Today was the day.
Alexis and I were sitting across the street, effectively squatting in a vacant apartment – if you could call this shithole a living space – in the slum a block away. Six in the evening and people were slowly filtering away from the area, heading home or going out for dinner after a long day of industrial toil for most.
Both of us were focusing on a screen that was giving us a live feed from a trio of her dragonflies that were circling around the area, watching the drawn-out exodus. One of the feeds was showing the drone circling around our target, the old police station turned hangout, but without any ability to see inside. Even with thermal imaging, we got nothing.
“Toolkit must have made something to stop me from seeing in,” Alexis lamented, “Stupid Cognate bitch.”
“I mean, how many could they have total?” I asked. “Like…six Adapted? I’m figuring if they know we’re showing up, they aren’t going to use a bunch of typical soldiers.”
“If their whole lineup is here, nine,” she corrected. “Mizu, Ironclad, Kudzu, Collision, Siphon, Toolkit – though she isn’t a fighter – Reappear, Collector, and the big man himself.”
“Okay, hopefully not everyone is in attendance then,” I replied. “I don’t think we could reasonably take a 3 on 1 for each of us…especially considering one of those would be Shockwave.”
She shook her head, “Definitely not. Last time we had trouble with the straight dueling.”
“We will have our big boy Eldritch here with us to alleviate a fair amount of the pressure. I don’t think they have a good answer to a four tonne Neklim, do you?”
Alexis pondered for a minute, “Kudzu is good for slow targets. As strong as our friend is, he isn’t going to be strong enough to rip free of endlessly growing tree roots. I mean, Kudzu has ripped down entire buildings when given enough time.”
I frowned, “You make a point. But, if we can give her a little bop on the head, she’ll take a nap and it’ll be okay.”
“You say it like attacking someone who makes can create entire makeshift buildings will be easy.”
“She’s got no extra mobility, and I’m a bouncy bitch. I’ll make it work.”
She rolled her eyes, “I’m just hoping Nick comes well enough fed. If he gives out, we won’t last for long against half of them.” I saw her do another look over her armor, as if looking for flaws or breaks in her self-repairing suit.
“Alexis, take it easy. Nick isn’t going to let us down. Since Siphon kicked my ass, he has been itching to prove himself. For a guy who is generally pretty complacent, he has been especially motivated the last few days to get his storage in order. I’m sure he’ll be well stocked.”
“I hope you’re right,” she whispered.
“At least if I get injured this time, you’ll be in good conscience about it,” I said, far too chipper.
“You really aren’t helping,” she grumbled, not looking up.
“And your armor is still intact,” I pointed out. “I can safely say that it hasn’t broken in the last ten minutes since you checked.”
“I’m trying to not think about how many people there are still milling around on the screens. If Collision misses us and hits them with a car, they die. Poof. Dead,” she said, looking away from her suit for a moment, “I…I’m afraid to go through with this.”
I flipped over and balanced on my hands to put my face in front of hers, “Last week there was a fight between Shock and Awe with Ironclad and Collector. Four bystanders killed and thirteen injured as a result of the fight. The only reason that fight broke out was because of the turf war started over Surface Dweller’s Dart production. A few other minor gangs are challenging, but the only one to really cause problems is Imperium. We knew it would get ugly before it could get better.”
“Yeah, I know. But hypothetical ugly and seeing people that we’re putting at risk are different things. I know cops are reluctant to get involved with the bigger named gangs, and Suppression is careful going after big organizations like Imperium, which means they run around without government opposition. But it doesn’t make me feel better that we might cost some people their life because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Hell, no one is going to stop this fight because no one in their right mind is going to want to get involved! Everything that happens is gonna be on us!”
“Hey,” I said, moving my face within an inch of hers, “Stop. Don’t feel guilty for being a Reckoner and doing your best to help people. When cops and criminals have a firefight, there is collateral. We’re just trying to depose the guys with superpowers so the police can actually do their job.”
“Get out of my face,” she groaned and shoved; I corrected and took a few steps back on my hands. “You know I hate that you can do that, right?”
“Of course I do.”
“I hope the blood pools in your head and you pass out.”
“It won’t,” I replied, confident. “My friend will force it to circulate so I can’t black out like this, no matter how long I am on my hands.”
She groaned, “Oh, eat shit.”
“I’ll take a firm pass!”
Alexis tried to swipe an arm out from under me; I lifted it and kept balancing on a single limb.
“So violent for someone who doesn’t want to cause collateral!”
“And you wonder why no girl ever wants to date you,” she said as she swiped at my other arm and forced me to hop away. “Oh my God, STOP BEING SO FUCKING BOUNCY!”
“Never!” I exclaimed with a cackle as I planted my other hand down and launched myself across the crummy bedroom and twirled, landing on my feet, facing her.
As she was about to charge me, the door opened and our last member strolled through, taking a seat on the only bit of furniture in the foul smelling room which happened to be a markedly uncomfortable recliner.
Before he had said a word, he opted out of the recliner and just flopped onto the floor. “And people live in this shit show?”
“Over 200 people live in this building,” Alexis replied while looking back to the displays from her drones. All three had been assigned a new goal of trying to get into the Imperium stronghold; none had been successful given the grim look on her face. “Fucking Toolkit must have made sure that the building was sealed up nice and tight.”
“Nothing,” she affirmed, “No open windows, no cracks in the walls, no outlet for a ventilation system, nothing,” she groaned, “And every angle of the damned building is hidden with that interference. I wish I could talk with Toolkit and get her to give me pointers on making some stuff, it would be awful helpful.”
“Well,” I finally interjected, “Not that waiting around for you to get us more information isn’t fun, but we are eventually gonna have to move out. Shall we get down to it?”
She gave a huff, “I hate when you’re right. Nicky, how’re you feeling?”
“Took a while, but I have four hundred ready for consumption. I figure I can do 200 initial and have 200 left for repairing my suit as the fight goes on. Should keep me big and strong for a long while.”
Alexis scanned him up and down, “You good to control it?”
He nodded, “I’m here, and we’ve got a job to do.”
I smiled, glad to hear my friend was level headed even after our little scuffle yesterday. “So, captain, what’s the plan?”
You could practically see the wheels spinning as she looked at the target in question. “Our goal isn’t really to bring down the building or the distillery,” she began, “But our goal is to make Imperium look like they aren’t up to snuff. We only take the building and storm it if there is minimal Adapted resistance, agreed?”
Nick and I nodded.
“Given what Toolkit did with the building, I’m assuming they are likely paying some Cognate to get some idea of where we might be striking next, maybe Big Picture since he is willing to work with anyone who has enough money. So, with that in mind, I’m expecting that we’re going to be up against probably five Adapted, maybe six. Xana may have been right and they may go for the option to utterly annihilate us and show Surface Dwellers that they are still a big threat.”
“Who are you thinking?”
“With any luck, they are assuming that we are intent on sabotaging them as an organization. Their first goal is going to be to protect their investment as opposed to killing us. So, Kudzu is one I am pretty sure about. She is best suited to cage us in, keep us from getting to the building in the first place.”
Part of the reason we chose this location to attack was because it offered Imperium an advantageous stage to fight on. The old police station was up on an elevated plinth with a wide walkway and three lane street separating it from the closest building we could hole up in. While there were some storefronts in that were directly behind Imperium’s stronghold, Alexis was wary of traps set in there by Toolkit since someone at Imperium had to recognize the danger of someone tunneling in or to gain access through that wall.
Besides, we wanted to be seen. We were deliberately doing this at a time when we could be recorded, ensuring we were going to be watched by tens of thousands around the city.
“Who else are we going to be contending with?”
“I’m fairly sure Ironclad will be here,” she thought aloud, “As well as Collision. Both of them are decent countermeasures for you, or at least can stand against Eldritch. While Kudzu can ultimately overpower you, she takes a while to get online and you’ll need immediate attention.”
“You said five, that’s three.”
“Siphon isn’t the most likely, but given how much he loves a good fight, he might show back up and wait for one of us to be isolated. Reappear is more likely though since he’d be able to split us apart and help cause chaos.”
Reappear, a Peculiar whose Adaptation let him temporarily phase something out of sync with the world for a few seconds. While he could see and interact with what was removed, others couldn’t. If he phased people, he could move them around and they were powerless to stop him. Alternatively, he could de-sync himself and set himself up to materialize behind you. Even thought he couldn’t repeatedly affect the same target, but he seldom needed to.
“At least he can’t sneak up on our trump card,” I noted, “Most people aren’t aware that Eldritch has panoramic vision.”
“Mizu isn’t unlikely either. There is a fire suppression system on the corner; if someone like Ironclad broke that open for him, he’d have a lot of liquid at his disposal. I’d say he’s probably 50/50 on showing up. Collector is another fairly likely one, one more method of obstructing and making the battlefield harder for us to maneuver around.”
Collector was a Conjurer/Projector combo who stored objects of seemingly any size in a little pocket dimension, like the one that Nick had for his food supply. While there was supposedly some criterion for what she could and couldn’t absorb into her stockpile, no one really knew since she kept that information close to the vest. What was known was her ability to rapidly materialize objects from her storage, creating obstructions and hazards in an instant. It wasn’t a power that let her be a solo player, but she worked incredibly well with someone like Siphon or Ironclad. She would trap you and give no option for escape from one of their bruisers.
Nick fidgeted, “You seem to have neglected the big one.”
Alexis frowned, “I’m guessing 50/50, but not because of the setting. For Shockwave, it is all about the posturing that will determine if he is present. If he thinks we are a threat, he does give us credence and will show. But, I have no way to tell if he perceives us as more than an annoyance. While we haven’t necessarily had a solid win against Imperium, we haven’t had a real loss either. Depending on his mood, we might warrant squashing, or maybe he doesn’t care.”
“The flip of a coin is what we’re wagering on?” I asked, “Not sure I love those odds.”
She shook her head, “He doesn’t play by the same rules we do. Guys like him, their cred is as strong as their actual power. The other guys we’ve gone up against have some reputation to protect, but we aren’t in the same league as Shockwave plain and simple. He tangles with people like Clemency, Armada, and even Pandora. That’s why we want Beleth to come in and clean up, we’re just lighting the fuse to prompt them to have a round three. We really don’t want to tangle with Shockwave…at all.”
“So, how do we play this?”
“Our goal is to draw them out, let them believe we’re being stupid Reckoners and are in over our head. We want them outside, visible and public. The more people recording us, the better.”
I frowned, “Sure, but when do we run?”
“If we can bring down one of their projectors or do some damage to another member, and then incapacitate Kudzu, at that point we run. Collision and Ironclad, assuming they are present, are going to simply wear down on us. Ironclad will be nearly impossible to kill for anyone besides Eldritch, and even then he won’t go down easily. The guy has run into Goliath, who didn’t have a lot of luck ripping him apart. Once we have done the easy damage, we bail. To help with that, since there is a decent chance we get split up, I made us some microphones and earbuds to help keep in touch.”
Nick frowned, “I can’t use one of those. My suit would break it.”
“No, but Parasite and I can. If you see one of us frantically waving, you know it is time to go. In a perfect world, you’re going to charge back towards this slum and shed a lot of the growth as you go, leaving just enough to obscure yourself. Once inside, I’ll leaving one of my hologram projectors by the door. You click that on and hide in this room, pretend you’re a resident hiding from the horrific Adapted fight happening just outside.”
“What about us?”
“Being the nimble bitch you are, you’re going to bail over a rooftop to the North. Try not to go too far since the mic only has a range of about a kilometer. Ideally, you run for a bit and lose them, then make your back here over some rooftops on the sly and join Nick.”
“I have my car parked in a public parking lot three blocks south of here. Once I’m clear, I use my own hologram projector to hide me ditching my armor in my car and turning back into Alexis Trent. We meet back up in this room and leave together later when they aren’t on the prowl.”
I frowned, “I’m quick, but no offense to you, you aren’t the fastest gal ever, even with your armor. Are you sure you can manage getting away?”
“I’ve upgraded a lot of my non-lethal measures to hopefully make a dent on the people here. My concussion grenades should stop anyone besides Ironclad in their tracks, and it still might give him a nasty headache depending how his brain works when he’s transformed. I should be able to make enough of a gap between anyone chasing me to be okay.”
“And if Shockwave shows?” I asked.
Nick let out a nervous exhale, “He’s gonna look at me first at least. I mean, I’m going to be ten feet tall,” he said with a shrug, “I’m aiming to be too big to ignore, remember?”
Alexis pursed her lips, almost ignoring Nick’s attempt at levity. “He…complicates things if he shows up. If he is there right out of the gate, we run immediately. We don’t dawdle and pretend we have a chance. Assuming he’ll wait until later, once Kudzu is down we need to try and make a break for it. Once Murphy and I can rip ourselves away, Nicky, you’ll kind of have to figure out your own escape route.”
“And if we can’t get out?” I inquired. “What then?”
“Then…we make a call. I’d rather not entertain that thought. I want all of us getting out of this in one piece.”
A moment of silence passed as we all looked at each other, each of us a bit nervous, really feeling the weight of the situation.
“When do we start?” Nick finally braved.
“We’ll move out at seven,” she replied, “It gives us half an hour to have a little snack, hydrate, and get in the right headspace.”
While normally there might have been a little cheer between us, a joke made, some teasing, it was all absent; instead there was an oppressive silence.
Another thirty minutes, and most of the time each one of us spent getting ready in our own way: Nick seemed to be meditating, Alexis was making sure she was loaded up, and I quickly ate and began stretching. My passenger swam through my body, reacting to the stress I was feeling as the time drew nearer.
Rogue Sentries’ first real public brawl.
The alarm chimed, and it was showtime.
“Alright big guy,” Alexis said as she finished sliding her armor on, “You’re up.”
I pulled down my mask and didn’t even bother throwing my staff in the little holster we’d made in my suit. With the little earbud slipped in, I opened the door as Nick passed through, growing a layer of Neklim muscle and turning into Eldritch. As we approached the front door of the tenement, he was almost too big to fit through.
Alexis had set a hologram like a bubble as we walked outside, hiding us in our Reckoner apparel until we were a good distance from our little ‘hideout’ before she turned it off.
Once the little distortion in the air was gone, the reaction was immediate. A scream pierced the general din of the city as we strutted forward, looking as done up as possible. Eldritch lead the way, already eight feet tall and still growing with each step. As I’d expected, he threw his arms to the side and roared, a prompt for most people to run, and a metaphorical knock on Imperium’s front door.
I took a quick glance around at our surroundings. To the north was a three floored general store with a diner adjoining it. A parking lot separated those two structures with the slum we had exited. Not a lot of places to run and hide in there, but I’d be able to make due when the time came. If nothing else, there was a line of old metalwork places and machine shops that were single story; like Alexis had pointed out, I could just skip over the roof of those and run for a while.
As we expected, a great many people started running and driving away as fast as possible, but a number around the periphery pulled out phones and paused on the sidewalk catacorner to where we had made our entrance. People wanted to watch, but maintain what they thought would be enough distance to not get swept up in the chaos that was bound to ensue.
“Have you lost your fucking minds?”
Imperium had answered us as we were almost to the steps leading up to the Distillery. Each one probably three meters long and raised about six inches. With seven steps between us, we had to look up at our opponents as they scowled down at us. While the old police station had been constructed to be set apart from the bustle of the city, it would now serve as a stage for a group of people who were ‘set apart’ to fight.
Ironclad had been the one to talk, and he was flanked by Mizu and Collision with Kudzu hanging behind the trio.
So far our captain had been right about who we were likely to face.
“You three really do have a deathwish, don’t you?” Mizu asked with a laugh, “You aren’t walking away from this one.”
Eldritch took a defiant step forward, “Prove it,” he said in an eerie screech.
I took one last steadying breath; we didn’t need to win this fight, just surviving was a victory for us, literally.
The juggernaut made of cement let out a warcry and bounded forward, picking up a head of steam as he leapt forward and slammed himself into Eldritch. As the pair of them went tumbling back into the street, Collision turned his attention to the right and clearly struggled for a moment before a slab of reinforced metal came whipping by.
While it didn’t hit anyone, he had ripped the fixture off the fire suppressant system, just like Dragoon has suspected would happen.
“Move backwards, now,” Dragoon whispered to me.
I powered my legs and shot backwards, and not a moment too soon. Mizu whipped his hands and dragged a torrent with it as he walked forward, calm. A jet slammed into Dragoon and knocked her back into the road as he pulled with his spare hand, making a massive ring of churning water around himself.
“Collision, help deal with that thing,” Mizu snapped, gesturing at Eldritch. “Kudzu, get your forest going.”
The girl in the black bodysuit with green stripes sat down, her plain wooden mask staring at the ground as she placed her hands against the stone and remained still.
Our timer had just started.
In the instant I looked to Kudzu, Mizu capitalized, a blast of water lifting me bodily and tossing me into the windshield of a car. As the glass cracked, Mizu drew his material back and kept a massive ring around him in constant motion; the bastard had created a perpetual deterrent, making it impossible for me to approach.
As Dragoon scrambled to her feet, Mizu flicked a hand and blasted her, practically washing her across the street. He smiled and turned his attention back to me as I threw myself onto the roof of the car, unsure how to proceed.
When we had fought him last time, he’d only had access to a few gallons of liquid, if that much. Now he had hundreds of gallons and his supply was growing by the second. “What are you going to do, little man,” Mizu laughed as he made a wipe sweep with his hands. I managed to jump away as he hit the car with enough force to roll it into the middle of the street. “Gonna keep running?”
Another blast, and another narrow margin of my dodge.
Our only saving grace was that he didn’t seem as able to redirect the flow of such a large body of fluid where at the dog fight he was able to rapidly adjust the trajectory of his attacks. Still, as he moved forward with an ever expanding ring of water creating a whirlpool around him, I was forced to keep dodging backwards. He was in no rush, I had no way to hurt him, and he was effectively growing stronger over time.
Watching the flow of water from the broken fixture, I moved towards the north, trying to lead him away from his source of ammunition.
“Is that all you can do, Parasite?” he challenged as he blasted Dragoon casually with enough water to fill a small pool, throwing her the rest of the way across the street.
For a moment I got a glance of Eldritch against Ironclad and Collision…which was a peculiar stalemate. Despite Ironclad likely being a literal tonne of rock, Eldritch was so much bigger that he was smacking him aside without any real trouble. But he couldn’t take the time to try and rip the villain limb from limb because Collision kept throwing cars at him. If Eldritch gave up use of his arms, he couldn’t slap the massive projectiles into the ground and negate the brunt of the damage.
Dragoon tried to take a shot at Mizu, but her bullets were literally swept away in the torrent he kept in motion. His head snapped to her and I took the chance to make more distance between us, heading towards the general store and the height it offered. “Hey, Mizu, are you actually going to manage to hit me?”
My jeer caused him to miss Dragoon with a watery blast that launched a car into the parking lot in front of the slum. Fortunately, my captain had the good sense to take cover and let me bait him away from her. It was clear that we weren’t going to get close enough to land a hit as things stood. He had too much water at his disposal.
The best thing I could think to do was literally tire him out. Drag him around long enough that carrying around hundreds of gallons of water tapped his power dry. Not an ideal solution, but I didn’t have a better option in mind.
Another blast that I leapt away from, this one smashing a cars roof flat. “You’ve gotta do bet-”
My arrogance caught up with me as a spear of water drilled me in the chest and launched me back to the general store, the wall cracking with my impact. If my passenger hadn’t taken the blow, I’m fairly sure it would have flattened my ribcage and everything beneath.
“Where are you gonna go?” he laughed as he drew his hand back, making another sweeping pass to throw a barrage my way.
Extending the staff, I empowered my legs and leapt about four meters vertically; while airborne, I twisted and jammed the staff against the wall of the store, embedding it and giving me an easy grip. I put my foot in a windowsill and ripped the staff free, vaulting about two meters to the right as another deluge crashed against the building and demolished the glass and another chunk of the exterior wall. Clearly agitated, he didn’t bother recalling his other expended volume before firing a lance of liquid for me.
Up I went as more of the storefront was battered by Mizu’s arsenal. Again I used the staff to give me a spot to hang on, but the height didn’t seem to be a limiting factor for the Adapted to attack. And if I kept baiting him into blasting the building, I risked being buried in a heap of rubble when it inevitably collapsed.
Dragoon fired off a few more composite rounds at Mizu, which earned his ire for a moment as he turned and launched a small wave at her that lifted my captain up and smacked her against a lightpost.
We needed him to go down, otherwise Mizu would be able to simply overwhelm all three of us with ease, even before Kudzu became the complicating factor.
“Fuck it,” I muttered. Pressing my feet against the wall, I tugged against the staff and ripped it free. As my body twisted in the air, I funneled my passenger into my arm and shoulder as I let the momentum whip me around before I launched the staff.
Like Dragoon’s bullets, it collided with his whirlpool; however, it weighed four kilograms and was able to piece through like a spear. Mizu turned back to me just in time to see what was going to hit him.
His torrent nudged it away from hitting him square in the chest, but it still slammed into his shoulder at somewhere near 150 kilometers per hour.
The force lifted his feet out from under him as his arm was torn violently out of socket. Mizu’s ragdoll frame was flung awkwardly, head slamming the pavement, momentum dragging him face first along the asphalt. His ring of liquid was released and splashed against the street, flowing immediately for the nearest storm drain.
As I landed, I rushed over and picked up my staff, ready to fight until I got a look at Mizu; the poor bastard wasn’t getting up anytime soon. It looked like his collarbone had shattered and his shoulder had been pushed backwards out of socket. His mask had fractured from his face slamming into the road, and it looked like one cheek had lost all it’s skin thanks to the road rash. To be sure, I checked and felt breath escaping his lips.
It was a lucky shot, but we had one down.
Except, another had come online.
Eldritch roared as the road around him cracked and tree roots grew rapidly, ensnaring his feet while Collision continued to throw anything he could get his hands on at the gargantuan Neklim. A volley of broken chunks of road, more battered cars, etc.
Still, for all the abuse he was taking, one of his massive arms pointed away; I tracked and saw why.
Ironclad was chasing down Dragoon, and she was having a rough time trying to cope with the Adapted who had changed his composition from cement to steel.
I hated leaving Eldritch like this, but this was what he was built for.
“I’ll help as soon as I can,” I promised my friend as I took off to help our team captain. “Dragoon, can you stun him for me?”
As I barreled over to join the fray, she snagged a little orb from her belt and threw it smack in Ironclad’s face. A visible shockwave rippled around his head as he staggered back as I launched myself.
Legs empowered, I sprung over the hood of a car, planted my hands, and kicked like a mule against the Adapted’s chest. Dragoon followed up on my attack, striking Ironclad as he stumbled from the force of my kick. Her fist connected with his cheek, which bent slightly around her gauntlet, but seemed to help him regain his bearings.
“You’re out of your league,” he growled as he smacked Dragoon’s next strike away and threw a lazy hook my way. Easy enough to duck under, and he didn’t even try to stop me as I tried to punch him in the ribs.
And I soon felt why.
Even with my passenger reinforcing my knuckles, it hurt me way more than it did him. Skipping back, I evaded a kick that would have likely sent me into next week.
Dragoon threw a couple blows into his body which still didn’t seem to do more than annoy the enforcer.
Ironclad was someone you could either reliably harm, or couldn’t hurt at all. Eldritch might be big enough to literally tear him apart, but neither Dragoon or myself were strong enough to do any real damage.
Well, not with my hands.
“Weak points, joints,” I hissed to my teammate, “Target those.”
I yanked the staff free and extended the weapon, springing back into the fray, forcing Ironclad to turn and face me, pulling his attention away from Dragoon.
The staff came down in an overhead strike, one Ironclad could raise an arm to deflect, but it bought a moment for Dragoon to step behind him and kick his knee.
Even though he was made of metal, his body was still inherently human and his joints were going to bend when pressure was applied. He growled and swung blindly at her, leaving himself open for me to move the staff and jab it into his armpit to keep his off balance. As he tried to get up, Dragoon and I each targeted a knee and struck, keeping him rendered immobile.
Finally, he’d had enough. Completely turning his back on me, he spun to face Dragoon and shot an arm forward, grabbing her. In a crude motion, he threw my friend back towards where Mizu was still laying in the street. While I got to slam the staff against his head in reply, it only warranted a casual swing, enough to make me take a step back so he could charge after my teammate as she tried to run away.
“Dragoon, look out!” I cried.
“I got this,” she replied, her helmet keeping the sound muted. I knew she had something planned, but Ironclad didn’t hear anything but my concern.
With a body made of steel, the guy was easily 800 kilograms and content to just let mass work in his favor. Eldritch had issues moving around because he was trying to pilot a foreign body where Ironclad was still driving his standard self.
It meant he could still run alarmingly fast despite being the weight of a car.
Even knowing that she had something planned for him, I panicked and threw myself at the enforcer, bringing my staff down against the top of his head as I landed a pace behind him.
Ironclad turned, frustrated at my persistence, and then abruptly tripped.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the little spider drone that Drgoon had made; she’d used him to make a tripwire out of synthetic spider silk using a light pole and a delivery van as anchors. Despite the fact that Ironclad’s weight had torn the thread, the change in his balance was one he couldn’t compensate for. As he skidded along the pavement, I leapt up and collapsed the staff, giving me a denser instrument as I landed on his chest and jammed it down into his face.
The initial hit found the bridge of his nose as we slid a few more paces, my weight acting like a brake for the metal man. Before he could raise his hands to push me away, I slammed the bit of metal into his orbital socket and made another dent in his face. His arm raised, and Dragoon grabbed his wrist, pulling his arm back down.
It dawned on me that Ironclad wasn’t really all that strong; a majority of his power simply came from his ability to build momentum. He didn’t have the raw power of someone like Eldritch, he just leveraged his own body weight to crush people and could afford to take hits most wouldn’t endure. But on his back, starting from a standstill, he wasn’t really stronger than either Dragoon or myself.
And from his sudden frantic struggling, he knew it too.
Dragoon held down one arm and I kept one trapped as I hammered away at his face, slamming the collapsed staff down on his forehead, then his nose, then into his teeth as he tried to buck me off. Stressing my passenger, I kept his other arm trapped but didn’t account for his other limbs.
Ironclad kicked his legs straight back and nudged me hard enough I had to put a hand out to avoid face planting on the sidewalk. In the instant his hand was free, our opponent swung, effectively clubbing me more than anything else.
But since his arm probably weighed forty kilograms, it did the job.
I rolled away and he turned up to his side, shoving Dragoon in much the same fashion he had with me, fighting up to his feet, his vision was clearly distorted with how marred his face was from my beating. But he wouldn’t stay bent out of shape for too long; already his face was starting to reconstitute and his eyes were a top priority.
My staff swung up, but found a barricade of metal protecting his face. Dragoon hastily fiddled with a panel on her armor as I kept striking, trying to find an opening.
Ironclad refused to attack, content playing defensive and letting his visage reform while I wore myself out smacking a suit of armor.
“I’m going to try and tie him up,” Dragoon whispered in my earpiece, “Because we need to help Eldritch pretty quick.”
I focused in on my peripheral vision and saw things weren’t going well for our massive tank.
As big as he was, Kudzu was slowly overwhelming him and overgrowing him. As he ripped himself free of a tangle of roots, another sprang to life, growing right over the previous obstacle. I’d known that Kudzu wasn’t someone you wanted to draw out an engagement with, but seeing her begin to overpower my friend was downright scary. To add insult to injury, Collision had started throwing jagged bits of metal or glass at our friend, forcing him to guard his torso and avoid his real body getting impaled by a chunk of rebar, speeding up the projected time before it was all over for Eldritch.
We had decidedly little time before he was in a wooded prison.
As I swung at the metal man with my staff, Ironclad blocked and finally came out of his shell a little, glaring at me as he stalked forward, grinning. “That was your guys’ shot, and you blew it.”
“That’s what you think,” I laughed as I swung at his neck only to find forearm.
“I’m sur-” he paused as Dragoon’s stun grenade triggered an inch from his ear. I was a few paces away with my passenger helping insulate my brain and ear drums from the blast, and it still hurt like hell. Ironclad staggered forward, disoriented as Dragoon’s drone scurried out from under a car and frantically started to bind his feet together.
Except…a chunk of rubble smashed it to pieces.
I spun to face Collision as a car flew square into my chest.
My Adaptation was built to withstand small impacts like bullets, stabs, or punches. However, the bumper of an automobile colliding with my entire torso was a bitch to mitigate. It was further complicated by my body being forced through the wall of the diner behind me.
The momentum pushed me halfway into the room, pushing a few tables and chairs out of my way as I came to a halt.
“Guh,” I groaned as I clumsily tried to get up to my hands and knees, my passenger hurriedly wrenching my elbow back into socket since I’d landed awkwardly and dislocated it. “Fuck that hurt.” As much as I wanted to catch my breath, Dragoon was now left alone with Ironclad, and without a way to really slow him down.
My equilibrium returned about the time a heard a footstep behind me.
I turned and barely evaded the flash of a silver mallet being swung down at my head. Having to fall back, I managed to spring off my hands and land, my breath catching as I saw who I’d been thrown into a room with.
A half smile greeted me as Siphon sauntered forward confidently, his power tugging at the periphery of my awareness. “Round two,” he said with a laugh, darting forward and swinging that mallet again.
Despite the pain that Collision inflicted, not much was damage. I could fight through this, I could deal with—
I stopped myself and the bravado. The reality was I had spent a lot of energy already with Mizu and Ironclad. Siphon was fresh and I had gotten trounced by him last time I wanted a straight fight. My best bet was to run and get back to my team.
Bouncing back, I went to open the door but stopped as Siphon clicked his tongue.
“The good people here would be upset if you did that,” he warned, pointing his hammer at a couple who were cowering in the corner. Despite the stature of the Zari, they looked just as small and afraid as humans did.
“Let them go,” I insisted with a growl.
Siphon shook his head, “You walk out that door, they die. Blood will be on your hands.”
I set my jaw in my usual smile, quickly trying to think of a way out of this without leading to the deaths of innocents. “Well then, bring it.”
He didn’t take his eyes off me as he closed the gap, swinging the mallet at my collarbone.
I blocked, and he’d already reached to his belt for a knife, taking a swipe at my midsection. For now, I let it hit me; he hadn’t taken enough strength to rip through the spider silk suit I wore. I struck, he essentially punched my hand away while still holding the hammer. Even without superhuman strength, the gauntlet on his hand hurt as it cracked against my forearm.
Pressing my foot against the doorway, I empowered my legs and shot myself forward, effectively shoulder-checking Siphon back into a table and the two of us toppled over. Using the motion, I reached my hands forward to springboard away from him.
Before I could go, he grabbed my wrists and tugged, making me land in a heap on the tile.
I flipped to my side, and he was already back on his feet, driving the toe of his boot into my sternum. A grunt escaped my lips as he pushed me back into a stool.
He was already getting some of my passenger’s strength.
Pushing myself up with a backwards handspring, I landed and grabbed a chair, launching it at Siphon; it didn’t make contact, and I wasn’t expecting it to.
All it did was keep him from sprinting forward to stop me from bounding over the tables towards the back door.
“Get back here!” he roared and gave chase.
As strong as Siphon was, he used the people as bait to keep from taking the easy exit, but he wasn’t after them as much as he was after me. He wanted to fight, and fortunately he wanted to fight me bad enough to leave them be.
Besides, he’d just said I couldn’t go out the front door. He never mentioned the back.
Instead of trying to open the door at the back of the kitchen, I powered my left leg and kicked it off its hinges in a single blow. Behind the diner was a small street, a paved alley more like between this and some run down residential buildings that were hugging the slum we had set up shop in.
I could run to them, try to reset Siphon’s influence, but I knew he didn’t give a damn if he killed a few Zari while chasing me.
A trio of sharp pangs knocked me forward a few steps. My moment of indecision had let him catch back up; a smoking handgun accompanied his smirk.
Four more shots hit me in the chest and knocked the wind out of my lungs. Even though my passenger could absorb a brunt of the impact, they still hurt. And thanks to Siphon’s ever mounting tax, each one threatened to crack a rib.
“You gonna run, Parasite,” he cackled, “I thought you were a better fighter than this. Last time you managed to hit me a few times. Here, maybe you need this,” he mused as he tossed my staff back at me.
I knew I shouldn’t fight him, but he was literally giving me my weapon back…how could I not?
His smirk stayed put even after I extended the piece of metal; he had dissected me once while I was using the weapon, even while I hadn’t been drained. While his effect wasn’t nearly complete yet, I could feel it slowing me down, making it feel like I weighed more. Still, I was stronger than he was, faster than he was right now. I could-
Another roar rang out, Eldritch.
My friends were struggling, and I wasn’t in a place to help either of them. And this is exactly what Dragoon had said Siphon would want: to isolate a target. There was a reason Ironclad hadn’t chased me.
He knew Siphon would be able to kill me on his own.
I let out a cry as I charged forward with the staff, letting Siphon think he was getting the fight he wanted, but then jammed it into the ground.
“Wha-“ Siphon growled as I stressed my passenger and vaulted over him, up to the roof of the diner.
A second later though, he hopped up and pushed himself over the lip. “This was your grand pla-“
I spun and let the staff slide to extend my reach; it connected with the barrel of his gun and knocked it away. Caught off guard, I pressed and took advantage of him having no way to backpedal. Three quick hits connected: one was absorbed by his gauntlet, a straight strike found his gut, and a last hit his elbow where there was no protection.
The last hit galled him the most, as I had adjusted ever so slightly at the last second to strike the joint.
“I got smarter, Siphon,” I laughed, deliberately galling him, “It looks like you got slower.”
His half smile turned to a sneer. Perfect.
What wasn’t perfect was him ducking under my swing at his head. He bounced off one hand like it was second nature and popped up with a new blade in hand. I was slow to block and felt the blade press against my neck; the passenger effectively caught the blade and kept the cut surface deep, but the sheer force of the stab pushed me to one side.
I went with the motion and twisted my hips, driving my shin into his side.
Siphon caught my leg and turned, heaving me by my limb and lashing me against the roof. As he fished another blade from his belt, I took my free foot and jammed it into his lower abdomen, using every ounce of strength I could get from my passenger.
For a moment, Siphon was pushed back and I was free.
Snatching my staff, I collapsed it and launched myself towards the wall of the store next door, climbing up and away.
“I didn’t say you could run,” he snarled.
While he had managed to copy some of my ability, he wasn’t as quick to the top as I was, not quite yet. For a moment I could survey the battlefield with a bird’s eye view.
The first thing I noticed was extra movement. As our fight raged on, and Collision seemed more narrowed in his focus, people were getting more and more bold. While there had been an initial evacuation for most, some had returned. People were hanging around shop windows, apartment balconies, watching the fight and recording. For them, this was a spectacle they would talk about at work the following day, and some people were probably putting bets on Rogue Sentries vs. Imperium.
I was more interested in what was happening to my friends.
Kudzu’s ability to ensnare Eldritch had been stalled as he had gained his first mutation with his Neklim suit. It seemed like his tentacles were almost elastic as he would reach out with an arm and lash his ‘fingers’ around slabs of cement, or rip a car door free to slingshot at the opposing Druid. Collision’s role had turned to damage control, throwing a continual barrage of metal and stone as a deterrent and to knock aside my friend’s projectiles and try to maim his arms. Still, his biological change had only prolonged the inevitable. Eldritch wouldn’t be able to cope much longer, and then Kudzu would look to spread her influence out and ensure neither Dragoon nor myself could flee.
“Hang on buddy,” I whispered.
Almost directly below me, Ironclad was pursuing Dragoon in a slow and methodical chase. It was like watching a boxing match between a heavyweight and a flyweight: while my friend was a little faster thanks to her suit helping exaggerate how far her strides could be, the Imperium enforcer was willing to let her land a hit so he could exchange blows. Even from this height, I could see dents in her armor.
“Now where are you going to go?” a condescending voice called from behind me as Siphon joined me on the rooftop.
I flashed my smile, immediately quashing his. “Siphon, you’re a fucking idiot,” I laughed. I turned and threw my arms out to the side, taunting him.
“How are you planning to get down? I’m planning to take the quick route!”
Even though he stole strength and natural ability, when I had hit his elbow Siphon clearly felt it. He didn’t have the protection brought on from my passenger; he may be stronger, but he was vulnerable. Armor would keep him safe from me, but gravity would still make him splat.
Before he could move to stop me, I threw myself from the roof and plummeted towards Ironclad, collapsed staff in hand.
The poor brute look up, right as I drove the chunk of metal into his forehead, knocking him over and crushing his whole forehead.
He collapsed and I rolled, getting up to my feet to face Dragoon, “You okay?”
“Yeah, we gotta help him though.”
Eldritch had most of his torso coated in tree roots, the wooden growths anchoring him in place. One of his arms was overgrown, leaving only one limb free to try and rip the roots away which were sprouting faster than he could tear them away.
Behind her plain, wooden mask, Kudzu stared at her quarry and kept her palm held to the ground, honing in, refusing to give our friend an inch.
“How do we get him out?”
Dragoon started running for Collision as she replied to me via mic, “If Kudzu goes down, it should theoretically stop the growth. Knock her out and Eldritch should be able to rip himself free. I should be able to keep Collision busy for a minute, but I’m not sure how much more abuse my suit can handle.”
“Roger,” I replied with grim determination; I was not liking how many ‘shoulds’ she was banking on.
Adaptations were predominately wired into our neurology. While some would function even when you were asleep, most needed you to be conscious and provide direction to the gift. Even mine had remarkably limited application when I was asleep: all it knew how to do was reset me back to normal conditions. It couldn’t fight on my behalf, and I wasn’t about to test and see if it would defend me from injury while comatose. While the plants wouldn’t disappear, as long as we could stop their growth, even for a few moments, we could get our big threat free.
As I pushed forward, I was aware of the fatigue that was plaguing me.
I had been stressing my passenger hard, especially when I’d been attacking Ironclad. Despite my fitness, I had limits and so did my Adaptation.
“Come on,” I said, hitting my chest, “We aren’t done quite yet.”
Kudzu turned her attention to Dragoon for a moment and then saw me rushing forward. Bending down, I scooped up a broken chunk of cement and whipped it at her head. Silently, she crouched down to avoid the projectile and erected a barrier of new root growth. Now closer, I could see, the cement step she was standing on had a number of cracks spread throughout where she undoubtedly had her power lying in wait, ready to be activated.
As I set foot into her zone of control, my suspicions were confirmed as the concrete shifted and a number of roots burst forth. They grasped at my ankles, forcing me to rip away and keep a safe distance back. More roots snaked their way from the ground, giving fewer and fewer places to stand without being subjected to her constricting grasp.
It was maybe six meters between us, but I couldn’t reliably throw my staff at her like I had with Mizu while she had her own barricade. Water hadn’t knocked the staff away, but tree roots would definitely stop it.
As I dawdled though, her influence spread as the roots slowly grew outward, turning more area into a floor littered with traps.
She poked her head up from behind the barrier she had erected, keeping me in her line of sight as she continued to hold down Eldritch and guard against me. All the while, she said nothing, made no noise. It was eerie.
“Parasite, whatever you’re gonna do, do it quick!” Dragoon hissed into my ear as a slab of stone stair pitched her into one of the trashed cars Collision had thrown earlier.
We needed to get Eldritch out of his cage. One he was free, we could get away.
I took a deep breath and got a running start, getting ready to do something stupid.
Right before I reached the edge of her creeping influence, I threw myself into the air at her, knowing full well I wasn’t going to make the jump.
Midair I extended my staff and jammed it down against the ground. The impact jarred my hands, but it served to propel me an extra little bit.
Kudzu was caught off guard and tripped over her own mass of growth as I landed within reach.
The second my feet touched down, the roots rose to action and wrapped around my legs, immediately removing my option to run. I shot my hands forward and grabbed her suit; as I dragged her forward, my hands found her throat and squeezed. As she struggled, her roots wrapped around my body, encasing my legs and started wrapping around my torso without a hint of slowing down.
She tried to pull my hands away, but I willed my passenger to make my grip unbreakable. Even with all the strength it could give me, I wasn’t anywhere close to strong enough to rip free of the growths she’d confined me to. For better or worse, I was committed to this plan.
Now it was a test to see which would give out first: her oxygen supply or my life.
A second later, the growths reached my face and then the panic set in. She wasn’t unconscious yet and her power seemed almost stronger in her adrenaline fueled panic. I had to close my mouth so nothing grew down my throat, and soon my eyes had to close so I didn’t scrape them on the tree roots that were smothering me.
I had been in the dark, been without sensory input before, but never like this.
The only stimulus I was getting was through my hands as I felt Kudzu continue to try and pry apart my iron grip.
My only other awareness was my burning desire for air. Panic rapidly set in as I felt Kudzu weaken, her feeble attempts to alleviate my grasp faltering…and then stopping entirely.
I let her go, hoping it was enough.
With Siphon, there had been fear of death, but it was one I could at least try to fight back against. As futile as it might have been, there was illusion of hope for me to turn the tide. There was a chance I could land a lucky shot and knock him cold, something.
This time, there was no fighting it. There was only a desperation I couldn’t even express to the outside world. No one could hear me, no one knew I was suffocating. My hands shook violently as stars appeared in my vision, even with my eyes closed. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t scream, couldn’t move.
Dragoon was fighting Collision, and I’d seen her take a bit hit. She couldn’t come to save me.
My life was in my best friend’s hands. But, could he tear himself out? He was wrapped up tight in these tree roots…and as strong as he was, would it be enough?
The stars were growing more frequent, swimming with more intensity in my eyes. In vain, my passenger tried to empower my muscles, tried to struggle against the bonds and leverage something, find some vulnerability in the tomb that she had erected around me.
An exercise in futility. This wasn’t something I could run from, something I could use wits and agility to escape from. There was no reasoning and pleading…this simply was.
The stars began to fade to black entirely as my strength and oxygen gave out, expended completely. Even my passenger gave up, realizing there was nothing to be done for its host. It was kind enough to slither to my brain and give me a calming dose of serotonin as all began to fade to black.
I was oddly calm as I felt myself shut down. It was okay, I’d done my best.
…it was short lived.
A horrific rending of wood welcomed oxygen back into my lungs as my whole form heaved, trying to suck in as much air as possible.
With help, I pulled myself from the tree that I had been contained within and sank back, hitting the mess of roots on the ground, taking frantic gulps of air. Above me, Eldritch towered, tossing aside the top half of the plant that Kudzu had formed around me.
“Holy…fuck,” I stammered out, “You could have been a little quicker on that.”
“Sorry,” he hissed as he offered me a massive arm to help me to my feet. “We need to help Dragoon and get out of here,” he said. “Come-“
He was cut off as a bubble of distortion in the air tapped him and seemed to ‘pop’ with some invisible force. I was thrown on my ass but Eldritch was launched off the steps and all the way back to the road, landing on a taxi that folded under his immense bulk.
“You lot have made one hell of a mess,” a new voice called out from the door of the distillery.
I looked up the stairs and saw him only a handful of meters away, his crimson colored suit oddly fitting for his bloodthirsty attitude. A golden mask covered three-quarters of his face, much like Siphon’s mask, but his showed an eye that took stock of the damage we interlopers had caused.
“But hey, you did it!” Shockwave said as he let out a low and menacing chuckle, “Welcome to the big leagues.”