking arm, which in turn was connected to the body of a completely robotic ape. The robot was about nine meters tall, and was more than powerful enough to convince Hiryu not to tangle with it.

...then the flare hit the wall behind the ape, and light from its flame revealed a vertical shaft behind it. Hiryu went on the offensive. He ran directly at the ape, strafing from side-to-side to avoid its hands, positioned himself beneath its belly, and slashed upwards rapidly. After three or four dozen blows, the ape keeled over and struck the floor heavily. Hiryu ran for the far wall and scaled it, reaching the vertical shaft and continuing on up. He reached a slight turn and got around it just as the ape exploded. Shards of metal and plumes of flame billowed towards him. He continued to climb, pausing occasionally to strike out at the blade tanks which scurried up and down the shaft's sides. The darkness receded as he neared the top, encouraging him onward.

He gained the top after about half an hour's worth of climbing. As he hauled himself up out of the ventilation shaft, a bullet struck the ground in front of him, kicking a spray of snow up into his face. He wiped the flakes out of his lashes with the back of his left hand as he drew his cypher with his right. He looked up.

"<Don't...even...breathe,>" a parka-clad patrol guard said to him in a thick Ukrainian dialect, and brandished an AK-47 to back it up.

"Sorry," Hiryu replied. "I'm not carrying any cash."

He flung himself at the guard immediately after he said this, thrusting Falchion through the man's chest before he even had a chance to fire off a second shot. He pulled the blade up and to the right, cutting through the guard's collarbone and shoulder blade, and the guard collapsed onto the snow-dusted floor. Hiryu caught sight of another guard standing up on a ledge off to his left, just as the guard realized that Hiryu was down there. The guard raised his automatic rifle and fired off several bursts. Hiryu swung his cypher in precise arcs around his body, angling the blade so that the shots deflected off it and away from his person. After about five bursts, his rib began to ache immeasurably and he dove towards the ledge, positioning himself under it so he could take a breather. He scoped the area, and spied a chain-driven automated supply line which ran directly up to the ledge that the guard stood on. Hiryu sprang towards one of the platforms that were hooked up to the supply line and clung to its underside, riding it all the way up. The guard completely failed to notice that Hiryu was hanging beneath the supply line platform, and Hiryu dropped down behind him without his becoming alerted to the fact. He slashed through the man's hamstrings and triceps in two fluid strokes, and brought his hook down on the man's left shoulder, preventing him from falling to the floor.

"Now," Hiryu hissed between his teeth. "What is this place, and who do you work for?"

The man quivered in pain, but made no answer. Hiryu twisted the hook slightly. The man struggled to squelch a scream of agony.

"Answer my question!" Hiryu demanded.

"This is...a cybernetics factory. We make the parts that are necessary for creating cyborgs and automated robots," the man replied.

"And who do you work for?"

"I..." the guard began, then fainted from blood loss.

Hiryu shook the guard free of his hook, turned him over with his foot, and stabbed him through the belly. He searched the man and found an emergency first aid kit in his pack. He pulled out a roll of medical tape and ducked into a darkened side passage, where he pulled down the top of his gi and bound his ribs tightly. That done, he stepped back out into the main hall. Three more shots ricocheted off the ground at his feet and the wall to his left. There was a staircase directly in front of him, and he dashed for it, diving the last several meters and ascending the stairs as quickly as possible. They brought him outside, into the blinding sun at the top of the mountain.

Outside, yes, but that did not necessarily mean "safe from harm", as he soon found out when twin sprays of bullets kissed the ground on either side of him. He drew Falchion and busied himself with deflecting the next fifteen shots, at which point the firing ceased and a man in olive-drab and yellow armor descended from the sky.

"You are Hiryu, of the Striders?" the man asked.

The one in question said nothing, only kept his cypher drawn and pointed at the armored one.

"How characteristic of your kind," the man continued. "It matters little, however. You must be he. I am Solo, a bounty hunter. I tell you my name because I want you to know the identity of the person who kills you."

Hiryu smirked.

"I have never failed to bring in my quarry," Solo continued. "You would do well to-"

Hiryu cut him off. "Just shut up and fight."

Solo fired the main barrel on his arm-cannon, sending an plasmodial blast flying directly at Hiryu. He cartwheeled to the side and leaped forward, bringing his cypher down in an arc upon Solo's helmet. At least, it would have struck Solo's helmet, had he not engaged his rocket boosters at the last moment and bolted into the sky. Hiryu's blade swiped through empty air, and his momentum carried him to the border of the ledge. Solo fired three more shots from the air, then dropped to the ledge to prepare another shot of plasma. Hiryu slid underneath the bullets and cross-kicked Solo's leg, nailing him on the side of his knee and driving him onto his hands and knees. Hiryu sprang up from the slide and cartwheel-jumped over Solo's back, landing back-to-back with his adversary. He stabbed backwards with Falchion and skewered Solo's arm-cannon. He whirled, gripping Solo's neck with his hook just as Solo re-ignited his boosters. The two of them shot skyward and grappled there, each struggling to control Hiryu's hook. Solo grasped the hook's blade with his armored hand...and instantly regretted it, as it sliced through the panel covering his palm and he began to bleed.

Hiryu stared at the hand, momentarily dazed. The blood ran dingy yellow over the olive-drab glove.

"Impossible..." he breathed.

Solo took advantage of the momentary opening; he reached behind his back, gripped Hiryu's gi, and spun in midair as he flung Hiryu outward and down. Hiryu crashed onto the ledge below and slid along it for several meters before he came to rest at the base of the cliff. The maneuver threw Solo off balance, however, and he too crashed onto the rock shelf not five meters from where Hiryu lay. They both struggled to their feet, and Solo attempted to take to the air once more, but failed. The crash had damaged the left booster and it refused to ignite. Hiryu threw himself at Solo, who attempted to ward him off by firing his twin secondary barrels. Hiryu had hit full stride, however, and was moving so swiftly that Solo's helmet-mounted heads-up display could not even pick up Hiryu's afterimages. Solo began firing randomly at whatever motion he picked up, hoping he would bring Hiryu down by sheer luck.

Then Hiryu appeared above him and brought Falchion down upon Solo's head, carving an arcing swath from his scalp to just below the right side of his rib cage. The two pieces of Solo's body tumbled forward onto the shelf, his blood spilling onto the ground and contrasting with the pure whiteness of the flakes beneath him.

"You've never failed to bring in your quarry, huh?" Hiryu asked Solo's carcass. "Your ass just got owned."

He walked to the edge of the shelf and saw that there was a slope only two meters below the ledge. He dropped to it and began to walk down the side of the mountain. An explosion went off where he had dropped not two seconds before. He heard a beeping noise beneath his feet.

"Damn it!" he swore, and ran full stride down the side of the crag.

As he ran, mines exploded behind him; if he went any slower, they would explode underneath him. He realized that the ones near the ledge had been time-delayed so that Solo would have had a chance to get away if he had accidentally stepped on one during their fight, implying that Solo had placed the mines there himself.

"Idiot," he scolded himself. "You should have expected as much!"

Up ahead, the slope slanted upwards slightly only to drop off into a sheer canyon. He reached the end, took a deep breath, and leaped into the void.