X watched as three more saw blades poked up out of the narrow lane and buzzed along towards the end of their slots, a few feet ahead of him. The ceiling was low, the walls only three feet apart, and from the doorway he stood in, there were no alternative routes.

He couldn’t well avoid all three of the blades when finally moved forward. Cramming himself to one side, he would be struck by at least one of the blades.

X fired a shot at the right-hand blade, which slowed down for a moment before speeding right back up and lurching forward to catch up to the other two spinning disks. X shot it again, this time with a Mega Buster Shot, but the effect was the same.

He leaned against the doorway and considered his brief observations. A quick calculation later, he pushed himself upright and readied his cannon. When the three saw blades trawled back to the opposite end, pausing to reverse direction, X shot the one on the right and stepped forward two paces.

As the blade regained its speed and started to accelerate to match the line of the other two, X shot it again. The pause put a few more feet between the right saw and its partners, and X stepped closer again. One last shot, and he had enough room to comfortably step up and to the left, clear of the third blade’s path and with the first two behind him.

X dashed ahead to a 90 degree intersection in the corridor, and found himself looking down another stretch of floor with three moving saw blades. The track was a little shorter this time, though. His margin of error would, as such, be smaller.

Yet the timing trick worked out once more, and this time his turn was to the left. As he came around the corner, X was struck in the head by an energy shot, thrown back and down by the blow. His kinetic shielding held, and he quickly rolled back out of the way of another shot.

He’d caught a glimpse of that third stretch of corridor. Three more floor-crawling blades, and halfway down the track, an energy shot turret aimed in his direction. With his cannon on his left arm, he’d have to expose at least part of himself in order to fire at the turret.

“Damn,” he muttered. He charged the cannon, took a deep breath, then quickly dashed out and fired at the turret. The Mega Buster Shot took its target, but X still got hit by an energy projectile. He stumbled back, his shielding gone and four percent life force drained.

The saw blades were easy enough to work around, as he had the first two sets. When X got to the next corner, he quickly darted a look around it.

What he’d seen in that quick peek confused him. The next walkway led a hundred yards down to a narrow gate out of the chamber. There were no blade tracks, no turrets, and no bots barring the way. Something didn’t pan out.

X took another quick peek, but he saw the same thing the second time round. He didn’t trust it; this level had been laden with and centered around various types of traps. Nothing was as simple as it seemed.

Using the fact that the corridor turned right from him now, X wrapped his cannon arm around the corner and fired a Rolling Mine. He heard it moving along, rolling at an even pace, undeterred.

At the count of twelve, he heard a ‘clack’ followed by the rushing whoof of flames. The Rolling Mine detonated. X fired another one, this time watching it go. Some fifteen paces in by his stride, the ball weighed down a pressure plate, which activated flamethrowers in the walls, which caused it to explode.

X came around the corner and walked slowly up the final corridor. He stopped a few feet shy of where the Rolling Mine had hit the pressure plate. X looked down, saw that the plate was about three feet long, an easy jump for him.

X landed on the other side of the pressure plating on one foot, swinging the other foot ahead, cutting across a laser sensor’s path. “Uh-oh,” he managed, just before a long steel ‘I’ beam swooped down and smashed into his abdomen, sending him crashing back against the head of the corridor.

The ram had chipped away six percent of his life force. With a snarl X returned to the pressure plate and jumped over, holding himself still. He aimed his cannon low at the laser sensor, easily destroying it. As soon as it burst apart, a ceiling-mounted turret swung down, but X had anticipated such a problem. Leaning his head back, he reached up with his right hand and tore the turret right out of its socket, throwing it down the hallway.

The legendary Maverick Hunter followed after the skidding weapon, halting when its weight activated another pressure plate. The righthand wall rammed against the left wall in a five-foot segment, smashing the turret flat.

X activated his thrusters and swiftly hovered past the pressure plate, landing before the gate. He pressed a nearby green button, and the gate slid open, revealing another narrow, empty corridor, one doorway on the left halfway down, and a sensor gate at the end.

He was about to face another of Hephaestus’s minions.

 

Orbous had known X would make it to him relatively intact. The reploid was now a scant one-hundred yards away. Only a sliding gate stood between them now. Orbous had been watching X throughout the level, and his hopes had been reduced to ashes.

He was going to die.

Of all eight of the mechanoids Hephaestus had revived, Orbous had been the least aggressive, but the most intelligent. At least, he thought so. He should have been more valued by the master, kept safe from the depredations of direct combat. Why had he not been given an escape, like Paladin?

Orbous checked his weapon’s settings once again, hoping it would at least be over with quickly.

 

X came out of the maintenance chamber and once again performed a system sweep of

his internal programming. Once again there were unfamiliar lines of code present, each one  quarantined and then eliminated from his system.

X readied his cannon, approaching the gate with a clear mind. Whatever happened now, he knew he still had at least one more floor to clear before his collision with Hephaestus. Their confrontation would likely be massive, and he did not expect to come away from it unscathed.

X stepped onto a pressure plate before the gate, and it swiftly slid upward into the ceiling. The room revealed beyond was an enormous cube with scores of video monitors on the left and right walls. Standing sixty yards away was a tall, stout green mechanoid with a man-like body and a spider’s head, replete with pincers and multi-faceted eyes. The mechanoid had a wrist-mounted blaster, held against the opposing shoulder in a ready stance.

The mechanoid stood silently, its pincers slowly shutting and opening in anticipation. X stepped forth into the room, and the gate slid shut behind him. The monitors on both sides of the room flickered and changed until X saw Hephaestus on his throne, every monitor on each wall used to form a composite.

“Orbous,” Hephaestus boomed over the hidden speakers in the ceiling. “You have served me well, my friend. The Hunter before you now has withstood every challenge put before him. Now you stand in his way. Fear not, Orbous. You have seen him fight; use your knowledge now.”

X quickly fired a single shot, but the mechanoid, Orbous, dodged aside from the energy pellet with ease. X fired three successive shots, but the semi-arachnid bot ducked the first, jumped the second, and pirouetted aside from the third.

In Orbous’s mind, a cold, steel trap had been sprung. He knew X’s patterns, his behaviors. The emotions that had threatened to choke his mind were cleared away, leaving only a predator’s logic. He fired his blaster four times in rapid succession, watching X dash aside the first three, the fourth catching him low on the left leg and tripping him up. Orbous’s scanners indicated that X’s kinetic shields were reduced to seventy percent from the single shot that landed.

Orbous hadn’t just been watching X’s actions on the monitors, the green mechanoid realized. His scanner and analysis systems had been clocking every internal adjustment the legendary Maverick Hunter made, automatically creating defensive and counter-attack subroutines to use in this combat.

As X switched to the Spark Gap weapon, Orbous’s back slid a small panel open, firing a thread of diamond-filament wire to the ceiling. His body rose up several inches as X flooded the floor with electricity, and Orbous fired several more shots.

Two hits, and X was flung back, rolling away from the impact. Orbous’s scanners informed him the reploid’s kinetic shields were now down. As X started to get up, Orbous launched himself through the air, detaching his web line and firing out another to the left.

As X raised his arm cannon to fire, Orbous yanked himself hard to the side on his fresh line, avoiding the shot by scant inches while his right leg whipped up into X’s face. The impact rocked both of them, but Orbous severed his web line and was ready seconds before X.

Leaning forward, Orbous fired a jet of the webbing wire at X’s cannon arm, looping around the weapon and hauling toward himself with all of his strength. X fell to the floor with a shout of alarm. Taking advantage of the moment, Orbous fired a connected line of web-wire at the ceiling, effectively locking X’s weapon arm in place.

X, meanwhile, was in a state of fury. He had expected a reasonably quick and easy fight, but this bot wasn’t giving him any openings. It seemed as though this Orbous fellow kept one or two steps ahead of him at all times. And as X struggled to free his arm from the wire-web, the spider-headed bot shot him four more times, laying X flat.

He was down to eighty percent life force, and his chest and left shoulder plating was now scorched and denting inward.

X tried using the Flamethrower on the wire, but to no avail. Orbous came swooping in for another melee attack, but this time X was ready for him. The Maverick Hunter launched a savage punch to the center of Orbous’s face, and X felt something break. Roaring in pain, Orbous flailed back, his left mouth pincer falling off with a clatter.

X then activated the Frost Shield. He felt the web-wire turn brittle as the ice covered it, and with a yank he freed the cannon. Orbous leapt away, displaying superior leg strength in clearing half of the chamber in a single bound. X snarled, firing several rapid shots, all dodged. Orbous wasn’t faster than him; he simply knew X’s strike patterns, it seemed.

X had a revelation then. Every enemy he’d faced within the Manor thus far had been gunned down. With a wicked grin he deactivated the cannon, bringing his left hand unit back into place as he charged at Orbous.

Orbous began shooting wildly at X, who dashed, rolled and jumped over the shots. When X was in reach, he grabbed Orbous by the weapon arm and hauled hard to the left, lifting Orbous off the floor and hurling him away. The green mechanoid managed to fire a wire line at the ceiling, however, stopping himself from a collision with the wall.

But the line hung too low, and as Orbous refocused his attention on X, the Hunter came dashing upward, delivering a hammering hook punch to Orbous’s head. The arachnid bot fell to the floor, dazed and wounded. X packed a lot of power into a single punch.

From his back, Orbous fired up at X, but the reploid had snap-rolled away already. As Orbous got to one knee, X came in from the right, swooping around behind Orbous and latching onto the green mechanoid’s wrist. X hauled upward, planting one foot on Orbous’s neck and pulling with every ounce of strength he had.

Pain crashed like thunder through Orbous as X ripped the arm with the attached blaster off of his body. Sparks and wires flapped about, Orbous shrieking in horror and agony as X proceeded to beat him over the head with his own arm. Each blow brought a primitive grunt of effort from the reploid, and soon Orbous’s neat, orderly thoughts became a hodgepodge of survival panic.

Trying to skitter away, Orbous yelped when X grabbed his left ankle and planted one foot against his ass. With a burst of full-powered thrusters and a Herculean pull, X ripped Orbous’s leg off, leaving him limbless on the left side of his body.

What came after that, for Orbous, was a series of dull impacts, and then darkness, as X stomped on his head repeatedly.

 

“Dear gods,” Hephaestus muttered, watching as X committed to the brutality of the last few stomps he delivered to Orbous’s crushed head. It seemed X had reached a breaking point. Either that, or he’d realized that ranged combat wasn’t a viable solution to Orbous. Perhaps a bit of both, he mused.

Now, only he and Paladin remained.

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