Max was well on her way to escaping this familiar hell pit when she heard the voice. She slowed her advance to a jog, and as the Ishkahl projected light through its peculiar Rupturing portal, she stopped altogether. An emaciated woman with long, matted hair stood in her tattered smock with a standard issue pickaxe in hand. The tool was rusted with blood stains. Any appearance of physical weakness as a result of starvation was made up by the burning, seething hatred in her intimidating stare.
Maxine asked with a tilt to her head, blinking at the figure in her way. Her eyes narrowed as she searched deeper into that vaguely familiar, gaunt face. Her fingers adjusted their grip on the gladius and she took a tentative step backwards, brow raising with disbelief. It wasn't another convict challenging her escape. It was...herself. "What...what are you?"
Instead of giving a reply, her doppelganger charged.
The pick-axe came swinging with a tenacity she didn't expect from her hollow-cheeked counterpart. It put her on her heels, bobbing and jerking away from the wild, heavy swings as they came. Once the steel head of the weapon passed her for the fourth time, she made her move. Her left fist cracked across the bony side of her doppelganger's face. Then her gladius came screaming from the outside for a heavy, bisecting cut. It stopped short when she felt the pickaxe head thump sharply into her middle. Max fell backward onto the ground, back slamming against the stone wall behind her. She gasping now that the wind had been reaped from her lungs. Her head rolled up to spy her adversary standing over her, pickaxe raised high. Memories of caving in Lenny's
head after he made his threat rushed into her mind. The image of her own pickaxe through his crushed face sent her scampering sideways just as the weapon came screaming down in real time. The doppelganger growled, her swing crushing naught but gravel.
Looking to capitalize from the ground, Maxine's leg swung out to reap one of her imposter's. When Animal Maxine dropped forward to the ground, the authentic one lunged forward with a straight jab with her sword. A mass of clouds burst through the tunnel and she felt the point of her weapon clink
off rock. She shoved herself up and spun rapidly about in confusion. The Fog was her trick, her strategy. She hadn't deployed it. Where had it come from if not from her? She heard someone suck in air behind her, and she rotated to parry the pickaxe as it parted through the fog just before it blasted her. The awkward angle of her enemy's tool caught her blade and carried it out of her hand. Somewhere in the darkness the gladius ricocheted off a tunnel wall. Lip curled, Max rushed low and body-locked her doppelganger, hurling her brutally backward onto the unkind ground.
"I didn't leave you,"
Maxine hissed between grit teeth as she procured a dagger from her belt, seated in a top mount on her imposter. "I outgrew you."
She plunged the dagger downward toward Animal Maxine's face, who thwarted it by bracing the pickaxe handle up against her forearms. Max leaned all her weight forward. Animal Maxine's strength began to cave beneath her force. Maxine glared down to meet her adversary's stare, finding it to be all too familiar indeed. She knew that look. It went beyond hatred and anger. It went beyond an ego. This was the stare of someone who had nothing left to lose. Someone driven by a spite that could never be satisfied. There was only one way to stop her now. Max applied more force, and further her dagger sank toward one of Animal Maxine's eyes. That's when the doppelganger opened one of her palms holding up the pickaxe to let a stream of acid shoot into Maxine's face.
Max snarled, turning her head and shutting her eyes. It was too late. The few couple trills weren't that bad. Then it started to burn
. She shook her head and tried to pry her lids open, only for that burn to intensify. "Fucking cunt!"
Blind, Max felt herself get thrown from her superior position. Now she was on her back with Animal Maxine in her guard. Her legs locked up around her imposter's hips. She forced her eyes open with a shriek of pain and rage, blinking rapidly to push the substance from her eyes. The effects were only getting worse, but dammit, she wasn't going to die with her eyes closed because of a little pain. She shifted her head out of the way of the pickaxe point before it poked a hole in her visage. Max moved sideways and braced her shin across her enemy's waist. Bits of stone rained onto her searing face as Animal Max pried the pickaxe from the ground. By then it was too late for her to make another attempt. A quick scissor sweep had turned the tables again. Pissed off and looking for righteous revenge, Maxine was all over her Animal counterpart.
She mocked bitterly as she shoved a bony, defensive elbow aside to brace her palm over Animal Maxine's face. Acid sprayed across the imposter's furious expression. "You like that? Fucking burns doesn't it?"
The world was dim even in the portal light, but it felt like the sun was inches from her face and white hot glass shards were blown into her eyes. Animal Maxine yowled and whipped her head back and forth, cursing with eyes slammed shut while Max smirked. It didn't change the tides of their fight. The pair exchanged ruthless blows back and forth, beating each other and fighting for position for several bits before Maxine finally drove her dagger home.
Animal Maxine's breath caught in her lungs as the blade slipped through a visible rib. She stared regrettably up toward Max, grimacing with brief surprise and resisting the reality soon to come. Maxine felt fingers curl into indignant claws on her arms. She gave the dagger a wrenching, merciful twist. Animal Maxine whimpered. Her hold on Max tightened as though she were latching desperately onto life itself. One of her hands released, making a last-ditch swing that generated no power against Maxine's face. Max's brow furrowed as she watched herself slowly slip beneath that veil she so desperately fought against. She watched as her own eyes dimmed, the flicker of emotions neither of them understood which flit across them as the end drew nearer. It cracked something inside the victor. Something deep without name. The world fell quiet as the skeletal body in her arms fell limp with death.
Confusion and denial seemed to register first. Max gave the lifeless version of herself a nudge. Those unseeing eyes didn't so much as twitch. The head rolled to the side and one of the hands gripping her slumped to the floor. Maxine rocked backward, mind and heart racing. Her hand shook when it moved to Animal Maxine, gently shutting her eyes. It felt wrong to leave her doppelganger, the image of herself dead in this hell, but it was not without purpose. She stormed down the tunnel, scooping up her discarded gladius as she back-tracked past the Ishkahl. Back to where she'd started.
"Perhaps the fuck not,"
Maxine's ominous threat echoed down the tunnels toward the Naer playing with the newcomers in the shadows. She gave the gladius a twirl in her hand, eyes red from acid and free hand curled to a gloved fist. Blood from her kill painted her flesh. Animal Maxine had never been the superior version of herself. The strongest was the one here now. Cultists. The deepest level of this prison pit. All the trauma that came from Rynmere. Deals with devils, brutal betrayals, and too many close brushes with death than she could count. This Maxine had weathered all of that. She was tougher than she'd ever been. Angrier. More filled with spite and quicker to light than a powder keg. She was the apex predator of Slags Deep's Seventh Level. Theirs lives belonged to her. All of them.
"You can leave,"
she continued as she advanced with a look in her stare that wasn't quite...right. Wasn't quite her but had been her all this time. Her lip curled with deadly menace. "Or you can die. Choose."