Stand 23-V

What We Truly Are.

I coughed, deep and painful and wracking. Instead of blood, though, a spurt of smoke shot out of my mouth, curling upwards and dissipating into the air. I was coming apart, I could feel it. Like my skin was disintegrating away. It was kind of secondary, though, to the sensation of being gored through the torso.

The weirdest part was that it didn't hurt. Not exactly. Not in the way regular injuries did, at least. The horn had pretty much gone straight through my abdomen, the section that was already missing. These smoke-bodies had already proven themselves fairly adept at simulating real pain, but being damaged slash half-functioning like that section was seemed to have broken that particular function. So instead of feeling like I had a horn through my gut, it felt like I had a horn through my soul.

Someone in the crowd screamed.

“Well, maybe this will make those idiots run away.”

I wasn’t dead, and I could still move. If I was thinking clearly, I might’ve done something smarter. But, I was still hyperfocused on being stabbed, so I didn’t do that and did something dumb instead.

I planted both my feet on Paladin’s shoulders, her roar cutting off with surprise. I grabbed the spike with both hands, bracing myself, and snap it off.

The good news, was that it worked.

The bad news, was that there was nothing holding me up now.

The worse news was the horn was still speared through me.

Paladin reared back with a scream as I fell. The horn hadn’t come off neat; it had fractured like crystal, leaving a jagged stump on top of her head. I hit the ground almost directly on the spike, sending another spike of pain through my soul, and a much more real one through my chest as the spike shifted into a part of me that hadn’t been damaged yet.

Now I coughed blood, a thin spray shooting upwards and mixing with smoke that was also expelled. Oh god, oh god, oh god, it hurts, it hurts-

“Woman up, Hannah. Push through it. It isn’t real, remember? This isn’t you. You’re fine. If getting your guts clawed off didn’t stop you, this won’t either. It isn’t real.

It isn’t real. It isn’t real. Slowly, clenching my jaw, I grabbed the spike and pulled it out. There was a little bit of resistance at first, it had stuck into the ground below me, but then it was out, with only a little bit of blood smeared across its surface. Which also hurt, needless to say, but it was better than having it in my body.

With that out of the way, I was able to get back onto my feet. I’d landed on the edge of the platform, where I’d made a small crater in the concrete. When I had a quick look around, it seemed like the rest of the people had fled, thank goodness. The train sat on its track, unmoving; apparently, whatever kind of safety systems it had had finally kicked in and shut it down.

Paladin also stood on the tracks, pawing at her head with one limb. It wasn’t bleeding, no flesh had been caught in it, but it was… oozing. I checked the horn, which I was still holding in one hand, and found that it too was dripping slightly, some kind of almost ichor-like golden liquid that evaporated away before it hit the ground.

Gross.

I couldn’t spend the time to try and figure out why a hard-light projection would liquify. Paladin had apparently accepted the loss of her horn, and began charging at me again. The tracks weren’t exactly wide, though, so she didn’t have much room to build up speed. It also meant I didn’t have much time to react.
I desperately threw myself to the side as she crashed into the platform, tearing straight through the concrete. She almost half-buried herself in it, and for a brief, hope-filled second I thought she’d managed to trap herself. Then her awkwardly-sized wings slapped against the ground, leveraging her out. So much for that.

“Okay, stop and think.” I threw myself into the air as she charged me again, arcing over her head and landing behind her. “Well, don’t stop, but, you know. For the first time, we’re not actually trying to prevent her from breaking something, or going somewhere.”

What’s your point?

“Well…” I picked up a piece of rubble and threw it at Paladin. It shattered harmlessly off her side, but it distracted her for long enough that I could get out of the way. “What are we going to do?”

What do you mean? We’re going to… oh.

“Yeah.” Paladin sideswiped a supporting pillar, causing the whole structure to tremble dangerously. “Right now, we’re sort of on a ‘dodge her to death’ plan, which isn’t going to work. Our options are either try and contain her, which has gone poorly so far because she keeps growing bigger. Or…”

...yeah. We can’t… I mean, she’s…

It’s not right.

“Right is kind of not the highest priority right now?” I picked up a vending machine with the intent of throwing it at her again. “Also, that’s not going to do anything.”

It’ll distract her. She was moving faster than I’d thought, though, and even though she turned away to avoid it smashing into her face, her momentum carried her straight towards me anyway. I went light and leaped out of the way, but the very edge of my foot caught on something and sent me into a spin.

I hit the ground and bounced a few times before coming to a stop, groaning. Thankfully, though, Paladin had buried herself in the remains of the wall, so I had a few moments respite.

As I sat up, I noticed that my wound seemed to be producing more smoke than before.

Like, a lot more.

I’d actually left a trail through the air, a few arcs of wispy lavender that were quickly fading away. They were thick, though, and the hole in my torso was still spewing it out like a smoke machine.

Oh, that’s not good. Experimentally, I went solid again, and while I could still do it, it definitely felt… less. Just sort of less.
“Okay, and there’s also that, now. So we’re effectively on the clock. We have to figure out something before we lose this body completely, and unless you’ve come up with any brilliant ideas in the last sixty seconds…”

We’ll delay, I decided. Keep on dodging, keep her here, wait for Thrust and the others to catch up.

“That’s a dodge and you know it! We need to-”

What?! We need to what?!

“...stop her.”

Cut out the euphemisms! Just say it!

“We need to kill her! There, are you happy?! We need to kill her, before she kills someone else!”

With a roar, Paladin extracted herself from the rubble, sending a spray outwards. I turned to face her, raising my fists.

I… don’t think I can.

“Well, too bad. She’s-”

Paladin roared again as she stretched her wings, tearing through a support structure, sending rubble raining down. The noise was cacophonous, but one sound still cut clear through it.

A strained, high-pitched scream.

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