The floating man stared at me as though expectant, though what he expected, I couldn't guess. But slowly, dramatically, he lifted and hung in the air as though waiting.
"Um, hi. Sorry. I don't know if you remember me, I'm...Athan. You uh, tried to kill me once, over a misunderstanding."
Which was not the best way to start this conversation I realized, but it was hard to think about anything I was saying. Words were just kind of falling out of me. In that vein, I shook my head and continued as though with a punchline.
"But, um, I'm not dead."
It certainly felt like I was on my way, though, with my arm frozen from elbow to wrist, and missing beyond that. The adrenaline was still surging but the pain was beginning to come in searing. I was having a hard time standing solid, and meeting those eyes...something about them made me want to just crumple where I stood.
Karu appeared at my side, and gave me a solemn nod before slapping a stim patch on my exposed arm. It stung for a few moments, and then a lot more, as the relative pain in my body redistributed weirdly to push down my destroyed arm.
"I am Justice. You will face Justice."
"Now just wait a sec," I asked him. "Last time, we both got attacked. That wasn't us being a betrayer or infidel or heretic or whatever. In fact, I wanted to ask you--"
"I am Justice. My verdict is absolute."
Even if his words weren't really that threatening, there was a tangible threat in them that made my body recoil. It was almost as bad as the ice -- just being here, seeing him, it...it made me want to run. I just had this urgent sensation of needing to be not here. I didn't know what it was, exactly, a nausea, almost. Something about the way he stood unerringly in the air, or how his hands were just caked in blood, sickeningly. But I think it was probably the eyes. There was something seriously wrong with his eyes, and it just unnerved me. I didn't want to look at them anymore.
"Mister Justice," AEGIS said, and I felt a surge of relief as those eyes turned on her. My stomach backflipped at once to think of what he could do to her, and I clenched painfully inside at the realization that...that I'd be glad for him to do it to her. As long as it wasn't me.
Which I didn't understand. I didn't agree with. It was just guttural, primal, selfish. But that's just how fucking goddamn unsettling his fucking gaze was.
I realized she wasn't talking either, and seemed to have frozen on the spot just like I had. Her breathing was so fast and shallow that her engines were beginning to light up. Maybe the sound of them broke her torpor.
She shook her head and then spoke. "Um, Mister...Justice. We uh...we…" she shook her head again, more aggressively, snapping the tips of her hair around. "I want to know what it is you're doing here. Uh, no, I mean. I want you to know what you're doing. Do...you know...what you're doing?"
"I am Justice," he answered.
"Yes. We...we got that. You are certainly eking out your form of justice here. The problem is...you're also...hurting a lot of other people. People who aren't...y'know...in this room. Or lawyers or whatever. You're um…"
She looked at me for help, but I didn't think I could say anything which would bring those eyes back onto me. But from over my shoulder, Moon spoke up, her voice, my voice, stronger than I thought possible in the moment.
"You are eroding America's confidence and will. You are proving the federal institutions incapable of protecting the public, and pushing the country towards anarchy and revolution."
"Yes, that," AEGIS agreed. "By killing these people in spite of the XPCA, you're...your justice is going to destroy all sense of order in America. Does that sound...just to you?"
She ended with a forced smile, and we waited. Waited, and waited, and waited, while he just floated there, staring at her, eyes writhing like too many cockroaches trapped in a soup can.
"I hate to be the one to say this, but maybe just attack," Cosette whispered in our ears. "I know you've got him thinking there but...when will we ever have another chance like this?"
I shook my head. Even if I wanted to, I'm not sure I could. And if I did, I was just certain I'd die. Everything about him promised death. Running across the room and slashing at him felt like the surest path to nonexistence I could imagine.
None of the others stirred either. I tore my eyes from him to glance back at Tem, lingering in the doorway like she wanted to run back through it, not even remembering to hide herself as she stared open-mouthed. Karu, in a low crouching fighting stance, weapons raised, still as a statue. And AEGIS, standing in his gaze, her hands fidgeting relentlessly, but at the same time, looking paralyzed.
Yeah, none of us were about to try to sucker-punch Justice. We were all thinking the same thing.
But there was someone in the room who was not. With a frustrated cry, the rubble of the collapsed roof burst like a bubble, and a thousand Sorans all came pouring out from under it. In an instant it seemed, they spread to fill every corner of the chamber, all babbling and looking up and readying weapons.
And fighting. I was so confused to see javelins of ice and metal barbs flying through the air at me, my shield saving my life as they impacted and splintered. It felt like he'd just come shooting into a church, the air of reverence and awe and terror broken by something so mundane as attempting on our lives.
Justice seemed disdainful as he batted away several attacks hurled his way. A tendril of blood caught his leg, but even as it detonated, somehow, the leg dissected itself along angular lines, morphing and twisting in the air until they recombined back into an unharmed whole. The perpetrating Soran shuddered to a stop as though frozen in time, and then lifted into the air on invisible wires.
But whatever display of Justice we were about to witness was cut off, as more and more of the Sorans engaged. Boiling over, flames everywhere, chaos stormed the courtroom, and for once, it was a relief to just be fighting for our lives. This was something comfortable, relative to staring down Justice.
I put my swords around me in a circle and spun them, dismembering and disemboweling six of the clones with a synchronized swipe. I'd be lying if I said it wasn't therapeutic. Soran was way up there on my to-kill list, and hacking up half a dozen of him at a time contrasted so gracefully against how infirmly I could even stand and speak to Justice. Even if they were just fakes, I was doing something...which was the opposite of what I was capable against Justice.
I wasn't deluded into thinking things would be so easy against the real one, though. The deluge of powers crashing down around me constantly was like background noise, punctuated by the specific, precise assaults by the real Soran, lurking somewhere in the chaos. Every now and again, I'd be forced back by a sucker-punch attack aimed too specifically, and struggle to find the culprit, often while nursing a new wound, or barely saved by an ally.
But one thing was clear. Soran was completely different now. Whereas before, when he'd been utilizing Mage's power, every one of his actions had been precise, prescient, and deadly, now he was using chaos as his armor.
And by contrast, floated Justice. Seemingly unphased by the madness unfolding all around him, even as some of the attacks were aimed in his direction, he dismissed and defeated them as though they were less than a nuisance. I wasn't sure why he was still here, why he wasn't engaging...wasn't sure about anything about him really, except that I remembered seeing him through Moon's second-hand visions of Saga, that he was completely insane. Which actually made perfect sense, because I didn't know why the fuck else anyone would still choose to be in here with us fighting.
The air seemed to explode around me, and I looked down to find red streaks blooming through my uniform. It took long moments before, through the stims, I felt the muted sting of pain, and my mind was sent reeling from what just happened to me.
There were more flashes, and more pain, and this time I decided to stop wondering and start moving. The attacks continued, but trailing in my wake as I bolted off. It wasn't until I saw the wooden shards exploding into existence that I realized.
Soran had figured out my shield somehow, and armed with Haley's hyperspace-throwing, he was somewhere in the room chucking shit at me so that it would rematerialize inside my shield...and inside me, apparently.
Which was just, fuck. I took my best guess at which way he was throwing from and blasted that quarter of the room with lightning. Apparently I missed, because another wound appeared in my back, with a painful twinge.
"I've got...something!" AEGIS shouted at me. "TARGA has simulations for me."
"What the fuck do we need simulations for?" I yelled back. I barely sidestepped two blood-tendrils lashing out at me at once. While I dodged, Moon shoved her hazy purple blades through the attackers' jowls. Of course, neither was real, vanishing as she cut through them, and I swore again.
"The clones come from him! Assuming random movement--" she paused to kick a Soran clean into the air with a crack, her engines revving explosively "--we can simulate where in the mass he's hiding, using the clones as data."
"Do you intend for us to count them?" Moon asked, with a note of frustration.
Karu flew over the mass, her jetpack working hard at re-angling constantly to keep her up in the enclosed space. "I shall achieve data synch through my visor. Buy me time."
She soared here and there, seeming to teleport above the fight at random, often disappearing through walls of fire, only to reappear elsewhere with a blue streak.
Of course, Soran wasn't going to make that easy for us. From somewhere in the mess, attacks were flying at her now, ones I recognized as the same being thrown at Justice earlier. In fact, now that I was looking upwards, I saw there was actually quite a shitton of crap being thrown up there. Just for how long had Soran's little army been focused on anti-air?
The question would have to go unanswered. AEGIS and I split up and charged different halves of the room, and where we split, Tem blasted the middle, clearing as much of the room as we could to buy time for Karu.
It certainly felt like, with us dropping dozens of these guys that the room should empty out some, but that fucking firewall ability kept me from being able to see more than a few feet in the chaos. Above, I could see Karu and Justice, one zipping, one floating stoically. But down here...
I saw more flashes and was glad I was already in motion. One of them, poorly-aimed, exploded against my shield, but other shots just flashed into being and actually impacted against clones surrounding me. But even expendable as they were, I was reminded how fucking dangerous they were when one came up on me with a lance of ice and I barely dodged it coming at my face.
"We've got data!" I heard AEGIS over comms from the other side of the room. "He's...he's somewhere...there," she said, usefully.
"Where the hell is there?" I asked. But I needn't have, as I saw a yellow flash as AEGIS streaked through the crowd, almost as fast as Karu. She landed somewhere I could only vaguely see, but when she landed, I saw her instantly engaging on one of the many Sorans in the mass.
One reacted differently, humanly, even. Turning to face at her approach, sidestepping her incoming kick.
The real Soran.
Even seeing him now, it was hard to keep track of him. Clones were stepping out of his body constantly, subtly different from how they seemed to pass through each other in the mass, but still confusing to follow. For a moment, it reminded me of one of the stupid games you'd see on a baseball scoreboard between innings to keep the fans from falling asleep. Following the cups and balls, in that one moment where all the cups would overlap and you'd be unsure which one was the right one anymore.
Like that, but constantly. Fortunately, AEGIS was tracking him, but my eyes kept following the wrong targets. Although...as she kicked one and it faded into nothingness, I realized that perhaps even she was having troubles here.
But I was in range now, and my blades cared little about precision. A wall of white shimmered on my right where I held my blades at the ready, and on my left, Moon's rose in mirror. When we reached the mass, both of us lashed out at once, cleaving and tearing through the swarming mass, blind by fire and blood, but not caring. Just lashing out at where we knew he was hiding.
When suddenly, we stopped.
All of us stopped.
The chaos just, wasn't anymore. The room became painfully silent, quieter than I thought anything could be, by contrast. I couldn't turn my head, but in front of me, I saw only one Soran, wide-eyed and frozen mid-stumble, inches away from where our blades were seeking him out.
My blades were still there, though. Hovering in the air as though I'd commanded them still. I narrowed my focus, willing them to push forward the extra few inches and finish him, but while I could feel them...could feel the currents in my body, could tug and push, it was like they were encased in concrete or something.
As the moments dragged on and I hung there, I struggled and tried everything. I could still sense through my powers. I could even shock myself, could control the electricity within me, and even in what I touched. Anything that didn't require moving, it felt like.
I could think, I could ostensibly control my powers except they wouldn't listen, but I couldn't move.
And the answer why hovered into view. Justice landed on the ground between the four of us.
"I have witnessed your actions," he proclaimed, his voice rich with that undefinable emotion that seemed to resonate in me uncontrollably. "I have judged. My decree is absolute. I am Justice."
"What the fuck is he talking about. Guys? Why are you standing there?" I heard Cosette in my ear.
He turned to me, and I wished he hadn't. "You speak of saving this world and the damage I unknowingly cause. I have decreed this world fragile and unjust. If it is broken by Justice, it will break. That which comes next will be pure."
I tried to argue, but couldn't. Just a weak gagging sound. But fortunately, he turned to Soran next, and as he spoke, my heart soared.
"You act with deception and guile. You are a liar and a parasite. I sentence you to death. I am Justice."
The raw emotion twisting inside me found form. I was just...giddy. Irrationally so. Emotions bubbled up beyond my control. Just as how Justice could somehow inspire dread just by looking at him, apparently he could also unleash joy if you were on his side, or something. I wanted to see Soran splattered so badly, and if anyone could manage it, it was Justice.
So I watched with incurable elation rising through my body, the anticipation making me feel like I could float, even if I couldn't even move my eyes. This was it, here it came.
Soran, all at once, was wrenched into angular pieces, which drifted apart like a Rubik's cube exploding in slow motion. There was no scream, no arguing or whimpering, just...split into pieces, a thousand of them, drifting apart.
My eyes had been on his face, and as much as I'd wanted to see this, the spectacle of witnessing another man's face suddenly invisibly julienned was horrifying. He just came apart, as though he'd always been in thousands of pieces, and the glue holding him had just failed all at once.
But the glue hadn't failed. There was blood, a ton of it, and it dumped out of his body all at once, with a sick, thick splatter, and then a constant dribble as what was left sept out. A final splash ended everything, as the body...the pieces of it...were let loose to fall into the red pool, splashing across AEGIS' dress, and Justice's blood-soaked hands.
He turned to me again, and at once, any elation I had vanished. To be under his scrutiny felt like brushing death.
But he didn't kill me. Not immediately. And then, he didn't have the chance.
He screamed, as inhuman a noise as I had ever heard, such a resonant, echoing cry of pure suffering, it seemed to fill me up, and a pain I'd never known slashed into my skull even through the stims. Without being able to move, or scream, or even breathe, the pain seemed amplified a thousandfold, and I could do nothing but sit and endure it.
Justice began...unfolding. Parts of him were sort of...blistering off, blowing up, but then recombining and putting themselves back in a way which looked incredibly painful. His skin would rupture, and then separate into the geometric pieces, chunks of his own flesh separating, spinning, twisting, and then recombining. The whole of him became only vaguely human-shaped, almost grainy or staticky, as more of him became a flux of disassembly.
And then he stopped splitting and recombining, and instead it was Soran's mass of flesh which did. All of the thousand pieces of him floated and flit and fit together, assembling in a tower with every piece perfectly fitting together to reassemble him. It was mere seconds before he was standing there again, breathing hard, clothes reassembled and black and slick with blood.
And in his hand, clenched with trembling fingers, a tendril of his own blood, connected to Justice, a trail of splatter which had connected the two of them. And to be connected to Soran was death.
"W-what...what deception...is this?" Justice asked, and I wanted to flinch from the pain in his voice. "How…?"
"I think I'll keep these powers," Soran grinned, and he seemed to pulse with a surge of energy I could only feel. With it, my body dropped to the floor, suddenly released.
Suddenly released from Justice's power. Because now it was Soran's. I struggled to my feet to do...do something. Do anything. But I only got halfway up before again, I was arrested, unable to do anything but watch. Lightning surged on my skin, and I willed it to jump to him, for these impotent arcs to reach out and stop him, but I couldn't bridge that far. My swords hung useless in the air.
"So many powers," he laughed. He fucking laughed. "So many for me to take. Which should I have first?"
He laughed again, louder, harder, more unhinged. He looked like he was about to cry from it. He was the very image of triumph, and it was the most disgusting thing I'd ever seen.
And then he screamed as a white beam of vaporizing death blanked out half the room.
I felt his power lapse, just a moment, as we all stumbled, before freezing again. He was still up...of course he'd still be up. He had that nasty form of regeneration which had somehow let him survive being obliterated once. Of course Justice cubing him wouldn't work, and even Tem's laser hadn't been enough.
But I was glad she'd figured out she could still act. She didn't need to move to laser, and her beam wasn't anything she had to work to control. We still had that. Maybe, just maybe, she could still win this for us. If she broke his concentration and let the rest of us act--
But we never got that far. Justice, still floating somehow, resembling more man than meat again, pivoted on the spot and stared straight down at Soran, glaring over the red tendrils connecting them.
"I. Am. Justice," he hissed.
"And I--" Soran rebutted, before screaming again, as a black triangle opened around him, and he tipped sideways into the void. "N-no. Nooo!"
The gateway shrunk to nothingness, just a tiny black void hanging in the air. And then there was a flash and an explosion through it, nearly mute, which I recognized vaguely. But nothing happened, he was just gone.
Justice seemed to swell again as the blood tendrils connecting them broke and dropped to the floor, just ordinary trails of blood.
And then we all did. We all fell to the ground, the spell broken. The hundreds of Sorans still in the room moved with us for just a moment before they all vanished as well. And then there was a long silence as tiredness and peace set in for each of us.
But we'd done it. Soran was gone, banished to the hostile dimensions, where even with his powers, he'd certainly die. Unless Aesa came upon him or something but...well...I guess we'd have to look into that. The idea of him becoming a technopath was more than I could handle at the moment.
And hell, we'd just sorta-kinda fought alongside Justice. I turned to him, hoping that this moment of a common enemy could finally breach that huge, alien, insane misunderstanding between us, and hell, maybe, just maybe, we could somehow turn this whole thing for the better. Get him...I don't know...killing people in their sleep, so the XPCA wouldn't crumble.
But all those dreams were dashed when he turned and looked at me, his eyes blazing with something approximating fury, times a thousand. When he spoke, it made my blood surge.
"This world is fragile and unjust. I will break it. I am Justice."
And then, just as he had entered, he shot through the hole in the ceiling, leaving nothing but a pained silence in his wake.
"That didn't really go as planned," Cosette commented.
I just let my head fall, blood and dust cementing on the back of a skull too heavy to keep holding up, and let the pain wash over me from my thousand cuts and my missing arm as the stims began to ebb.