Rock and a Hard Place: Immovable

   11/20/80

“Nick, sweetie?”

    I looked up from the floor and gave a glance to my mother lingering in the doorway, wearing a nervous expression.  “What’s up, mom?”

    “You’re looking depressed again.”  

“Sorry, just had a lot on my mind lately.  End of term coming up and all,” I lied. It was feeble, but hopefully she’d be willing to drop the topic.  Mom was generally willing to leave things if I didn’t immediately open up.

    Two days since our scuffle with Suppression, two days since I had almost been executed like some kind of wild animal, two days since some unknown Adapted had shown up to save me, and two days since we’d gotten a wealth of information from Big Picture that gave a grim forecast for our march against Beleth.

    Saying I had been distracted and distant was the understatement of the year.  

I’d stayed home yesterday since I had woken up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat and sick to my stomach.  It had been easy enough to blame the upset stomach and fatigue on nerves, but the lingering depression and times I spent staring at walls hadn’t gone unnoticed.  Even my dad had been easy on me which was admittedly peculiar.

    “It’s more than that, isn’t it?” she asked softly, coming into my room and sitting down on the bed beside me.  “I’ve seen you worried about school or making sure we’re happy, and this isn’t that. Come on sweetie, you can talk to me.”  

    “You’re right, it’s something else,” I confessed, immediately angry at myself for being honest.

    “Are things with Xana okay?”

    “They’re fine,” I replied.  

    “Then what is it?”

    I looked over to my mother and was met with a sorrowful glance; she only wanted what was best for her son.  “I’d really rather not talk about it. Okay?”

    She hesitated before taking a deep breath, steeling herself, “No.  It isn’t.”

    I looked up from the floor, confused.  My mom almost never took on an aggressive disposition like this.  If I had been doing something inappropriate she would have called me on it, but she didn’t pry into emotional conflict.  She wanted that to be something I brought to her, something I was willing to talk about on my own volition.  

“Mom?”

    “You think I haven’t noticed you looking morose all the time when you think we aren’t paying attention?  You think I’m completely oblivious to the worry I see Xana show for you? You think I can’t see that this is more than just some nerves about a stupid test?  Nick, this isn’t a problem that started a few days ago, this has been going on for months!  You are constantly tired, constantly checking over your shoulder, paranoid and afraid.”

    “Mom I-“

    “Stop,” she insisted, “Stop lying to me.  Stop pretending you’re okay when you clearly aren’t!  Tell me what is wrong! I’m done pretending I’m okay with not knowing what’s eating my son!”

    I wasn’t sure who was closer to tears between us.  “Mom, please, let it go.”

    “You haven’t given me a lot of choice, have you?  Nicholas, either you tell me what is going on with you or, so help me God, I will shackle you in this room and beat the truth out!  Stop. Lying. To. Me.”

    “I’m Adapted!” I blurted out.  

    It was suddenly quiet.  You could have heard a pin drop.

    “You’re…what?”

    I dropped my head, looking back at the floor, ashamed.  “I’m Adapted,” I repeated, blushing, embarrassed, mortified to confess it aloud.  Even though I constantly rebelled against being called a freak, I felt myself ashamed to own my identity.  Risking a glance to see her face, I felt my chest tighten at her bewildered face.

    “You’re…an Adapted?” she said in disbelief.

    I struggled to swallow the lump in my throat and nodded.  

    “So, when you go to be with Murphy and Alexis, is it always a lie?  Are you out running drugs or being some hired muscle?”

    “What?” I said, affronted, “No!”

    Her fire wavered as I pushed back, but she stayed firm.  “Then, Murphy and Alexis, they’re Adapted too, aren’t they?”

    My look betrayed the answer.  “How would-“

    “Adapted tend to group up.  It makes sense if you’re one, you’re two best friends are too.”

    “How do you know that?”

    “You underestimate your mother.  I wasn’t completely oblivious about your obsession with Adapted.  You follow them and their activities; I wanted to know more about what my son was so interested in.  But I thought it was because of the awesome spectacle they could be, not because you were one.” She paused, and I swear I saw tears forming around the edge of her eyes. “Why did you change?”

    “Mom?”

    “Everyone who Adapts has some kind of trauma, something ripping them apart inside, usually familial abuse or neglect.”  Tears began to stream down her cheeks, “Are we that bad? Did we do this to you?”  Her voice caught in her throat, “Did we break our child?”

    On impulse I reached forward and wrapped my arm around my mom, “No!  Oh mom…no,” I assured her. “I changed because I almost died.”

    She embraced me and cried with what seemed like a mixture of joy and sadness at hearing she wasn’t the cause of her son’s transformation.  After a minute, she composed herself and pulled away, wiping her face, “What happened?”

    As I looked at her, past the remaining tears, there was a familiar spark behind her eyes that I’d seen in any number of reflective surfaces.

    My thirst and love of the strange and weird, it came from my mother.  She was the free spirit and the dreamer who was foil to my dad’s grounded and concrete realism.  And for a long time, she had no reason to find the absurd and fantastic anything other than dangerous… until now.  

    “Six months ago,” I said slowly, “It happened when Xana and I went outside the city limits during the day, thinking we’d be fine for a while.  A stray Neklim found us when we were going to have lunch and chased us down.”

    “But you lived.  How?”

    “I…I copied it.  It was like the floodgates were opened and I just knew how to manifest these.” I let growths cover my hand like a glove before dispersing them.  “It turns out Alexis and Murphy Adapted earlier, but that was because their home life was hellish.  Dad can be bad, but he’s nothing comparatively.”

    My mom winced at that, feeling sympathy for my friend’s plight.  “So, you’re Eldritch?”

    “Yeah,” I admitted, “Your son turns into a giant Neklim.”

    I was expecting shock or disdain for my power… something other than worry and a firm hug.  “I saw you get battered by Shockwave. It was all over the news, your fight.  It was so violent, so devastating. I didn’t know I was watching my son almost die.”

    “Mom, I,” I started but stopped.  I couldn’t lie to her and tell her that wasn’t the case.  “I lived though.”

    She ended the embrace but held my shoulders, looking me full in the face.  “And you’re fight with Goliath?  And you’re fight with Suppression?”

    How damn informed was she about Adapted happenings around Ciel?

    “Mom, listen,” I tried.

    She refused let me control the conversation.  “No, you listen, Nicholas. Adapted or otherwise, you are my son!  You need to stop endangering yourself to live out some kind of superhero fantasy!  Do you think about the people who would be devastated if something happened to you? Do you think of how I would feel if you never came home one night?  Before today, I would have never known what happened to my only son!”

    It hurt, but a counter came to mind immediately.  It was the reason we had started this mess, and it was why we intended to see it all the way through.  “And how many more people does Beleth need to kill before it becomes unbearable? How many people need to cower in front of him before it justifies someone fighting back?  How much longer do people need to be afraid of one guy who can snap his fingers and bury you?”

    “It isn’t your fight,” she snapped.

    “Yes it is!  Everyone else ran from him, but we didn’t!  Mom, I’m done running away from bullies like him!  I’m not about to be a coward and let this just keep happening!”

    I was expecting a harsh rebuttal, to be chastised, even slapped at my outburst; I wasn’t expecting my mom to laugh.

    “W-what’s so funny?”

    She managed to calm herself and smiled sweetly, “You’re gonna hate hearing it.  Nick, you sounded just like your dad.  Well,” she said whistfully, “How he used to sound.”

    “I…did?”

    “Oh yeah,” she said with a reminiscent smile, “he was always standing up for someone where he could.  Your father believed in fighting the good fight. He wanted to change the world, leave behind a good legacy, and was as altruistic as could be.  But, then they happened and it broke him.  Everything he’d worked for, everyone he had helped, all up in smoke and there was no fighting that.”  

They.  The Trillodan.  Scourge and silent tyrant of the cosmos.  At least it had taken something big to break my father.

Her smiled faltered as she turned her attention back to me, “I’m glad you kept the best parts of him.  It’s good to know at least that legacy will keep going.”

    “You can’t tell dad,” I thought aloud, “I don’t wanna know what he’d do hearing his son is an Adapted.”

    My mother nodded, “Eventually, he should know the truth. But for now, your secret should remain just that.”  She looked out my window and saw Alexis’ car pull up to the curb, “Your friends are here. You’re going to fight more of Beleth’s gang, aren’t you?”

    “We’re going after his drug manufacturing,” I divulged, seeing no reason to hide anything at this point.  “There’s a good chance he’s there and waiting for us.”

I could tell she debated arguing, but she held back.  Apparently I had been convincing enough to at least make her feel somewhat okay with my activity.  

    There was a knock at the door followed almost immediately by the door opening.  Murphy had little regard for decorum around my house, practically shouting as he entered, “Hey, Nick!  What’s the hold up?” He turned the corner into my room and saw my mom, “Oh, hey mom! Everything…okay?”

    He’d called her ‘mom’ for years now; I hadn’t properly appreciated why until just weeks ago.  That being said, she never seemed to mind. I think she enjoyed the prospect of ‘adopting’ my best friend.  

    “Nick was being very…forthcoming,” she said cryptically.  

    Murphy frowned, knowing something was up.  It didn’t take long before he glanced to me: I nodded.  “So, he told you?”

    “And I’m guessing that makes you Parasite.”

    He smirked, “Guilty as charged.”  

“Well, come on, show off a little,” she encouraged with a wave.  

My best friend glanced to me, “Yeah, it’s fine man.  She isn’t going to rat us out.”

Murphy shrugged, “Alright.”  Hopping forward, he landed on his fingertips; in a fluid motion he shot himself across the room and landed upright in front of my mother.  “Here, the best I can really show you,” he said as he bunched up his passenger in an outstretched hand for her to shake.

“Oh my,” she said, a little perturbed, “There’s something else living in you.”  

He blushed, “Kind of it.  It integrates with my cells.  Alexis and I tried to cut it and get a look once but it refused to be seen.  He’s a bit shy.”

“You’re very nimble though.”

“Exquisite balance and sense of gravity,” he replied, “My little bit of innate thought from my Adaptation.  Your son got a hyper sensitive awareness of proprioception and mass; it’s what lets him know when to grow more and where he is in relation to his suit since he gets…big.”

She reached over and pinched my cheek, “And yet he’s still my little boy.”

“Mom, I am 17 years old!”  

    “And still my baby!” she insisted as she let go.  But, the good feelings didn’t last as her smile fell.  My mom let out a sigh, “I never thought I’d ask this of you, Murphy: take care of my son.”

    “Mrs. Weld,” he said, more formal, “I don’t think you appreciate exactly how powerful your son is.”

    “Murphy,” she snapped, “Don’t argue.”

    He raised his hands, defensive, “Okay mom.  I’ll make sure Nick stays safe.”

    “Go,” she said, satisfied, “I’ve taken enough of your time.”  

    I grabbed my bag with a change of clothes and stopped, taking a minute to give my mom one last hug.  “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner.”

    She didn’t say anything more than, “I love you, Nicholas.”

    It was almost strange leaving now that she knew what I was doing.  For the first time since we’d started as Reckoners, I felt guilty.

    “What the hell took so long?” Alexis demanded as we finally got into the car.

    “Well, his mom knows what we are,” Murphy said, tactlessly.  

    “Wait, WHAT?”

    “Relax,” I insisted from the backseat, “She isn’t going to rat me out to anybody.”

    “Nick,” Alexis groaned, “You know I love your mom, but we can’t just go telling people what we are!  The fact that she knows makes her vulnerable to getting wrapped up in this mess!”

    “I know it just…slipped out,” I confessed.  “She got after me about lying and being deceitful and I caved.”

    My captain let out an exasperated sigh, “You know what, we’ll talk about this later; for now, get your head in the game, Nick.  We can’t have you losing control.”

    I nodded, not wanting to push my luck.  Alexis did have a point: if anyone needed to be level headed, it was me.    

    “You found the place?” Murphy asked.

    “Yeah. I was scouting and Dragonfly dissolved a pair of my drones.”

    “So Beleth knows we’ll be coming,” I thought aloud.

    “He likely had a hunch after we took Big Picture,” she replied.  “He knew we’d be coming for a confrontation anyways; we at least have the luxury of not encountering Pyre or Goliath.”

“No Goliath?” Murphy asked.

“Nick and Ted did a number of the big guy.  Even with all the excess muscle, he’s feeling it for sure.”  

    I could still vividly see Mutant dancing between forms, expertly dodging and positioning himself against Goliath to lacerate through layers of muscle against the brute.  Unlike me, Goliath didn’t have a healing factor; if you could wound deep enough in his muscle tissue, the damage stuck. While he did heal quickly, I’d likely battered some organs and Mutant had left easily a dozen deep gouges on the man’s torso.  

But to our knowledge, he didn’t recover nearly as fast as Murphy; he wouldn’t mend from such debilitating injuries in 50 hours like Parasite might have.  

    Pyre didn’t have a healing factor and had been shot a few times.  Even though modern medicine could get her upright pretty quickly, someone trying to brawl while healing was dicey as you increased risk of Overexposure.  Just like how overworking muscles could do damage, Overexposing yourself to an Adaptive power had serious drawbacks. While many powers had limitations built in, Projectors, Conjurers, and often Enhancers could push their gift to an unhealthy extreme and risk serious health problems.   

    If the pyrokinetic was to push hard in a fight while healing, it made that likelihood much higher even before you considered her propensity to lose control by nature of her gift.  

“So no Goliath and Pyre, still leaves Shock and Awe to contend with,” Murphy pointed out.  “We’ll get a rematch, and one they won’t make difficult for themselves.”

We’d come to grips with the fact that Shock and Awe had fought us deliberately backwards; if they were smart when they fought us, we wouldn’t have survived our debut as Reckoners.  

“I’m glad I have thicker armor now,” Alexis muttered, “Hopefully the bastard breaks his hand on it.”

“We know he won’t,” I replied.

“But hey, now you can control enough growth to be bigger so Shock won’t rip you apart so quick,” Murphy said optimistically.  

“I still feel it when he rips chunks of me off,” I muttered.  “Lightning bolts fucking hurt man.”  

As we drove, I kept thinking back to my mom; she knew now, and it was going to change how we talked.  Whenever I was going to leave, she’d know what I was doing. If Eldritch ever showed up in the news, she would know it was her son.  

Would she be able to keep my dad out of the loop?

I was glad Murphy and Alexis were able to entertain themselves as we got close enough to the warehouse that Alexis had lost several drones attempting to scout.  The others were already there, all somber, even Lightshow.

We were walking into Beleth’s house, and he was home.

“So, we’re two blocks away.  We have holograms to hopefully keep Hive fooled for a little while until we get closer so we don’t risk giving away Menagerie’s location.”

“All well and good, Dragoon,” Geyser said, “But what’s stopping his regular thugs from finding her?  What if they start sweeping the area?”

Our member in the cardigan patted her boyfriend affectionately, “I’ll be fine.  You guys are the ones at real risk.”

“Not exactly comforting,” Parasite muttered as he slid his top on, flexing the fingers to make sure the little spikes were working on his fingertips.  

“So, boss,” Mutant said, “What is the plan?”

Dragoon locked in her armor and put her helmet on before answering, “It’s a little hard to be entirely sure since I can’t see inside.  But, if we assume it is Hive, Shock, Awe, and Beleth, we’re going to need to split our efforts. Geyser, you’re best suited to deal with Shock.  Keep him moving, busy so he can’t fire on us and charge his sibling, try to keep him choosing one or the other. Lightshow, you’ll be mostly focusing on keeping him blind as well as Dragonfly.  If those two are left unchecked, they’ll rip apart Eldritch. Mutant, you’ll have to deal with part of Hive, probably the Ant and maybe Dragonfly as well.”

He nodded, “What about the Stag?”

“Eldritch will deal with the Stag.  He’ll be big enough the thing can’t fight him well as long as Shock is kept suppressed.”

“Did I ever tell you how much I hate bugs?” our Projector mentioned.  

“Well, make this one easier to squish and we’ll get rid of it for you,” Parasite replied.

“Parasite, you’re up for a rematch against Awe.”

He let out a laugh, “Are you serious?  He’ll rip me apart! Even at half charge he’s as strong as me and faster; with a full charge I might as well be standing still.”

“The whole point is to keep his brother tied up so he can’t really maintain a full charge.  Awe is going to instinctively protect his sibling and keep his power source out of danger. We need a threat to prevent him from attacking Geyser and Lightshow.”  

Menagerie raised her hand, “I can give you a beast to help.”

“And Eldritch will threaten him once Stag is dealt with.  ”

“I hate to be negative,” I said finally, “But what about the big problem?”

“He’s going to be kept at bay by Menagerie and me.  While we don’t have an aggressive projector to keep him backed into a corner, but I do have bullets and Menagerie can make some really quick beasties to keep him on the back foot.  We don’t have to necessarily fight him out the gate, just keep him away so he can’t dictate the rest of the fight. Ideally we overwhelm his subordinates and then can give him more to deal with than he can focus on.”

Her plan sounded good, and I wanted it to believe we could pull it off, but I also knew plans never survived contact with the enemy.  

“So, show us what we’re getting from the petting zoo,” Parasite insisted.  

“I’m hoping we can get some more tentacles,” Lightshow added, “The big guy just never quite has enough to please me.”

I blushed  and the two jesters snickered.  Geyser shook his head, but I was sure he was grinning behind his mask.  

Menagerie opened a sketch pad and ripped out three pages that quickly dissolved with a green glow.

Around her, reality seemed to distort as a trio of creatures came into being.  One resembled a silverback gorilla if it had been made with four arms, and was plated in jagged armor.  The second was a three headed dog that came up to my ribs while on all fours. Its fur was jet black with irregular streaks of tan scattered around; from each mouth, some different color leaked.  Knowing her, this meant each head likely had some kind of breath weapon. Her last spawn was what looked like a mummy with gray skin and freakishly long arms equipped with dangerous looking fingernails.  The rest of it seemed exceptionally scrawny, and it’s face consisting entirely of one massive eye that opened horizontally.

Menagerie wavered on her feet but caught herself.  “Those three should be able to do well at the start.  I’ll be watching to know when to send you more.”

I could practically feel Geyser’s apprehension.  Generally Menagerie made one or two beasts, and none usually this big.  That had to be taxing.

But knowing her, each of these would be strong enough to hold its own against one part of Hive, or in this case be a decent distraction for Beleth.  Dragoon had likely talked with Menagerie earlier, reinforcing exactly how vital she was for this.

Starting my growths, I discarded my clothing and grew about 200 kilograms as an initial coat, more to protect against the cold than anything else.  As we all got ready to go, Menagerie gave Geyser a hug and climbed back into her car, laying in the backseat with a sketchpad.

“Alright,” Dragoon muttered, “Showtime.”  

A bubble of hologram was cast over us; to anyone walking by, we looking like another group of disgruntled Zari workers with somewhere to be after our shift ended.  Sure, there were inconsistencies if you looked closely, little spots where colors overlapped, or spots where the creatures moved and the hologram didn’t quite adjust the color well enough.  Fortunately, Lightshow kept things fairly cohesive, bending light around us to keep the illusion.

She was capable of more than we typically saw, but bending color or a specific spectrum was challenging and not easy to do on the go.  Theoretically she could be a pretty good illusionist but that would require a lot more training on her part.

“I see Dragonfly,” Lightshow whispered.  “She’s flitting around the rooftops, and she’s spotted us.”  

“We knew she was on high alert,” Geyser muttered.

“And her being on ‘high alert’ has nothing to do with her elevation?”

Geyser didn’t respond, he just glared over at Parasite, his mask hiding it he was making any kind of face.  

“Dragonfly is still interested in us,” Lightshow whispered, “Seriously, why am I the only person who can watch the freaky bug?  Don’t you have night vision, Dragoon?”

“Not nearly as good as yours,” she replied.

“You should get suited up,” Mutant whispered.

Following the instruction, I tapped my supply and burned two-hundred kilograms, half of my storage.  It was all of what we could fit in the freezer I bought for Geyser and some extra from roadkill I had scrounged earlier; he’d admittedly been a little repulsed seeing me dissolve the contents of an entire freezer all away into non-existence.  

“Dragonfly is taking off,” Lightshow said with a sigh of relief, no longer having to watch the human sized insect flitting around above our heads.  “But, she went straight to where we’re headed,” she muttered as we walked passed yet another group of Zari heading to one of the many parking garages around.  The industrial side of the city was a concrete jungle that felt lifeless. Even though during the day it was bustling, the instant people could get away, they did.  Parking garages were erected every block or two and even so, during the day streets would be flush with commuters who drove North to work their shift.

We’d chosen to come later in the evening, when most people would have already headed home for the night, leaving only a few straggler groups of workers who might get caught in the crossfire should a fight spill outside.  It kept people from seeing us as we changed into our costumed personas and we wanted to minimize any kind of possible collateral; my dad had a point when he’d complained about Adapted causing far too much incidental damage.  As much of an ass as he could be, he had a reasonable gripe.

There was a tense silence as another walked by, dangerously close to us, almost bumping into one of Menageries creations.  Fortunately, they had somewhere to be and had no interest in getting involved with someone they didn’t know. After all, this was the wrong part of the city to be social.  Even though they couldn’t see the massive bug in the sky, people were well aware of Surface Dwellers influence on this side of the city. No one wanted to be here longer than they had to be for fear Beleth or one of his goons was feeling territorial… or just vindictive.  

It was strange as we approached the warehouse because it looked so normal.  When thought about logically, it made sense that you didn’t want an illegal hub of operations to stand out.  But I expected something more given the flair that came with most Surface Dweller activities as of late. Their first activity to prove dominance was to literally reduce a building to a pile of rubble and rip people apart.  

Compared to those ostentatious events, the existence of this warehouse seemed so mundane.  

“Knock, knock,” Dragoon said, gesturing to me.  

Hardening my cells, I slammed my fist forward demolished the slatted metal door.  

The first red flag was the absence of people.  For it to be this empty, Beleth had known we were coming long before Dragonfly saw us.  Arguably more distressing was the absence of any technology or equipment. Sure, there were some tables strewn around where people would normally be packaging materials or product, but there was none of the hardware required for making Dart.  At the far end of the warehouse, there was the king himself, sitting on a literal throne made of concrete.

Beleth, for as powerful as he was, really didn’t look very imposing.  He was slight of build, and usually settled for walking around in a brown trench coat.  Generally he was bald with a clean shaven face, and it didn’t bode well for us that he was smiling.    

“Two days,” he said, gloating, “I said two days, Awe, pay up!”

The rest of the group turned to see Awe and his sibling step forward, from one of the many rooms scattered around the periphery of the warehouse.  

“Did you kill Big Picture?” Dragoon asked, shouting across to him.

Beleth’s boisterous mood died as he got up, the cement throne sinking back into the ground behind him, “And why, Dragoon, would I do that?”

“Because he told us where your production would be.”

“The man’s an informant!  Of course he informed you!  While I don’t approve of how you found him, you kept him free from Suppression.  For that, you lot have my genuine respect and appreciation.” More surprising than his sincere sentiment was the slight bow he gave us.  “But for doing this, coming here,” he said, standing up straight, “My goodwill’s run out.”

Dragoon didn’t hesitate to raise an arm and take a shot at the kingpin, finding a wall of cement in her way.  

The reason we needed to keep Beleth away from everyone,  and what made him so unassailable was his gift: he controlled the ground around him.  While on paper that wasn’t a particularly glamorous power, it was hard to fight someone when you couldn’t trust the floor.  If Shockwave was an unstoppable force, Beleth was the immovable object. He’d proven able to manipulate metal, rock, even wood as needed.  Scarier still was how much control he exerted; it wasn’t an Adaptation that was crude in nature, it had been honed to an art by Beleth.

“Shock, Awe, go!” he barked as we fanned out, a plume of darkness enveloping his head.  “Hive! Kill the damned girl with the lights!”

Even though he couldn’t see, he still erected a new barrier before Dragoon could get a new clean shot, and swept away the three headed dog as well as the mummified thing in a ripple of the ground.  

Dragonfly flew through a window and hit the ground, transforming into a lithe woman covered head to toe in a leather suit with a bug mask.  She clenched her fist and re-split, moving all her forms to one location.

It was part of why she was so dangerous: if any one of her splits found you, they all found you.

Ant and Dragonfly were vaguely human in shape, maybe a little taller than your average person, both coated in a thick chitin shell that made her splits a bitch to break.  Ant had four arms and was known for being notoriously fast as well as a deft fighter. Dragonfly had a quartet of wings and was constantly producing digestive enzymes that could chew through metal, and Stag was the outlier who was closer to the size of Goliath and looked more like a beetle with sort of human limbs.  With thicker armor and incredible strength, Stag was the most bestial of the bunch, often opting to charge targets like a rhinoceros would have back on Earth.

I tried to charge Stag, and felt my leg buckle under me as forty kilograms were lanced off.  

Shock’s biker helmet was turned to face me, “We’ve been waiting for a rematch!”  Without looking, he fired a bolt and charged his brother who charged straight for Geyser, only to get interrupted by Parasite swinging the staff and forcing his fellow Enhancer to duck.  It gave our man a chance to stomp and open a fissure, forcing Shock to move. He tried to posture up and was immediately blinded by a flash from Lightshow who was ducking around, avoiding globs of enzyme.

Mutant swapped to a bird to fly and then into the grey-skinned form, wrapping a tentacle around the other flyers leg and lashing it down to the ground beside me.  

Focusing in, I blocked out the others conflict.  Being able to see all around me was as often overwhelming as it was helpful.  For now, I needed to focus on the fight I was a part of. My first goal was to take Stag off the table; Dragonfly being put at my feet like an offering drew the rest of Hive as Ant ran over and Stag dropped to all fours, charging me.  

I opened my arms and braced myself for impact; sure enough, Stag hit hard, but I was far too heavy to displace easily.  The horn didn’t pierce my midsection deep enough to threaten me beneath, and I was still standing; now I could effectively push the beetle’s face into the ground, though not without difficulty.  Even though this was only one-third of Hive, the damned thing was strong.

Nearby, Mutant found himself with his hands full dodging globs of enzyme while Ant displayed enough martial prowess to rival Parasite in hand-to-hand combat.  

Maybe I could give him a little help…

As Stag tried to pull away,  I dug my growths into nooks and crannies in the shell so I could slowly lift the immense arthropod, much to its surprise.  

Dragonflies attention immediately turned to me as a splatter of liquid hit my outer layer and began eating away at my arm, but there was enough muscle for me to ignore the thirty kilogram loss.  I turned, doing a full rotation before launching Stag at Shock.

Thanks to some darkness from Lightshow, he barely saw and had to throw himself to the side to avoid getting bowled over by the massive beetle.  

My feeling of success vanished as he raised a hand to me and let a mess of bolts slam into my chest, burning away 113 kilograms of mass and sending me staggering backwards.  As Stag got traction, the insect charge me again just as one of Geyser’s fissures opened up beneath Shock and bathed him in the caustic fumes.

Without the continued assault from Shock, I was able to steady and brace myself for Stag, actually gripping the horn this time and yanking the damned thing to the side.  It postured on one arm, trying to stand up despite being pulled down by something that weighed as much as a truck. Toughening my other arm, I slammed forward and bludgeoned the insectoid and sent it scrambling across the floor.  

Across the way, Parasite and the animated gorilla-thing were not doing great against Awe, but they were still standing, but Awe’s power would run out while Shock was still gagging, unable to focus on more than his bodies desperate need for air.  Still, until then, Awe was so fast that he was almost hard to track, making it all the more impressive that Murphy was managing to block and avoid some punches.

“Eldritch,” Mutant snapped, swapped into his beetle form to absorb a blow from Ant, “Beleth needs to be contained.  Help them! I’ll deal with Stag!”

While so far the plan we going according to plan, the most worrisome outcome was becoming a reality, and quick.  No matter how she moved, Dragoon couldn’t get a shot on Beleth; he was always a step ahead of her, casually erecting walls to absorb incoming fire.  Menagerie’s creatures couldn’t find an opening either, and the mummified thing was already missing an arm. The dog breathed a volley of icicles that found a  barricade; it stepped a little too close to try and breathe some green gas and found itself on the business end of a massive spike. The mummy darted forward, almost faster than awe.  Beleth waited until it was close, almost within striking distance…and then the ground in front of him erupted with spines of cement. Its movement was halted as it turned into a pincushion before disintegrating.  

Menagerie had sold Beleth short, hoping speed would be able to overcome his control of the battlefield.

It left trying to contain him all up to Dragoon and we hadn’t had enough time to fight his other Adapted.  Still, he walked, he didn’t run towards us. Why would he bother? We couldn’t threaten him.

From what I’d read about the man, he could manipulate the ground and mold it to shape whatever need he had in a range of about 20 meters.  Some people also claimed he had some kind of danger sense, but it was more likely he just had some sense that corresponded to his gift and let him sense vibrations through the ground.   

So how the fuck was I supposed to help fight someone who controlled where I could walk?  Dragoon skirted around, constantly finding a shifting array of barriers keeping her from getting a clean shot.  She tried to throw a grenade, only to have a hand of rock erupt from the floor and catch it, pulling it back into the floor to nullify it.  I started charging forward, building up a head of steam, hoping to be able to at least crash through any barriers that he would erect in my path.  

As the wall went up, I hardened my cells and slammed through like a massive battering ram; a handful of cement spikes impaled me as momentum carried me forward onto the new rock formation he’d constructed behind it.  Some came a bit close to impaling me underneath.

“Didn’t your mother tell you to look before you leap?”

I roared and swiped my hand, breaking the spines and pulled them free of my body.  I threw them back at Beleth, but he constructed a new wall with a casual wave. Without looking, he shoved a barrier off to the side and deliberately had it snap, launching a massive slab of concrete at my captain.  

Dragoon was thrown backwards and lay still, the armor around her torso smashed from the impact.  

Lightshow surrounded him in darkness as I tried to advance, but the ground seemed to turn to liquid under my feet, my dense form mired in the impromptu quicksand.  

“You think I need to see you?” Beleth laughed as he stepped forward.  He snapped and pointed at Lightshow; as if rehearsed, Shock caught his breath and re-charged his sibling; Awe skirted around Parasite, going straight for our Projector.  Geyser tried to make a network of fissures around her, but Awe jumped over them easily with a full charge.

Lightshow wasn’t given any kind of natural protection, though she was faster than normal…but Awe was running faster than most people could drive.  

In a panic, she flooded the room with light to try and keep Awe away; it faded as she hit the ground, clutching her side.  

“Lightshow!” Parasite shouted, throwing the staff at Awe.  

He spun and caught the four kilogram projectile, throwing it to the side before charging back to challenge Parasite.  Shock zapped him in the spine as his brother hit him staight in the gut, doubling my friend over before Awe threw a big hook into the side of his head.    

Growling, I ripped myself free of the quagmire that Beleth had made, his slow march forward still going.  It was like he was setting a timer for us to beat his subordinates, testing our mettle. It was a grim fight behind me, but we had a chance of winning that one.  If Beleth got involved…

I tried to rush Beleth again, but a literal wave of concrete rose up before me and crashed down; as I folded backwards, the floor came up to meet me, both sides trying to squish me.  “Stay put,” I heard him call out, muffled as he kept walking.

“Like hell,” I hissed softly, tapping into my remaining mass.  Even though Shock had ripped some of it away, I could retain 95 kilograms in storage and add another two-tonnes of efficient growth.  

Six tonnes of Neklim muscle ripped through the  impromptu prison Beleth had erected, getting me a turn with genuine surprise.  

Even though I was grabbing huge chunks of cement, I could still throw them with ease at the head of Surface Dwellers, blasting apart a few barriers he erected.  As I tried to stomp forward, the ground shifted between my legs, disrupting my balance. Nodes of rock erupted from behind my legs and pushed me down as the ground seemed to sink away and raise around me.  

Beleth was encasing me in a tomb of cement.  

Ninety-five kilograms available.  

I was done needing to be saved, I was done feeling vulnerable, I was done feeling powerless.  

I burned it all at maximum growth, and erupted from the ground, a towering menace made of ten tonnes of Neklim.  Nearly fifteen feet tall, I towered over everyone else and focused my malice on Beleth, who seemed genuinely concerned.  

One thing was clear to me, he needed to die.  No half measures with him. He was too dangerous to be left alive.  

“You want to bury me?” I screamed, my voice echoing through the warehouse as I stomped forward.  

Mutation: Adrenaline.

I tapped into it without thinking twice, I  felt my whole Neklim suit energize like someone had given me an injection straight to the heart; I actually ran forward, my massive stature making me alarmingly fast as the ground shuddered beneath my strides.  

Beleth’s composure returned as he shifted the ground under his feet, gliding away as he made jagged spires from the ground, dragging them along the sides of my legs to slow my progress.  The adrenaline kept me going full till and put him almost within reach…

A fist of rock shot up from the ground and slammed into my chest, pushing me away.  My hit of adrenaline faded and I felt slow again, but still strong enough to rip the column apart and throw the chunks at my prey.  

He moved himself out of the way, glaring intently.  I’d never seen him so intent on one opponent except when he was fighting someone like Shockwave or Clemency.  

Had I become that threatening?

Unfortunately, Shock had gotten back up, and avoided Geyser incapacitating him again; instead Awe had targeted the man and smacked him around a bit.  A few more creations from Menagerie had joined to help, and those were keeping the three splits of Hive preoccupied while Parasite and Mutant were both struggling against Awe who was just too damn fast and strong to stay down.  Lightshow was doing her best to keep Shock distracted and deprived, but she couldn’t go too close with the static field he’d made around himself.

Dragoon was still down from being hit with a massive slab of cement, leaving keeping Beleth occupied up to me; I wished she would get off the damn ground, I would have killed for something else to draw some of his attention away.  

I pushed forward, finding the ground turning squishy under me, slowing me down immensely.  Beleth stared intently as he skirted himself slightly closer to me, toeing the line around the fringe of his effective range like an expert.  I wrenched my leg free of the quicksand, and was impaled by a dozen massive spikes that immediately withdrew, forming a uniform layer of cement.  

Beleth had gotten more cautious; he wasn’t about to give a bigger version things to throw back.  

I tried to advance and he visibly strained, making a huge block of cement rise in front of me as the rest of the ground around him sank.  Momentum carried me into the tripping hazard and I had to plant an arm down, fairly close to Beleth.

While he could affect things up to fifteen meters away, moving enough rock to actually affect someone my size was undoubtedly a challenge even for him; he’d let me get a little closer to make it easier since range often heightened the physical cost for Projectors or Conjurers.  What was galling was that he barely even blinked as my limb slammed down nearby; he was still confident enough of his ability to dictate my movements.

As soon as my Neklim arm touched down, a sleeve of cement filled over the top and spikes speared into my arm as it drew away, shredding through three hundred kilograms of growth.  

Then I felt it: the adrenaline had reset and was ready to tap into.  

I lifted a massive leg and surged forward, throwing myself over the wall Beleth had constructed.  The first step was unaccosted, but the second step I tried to take was interrupted by the ground being shifted under my other massive foot.  Roaring in frustration, I slammed my arm down, letting the adrenaline push the muscle in my arm hard enough to launch the rest of me forward.  

An immense column erected itself and slammed into my side, pushing me away and keeping my outstretched hand only inches away from Beleth.  

For a moment, I could glimpse the terror he had just felt; unfortunately it was immediately replaced with rage.  No one like us should be able to threaten him, let alone make it that close a call; if I’d grabbed him, that would have been the end of the fight immediately.  He knew exactly how close that he really been.

I landed awkward, and felt hundreds of spikes spawn and pierce into my suit before the ground shifted towards me feet, effectively ripping away the top eight inches of my Neklim suit like a horrific belt sander.  

Even though it wasn’t my own skin and bone, I still felt it, and fuck it hurt.   

Fighting frustration, I  pushed myself up, only to feel spears of cement pierce into my legs.  Beleth jerked his head to the side, and the ground turned, moving the spears and function like a blender.

Removed from the host, another few hundred kilograms died and had me tumble back down.  No sooner had I landed than my arms were given the same treatment while Beleth glided around me, keeping me between one of the new constructs Menagerie had sent in since it was like an overgrown porcupine firing quills.  

I had fallen to all fours and the head of Surface Dwellers made effectively a giant spiked belt that he used to pull me to the ground, working to hold me in place.  As I tried to push back and lift up, the ground under me turned to quicksand, my efforts only working to enslave me.

As I sank in, and Beleth re-solidified the floor.  

Behind me, Geyser had found his footing again and was keeping Shock on his toes with Lightshow’s help, though no matter how many crags he spawned, Shock managed to keep running away and throw enough electricity around to keep Geyser enough on the backfoot that he couldn’t be precise or lend his help with anyone else.  Awe was fighting with Menagerie’s animated gorilla and Parasite, constantly staying a step ahead of either, his enhanced speed making him like a boxer on fast forward. The only real positive was that one split of Hive was actually down. Ant had two of its arms ripped free by Mutant…who was looking markedly battered.  In his beetle form, there were obvious cracks in the amber plate that protected him, likely from enduring a hit from Stag.

“Bigger doesn’t mean better,” Beleth said, condescending as I struggled and felt a new battery of spines jab into my torso, impaling a new swath of growths.

If there was a way for this form to grin, I would have done so as I felt my adrenaline threshold tip over.  My arms ripped free of the floor and I snagged a handful of the debris; swinging my right arm, I launched a volley of cement shrapnel to cover as I ripped free of his other bonds.  

As expected, a barrier erected itself in time to absorb the cloud of debris.  

Getting up, I stepped forward and fell down several feet, unable to pull back from the trench that Beleth had dug in front of me in an instant.  The barrier in front of him slid back into the ground as the sides of the trench filled in, squishing my legs like a trash compactor.

There was no way I was getting out of this…

Reallocate growths to the left arm!

A mass exodus of Neklim muscle elongated my appendage to nearly seven meters in length, leaving my right arm nearly non-existent and my torso emaciated.  

But, now I could reach him.  

I swung up and brought my massive limb down; with the adrenaline still powering me, it came with enough force to crack the floor at the point of impact.

However, there was no satisfying squish.  No additional mass for me to devour.

Sharpened crescents of cement shot up from the ground, wrapping over my massive limb before pulling down like a guillotine.  Severed from the source, the growths turned to dust and five tonnes of material died instantly.

A few paces away, Beleth’s figure emerged out from the ground as casually as one would get out of a bath.  “That’s right,” he said with a laugh, “A valiant effort, but fut-”

He staggered forward, his face contorted with pain as my friend in power armor got back up to her feet, her armor intact.  Even though Beleth’s trench coat was likely armored, it still hurt being shot.

“Eldritch, get free damnit!”

Her voice snapped me back to reality, pulling me from what had almost felt like a daze from the last couple minutes.  

Retain one tonne, discard the rest!

From the immense form, a seven foot section ripped free, leaving the rest behind and charged forward only to be lanced with a quintet of lighting bolts.  

A fifth of my remaining mass immediately died.  

Beleth rounded on Dragoon, getting a barrier up as she tossed a few extra grenades.  No sooner had they gone off than he began effectively throwing slabs and spikes of cement at my friend.  Fortunately, she was minding her distance more carefully.

Behind me, Shock charged another blast, and had thought Geyser was down after taking a hit from his sibling; with his little bit of superhuman strength and durability, Geyser was still conscious and able to stomp, dropping another fissure close enough to blast Shock.  While I was sure he’d get some kind of filter built into his helmet in the future, for now I could hear him sputtering as his airway nearly closed again.

I tried to run forward and found myself slammed in the midsection by a chunk of ground that shot up in front of me.  With less than one-tenth the mass I had earlier, I felt the hit so much more underneath. Before I could regain composure, another slab of ground shot up at an angle and smashed into my spine, pinning me between the two.  

“You can’t win this one, Sentries,” Beleth called out as Geyser tried to blast the man; Beleth simply dragged the cement back over his fissures, easily negating his gift.  Shiting the ground under his feet, he dragged himself close enough to Dragoon to put her within his range; she ended up in a prison made of cement like me.

“I’ll admit, you put up a good fight, but how were you ever going to compare to us?”

I saw it this time as a bird flitted through the air, transforming into a massive beetle and plummeting at an alarming speed.  

Beleth barely even looked up as he displaced himself and shot a column of cement up, catching mutant in the chest and letting his momentum work against him.  

“A valiant attempt, but not good enough,” he said as Mutant was given the same treatment that Dragoon and I had been subject to.  

Mutant had abandoned his fight with Hive, leaving Parasite and Lightshow to try and manage, but they were outmanned heavily; even though my best friend was a fantastic fighter, it didn’t let him fight both Stag and Awe.  I saw him get clipped by Stag’s charge and hit by a follow up kick from Awe. Even with his passenger protecting him, that was gonna hurt.

Beleth shifted himself and approached Geyser, covering a quartet of spawned fissures without so much as blinking.  Our Projector tried to run, but the ground shifted under him and saw him faceplant. “And you, you’d try to manipulate the ground against me?  You insult me!” A shard of stone grew from the ground, slamming him and tossing him onto his back with a groan.

Lightshow was the last person standing, and she was now facing off with Dragonfly, Stag, Awe, and the most powerful man in the city.  

“Come quietly,” Beleth said.

Lightshow shook her head slowly, “I don’t think I’m going to do that.”

Beleth shook his head and snapped.  Awe darted forward into a blast of light that disoriented him somewhat.  Stag was right behind and was snuffed into darkness as she leapt away from his charge while focusing a flash of light on the multifaceted eyes of Dragonfly, but not before he had spat a gob of enzyme that landed on her shin.  

She staggered and sank to a knee as it dissolved a layer of skin and chewed into the muscle and bone beneath.  Pushing up, she ran into Awe who opted to just shoulder-check heer back onto her ass.

I could feel another dose of adrenaline ready for use, but what good would that do me?  I was still close enough to Beleth he would feel the movement and immediately entomb me in a bigger sarcophagus.  

We were finished.  

Even if Hive had been dealt with, even if we’d deal with Shock and Awe, we didn’t have the tools to deal with Beleth.  I’d depleted my storage, trying to be a bigger threat than he could cope with, and he’d ripped me apart all the same.

Big Picture was right, we were in over our heads.

Beleth stood in the middle of us, looking across at the defeated Reckoner team with a smug smile.  “I like you lot,” he professed, “I really do. I think you’re a badass group. Standing up to Shockwave, damned ambitious!  Even with just three of you, you fought a lot of his squad and held your own! But,” he said slowly, menacing, “You know what I do with people who interfere in my business, don’t you?”

This was it, this was how we died.    

But then, a new sound reached our ears.  Screaming. Lots of it.

Even Beleth seemed surprised as he looked first to Awe and then to Dragoon as if to ask ‘do you know what’s going on?’

She shook her head, clueless.  

A stomping could be heard approaching the building, like an angry mob.  

Or…a stampede.  

The walls of the warehouse literally blew open as dozens of Menagerie’s creations thundered in.  Giant mishapen birds, weaponized animals, and grotesque humanoids charged through, all intent on causing as much harm as possible.  

Dragoon had suggested that she could do this at the beginning of the week, be a wildcard in terms of power…but this was way too much.  

Awe leapt over and grabbed his brother, dragging away from the onslaught of monsters that ran at Beleth and his crew.  

Tapping into my adrenaline stores, I broke free of my prison, praying that Beleth would be far too busy coping with the horde to pay me much mind.  Once free, I ran to Dragoon and slammed a fist against her prison, sundering the concrete and breaking her out.

“Fight or run?”

“We run,” she said, “Shock can breathe and Awe is still alive, the two of them could rip us apart with you being small again.  If she made all of these, they aren’t going to be full constructions and they won’t keep Beleth busy for long. If we stay, Beleth IS going to kill us if he doesn’t go down and I don’t like our odds.  And,” she added, “we need to get her.”

God only knew the damage that Menagerie had just inflicted to her body; the sooner we could get her to a hospital, the better.

Dragoon and I freed Mutant as I marvelled at Beleth’s ability to repel the horde.  He was constantly shuffling the floor and moving monsters away and altering the terrain to form a ring of spikes around him and his cronies.  Dragonfly joined him and recondensed before splitting, getting all of her parts free of the flood. The floor around them was a sea of movement, blades and blockades spawning to stop frenzies advances and bladed columns erecting to impale others.  Shock was standing beside his boss, on his feet again, firing into the crowd and picking off stragglers who were quick enough to evade Beleth’s stone defenses. Dragonfly helped cull stragglers while Awe and Stag bashed away those who slipped through the firing squads crosshairs.    

As much as I hated Beleth, there was no denying how impressive he and his crew were.  

But as powerful as he was, he was still busy coping with the unhealthy output from our Peculiar, giving us a window.  I helped Mutant to his feet and saw Geyser shaking; he knew as well as I that his girlfriend has just wildly Overexposed herself.  

Before Dragoon could stop him to get us all hologrammed, he charged away, frantic.  

“Shit, come on!” she shouted to Parasite as he scooped up Lightshow.  

Outside, she cloaked us and we ran, not looking back.  Menagerie’s rampage was more than enough of a spectacle to cover our exit fortunately, no one looking twice at a group running away from the site of an Adapted bloodbath.    

We got back to the cars a minute behind Geyser who was holding a limp figure in his arms.  He’d ditched his mask and taken hers off, trying to shake her awake as Yuki lay limp in his arms, her face void of color and lifeless.  

“Please, please, please,” he sobbed, “Please wake up.  Come on, please.”

Lightshow and Parasite didn’t have any witty quips, neither daring to make light of this.  Yuki had sacrificed herself for us to get away. All of us stopped, hardly able to breathe.  It seemed wrong that the one farthest away would-

“Oh, lighten up!” an unfamiliar voice called from the gloom of the mostly vacant parking garage, “Your friend isn’t dead.”  

A figure wearing a lab coat stepped forward, his skin glowing thanks to the glow from the old fluorescent light bulbs.  He didn’t seem physically imposing, being just a little taller than me, slight of build and wearing glasses. He wore a stylized bit of cloth around his mouth: dyed black and decorated with bloody fangs that seemed to glow a neon red.  

More alarming was how he carried himself with an air of confidence and arrogance.

Whoever this was, he was Adapted, and likely a damn strong one.  

“Your dear Menagerie  is just in a coma. She’ll be fine!  The rest of you,” he said as a quartet of figures joined him from the gloom, “Aren’t nearly so lucky.”       

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