As soon as I stepped into the swarm, I felt the tendrils grow in earnest, shielding me from the droves of insects that were drawn to us. For a moment I was worried that they would somehow harm the growths, but Eldritch relaxed the hold the outer layer of growths. Left unrestrained, they could ensnare the bugs that came too close. While humans weren’t built sturdy enough to withstand the Milignum, a Neklim definitely was.
Even having panoramic sight gifted by the Neklim, it wouldn’t help locate my abducted friend or his abductors. Something was going to need to change for me to have a chance to track them down. Every time that I had mutated the massive Neklim it had been a response to stress or some kind of explicit need. While the monster Eldritch might be the actual Neklim entity, I was the progenitor. Without my input, it couldn’t develop.
I focused intently on what I wanted most, what objective I couldn’t fulfill.
We need to save my friend.
Our first mutation was a new sense, a kind of vision that identified sentient life and guided us through the swarm. As we charged, we kept our eyes out, looking for the operatives wading through the storm of insects; other humans and Ellayans would be hiding and waiting for the Milignum to pass but the Trillodan would keep moving.
Fortunately, Eldritch knew how to move the body much more fluidly than I had ever been able to. Running, where it had been problematic and nearly impossible for me, was a breeze with Eldritch taking control. As we continued to grow, our stride changed, becoming somewhat of a gallop as the beast used its continually lengthening limbs to help pull us along. But, such size and rapid growth wasn’t without cost. We had used all five hundred kilograms of mass to grow ourselves ten tonnes of Neklim material as quickly as possible, but the cost had been in the efficiency of the production. These growths were only going to last half an hour and we’d been chasing the Trillodan down for about fifteen minutes. Once we caught up, we’d have to be quick. If it came to a war of attrition, the Trillodan would have the clock on their side.
Ahead of me, the Trillodan stopped, turning around.
They know we’re coming.
Eldritch didn’t respond vocally, but I could feel the thrill building; no matter how sentient and self-aware this thing was, it was, at its core, a predator. It lived to hunt, to catch its meals, to grow older, more clever, and more dangerous as it persisted over the years. When I had Adapted, the Neklim that attacked me and Xana had played with its food a bit first, dancing around the trees to scare me, to savor the kill. Even though Eldritch was far more refined than that beast, there were always going to be some similarities between them.
To feel that same thrill coursing through my veins was… a little bewildering.
But I wasn’t about to try and stop the monster. I’d seen what Eldritch could do during Feast Day; if there was ever a time to pull out all the stops, it was now. Tol and Kalr were both injured, but it was still one of us vs. two of them. While ten-tonnes seemed like more than enough to overwhelm them, I had witnessed Kalr throw Steve, the half-elephant and half-troll amalgamation that Menagerie had made. Brute strength was not absent, and Tol had fought through getting an arm blown off. He’d used five of those red disks earlier, but we’d seen at least seven on his armor. No matter how big we were, those could pose a problem for us. Just one of them had provided enough power to destroy Lightshow’s copy of me.
In a frenzy the bugs peeled back, revealing an open little city square of sorts. There were a few cars scattered around a plaza with small, brightly decorated stores lining the area. In the middle were the two Trillodan operatives, waiting patiently. Despite having an arm ripped off and a chunk of his side removed, Tol looked remarkably okay. Beside him, Kalr still showcased a few lacerations and some bruising, but she was so big that the injuries seemed markedly superficial. Even though I was two and a half meters tall, she didn’t seem too put off by my stature.
“You’re a lot bigger than last time,” Tol said with a laugh, “But this time there’s not any of your friends abominations to help you.”
“Last chance,” Eldritch hissed, “You give him back, or I eat the both of you.”
Kalr laughed, lifting Parasite up by his arm, dangling him around like he was some kind of toy. “You want him? Come get him.”
Show me what you can do, big guy. Rip them apart.
It felt strange encouraging the monster I had been so afraid of. I had spent so much time fighting with Eldritch for control, so much time trying to silence this beast that had been created. But, my friends had been right, talking to the voice hadn’t been a bad idea. Getting a feel for the monster living in my head was liberating.
And it was a thrill to feel myself stampede forward, rushing headlong to collide with Kalr.
We towered over her. Despite her being over eight feet tall, I was a head and a half taller and I used that reach to swing an arm down, an avalanche of force that would crush all the bones in her body. Except, she dodged out of the way. She wasn’t some big and overzealous brute who would believe she could outmuscle me. Kalr had been trained by Zellig and undoubtedly been a fighter for longer than I had been alive.
Tol is going to try and whittle you down. He was using explosives earlier; he’s going to use those to blast chunks of you away and get you to a size that Kalr can grapple with.
Right on cue, Tol raised his arm and fired three spires of metal into us; Eldritch raised an arm to block, instinctively protecting me in the middle. As soon as they made contact, the hunks of steel exploded, shaving away nearly a hundred kilograms of material.
On our flank, Kalr leapt away and ripped the hood off a car, reaching in for the engine block. The translucent membrane around her skin changed, turning a chrome color as she drove her fingers into the hunk of metal. In a blur, she turned and whipped the lump of machinery at our midsection. Even with the tendrils hardening, we weren’t designed to be hit with a two hundred kilogram projectile that had effectively been fired from a cannon. Another four hundred kilograms of material turned to mush as we staggered to the side.
Eldritch planted an arm to correct our balance, but Tol was expecting as much; a sphere of metal bored into our arm before exploding and taking a hundred and fifty kilograms of mass with it. As we rose, Kalr dashed forward, her suit shifting to that chrome color as she slammed into us. The outer layer of tendrils tried to find purchase in her skin, but there was an impervious wall between us; whatever that membrane was, it was now as tough as steel. It did seem to hamper her movements some, but it robbed us of one of our greatest strengths.
We stumbled as she drove a shoulder into us and Eldritch roared in frustration as it tried to maintain balance. A massive arm swung back at her, but she was back out of range, stepping forward to drive a foot into our leg before we could adjust again. The downside of being so large with no combat oriented mutation was that we were slow.
If we couldn’t adapt to her surprising agility, there was no way we stood a chance. Focusing as hard as I could, I tapped into that sense of desperation.
We need to be faster.
Our biology responded like before, rapidly changing our physiology to better suit the arena we were caught in. Strength seared through us as a wave of adrenaline saturated the layers of growths. Our adrenalized counter caught Kalr off guard, and allowed us to get a hold of an arm; tendrils engulfed if and began to squeeze and twist, trying to crush the armor and the bones beneath. Even if we couldn’t bite into her flesh, I still had a lot of size I could abuse and I wasn’t limited in my direction of movement because of a skeleton.
Tol fired another four explosive spikes into our torso, but Eldritch shifted mass to absorb the blow and keep me safe as I continued the tug-of-war that was going on with Kalr. His salvo cost me another three-hundred kilograms, but it was an acceptable loss if we could cripple the brute. Twisting, I swung my limb and dragged her along, trying to whip her into the ground as I had done with Tol on our first encounter.
Kalr twisted and threw herself with the movement, willingly dislocating her shoulder to maintain her balance. Her feet hit the ground and she growled as she forced the arm back into its socket. Eldritch reached forward with the other arm, but a handful of explosive spines kept it at bay. I could feel the adrenaline wearing off and our grip lessening; soon we wouldn’t have this edge and we’d lose the chance to surprise them like this again.
Another attempt to debase her proved fruitless, and then she roared as the operative gave a final yank, tearing her arm free from our grasp. Without the adrenaline, we weren’t stronger than Kalr. We couldn’t simply overwhelm her with brute strength; if we were going to win out against her we needed to leverage size as well as well as muscle. We needed to literally crush her or mutate another way to seriously injure her. Now that she knew about our adrenaline mutation, she wasn’t going to let herself get caught like that again.
We’d had to work something else out, and fast. Our tussle with her had ultimately wasted time, and cost us nearly another tonne of mass that Tol had been free to chip away. We had showed up with ten tonnes to fight with; we were down to less than eight and a half already, and we’d done no substantial damage to either of them.
They had no reason to hurry. They knew about our powers and had to know that my growths would expire with enough time passing; they had no reason to make hasty or risky calls. All they needed to do was play it safe and I would burn out, and then I’d have handed myself over to them.
By showing up to fight these two, I had gone all in.
Either this worked, or the Trillodan were claiming two for research.
I tapped into that desperation, seeing if I could coax out another mutation, but nothing came to the surface. For now we had exhausted our means of rapid change and were forced to do with what we had.
If we can’t overpower Kalr, we have to attack Tol. He’s the one doing the most damage.
Another wide swing drove Kalr back a step, and let us rush forward and grab a hold of the engine block she had pitched at us earlier. Tendrils wrapped around the hunk of metal; another turn launched the chunk of crude metal towards the Trillodan captain.
He threw himself out of the way, rolling up to his feet in a fluid motion. Still, it had provided a small moment where we could begin charging his way and get some momentum going before he riddled us with explosives. Even though a few spikes detonated and shaved off some of the growths that constituted Eldritch’s legs, more tendrils were allocated to keep us mobile and on the chase.
Beside us, the giantess grabbed a flatbed and threw it on its side. With a grunt, she lifted it up and then charged straight for us with the vehicle acting as the front of the battering ram.
Eldritch planted his foot, abandoning the chase for Tol to answer Kalr’s battle charge. The instant he wasn’t on the run, a trio of explosives carved into our leg; we only stayed upright because of the allocation of resources to keep our legs intact. Our arms flared out, our ‘hands’ turning into a maw of material that enveloped the truck and pushed back as she collided with us. The ground gave and we slid back a few paces, her momentum literally driving us backwards. But, she slowly ground to a halt as we dug into the ground, and another spike of adrenaline flowed through us.
We roared and ripped the truck away from her, bringing it over our head and crashing onto hers. Kalr raised her arms to weather the blow, but she sank to her knees as the metal frame bent around her limbs. Our left arm flared open and shot forward, engulfing a shoulder and part of her torso. Her eyes widened, realizing she had made an enormous mistake getting so close to us. Despite her attempts to rip herself away, Eldritch could allocate too much mass to allow her to rip free. Even with the material on her skin turned to metal, we had too much weight and muscle in one area for her to leverage against.
I didn’t even need my other arm to get a hold of her; she wasn’t getting away from this. But then it dawned on me that she shouldn’t have been so close, she knew about our adrenaline.
Her bewildered expression changed to a smile as a metallic slide dragged, heralding a red disk being discharged.
I saw the crimson energy collect in a single bolt and shoot forward, embedding itself in our shoulder. We had committed so much material into our one arm to capture the brute, I hadn’t realized that we were making it vulnerable; all Tol had to do was destroy the joint and all the tissue would die since it would disconnect. Eldritch had seen a chance to dig our teeth in and the Trillodan captain knew that we’d spring for it.
When it detonated, the entire left arm and a good chunk of our torso went with it.
From 7724 kilograms to 5850 in an instant. Kalr ripped herself free as I reeled, trying to compensate for the damage. I expected her to back away and reassess us with some caution, but it seemed that all we’d done was invigorate her. While Eldritch was trying to reallocate mass and correct the balance and size of his form, she began landing heavy blows against our midsection, aiming to try and hit hard enough to batter me beneath the lattice of onyx-colored tendrils.
And she was more than able.
Goliath had been able to hit me hard enough I felt it under the muscle and she was hitting harder than he did. Each hit was crushing easily a dozen kilograms of organic material, and she was hitting me with the speed of a trained boxer, even with her armor limiting her movement. Behind her, the gunslinger continued to take pot shots, the two of them working in perfect tandem to whittle and cut me down to size. The 5850 kilograms was down to about 4100 kilograms before I had even managed to build up another surge of adrenaline to expend.
I dug again, trying to reach for that threshold of desperation that would enable another mutation, to add to our arsenal, to give us a fighting chance. We were hemorrhaging material at an alarming pace; we’d run out of mass well before we ran out of time, especially if Tol used another one of those disks to blow two tonnes off at once. It was likely the only reason he didn’t was because he was afraid of killing me underneath all the growths.
Still, even though he was a bit hamstrug, she wasn’t. And with the sudden absence of so much size, I wasn’t even sure that I could properly overwhelm Kalr now, even with an adrenaline boost.
A sense began to flood through me, a dread that wasn’t my own. While I was scared mostly for my friend, Eldritch was scared for its own survival. The massive entity was being culled, ripped away piece by piece; if it fell here, there was a good chance it would never be given a chance to exist again. Even though I had been wary about using the monster, Eldritch was something I had to use. As long as Eldritch existed as part of me, it knew that it would taste flesh and be released again. If the Trillodan got a hold of us, there was no way that Eldritch would ever be given control or mass to burn. It would cease to exist, it would be relegated to watch the world pass through its hosts eyes, rebelling against its imprisonment, denied agency until it ceased to exist.
I felt the monster scream in protest, and I felt it change fundamentally.
This wasn’t a mutation or some strange, explainable physiological change. This was a complete re-writing of the monster, an adjustment that remained unexplainable, and a heretical rebellion against nature.
The monster growing from my skin, the entity of Eldritch had just Adapted.
Our tendrils changed consistency, and not just in the way that a Neklim could normally do to reinforce their own muscle mass. The color of the growths changed to a deep blue and the consistency of our body paradoxically found a middle ground between crystalline and fluid.
Kalr slammed her fist forward again, but this time it didn’t have nearly the same impact. The hit before it had crushed thirteen kilograms, but this hit only destroyed two. Instead of hitting muscle, she might as well have been hitting steel.
The giantess leapt away, unsure of what to make of me given the changes. Tol must have told her about Lightshow’s Alteration and she was likely wary about any changes to my gift. Even though I couldn’t explain how the Neklim entity had Adapted, I knew that it hadn’t changed my Adaptation, or its limitations.
The two of us could discern what would become of us after we had made it away from this. But, we only had another five minutes to finish this fight before the growths turned to dust.
Tol shouted something in their foreign tongue, having her fall back further as he tried to stare us down, unsure of how to proceed. When we had just been a mound of sentient muscle, there were limitations and laws we had to obey. Becoming something else entirely threw those preconceived notions away and Trillodan captain knew better than to underestimate any kind of change like this; he’d just fought against Lightshow after she Altered and it put her on a completely different level. He wasn’t about to repeat that same mistake.
The captain fired another explosive spike into my leg, only chipping away a dozen kilograms where it had previously done ten times that much damage. A tiny crack appeared along my outer layer, but it fused back together to form a solid sheet again. As I stepped forward, it still functioned like normal muscle, folding and bending to keep me perfectly mobile.
My mind was still reeling with the fact that the Neklim I was host to had somehow Adapted on its own but I wasn’t about to complain. I knew that when feast day had happened, Eldritch had pulled and copied much of my brain and given itself some kind of base intellect even without a hive mind feeding it information.
It begged the question then that when it did that had it also found a way to pull whatever made me Adapt as well?
It met the same criterion for changing as I had, almost exactly as a matter of fact. It wasn’t a response to long term stress of prolonged oppression like Alexis or Murphy, it was a short and intense burst of stress when faced with death. Eldritch had simply gained a method of protection to keep itself afloat in the bout since it was too vulnerable.
I did my best to pull myself back to the present, pushing this conundrum to the back of my mind for now.
We need to fight. If we stall, the growths fade and we’re never getting away.
Eldritch got the message and charged forward, adjusting the outer layer so we were effectively covered in spikes. As we got close, I noticed something behind Tol: a small device that seemed to be emitting a low frequency signal. It had to be what was keeping the swarm at bay, and it was something Tol had been keeping himself between us and that machine this whole time, trying to keep our attention off of it.
Their vision wasn’t perfect, and if the swarm was in the way, it could provide the cover we needed to get escape. Plus, if the swarm was close enough, it could provide the mass I needed to extend the duration of the growths and run.
“Kalr,” Tol called out to his comrade as the metal in his suit shifted, putting two of the red disks into his hand, “Show him what you can do.”
She stepped back and he slammed the two disks against the canister on her back. When she had fought Mutant and Menagerie, it had previously contained the fluid that had regenerated countless injuries; now the red fed through the pipes plugged into her suit, the solution beginning to infuse into her muscle.
We had been too slow stop the transaction.
Kalr leapt forward and kicked us backwards. Despite the chrome color making her armor more opaque, I could see the red running through veins in her arms and across her face. Her expression twisted from a sly grin to a frenzied and nearly deranged smile. This whole time I had been assuming those red disks were some kind of energy source that could translate to circuitry only, but they clearly had some kind of biological property as well.
If the partial energy from a disk had made Tol’s suit nearly twice as fast, what would two entire disks do for the already obscenely strong Kalr?
We tried charging again, but this time she answered with alarming ferocity. Her hands were a blur, her speed easily triple what it had been previously. More damning was the fact that she was hitting nearly three times as hard. Each hit was breaking six to ten kilograms, and she was a storm of punches that could not be calmed.
We tried to raise an arm and she literally beat her way through it, hitting the crystalized muscle with the force of a freight train; If we hadn’t been made as strong as steel, she would have probably punched all the way through me.
Eldritch attempted a wide sweep to knock the berserker back, but she was far too fast to get hit by anything we had to offer. Another flurry of blows shattered three hundred kilograms in an instant, and a massive kick nearly cleaved my leg in half. We tried to angle around for Tol, but Kalr was having none of it; even in her berserker state she was aware enough to keep herself between us and her captain.
Four minutes remained until the growths would fail and Kalr’s boost showed no signs of wearing off.
Embracing that desperation, I reached out into the void, grasping for any kind of change that would help us attain a favorable state in this fight. Even if she ran out of power boost, she had reduced us in size enough that she could just fight us on her own, even with our new crystalline body.
We need to be in two places at once. We can’t keep running our head into Kalr.
The mass of growths responded, developing a mutation that had enabled so much of our rampage back on Ciel: the ability to splinter myself into animated fragments. However, we only had one shot at this and then our window for upsetting the fight would be gone. Tol was no slouch and even with an arm removed would adjust quickly once he knew what new trick we had up our sleeve.
But Eldritch was fundamentally a beast. While it had attained some sentience and siphoned intelligence from me, the beast that had manifested within me was still just that. We’d tried operating under Eldritch’s guidance and it had been seen through by Tol in an instant. But, the Trillodan had no idea we could create a division of labor, and he wouldn’t be expecting something so dialectically opposed to what we’d modeled so far.
Eldritch, I need you to give me control.
There was a moment of hesitation, but I felt control shift in a dizzying flood of sensation. I was no longer an idle passenger and was instead thrown into the driver’s seat of this monstrous body. My balance wavered as Kalr continued to batter our body with relentless fury.
I steeled myself, knowing that there was only three and a half minutes to make this work.
Mass shifted to my shoulder, running along one side of my right arm as I pivoted, turning slightly to angle myself so that arm was facing away from Tol. I let Kalr hit me for a few more seconds, sundering another hundred kilograms of material. It was like pieces of glass were being broken free of me, and I let myself endure the pain of each blow. I hadn’t managed to make any kind of real injury to either of them and I’d had nearly seven tonnes of mass destroyed.
Brute forcing it wasn’t an option. Eldritch had tried that and failed.
Instead, Nicholas Weld was going to try and see if he could be clever. For several minutes they had only seen a monster fight; as well trained as they were, they were bound to see things in patterns. We’d endured this much punishment without changing much, why start now? I was a naive and frantic kid from their perspective; the last thing they would do is assume I was calm and collected.
The mass collected in my shoulder ran down along the back of my arm, collecting a forty kilogram lump of material near the end of my ‘hand.’ I endured another volley of strikes, one of them finally catching me in the upper chest on the left.
I let the momentum move me and spun around, dragging my arm along with it to whip a forty kilogram mass of growth at Tol. He dodged the initial hit, but it wasn’t just a projectile, it was a living fragment of material that I’d given a single directive:
Bite into his leg and don’t let go.
The hunk of crystalline muscle leapt towards Tol and wrapped itself around his left leg, squeezing down against the power armor and chewing through with hardened teeth. He cried out in alarm as he tried to batter the thing off, but it was fragmenting in tiny chunks, refusing to give up on its goal.
Kalr roared and sped up her assault, but all I had to do was hold her off for a moment longer as I threw another fragment free, this one with orders to smash the machine that they were using to drive away the swarm. My first mutation would give me the ability to see through the cloud of insects far more clearly than they were capable of doing.
As I threw it, there was a brief moment where Kalr tracked the fragment, and in that instant I dumped every ounce of adrenaline that was stored to crack back with a quick slice. I had my arm flatten and do its best to sharpen; it was good enough to hit and finally break through the armor she was wearing. I felt it bite into her side and let a handful of tendrils spring free to burrow into her flesh and chew up everything they could. The giantess stumbled, her frenzy showing signs of waning as the invasive growths began consuming her ample supply of muscle; Kalr grit her teeth and jabbed a hand into her side to fish them out.
While she was distracted, I took the chance to swing again, slapping her with a broad arm; the impact knocked her onto her side and gave me a chance to flee, not daring to see how much harder she would hit when enraged.
“Now!” I hissed aloud, giving control back to Eldritch.
The swarm descended upon us, providing me some cover as we broke away and lumbered forward to Murphy. Eldritch seized the limp form and enveloped him in a thin layer of growth to try and limit any further exposure to the Milignum.
However, I could already see some dark spots forming on his skin from where he’d been infected. The best thing we could do for him now as hurry him back to the compound so Mother Audrey could purge it out of him.
Eldritch roared as something tore into my shoulder despite all the crystalline armor I was encased in. Behind us, Tol had managed to get up and reconstitute his power armor, exposing his stump to the swarm while making a massive gun atop his intact arm. Another round fired, this one hitting me in the torso, puncturing a lung even as Eldritch tried to shift growths to protect its host better. We’d pressed Tol again; and he was done playing around to capture me. Tol was done being defeated.
He had every intent to kill me. The gun he’d configured truly did very little damage to Eldritch, it was made to kill me underneath the armor. My only saving grace was that he didn’t know exactly where I was in the mass of growths, but he clearly knew he was on the right track.
Do not stop! Let me bleed, just keep running!
Eldritch’s core directive was to preserve me, to ensure that I existed so that it could as well. I felt the monster grapple with its nature as a third round tore through a kidney. I did my best to compel the beast forward, knowing that standing still was a death sentence. We only had ninety seconds before the tendrils began to fail if I didn’t begin consuming the swarm and the new, crystalline muscle was failing on that front. Besides that, Eldritch’s attempt to heal me took too much of it’s focus; he basically ceased to function if he was mending me.
Eldritch wouldn’t be able to compete with a sniper rifle boring holes in me every few seconds. Eventually one would find my heart or my brain and this charade would end.
The beast struggled, but we began lumbering forward, leaning forward and using our right arm to help us along the ground as our left sheltered Murphy from the swarm.
Another round ripped through, this one hitting a leg. One more followed as well, hitting me in the base of my spine.
After thirty seconds of running, the crystalline shifted back to the more malleable onyx-colored muscle; the change allowed us to consume the insects again and buy us a little more time to preserve the growths. At a certain point we slowed, Eldritch demanding that I be restored at least in part before it faded; I didn’t argue because the blood loss was finally catching up with me and I wanted to be sure I could use my legs when I was out of the suit again.
As we moved, I started slipping in and out of consciousness, the internal damage from Tol exhausting me.
I was dimly aware of a spike of concern from my monstrous counterpart as I began to fade and then I couldn’t remember anything else.
“I think he’s coming to,” a soft voice called from beside me.
I managed to open one eye and got a face full of Menagerie as she looked closer. “Hi,” I mumbled, aware that everything hurt. That in and of itself was alarming; everytime I had used my Adaptation I was healed by the end. This time though had been different.
It dawned on me that I had blacked out while still wearing nearly two tonnes of Neklim on my body; my eyes snapped open as I sat up, immediately regretting my decision. A hand reflexively pressed against my side as I felt myself being short of breath, aching.
“Young man, if you pop those stitches, we will have a problem,” the stern voice of Mother Audrey called over at me.
“I was… I showed back up with-“
Menagerie shook her head, “It didn’t do anything bad. You just kind of lumbered to Lightshow’s wall and it fell apart, dropping you and Parasite inside. You’re okay, Eldritch.”
I let out a sigh of relief knowing that nothing had happened because of me. “Dragoon?”
“Your friend with the armor took a hell of a beating,” Mother Audrey replied and it finally dawned on me what she was doing; removing chunks of metal from a slim redhead who had been heavily sedated. A bag of blood hung, slowly draining its contents into her arm. “And these bullets are nasty. It’s like they spun to bore into her flesh.”
“Probably why they tore into her armor,” Menagerie muttered.
“Your friend isn’t going to be able to use this arm for a while,” the mother superior stated, making it clear that wasn’t up for debate, “Even with the supernatural medicine helping mend her, she did serious damage ripping the spike out of her arm in such haste. It cracked part of the bone, and the last thing she needs to do is split it entirely. This may take a day or two to heal with the orange goo, but if she splits the bone the recovery time goes from days to weeks.”
I turned to the Peculiar artist beside me, “Murphy?”
“Sleeping soundly,” the mother answered before Menagerie could respond. “Luckily whatever lives under his skin kept the Milignum from getting too deep…but there are several spots that are going to be scarred for life. He has a handful of broken ribs and cracked jaw, but his ‘passenger’ as your artistic friend called it is doing a good job setting bones. He’s doped up on some painkillers and sleeping it off.”
Sister Sara entered my field of vision, running a cool hand over my injuries and pressing a hand to my head. “Reverend Mother, he’s still running hot.”
There was a clang of metal on metal before the mother superior walked over, glaring down at me, annoyed. “I know I fished all the metal out of you, thanks in large part to that monster you made digging it most of the way out. Odds are you’re immune system is trying to overcompensate. Unfortunately, we don’t have time to get a white cell count,” she mumbled, annoyed. Two capsules were pressed into my hand, “Take, swallow. We can’t have you getting an infection.”
I obeyed, not questioning her medical acumen.
“Sister Sara, the other two?” Mother Audrey inquired.
“One is turned into what looks like a grey slug,” she said, a bit disturbed.
“Don’t worry,” Menagerie assured her, “he’s supposed to do that. He has ten forms he can utilize, and that one is built to make him heal. If he was finally able to shift into it that bodes well.”
She nodded, not entirely convinced, “The amputee is still pressed in a corner, still silent. I offered her food, but it doesn’t look like she’s touched anything.”
Mother Audrey clicked her tongue in frustration, “Damn it. Child,” she directed to Menagerie, “I need you to bring your friend to me. I would very much like to talk with her.”
Menagerie frowned, “I don’t think-“
“I didn’t ask,” Mother Audrey replied, “I understand you believe you know what is best for your friend, but believe me when I say I’ve seen this more times than you have. Your friend is quickly spiraling into the thrall of PTSD and the next few moments are going to be very important. So please, let me speak to her.” Her tone made it very clear that it wasn’t a request.
Our Peculiar bristled, “Mother Audrey, with all due respect-“
Menagerie was silenced by a stern glare from the nun, “Girl, enough. Whatever argument you think you’re going to make, it’s a flawed one. That girl stared death in the eyes and part of her broke. For better or worse, your friend is going to be different now, and the best thing you can do is work from here. I have seen this countless times, and the last thing she needs to be isolated. You all will have to fight again, and again, and again, and the last thing you need is her to be withdrawn.” She sighed, “You are an incredibly introverted person, but she is not. She needs to be reminded that she is a social creature. If she can hear it from an objective party, she will respond. Trust me.”
“Menagerie,” a groggy voice called from out of my field of view, “Let her talk to Lightshow.”
I turned and craned my neck, catching a glimpse of Parasite laying on his own cot, wrapped in bandages.
“You, young man, you should be asleep,” the mother superior growled.
“I metabolize drugs too quick and I never do what I’m told anyways,” he replied as he turned and swung his legs out of the bed. “My staff, I want it.” He stared beyond me to Mother Audrey; I twisted to see her matching his stare, unflinching.
She finally shrugged, “Sister Sara, be a lamb and get the boy his trinket. However,” she insisted, “I must insist you get back in that bed. You will undo good work if you continue to move your broken ribs.”
“Pull me closer to Nick,” he demanded.
The mother superior strode out of my vision and a grinding sound echoed through the room as the cot came into my field of view. “Now, lay down you obstinate brat,” she demanded as my friend took a place beside me.
I turned my head and looked him in the eyes, horrified at what I saw looking back: fear. Even after Siphon had beaten him within an inch of his life he hadn’t been this rattled. When Kudzu had nearly suffocated him in a mass of wood he hadn’t been this undone. We kept dancing closer and closer to the edge, and this time he’d been the one closest to making a permanent exit. We’d already lost Geyser, and he had been seconds away from joining him. He’d been beaten badly, twice in a row, and it was exacting a toll from our plucky Enhancer.
“Thanks,” he whispered, “For saving me.”
I offered a smile and extended a fist, “You’d do the same for me.”
He took the fist bump and offered a weak grin, “I’d at least try.”
We couldn’t continue anymore as our last member came back in. I rolled onto my side and watched Menagerie walk her forward, helping her stay upright.
Mother Audrey stepped forward, waving a hand to Menagerie, “Lightshow is strong enough to stand on her own.”
Menagerie fought the urge to argue, stepping away from Lightshow and giving her friend a supportive smile. Our Projector looked to her and then back to the mother superior, her eyes shifting around the room, constantly on the prowl for anything amiss or possibly threatening.
“What’s your name, child?”
She shook her head, “Not that one. I’m not asking about the girl who is keeping the walls up, I’m asking about the girl behind that mask. Behind that veneer of power, there is a scared girl, and I want to know her name.”
Lightshow gulped down her anxieties, “Rebecca.”
“Rebecca,” Mother Audrey repeated, “A beautiful name. The patron saint of the sick and orphaned. Did you know that?”
“And now you do. My child,” she said softly, letting the callous demeanor fade away, revealing a gentler side of the matriarch, “You aren’t alone.”
Lightshow shied away from her, turning her head, refusing to meet her warm look. “I know that.”
It was a simple question, but one that hit Lightshow like a ton of bricks. She struggled to formulate a response, to do anything other than stare at the floor in contemplation.
“I heard about what happened, and I saw some of what occurred. I know that you’ve faced death twice in a matter of hours and you bear the most permanent wound from your encounters. The rest of them will heal. You, my child, are forever going to be missing a part of yourself. And unfortunately,” she added, “That arm isn’t the only part of you that came free, was it?”
Rebecca moved her lips three times, mouthing a single word, but unable to make a sound. The fourth attempt finally got a tiny whimper out. “No.”
“Child, come here,” Mother Audrey insisted softly. When Lightshow didn’t move, she let out a sad sigh. “You’re an orphan, aren’t you?”
That jarred my teammate out of her stupor. “How-“
“I have met many children who don’t know what it’s like to be cared for. You struggle, and you joke about everything to make it feel better. But when things come crashing down around you, it’s hard for you to let people help you. It’s difficult to allow anyone in that head of yours. For better or worse, you believe that you are best on your own, not troubling other people.”
There was no judgment from the mother superior, just a declaration of what was.
“Just because you’re Selected, or Adapted, doesn’t make you less human,” Sister Sara said softly, “You have friends here, and they want to take care of you. It’s okay to let them help.”
A single tear rolled down Ligthshow’s cheek as she took a step forward. “I saw it, you know, when your life flashes before your eyes. I experienced it all again. I remembered my parents dying when I was sixteen. I remembered being alone in Manda, and meeting Mutant. I remembered working with you guys,” she said, looking around the room, “And I felt something give out. It was like I quit being human because I couldn’t afford it anymore. I had to become…something else.”
Mother Audrey took a step forward, “Good, what else?”
“I didn’t want to go,” she whimpered, “I didn’t want to die. Ever since Feast Day, ever since the fight started happening with the Trillodan instead of with other Adapted, I’ve felt so fucking useless! I’m an illusionist, and they can see right through it. The best I could do was support Menagerie, but I wanted to be able to do something on my own. When Tol pointed the gun at me, there was no tricking him, there was no blinding him, nothing. No one was coming to save me, and I was going to die because I was too weak, because I was useless.” More tears began flowing down her face. “I was so tired, and so horrified. And I just-I just-I couldn’t die like that. It was like Adapting, all over again,” she said to us, “But this was different, painful in a way. When we Adapted, it was like something was added to us.”
“And this took something away,” Murphy extrapolated.
She nodded, “It ripped something away and jammed a new piece in. It was power for part of my soul. I don’t know if I’m still Lightshow, or if I’m even still Rebecca. I don’t feel useless anymore, but I don’t feel human anymore either.” Lightshow sank to her knees, “I feel so powerful for once, and at the same time I’ve never felt so fucking weak and pathetic. I’m afraid to be near you guys,” she confessed, “Because I’m afraid I might be like one of the Lunatics.”
We remembered Psycho and his band of Altered vividly: the deviants who had pushed us into taking a fight with Beleth to help settle a grudge he had with the man. All his cronies were rescued from Snatcher’s prisons and laboratories, but all of them had fractured and become something else entirely. They were so volatile, so shattered, and all capable of doing so much damage. The only other Altered we were aware of was Infinite, and she had nearly killed Dragoon on accident.
It made sense that she would be afraid to be anything like them.
“Have they rejected you, child?” Mother Audrey asked finally.
“It is a yes or no question,” she pressed.
There was a pregnant pause as Lightshow looked around at all of us, “…no.”
Mother Audrey knelt down beside the timid Altered and put a hand on her shoulder, “My child, I witnessed what you did. I saw you save your friends. If not for you, we would all be dying from the Milignum and they would have made off with more than just that loud-mouthed buffoon you keep around.”
“Hey!” Murphy protested weakly.
“You protected me,” Sister Sara said quietly, kneeling beside her as well, “Even if you are scary and unsure of yourself, so far you’ve been nothing but good.”
“Come here,” Mother Audrey insisted, leading her over to the bed that Dragoon was laying on, “This girl is going to live because of you.”
Lightshow nodded, taking time to process that she had kept the head of our team alive, that she’d actually saved probably half a dozen people by stopping Tol in his tracks. “Okay.”
My jaw almost dropped with Mother Audrey gave her a genuine smile. “Now, Sister Sara is going to make you some tea, and you’re going to sit down here with your team, understood?”
As the demure nun guided her to the Bunsen burner that was making tea, I slowly sat up, being mindful of the stitches in my side and shoulder. “Mother Audrey,” I called.
The older woman turned, “Yes?”
“Thanks, for everything.”
She nodded, “If I might make a suggestion to you, monster boy.”
“Eldritch,” I supplied.
“Eldritch,” she repeated, “I would encourage you to talk to the thing you hide in yourself. It isn’t a mindless beast; the best thing you can do is tame and train it.”
“I think that’s a good idea.”
She scoffed, “Of course it is.”
Before I had time to reply, there was a distinct crack like a branch being snapped and three people appeared in our midst.
Parasite sat up, staff in hand as the three figures raised their hands in surrender. “Whoa, whoa, whoa,” the one in the middle said, trying to diffuse the tension, “We’re not here to fight. We’re not with them.”
He was average height and bald, with a vividly colored tunic that was a mix of red and yellow, and the people beside him were all dressed in similar garb, though with different color combinations.
Mother Audrey clicked her tongue, annoyed. “And if you aren’t ‘with them,’ who in the hell are you and why are you inside my building?”
The man in charge smiled, “We’re here because we figured you guys could use some extra hands.” He turned his attention back to me, “We saw your performance and thought it might be fun to tag along.”
I blinked a few times, finally putting it together, “You’re the Lost Children.”
He bared his teeth in a vicious smile, “Guilty as charged.”