Ann, the masked woman, blocked a sword swing from a trainee. With ease, she disarmed the man, and held the blade tip against his neck. The woman swept his legs and plunged the weapon into the ground next to him. A disgusted look appeared on her face and she stepped on the man’s back. Ann dug her heel in, letting out her frustration.
“It’s not good enough! Way too slow, not enough force behind your swing, and a failure to channel any magic. You’re nothing compared to the real thing,” Ann scolded, removing her shoe from the man’s back after a full minute.
“My lady, a letter from the master,” Al informed her, handing the woman a sealed envelope.
“Thank you. Make sure they’re all following the outlined training guidelines. If anyone messes up, punish them with a stay in the chamber,” Ann instructed, heading toward her private office.
Al watched her leave, rubbing his forehead. She was getting to be a handful, much more than he expected. The lack of progress with her project was the main cause. Ann started off with optimism but the current results destroyed most of it. He assisted the trainee up, allowing him a rest on the bench. He would accept the consequences for his actions later. For now, he knew all of the people gathered had been pushed too hard. All of them required rest.
Ann sat down on her couch, tearing open the letter, and saw her father’s handwriting. She read through it before crumpling the piece of paper. The woman hurled it across the room, stomping her foot into the ground in anger. She wouldn’t stand for it. There was only one way to save this and that was showing off they were capable of winning against the heroes. It didn’t have to be Tess’ group. No, Lilith’s team would be the perfect victims.
“I’m just saying that if we have one more pass rusher…,” Bartholomew argued, sitting in the mall with Lionel.
“Wait, wait, you really think that we should trade for someone like that? There’s no way that will help. If anything, we need a better safety. Our main man is out right now. It’s a huge weakness,” Lionel refuted, eating a slice of pizza.
“You know that if we put enough pressure on the quarterback then the secondary will just be fine. We have to let the rookies play and make sure they can take over when the time comes,” Bartholomew pointed out, sipping his protein drink.
The two men were hanging out at the mall after finishing up Tess’ training session yesterday. Lionel planned to rest, but Bartholomew informed him about a deal on protein powder and other work out related items. Since the man was running low, he agreed to accompany Bartholomew.
“Lionel, your phone’s ringing,” Bartholomew noticed, pointing at his teammate’s bouncing smart phone.
“Oh, its from Lilith. Wonder what she wants?” Lionel tapped his phone screen before pressing it against his left ear.
“Lionel, they’re…,” Lilith’s voice suddenly cut off mid-sentence.
He stared down at his device, checking the screen, but saw nothing wrong. Lionel pressed the power button but nothing appeared. The man tried again one more time, still the same result. Bartholomew pulled out his phone and it didn’t turn on either.
“An artificial dimension?” Lionel stood up, scanning the area.
The loud music and chatter ceased, replaced by an eerie silence. When Bartholomew pushed away his chair, the noise echoed and amplified throughout the immediate area. Everything around them remained the same but appeared out of focus. Nearby shoppers and other people were still present but blended into the background. They lacked clear facial features, just silhouettes milling around with no direction.
“Yeah, I think so. Something’s not right about this one though. It’s not like Tess’ artificial dimension or the ones in our training sessions,” Bartholomew observed, keeping an eye out for any potential enemies.
Lionel lunged at a shadow, grasping nothing but air. He growled and equipped his steel knuckles. Bartholomew felt someone’s presence behind him. The man turned around but nothing was there. LIonel saw another moving shadow and pounced. He crashed into something and drove his fist downwards.
“Hey, hey! Lionel, it’s me!” Bartholomew blocked his ally’s strike.
“What is going on here?” Lionel flipped up, not trusting his sight.
“Poor, poor cats. Trapped in a playpen with no freedom. Being led by a blind leader that is nothing compared to the first. Don’t you want freedom? Don’t you want to roam around outside, able to stretch out your cramped legs? Join me! But, you must show me your worthy first” a ghastly voice wailed and then the entire area shifted.
The food court vanished, replaced with a dirt training field. Lionel recognized it as the one inside Tess’ training facility. Was this the Gatekeeper intimidating them? No, it wasn’t their doing. This type of hostility and execution wasn’t their style. Bartholomew and Lionel stood back-to-back, anticipating the looming threat.
A woman, wearing a dragon mask, emerged from the distorted background. Streaks of lightning shot toward the two men, scorching the ground with golden, smoking lines. Lionel evaded the attack, performing a handstand. Bartholomew wasn’t as skilled, and the lightning struck his left shoulder, leaving an electric burn. Before both men could confront the new arrival, another person entered the area. A man, wearing a skull mask, held a pipe in his right hand. He surfed over to Bartholomew, water waves propelling him forward at a rapid speed. The mysterious man smacked his pipe across the hero’s face and droplets of water splashed onto Bartholomew’s face. Lionel back flipped away from the woman, glancing back at his ally. The two masked individuals now flanked him.
“I don’t know who you are but I’m not going down with a fight!” Lionel charged the man, aiming for his weapon.
The pipe wielding assailant swung his weapon downward, aiming for Lionel’s head. The feline hero headbutted him in the stomach before suplexing him into his partner. The masked woman caught her ally, shoving him back at Lionel. Lionel spun around, grabbing the pipe, and rammed it into the masked man’s stomach.
“So you’re just not an innocent little kitty cat. Okay, you’re starting to finally show me your potential. Now, let’s see if you’re really a big cat that can hang with the likes of me!” the ghastly voice from before teased.
Bartholomew summoned a cheetah and sped towards the masked man. The masked man and woman removed their masks, exchanging them with a flick of their wrists. Lionel stared at their blurred faces, unable to recognize them. He rolled to the left as the masked woman fired a large stream of water at him. Bartholomew hoped to the catch his opponent off guard with explosive speed but the masked man kept up with the hero’s movement. The masked man lifted up the cheetah, tossing him across the area. Sparks appeared in the air, and then streaks of electricity struck the animal, disintegrated it.
Lionel morphed into a lynx, pouncing on the masked woman. He swiped at her mask but couldn’t knock it off her face. She pushed him away, displaying incredible strength, and fired off more streams of water. The hero weaved through them and landed on her again. In his feline form, Lionel finally landed solid strikes, leaving behind gashes across her stomach and shoulder. An ice wall suddenly appeared, separating the two combatants. Lionel dashed at it, ready to ram through the defensive obstacle. When he made contact, ice encased his upper body and front legs, binding him to the wall. All of sudden, hot steam struck his face and then severe burns developed on his leg. This reverted Lionel back to his human form.
“Come on, come on!” Bartholomew searched for an opening in his opponent’s movement.
The hero finally broke through and grabbed the man’s mask. He ripped it off of his opponent’s face and stomped on it. The mask crumbled into a pile of fine sand. Bartholomew stared downward in confusion. The masked man clapped his hands and another mask appeared on his face. This mask was in the shape of a crescent moon, sparkling stars decorating the interior. When the man looked at the hero, Barthalomew lost control of his body. The feline hero couldn’t move, pinned to the ground.
“You’re using…,” Bartholomew realized, staring at the masked man.
His opponent placed his right finger on his lips, shaking his head. The masked man stomped on Bartholomew’s hand, grinding the sole of his shoe into the man’s fingers. He followed up with a punt to the man’s head and knelt. Dazed by the attack, Bartholomew crawled towards him, reaching for the man’s leg. The masked man slapped him in the face and then lifted up Bartholomew for a jackhammer. He drove the feline hero’s head into the ground, knocking the hero out cold. The masked individual patted Bartholomew’s cheek with arrogance before stepping on his limp body.
Lionel blocked the woman’s rapid strikes, but tripped over his ally. He rebounded, showing off his agility, and attempted a flying kick. The masked woman caught his leg and slammed Lionel into the ground. The hero coughed out blood and struggled back to his feet. Ice encased the man’s arm and legs, before shattering into sharp pieces, which dug into his skin. The hero pounded his hand on the ground as severe burns appeared throughout his body.
“Time’s up!” the masked woman raised her hand into the air.
Lionel’s internal body temperature skyrocketed and he soon fainted. The woman lifted him up over her shoulders and body-slammed him into Bartholomew. She removed her mask, letting it fall to the floor. It dissipated into a fine flour before vanishing.
“Was that enough?” she glanced over at her accomplice.
“This is more than enough. Let’s get going. We don’t want to run into the Gatekeeper,” he replied, poking the unconscious Bartholomew.
“I think we could handle her,” the woman boasted, opening up a return portal.
“Please, we’d get destroyed. Ann said so herself,” he disagreed, stepping into the portal.
The woman glanced back at the two men. They weren’t even a challenge. With these new masks, any future battles were a cinch. She looked forward to the day when they finally faced off against Tess and her team. Lilith’s team were just bugs to be squashed in order to reach that goal.
Chihiro exited the store, finished with her shift. She noticed a large crowd in the food court and decided to check out what was going on. The woman pushed through the throng of people and peered over their shoulders. Paramedics attended to two men while police officers interviewed employees and other witnesses.
“What’s going on?” Chihiro asked one of her co-workers who stood near the front.
“I’m not really sure. They found those two unconscious on the ground and covered in blood,” he answered and pulled out his phone to take pictures.
“Weird. Did they get into a fight?” Chihiro watched the paramedics transport the two men away on stretchers.
“Who knows? Someone I know who was here earlier said those two were just talking at that table. All of a sudden, they’re down on the ground. I’m gonna head back. Break time is over for me. See you on the weekend,” Chihiro’s co-worker answered before departing.
A woman, her hairpins arranged in the shape of an equilateral triangle, approached the paramedics. Chihiro recognized her as Tess, Yuki’s friend. Why was she talking to them? Tess handed a note over to them. The paramedics stared at each other in confusion after reading the note. Tess eventually followed them out of the mall.
“What is going on?” Chihiro texted Yuki about what she just saw.
Lilith rushed over to the hospital as soon as Tess called her. Tess waited for her in the lobby, no emotion on her face as usual. The leader sat down, catching her breath.
“What’s their condition?” she accepted tissues from the Gatekeeper, wiping her sweat.
“Stable. Bartholomew and Lionel will recover in a week,” Tess informed her.
“That’s good to hear. I heard Felicity set up rooms for them. I have to make sure I thank her for that later. I appreciate that,” Lilith said, letting out a sigh of relief.
“Fel is responsible for all of that. Now, as for the cause, I suspect it’s related to that masked woman the Special Investigations Unit has been investigating,” Tess revealed.
The same person responsible for influencing Champ. It couldn’t be a coincidence she was targeting her team again. Champ was protected so she wouldn’t try anything on him. To Lilith, her actions were a declaration of war. However, she didn’t know the whereabouts of the masked woman or what her intentions were.
“Why Bartholomew and Lionel though? I get why it’s not Champ,” Lilith pondered.
“A display of power. Take down two of the stronger members of your team and it impresses those who are watching,” Tess answered.
“That can’t be it, Tess. If they really wanted to show off, why not target Yui or me?” Lilith didn’t understand their selection.
“If Mirei and her team were meant as a warning , then this is an escalation. It’s directed at me more than you. I’ll speak with Captain Maka and see if he’s made any progress,” Tess speculated.
Lilith nodded and followed the Gatekeeper up to where Bartholomew and Lionel were hospitalized. Doctors discovered internal bleeding, but nothing life threatening. Lilith folded her arms, staring at her teammates. They needed to speed up their search and recovery of Artifacts. Things were becoming way too complicated.