Author Unknown

  Just outside the enemy's underground factory, the hillside was covered in snow. Fortunately, the weather had still not started to become rough. If it did become a violent snowstorm, it would make it difficult for the body to cope, even if you're Hiryu. The Siberian winter, even at its warmest, rarely rises above minus twenty degrees. At such temperatures, when the wind blows on unprotected skin, it causes the body's temperature to drop rapidly and its cells to freeze over. Although the elite Strider A-Class has uniquely specialized and powerful equipment, you could assert it is almost worthless in this case, as the Siberian Arctic overwhelms its design specifications. You might even look upon your equipment with contempt.

  Hiryu proceeded along the far lower part of a steep cliff face that was covered in ice and snow. This cliff that he had aimed for (which first of all was far off), was the site of a small helipad. The steep slope appeared to Hiryu to be used as a boarding path to the helipad. It was difficult to tell, however.

  The slope was extremely jagged, with large stones being just as likely to crumble away as the others. This in itself was a problem, but the snow covering the rocks did not help. It was a suspension bridge that posed a more pressing problem, however: there didn't appear to be anything wrong, but the freezing temperatures make the ropes brittle and easily friable. And treacherous.

  Crossing this 100-meter long bridge, therefore, involves no small degree of risk. The best course of action is to run like hell and hope you make it to the other side okay.

  To make matters worse, there was a ten meter wide crevice in the rock right in the middle of the slope. So, even if you ran across the bridge and succeeded in making it across, you wouldn't make it to the helipad because you couldn't make it across the gap.

  For an ordinary man, it would be nearly impossible to do all this and survive. Even though this thing is quite difficult, it is not really challenging for the the elite A-class Strider, Hiryu. The Striders were feared by the underworld for their reputation of achieving the impossible...

  With that in mind, it was impossible for Hiryu to do anything but succeed in his purpose. Nothing would be left to chance. Destroy the aerial battleship Balrog. Investigate and destroy the new bioengineering facility in the Amazon. Annihilate the Third Moon, a spaceborne fortress city. And...assassinate the despotic Grandmaster.

  Hiryu was the apex of a pyramid. Society was demilitarized, national armies and troops were unheard of. If someone came along who was a threat to the individual's independence, he was sent in to challenge it. Naturally, the possibility of succeeding in such ventures approached zero; nevertheless, Hiryu received the assignments. There did not have to be a special reason for the duty: a request came, and he went.

  For him, this is not a difficult decision: if the contents of the request are legitimate, he acts. When the request for the erasure of this god reached the Striders, there was no debate. They lived in a world of darkness; all that was needed was to lift your eyes skyward. Clouds the color of lead had grown denser, until the weather had become harsh. Unless this is stopped, only time will be left.

  Hiryu continued down the side of the cliff. Abruptly, his sharp senses caught the faint sense of something nearby. He tensed up involuntarily. He had felt something, the kind of sign that causes a chill to run down a person's spine. The air around him was calm, flowing faintly... but it was not the atmosphere of a below-freezing climate. It was colder, and full of death's fragrance. It was the feeling of a quiet, brutal, murderous intent.

  When one person wounds another, that person entrusts his body to insanity. When driven by extreme hatred, insanity seizes its host and lodges deep within, especially if the wound comes from a trusted friend. This might also happen when those in command take advantage of their underlings and attempt to justify their behavior by painting an underling's heart with insanity, little by little. There is one sign that a person is succumbing to insanity... bloodthirstiness. This is a universal truth.

  The chill had left the air. It flows faintly, this feeling that death is agreeable. Those who encounter the bloodthirsty form a distinct impression that they have no feeling. This is what causes the chill in the spine, and it is why Hiryu shivered. Murderous intent that does not have bloodthirstiness as a partner... can be stopped. In such a case, insanity is not a factor in the killing; it is all done on a professional level.

  The worst thing was that Hiryu's intuition was honed to perfection. Reconnaissance spotted him, and the assassin had left, attacking him with his plasma cannon and firing bullets like hail without giving an inch. The assassin's aim was accurate, aiming for his heart, but Hiryu is not conquered that easily. He blocked the assassin's shot, flinging his optical sword up behind him. His senses of smell and feeling were sharpened in the darkness... and his instincts were like unto those of an animal. He detected the bullet, and moved accordingly.

  The bullet struck the ridges on the side of his optical sword, just milliseconds before it would have plunged into his heart. Infuriatingly, he blocks this with an unreasonable and unprofessional attitude... he was blown to the rear by the impact of the bullet. He was indignant that a seemingly ordinary bullet could do such damage.

  It was no ordinary bullet. It possessed an unfathomable amount of kinetic energy.

  Although Hiryu had been thrown to the ground, he was able to calculate the exact position of his assailant from the direction and power of the bullet that struck him.

  "Distance: about 2 meters up and 300 out... in the air... using a personal flight device and optical camouflage..."

  Hiryu removed the first bullet. He knew that his aerial assailant would try not to lose control of his flight device, or it would be impossible for him to return to the ground. A portion of the cloudy heavens fluctuated faintly, revealing the assassin briefly.

  Hiryu flipped a switch on his optical sword. It operated soundlessly, releasing a large amount of plasma into the inner aperture of the blade. A secondary handle swung out at a perfect ninety degree angle to the primary one. It was a handle grip exactly like the Chinese weapon tonfa. The class of the sword is that of "Cypher." It cuts through all objects by discharging a high-pressure plasma stream, and is the basic equipment of an A-class Strider.

  He twisted his body violently, thrusting his Cypher into the ground. He pierced the crust of ice on the ground, superheating it. It exploded violently, turning instantly into steam and propelling Hiryu skyward. White water vapor swelled up and spread out in a cloud along the ground below him.

  A hail of bullets struck the ground where Hiryu had just been. The assassin in the sky appeared to be having difficulty in maneuvering, as his personal flight device did not allow for imaginative and acrobatic maneuvers.

  There are no words for the beauty of a white blast of water vapor which suddenly rose into the air and had a temperature of less than twenty below. The water vapor exceeded several hundred degrees and escaped from the ice so rapidly that the entire area was blanketed in superheated water vapor. The effect was truly beautiful...there was no other way to describe it.

  Although it primarily hid Hiryu from view, the vapor had a secondary, detrimental effect: the intense temperature difference between the air outside the vapor cloud and that inside the cloud was enough to cause his body to go into shock. No amount of Strider training could prepare him for such a situation. Additionally there was the danger of physical damage from a possible explosion, due to the rapid expansion of the water vapor trapped beneath the ice.

  The mysterious assassin aimed into the gently hissing main mass of water vapor. He was momentarily out of alternatives; usually his on-board instruments would be able to verify his target's location, but this time not even his temperature sensor could distinguish Hiryu's signature from the cloud's. However...

  The uniquely unparalleled Strider weaponry provided him with an energy source to lock onto. In particular, the Cypher's individual plasma signature showed up as a bright blip on his heads-up display. The assassin did not hesitate; he switched his plasma cannon from "Impact Grenade Mode" to "Energy Blast Mode" and fired it at the Strider's projected body mass.

  The assassin's energy blast negated the powerful energy radiated by Hiryu's Cypher, creating another cloud of white smoke. The scopes in the assassin's visor displayed this cloud and that of the photosphere, indicating that Hiryu had been completely enveloped by the big explosion. The chilly wind cut through the smoke, dissipating it, confirming the assassin's scopes' indicators. Jackpot. There was a huge crater left in the crust of the mountain, its surface laid completely bare by the energy blast. White steam issued from crevices in the crater's edge, which measured about 20 meters across.

  The assassin slowly floated in the air, drifting ever nearer to the zero power area without cancelling his optical camouflage or the quiet sound mode of his flight pack. There was a possibility the Strider still lived; the assassin did not completely trust his sensors. He doubted. His target had been a super-A Strider, one who carried a powerful Cypher weapon to aid him in his assignment; when his energy blast struck the Strider, he did not feel that it had killed him.

  Therefore, it was a strange feeling for the assassin, the one who had grown wise in the ways of his chosen occupation. Naturally, it was not necessarily a mistake of judgement on his part. Point one: the assassin had used an attack that deals fatal damage to his quarry. Point two: if the target had been an ordinary man, that attack would have been sufficient. Point three: his target was not an ordinary man, but there is no reason to assume he would have been able to survive. Conclusion:???

  There was no category for a person who could survive such a blast. They did not exist. However, the super-A grade Striders were such a class of person. Nevertheless, despite his misgivings about the attack, the assassin tried to convince himself that it worked.

  Eventually he arrived in the vicinity of the crater, while maintaining the furthest possible distance from ground zero while still being able to attack his target...if he had survived. He completed his verification of the Strider's deceased status. Each sensor, finely tuned to the reactions of a dynamic, living body: infrared, ultraviolet, biorhythm...failed to report any other living creatures in the area. This failed to convince the assassin. There was no physical evidence that the Strider was destroyed: no Cypher wreckage, no small bits of Hiryu's clothes left clinging to cusps of rock...nothing remained. Was such a thing possible? Was it possible to escape such a blast without taking on any damage? Aside from the crater, there was no trace of resistance and no indication that the Strider had fled the scene.

  The heliport was just ahead, the only escape route for the Strider and, presumably, his own goal. When the assassin assumed this, his doubt cleared up directly. A similar phreatic explosion to the one before blasted the rocks apart beneath the assassin. He was thrown to the side, wondering if the Strider was one of those privy to his own origin.

  Hiryu's optical sword, his Cypher, thrust upwards through the ice and he emerged unscathed from the snow. He aimed his Cypher at the assassin's throat, charging it up with plasma. The assassin intercepted the plasma blast with an Impact grenade, avoiding the energy blast mode since it had failed him once before. Yet, the assassin did not hesitate, bringing his rifle to bear upon the Cypher. The instantaneous, hideous sign had manifested itself in him. He turned his back upon the target and fled, shooting back up into the air about ten meters. Never had he expected such a thing to be possible, but it was.

  Hiryu leaped into the air, a vertical launch in excess of ten meters and attacked the assassin from behind. He had not made use of the explosion's propulsive powers, either. With no warning, without being detected by any of the assassin's sensors, the Strider suddenly appeared behind and assailed him.

  Hiryu lunged with his all-penetrating hand-held sickle, trying to catch the assassin with it, despite the assassin's being invisible. Despite all its uniqueness, the assassin's armor is still something Hiryu's sickle can penetrate. In a panic, the assassin cut off his flight pack's output. Simultaneously, his hand-held rifle shined rebelliously. He fired it at the Strider, the first bullet changing the Cypher's swinging arc and leaving the Strider wide open for a second shot. He brought his rifle to bear upon his target's body mass, shaking the rifle almost playfully. His aim was true, the aim of an assassin.

  Hiryu hung from the assassin's shoulder blades by his hook. He drew his Cypher, aiming a swipe at the assassin's neck.

  The hand-held rifle had not special armor covering it, meaning that it did not require a person of specific strength to handle it. Yet, it was quite large, to the extent where its reaction was unfathomable. Making use of this, the assassin swung the strider about, counting on the fact that he would strike simultaneously. He fired a second shot, denser than the first. When he cut power to the flight pack, more energy was diverted to the rifle. The rifle generated an enormous kickback, pulling him free of the Strider's sickle. Both he and Hiryu fell into a snowdrift as a result.

  The sickle struck the rifle as it had been yanked free of his armor, the assassin knew. Hiryu stood up, shaking the snow off of himself. The assassin engaged his flight pack again, evaded Hiryu by blasting into the air before the Strider could regather himself and attack. But the shock of being pierced by the sickle and crashing into the crust was overwhelming, the damaged joint of his armor was screaming. Hiryu had twisted in midair, changing his position and altering his momentum into rotational energy, preventing the fall from becoming fatal. He'd received a couple of unnecessary bruises in the process, but that was it. Hiryu had quickly recovered from his fall, assuming a fighting stance and preparing to resume his fight with the assassin.

  The rifle had determined the fall of both the assassin and the Strider. The scar caused by the sickle, firmly embedded in neck muscle, had just barely damaged the body armor. The damage had mostly come in the form of a wound to the actual body of the assassin. However, the optical camouflage system was damaged and the form of the assassin shimmered into view. Hiryu looked at him unassumingly. The assassin's armor wrapped his body in shiny green, his expressions masked by a yellow visor that allowed only a narrow slit of light to pass through. Hiryu had known him, once upon a time. The man had possessed the ability to be equal with Hiryu, had it not been for a murderous crime. At one time, they had fought together, residents in the shadowy underworld. They were unique, professionals in assassination and erasure.

  Solo. That had been his name.