It had been going so well.
Our initial clash against the Ellayans had been a blowout. The literal stampede we unleashed upon the militia was too much for them to hold. Without a good place to form ranks and establish a firing line they needed to fall back. Psycho’s continued onslaught of projections added extra confusion to their ranks as he created harpies and nightmarish griffons to pull people off rooftops.
Beleth had been instrumental in breaking their ranks as he turned the ground into both our shield and reshaped the road into a wall that crept forward. With the Ellayan’s attention pulled, Clemency and I took to the sky. Now that there was no shortage of emotional turmoil he was at peak efficiency. He rained Rage-fueled fire upon the amphibious natives of the planet, forcing them to scatter.
I had swallowed my reservations about killing innocent people, allowing myself to almost step outside my body, like some kind of spectator. As the conflict raged, emotions ran high, all turning into energies I could harness and weaponize thanks to borrowing Clemency’s power. I armed myself with Fear and Determination and, as usual, my gift of larceny twisted the borrowed power. Where Fear would normally create sheets of ice to slow and hinder, it became the ability to fire icicles that exploded and released freezing vapor. Determination should have been short range telekinesis; for me it became a destructive, invisible arm made that tried to obliterate everything it could.
It seemed that repeatedly borrowing Clemency’s power meant I twisted it more each time. Despite my own aversion to killing and bloodshed, my gift had other plans.
While our initial push against the Ellayans had gone well, the deeper we pushed meant more and more Trillodan defense measures. Between turrets, explosives, and biological agents, our initial stampede was thinned and even a few Adapted were caught up in the crossfire. Missiles and mounted cannons drove Clemency and I from the sky and made it more difficult for Beleth to safely guide us forward. With Trillodan officers taking charge, the Ellayans started to rally and push back. As our pack of animals and phantasms were thinned, we had to retreat.
And then Eldritch had made his appearance. He crashed into their flank, drawing fire and bringing about a whole new wave of dread for the Ellayans. His appearance was a morale boost for the Adapted, renewing our efforts as we drove into the city, cutting through the defenders and fighting back to the coast. In a matter of minutes, Eldritch had gone from being ten meters tall to twenty, engulfing whole swaths of the militia every time he swung his arm. His elastic limbs were a death sentence for scores of the indigenous peoples, and it only fueled his rampage.
Right when it seemed he was unkillable, a orbital strike from their ship in orbit demolished half of our superweapon.
The world seemed to stop moving for that moment. The air was ablaze with energy, and the sheer force and heat from the beam drove me back nearly a whole block in a mixture of panic and pain. As soon as it faded and the battlefield was no longer bathed in a sea of red, everyone had to cover their ears as Eldritch screamed.
I was used to him roaring, but this was something new, and not something I ever wanted to hear again. It was the cry of thousands of organisms feeling loss and indescribable agony in a blink. During Feast Day, Titan had slowly whittled Eldritch down over nearly half an hour; the Trillodan had done all that damage in a few seconds.
More damaging might be what the Trillodan had just shown. We had been relying on Eldritch being the scariest bastard in the place so that Soliloquy and Playlist could coerce the crowd into stopping the fight. But as he toppled to the ground with one arm and one leg blasted clean off his body, that message had been wiped away.
Taking flight, I spotted Soliloquy and Playlist waiting on top of one of the few three-floor buildings that the city owned. As I landed, Clemency glided in alongside, his stiff posture giving away exactly how worried he was.
Soliloquy shook his head, unable to find words for a moment. “It’s bad. The crowd, they’re scared, but not of us anymore. They just saw a fucking laser from space tear our monster in half.”
“Unless we can conjure a better spectacle,” Playlist said, holding his headphones in hand, “I don’t think I can soothe them enough either.”
Clemency let out a slow exhale, doing his best to remain composed. “We need to keep this contained, and we need to keep him under control,” he decided. “Soliloquy, Playlist, do whatever you can to calm down everyone, especially Eldritch. I don’t know how he’s going to react to being hit with a cannon from space, but my bet isn’t well.”
Both Playlist and Soliloquy nodded.
“Spectre,” he said, “We’re going to do our best to keep him headed in the right direction. Even if he is unstable, as long as we keep him going forward, he’s the Trillodan’s problem, not ours.”
“Understood,” I said with a flat voice, still allowing myself that level of distance from the situation. I didn’t want to be here for all this death and destruction. I didn’t want to witness all this pain and suffering.
As Clemency took flight, I steeled myself as best I could and followed suit, flying back towards Eldritch who was getting back up, reconstituting himself to a more appropriately sized form. I couldn’t help but watch, noticing something right off the bat that troubled me: he wasn’t deferring back to a bipedal shape, instead forming a body that was more like a massive dog.
I felt my conscious mind slip back into my body, like I was finally awake for the first time in a few hours. Able to feel, I felt a wash of pity for our tortured monster. We relied on him to be our superweapon but all seemed to forget he was a kid who had enormous pressure put on him, and he’d just endured a hit that was bigger than anything anyone else could have survived. Clemency flew in front of him, driving the Ellayans back with a burst of flame as Soliloquy began speaking, his voice amplified to reach all ears within a four block radius.
“This struggle and fight isn’t one for this planet to endure,” he started, his voice washing over me and bringing a strange sense of calm, amplified by the aura Playlist exuded thanks to a soothing song. “This is a war and fight that you were all senselessly roped into. The Trillodan are the engineers of this horrific display and they should be the ones to pay. They hide behind you, afraid to be involved. They see the weapons we bring and they cower. An orbital cannon couldn’t destroy Eldritch, and nothing you can do will either. There is no sense in fighting him, just step down and run. Get out of his way. Let us instead fight the masters who crack the whip.” I wasn’t sure if I agreed with Soliloquy’s blind optimism and attempt to make Eldritch sound almost immortal, but I felt some shift of emotional energy. There was more apathy in the air, more resignation and a desire to concede, to go home and give in.
From Eldritch there was a renewed vigor to get up, but all the nice words in the world wouldn’t undo the immense pain and loss he had just endured.
I went the other way, cautioning the few Adapted who were anywhere close to Eldritch to mind their distance since we didn’t know what was going to come of our wounded giant. Despite my own preaching, I turned and flew towards the massive mound of flesh and felt the turmoil from a distance. The growths were at war with the thing that spawned them, both entities trying to find a means of expression amidst the schism between beast and handler.
“Eldritch,” I called out, doing my best to keep my tone sweet and encouraging, “I know you can hear me. I know you hurt.”
The massive form groaned as it tried to rise onto two legs. Nick was still trying to regain control, to pilot his Adaptation as he saw fit and not the other way around. I dared to smile as the hulking form tried again, some material shifting to reinforce the hind legs and provide a base to balance on for a bi-pedal form.
“You’re going to be okay, you understand? We’re here to help you. And you’re doing so well,” I said with a small hint of pride in my voice. “I remember when Psycho had us stand guard over you guys and you were so timid back then, so afraid of everything. You were afraid of your own power even, and look at you now!”
There was another attempt to stand, this one nearly getting him upright; he fell back onto all fours with a thunderous boom.
“Your friends had put so much pressure on you. Titan has put so much on you too,” I called out, trying to coax the boy in there forward. “And you met those challenges! You’ve done so much that we couldn’t! You can-“
I stopped myself as I saw a glint of silver rapidly approaching from above the buildings. Someone else was flying, and that wasn’t Clemency’s color armor. As the figure approached, a yellow aerosol coated Eldritch’s flank. They flew away and the yellow spray exploded in a tremendous fireball that left a small crater in Eldritch’s shoulder. A renewed smell of burnt flesh filled the air as Eldritch roared in pain, his balance shifting back to the front legs as the animalistic half of him responded and tried to take control.
“No, no, no,” I whispered as the form spun around, dousing Eldritch with another spray of explosive aerosol, agitating him again as the blast obliterated more tendrils. “Get away from him!” I screamed as I took off, giving chase to one of Zellig’s cronies. They wore a chrome-colored suit that had what looked like a metal backpack on with a purple exhaust on the bottom. Yellow tubes ran from the pack down to the gauntlets which had to be responsible for that explosive spray they were using.
They responded to my outcry, avoiding an elastic limb from Eldritch as they gained elevation, clearly goading me to chase.
While I wasn’t a fan of the senseless carnage and destruction, this idiot had given me a reason to stay in the present and fight; I could protect that kid. My lips curled into a sneer as rage burned through me, exciting my Alteration, like it was some kind of living thing underneath my skin. Power flared in response to my emotional investment, encouraging me to dive deeper and deeper into my frenzy.
I flew after them, raising my left hand and firing a volley of explosive icicles; as they streaked nearby my target, I clenched my fist and detonated them all. The operative was coated in a layer of frost and sent tumbling from the sky, the exhaust on their jetpack clogged. As soon as their distress started however, the suit rippled with a wave of red energy and roared back to life, the Trillodan circling around and picking up tremendous altitude and speed. While his exhaust had been purple before, it now glowed an ominous red.
I’d heard about the red disks that could be consumed to provide grotesque amounts of energy for short bursts. To answer his bolster, I allowed myself to think of Bargain. I had watched him die, helpless to do a damn thing about it. Even Infinite couldn’t do anything. The Trillodan had given us back a broken and damaged Parasite just so they could get at my friend.
A scream escaped my lips as I started to see red, my rage focused entirely on this idiot who had put himself in my line of fire.
“You are done hurting him!” I shrieked as I gave chase, flying faster than I knew was possible. The Trillodan veered from the next batch of icicles, clearly ready for my retaliation. A spray of explosives came my way and I swiped my ethereal appendage, swatting aside the ordinance. A moment later, it exploded and bathed me in flame, but it wasn’t enough to slow me down. I came through the cloud of flame, caught off guard by them streaking forward.
I made myself intangible for a moment, letting him pass through me. Whipping around, I turned corporeal and reclaimed my borrowed power, swiping my limb of Determination, catching the edge of their leg. Three distinct claw marks ripped along the surface of the armor but the attack was too shallow to draw blood. Any imbalance was immediately accounted for as the operative rolled and flared the engine, streaking away from my next volley of ice shards.
For as many times as I had borrowed Clemency’s power, I had never fought anyone in the air before. Hate them as I might, this Trillodan was clearly used to a dogfight and I was at a disadvantage by chasing them.
I did it anyways, my rage boiling over, demanding his head.
My quarry banked, circling around and leading me back to Eldritch. Zellig was having his crony keep our massive Druid destabilized, trying to manufacture his own Feast Day with all of us caught up in his primal rampage. With Soliloquy and Playlist helping keep him calmed, we stood a chance. But if this operative continued to be a thorn in his side, who knew what Eldritch was bound to do.
Cutting him off, I let loose a volley of icicles that erupted, chilling the air in an attempt to freeze the Trillodan in their armor. They managed to evade, forced to loop away from our monster. The red light of their exhaust died and the figure spun around, raising a hand. Muzzle flashes forced me to dive straight down, making myself as hard a target to hit as possible. As quick as they had spun to change targeting, the Trillodan kicked on their jetpack and turned back to Eldritch to make another bombing run.
I sneered and dove, using my fall to build momentum as I changed direction from my nosedive. Arcing up, another volley of icicles came a split second too late as another layer of ordinance was sprayed onto Eldritch’s flank, evoking another furious roar from the monstrous Neklim. His roar was like a knife in my side, a reminder that I was failing to protect another member of our family. We were all relying on him, and now we were failing to keep him safe in his most desperate hour.
There was some solace for me that I could at least capitalize on the delay of escape from the Trillodan. Their bombing run had cost them speed and the operative was a second too slow to avoid my volley of icicles this time. An eruption of freezing air sent them spiraling, plummeting towards the ground. While they managed to correct their trajectory and avoid being splattered against the streets, it slowed them down enough for me to catch up.
I dive bombed upon them, raising that imperceptible appendage and cleaving as I closed the gap. Another trio of claw marks raked across their armor, cutting some of the tubes running along their surface of the metal. Still, no blood. No real damage, but it did knock them into the ground.
They bounced and quickly found their feet, raising the other hand and unleashing a salvo from a high caliber gun that had been built into the right arm. I used the determination limb as a shield and was still driven back by the sheer force. I replied with a volley of icicles, only to find them matched with a spray of that aerosol explosive. Even though I had cut some of the tubes delivering that to the dispensing system, it wasn’t enough to shut it down entirely. All I had managed to do was limit the range it could project.
Through the flame, the figure flew straight at me, catching me off guard. I tried to swipe with the additional arm, but another few bullets actually shattered it. The manifested limb exploded like a stun grenade, leaving me woozy as the operative flew forward, driving an armored shoulder into my midsection. I doubled over and was carried along, barely managing to turn myself ethereal before they slammed into the side of a building and bashed through the wall.
I turned corporeal and conjured that arm again, knowing I wasn’t going to last a minute without it. A deep breath told me that the operative had broken a few ribs of my ribs, but I’d endured worse. I’d survived being tortured back on Tso’got. I’d survived a war against more dangerous and nefarious villains than this jackass with a jetpack.
But I had to stop myself for just a moment. My blind rage was doing me a disservice even with the strength it granted. I had to collect myself, evaluate, and start fighting smarter. Even though I was using a power that had gone toe-to-toe with Zellig himself, I was fighting out of my element and this operative was clearly used to fighting while airborne. They were a quick learner and undoubtedly would recognize that my invisible arm could be destroyed, leaving me vulnerable. It wouldn’t take long for them to exploit that weakness.
To stay alive, I needed to play to my strengths. Clemency’s Adaptation had one immense upside: its range of power to pull from. If I wanted to keep my head, I needed to change my approach.
I dispersed the Fear from my left hand, doing away with the icicles and blasts of cold that it had bought me. While it had done wonders fighting the Ellayan’s initially, it wasn’t well tailored to a single opponent, not one so nimble anyways. Reaching into that well of energy I had borrowed, I closed my eyes and welcomed the tumult and emotional energy around me. There was an abundance of fear, rage, and plenty of terror. Those were all things that the operative was sure to know about. Zellig and his troupe had done their homework, they knew what we could do.
What I had learned borrowing Clemency’s power repeatedly was that there was more nuance and depth to it than most would ever know. There were so many emotional energies that he never tapped into, keeping them veiled. Back on Tso’got, we always needed secrets and trump cards to pull out should the situation call for it.
I grabbed one of those unusual emotions, welcoming the rush of power that came with Devotion.
Strength flowed through me as the dedication and righteous fervor of this emotion emboldened me and reinforced me. For Clemency, devotion was a defensive emotion to tap into. It provided a shield for both body and mind. For me, it was twisted into a bolster for my physical body. My broken ribs mended as my dedication to our cause swelled within my chest. I pressed my feet against the floor, launching myself into the air, graced with newfound speed that came from my selection.
The aerial specialist had gone back to their primary objective of harassing Eldritch, causing strife as Trillodan officers continued to rally the Ellayans and try to repel Clemency and the others who were doing their best to push back to the militia for fear of Eldritch getting access to more food while unstable. I was glad that Clemency and the other Adapted with him in the advance guard were doing such a good job keeping the rest of the forces at bay; it meant that this pesky operative didn’t have additional support to agitate and pester Eldritch. We were balancing on a knife’s edge, and there was almost no one out here able to do much about this frustrating Trillodan who refused to be put down. That one individual was going to be the cause of so many deaths if they were allowed to succeed, and I was the only one in a position to stop him.
I owed too much to Psycho, to Bargain, to Titan even, to let him triumph and throw Eldritch back into a state of primal hunger and desperation.
The Trillodan saw me well before I caught up, like they knew I wasn’t done with the fight and had been expecting my return. As soon as I started to close the distance they pulled away, avoiding another huge swipe from the monster.
I hoped Eldritch could feel my resolve, appreciate my determination to see him through this mess. We Lunatics had invaded his life before, been the reason that his parents had been caught up in the war against Beleth and his Surface Dwellers. In a way, we had been responsible for the first Feast Day.
The Trillodan’s pack had faded to purple, that red burst of energy gone, letting me catch up in a big hurry. They hadn’t accounted for my increased speed thanks to changing powers; they were still waiting for a volley of icicles to avoid and had been trying to predict my movements based on that. Before I could get close enough to add another gash to their armor, they dove lower, weaving in between a few abandoned buildings, goading me to give chase.
I opted to fly above, not oblivious to the yellow tint on the walls from the spray explosive they had left behind.
With me not chasing low, they slowed and planted their feet, turning up to use that high caliber gun built into their sleeve, the impact throwing me to the side. Even though I had used the Determination limb, the impact still numbed my right shoulder. I tumbled and let myself go incorporeal, drifting through into an abandoned house. While I couldn’t fly with much purpose in my ghostly state, I could float; I drifted back out in time to see them start to take flight again.
I raced after them, zig-zagging through the air, allowing myself to dig deep into that well of strength from devotion, exhausting myself, but also closing the gap in record time. They couldn’t track me well enough with the firearm and resorted to the aerosolized explosive; I endured the heat and concussion, plowing through the inferno without my determination arm acting as a shield. The limb instead stayed outstretched, reaching for my elusive opponent.
There was a gutteral exclamation of shock as I caught hold of their leg; the shock turned to agony as their knee was snapped and the armor around the limb started to crumple like an aluminum can. Yanking them closer, I let go of the leg and swiped for the midsection.
The only thing that kept that Trillodan from being cut in half was quick piloting and a hard burn off to the side. Still, a huge chunk of armor came free and dark blood was thrown into the wind as they spun out of control. I expected to see them fall to the ground but there was a distortion in the air around them and they vanished.
“Trillodan and their tricks,” I muttered reproachfully.
Taking flight again, I got a better look at the smoldering wreckage that was our battlefield. Three blocks in a radius around Eldritch had been burned to the ground thanks to Clemency and other pyrokinetics pushing the militia back. Even with their Trillodan masters cracking the whip, everyone was afraid to charge into a wall of flame. I assumed that the amphibious species also didn’t like being dried out by the extreme heat.
Most of the people who were responsible for our initial horde of monsters had exhausted themselves. I spotted a few creations that looked like they had been ripped from Menagerie’s journals, a couple of Stampede’s initial herd still persisted, and a few gigantic beetles were skittering around thanks to a Vuuldar local named Lucanidae.
The only person who was still producing any real quantity of extra troops to bolster our thin ranks was Psycho.
Droves and droves of neon colored nightmares were still spawning from a figure garbed in white. He had separated himself from the rest of the force, flanking around several blocks to the east. Someone had likely told everyone to steer clear of him; while emotional involvement made Psycho impossibly powerful, it made him unpredictably volatile. Even though he could make an army on his own, he was arguably as unstable as Eldritch. But, for now, we needed the numbers and Psycho was nowhere close to done. That well of his ran incredibly deep and the poor Ellayan’s were on the receiving end of his rage.
I got closer and could see Eldritch still grappling with himself. He swayed this way and that, mostly shifted back to a humanoid form, but it was clear that he wasn’t entirely collected. I hovered in front of his chest, knowing that Nick’s body was buried somewhere in there. “I got him, Nick,” I said with a weak smile. “It took me a while, I know, but he won’t be blasting you anymore.”
The swaying seemed to slow, like I was drawing his attention away from his personal battle for control.
“Believe it or not, we’re winning,” I said proudly. “Clemency and the others are buying time while you regroup. We’ve kept them pushed back for you. So, come on,” I encouraged. “You can do this.”
Eldritch stopped swaying, posturing up like a person finally. His skin was alive as a wave of black tendrils slithered into place, reinforcing his legs to hold his bulk as he took a massive step forward, heading back towards the Ellayan militia, with some clear purpose to his movement.
I dared to smile as I took flight to get ahead of him and zipped forward, hurrying to get Clemency and the others to get out of the way so Eldritch could take his fight back to the Trillodan and their unfortunate puppets.
As soon as I had made any distance, the world exploded. The concussive wave destroyed my equilibrium and sent me careening down onto a rooftop; my momentum carried me straight through the roof and down to the floor. I was lucky and landed on my shoulder, but a sickening crunch of bone still greeted my ears, even with the devotion bolstering my physique.
Eldritch roared, cutting through the ringing in my ears. It was that same pained, primal cry of a wounded animal again.
“No, no, no!” I muttered, clenching my first in pained frustration. “Not again!”
The three blocks of area that we had cleared, the space we had bought from both the Ellayan’s and our own troops had all been rigged to blow. The ground glowed blue and red, the air still tinged with energy as a whole minefield of alien explosives had been detonated all at once.
A third of Eldritch’s mass had been demolished, and he had fallen onto all fours, losing the war within himself.
I swore at myself as I tried to catch my balance and fly. The operative hadn’t been there to push Eldritch into losing control, he’d been there to stall and keep him struggling. That bastard with the jetpack had been there solely to delay so everyone could get clear of the impending blast zone. It meant that Zellig didn’t lose any more of his precious samples and that he didn’t burn up his own soldiers or his cannon fodder.
All the time I spent trying to fight for Eldritch had meant nothing.
“Eldritch!” I screamed as I finally caught my balance enough to fly again. “You are in control, not the monster! You just-”
I was interrupted by a haughty and booming voice echoing over what had to be the entire city. “You all thought it was a good idea to throw this thing at me? You thought this pathetic creature could undo the might of the Trillodan military? This is what Titan’s plan gets you; a sacred boy who can’t even fight back.”
It was Zellig, broadcasting to everyone, a reminder that we were all within his expansive reach. The problem was that it was driving Eldritch mad.
“You rely on a wild animal to fight for you. You rely on a group of three, your ‘Prime Trio,’ who are too cowardly to come and face me and my troops. Instead, you toil and slave away for your masters who are too busy hiding away. You hope that Titan’s little plans are good enough. You follow blindly, hoping that he’s been told the right things, that he’s making the right decisions. It’s because of him that you’re going to experience a second Feast Day!”
I felt the wind fall out of my sails as I watched Eldritch rear back and roar, enraged. The Adapted we had found on Vuuldar were going to experience the dread and panic that Feast Day entailed and those from Tso’got were going to relive it. And in a way, Zellig was right. His seeds of doubt and discord were going to easily find root among many of us.
“Eldritch, I know you can hear me,” Zellig called out, “Do what you do best: eat.”
The massive form shifted, turning towards the war front where Clemency and so many others were fighting, trying to buy space and time.
As Eldritch took another lumbering step forward, I knew he was beyond reclaiming.
Despite my best efforts, despite everyone’s best efforts, we had made Eldritch a highly-evolved killing machine. He had redefined his biological structure to be resilient and destructive, a whole arsenal of mutations at his command. Eldritch developed more of those mutations as he was put under pressure, and Zellig had deliberately subjected him to intense pressure to refine and make him as deadly as possible.
And now, we needed to put him down.