I had no clue what time it was when I woke up. We’d been up all night and late into the morning chasing down Shock and Awe.
It had been a spectacular waste of time though since Hive got involved and her splits harassed us, slowed us down dramatically. The longer the night had dragged on, the more agitated Psycho ended up becoming.
At a certain point, Hive vanished and left us to cope with the unhinged Lunatic leader; eventually we’d had to fight off his horde of apparitions until Pacifism soothed him. We were all glad when she stepped in; Psycho had refused to accept that Awe was incredibly fast, even without his brother giving him a constant charge. However, when Pacifism stopped subduing him, Psycho’s bloodlust resurged with a vengeance. He continued forcing us to keep searching even when the trail went cold; it was a blessing for all of us when he finally started to fall asleep.
I got up slowly, surprised to see Bargain upright. The man had given himself enough juice to single handedly beat the ever-living fuck out of both Shock and Awe. Even though it had taken six of us to fight Beleth, he’d fought both lieutenants alone and won, convincingly too, for the better part of fifteen minutes.
It begged the question of what his power ceiling was exactly.
However, even though he was awake, he looked haggard as hell. Bags under his eyes, body bruised and his breathing labored.
“You gonna be okay?” I asked as I lugged myself over to the kitchen and avoided the pair of bodies on the floor. Mutant hadn’t gone home but instead had to stay here to heal. Apparently damage translated between forms which made his travel form very vulnerable; Beleth hitting him had broken over half the bones in his body and damaged a good chunk of his vital organs. Since he’d gone down, Mutant had been swapping between slug and slumbering human, his body desperately trying to mend the nearly fatal blow he’d endured.
Beyond Mutant, Roger had stayed the night at Murphy’s house since Yuki was still mostly bedridden and we hadn’t wanted to move her after our exhausting ordeal.
Bargain nodded, “I put a lot of stress on myself to fight those two. I’m basically an invalid the rest of the day.”
“How long were you supercharged?”
“About thirty minutes,” he said as he grabbed a cup of coffee in a shaky hand. “Now I get to experience extreme fatigue, a palsy, effective hemophilia, and headaches for twenty hours.”
I knew that Bargain’s drawbacks were somehow tied to the gifts he was given but it begged the question, “Why headaches?”
“Electrical resistance. Now I get to deal with a nervous system that doesn’t stop sending feedback to my brain.” He looked up at me, “All due respect, be as quiet as possible. Existing is hell right now.”
I nodded and grabbed a cup of tea, quietly leaving the kitchen to sit out on Murphy’s back porch and try to keep it together.
Two days since my fight with my dad and since I was kicked out of my house. Two days since my world was turned topsy turvy and I had become another resident of Murphy’s growing halfway house for homeless Adapted.
While he wasn’t thrilled for my circumstances, Murphy wasn’t exactly wrought with despair that his best friend was living with him now. For as messed up as he was, Murphy did a pretty decent job looking on the brighter side of things.
I didn’t get much solace as the door opened a few minutes later with Roger coming outside.
“Hey yourself,” I muttered mid-sip. “How’s she holding up?”
“She’ll be alright. Still a bit weak on her feet, but strength is coming back quick. Another day or two and she should be normal.”
Four days since Menagerie had grossly Overexerted herself and lapsed into a small coma. Even with the tincture from Organelle and ninety-six hours of time to heal, she was still weak and pale. At least now she could draw; that meant a lot for her since she had burned up a whole notebook saving us from our first round with the king of Ciel.
There was a moment of silence that I appreciated. Roger didn’t have to always talk like Rebecca or Murphy, and Alexis and I had been a bit awkward if we were alone since she had kissed me and disclosed her affection. Roger was the only one of us content to simply be.
“You know,” I finally said, “It’s weird what gets to us.”
He turned and raised an eyebrow, “How so?”
“Bargain told me that I’d killed nearly ten people when we fought with Suppression. And I watched that kid kill another dozen…and I feel a little guilty, but it barely seems to register. Isn’t that weird?”
“Maybe? I’ve gassed people, beaten people with a club, and I don’t feel a lot of guilt.”
“Aren’t we supposed to feel remorse though? I mean, we aren’t hardened criminals, are we?”
He shrugged, “I don’t know man. You should have asked Big Picture. If anyone would have had an answer, it would have been him.”
“Well,” I added, “My confusion is that I have extraordinary amounts of guilt for what happened with my parents. I didn’t really hurt my dad…I just rattled him honestly. But even so, for endangering them, for scaring them, for acting out,” I trailed off, choked up.
“I get it.”
“Shouldn’t I feel something else then about killing people? Shouldn’t they matter?”
“Man, I just wanted to come outside for some air, I wasn’t expecting to get hit with an existential crisis,” he lamented. “I mean, maybe. But maybe you’re only feeling bad over what is really important to you. Maybe, you just know that you shouldn’t feel guilty for protecting yourself and doing what needed to be done. It’s lousy, but Suppression hardly had intentions of treating us well after all.”
It was as good an explanation as I could hope for I supposed.
“What time is it anyways?”
“Nearly four in the afternoon,” he said with a yawn, “Goddamn Psycho is flipping our sleep schedule on its head.”
“At least now we have the least threatening chaperone with us,” I pointed out, “Silver linings and all.”
He rolled his eyes, “Oh, yay. We’re more trusted by a psychotic fugitive who has a sinister agenda. I’m glad I don’t have as stringent a curfew to adhere to.”
I let out a soft chuckle.
“Hey, you know what you should do.”
“Talk to your parents. Between the lot of us, you’re the only person with parents you might be able to salvage a relationship with. I say go for it.”
“I grew like fifty kilograms of mass and slapped my dad with it. I don’t think he’s going to be thrilled to hear from me.”
“So go home with no mass and be open with him,” a new voice added. Alexis dragged herself out and sat down, claiming the last seat of the concrete step. “Your parents are probably spooked and scared of you. They can’t explain you and people are afraid of what they don’t understand. If you go with no option to grow, that might make them less afraid and willing to start mending bridges.”
“You know my dad,” I muttered, “You think he’ll be willing to play ball with shit like this?”
“If you don’t try, you’ll never know,” Roger countered. “For someone who has fought Beleth twice, this seems like a cakewalk.”
I fought the urge to roll my eyes, “Fighting makes sense and feels almost more native now than trying to figure out what I should do with other people.”
“Nick,” Alexis said with a shake of her head, “Go talk to your parents. Roger is right: you’re the only one with a possibility of keeping a relationship alive. Go in ‘unarmed’ as it were and try to have an open dialogue. If you want some backup, bring Murphy along.”
“Not sure if that’s a great idea,” I said at length, “My dad is gonna feel threatened if I come with another Adapted right beside me. Even if I can’t grow, my dad can’t hope to fight Murphy even if he was armed. Plus, my dad is an old fashioned sort of dude in a lot of ways; it’ll mean more if I come alone and talk to him man-to-man.”
Roger nodded, “Does not sound like a good time…but you should still probably do it.”
“You’re right,” I admitted. “Alexis, I’m going to take a quick shower and then can you drive me over?”
She nodded. “Anything you need.”
Inside, Murphy was still knocked out. While I’m not sure he’d have pertinent life advice to give me, it wouldn’t have hurt to hear from my best friend about this whole situation. However, he was the only one of us fast enough to catch up to Awe while he was carting around his brother; Murphy had done his best to stop both of them, but Psycho’s constructs had gotten in his way since the man was so out of control and desperate to kill something. If he’d actually trusted us, I think my friend could have smacked the tar out of Awe.
But it had meant he was pressing himself and leaping atop buildings and running full tilt to try and keep up with a big name Enhancer who was known for being aggressively fast. As strong as my friend was, he needed some rest.
I left him be and took a shower, trying to get my head on straight. Even though I couldn’t lash out and accidentally activate my power this time, I hated feeling out of control and like I was about to lose my cool.
Fifteen minutes later and I piled into Alexis’ car, just as the sun started to dip.
“You want me to wait outside?” she asked as she drove slow, cautious as plenty of people were coming home from work or leaving for a later shift at the industrial sector of the city. “I know your dad won’t care for me being right next to you-“
“Go to a coffee shop and kill some time or something,” I said. “I don’t think he’ll do anything worse than maybe rough me up some. I get some mass, grow, and any damage he might have done will be mended.”
Alexis was clearly concerned, but I couldn’t give her a better response than to shrug.
She gave me a conciliatory hug and took off as I steadied myself, adrenaline hammering through my veins as I walked up to the front door. I looked at the handle, glad there was no blood on it this time as I twisted and pushed it open, hardly daring to breathe as I crossed the threshold.
No angry greeting this time, no mom crying on the couch.
In fact…no one at all. The car was out front; someone had to be home.
“Mom, dad,” I called out.
From the back of the house, a shout was heard. “Nick, RU-“
My world lurched forward as I found myself suddenly dragged into the entryway and the door slammed shut on its own accord. I lost my balance as the ground shifted under me, falling hard on my ass as I was dragged across the house.
I tried to get on all fours, but the concrete molded around my hands and pulled them to my side, forcing me to smack my face against the unforgiving floor. Blood filled my mouth as a I bit my cheek and continued to move back to the living room, guided by the animated concrete.
The world shifted and little hands of rock spun me around to see a familiar figure standing in my living room. Beleth.
Behind him were my parents, both bound to chairs he’d constructed from the floor.
“Nick! You made it,” the kingpin said as he looked down at me.
I was petrified and couldn’t find words as I gasped and left my mouth hanging open.
“What, you aren’t going to grow? No immense monster action today?” he asked, condescending. “Surely you aren’t just going to roll over this time.”
“Spit it out!” he demanded.
“I can’t! No mass! No growths!” I shouted in earnest, doing my best to simply expel the words.
His eyes widened in what looked like a paradoxical mix of frustration and relief. “Well, isn’t that a shame,” he muttered as he made himself a chair and took a seat. “I work so hard engineering a situation that gives me the drop on you, and you aren’t even in fighting shape. Seems wrong to kill an Adapted who can’t hit back, doesn’t it?”
I managed to swallow a lump in my throat and slowly nodded, silently willing my heart to slow down.
“Eldritch-“ he started and then stopped. “It hardly feels right to call you that when you look like this. Nick,” Beleth corrected, “Do you know why I’m here?”
“It’s because you’re a pussy,” a gruff voice shouted from across the room.
Beleth’s chair sank into the floor as I looked past the leader of the Surface Dwellers to my father. That same anger that I’d seen last time I visited, there it was again, but this time directed somewhere else.
Beleth’s initial surprise turned to a laugh. “You’re going to shit talk the guy who is holding you captive?”
“Would you rather I lie to you?” he spat back, defiant.
As he took a step forward, I finally found my voice. “Beleth, wait! They have nothing to do with this! They didn’t know about me until Psycho came here a few days ago, okay? Just…let them go. They won’t call anyone, I promise.”
For a moment, he stopped. “Nick, I want to explain something to you. You live to oppose me, I get it. I respect you for it. You and your friends, you’ve been a complete pain in my ass for a while now and have made a hell of a show of it.”
I nodded, feeling decidedly uneasy.
“But you’ve caused a lot of problems for me. So, I’m going to return the favor.” With no additional warning, he spun back and punched my dad straight in the face a few times. My father’s head snapped around as he could only do so much to roll with the half dozen punches he was forced to endure.
When he finally stopped and admired his handiwork, everyone present was shocked when my dad sat up and spat a glob of blood onto the crime lord, his gaze narrow and resolute.
“Shut up you brat,” my dad snapped, actually cowing the Adapted villain. “For all that machismo you can talk up, you had to ambush my son and take hostages? All that power and you hit like a fucking toddler! If you let me out, I’d fucking wipe the floor with you, Adaptation or not! You’re just a little boy pretending to be a big man, aren’t you?”
Even though I couldn’t see his face, I could just tell from Beleth’s posture my dad had managed to find a nerve. But as quickly as the rage came, it was replaced by something much more frightening: laughter.
“You’re probably right, Mr. Weld, and in a fair fight, you’d wipe the fucking floor with me.” Beside him, a little pillar of malleable concrete rose and Beleth dipped his hand in it. “But, life’s hardly fair, is it?” The pillar sank back into the floor and left the Adapted with a gauntlet of stone.
“No!” I shouted and tried to get up; he didn’t even turn around but instead just erected half a dozen spikes that all pressed against me.
“Stay,” he demanded as if he was addressing his dog. Horrified, I watched as he turned back to my dad. Beside him, my mother was crying but refused to turn away; she twisted her wrist to try and tap a finger on her husband’s forearm, a little reminder he wasn’t alone.
And then Beleth swung.
Even though it wasn’t graceful, even though it wasn’t elegant, there was simply enough weight on the man’s arm to snap my dad’s head to the side and throw blood from his mouth. Before he could recover, Beleth threw his whole body into a massive backhand; my dad’s frame went limp. Bloody saliva oozed from his mouth and dribbled down his chin as his face began to visibly swell.
“Your dad is a tough bastard,” Beleth said as he turned back to me, gauntlet still equipped. The spikes withdrew and he pointed to the ground.
I obliged and sat down.
“Are you familiar with the term ‘breakage’, Nick?”
I nodded. “it’s-it’s a loss of money because of damages.”
“Good, exactly right. Do you know what your little crew has cost me because of your shit?”
“No,” I replied honestly.
“Moving my whole drug operation, huge. Cost me one hell of a pretty penny. And you lot cost me my contract with Xandal which was going to set me up for life.”
Hearing him mention that man actually cut through some of my fear with a sudden surge of anger. “You’d fucking work with Suppression?”
Beleth cocked his head, “He was going to pay through the nose simply to ensure I got rid of you guys. Of course I was going to take his job.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I knew Beleth was a bad guy, but working actively with Suppression as an Adapted? “I wish Parasite had snapped your neck,” I muttered. “I thought Psycho was bad, but you’re worse.”
To my surprise, there was a flash of recognition and fear in Beleth as I mentioned our recent warden. “You think I’m worse than that freak? You think I’m worse off than that psychotic nutcase? He’s just here to cause a panic, and you’re helping him!”
“Because maybe he’s right and knows that you need to be gotten rid of!” I snapped back, pulling myself to my feet.
Beleth snarled and jabbed forward, hitting me square in the shoulder with his concrete gauntlet; it knocked me back a step and the ground slid out from under me like a tablecloth being yanked clear.
I found myself landing hard on my ass once again.
“You really want to pick a fight with me when you don’t have mass to burn?” he shouted as concrete warped around me, binding my ankles to the ground. “Are you serious? You might be scary as shit when you’re the size of a small building, but right now, you’re just some punk kid.”
I tried to sit up and was rewarded with a foot stomping on my chest, forcing me down.
“You and you’re obnoxious little friends have cost me a lot of money, a lot of time, and a lot of credibility around this city. And it’s because of you that people like Psycho have started showing up here! It was all-“ he stomped down on me, “going to be-“ he kicked me in the face, “perfect!”
“Enough!” my mother called out, her voice shaky. “Please, stop.”
Beleth finally stopped and turned back to her, composing himself as I was finally given the room to sit up. “Mrs. Weld, I don’t think you appreciate what your boy has cost me.”
“Is it worth what you plan to take from him?” she replied, doing her best to take up my father’s role of strong and unyielding. He was still limp beside her, bloody saliva continuing to slowly drain from his face.
He stepped forward cautiously, as if afraid of her. “I have a reputation to keep,” he said plainly.
“And assaulting a 17 year old boy and his family is really the reputation you want to uphold? If you want to be the king of something, you need people to respect you; is this something you consider respectable?”
I was afraid he was going to smack her like he had dad; I almost let out a relieved sigh when Beleth took a step back from her and put his hands behind his back. “With all due respect, Mrs. Weld, your boy is far beyond average. I have made it clear that there are consequences for those who would dare harm my business, and he has taken it upon himself to intrude on my trade numerous times. Whether or not this is a respectable event, ma’am, I believe that I am to be a man of my word.”
“Even when your word is horse-shit?” my dad groaned as he slowly sat up, his words slurring. “You’re just a thug pretending he’s something else.”
The kingpin turned to my defiant father. “I see why your son doesn’t go down easily. Good to know he came by his grit honestly.”
“Beleth!” I cried, “Let them go!”
He turned to glare at me, animosity radiating out. “If I let them go, you keep working for Psycho. He gets to use them as leverage, gets to keep you coming after me, even if you promise me that you won’t.”
“I-I-I can figure something out. They can run-”
“Don’t be naive,” he growled, “The second I’m not here, you go back to fighting me because Psycho scares you, you already hate me, and he’s clearly not afraid to get his hands dirty.” Beleth took two steps towards me and leaned down, lowering his voice to almost a whisper. “I’m going to make sure you’re more scared of me from now on.”
My eyes widened as I took in his intentions.
I reached up and grabbed Beleth’s collar, as if keeping him from walking across the room would do anything. More annoyed than anything else, he smacked me with the gauntlet he’d made and drove the wind out of my lungs. Still, I refused to let go and took another slam to the gut for my struggle. With my body demanding air, Beleth was able to pull himself away and take a step back.
I tried to get up but more concrete wove around my legs, ensuring I couldn’t wriggle free.
“You should have really thought about what you kids were doing,” Beleth said reproachfully as he stalked back towards my parents. “That shit you pulled with Big Picture, that was really where you guys went wrong.”
“Someone had to fucking stand up to you!” I shouted. “At least when Imperium was around you were kept in check!”
“And I should really say thank you for helping get rid of Shockwave,” Beleth replied, “But then…you just had to keep going. Attacking my informant in his legitimate place of business, bringing Suppression close to Pyre and Goliath, these are things I simply cannot abide. You endangered my people by breaking those rules we had as Adapted, Eldritch,” he said, lapsing to my Reckoner name, “Did you think that was something I could forgive?”
“And working for Suppression doesn’t violate a rule?”
He sneered, “The upside of wearing no mask, I’m not the same as the rest of you.”
“You’re right, you’re worse! You rationalize being a spoiled brat who doesn’t have to play by the rules because you refuse to in the first place! You don’t want to accept you’re just like the rest of us! You’re no fucking king, you’re a fucking kid throwing a tantrum because something caught up with him!” As the words tumbled out of my mouth, I barely heard myself. Instead, it sounded like the defiant and angry voice I only attributed to my father.
I looked past Beleth and looked at my dad; despite everything happening around him, he was wearing a delirious smile. Beside him, my mom wore a small grin as the two shifted to wrap their index fingers together.
Beleth was furious, seething as I looked back up to him, embracing my familial resolve and defiance. His scowl deepened as he took a step to the side to allow better visibility of his captives. “And now you’re an orphan.”
From the ground a spike erupted and impaled my father. He shook and looked down at the spire of stone that was coated in his blood.
“Michael!” my mom screamed as she struggled against the bonds.
Even as he was bleeding out, my dad didn’t seem too scared. He looked up from the spike to me and nodded slowly.
The whole world seemed to be muted as I watched him rapidly expire. I was dimly aware of my mom shrieking but, for a second, all I could think about was what I wish I could have told my dad. He’d pushed me, maybe too hard, but when the chips were down, he didn’t screw me over. Even though I had assaulted him with my Adaptation, he had abstained from involving authorities. Even when being threatened by Beleth, he tried to draw the kingpin’s attention to protect me. Even now, he wasn’t cursing me, but was happy to see his son grow a spine and get a glimmer of understanding and appreciation for his firm edge.
He would never know how much I would miss him.
My mom saying my name pulled me back to reality. “Nick,” she repeated, “It’s okay. You’re going to-”
A curved spire of concrete zipped through her brain, killing her instantly.
The bindings around my leg faded back into the floor and Beleth lingered at the edge of the room, glaring down at me as I slowly pulled myself across the floor, as if getting closer would change the events I had just watched unfold.
Getting closer didn’t change that I had watched my parents die.
“You started playing with monsters,” Beleth said as he started walking away, “Next time Psycho demands something from you, remember what a real monster looks like.”
I barely registered what he said as tears streamed down my face. But, as one last means of checking, I reached forward and touched my parents, as if somehow it might shock them out of it.
One-hundred and fifty-three kilograms ready to consume.
My breath caught in my chest as my power affirmed they were irrevocably dead. I could only consume decaying flesh, and now they qualified.
But, now I had something I could use to fight Beleth. As I looked at my parents, my sorrow turned to rage.
Beleth had to be stopped. He was too powerful a force in Ciel and too dangerous to be left alive; if he did something like this to me, what would he do to everyone else I cared about? I wasn’t about to let anyone else experience this nightmare.
“You think you’re a monster,” I called out to Beleth as I willed my gift to consume the flesh before me.
“What the-” I heard him sputter, horrified as my parents dissolved into nothing more than skeletons.
“I’LL SHOW YOU WHAT A TRUE MONSTER LOOKS LIKE!”