Illuminate: Champion

“He’s going to get himself killed,” I hissed to Dragoon as we watched Parasite take a few steps forward, meeting Zeal in the middle of the school yard.  “He had a bomb go off in his face like two hours ago and now he’s going to fight fucking Zeal! Why aren’t you stopping him?” 

Dragoon shot me a glare, “It’s fucking Murphy we’re talking about here.  This is what he’s best at.”

Menagerie stepped beside us, “Even if this is his wheelhouse, are you sure he’s using his best judgment after what happened earlier?”

Dragoon kept her face still, but I was sure Menagerie’s comment wormed under her skin. After all, our Peculiar artist wasn’t wrong, it had been a harrowing day for all of us, especially Parasite.  Even though he and Mutant hadn’t been the closest of friends, they were still comrades who had fought beside each other time and time again. In the last few hours, he’d fought to keep me alive and then been the one to put Mutant out of his misery.  

“Your suit also beat him back on this ship,” I pointed out, piling on Menagerie’s point.  “Do you think your suit holds up against Zeal?”

“Lightshow,” Dragoon whispered, “I don’t think I beat Murphy.”

That got our attention.  

“I think that he let me win.  At least in part. I think if he’d wanted to, Murphy could have bashed my brains in despite my new suit.  For all its renovation and upgrades, it doesn’t let me win in a fist fight against him. Not if Murphy goes a hundred percent.” 

I turned my attention back to the dueling duo.  A few steps away Eldritch was staring intently, muttering a prayer while he watched his best friend square off against one of the most outspoken murderers from our home world. 

“No one interferes,” Parasite declared, “No one gets to bail you out when you start losing.”

The little jab got a sneer from Zeal.  “Agreed. No one gets to stop me once I start breaking your bones.”

“We’ll see.”

I glanced over my shoulder at Adamant, “Why aren’t we having him fight,” I whispered to Dragoon.  “He can’t lose.”

“And Zeal likely knows that if he ran into a couple members of Stampede,” Dragoon replied.  “Plus, he knows Parasite and people don’t think his power is anything special if you haven’t seen him in action.  In terms of actual fighting ability, only Siphon is going to best him. Zeal loses sanity and goes crazy the more power he uses; Parasite’s going to exploit that.”

Dragoon wasn’t wrong, but she was definitely being optimistic.  All the fighting prowess in the world wouldn’t help Parasite do much against someone like Goliath or Eldritch.  At a certain point, Parasite’s skill was eclipsed by raw power. Zeal would go crazy, but he could push his gift substantially farther than Parasite’s; Parasite’s gift could make a part of him up to about eight times stronger, but Zeal’s power made all of his body stronger.    

Zeal rolled his neck and equipped a deranged smile right before lunging.

He was fast, almost entirely closing the gap of ten meters in three rapid strides.  Zeal landed and swung, but he only found air as Parasite leaned backwards and took a step away in an effortless display.  The head of Serpentine threw a few more rapid strikes but Parasite didn’t even need to raise his hands to block. Each punch was read and easily evaded by our Enhancer, despite Zeal’s speed.  

“You think that’s all it’s going to take?” Parasite laughed as he avoided another crude jab.  In a flash our teammate countered, rapidly landing three quick blows against Zeal, stunning him.  A fourth hit to the chin seemed to knock him out of his stupor. “You think a little burst of speed is good enough?” Parasite shouted as he parried a straight punch and grabbed Zeal’s arm to pull him forward and upset his balance.  “Do. Better!” he shouted, punctuating each word with a blow to his torso.  

Zeal swung back with a wild hook that was all too easy for Parasite to duck under.  As he came back up, Parasite snagged his staff from the pouch on his pants and drove his now reinforced hand into Zeal’s ribs.  The madman stumbled, the wind driven from his lungs. While he was dazed, Parasite spun around and extended the staff, slamming the rod of metal into Zeal’s thigh.  

He cried out and tumbled, throwing himself away from Parasite as he regarded him with a new respect and caution.  

“You’re the head of Serpentine?  Pathetic!” he shouted, raising his arms to the side in open challenge.  “You’re the one people are scared of? You’re weak!”

I knew that my teammate was hamming it up to get inside Zeal’s mind, but you could feel his rage, his disappointment, and his hate seeping through his words.  All he’d been forced to deal with, all he’d been forced to endure over the last day, it was all flooding out. Parasite was done feeling weak and afraid; he was going to make Zeal take the brunt of it instead.  Scarier still, he wasn’t crazy like his opponent. Parasite was in complete control, like he had entered some kind of murderous tranquility.    

For a brief moment, I felt pity for Zeal.     

Zeal roared and dropped to all fours, his whole body convulsing as his expression twisted even farther.  Parasite twirled his staff, waiting patiently for his opponent to charge.  

As fast as Zeal had been earlier, he was easily doubling that speed.  The overconfident smirk vanished from Parasite’s face as his opponent practically flew, closing the gap between them in a blink.  Zeal’s hands were too fast for me to track, but Parasite seemed to instinctively know where to move to avoid the onslaught as he moved in a circle, keeping himself away from Zeal’s back hand.  

“Alexis,” Eldritch whispered, “We can’t watch him die.  I have some mass, I can-“

“No,” Dragoon snapped.  “Murphy picked the fight because he knew he could win.  He knew exactly what he was doing. If we interfere, we don’t get Zeal to help us.  We need him. His power, for better or worse, is the only fucking thing that is going to get us off this planet without relying on Infinite.”  

“Her teleporting the ship off Tso’got nearly killed Command,” I muttered, remembering the grim side effects he’d endured trying to keep her sane.  Command was a necessary partner that Titan had paired with Infinite since he could help keep her stable as she seized more and more power to wield.  However, the Overexposure brought on by controlling her for that had effectively made him powerless for an entire week, even with Organelle nursing him back to health.  Whoever I had seen in that vision, they had warned me that Alterations were the most powerful thing, but also the most volatile.    

Dragoon was right, relying on Infinite was dangerous.  As powerful as she was, taking advantage of her strength was tempting fate.  I wondered how long it would be until I was fit into the same category as her: powerful but unhinged.  

“Still,” Menagerie whispered as we watched, “Can he beat Zeal?”

“He has to,” Dragoon said, staring intently at our friend as he fought for his life.

Zeal was a blur, darting around Parasite and trying to find an opening.  His absurd speed was still being countered though; Parasite was holding his own through what could only be described as premonition.  Everywhere Zeal went to strike, Parasite was ready to block and counter, forcing the madman back. Wide arcs of the staff bought him space, but Zeal was relentless in his pursuit and kept recklessly seeking openings that Parasite was quick to deny.  

For all the pressure he was under, Parasite looked remarkably focused, cool, collected.  He’d fought against people this fast before and he’d fought against people much stronger than Zeal had made himself.  My best guess was that he was going nearly six times faster than normal, but the sheer speed had cost Zeal any real kind of finesse.  What movements of his I could track were crude and simple, something Parasite had seen countless times when he’d trained. For him, it wasn’t about dodging Zeal in real time, it was about being three steps ahead and knowing where the next hit was coming from.  

What had become more narrow was Parasite’s window to answer with an attack of his own.  Despite the gap in skill, Zeal’s speed meant that Parasite was constantly playing catch up.    

While he could spin the staff around to keep Zeal pushed back a little, it was too easy to read, too slow an arc to catch the hyper-charged head of Serpentine.  Nothing he was throwing out was landing, and despite him revoking a chunk of his sanity for incredible physical attributes, Zeal was seeming to learn Parasite’s pattern with the staff.  

“Come on, Murphy,” Eldritch whispered, “Come on man.  You got this.”

I didn’t share Eldritch’s optimism.  Glancing down at my hand, I thought about all the things I could make that would even the playing field between them.  The upside of my new power was that so many options were at my disposal, and it wouldn’t take much to make an opening for Parasite-

“Don’t do that,” Interface whispered, stepping in just behind me.  “Look at him. He knows what he’s doing.” 

“Parasite doesn’t fight at his best in an open area,” I replied, still not buying into their faith in my friend, “He needs walls and terrain to exploit his perfect balance and natural gymnastic ability.  In the open, he’s not as fast or as strong as Zeal.”

Interface rolled their eyes, “You’re still hung up on the wrong things.  I know that look he’s wearing because I see Titan wear it all the time before he corners someone.”  

Surprised, I stared more intently at Parasite, looking full into his face, baffled by what I saw.  

He wasn’t just calm, he was anticipating and calculating as he moved; he wasn’t oblivious to the fact that he had been using the same sweep to keep Zeal at bay.  Parasite was counting on Zeal to notice and take the easy opening that he was leaving.  

“You clever fucker,” I whispered, “You always told us angry people fight stupid.”  

In a flash, Zeal seized his opportunity and surged forward right after Parasite had started another sweeping strike with his staff; Parasite sprung the trap and let himself turn with the swing, dragging his left leg in tow.  The whole encounter seemed to stop for a moment as Parasite’s shin connected with Zeal’s cheek.

And then in fast forward, the head of Serpentine tumbled and rolled along the ground, ending up in a heap about four meters away.  

Zeal’s power bolstered three fundamental things about the bearer: strength, speed, and durability.  Even though Zeal was probably six times faster than a regular person and six times as durable, a perfectly placed kick to the jaw from Parasite was more than enough to break someone’s neck; the fact that it hadn’t killed Zeal outright was impressive.  

In the moment of stillness, I glanced across the way to Zeal’s cronies—Dancer and Gnaw—to see them both dumbfounded at watching their boss stumble back to his feet, still reeling from the hit.  As he stopped for a moment, Zeal wasn’t wearing that deranged and confident smile. It was like our champion had kicked it clean off his face. After all, Parasite wasn’t someone who came across as imposing and yet he was handily beating Zeal in a fist fight.  The cognitive dissonance had to be weighing on Zeal.   

As much as we could tell Gnaw and Dancer wanted to help their leader, both held off, knowing full well that they were outnumbered.  I noticed Dancer glance a bit nervously at Adamant; my guess was that she knew exactly what he was capable of. Should they pick a fight with us, he wasn’t someone either of them could beat, even if he was still a little battered from our fight with Kalr and the demolitionist earlier.  

Parasite spun his staff around, staring down Zeal like he was a wild animal.  “Face it, Zeal, you’re done. Don’t make me knock you on your ass again.”  

He cackled, a laugh befitting a man who had come completely unhinged.  “You-you, you think I’m done?” 

For the first time, Parasite looked a touch nervous.  

Zeal was a blur, going straight for our teammate at a dizzying speed.  Parasite swung his staff around, but even though he was losing fine motor control, Zeal was simply too fast.  He ducked under and drove a fist into Parasite’s guts.  

I could practically feel the force of the blow despite me being nearly ten meters away.  

Parasite flew backwards, tripping and tumbling despite his perfect balance.  Before he could stop himself, Zeal caught up. The madman’s foot nearly crashed down on my friend’s throat, but a slight adjustment from Parasite made it come down on his shoulder instead.  Even with his passenger helping absorb the blow, I still heard the crunch of bone as Parasite’s shoulder came out of socket. He screamed, trying vainly to grab a hold of Zeal’s ankle.  

Zeal laughed maniacally as he zipped around Parasite, kicking him in the ribs and tossing him two meters towards us.  

To his credit, Parasite rolled with the blow and used the momentum to bring himself back up to his feet.  By the time he was upright, Zeal was already slamming a fist into his jaw and throwing him back to the ground.  Parasite skidded on the packed dirt, crying out as he bounced off his trashed shoulder, but Zeal showed no mercy.  With as much power as he had given himself, he had no concept of what being merciful was anymore.    

The psychotic head of Serpentine surged forward and abruptly fell to his hands and knees, his legs kicked out from him.  

For as battered as he was, Parasite was still a step ahead.  He’d been waiting for a good chance to take out his balance since it was still vulnerable.  For all the speed and strength he had, Zeal didn’t have extra mass to keep himself rooted. It didn’t take any extra power to disrupt his balance, especially if he was moving too fast to stop himself.  Once Zeal had committed to a straight charge, Parasite had found his opportunity to turn the tables.    

As Zeal fell to his hands and knees, Parasite’s arm cracked back into socket and he threw himself onto Zeal’s back.  Parasite wrapped himself around his opponent, pushing his feet against Zeal’s inner thigh to force his legs down, keeping Zeal face down against the ground.  Like some kind of python, Parasite wrapped his arms around Zeal’s neck and squeezed as he fought to hold onto a sleeper choke.  

However, Parasite couldn’t keep control of Zeal’s legs and arms at the same time.  As he kept him pinned, Zeal started to brute force his way free of the choke by pulling Parasite’s forearm away from his neck.   

“Come on damn it,” Dragoon pleaded quietly, “Come on, have one more trick.  Please.”

Parasite grunted, but it was clear he was losing the window he had given himself.  Even though he’s sprung an excellent trap, it wasn’t enough to put Zeal down in his empowered state.  As the choke was slowly ripped free, Zeal’s manic laugh came out in a gurgle; the head of Serpentine knew that Parasite couldn’t overwhelm him.  

He knew he was going to be able to beat this.  Zeal knew that the fight was over.  Once he pulled himself free, it was just going to be a matter of beating his head into the ground until he stopped struggling.  

Parasite took a deep breath, trying to center and calm himself as he watched his only lifeline crumble.  

I started pleading along with Dragoon; he needed one more trick.  Even though he’d managed to keep his head, I knew the onslaught from Zeal wasn’t without cost.  Those hits had landed and Murphy was hurt. This fight needed to end, right now, for my teammate keep breathing.  

To everyone’s surprise, Parasite stopped struggling with the choke, instead allowing his arm to be pulled free of Zeal’s neck.  It baffled everyone, even Zeal. But because he was still mostly facedown on the ground, he couldn’t pull Parasite’s arm all the way away from his face.  Instead, it stopped on the left side of his head and in a blur, Parasite shot both hands around Zeal’s head, pressing his fingers against the man’s eyes.  

“You move and I fucking blind you,” Parasite screamed, making sure that there was no way Zeal could misinterpret.  “You’re done! You understand? I don’t care if you make your eyes one-hundred times tougher, I will still rip them out of your goddamn face!” 

Despite how deranged Zeal had made himself he definitely understood that.    

There was a tense moment of stillness as Parasite kept a hold on the back of Zeal’s head, fingers ready to gouge away Zeal’s vision until a much more sane voice mumbled a reply.  “Okay, you win.”  

“Yeah?” Parasite called, challenging him.

“Yeah,” came a muffled reply, “You win.  Now, get the fuck off of me.”  

With a tremendous groan, my teammate basically fell onto the ground and flopped to his back, taking giant gulps of air as he massaged his injured shoulder.  “Good. Thank fuck. Truth be told, I didn’t want to rip your eyes out.”

Zeal pushed himself up to his knees and grimaced as he pressed a hand against his thigh, “You didn’t hit me as hard as you could earlier,” he noted.  “You could have beaten me down before I dipped into more power. Why didn’t you?” 

Parasite turned his head to look Zeal full in the face, “If I’d wanted to do some serious damage, I could have.  But if we have to run, the last thing we need is a cripple.” 

  Everyone tensed as Zeal started laughing again.  “You fucking held back? You know I was trying to kill you, right?” 

Parasite chuckled, “Of course I did.  I’m not an idiot.”

“I’m trying to literally murder you, and you know that, and you still pull your punches?  Holy shit, I thought I was the crazy one here!”  

Parasite groaned as he pulled himself up into a sitting position and extended a fist towards Zeal, “Hey, welcome to the fucking club.” 

The tension in the air faded as the pair fist bumped and helped each other to their feet.  “Alright,” Zeal said, looking to Dragoon, “I guess I’m your bitch for a while now.” 

Dragoon rolled her eyes, “Stop being so melodramatic, you’re no one’s bitch, Zeal.  You’re just going to help us get the fuck off this horrible rock.”  

He scoffed, “If you think that we aren’t Titan’s host of bitches, you’re very misguided.  But,” he said, raising his hands defensively, “Deal’s a deal. I will help you with your plan to get a working ship so we can get the fuck off of Vuuldar.”  

I still didn’t trust him to hold up his end of the bargain given his disdain for the man behind this whole crusade, but for now Dragoon was trusting him well enough.  At least for the time being, I’d keep my distrust to myself and go with her intuition instead of my own. The best thing I could do was hope that the nagging, paranoid voice in my head was being unfair.

It had been hard to gauge what had been warranted paranoia lately and what had just been whisperings of fear since losing my arm.  The best hope I had was that Dragoon had a cooler head on her shoulders than I did.      

“You mind if we come inside,” Adamant asked, “Seems a little conspicuous to just be standing out here.”  

“They can see us even if we’re in a building,” Dancer pointed out, “Going inside isn’t exactly going to hide us.” 

Zeal waved her off, “Relax, Dancer.  They can come in. Even if the Trillodan can see us, we might as well make ourselves fucking comfortable until they decide to come blow up someone else.”  He turned to Adamant, “I think you’re going to want to be the last guy in the room.”  

The head of the Lost Children furrowed his brow, “Crackle?” 


The Lost Children looked between each other, clearly concerned.  “Well, this will be a fun reunion,” Adamant mused.    

“Context for the rest of us?” Parasite asked as he extended his arm and had something else crack back into place.  

“Trample is the right hand of Stampede, and she never forgave Adamant for getting me away from them.  She’s a Druid who creates rampaging animals that she basically uses like guided missiles,” Exchange explained.  “But she’s pretty, um, she’s a bit umm…” he stammered, not able to find the right words.

“She’s a cunt,” Distortion said, blunt.  “She makes me look nice and she really hates Adamant for pressing her friends head into the ground hard enough her skull exploded.”

“That’d do it,”  I muttered.  

Adamant rolled his neck and shook off the nerves, “Well, we’re gonna have to get over ourselves soon anyways.  Let’s just rip the bandage off.”

As much as he hadn’t sat right with me initially, I was growing to like Adamant and his inclinations to seek out conflict.     

Inside the school was just as run down as the exterior: paint was peeling, most surfaces at least partially covered in dust, and there were spots that looked like the victim of termite exposure.  The school itself was fairly limited and only had a couple classrooms, and only one had any occupants. Two people were laid down, both wearing impromptu bandages made of squares of fabric secured by duct tape.  “Trample, Warden,” Zeal said, stepping in front of us, “The Rogue Sentries, and the Lost Children.”

The woman, who by process of elimination had to be Trample, immediately glared past Zeal and bared her fangs like some kind of wildcat.  “Adamant? You fucking brought Adamant here?” Apart from her rather ugly facial expression, Trample was a gorgeous, delicate, dark-skinned beauty with a mess of black curls cascading down to her shoulders.  “Get him the-”

“Shut up,” Dancer shouted, literally teleporting an inch away from Trample and pressing a hand to Trample’s throat.  “If Zeal wanted them gone, they’d be gone. We’re working with them for now. Deal with it.” 

“She can teleport?” Dragoon asked, suddenly interested.  

“Short range, personal only,” Dancer replied, still clearly not happy with Dragoon.  “And only available for a minute at a time.”

My eyes turned to the other person on the floor, Warden.  “So, what do you do?” 

“I’m a Conjurer.  I make items that can be used to restrain or imprison people,” he replied, averting his eyes and hiding his heterochromia.    

“Kinky,” I replied with a little smirk.    

Unlike Trample, Warden seemed to at least have a decent sense of humor about himself and gave me a little grin.  “It can be if the situation calls for it. Chains, duct tape, bars, rope, etc., I can pull it out of thin air. Depending on the situation, I can make some more abstract stuff too, like road spikes.”  

Zeal moved himself into the middle of the room, making sure all eyes were on him before speaking.  I wasn’t sure if he was deliberately trying to get everyone’s attention because he was now obligated to work for Dragoon or because that was just how he operated.  “This room is going to get far too full with personality if everyone’s in here. Lost Children, Stampede, how about you two get refamiliarized and bury the hatchet.  Sentries, Interface, how about you take the room across the hall and rest up for a few minutes.”

“Shouldn’t we get going, like now?” Eldritch asked, looking around, strangely nervous.  “Aren’t we pushing our luck staying?”

“We might be,” Interface mumbled, “But are they really going to want to attack a crowd of a dozen Adapted?  Especially with one of those being Zeal; he can even make me a badass.”  

My stomach rumbled, “Well, I’m fine with waiting if you guys have something I can eat.” 

Gnaw, as if conjured by a spell, appeared next to me with a brown paper bag.  

“Of course, the guy made of mouths has the food,” Menagerie said with a roll of her eyes.  

Gnaw shrugged and passed off the bag to Parasite and slipped into the other room.  Exchange teetered between which room to enter and ultimately followed us, leaving Adamant and Distortion to deal with the old grudge between the little bands.  

“No one is going to think less of you,” Dragoon said softly as he glanced over his shoulder.  

“I just…it’s scary to see them again.  Warden and Trample are the two who cornered me and made it so they could force me to change.”  The teenager raised a hand and chewed on the edge of his index finger, “I thought I would be ready to see them again, but no… just nope.”

Menagerie reached into the bag and pulled out a small loaf of bread before handing the bag to Exchange, “We all have things like that.  It doesn’t make you weak. It makes you human.”

He nodded and gave her a weak smile, but it was clear that it wasn’t quite sinking in.  Instead, it seemed being the focus was causing him literal discomfort. Looking for a quick scapegoat, he turned to me.  “I never got to ask you, but who did you make earlier?” 

My heart immediately started hammering in my ears as I had a vivid flashback of being paralyzed.  I felt the walls closing in around me, that same pressure I felt as I sustained a duplicate of him.  A gentle hand squeezed my shoulder and pulled me back to center; I mouthed a silent ‘thank you’ to Menagerie as she removed her hand before I turned to answer Exchange.  “Titan,” I replied, reaching to massage my stump and undo the renewed knots of muscle. 

“He’s the guy running all this,” Dragoon explained, fortunately pulling Exchange’s eyes off me.  “His power is to turn the air into molten silicon. Supposedly,” she muttered, thinking out loud, “He fuses the atoms of nitrogen in the air to make  silicon but if he was doing that, the landscape would be an irradiated landscape.”        

Exchange looked down, as if embarrassed somehow.  “He sounds strong.”

“He is,” Eldritch replied.  “He basically melted me down once.  It was…not the most fun to experience if I’m being honest.”  

The blonde kid nodded, looking more embarrassed.  “I’m sorry you’re stuck with me then. I…I fucked up earlier.  I, I couldn’t really hit that chick and I-”

Parasite reached a hand over and grabbed his shoulder, “Dude, chill.”

“But if I was more useful your friend wouldn’t have died!”  

A hush fell over the group as we were all smacked with the fact that Mutant was dead, and that nothing was going to change that.  Exchange blushed, ashamed of himself and tried to get up, only to have a gauntleted hand snag his wrist.  

“Sit,” Dragoon commanded, catching Exchange off guard.  He obliged immediately, looking at our red-headed nerd of a captain like she was the devil herself.  “First things first, Exchange,” she said, “Even if you stepped up your game, the Trillodan would step up theirs.  The only reason that Kalr killed him was because she used those disks. She only used them because we started punching  holes in her. If you’d actually managed to do some serious damage to the demolitionist, who the hell knows what she would have done.”  

“But I-”

“Exchange,” she interrupted, “Let it go.  We’re fighting aliens who exterminate whole planets!  People are bound to die. There’s nothing we can do about it.  We’ve lost two people, Stampede has lost two from the looks of it, and Serpentine has lost a couple as well.  And realistically, before we get the fuck off Vuuldar, we’re going to lose more,” she stated, her voice cracking a little.  

I paid a quick glance to Menagerie and she returned the look: we both heard Dragoon’s steely facade start to break.  

“No matter what we do, the Trillodan are going to strike back twice as hard, and we’re going to have to keep fighting back until they break or until there are none of us left,” she continued, the edge of her eyes beginning to well up with a tear, “And until we’re all gone, we’re going to fight.  Because we’re Adapted. We fight. It’s what we do.”  

Interface reached into the bag and pulled out of their own small loaf of bread, “You know, it’s okay Exchange.  Back on Tso’got, we fought, constantly. We’ve simply done this more than you have. It’s okay that you didn’t do as well as you’d hoped.  The important thing is that you get another chance, another opportunity to prove yourself and do better.” 

He offered a weak smile, “Thanks.”  

As soon as everyone had a loaf of bread, we tore into it, greedily devouring the morsel as if our lives depended on it.  Even though there was nothing particularly noteworthy about the stuff, it was heavenly. A brief moment where we could just be human and enjoy eating.    

“You know,” Interface started to say, a little smile creeping across their face.  Except, they stopped and that smile turned into an expression of horror. “DOWN! EVERYONE DOWN, NOW!!”

Everyone immediately complied, and not a moment too soon.

A thunderous boom shook the structure as hunks of searing hot metal came tearing through the rotting and peeling walls.  Wood splintered and combusted immediately as it came into contact with the scorching hot debris, turning the room into a furnace in a matter of seconds.  Before the ringing had faded from my ears, Parasite was already on his feet, grabbing me and Eldritch, dragging us towards the door.  

I was dimly aware of someone screaming ‘what was that?’ but I couldn’t discern who had shouted.  My vision swam as I was herded back outside, even though I wanted to go back for my unfinished loaf of bread.  I didn’t care that the room was on fire, that was mine and I wanted it.  

When we staggered through the door of the now blazing building, I finally saw what had happened.  The ship we had ‘borrowed’ from the Trillodan had detonated and sent tonnes of heated shrapnel into the school and other surrounding buildings.  If we hadn’t had Interface’s warning to hit the deck, odds were that someone would have gotten ripped apart by the ejected shards of metal.  

“Everyone okay?” Dragoon shouted, helping me focus back on the present and cut through some of the ringing that was plaguing my ears.  “Anyone injured?” 

“We all seem okay,” Zeal replied.  “Interface’s warning was-”

A loud crack reached our ears as Distortion and Adamant dropped to the ground, unconscious.  Dragoon slammed her helmet on and pointed to the far side of the building. “Murphy, grab them!  Let’s get out of the-”

“No, no, don’t do that!” a thunderous voice called out.  “Your friends aren’t hurt, they’ve only been tranquilized.  I simply couldn’t have you running off on me, could I?” 

All of us knew that voice, we’d heard it shortly after coming to the planet.  It had been broadcast into our brains thanks to some mystical piece of technology commanded by the Trillodan.  

From behind the smoldering wreckage of the transport ship, a massive, grey-skinned figure sauntered forward.  Unlike his underlings, this monster didn’t wear bulky power armor. Instead, Commander Zellig was clad in what looked like a flak jacket and a pair of sturdy black trousers to match.  What did concern me was the massive cube of metal he was carrying like some kind of futuristic briefcase. I heard he had something like that when he’d fought against Clemency back on Tso’got; if it was the same thing, it was likely housing some kind of horrifying weapon that was capable of cutting down buildings and God knew what else.    

Eldritch paled.  “We’re not beating him.  Not without Adamant,” he hissed.

“Why do you think I had him put to sleep?” Zellig called back.  “His power is fascinating, but he played his hand when he vocalized his goal before tripping through Salah’s minefield.  I couldn’t have him making himself my nemesis for a few minutes, now could I?”

“There’s a whole lot of us, Zellig,” Dragoon challenged, “And I don’t know if you’ve seen Kalr lately, but she’s seen better days.”  

“The same could be said for Mutant,” he replied, with a smirk.  “Such a waste to lose a valuable specimen. So, I’ll make you an offer, Dragoon.  You all surrender and come with me. There’s no need to endure this pain, because I will be bringing you back with me.  There is no escape from this,” he said, swinging his arms in a wide arc, reminding us of the labyrinth of traps we were confined in.  “Where would you run to that Salah hasn’t already rigged to blow? Come quietly, it’ll be easier.”  

Eldritch had described Zellig as terrifying, as this guy who was more charismatic than Titan and somehow more dangerous.  I had doubted him; I had never been more wrong. The way he said it, even I believed him. We weren’t getting away from this.  He’d laid his own trap and forced us into taking a fight against him without two of our biggest trump cards: we couldn’t have an unbeatable champion or a proper means of escape.  Even if Zeal empowered us, we’d have to run headlong into a deadly maze and even then, I wasn’t sure if we could run fast enough to get away from him. From all accounts, Zellig’s grotesque strength translated to him having incredible speed as well.      

“I’ll give you a choice too,” Dragoon said, refusing to be intimidated.  “You walk away and we don’t rip you to pieces.”  

The Trillodan commander rolled his neck, readying himself for a fight as he set the cube of metal down.  “Oh, Dragoon,” he chuckled, his lips parting to reveal twin rows of deadly incisors, “That’s exactly what I was hoping to hear.”  

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