by Max Fauth

December 6. Christmas time in the Zone. For most people, Christmas was a time of joy and celebration of traditional beliefs. For some, it was a time of grumbling and complaining about commercialisation, prices and any number of things. In the Zone, it just meant that it was getting colder. To Lillith, one of the zone's newer inhabitants, it was just another day approaching.

It was late in the afternoon. The already cold temperatures were dropping further, the sky was darkening and people were getting off the cold streets into their slightly less cold homes. Lillith had taken brief refuge in a small, dingy bar in the middle of nowhere. She sat at the counter, occasionally sipping from a small drink and watching the world around here. It was her favorite hobby, in so far as she had a hobby.

The seeming peace and quiet in the bar was suddenly broken, as all the patronage turned to watch Lillith. Just a second ago, she'd let out a piercing scream of pain. Now she was clutching onto the counter with one hand, the other clawing at her throat. She was gasping for breath; her face screwed up in some unbearable pain, unfathomable to those watching her. But as soon as it started, the display stopped. Her grip relaxed, and she was breathing easily again. The patrons turned back to their drinks, conversations, deals or what have you, some annoyed by the interruption and some secretly hoping the entertainment had lasted a touch longer.

The bartender leaned over the counter, where Lillith was now catching her breath. "Miss, are you alright?" he quietly asked. She shoved a hand up, pushing him away, then rose unsteadily from her stool. Staggering slightly, one hand on the side of her head, Lillith made her way out of the bar. The bartender looked oddly at her drink, sniffed it quietly, then surreptitiously put the bottle it came from up on the back of the shelf.

Lillith staggered out of the bar, glad for the comparatively fresh and crisp air of the street. She couldn't explain what had just happened. Was it some kind of attack? A shockwave? Maybe something was wrong with her? Whatever it was, it had pierced through her mind, an excruciating pain that left her unable to breathe, move or even think for a few agonising seconds. Now it was gone, but it left behind a booming, throbbing headache. The noise in her head receded enough for noise from elsewhere to make its way in. From somewhere in the zone, down in the southern part she guessed, came a massive booming noise. Her mind raced. Some kind of huge explosion. Down south, where Ran lives. And the sudden pain. Were they connected?

She made her way south, straight into the storm. The streets were deserted, more so than usual. As she got nearer, she could here the evidence of what was happening. Sounds of more explosions, of shattering walls and rending metal, of splintering wood and crumbling bricks. There was no doubt in her mind by now. This was Ran's doing. Supposedly the most powerful psychic on the planet. Depending on who you listened to, he was supposed to be power incarnate, or thoroughly mad. Some said both. Whichever it was, she was looking forward to meeting him.

The pressure in her head was building up even more. It got to a stage where she was having trouble thinking then suddenly slacked off. Had he stopped? No, more likely she couldn't detect it any more. Besides, there were more then enough physical signs of his handiwork. The air was filled with smoke, dust and flying debris. A roaring noise of motorbikes came from further up the street. In that direction, she could see an odd group: four kitbashed motorbikes, the riders in tattered clothing but all with red cloaks. Each wore some kind of symbol on their backs; she couldn't identify it, but it wasn't hard to guess. As they rode along slowly, they yelled out "Ran is coming" and "Prepare for the end."

On cue, the main attraction appeared. Striding out of the dust and smoke came a figure that any Zone dweller could identify, preferably from a great distance. He was dressed in thick boots, ragged jeans, a white t-shirt and thick welder's gloves. A red cape topped off his outfit. His hair was long and wild, jutting out in every direction it could. His face was impassionate; as if the destruction around him was inconsequential. It was Ran. And he had spotted her.

He stopped in the middle of the street, his (insert eye colour here, Mike) eyes meeting her piercing blues. For a very long while, they both stood in silence. All sound seemed to have drained out of the world. A stiff wind blew through the deserted street, ruffling his hair and playing with her silvery braid. Some small debris, a bit a garbage, even a few lost leaves skittered across the street. Right now, to these two, it was as if they didn't exist.

"So," he finally said, in a raspy voice "Another has come to be tested."

She was somewhat surprised to hear him say this. Tested? Wasn't that was she was here? Did he know about her? Of course not... He was referring to a test of his own. But what kind of test? Power? Was she to match power with him? The thought thrilled her. To fight Ran. To beat Ran, maybe. That would prove her abilities beyond a doubt. A faint smile played on her face.

"Yes," she replied with confidence. "That's why I'm here."

There was no reply, at least immediately. Lillith felt a slight drop in pressure around her. In an instant she erected her force field, just in time to protect her from a crushing force, impacting on her from all directions. The ground around her cracked and was driven down. It drove her to her knees, but she remained upright, gritting her teeth and fighting against the force.

I was careless, she thought as she stood. With a thought, she raised a second layer of defenses, the two combined being almost impenetrable. When he next attacks...

Her thought was cut off as, with a scraping of metal, a car lifted from the ground and hurled itself straight at her. She tried to concentrate on it, to fling it back at him, but it was just too big. The car hit her barrier, stopping in mid-air in front of her, a domed dent pressed into its underside. The car then collapsed inwards, wrapping itself around her and crushing her within.

"Still alive?" He said, the arrogance clear in his voice. "Shall I test you further?"

The only response was the mess that once was a car collapsing to the ground. Ran concentrated on it one last time, lifting it from the ground and hurling it into a nearby building. The metal ball crashed through the wall and lay still, leaving rubble to settle on it. Ran turned and walked away, resuming his path and laughing at his opponent's pathetic effort.

A minute went by in dead silence. The procession was long gone, the smoke cleared, the dust settled. The wreckage of the car burst apart, flinging mechanical debris everywhere. Lillith emerged from the car, battered, bruised, bleeding from a cut on her forehead and sore all over. But she was still alive.

She stumbled briefly out of the rubble and eventually sat down, clearing her head. She concentrated on what had happened, wondering what to put in her report. "Day 15," she muttered. "Attended a humility lesson." She laughed briefly at her own stupidity, then stood up, wincing in pain. "That which does not kill me..." she began, as she walked away.

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