Knight Fever

Steel is one of the least colorful metals to exist. Unlike gold or copper, it takes no hue, and unlike silver, it has no natural luster. A dull, monochromatic material, spanning nearly the entirety of Level 654, matching the drab feeling you get when you wander it. This was all too familiar to Junior Archivist Diana Evelynn as she returned from her trip to the Cygnus Archive. She was only here to pick up supplies and rest before she had a tussle with whatever the entity Blanche had called the 'Black Rider' was. However, it was about to become rather unfamiliar soon.

Diana turned the corner into the outpost, and a sea of grey became a sea of red. Every surface, floor, wall, ceiling, and object was coated in a crimson sheen, splatters of blood almost… intentionally spread as wide and thick as possible. No, this was intentional. Not a soul was visible, not a word was spoken, and it seemed reasonable to assume that not a single resident had been left alive. There weren't even bodies left, sans one figure, pinned against the far wall of the outpost, hanging several feet off of the ground. Taking a cautious few steps in, Diana abandoned caution as she made out exactly who was hanging there.

M.E.G. photographer Nicole Matthews hung limply from a pylon, the handle of a long dagger poking out of her chest, the other end planted firmly through a note, then her, and finally into the steel behind. Her camera lay smashed on the floor, the lens she'd spent so much time putting back together in more pieces than it had started with. In fact, as she limply dangled, her feet still slightly swayed, and fresh blood dripped every so often. Diana had been late by minutes. She snatched the piece of bloodstained parchment, which glowed with blue runes.

qAxZxg aF ,F ZutXxk
zF uZx aVbJ

The silence of Level 654 was pierced by a single, guttural scream of anguish, before falling silent once more.


The Coliseum glowed faintly with stadium lights. Two strange machines sat side by side on a track, black metal glowing faintly with blue energy. It was as if someone had decided they'd like to die at the fastest possible speed, and strapped afterburners to bobsleds. A huge, hulking figure leaned against one of the units, face obscured by its hands. A small glowing light was followed by the removal of one of those hands, the other holding a lit cigar. The lady took a long drag, and the resulting smoke filtered through the spotlights on the asphalt. The glow of the cigar lit up her face, eyepatch, scars, and all.

A whooshing from behind was followed by a cool breeze. The lady smiled, dropping her cigar to the ground and stepping on it, black boot grinding the ash into the pavement. There was a whirling sound too, but it stopped abruptly when she caught the dagger thrown in a spinning arc towards her head inches before impact, holding the blade firmly in her gauntlet.

"Nyet, nyet. It is considered poor sportsmanship to kill the opponent before a match, yes, Diana Evelynn?"

Diana drew 783's gladius as a secondary weapon, and stood a short distance away in a fighting stance. "Good! You know my name; I can cut that out of the pre-murder spiel. Do you know why I'm here too?"

The woman stands up to her full height, a 6'6" stature that was making Diana strongly reconsider the head on approach. "You are here for Encabulator. Everyone is here for Encabulator."

"No, you…" Diana puts a gauntlet to her face. "I'm here to kill you, idiot!"

"Oh. Why would you do this?"

"I'm here to kill every Black Knight I can, and you're one of them, 'Black Rider'! You killed J, 783 has gone missing, and I just got an ultimatum via the death of a member of the M.E.G. addressed to me, which means I'm not going to stand here and let the Knights walk all over this place like they own it!"

The lady turned to face Diana, Knight helmet cradled in the crook of her arm, with a puzzled look on her face. "I know your exploits by story only, why would you kill me? I had no part in this. Do I look as if I am a Knight? Speak as if I am a Knight?"

"I… you're wearing their armor! What's your designation!?"

"I have not been Knight 014 in some time. I am also not this 'Black Rider' you talk of. This is misnomer made to scare the natives. I am Natasha, and that is all I am! I am guard of the Encabulator, and I will be until I retire." She extends a hand to Diana, which she cautiously takes. It's good then, to be cautious, as Natasha's handshake threatened to pull Diana off her feet. "Are you still here to kill, or would you like to challenge?"

Diana thinks about this for a second. "What is this 'Encabulator' thingy?"

"I do not know. The Technicians have their silly little toys, and then decide it is too dangerous to keep. Very dangerous in hands of enemy. They say to me, 'A competition holds more power than combat, here in Headspace. Defend this and one day you can retire'. I think they just want to be rid of me, now that they have newest model of Knight." She huffs, and spits on the ground.

Could this Encabulator be useful in taking down the Knights? If so, Diana had to have it. "What sort of… challenge is it?"

Natasha's eyes light up. "A one on one Chariot duel! You are unfamiliar, no? I will help you!" She places her hands under Diana's arms, and lifts her clear off the ground.

Diana kicks a little, struggling to get out of her grip. "Hey, what are you doing!? I didn't say I was going to actually do the contest, I just-" she starts but stops as she sees the look in the eyes of the woman carrying her. "… go on."

She sets her down in the seat of the Chariot, and puts Diana's arms in the proper spots. "I have not had an opponent in a long time! This will be good fun. You put your arms here, yes, just like this, and you point them where you want to go. Squeeze to go faster! One lap, driver at the end wins. Simple, yes?" After placing Diana's helmet on her, she seemed satisfied in her work, and stepped over to get into her vehicle. Diana noticed that the HUD on her helmet was a little more cluttered than usual; there was now a gauge for fuel (topped off), speed (zero), and mileage traveled (also zero). Upon connecting to the craft, it lifted slightly off the ground, hovering inches above the pavement in a way that made Diana slightly seasick.

"I squeeze to go faster, that makes sense. How do I slow down?" Diana looks over at her opponent, who's chassis sat noticeably lower to the ground than hers.

Natasha put her helmet on and laughed, the voice carrying over to Diana's helmet through some sort of comms. "Slow down? Why would you want to do that? Last opponent asked the same question. Start the race countdown!"

A glowing red orb appeared above the track, along with the sound of a klaxon.

"Why hasn't the last opponent come back to try again?"

A glowing yellow orb joined the last, with another klaxon.

"Hahaha, malyutka. Chariot duel is to the death! I cleaned last opponent out of your seat."

A final green orb joined the other two, with a louder and longer klaxon. The race had begun.

Diana squeezed as hard as she could on the "reins", and immediately regretted it. The afterburners on the back of the craft surged to life, and she made the 100 meters to the first turn in almost an instant. She pulled hard to the left, and narrowly avoided a full-on collision with the side of the pit by scraping by on the guard rails. The sparks from where the Chariot and the rails clashed covered her vision as a picture of her rival flashed on the lower had corner of her HUD: "I see why you might want to slow down! Brake pedal is how. Good luck!"

As the sparks cleared, she watched the trail of the rockets of her rival's craft speed away around the turn, and Diana pulled away from the rail to center herself. Ahead, there was a right turn on the course. When she'd arrived, it looked as if this was simply a mile long loop, but if that was the case, why was there a right turn here? She'd just made a left! Diana cursed herself for making an assumption. She was racing in a floating rocket powered bobsled against a Russian ex-Knight lady with an eyepatch, and she just expected the road to road properly?

"Damnit!" she yelled, rounding the second turn with less enthusiasm this time. She made the turn at about half her max speed, and it was all she could do not to crash again. Surveying the course in front of her, she saw the remnants of Natasha's rockets round the next turn, over 100 yards in front of her. She was already ahead, and by a lot! However, Diana was unconcerned. Her opponent clearly had much more experience with this course, and the Chariot in general, but she knew that she was unmatched in on-the-fly ingenuity. Not only would she catch on quick, but there would be some critical point she could turn this around, surprise her enemy, and come out on top. She punched it, making the next turn at a slightly faster speed, hugging the inner wall.

The comm crackled to life again. "Let us see how you fare against first obstacle!" Just as she heard this, Diana saw a panel pop up from the ground, right in the middle of the road. She swerved to miss it, and right after, a second set of two popped up. She barely managed to thread the needle. "You didn't say anything about obstacles! That's not very sportsmanlike at all!"

"It's a Chariot duel. Obstacles happen! Big deal." Diana watched her opponent swerve around a dip in the track, and mirrored this move a few seconds later. The pit of spikes below suggested this was a good move, but it left her sidewinded on the next turn; she had to hit the brakes again, costing her more distance.

This call and response racing went on for some time, with Natasha swerving to miss an obstacle, and Diana moving about the thing. Slowly, she got the feel for the erratic nature of the craft, and between trying not to die and improving her time on the curves, she came to a standstill with the ex-Knight, and then improved on her speed. Natasha always hit the brakes before a turn, and gunned it on the straightaways, meaning that Diana's technique of keeping a constant speed she could scrape by on the curves while not speeding up on the straightaways meant that the more turns there were relative to the stretches, the more she could catch up. Diana did the estimations in her head, and found that the track was slightly more curves than straightaways, as far as a good guess went. If she could keep up this pace, she'd outrace her opponent eventually!

"You take the curves well, but you are too cautious. This course, I know like the back of my gauntlet!" They round a curve nearly neck and neck, and Diana falls behind Natasha on the straightaway, predictably. "You will need it for this!" They come up on a funnel in the track, a narrow bit that forces anyone on it through a hole smaller than the eye of a needle, but instead of going through it, Natasha swerves as if she'd slam into the wall. Diana's trained eye makes out the shape of a huge zweihander in the hands of Natasha, which she plunges into the sidewall, allowing her to pass through it! She'd clipped off the track, but Diana could still see her position on the track in her HUD, rounding the corner as if she was still there.

Diana couldn't reach any of her armaments in time. She had no choice but to make it into the tunnel. She zipped through the narrow entrance, into a thin space covered wall to wall in huge, spinning sawblades. The pavement keeping her Chariot afloat was wire-thin, no more than a foot across. In the middle of the tunnel, a sharp turn forced her into a bank, the bottom of her craft hovering inches away from blades while her head felt the same on the other side. Finally, she pulled out of the banked turn, back onto the standard track, seconds behind Natasha, who'd finally come out on the other side of her clip.

"Ochen khorosho sdelano, very well done! That is, as they say, the make or break! Not many makes, and very many breaks there."

They round another turn. "What the hell was that! You left the track!"

A near miss on a stretch with several pillars. "Nyet, I was on the track the whole time! Track does not care what layer you are on, is all. It is one reason you should have your tiny sword out!"

They match up on a straightaway, as Diana looks over. "There's more reasons?"

"Yes! Like this!" Natasha holds her zweihander in both hands, and aims toward Diana, taking a swing at her head. She ducks just in time to feel it scrape off the back of her helmet, and she pulls out of range of the huge sword, trying to draw her own. However, she wasn't paying attention, and the front end of her craft hit a pillar, sending her into a spin that nearly made her throw up in the helmet.

She sat there for what felt like an eternity trying to pull herself together, as Natasha made it around another curve. A few breaths, and she shook her head, before she grabbed the reins again and clenched, hard. She reversed her grip on the sword, and made the right turn, plunging the tip into the pavement and providing some traction, taking the turn at a much faster speed than she could have otherwise, meeting up with Natasha a few seconds later. She pulled up on the throttle, matching pace with her adversary to take a swing, only to be stopped by a well-placed block from the zweihander. "You can only strike from the right side, but with my reach, I can swing both ways!"

Diana ignored the clear innuendo and pushed away from the lock they'd put themselves in, narrowly missing a wedge in the track that put her on the inside of a left turn. She was going too fast for this turn, and she couldn't use the sword technique from this side! She only had a few seconds to think of something, or she'd swerve into the wall of the track and crash. Responding quickly with her arms raised, the rockets lifted the back end of her craft upward into the air. This tipped the front end forward, and dug the tip of the craft into the ground, rapidly slowing her approach. Right as she reached the beginning of the hairpin turn, she moved her arms into the turn, pivoting on the front end before dropping them to her side and returning the craft to a gentle float, or as gentle as a float can be at over a hundred miles per hour.

"Nikoim obrazom! That is not possible!" Natasha, momentarily distracted, clips the edge of a wall with the front end of the Chariot, and spins out for just a fraction of a second. This puts both of them at an even pace, coming into the final mile of the track, according to the HUD. "No challenger has yet done this move. You are no longer plaything, Diana Evelynn. You are liability!" The track slowly narrowed, as Diana decided how to position herself before the final tunnel, only 100 yards ahead. Natasha was driving dead down the center, with Diana on the left, trying to force her to fall behind in the entrance. There wasn't any way to avoid this attack, so she'd just have to take the blow as gracefully as possible, and of course, she had a plan.

She briefly let go of the reins, falling behind. "Giving up so soon?" asks the ex-knight, pulling ahead and entering the tunnel. This wasn't a forfeit, it was a calculated maneuver. She entered a moment later, and gripped the right handhold like she was trying to strangle it. The thruster pulled through, and she skipped off the level track and onto the wall. Pushing ever further up, she noted that despite the craft floating, it was always counteracting a massive downforce from the speed. This was all the information she needed to move for the win. Maybe she couldn't pull off a flawless victory, but she could ensure that the win was down to pure chance, and that maybe luck would be on her side.

Steady on her current trajectory along the wall, she put the full left thruster into action too, and pulled up the side, moving along the circular surface slowly but surely towards the ceiling. Too busy gloating, Natasha couldn't see that Diana had matched her speed and position, 180 degrees around the tunnel's walls! Soon, they reached the end of the tunnel, and the final yards of the match. After losing the ceiling's surface, the craft stopped adjusting the downforce, and she began to sink. Her sword extended, she plunged it down into the body of the other craft, where it embedded as tightly as it could, and held on for dear life with one had as she pushed the thruster into overdrive with her other.

The results were dramatic, to say the least. The crafts had landed opposite one another, with the noses pointed north and south respectively. Then, east and west. Then south and north. The crafts, locked together only by 783's gladius and Diana's arm strength, were spinning like the world's fastest Beyblade down the track, carried only by their momentum from the tunnel.

"Let go, you little… monkey girl!" Because Diana had crossed into her range from above, Natasha couldn't strike with her large sword to save her soul, and the pummeling she could deal with her fists were numbed by adrenaline. 7, 8, 9 spins, and each driver thought they might pass out from the G forces, but it wasn't time to let go. Not yet. 10, 11, 12 spins. They were so close to crossing the finish line, and Diana's little gambit turned from a game of chance to a guaranteed victory strategy. She stopped watching the vehicles and scanned the horizon. The whirling slowed down, her vision clearing, and she waited for the finish to be dead in front of her before releasing her grip on the sword and making one final push. With Natasha's craft pointed the opposite way, she jetted down the course backwards, too fast to turn around before Diana's chariot crossed the finish line, the engine turning off and the bottom coming to rest on the pavement, sparks flying.

The pitch was silent for a short time.

Diana discarded her helmet, and laid her head back on the headrest.

Her breath fogged into the air and faded away into the night.

Then, the sounds of engines approached.

Natasha's vehicle came soaring across the finish line, and the engine turned off. Her Chariot skidded to a stop, and she unbuckled her harness, falling out of the cabin face first. "Woohoo!!! Yes! This is what I talk about!" She quickly jogs over to Diana's Chariot, the occupant unbuckling herself as fast as possible to evacuate and distance herself from her adversary. Clearly, Natasha didn't think herself an adversary anymore, as evidenced by her actions: lifting Diana out of the craft and pulling her into a tight hug. The only sign of animosity left in her was the sheer bone-crushing force exerted on an exhausted Junior Archivist Diana Evelynn.

"Very good! You are first of over dozen to ever win! This means I am done!" She dropped Diana to the ground, and looked around expectantly. "I have protected object until contest was won, now I retire! Yes, Technicians?"

The pitch remained silent.

"Ah, yes. Silly Natasha, I must present prize." She ran back to the other Chariot, and retrieved a small, boxlike device. It glowed slightly blue, and Natasha presented it to Diana rather ceremoniously, if not quickly. She knelt, handed it to Diana, and upon passing it over, sprang back up. "Okay! I am done with mission. Take me back, Technicians!"

The pitch remained silent.

Diana stared at her, as the smile faded from her face. "I… do not understand." She scanned the horizon, looking for any sign of a change. "Where are Technicians? I retire after this mission, I…"
She looked forlornly at her helmet. "Did I fail mission?"

A single tear fell from her remaining eye.

"Hey, Nata-" Diana began, but she was cut off.

Natasha practically wailed in anguish. "I have failed mission! I should never have let guard down, I… I got excited to finally leave and I let the opponent win! I let the opponent win and now I'll never retire! I'll never retire, I'll never-"

Diana put her arm around the woman as best as she could manage, given the size discrepancy. "No, no! You did your best! Listen, listen, listen… these are bad people, the Technicians! They were never going to let you retire anyways! This is a good thing, I promise."

She sniffled a little. "This is… good thing? How is this good thing?"

"Now you don't have to wait here anymore. Whether you get to retire or not, your mission is over. You don't have to be isolated here, where they abandoned you. You see this here?" Diana collects a tear, fallen on the ex-Knight's breastplate. "This is probably why they replaced you. Because you have feelings, and they needed emotionless robots."

Natasha's crying redoubled. "It is a weakness… Natasha… the real Natasha, my handler, she tried to help me get rid of it, but I never… I couldn't…"

"No." Diana looked her dead in the eyes, less sympathetic and more discerned. "It makes you harder to control, which makes you more powerful than someone without feelings. They didn't replace you because you were useless, they replaced you because they were scared of you! Scared because you were too powerful to control. My mother… I mean, my handler, she told me that emotions are what ground you. They help you push back against anything in your way. These tears mean you are strong, Natasha! I mean, in ways other than the obvious."

"You… you really think this?" The ex-Knight removed a gauntlet to wipe at her eyes.

"Come on. I know it. Are you calling me dumb?"

"No, no, I…" she paused, and Diana took a couple deep breaths, encouraging Natasha to do the same. They sat in silence for a little bit, with Diana's arm wrapped as much as it could be around Natasha.


"So… what happens now?"

Diana thought for a second. "I… don't know. I have a goal, and I don't know how to achieve it. I have a device I don't know the purpose of, and…" she trails off. "I'm low on friends."

"Friends?"

Diana looked over at Natasha. Oh my god, she doesn't know about friends.

"Friends are… hmm. That's actually kind of a hard thing to define. Friends are… well, here's this. You and I are friends."

"We are friends? Hmm." Natasha looked briefly lost in thought. "It would be good to have more of you, I think."

They sat on the hood of a Chariot, Diana's legs swinging back and forth while she tried to plan her next move. Her head was throbbing, and it was hard to think after the effort from the race. "I suppose maybe I just start fiddling with this box until I figure out how it's a threat to Black Knights, and we go from there." She picked up the thing, looking for some kind of button or switch to press, when a gust of wind from behind blew in.

There, standing a few feet away from the warped wall of the clip, was a Black Knight. It stood with a limp, left knee buckled over to the side, right arm extended slightly out, pointing at the two of them. Two entire svartalbranders stuck out from it's armor in the left elbow and just above the left knee, and it was losing blood, fast.

"I would not do that, if I were you."

The Knight collapsed to the pavement.

Natasha looked confused, but Diana was only surprised.

"783!"



rating: +15+x
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