While several of us were still trying to process what had just happened, Dragoon turned towards the matron of the facility, “Our friend, where is she?”
Like me, she’d realized that we weren’t in danger, but Ligthshow sure as hell was. Mother Audrey was quick to pick up as well, her eyes betraying a moment of alarm. “Building on the opposide side of the compound. She should be in a back room near our storage closet.”
“Mutant, get to Lightshow, NOW!”
He needed no additional prompting. In a blur, he transformed into a bird and zipped through a window. Mutant was more than enough to keep her safe, but we needed to group up quickly. People were going to light a literal signal fire to bring the Trillodan to us; the last thing we needed was to be split.
“Guys,” Parasite said, pausing as he took a glance out the window, “We have another problem.”
“What the hell is that?” I whispered, staring out at the black cloud on the horizon.
“Milignum,” Mother Audrey said, very matter-of-fact. “The insects come in a swarm, all guided by the same compulsion thanks to the disease. We have a few minutes before they get here.”
“How long will the swarm be here?” Dragoon demanded.
The Mother Superior frowned, “Usually a Milignum blight lasts anywhere from one hour to three, depending how well the city contains itself. If there isn’t adequate food easily accessible, the swarm will move on in search of something else.”
Dragoon let out a sigh, “Alright, Parasite you’re rear guard, Menagerie call Steve to be closer. Let’s get to Lightshow before we have to compete with that shit.” She turned to the Mother Superior, “Mother Audrey, I might recommend you sit this one out. It’s gonna get rough from here on out.”
She shook her head, “I will ensure you leave here in good health and get the medication that was promised to you. You are still under my charge.”
Our captain debated arguing but decided against it. She nodded and threw her helmet on, “Well, let’s get to work.”
The second the door opened, someone tried to barrel into the room, clubbing Dragoon with a chair. While she stumbled for a fraction of a second, my friend was quick to return fire and hit the man in the mouth. Chunk of shattered enamel went flying as he stumbled back into the hall, whimpering in pain.
“Cover!” she shouted as Dragoon pulled off a sphere of metal from her suit; she lobbed the concussion grenade into the hallway and closed the door before anyone else could try to muscle in. As soon as it went off, she forced her way out, pushing people aside as they tried to reclaim their balance.
One grabbed my ankle, but Parasite stomped on the man’s hand without hesitation. There was no smirk on my best friends face, for now the jokester was all business.
As we got outside, I grimaced at the encroaching insect swarm. It was so thick that it just seemed like an angry cloud of smoke, one that made an audible buzzing, even from this far away. “Around the building, quickly,” Dragoon insisted.
We darted around the edge of one building, knowing people weren’t about to break through the glass to come after us. While they knew the looming consequences of disappointing the Trillodan, they were all too familiar with the threat the Milignum posed right here and now. The swarm didn’t care about intention, it was a force of nature that would do as it pleased.
The threat the Trillodan posed did drive a dozen people outside to try and intercept us. Like us, they knew there was a few minutes before the plague arrived and began to infect. Still, seeing them trying to intercept Adapted with nothing more than broken pieces of furniture and their fists was almost depressing. They had to know that there was no way they could win. As I watched them, some of them clearly knew it was futile; they didn’t want to be doing this, but they didn’t feel they had a choice. Allowing us to stay here was being complicit. Some of these people remembered the Trillodan and they wouldn’t suffer Protocol 37 again.
“Parasite, left,” Dragoon barked.
The men in front of them didn’t stand a chance. Dragoon and Parasite were better armed, better trained, and had-for all intents and purposes-armor where their opponents did not. The confrontation was over in seconds, each desperate patient only needing a single hit or two in order to be sufficiently eliminated from the fight.
I was expecting some kind of lecture from the Mother Superior, but none came. There were no gasps of surprise or condescending glares cast at any of us. Instead, she watched the violent display with a sad expression, disheartened that it would come to this. It didn’t escape me that both of my friends weren’t aiming to kill but trying to maim or cripple. If Parasite had really wanted to, he could have simply swung for the fences and started crushing skulls with his staff. Dragoon had the scrap gun and could have fired into the crowd, but she restrained herself as well.
I was willing to bet that Mother Audrey noted their moderation as well.
Dragoon threw the door open, turning back to the Mother superior, “Where is Lightshow?”
“Farther down,” she informed us, “On the right.” As we got closer, we didn’t need her guiding: there was a blood trail leading up to a closed door. Around the entrance, there were chunks of people scattered among the gore. Some of the people were groaning and trying to limp away, but some were never going to rise from Mutant’s rampage.
This display of carnage did actually earn a frown from the Mother Superior, but still she held her tongue.
“Still think we’re divine, Mother Audrey?” Parasite asked, his tone somber.
“Maybe a little old testament for my tastes, but defending a wounded comrade is hardly what I would consider evil,” she replied, curt.
Dragoon rapped a hand on the door, “Mutant, it’s us.” After pausing for a moment, she opened the door and he stepped out, bringing Lightshow with him. She looked substantially better after being given a blood transfusion, but she was still decidedly out of sorts. Her face was grim, but now at least there was a modicum of color where before she has been alarmingly grey.
Mutant was in his wolf form, his coat caked in blood. Seeing the Mother Superior, he changed back and tried to stare her down, but still to no avail.
“I assume you didn’t kill the sisters.”
Mutant shook his head, “Just those clambering over one another to get at Lightshow.”
Across the hall, a door opened and a mousy face poked through as Sister Sarah crept out, horrified. “Mother Audrey-“
“Peace, child,” she said softly, pulling the terrified woman close, “He means you no harm,” she insisted, looking to Mutant. “God didn’t make soldiers who were going to be clean and pristine, Sarah. It is always darkest before the dawn.”
The Mother Superior’s vote of confidence did not exactly win points with the rattled nun. I couldn’t blame her though; when Mutant was let loose, he was a monster. The people here didn’t stand a chance, especially since they were threatening the shapeshifters closest friend. The two of them had been roommates and known each other long before Rogue Sentries. When he found us, Mutant had lost his old team and it had burned a harsh lesson into his primal personality:
Defend what you have, or watch it die.
He didn’t talk about the fact that Geyser had been taken by the Trillodan, but Mutant was one who spoke with action. Mutant was not about to relive that reality, not if he could fight it.
“Lightshow, how are you holding up?” Parasite asked.
“A bit more gore covered than I’d like to be,” she replied, vainly trying to wipe the blood off her checkered outfit, “But alive, so good start.”
I opened my mouth to say something, but a buzz droned as the wave of Milignum washed over the building, with insects slamming into the side with a cacophony of metallic thwacks.
“What exactly is this Milignum shit?”
“It’s a parasite, a tiny one,” Mother Audrey informed us, “It starts with insect eggs, gestating with the bugs as they grow and subsequently uses them to infect mammals. The mammals it infects are prompted to leave their waste in the water where the eggs survive and eventually hatch. The problem is,” she added, “That Milignum evolved to plague hartier species. Simply put, humans are not built sturdy enough to withstand the stuff. It’s far too aggressive and causes necrosis. While it doesn’t usually last very long in us, that’s because we run out of skin and muscle for it to rot off.”
“Can it be cured?” Dragoon asked, a bit mortified.
“Not really. You can treat it and curb any further damage, but undoing necrosis is God’s work to do, not mine. The best thing we can do is basically burn it out with concentrated silver nitrate. It’s an… unpleasant process.” The way she lingered on the term, she had either experienced such a thing or knew someone who had. That was definitely the voice of experience.
Menagerie sighed, “Can you cover up to prevent infection? Will the bugs bite through clothing?”
Sister Sarah and Mother Audrey looked her way, each with some concern. “Why would you ask?”
“The Trillodan are likely going to show up while we can’t run, they will take advantage of the situation and dictate the fight on their terms. They all wear armor suits, so they won’t give a damn about the plague.”
“And they aren’t going to be subtle about their entry,” Parasite added. “If we have to fight back in earnest it’s like that much of this building isn’t going to survive the evening.”
“There are extra clothes we can use to ensure we are covered,” the Mother Superior said, walking over a cabinet to fish out extra linens. “The bugs also shy away from enough heat, so if one of you is capable of making a space heater, that might help.”
Menagerie hastily began flipping through the pages of her notebook to see if she had any kind of means to control the almost inevitable influx of pests.
Dragoon tried to look out the windows, annoyed at our lack of visibility. “Mutant, stay alert for them. I don’t want to be blindsided.”
Mutant changed to his lizard form, the green scales coating over his skin in a wave of color that consumed our shapeshifter. Mother Audrey gave him a respectful nod as he stepped forward, flicking his tongue out, smelling the air. While it wasn’t a particularly good combat form, his lizard form was incredibly sensitive and a good scouting measure. While it limited his vision, it more than made up for it with his adjusted hearing, touch, and smell.
As he flicked his tongue out to taste the air, he crawled up onto a wall, blending seamlessly with the shadows cast in the corners. “There’s a fire, on the other side of the compound. I can taste the smoke.”
“If the Trillodan didn’t know where we were, they do now,” I muttered, trying to avoid becoming too discouraged.
There is meat you can consume. You don’t have to be disarmed. Four hundred and nineteen kilograms within reach right now.
I felt a little sick to my stomach at the suggestion, remembering exactly what had happened the one time I had consumed a person to ignite the reaction. There had been no stopping it, no curtailing my ravenous hunger, and the genesis of the voice in my head. I had left nothing of my parents to bury except for bare bones.
“No,” I whispered to myself, “Not that. Not again.”
There was a tense silence as we held our breath, waiting for the inevitable conflict. “I’m sorry,” Dragoon said to break the silence, “I’m sorry we are bringing our war to your home. If I might make a suggestion, you should probably try to get yourself away from us, away from where the inevitable conflict will be.”
Mother Audrey offered a sad smile, “If we are culpable for sheltering you, I believe that there is nowhere for us to hide. If the Trillodan want to see us dead, I will die proudly having helped you.” She prompted the sister who handed over the duffel bag of goods she had offered to us, “Should you escape, I do hope this offers value for you and all who fight alongside you.”
“It will,” Parasite replied.
Mutant tapped his fingers on the roof, getting our attention, “I hear something…different. It isn’t part of the swarm, but it isn’t like a drop ship.”
She drummed her fingers against her arms, “Meaning what?”
“I’m not sure, Drag, but it tastes,” he flicked his tongue out a few more times, “Like metal. I don’t have a better way to describe it.”
Menagerie tore a page from her notebook and the page turned to ash; a pair of her burning boars showed up, each one standing up to my waist and radiating heat. She’d used these before to great effect. “They might start some small fires, but they should be hot enough to be a good insect repellant. If you and Sister Sara would like to hide with them, that might be a good idea.”
“You should join them, Menagerie,” Dragoon insisted. “The last thing we need-“
Mutant hissed and dropped back to the floor, swapping to his wolf form, “The bugs are moving away from the buildings.” A glance at the window showed that it wasn’t just speculation; the swarm was backing up, giving the building a wide berth.
He didn’t have to spell out what that meant. The Trillodan were setting the stage for a brawl, and the last thing they wanted to get were infected specimen. Besides that, they had fought us once and knew that we could break the armor they came with. Even if they didn’t care about us getting infected, they likely didn’t care to risk getting some kind of necrosis from the bloody bugs. The Trillodan soldier that Soliloquy had coerced into talking had mentioned that the Trillodan were surprisingly fragile in some ways; as badass as his operatives were, Zellig’s cronies were still Trillodan and had the same foibles.
“Menagerie, Sister, Mother, please,” Dragoon implored, “the back room, hide there. There’s no need to get yourself caught up in this.”
At least we could operate with impunity, but then again if these soldiers worked with Zellig, they were hoping for a good fight. They thrived on conflict, on the mayhem, just like we did. I wasn’t sure who it favored more, and the more I thought about it, the more I eyed the scattered carnage that Mutant had generated; would we be able to fight them without Eldritch?
Before I could come to a conclusion, something slammed against the exterior of the building, and then blasted a hole into the side of the structure. Through it strode the gunslinger operative, his swagger just as confident as the first time we had encountered him. He seemed to drink in the scene, taking stock of what he was up against before taking a step forward.
“You can give in,” he offered perfect Universal Common, “You can quit struggling, quit fighting. Your friend lost an arm last time; what will we have to take this round?”
“Where’s your friend?” Lightshow shot back.
Even though he was wearing a helmet, I could swear he was grinning. “Lail will heal, but I don’t think that stump will.”
“And what happens if we don’t come along quietly?” Dragoon said, stepping forward, putting herself between the operative and me. “What happens if we choose to fight back?”
“Then I break your bodies and drag you back to Vaneel. He will heal you to make sure you last as a material for study. As long as I avoid killing you, I can inflict as much damage as I want. Trillodan medicine will be able to restore you before the sun sets.”
It was good to know that Steve had enough damage that even Trillodan medicine had put down ‘Lail’ as the operative called the animalistic assassin. If nothing else, it gave us some benchmark for how much damage we needed to inflict to take them out of the fight for at least a night.
“What do we call you?” Parasite asked. “You know us, but this seems to impersonal.”
The helmet pulled back, the metal shifting like sand in an hourglass to reveal a green Trillodan face with some sickly white spots dotted across him. Even though I knew next to nothing about the tyrannical aliens, I knew that those blotches were not something that bode well for him. “My name is Tol,” he said, proud.
The way he said it, the way he held himself, it was like looking at Zellig again. “You work for him, directly, don’t you?” I asked.
Tol parted his lips to reveal twin rows of fangs, “I’m one of Zellig’s three captains. The other two are hunting down the rest of your twisted race.”
“Twisted race,” Parasite said, affronted, “We’re humans.”
“Human’s don’t have that shit under their skin,” the trillodan captain replied. “Human’s don’t turn into reptiles. You are something else, something different.”
“The other thing that humans don’t normally do,” Dragoon said, loud so that Menagerie could hear, “Human’s don’t make monsters come to life!”
In a flow of metal, the facemask returned and Tol snapped his fingers; something detonated and the entire left wall of the building was turned to dust, revealing a gargantuan Trillodan. She was easily eight feet tall, laden with muscle and equipped with a terrifying, bloodthirsty grin. Unlike Tol, this one didn’t wear a distinct set of power armor but instead had a small translucent layer over her frame. The only bit of mechanical enhancement she had was a tank on her back with a network of tubes running into some major muscle groups. All the tubes looked to be coated in metal, protecting the obvious vulnerability.
“Kalr is fixing for a fight,” Tol said with a laugh, “Are you su-“
Steve thundered into our midst, leaping over the building and slamming into Kalr, shoving her away from the breach and interrupting Tol.
“Menagerie, make the dragon,” Dragoon shouted back at the door, “Mutant, help keep that big bitch down! Parasite, with me, we’re due a rematch!”
Any alarm that the sudden presence of Steve might have introduced was gone instantly; instead there was a malicious hunger coming from him as he held a few meters away, eagerly waiting for them to charge, to take the fight to him. He wanted this and he’d known full well that we weren’t going to take the option to come quietly.
“Drag-“ I started.
“Stay back with the others,” my captain insisted. “We can take him.”
I was reluctant to believe her, but if there was one thing that she and Parasite were both fantastic at, it was learning. My best friends were quick studies and both were going to fare far better against Tol this time. Both knew about what kinds of threats he came with and would have some idea of how to work against those trump cards he had built into his suit. Both knew the dangers those red disks posed if consumed. At a glance, he had seven of them. Two had been enough to do in both of my friends, but they had been blindsided by the insane power those posed.
And this time, Dragoon wasn’t about to pull any punches. Our last fight had started with her trying to avoid lethal measures and continue to be the tight laced Reckoner. That idea was cast aside now.
My best friend nodded, darting in, looking down for a split second as Dragoon launched a concussion grenade at Tol’s head.
It exploded, prompting Parasite to attack, going low and attacking the Trillodan’s legs, slamming his shin into the side of the operative’s knee. While Tol buckled, he turned his attention beyond Parasite, looking to Dragoon.
Just like they had learned the dangers he posed, Tol had learned the dangers Dragoon posed like the fact that her railgun would punch holes through him like a pencil through paper.
Metal moved along his suit, collecting in his palm as he skirted to the left, avoiding the next hit from Parasite; the shifting metal collected in his hand in the shape of a ball and he threw it back at Dragoon. Halfway through its trajectory, it detonated, shredding shelves and punching a hole in the wall that was still standing. The blast knocked Dragoon over and forced Parasite back a few paces, giving Tol freedom to run her down.
Dragoon sat up, grabbing the railgun but not getting a shot before Tol kicked it out of her hand. I expected her to go after the gun, but instead Dragoon threw herself forward, tackling the Trillodan. As both tumbled, she slammed a fist down, doing so damage to his helmet before he launched her off, throwing Dragoon through the hole he’d made in the wall. Our captain rolled and was quick up to her feet, throwing another concussion grenade in, this one detonating right in front of her opponents face.
Even with a helmet to dampen the effect, it sent him reeling.
Parasite seized the opportunity, clutching the collapsed staff in his hand and driving it into Tol’s face plate. The eight kilograms of metal ripped a chunk out of the mask and exposed some of that blotchy skin. My friend flicked the hunk of metal to his other hand to allow for another full bodied swing, trying to break the rest of the fractured metal; Tol shot a hand forward and grabbed his elbow. A pivot launched Parasite into the wall as if he weighed no more than a piece of plastic. Despite being tossed, my best friend was back on his feet in an instant, already attacking again, trying to keep Tol occupied so Dragoon could get a hold of her gun.
Parasite knew he wasn’t going to be the one to put him down; all he had to do was buy space for Dragoon to get a few good shots off.
What drew my eyes away for a moment was Lightshow pointing through the hole in the wall, to where the monstrous brute Tol brought with him was engaging with Menagerie’s two massive creations. The three-headed dragon coated in quills was the same size as Steve, and both were trying to batter and shred their way through Kalr. But, she wasn’t going down. From the tubes attached to her suit, some grey colored sludge flowed and quickly filled any gashes or cuts in, completely undoing the damage.
The more daunting thing was that she was standing toe-to-toe with Steve. Menagerie’s monstrous creation slammed into Kalr, forcing her back a step, but he couldn’t keep rampaging forward. The Trillodan dug her heels in, twisting and lifting the beast off the ground with a grunt. Her lips parted into a sneer as she ducked under a barrage of quills from the dragon, darting forward with surprising agility considering her stature. Mutant flitted by in his travel form, shifting to his wolf to drag his claws along, slashing down her side before throwing himself away to avoid being squished by a furious swipe. Initially it looked like Mutant had inflicted some serious damage, but more sludge filled in the gaps, immediately rectifying the damage.
Steve rallied and charged, demanding attention as he raised on his back legs and kicked. While her hands were busy, Mutant sliced into the back of her knee while the quill-coated dragon darted forward, each head finding a place to bite and tear a hunk of flesh free. As soon as Steve was muscled back, the dragon and Mutant darted away, lacking the strength to stand and brawl with her. I almost shouted to go for the metal tank on her back but there were already scratches present. Kalr, I observed, was keeping her face to Steve; he was likely the only one would could hit her hard enough to dent or break the machinations.
One other person on our team could likely do the job; the problem was that she was hung up with Tol, trying to make enough distance between the two of them to actually get a hold of the railgun.
Parasite went in for another exchange with the Trillodan and found himself on the receiving end of the battery. Tol ducked under the strike to his head and countered with a few crisp punches, each slamming into my friends’ side. The Enhancer tried to counter with a kick, but his opponent grabbed the leg pulled it out from under him.
Instead of falling down, Murphy caught himself on his hands, kicking a few times before springing away and correcting his posture, about the same time that Dragoon got her hands back on the railgun.
Tol growled and raised an arm, the gun on his wrist winding up; Parasite leapt in the way and endured a dozen shots to the chest, none tearing too deep thanks to his passenger being best at mitigating local traumas. The Trillodan roared in frustration and raised his right arm; a blast of heat rolled through the building as Parasite’s shirt was burned off and the skin immediately blistered.
“Move!” Dragoon shouted. My friend needed no additional hint as he stepped to the side for our captain to let fly the first round.
It screamed, the unholy sound echoing in the metal box as she let fly the sphere of metal. Tol threw himself to the side, landing in an undignified heap but managing to avoid getting a hole punched through him. As she went to reload, Parasite moved forward to keep the Trillodan captain busy.
A sound like a cartridge being discharged rang out and one of the red disks his the ground.
Tol shot a hand forward and a visible wave of force slammed into Dragoon, throwing her a good three meters backwards and into a shelf that had been housing linens. Even though I was down the hall, I was still swept off my feet by the shockwave and landed among the corpses; reviled I got up as quick as possible. But, it did remind me that I could participate in the fight. But if I did, would I end up killing my friends in the process?
Tol rising to his feet drew my attention back up the corridor and off my crisis of conscience. For now, I would have to trust my friends to hold their own.
As the Trillodan rose, his suit was still dimly glowing red. I was glad that my friend had noticed too, dodging away from his grasp. Tol wasn’t limited to just boxing or just shooting, he could pick his tools selectively. The red disks were just a trump card, one that was hard to plan around because he chose how it was delivered and how long it took to administer.
After he missed his initial attempt to grab my friend, the Trillodan closed his fist and the red color drained into a small sliver of metal that shot at Parasite like a harpoon; Parasite dodged, but the thing exploded once it hit the wall.
Murphy was slammed against the opposing wall, the staff clattering to the floor as he groaned and tried to pick himself back up, clearly dazed.
It was the window Tol had been trying to make.
Dragoon got up to her feet, snagging the gun, but not before the Trillodan captain could get to her. Tol slapped it aside, forcing an exchange of blows, knowing she lacked his finesse. Parasite had done his best to teach all of us basic hand-to-hand combat, but we paled in comparison to him. Watching the Trillodan captain, it was clear he was better still.
The best she could do was mitigate the damage she was taking while Parasite fought up to his feet, but a cost was being exacted. Metal shifted on his suit, effectively adding spikes to his knuckles and it became apparent how lopsided this exchange was; armor began cracking as Tol pushed her against a wall, the pace of his onslaught speeding up as he smelled blood in the water.
A scuffle and blur of movement drew my attention back to Parasite who foguht to his feet, snagging the hunk of dense metal on his way up. My friend swung his arm back and launched the collapsed staff; Tol saw him coming and turned, guarding his head and vitals, willing to endure the impact.
Except my friend knew Tol would defend the obvious target; that’s why he’d thrown lower, drilling the Trillodan in the knee.
Tol groaned as the joint shifted and he stumbled, even the assistance from the power armor unable to compensate for the abrupt change in balance. Dragoon rallied, stressing the actuators and shoving him backwards as hard as she could manage. The Trillodan stumbled back, trying to catch his balance as Parasite slammed into him, tackling him to the floor. Instead of trying to pummel him, my friend threaded himself around the operative, isolating joints and keeping him bound up for a few extra seconds.
“Get the fucking gun!” Parasite screamed as Tol started peeling himself free.
Dragoon stumbled and sank to a knee picking it up, turning on the pair of them; Parasite let himself be thrown away as Tol scrambled to his feet, right as our captain pulled the trigger.
Another shriek from the railgun, but this time she hit meat. Tol cried out as his right arm simply came off at the elbow.
Despite the grave injury inflicted, there seemed to be a change in the atmosphere of the room; they’d hurt Tol enough that he was done enjoying the fight. Instead of fighting a combatant who thrilled in the sport, they had unwittingly forced him to become the hand-picked Trillodan assassin that Zellig had personally trained.
His suit shifted again, covering the stump and glowing, cauterizing the wound; by his leg, the machinations constricted, forcing his knee back into place with a sickening pop. As Dragoon snagged another sphere of metal to fire, he raised his hand and the gun wound up. Parasite threw himself back into the fray, but not before several sharp bits of metal he chewed into our friend’s leg.
Dragoon cried out and fell, hastily trying to reload as another red disk was discharged from Tol’s suit.
Parasite tried to jump away, but Tol moved with blinding speed, throwing what had to be a dozen strikes in the blink of an eye, knocking the wind out of my friend. As if some sixth sense guided him, the Trillodan captain turned and fired a sliver of metal. Dragoon screamed as the spike pierced her right shoulder and stuck her to the wall before she could pull the trigger.
The Enhancer came back swinging, attacking the side that no longer hand an arm, but the speed boost was still affecting Tol, letting him easily stay a step ahead of my dazed friend.
I looked at the pile of bodies and reached forward, recognizing far too late that they were going to need help.
Tol pushed Parasite back again and fired a spike, this one piercing through my side and pinning me to a wall. My vision blurred as I nearly passed out from the pain; it was only made worse when I looked down and saw the blood beginning to seep out from the wound.
“You mother-“ Parasite screamed, running forward.
Tol ducked under the kick that might have taken his head off and delivered a punch into Murphy’s ribs. It sounded like a shotgun going off as the rest of the energy from the red disk discharged into my friend’s torso. Murphy slammed into the metal wall, gasping for air as he sank to all fours. Blood oozed from his lips as he slumped down, his face blank, like he didn’t know where he was anymore.
Dragoon screamed as she ripped the spike out of her shoulder and hastily loaded the railgun. Tol fired another spike through her bicep, making it impossible to aim the gun. She screamed, but reached over and grabbed the spike, ripping herself free of the wall again.
Tol hurried forward and smacked the gun aside. Dragoon tried to raise a hand to fight, but he was not having any of it. He knocked her to the floor and dropped down beside her, using a knee to pin her good arm to the floor. His fist slammed forward, smashing her face plate, each blow worsening the malformation. It tried to correct, as all her machines did, but after the fifth blow, he dug his fingers in and ripped that hunk of her helmet away.
In desperation, I groaned and pulled myself forward, trying to get free and get access to flesh to consume.
Tol spun and embedded another spike into my shoulder, not wanting to risk letting me access any living tissue. He knew exactly how dangerous I was if fed.
“No, I don’t think so,” he growled. “Zelli-“
He was cut off by Murphy haphazardly throwing himself forward, doing a bad tackle. The surprise only took Tol an instant to recover from; Parasite took a pair of strikes and Tol threw him back across the room. Despite my best friend’s determination, it was clear that he was done. Dragoon tried to go for the gun in the second she had, but Tol turned his gun on her and put half a dozen rounds into her side. She let another scream and fell back, trembling and shaking as she tried to fight through the pain.
“I understand why Zellig told me to be wary of you all,” Tol said, his voice carrying above Dragoon’s whimpering, “You lot don’t quit! No matter how many times I keep hitting you, you refuse to go down!”
He stomped on Dragoon’s torso to add emphasis to his words.
He turned his attention outside to Kalr who was finally showing some signs of injury, the flow of the sludge being more sparing now. But, it wasn’t without price. Steve was no more, and the dragon that Menagerie had made was starting to crumble and one of it’s heads had been torn off. They had engaged in a war of attrition and that brute had won out. Even as I watched Mutant dance around the gargantuan Trillodan, he was slowing, getting tired. As much as he’d stressed himself, he was running out of steam. Even if he pushed his limits, there was no way he could enough to bring down the giantess. Overexposure or not, he wasn’t going to win.
Kalr, even though she was finally sustaining injury, wasn’t slowing down.
“You’re done,” he said, triumphant. “Now that I don’t have these two,” Tol made a sweeping gesture to my friends, “bothering me, it’s just the two of us.”
To our surprise, several more copies of me manifested nearby. A few paces away, Lightshow focused, doing all she could, trying to make it a little harder. She knew that they could see through her illusions, but she had to try, to do something. I watched her slump against the door to Menagerie’s hiding spot, the physical toll too much for her to sustain given her injury. She’d lost the arm only about four hours ago. Lightshow should have been sedated and resting. The fact that she was on her feet was impressive, but this was damaging.
Tol laughed in the face of her struggle. “You think some petty illusion is going to stop me?” He took a few steps forward, “Zellig asked for Eldritch, Dragoon, and Parasite to be brought back alive specifically. I can see why we might want to take Menagerie and Mutant as well, they have uses to be sure. But you, Lightshow, you are worthless. The Trillodan have no need of some pathetic illusionist whose only defense it trickery!” His arm came up, and I saw Lightshow’s eyes widen.
All I could do was scream, “NO!”
As Tol took aim, I felt something change in the room, something shift; the air was suddenly electric, like the moment right before a thunderstorm. Ligthshow’s despondency changed, her face going almost blank as she held herself upright, reaching a hand forward and changing the projection. The images of me faded away, and instead an illusion of Dragoon appeared between them. Tol laughed as it charged forward. He fired, calling Lightshow’s bluff.
Tol quit laughing when the bullets drilled into the copy of Dragoon right before it hit him in the face. As he staggered, the projection of Dragoon yanked up her railgun and took aim; Tol threw himself to the side but the round still carved through some of his oblique.
For a moment, I forgot that I was suffering from incredible pain and turned to look at Lightshow, amazed and frightened. I’d heard from Psycho and the Lunatics about what an Alteration was like, I just never thought I’d see it firsthand. Her powers had completely changed in an instant, and now I wasn’t sure exactly what she was doing, and that meant Tol didn’t either.
“How are you doing that?”
“I don’t know,” she whispered, looking past me.
Tol was scrambling. While the human copy of Dragoon would go down after being riddled with bullets, whatever Lightshow was making didn’t give a shit. As he chipped away, the projection kept coming, refusing to give him an avenue to attack Lightshow directly. Enraged, he discharged another disk and obliterated the projection with a massive concussive wave.
Lightshow screamed and a new spectre came into existence, this time a copy of Eldritch that practically filled the room.
Tol didn’t gawk or drop his jaw like I did. Instead of trying to fight it, Tol popped a red disk off his armor and caught it; his armor shifted and turned the glove into a ball of metal that he tossed at us. “It’s me or you!” he shouted as he grabbed Parasite and bolted out the hole in the wall he’d entered through.
Lightshow frowned as the Neklim monster threw himself down on the sphere of metal. The building rattled, but she had successfully smothered the explosion.
As the projection faded to nothing, I saw Tol sprinting away and shouting at Kalr in their foreign tongue; the giant finished off the quill dragon and slapped Mutant away before she turned to run with Tol, the two of them heading to the cloud of Milignum.
Tol raised his hand, and the bugs began flowing freely, swarming the building now that some signal wasn’t keeping them at bay.
Menagerie burst out from a back room, her fiery warthogs in tow; one stayed near us to keep us covered while the other ran out to grab Mutant and drag him back inside to safety.
Our Peculiar looked around, eyes growing wide as she looked to Lightshow and me, “Where… where is Murphy?”
I was so caught up with Lightshow Altering that it hadn’t entirely sunk in that a Trillodan madman had just taken my best friend.
And I had been too weak to stop him.
Lightshow raised a hand and what looked like threads of light wove the walls back into existence. Menagerie seized the chance to have her warthogs incinerate the infected insects that slipped in, preventing any chance of exposure for now. Mutant would likely have endured a few bites, but he could regenerate. Of all people who could deal with necrosis, he was top of the list.
Dragoon limped over to me, not saying a word about how incredible Lightshow’s new power was, or about how much pain she was in. She didn’t say a word, but instead grabbed the first spike buried in my shoulder and ripped it free, unceremoniously as Menagerie helped her stay upright. A scream was caught in my throat as she ripped the second one free; the both of us collapsed on the floor, both spent.
“Child you must-” Mother Audrey said, coming closer, but Dragoon raised a hand, stopping her. My friend grabbed a human body and heaved it forward, pressing it against me, the message clear.
“They. Can’t. Have him,” Dragoon panted. “Get him back.”
I gulped nervously, “Alexis, I don’t know if I can control-“
She slammed the deceased man’s hand against my chest, “Eldritch,” she said, no longer talking to me, “Get our friend back. Understood?”
To my surprise, the voice stirred and gave an answer immediately.
As if she could hear it speaking, she met my gaze. “Nick, no stops. Nothing held back. They can not win.”
Menagerie nodded, as did Lightshow; Dragoon might as well have said we were better off being food instead of study material.
“Get me all the dead people, quickly,” I replied as I pressed a hand to the pile, feeling the flesh dissolve away and appear into that little space where I held all the meat I consumed. Menagerie and Lightshow dragged a few more bodies to me, all while Mother Audrey said a prayer for those who had gone on.
In the end, five hundred kilograms of usable material was devoured, hopefully it would be enough.
I pressed a hand to Lightshow’s wall and tapped back into my power, starting the growth of the tentacles from my skin.
“Nick,” my red-headed friend said, finally daring to show the pain and fear she had been hiding, “You can do this.”
I had no assurances or cheeky parting one-liners to give them, but I felt that monster within creeping forward, and it brought a message to share with the rest of them. “Don’t worry,” it said, using my voice to speak, “I’m a predator. I was made to hunt.”
The restraints slid off as Lightshow let me out into the swarm; my consciousness slipped back into the void as the Neklim took hold. Tendrils erupted from my skin as I felt my body lumber forwrard.
This time though, I was giving the reigns up willingly. For better or worse I was giving the monster complete agency.
Whether or not it was the right call, I knew one thing for certain:
I had Trillodan to hunt.