The world narrowed in view as my new goal became the center of my existence. A red aura coalesced around Zellig as the pompous commander raised his arms to us in clear challenge, goading us to make the first move.
I had some idea of how dangerous this guy was from stories others had and my power supplied me with strength that would ensure I was up to my newest task.
Zellig had to die.
Ragdoll was the first to charge forward, turning and launching himself forward; Zellig raised an arm to defend against the wild haymaker, smirking to himself as if he believed this was too easy. Parasite flipped his skin inside out and dashed forward, trying to get around to Zellig’s flank. The Trillodan was deceptively fast, moving to cut off Parasite, forcing him back with a few blows aimed for his head.
I ran forward, waiting for a good opportunity to slip in, to strike a killing blow against this fiend.
Ragdoll spun himself around, lashing an arm down hard enough that I could feel the force of the hit, but Zellig still absorbed it with ease. Parasite kept him on the defensive, but the two of them weren’t making any real headway.
I rushed forward, seeing a small window as Ragdoll threw himself over Zellig’s head and forced the Trillodan to turn around to defend himself properly.
Before I could get too close, something slammed into me. I fell to the side, dazed and disoriented, feeling a sharp pain in my side. Looking down, I saw a puncture wound gushing blood. Before I could raise the alarm, something metal drove into my cheek, ripping apart my cheek and tongue in an instant.
Someone was trying to keep me from talking, keeping me from setting a second objective. Idiot didn’t realize I didn’t need to vocalize that; I only did that so people knew how fucked they were. I loathed setting additional objectives since each active goal beyond the first was substantially more exhausting. But, the three of us had a mission and I couldn’t allow for some insipid cretin to stall or subdue me.
I will find and dispose of whoever is doing this.
The world seemed to go into a grey-scale with living beings retaining more color than anything inorganic. A few paces away from me, a figure stood out. It had to be one of Zellig’s elite given his custom armor. It looked like it was made out of small screens, using some kind of advanced active camouflage.
My body dug deeper into the well as I began to heal, my objectives not met. The intruder raised one arm, a pneumatic hiss sounding as something dug into the skin above my collar bone.
I will not be paralyzed again!
I grit my teeth as a weight settled on me after taking on a third objective. My body was trying to tear itself apart to meet all the demands I was placing as well as maintain the integrity of my body. Priority of healing shifted and the muscle around my neck stiffened, denying that little insidious coil of metal purchase. The skin on my fingertips sharpened and I dug my hand into my own flesh, ripping out that little device and throwing the silver thread aside with a snarl.
“Not. Twice.” I gurgled as my tongue reformed.
“Adamant, we need you!” Parasite shouted as he darted around, unleashing trading blows with Zellig; the Trillodan commander elected to exchange blows and endure three heavy strikes to the torso in exchange for one heavy strike to Parasite’s raised arms.
“Adamant,” Ragdoll echoed as he threw himself forward again, “What’s happening?”
I glared daggers at the interloper that neither of them could see. “I’m dealing with my own problem. Just one minute!” The cloaked figure didn’t respond, not daring to give any indication to where he was located to my other teammates, but that wasn’t really a concern for either of them. Both of them were busy trying to land a meaningful hit on Zellig, and neither were equipped to do it. Given how easily Zellig could brush off hits from the both of them, he was aiming to play a war of attrition. He was used to out-lasting his opponents, using endurance to overcome any obstacle.
It was why he had placed another obstacle in my way. He wanted to test my stamina and fortitude. Too many goals would Overexpose me and my primary goal was only to kill Zellig. While my body might mend, his operative didn’t have the intent of saving his commanding officer, only killing me.
“Hurry up!” Ragdoll shouted as he took a look at me, seeing me glaring down my invisible opponent. “We’ll keep Zellig busy as long as we can.” Ragdoll threw himself back into the fray, and right before he made contact with Zellig’s guard, he vanished. Zellig’s eyes widened as Ragdoll appeared behind him, slamming a fist into his spine. The Trillodan lurched forward, vulnerable long enough for Parasite to streak forward and hit him three times in the face. Ragdoll spun again and blinked away, this time going low and slamming a weighted leg against Zellig’s knee.
Parasite had been right: even with no prior experience, Ragdoll was using an additional power like it had been a part of him this whole time. If I hadn’t seen Powerhouse gift it to him, I would have assumed it was his trump card he kept up his sleeve for special occasions.
My attention snapped back to the cloaked figure as they started to circle, putting themselves as far away from Zellig as possible; I could only face one of them at a time.
Now that I could see them, I could begin seeing more of their intent displayed: killing me and keeping me busy were the primary two. There was a muted desire to protect, but that had been deliberately squashed. Zellig didn’t want anything for my initial goal to draw power from, the clever prick.
I pushed my primary goal to the back of my mind for now, forcing my body to bear the weight of that pressing objective as I faced down this nuisance. There was a diminished red aura around him, not quite as vibrant as the one his superior had. I wasn’t going to be able to kill him, not with the armor and with the goal I had set. Too much power was being pulled to Zellig and I had used the word ‘dispose’ instead of ‘dismember’ or ‘destroy’.
But it did open up some new options for me.
I turned around and started running straight for Zellig, knowing full well that it would goad the operative into chasing me; no hunter would be able to resist pursuing their prey while their back was turned. Since I hadn’t disposed of him yet, my ability to detect the cloaked interloper was still in place and I felt them charging me, even though they made no sound. As they got closer, I directed my power and visualized my objective being fulfilled. Zellig had put our arena near a cliff; all I needed to do was send this idiot tumbling off the edge. I didn’t need to cleave through his armor or try to endure a fist fight against his veiled arsenal.
My palms charged with energy as I visualized my power taking a form similar to Shockwave’s power. With a snapshot in mind and my goal realized, my gift granted me a version of his power for a moment. As the operative reached towards my spine to apply one of those infernal devices, I ducked and pivoted abruptly. Before he could adjust, I threw myself behind him; even though the operative was quick to face me, I had still managed to put the cliff at his back.
I grinned as the potential energy in my palms was released, blasting him with a point blank buffet of gale force winds. The active camouflage failed as he went flying through the air and over the edge of the cliff, falling out of sight towards the ocean below.
A weight was lifted as one objective was fulfilled. The objective to remain free of those paralysis inducing contraptions still sapped some strength since I wasn’t entirely sure that Zellig didn’t have a couple on hand. It was narrow enough in focus though that I could shoulder the burden for a while yet. The grey scale of the world faded away and my focus entirely went back to the commander of the Trillodan legion.
It was time for him to die, though I wasn’t sure I was going to be entirely necessary.
Ragdoll was an absolute animal with the teleportation gift that he had been given, forcing Zellig to continually keep his guard high, protecting his head quickly became all he could do. While he tried to keep Parasite at bay with well placed kicks, the other Enhancer was quick enough to evade and work around the kicks, finding openings to repeatedly pepper his torso with hits that were leaving imprints in his grey hide.
From the sneer on his face, Zellig wasn’t just shrugging those hits off either. Still, despite the two opponents beating the piss out of him, his glare went straight to me. He continued to battle the two of them without looking at them, relying on his heightened senses to give him the information he needed. I started walking forward, taking my time as Ragdoll and Parasite continued to batter and bludgeon the Trillodan commander into submission.
“How’s it feel, losing,” I asked with a snide smile, knowing full well he could hear me. I felt a surge of energy flow through me as I drew closer, my objective so close at hand. I visualized the kill, saw my hand spearing through his chest to grab his head and crush it. Whatever kind of automated or mechanical failsafes would have to trigger then to preserve him; I’d allow my power to guide me forward to finish him off from that point. My gift responded and coated my hand in a layer of thrumming energy, ready to slice straight through his reinforced hide and layer of enhanced muscle.
I ran forward, rearing my arm back to plunge it straight into his chest. Zellig reached a hand out vainly to stop me. There was no way-
I stumbled forward, forgetting what I was doing. Before I could take grasp of my situation, the massive Trillodan shot his leg out and hit me in the chest, breaking what felt like all of my ribs.
“Adamant!” Ragdoll cried out. In the moment he was distracted, Zellig turned on him, slamming a hand into his shoulder and throwing the Enhancer off the cliff. Ragdoll managed to get himself back to safety with the teleportation, but he landed in an inelegant heap.
Parasite quickly repositioned himself between Zellig and the two of us, refusing to move aside.
“We’ve spent a lot of resources trying to see what made you Adapted work,” the Trillodan commander said as he stepped forward slowly, glaring down at Parasite. “A few of you were left behind on Tso’got; Titan couldn’t have the chaotic forces of Vermin gracing his ranks. They were too unhinged and unwieldy.”
Parasite stiffened, understanding something that I clearly didn’t. As Zellig smiled, I remembered what I was doing, what I had been assigned to do. My body failing meant I couldn’t kill Zellig; that was unacceptable. More power was drawn from that well as my ribs were forced back into place. I screamed pain washed over me, the fatigue making this a woefully inelegant process.
“Dissonance,” Parasite whispered, “The Projector who screwed with your train of thought.”
Zellig smiled as he stepped forward. “I wondered if you’d remember her. She did have the most profound effect on your friend, Eldritch, as I recall. It’s a shame we haven’t been able to make this work on a grander scale yet.”
“You weaponized her power,” he said, his voice somewhere between awestruck and horrified.
My chest burned as bone was hastily fused back together. The muscle in my ribs wall cramped down with the sudden shift, making it hard to appreciate a full breath. Still, my objective wasn’t fulfilled, despite the setback. I could still get up, I still had the bit of energy around my hand to plunge into his chest and rip his heart out.
I fought up to my feet, and so did Ragdoll, thought one of his arms was hanging limp at his side. “Adamant,” he said, “Don’t let him knock you down again.”
Zellig glared past Parasite and charged forward; Parasite made himself as big an obstruction as possible, but he wasn’t going to buy a whole ton of time before Zellig knocked him aside and bared down on me with that power again.
“I won’t be victim to that thing again,” I panted, nearly sinking to my knee from the strain of accepting another directive. I was still holding two, and now a third was making the periphery of my vision blurry. “Ragdoll,” I forced out, “I need a clear shot at his chest. I’m only going to get a single shot or two at this.”
“Got it,” he growled as he grimaced and forced his shoulder back into socket with a nauseating pop.
Zellig growled in frustration as he tried to bear down on me, getting more and more agitated by Parasite repeatedly slamming into him and pushing him away. Even though it wasn’t the same finesse I was used to seeing out of Parasite, he was doing a phenomenal job keeping Zellig distanced albeit at the cost of his own well-being. He endured repeated blows that left behind a massive black bruise on his inverted flesh. Even though his body washed the discoloration away, being hit that hard had to hurt.
Ragdoll took two steps forward, swinging his arms to build momentum and teleporting, reappearing right above Zellig with his heel coming down. The Trillodan commander was quick enough to raise his arms, but Ragdoll never connected. He blinked away again, reorienting himself and slamming that heel into the back of Zellig’s knee.
“Drop him!” Ragdoll shouted to Parasite. Parasite seemed to understand and skirted around Zellig, trying to draw his attention away from me; Zellig refused to turn entirely around, still using his legs to kick Parasite away without needing to look as he started to stand up. Ragdoll tried to attack the other leg, but Zellig had quickly gotten to his feet, refusing to go down.
“Rags, go high!” Parasite shouted as he threw himself back up on his feet.
“Get ready,” Ragdoll stressed as he took two steps forward to build up momentum.
I took my cue and charged forward as Ragdoll twirled around, looking like he was going to try and kick Zellig’s head off again. Before contact was made, he vanished and reappeared, reorienting himself so that his legs were already past the Trillodan’s head, the weighted limbs acting like an anchor. Ragdoll dug one arm around Zellig’s neck like a shepherd’s crook and let momentum drag both to the ground. At the same time, Parasite went low, driving into the back of the commander’s knees with his shoulders, upending him.
I forced my legs to propel me forward as Zellig raised his hand, a little burst of energy washing over me, this time countered by my power. There was no confusion, no sudden abating of my goal, no lapse in strength. The Trillodan tried to raise his hand to block, but I easily slapped it aside and shot my own hand forward, plunging it into his chest.
For a moment, everyone was perfectly still, unsure of how to react. Zellig’s eyes widened, astounded that I had actually managed it. He growled in rage, getting up to his feet in a flurry of movement; I held onto his heart, squeezing down as he threw Ragdoll off and kicked Parasite backwards. I grunted as I tugged on his heart, feeling his machinery fight back. Needles and enhanced muscle tried to thwart my grip as I felt the veins and arteries begin to tear free.
Zellig’s eyes widened as the final anchor for his vital organ came free.
I ripped my hand free of his chest, a blackened heart the size of my head still trying to beat in my hand. Despite my body’s fatigue and Overexposure, I grinned and dared to laugh. “Not so tough now, are you, big guy?”
Zellig gurgled and stumbled forward, reaching for his heart as I backpedaled away. I still held my power close, knowing full well that he wasn’t dead until that body of his gave out. He was as much a machine as he was an alien; until he was properly dead and unable to reconnect his heart to his body, I wasn’t considering this objective complete at all.
“Give it… back,” he panted, sinking to a knee.
“I don’t think I will,” I said softly, squeezing down and feeling the muscle begin to split and tear under my grasp. “I don’t think I want you getting back up.”
Part of me wanted to charge forward and rip his head off, but I was barely able to keep on my feet. Too many objectives weighing down on me and having to rebuild my whole chest cavity was not something that I was built for. I wasn’t willing to show it, but Zellig’s little trick had cost me so much energy that it had taken all of my remaining strength to rip his heart free.
“I said,” he snarled, fighting to his feet, “Give it back!”
Ragdoll flew back in, driving a fist into Zellig’s jaw, knocking him to the side. The Trillodan dropped to one knee and braced an arm against the ground for ballast; Parasite ran forward and kicked his elbow hard enough to snap the arm and make Zellig face plant.
It was strange seeing Zellig rendered so inelegant. Every movement and decision he had made prior was so calculated, so planned out a few seconds ahead as if he had some kind of foresight. But now, he was reduced to baser instinct and almost animalistic behavior. He tried to get back up and pursue me, seemingly oblivious to Parasite and Ragdoll who kept battering him back, both assuming the role of bodyguard while I held onto the Trillodan’s heart.
Finally Zellig ran out of strength and sank to his knees after what had to be a full two minutes of prolonged struggle. His breathing was labored and black blood seeped out of the wound I had made. Taking a few more strained breaths, Zellig looked at me and reached forward, making one last plea for me to return his heart.
I sneered and threw it down the hill, enjoying giving one final insult to the bastard as the light slowly faded from those eyes.
With a heavy thud, the immense Trillodan commander fell to his face, dead. My objective was sated as he lay there, assuring me that he wasn’t faking it or simply late in triggering a mechanic countermeasure. Ragdoll turned to me as I took a massive gasp of air, and bent over, my display of strength no longer needed.
“Dead,” I said, “I’ve been holding out in case he had any countermeasures.”
“Holy shit,” Parasite muttered, looking at Zellig, “I didn’t know if we could do it. He’s just never seemed…”
“Yeah,” he replied as he shifted to being right-side out. “Even with my new gift he seemed so unbeatable.”
“Holy fuck,” Ragdoll said with a little laugh, “Look at him go!”
I continued to catch my breath as I followed Ragdoll’s gaze, looking down at the city. Eldritch was now towering above the buildings, at least twenty meters tall now. He let out a roar that I was glad we were a kilometer and half away from the monster.
Parasite looked down, daring to smile a little. “He hasn’t lost control either.”
“How can you be sure?” I asked between pants.
He shrugged, “Just a feeling at this point. I’m used to seeing him and I know what looks like my friend and what looks like an animal. And that thing, even though it’s huge, is still my friend.”
“For now,” a low voice growled behind us.
“What-” Ragdoll didn’t get to finish his sentence as a massive grey hand backhanded him, knocking him down the hill.
Parasite didn’t manage to flip himself inside-out before Zellig hit him in the chest with a closed fist, knocking him a couple meters backwards. I barely managed to get my hands up to protect myself as Zellig haphazardly slapped me aside, knocking me on my ass as I groaned and wracked my brain, trying to answer a pressing question.
“How the fuck are you still alive?”
Despite his resurrection, Zellig did not look like he was doing well. His burst of strength that enabled his ambush faltered as he staggered to the side, panting, seemingly unable to fill his lungs. His arrogant smile from earlier was nowhere to be found, instead there was only a determined and steely sneer plastered on his face.
“I waited,” I said, terrified as I dug for more strength, but there wasn’t any to be had. I had seen my objective fulfilled and I was too exhausted to set another one. “I deliberately waited for any kind of mechanical bullshit! There wasn’t any!”
“Not on my end, no,” Zellig agreed, slowly correcting his posture to tower over me. “I worried that you’d find a way to work around my borrowed power from Distortion; it was a trial run of this sort of device after all. No, I made a plan to let myself die. I knew that your gift wouldn’t be so easily fooled by me letting my heart stop. It had to be real. That’s why I relinquished control of my systems, instead letting my friend up there hit the switch and bring me back. You had to kill me; you never said someone else couldn’t revive me.”
The proud and unflappable mask I typically wore shattered. This monster had planned a way to escape my inevitable judgment. He had given himself a way to endure and persist through death. Zellig had thought himself outside the boundary of my gift.
“It wasn’t a gamble I wanted to take, but you seemed like too good a candidate to not capture,” he said, taking a few shaky steps forward for me. “The ability to adjust physiology and manifest power to see an objective fulfilled. What a truly remarkable power you have. It will do so much for us and our cause,” he promised.
“Get away from him!” Parasite slammed into Zellig, tossing the Trillodan away from me. Even though he was still alive, he wasn’t built to live without a heart in his chest. Where he was shrugging hits off of Parasite before, this knocked Zellig to the ground and sent him for a tumble. Parasite had shifted states again and looked back at me, “You okay?”
I shook myself from my terror-stricken state and nodded. “Good enough.”
“Parasite,” Zellig muttered as he fought up to his feet, his movements now seeming more mechanical, more animatronic than humanoid, “Who does a wounded animal bite?”
Parasite glanced back towards the city and then back at Zellig, “That’s not an animal. That’s my friend down there.”
Zellig took a few more shallow breaths and put that arrogant smile back on his face, “A wounded animal, Parasite, bites anyone close enough to sink teeth into.” The Trillodan commander raised a hand and snapped his fingers.
All of us turned as a red glow bathed the city and surroundings. A massive pillar of crimson energy bored down, carving through Eldritch and drilling a small crater into the ground. We could feel the electricity and energy in the air from this far away, and my ears throbbed as Eldritch screamed in pain, half of his body reduced to vapor in an instant. After a full second, the laser faded away and Eldritch’s remaining body tumbled, collapsing and crushing a handful of buildings as he started to reconstitute.
I looked back at Zellig, seeing the intentions that he had kept veiled. He smiled at me as I could see snippets of his plan now laid bare; he had left minimal resistance for us so that Eldritch could grow fat and powerful off the Ellayan militia. He had just been setting it up to maim Eldritch and leave it for us to deal with. He was going to turn our super-weapon against us and make us undo all the hard work we’d expended getting him set up to lead us to victory.
“Nick!” Parasite rounded on Zellig, but the Trillodan commander had already produced one of those white vials. Before Parasite could close the gap to try and finish the job I started, Zellig broke the vial and vanished. “Come back you fucking coward! Don’t you fucking dare run away!”
“Parasite,” Ragdoll shouted, reappearing a few feet away from us, half his face already swelling and discolored, “He’s gone. We need to get back to the others!”
“We put him in that again!” Parasite screamed, beside himself, “We fucking put Nick in that thing again! That bastard just locked him inside!”
Ragdoll grabbed him by the shoulders, as if to shake some sense into him, “And we’ll get him out! But screaming at the sky isn’t going to do anything, okay?”
I glanced down the hill as Eldritch started to rise, his stature reduced to fourteen meters, and his behavior already drastically altered. He seemed to be at war with himself, like he was trying to go different directions at the same time. Even from this far away, I could read one goal that was eclipsing the others: