Hank’s mouth was pressed into a thin line as he watched Ezekiel get humiliated by the strange teen before the cheering and hooting groups of miners. This teen simply was too fast, too graceful, and his body seemed to twist and shift into a very real monster during battle; in all areas, Ezekiel couldn’t keep up.
His unconscious body slammed to the ground without much suspense. What was perhaps the most impressive was that the whole while, the teen named Vandal Leviathan never seemed close to inflicting a deadly blow. It was playing, for him. This level of combat was simply play.
When Ezekiel fell, they turned to the rest of his group. Her expression stone, Affina walked forward and lifted Ezekiel, carrying the man out of the small arena that the group had created. It showed the signs of obvious wear, with scuffs around the stone edges of the raised space from constant hands on them.
“Who next?” The burly man, who had introduced himself as Paolo, said to Hank with a wide smile.
Hank’s grin was just as wide. “I reckon’ it’s my turn, friend.”
The crowd hollered and stomped their feet, enjoying the testosterone. Even the snooty Vandal seemed to get into it, very quickly forgetting about his little spat with Ezekiel and simply focusing on the fight at hand.
Hank knew people, for all that he spent his time in the wilderness when he could. But perhaps even because of that, Paolo made sense to him. When they both ascended into the arena, Paolo raised his hands to the cheers of the audience, playing on their energy. He even seemed to draw on it, growing heavier and more imposing the more the people cheered.
This was a man that cared about the audience, who took the time to create a show. Hank believed that even if Paolo was truly a more powerful individual, the fact that he played so heavily on the crowd would make him predictable, and give Hank an edge that he could take advantage of.
Or at least, that was the plan.
There was no announcement of the start of the battle, Hank just felt it in his heart at the moment the shift in the arena occurred. The energy spiked upwards, and the very air seemed to vibrate in sympathy for the explosive violence that was about to occur there.
Instantly, Hank rolled back and drew the repeater, leveling it at Paolo. The man rushed forward, moving in an easy loping gait towards Hank. It would have been almost relaxing if Hank didn’t quickly realize that the speed this man was moving was near the edge of what his eyes were able to follow.
Activating Hawk Eye, Hank Dodge Rolled backward, firing off several shots from the repeater. This seemed to catch Paolo by surprise, and his eyes narrowed as he took in the weapon and the oncoming projectiles. Then Paolo executed several short diagonal steps that let him weave barely between the bullets. It barely even slowed him too, which was aggravating.
Paolo’s smile was growing. Hank cursed quietly. Then he flicked his right hand forward and a Smoke Bomb hit the ground.
Instantly the cheering became quiet as if somewhat put the whole crowd on mute. Hank’s pupils dilated. That… wasn’t a natural change. But he had no time to examine it further because his instincts were screaming that the other man was in the smoke. Hank abruptly realized that he was being stalked like game.
A small noise alerted him, and Hank raised his pistol and shot several meters to the right. There was an answering laugh and Paolo rushed forward from the spot that Hank had fired.
“How did you know?” Paolo asked, arriving in front of Hank, hands raised to grapple.
Hank didn’t have time to explain his duelist sense. A noise like that was a mistake, and this man he was now facing did not strike him as the type that would make a mistake of that caliber, at least without being highly pressured.
This time Hank Dodge Rolled even faster, moving just out of Paolo’s outstretched hands. Seeing that his attack wasn’t going to land, the grab changed instantly into a punch, and Paolo’s fist smashed into the ground, cracking. A lot of the smoke screen was displaced by the fist blow, revealing the outside world. In addition, the attack forced Hank to take a half step to recover.
Hank’s ears seemed to be broken because the sound of the people outside cheering was fluctuating, as though coming through a choppy television receiver. One minute it was muted static, the next it sounded like thousands of people were beating war drums and marching. Either way, it forced Hank to force himself to let noise go, relying increasingly more on his Duelist Instinct.
This instinct was the one that warned him of Paolo’s presence, and the one that supposedly would give him an edge in any duel. But it had been a long, long time since he participated in an actual duel. It was a slight thing, especially as Hank could feel the presence of Paolo buffeting him backward, pushing him mentally.
It was strange, Hank reflected. Time seemed to slow to a crawl as Paolo pounced towards him like a hunting cat.
What he was feeling was something like a Skill, but it was a general one. Paolo felt and thought more powerfully than Hank did. He had a vivid image in his mind of how things would turn out, and that surety acted as a force that drove the future towards that conclusion. It was… impressive in a way that Hank had almost forgotten about.
When he was a child, there was a day where Hank had come home from grade school and found his father sitting on their 2-meter wooden fence, looking out at the Appalachian mountains that formed their backyard. The fence was originally erected because Hank’s father had seen a mountain lion sniffing after their chickens, but Hank’s father always seemed to resent the fence.
That day, that expression of discontentment was especially strong. His gaze was locked on the horizon, even as Hank saw his father, then scampered off to the shed to bring a ladder. After climbing up to join his father, the two of them sat in silence for quite some time.
Eventually, Hank’s father said. “You know, no matter how I think about it, we need this fence. But it makes me wonder. A hundred years ago my grandfather would have simply scowled, and laid up waiting for that mountain lion, then he would have had it in a stew within the week. He was a man of the old ways. And hell, his grandpappy would have drawn a pistol and put a bullet through the mountain lion’s head from 100 paces away. That was just the kind of men they were. The kind of men we all used to be.”
The silence returned, but this time it was short lived.
“Hank, kick the ladder out and balance up here with me.” His father said simply. After a brief hesitation, Hank did it. The fence was made of three layers of wood, a softwood between two hardwoods. This meant that there was a platform at the top of the fence about as thick as an adults pinky finger. While sitting, it wasn’t impossible to balance, but it was uncomfortable.
Slowly, Hank did as he was bidden. Beyond the fence, the ground fell away into a steep slope into a thin, meandering valley. Beyond that, Appalachia rose, wild and stoic. A fall from this wouldn’t kill him, but he would then have to worry about slipping on the loose shale and sliding down to further injury in the shallow creek a hundred meters below.
“See, the original pioneers were queer folk.” Hank’s father was saying. “They grew convinced of something, that this land was a great place where they could find their future, and none could dissuade them. Many left successful businesses, loving family, landed fortunes, to find something… magical in this land. Perhaps half of them found it. The other have found unmarked beds to lay their heads down for eternal slumber.
“Half might even be generous. Without assistance, almost any small injury would lead to you being insufficient in your next brush with danger. Animals, topography, food and water, native Americans, and even your fellow pioneers… all would kill you for what you had. You couldn't have the slightest defect in preparation or care. Everything except perfection would leave you a relic of the past.
“We no longer live in that world. Due to that, our population has grown wildly. But also due to that, we as people…” Hank’s father sighed. “...we do not measure up. Hank, stand straight. Walk towards me. Eyes up.”
A thin breeze caressed Hank as he slowly stepped forward, doing his best to balance. It was simply brushstrokes on his cheeks, sighs on his ankles, but it set his legs to trembling. And underneath him, Hank could feel the fence quivering slightly along with him.
His father’s eyes were brutal and direct. “The more you fear something, the more likely you will make it happen yourself. These pioneers, they didn’t know fear. What they knew was how their future would turn out, with a surety that could defy causality. If you do not reach that, at least reach the point where fear doesn’t make you piss like a babe.”
Hank shivered, and that small movement set him off balance. There was only the lightness of air, those sighs and brushes turning to soft hands trying to help him keep his balance. The fickle assistance made it all the more pathetic when he still couldn’t regain his balance, and Hank fell. In those moments, he pictured many things: falling down and sliding to the creek, the roar of cascading stones, the brutal cold of the water, perhaps even his father’s hand reaching out to grab him…
But of course, there was no hand.
When Hank hit the ground, the wind was knocked out of him. He looked to his right, and there lay the ladder he had kicked out from under him. He had landed on the inside of the fence and was lucky he hadn’t landed right on it.
“Set up the ladder and get back up here,” His father had said, his voice empty. “You are doing it again.”