X brought himself under control with a concerted effort. He hadn’t intended to be quite so primal with his foe, but after tearing Orbous’s arm off, every bit of frustration, anger, despair and hatred he had been holding in since arriving at the Manor came flooding out. The lifeless thing on the floor had not been the source of that rage, but X had little room for mercy or regret at this stage.
X staggered toward the elevator at the far end of the chamber. When he stepped onto the platform, it automatically shut and began its descent. X let his mind wander as he was carried slowly down to the next level, where he would resume his battle.
He hoped he would get through the Manor without losing himself.
Paladin felt no tears, but he sobbed aloud at the sight of Orbous lying lifeless on the monitor, smashed apart by X. The green mechanoid had been his closest friend, really his only friend, since reawakening. The master called him friend, but the term held no truth to it in that instance. The lord of the realm had no friends among subordinates; a knight served a master, not a friend.
Changing his body and his name did not divest Paladin of his central essence, his spark, and that spark had been the definition of a knight of the realm. His old body had been fitted perfectly to his essential nature, and that nature had not changed.
“I am Paladin, but I am Knight Man, as well,” he rasped, sniffling away snot that didn’t exist. He rose from the monitor station in his battle chamber, drawing out his mace and readying his energy catapult shoulder weapon. “I will serve my master.”
Soon, he would face down a clearly wrathful Megaman X. He would not waver from his master’s commands, but he would also not waver from his own code. A true knight never did.
When the freight elevator slid open, X thrust his charged cannon outward. However, there was nothing to shoot at. The elevator had opened on a sort of grand feasting hall, reminiscent of tales of medieval lore. A long, beautiful oak table dominated the center of the rough stone chamber, ringed by chairs and laden with food.
Well, not real food. Approaching for a closer look, X could see that the plates were all small hologram projectors affixed to the table. Still, the roaring fireplace to the left of the room felt warm enough when he sauntered over to it. He supposed that would help with the atmosphere.
Wary of setting off more traps, X looked at the doors leading out of the room, one directly across from the elevator, one on the left wall and one on the right. He had options, it seemed. Following instinct, X went to the left door and grasped the handle, pulling it open.
The room on the other side of the door was decorated lavishly with tapestries, rich rugs, a pair of fainting couches and a four poster bed. It screamed Victorian, similar to the authentic medieval feast hall but slightly more modern and tasteful.
X saw nothing else of value in the room, and so he backed away. Turning his attention to the other side door of the hall, the Maverick Hunter methodically plodded over, charged cannon still held at the ready. When he pulled open this room, he found himself looking into an armory, weapons racks and armor and shield displays along three of the walls.
A quick analysis told him that this arrangement would make a great deal of sense for the old Robot Master who’d been known as Knight Man. Thinking on that, X wondered at the total count of Hephaestus’s felled minions.
“Titan, at Target Field,” X mused. “Shinobi, at headquarters. Twim, at the old factory. Then the ghoul, Caretaker, and the spider, Orbous. Now whoever Knight Man’s become. What about the other two,” he whispered. “There’s always eight.”
Silence answered him alone. He looked up and around the room, spotting a shield that looked to have a perfect circle in its center. X used a quick optic scan, detecting the camera behind the shield. He offered it a lopsided grin. “There’s two missing from these festivities, Hephaestus. Wily always had Megaman fight eight Robot Masters, except for the very first campaign. Hell, even Sigma used eight top-ranking Mavericks during his wars, a perfect emulation. You screwed something up, didn’t you?”
But again there came no reply from anywhere. It seemed he wouldn’t be getting a rise out of Hephaestus. He had hoped to rope the mechanoid into another conversation, maybe discover some hint of what was coming ahead of him.
X backed out of the doorway and stalked to the doors opposite the freight elevator. He took a moment to collect himself before proceeding, lowering his head, and letting his spark whisper to him.
Hephaestus admired Paladin’s courage. There would be no bots assaulting X before his encounter with the former Knight Man. There would be no traps sprung on the reploid either, as per Paladin’s request. Instead, X would be contending with a foe who not only knew his style, but who held immense homefield advantage and an arsenal that could rival X’s own.
Paladin had been in his level not ten minutes when he contacted his master with the request. He had not been in contact since, though Hephaestus could see on one of his floating holo-monitors the hulking mechanoid standing in the long hallway X stood just outside of, his energy catapult loaded and ready.
Hephaestus watched in high anticipation.
X drew the door open, the authentic wooden creak admirable. Or rather, it would have been, had the opening door not been tailed immediately by a large energy sphere rocketing at his chest. The blow struck, exploding on impact, throwing X unceremoniously up and then down through the feasting table.
The shot had crippled his kinetic shields and brought his life force down to eighty-three percent. A hole had been blasted, an inch in diameter, over his left pectoral area, granting him a look in at his shield generator box. Luckily, the shot hadn’t destroyed it.
That’s no combat drone, X thought, groaning as he tried to climb up out of the debris. As he gained unsure footing, he looked up, in time to see a menacing knight-like figure looming over him, swinging a tri-pronged mace down at his head. X leaned forward and took the blow on the shoulder, painful but survivable as the shoulder plating dented in.
The enemy bot fairly leaped back away, dashing backwards down the elegantly adorned hallway he’d been standing in, lying in wait. X got up again, more slowly but ready for anything.
“What’s your name,” X called out, aiming his cannon and charging it at the knight.
“I am Paladin,” the other bot replied, its voice a throaty growl. He shifted his feet, electrified mace held behind him at the ready. “And I will hold you here, Megaman X.” X fired the charged shot, which dissipated in a flare against a blue translucent energy shield that sprang forth from Paladin’s forearm. The larger bot was shoved back, his metal feet digging a groove in the stone floor, but he was otherwise unharmed.
Paladin moved his arm aside and lobbed another catapult shot, which X deftly slid forward under. The shot hit the freight elevator doors and blew them apart in a hellish cacophony of shrieking metal and wires. X fired two rapid standard shots, but Paladin already had his shield in place. The shots were absorbed effortlessly.
X took up an evasive stance as Paladin charged, mace held out to the side as he screamed a war cry. X changed his cannon over to the Rolling Mine and fired it as he leapt aside of the mace’s downward swing. The mine struck Paladin on the foot and exploded, but the heavyset warrior barely budged an inch.
I’m in trouble, X thought dimly, switching to the Spark Gap Attack. He fired into the floor as Paladin turned toward him, but the massively armored bot just planted his forearm against the floor and kicked on his shield, which absorbed the electrical current. X felt at a loss as he dashed to the right and into the long hallway.
Paladin gave chase, reaching out with his left hand and palming X’s face. With a heave and grunt, he rammed the reploid’s head back against a bust of Dr. Wily, smashing it apart. X dropped to the floor, but he managed to kick Paladin’s legs out from under him and fire the Spark Gap directly into Paladin’s back.
The bigger bot twitched and screamed for a moment or two, but was already getting to his feet when X started scrambling away, firing his cannon’s standard shots repeatedly. Paladin managed to bring his shield up after three shots hit home on his chest, gut and right arm.
Paladin then snarled, “You’re not the only one with a Buster Cannon here, X!” To X’s shock and confusion, Paladin’s left hand dropped into his bulky forearm, and the mechanoid shot a block of ice at X’s legs. The blow did no damage, but X saw trapping ice immediately go up around his legs and feet to the knees. He was trying to pull free when Paladin rammed into his face with the mace, sending X flying back.
When he hit the floor, three artificial teeth came out of X’s mouth. He could feel the synthskin shrinking from the scorching the mace’s electrodes caused on the right side of his face. His life force tank had been reduced to sixty-two percent.
X was, in short, getting his ass kicked.
The legendary Maverick Hunter got up onto his hands and knees and activated the Frost Shield, bringing it up just in time to stop another ice-based shot from Paladin. The larger mechanoid brought his left arm back and holstered his mace on his hip, bracing his cannon as he took aim at X, who slogged backwards down the hallway.
X tumbled aside from a pair of shots, vaulting up over a third and returning fire. His shot struck true, spinning Paladin aside from the impact. X then launched a Needler, then began cycling through his systems as Paladin ducked under his energy shield, pinned by the hail of needles.
X came up with a quick combination, having a moment to think. He launched another Needler, then a Rolling Mine while the Needler was still airborne, and finally he fired a rebounding laser beam that ricocheted off of the walls in diagonals toward Paladin.
The optics visor of the helmet-headed bot flashed bright yellow as he tried to crab walk away from the approaching Rolling Mine. As the second Needler took up its barrage, though, Paladin was pushed downward, and the Rolling Mine and bouncing laser struck simultaneously.
There was a scream of pain along with the concussion and blinding flash of the explosion. X stared into the rolling smoke, heard Paladin groaning and moving around. A moment later, a Mega Buster Shot came roaring out of the smoke, catching X on the right shoulder, blowing him backward in a daze of hellish agony, his body spinning in air.
X managed to sit up almost right away, and he saw his ruined right arm lying a few feet away. Past the limb, staggering out of the smoke, came Paladin. His left leg was a wreck, hanging poorly by a pair of cables. A fist-sized hole smoldered in his chest from the laser, and half a dozen needles stuck out of his head. Sparks burst from the shield projector on his forearm.
I’m going to die here, X thought bleakly. I’m going to be killed by a clone of my own weapon. But Paladin wasn’t aiming at X. His left arm instead had the hand unit out, and was clutching a small red device.
“X,” Paladin rasped, bringing the device up. “If we meet again, I am going to kill you.” Without waiting for X to reply, Paladin clicked a button on the device, and he disappeared in a streak of dark energy.
X slumped down to the floor, multiple system alerts clamouring for his attention. He dragged himself to his severed arm, picked it up, and hauled himself, growling, to his feet. The reploid then followed the hallway to its gated end, slipping into Paladin’s combat chamber. It had been modeled after a medieval tournament grounds, but X was only dimly aware of this.
He only paid attention to the crimson line painted on the artificial turf that led him to a repair chamber. Once over the threshold and in view of the repair bots standing at the ready, X let his fatigue and pain carry him down, into blissful darkness.
The last thing he saw as he was laid on a table, staring up at the reflective ceiling panels, was himself. His mouth, chin and right cheek were all gone, revealing the jagged metal-covered skull casing beneath.
He tried to laugh, and passed out