For years Hank had wondered what his father was talking about, but fighting against Paolo, it snapped into place. And as it did so, several other mysteries shifted, forming a clear picture that Hank could easily read.
He had wondered how these people had survived so well, even prospered, when all they had were bladed weapons and leather armors. Because while the people from Zone 1 used high tech equipment to focus their growth and protect their mentalities, the people here had been forced to fight the wildness of the System with their eyes facing forward. There was no buffer to protect them. Those that couldn’t adapt, died.
These were the women and men who believed they could live here with all their heart. They embraced this lifestyle without hesitation. They became people who lived and breathed with the System. Within the past year and a half, they had sharpened themselves until they had mental images with such strength that they could strike at their opponents like a weapon.
Strangely, Hank’s smile snaked open in a wide curve like a smuggler’s river. In the past, he had believed his father’s stories superficially, but never truly accepted them; he didn’t believe it was possible. But pushed here, this powerful man bearing down on him, something clicked into place.
Congratulations! Your images have grown to such strength that you begin to condense your own Skill. Warning, if there is insufficient ambient energy in the air, the energy will be taken from your body. This may result in injury or death. Do you wish to proceed?
Congratulations, your Soul Skill “Humanity’s Last Cowboy” is evolving. Warning, if there is insufficient ambient energy in the air, the energy will be taken from your body. This may result in injury or death. Do you wish to proceed?
Hank blinked, and the notifications were gone. Paolo raised his hands. Hank drew his revolver, his father’s revolver. Without taking time to aim, he fired off the draw and followed it up with several slugs from the repeater empowered with Trick Shot.
The speed of the revolver bullets caught Paolo by surprise, and they nicked him on his shoulders and arms. The revolver shot arrived at his chest. Now all noises had faded back and there was only the pounding of Hank’s heart. It filled the very sky with its force, a shuddering, heaving beat.
“Crushing Blow,” Paolo bellowed, smashing his hand forward to meet the bullet. There was a huge impact, and the bullet was actually knocked to the side. It ripped a long gash up Paolo’s arm, but otherwise, he seemed fine; Hank stepped forward to finish the job.
His first two jabs definitely caught Paolo by surprise, and the man took them both in the chin. After that second hit, however, his stance shifted, and he was ready for the third Sharp Left from Hank. The Hard Right still sent him sprawling backward, despite his preparations.
Roaring with laughter, Paolo stepped back forward, but Hank’s left hand had drawn his pistol with all the swiftness of lighting, spraying bullets at his midsection. To Hank’s surprise, Paolo didn’t react at all, aside from a small grunt as the bullet hit him. Apparently, he had decided that the best idea was to just push through the bullets.
Yea, Hank had fought those types before. So he reached out and touched the small marbles of Mana that he put in every bullet.
This time, Paolo’s grunt was much louder, but Hank was shocked at how little of an effect it had. Some blood sprayed out of the wounds, but there were none of the usual explosions of gore that resulted from this attack. Generally, only a monster could endure through multiple Mana Detonations without being reduced to ground beef. How high was his fucking Endurance?
Paolo, if anything, was speeding up as he rushed towards Hank. It forced him to Dodge Roll to the side once, and then backward, in order to open up some space. But even then, Paolo was already there, rushing forward like a bull.
Paolo head slipped under the Hard Right, grinning.
“That won’t work twice. Good punch though, mate. I really underestimated ya. But this is-”
Hank faded a half step backward from Paolo, opening up just enough space to draw both pistols. The air was humming and thumping with his heartbeat. The cheers of the crowd were rising upwards towards the crescendo, and Hank knew he couldn’t let it get there. Firing twice, Hank put a bullet directly up in the air and another towards his heart.
The part of Hank that was hesitant to go as hard as he could have long ago stepped to the side to make way for the brutal, vicious survivalist. His head was throbbing, but after the two shots he shot out the remaining four bullets in the repeater and reloaded it. Without thinking about it, he emptied another clip. At that moment, Hank knew that he had to.
Congratulations! You have created the Skill “Hope for the Future (A) Lvl 1”.
Congratulations! You have created the Skill “Bulletstorm ® Lvl 1”.
Congratulations! You have created the Skill “Western Justice (Un) Lvl 1”.
Information flooded Hank’s mind, but it was too late for that, Paolo had arrived.
With impossible grace, he shimmied to the side, sliding his body through the spaces between the bullets. Hank’s eyes sparkled.
The Mana within the bullets detonated simultaneously, shards of Mana charged shrapnel flying in every direction. Paolo cursed. At that moment, Hank simply lowered his shoulders and leaped forward, hitting Paolo in his bloody chest. A few steps back, and…
The Lawman’s Guillotine, the bullet he had shot up earlier, descended.
It crashed into Paolo’s shoulder, inflicting the first real damage that Hank had managed, likely destroying the joint and rendering his right arm useless. Even so, Paolo’s elbow whipped upwards, striking Hank across the bridge of the nose. He felt the crack and borrowed the force to open up a meter or so of space between them.
“Well shit,” Paolo said, shaking his head. His grin was still wide. “This has actually been a lot of fun- hey, man, are you alright?”
Hank didn’t feel alright. He swayed, took another step backward, and then collapsed. Paolo rushed to his side, as well as Kayle and Affina. Kayle swore under his breath.
“Smart guy picked up on Intents almost instantly. He probably created one during the battle. This is Aether Sickness. Bad, the worst I’ve ever seen.”
The figures blurred together in Hank’s mind. His head began to throb painfully. He felt the blood in his body turning to sludge, refusing to continue flowing forward. Snatches of conversation made their ponderous way to his consciousness, even as he felt himself sinking.
“...said not to contact him….”
“...athan? He can….”
“...Hank? Can you hear….”
There was darkness and coolness. Some part of Hank refused to accept it, but it was like a child crying out against the injustice of the sun leaving every day. He was not an existence could change this outcome.
Time pooled and swirled like a mischievous stream, and Hank was carried slowly away. But then all at once, he felt a grip on him, pulling him out of the darkness.
His eyes flickered and then opened. Above him, a familiar face was sitting, frowning down at him. “Easy, this is the first time I’ve worked in such depth with a Soul Skill. Your Class needed a bit of a tune of too; your images were getting too strong for it, which was why there was such bad feedback.”
Hank blinked slowly. It was the child from the thorny house.
“You shouldn’t be here, it’s dangerous.” Hank managed to spit out. He wasn’t sure where they were, but they were near the borderlands for sure. Even with protection, getting here-
The kid, Nathan, laughed. “Oh, it’s quite safe. I have several protectors. But you need to rest; the surgery was a success, you’ll recover in a jiffy.”
As Nathan was standing to walk away, some of the words he had been saying finally got through to Hank. The only reaction he could think of was to frown, but Nathan noticed as he was turning away. Again, he only laughed.
“Relax, I might not have much experience, but I’m basically the second best at this in the world.” He said proudly, puffing out his chest. “Hopefully I can become the best someday… because I am a Soul Architect.”