I had been watching the whole time. I had seen the others struggle against Eldritch, doing their best to put him down. There were simply too many people in place for him to devour, too many stubborn or scared Ellayans there for him to gobble up. Four of the greatest contenders from Tso’got went up against Eldritch and were coming up empty, hard-pressed to stop this juggernaut we had made.
Psycho nearly turned the tide, showing exactly why that Altered maniac was so feared. I watched his endless horde rip away nearly a third of Eldritch before the beast ran to the coast where Mizu’s trap had awaited; it would have been a spectacular wash out if the Trillodan hadn’t frozen his tsunami.
With two powers allotted, I could actually see it hovering in the atmosphere, like some kind of massive bug just waiting off the side of the planet. I had considered telling Titan that I could shoot it down; the problem is it would have taken me at least ten powers to do it; at that point I was just as likely to blow up everyone around me as I was to shoot a ship out of the sky.
Titan kept me close to him, deliberately away from the conflict. He could have settled this whole affair without ever using Eldritch, without letting anyone else go out onto the battlefield. I could have snapped my fingers and obliterated the city. I could have waved my hands and turned this place into a sheet of glass.
What was uncertain was how much collateral damage I would cause. Titan didn’t want me spearheading anything because I became volatile and violent the more I used my Alteration.
But as I looked out on the city ravaged Eldritch, there was no way anyone was stopping him. He had gorged himself on the Ellayan militia and towered above the plain buildings, now nearly sixteen meters to the shoulder.
“Infinite,” Titan said over the earpiece, “You sure you can do this without Command?”
I drifted away from the ship, getting a little closer to observe Eldritch. “Trickiest part is to make sure I don’t kill him. Otherwise, nine powers. I can control that.”
Titan’s silence spoke volumes.
“I’ll be okay,” I insisted with a laugh. “I’ll let him get a little closer before I rip him apart so I can bring him right to the ship.”
“Let me know if you need anything,” he said at length.
I landed on a rooftop closing my eyes for a moment as I reached outside myself, acquiring a new power.
Even though he was a few kilometers away, my view of Eldritch was crystal clear, giving me a full view of all his gruesome details. The whole body was covered in nightmarish mouths that drooled acid or let off steam. Wood and metal had been woven into the growths, like a layer of spiked armor to repel any attackers. I saw Eldritch swipe an arm forward, grabbing the last few stragglers and incorporating them into his immense bulk.
And then, he headed towards me.
I closed my eyes, discarding my power of flight, grabbing a new pair of gifts.
“Big Picture,” I asked into my earpiece, “Give me your evaluation.”
In retrospect, I should have asked him if he minded me transmitting what I saw directly to his brain, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he was expecting this sort of thing.
“Blasting him apart is going to be challenging, even for you. He’s gotten to a point where standard weaponry won’t put him down thanks to how many mutations he’s developed. I’m willing to bet that orbital cannon wouldn’t do too much at this point.”
That actually caught me off guard. “So, how do I get rid of him?”
“You might be able to nuke the whole city and kill him, but you’ll kill Nick and us in the process. A more reasonable option would be to engineer some kind of power for the Neklim itself. Brute force is something he’ll be able to endure. Don’t play to his strength, play to yours. Be creative.”
I dismissed the Transmission and Link powers I had picked up. “Thanks for the insight.”
“Do let me know before you plan to hijack my eyes next time,” he muttered, letting annoyance slip through.
I wrung my hands, admittedly feeling guilty. “I’m sorry, Pic. It won’t happen again.”
Mulling over his advice, I tried to think of the best way to take apart a beast like Eldritch. My usual approach would be to try and blast him apart in the same manner that Shockwave might. I minded Big Picture though; that Cognate was going to know more than I could. At the root of it all, he was a massive Neklim, a huge hive of small organisms bound together.
All of them were anchored to Nick. Even though he could split the existing growths and let them run around on their own, the whole thing hinged on the kid in the middle.
“So how do I get you out without killing you?” I whispered, compulsively itching the back of my hand. Nerves were starting to get to me as I watched the monster trudge forward, kicking down buildings on accident. “I don’t want to kill you or anyone else,” I reminded myself, feeling that horrible presence in my mind rearing in anticipation. Every time I reached for power, I risked letting that thing slip out and have a few minutes of agency.
Alterations had a cost, usually at the expense of the wielder. Meeting the Lunatics and watching others Alter only affirmed that suspicion: Bargain’s power had been self-destructive, Spectre’s power cost her a cohesive identity, and Psycho was only strong when he was insane. The only one who hadn’t shown a downside to their power was Parasite, but I was sure something would crop up soon enough. I wasn’t sure if I was lucky or unlucky at the tax my power took: the more stress and strain I submitted myself too, the more I had to push back that dark voice in my head.
Whenever it slipped out, I let out that black mist, suffocating everything nearby.
I shuddered as I looked forward, Eldritch looking more and more disgusting as he got closer. Doing my best to steady myself, I reached into the limitless void I drew my powers from, equipping myself with a new set of tools:
Flight, Dismantle, Expedite, Magnify, Proliferate, Danger Sense, Quickness, Projection, Annihilation.
My knees buckled for a moment as I adjusted, my head throbbing as I pushed away that voice’s whispers. I felt phantasmal hands grab me, pull me back, but I shook them off. “They aren’t real. That happened a long time ago,” I said to myself on a loop.
Taking on a big dose of power was rough. It would be easier for the rest of the day once I was stable. But, right now, I had to pull myself out of the visions that came with too much power. I had to ignore the phantom sensations of the chains around my wrist, the burns on my back, the hands around my throat. I forgot how taxing it was without Command to help reduce the mental strain that came with this many gifts. While each gift was an exponential amount of growth, it made enduring the headache and mental stress that much worse.
“It isn’t real, it isn’t real, it isn’t real. I’m not on Tso’got anymore. I’m on Vuuldar now. It was a long time ago,” I whispered to myself, but I was slipping. I could hear the voices of those three, laughing, taunting me, and enjoying themselves at my expense. Tears started to roll down my cheeks as I clasped my hands to my head, feeling myself spiral out of control. I was just starting and already losing control. I was already failing everyone…
“Charlotte,” a calm voice said, cutting through the fog, pulling me back. “You can do this.”
Titan had no way of knowing that he probably saved everyone by anchoring me. “Thank you, Max,” I replied. I wiped my face and took a few deep breaths, the ghost of my past put away for now. I looked down at my hands as they were now brimming with energy specifically tailored for dismantling Eldritch. In a way, it was remarkable that he was the first thing to ever need a power custom made to put up with him.
Dismantle was a power I had only used twice before, both times to deconstruct something mechanical, but it would have the same effect since Neklim were composed of small parts. Magnification would provide a boost to all my active powers, Proliferation would spread the disconnection through parts of the greater system, and Expedite would accelerate any active gift I used. Once he started to fall apart with Dismantle, I would be able to use Annihilate to kill swaths of growths and keep him from reforming.
Ignoring the pounding headache my power brought with it, I shot myself forward, funneling power into my right hand as I got close enough to the beast. The closer I got the more horrific he became. Not just the appearance, but I hadn’t appreciated the smell of death and decay that came with him.
“One chance, Eldritch,” I shouted as I levitated thirty meters in front of him, “Let him out, or I rip you apart. Don’t make this tougher than it needs to be.”
All of the mouths opened, letting out a discordant chorus screaming, “No!”
It did not help my headache.
Enraged, I channeled the power to my fingertips and let out a ball of energy that collided with his front, left leg, dispersing itself among the growths. The monster tried to barrel forward, but lurched to the side. A confused roar went out as his limb fell apart, the communication and bond between his tentacles failing. Nothing stuck together, sending his hive mind into a panic as I poured power into my hand and fired another ball of energy into his other front leg.
I peppered his torso, adding more sites of collapse as Eldritch tried to simply force everything back into place, but it was costing him a cohesive form. The mighty hound-like form was quickly turning into an amoeba. Mouths sagged as Eldritch floundered, unable to conjure a mutation to counteract my power. Eldritch was able to withstand extreme trauma and mutate as a collective entity; it was a pity I didn’t allow it to remain a single being. Without the connection to its core, the disconnected tendrils were weak.
“Stop!” the Neklim screamed at me, only adding to my frustration. It was so loud, so frustrating, so problematic. It would just be better if this thing was gone. Then finally it might shut up.
I shifted power, putting the Dismantle on a backburner, now taking Annihilation. Red lines of power lit up across my skin, like a new circulatory system devoted to allocating raw, destructive energy. I sneered at the floundering monster as I unleashed a cone of desolation, cutting through the disorganized heap of material.
Without the cohesive structure and communication, Eldritch was weak. He couldn’t harden the cells to resist Annihilate. He tried to respond and throw explosive clumps of tendrils at me, or breathe fire, but it was all for naught. I had Expedite and Danger sense; everything that threatened me had plenty of forewarning. His actions were too telegraphed and simple. Even though Eldritch was intelligent, he was still just a monster.
All the time spent and problem with Eldritch, all this pain and death, all this destruction due to this simple monster. I worked with some truly weak people.
Ten minutes of Dismantle and Annihilate left Eldritch tiny. His gargantuan glory cut down to an eighth of what he had been. He had tried to run, but Flight and Expedite gave me more mobility than he could compete with. Eldritch had searched for other food, but the few stragglers he found I turned to dust with Annihilate. It was better I give them a mercy killing rather than let them fuel this monstrosity.
“Let’s try this again,” I growled at Eldritch as I landed, forcing him to put his back against a wall. “Let Nick out, or I rip him out.”
Eldritch was slow to respond but I was quick to hit him with another dose of Dismantle. The Neklim screamed as he came apart, pale flesh finally revealed beneath. The growths tried to pull back to their source, but I Annihilated them away, refusing to allow him to continue this lopsided fight any longer. I had made a power specific for him, he should at least take pride that he warranted such measures.
Nick’s eyes snapped open as he was finally free of the Neklim body, gasping for air as he seemed to come back online. Before I got a chance to say anything, my danger sense screamed at me.
That massive weapon they had used on Eldritch, they were going to use it on me.
I couldn’t grab Eldritch and fly away fast enough and Titan had told me to save Eldritch, not kill him. I couldn’t just leave him here to die, but my current power set wasn’t built to protect anyone but myself.
Rapidly ejecting every bit of power through my fingertips, I hastily cobbled together another set of gifts to protect us.
Barrier, Energy Dispersal, Energy Absorption, Toughness, Martyrdom, Regeneration.
A shield of blue energy went up the instant before we were bathed in the red laser. I felt a sympathetic tether reach out to Eldritch, my power of Martyrdom diverting all harm he endured to myself. My barrier held through the first half of the beam’s duration, then my other five powers had to tide me over.
I started to burn for both of us, my gift of Energy Dispersal trying to slough off the heat and pressure that was destroying my body. What I couldn’t shrug off, I tried to absorb; that did its best to feed into my Regeneration but it was having trouble keeping up with the sheer destructive power of the Trillodan weapon. My vision blurred as my eyes began to deteriorate, the world blurring as one of my senses gave out.
It felt like my blood was boiling as the beam finally stopped. Eldritch looked at himself, mouth wide open in confusion. “You, you saved me?”
“Of course I saved you, you fucking ass,” I hissed as my skin regrew and shed layers of burnt tissue. “If I wanted to kill you, I would have torched you earlier. Or I would have flown away and let you die due to that shit.”
To my shock, a reply didn’t come from Eldritch. “And we couldn’t have that, could we?”
I directed my Regeneration to fix my eyes next so I could confirm that voice belonged to the Trillodan commander himself. Sure enough, that massive grey bastard was strutting forward, lips curled into a smug smile. “You have a lot of spring in your step for someone who is supposed to be dead.”
Details became more clear as he bared some of his fangs. “Lucky for me, Adamant kills clean. Replacing a heart is simple. Vaneel has plenty of backups just for that sort of thing.”
I gritted my teeth, reaching into the well for another pair of powers:
In a flash, Eldritch vanished, his body ripped through space and dumped back at the ship. I couldn’t look after that little piece of shit while dealing with this pompous alien jackass at the same time. Still, having cycled through so many powers was wearing on me, and the throbbing behind my eyes was only getting more intense.
“Going to run?” Zellig asked, sounding strangely disappointed. “Going to go fleeing back to the man who let you come out here alone?”
I sneered, “Count your blessings, you fuck. I could snap my fingers and turn you to dust.”
Zellig laughed, “Oh, I’m sure. You are quite the specimen after all. It’s a pity that you allow a man like Titan to do all the thinking for you. You hang on his every word, every little prompt. You are governed by a coward who is afraid to let you truly show off.”
I knew I shouldn’t listen to him, I knew that Zellig was a practiced hand at this, and I knew that he’d say anything to drive a wedge between us. But, those whispers in my head, that insidious voice agreed. Titan governed me, like I was his tool to use, his little fix-it ticket. If my earpiece had survived the orbital cannon, I know he’d be telling me to retreat, to fall back, to avoid his trap.
He wouldn’t tell me to fight the big Trillodan fuck and put him in his place. He would fear for me even though I was the most powerful person alive.
“He doesn’t allow you to really strut your stuff, does he?” Zellig asked, almost consoling as he stepped closer. “He keeps you prisoner more than he protects you; but you don’t need protecting, do you?”
It was like he knew what I was thinking, and it made the throbbing in my head so much worse as it tried to rip out of my skull.
“How many powers did you use to kill Eldritch?” he asked, his voice betraying genuine interest. “I have only a vague idea of how your gift works from the memories we ripped from Parasite.”
“Nine,” I said.
“And how many powers would it take to beat me in a fight?”
“Six,” I replied, confident.
The Trillodan commander cracked his neck and stretched, getting ready for a fight. “Well, come on then. Prove it. Pick your six.”
A third full complement of powers without Command was extremely dangerous. That pounding headache, that insidious presence in the back of my head was getting almost too much to handle. I was going to snap soon if I kept this up.
But fuck this guy. Zellig wanted a fight and I was going to give him one. I ejected my current powers through my fingertips again and groaned as I reached back into the void, arming myself once again.
Might, Quickness, Prowess, Regeneration, Reflex, Tenacity.
“Atta girl,” he said with a laugh as he spread his arms, inviting me to take the first shot. “I can’t wait to see what you have-”
I cut him off, tired of his insipid banter. Might empowered my muscles, letting me close the gap between us in a single bound. Quickness made me a blur, but Zellig was still ready to block. He was quick to counter with a hook; I was quicker to duck under with Reflex being my guide through the fist fight. I planted my feet and drove a fist into his side, Prowess letting me mimic the finesse I had seen from the likes of Parasite and Ragdoll.
Even though he was dense, my blow sent him sliding back across the rough road. In a blur, I leapt after him, pressing the offense at a relentless pace.
Zellig blocked the first three strikes but wasn’t fast enough to avoid the fourth. Again he went sliding backwards though it didn’t seem to trouble him. Another exchange went the same, Reflex keeping me almost untouchable as I danced around him, slowly denting his dense anatomy.
“This is all you are going to do? I was really hoping six powers would provide more of a ‘wow’ factor,” he chided as I drove him back again. “I was really expecting something more novel!”
I growled as I landed another pair of hits into his torso, determined to wipe that smug grin off his face.
“Instead it seems the only noteworthy thing that you managed to do was slowly dismantle Eldritch! Here I offer you a chance to fight me properly and you are making a mess of things.”
My next hit found Zellig’s side, the force of my punch multiplied by my addition of a seventh power. Ribs cracked and the grey-skinned commander was launched into a pile of rubble. A cloud of dust kicked up and a moment later so did his manic laughter.
“That’s more like it!”
I heard the faintest electronic whir and Zellig came leaping back out of the dust cloud, a frenzied bloodlust on display for all to see as he pursued me, his fist nearly tearing my head clean off. I dashed around his next strike, trying to slip behind the commander; Zellig surprised me and spun around, slamming a leg into my chest and knocking me across the street.
As I tried to get up, he snapped his fingers.
The ground around me exploded, a wave of blue plasma washing over me and searing my flesh. My Regeneration kicked in immediately and my Tenacity helped mitigate the damage, but the pain was bad enough I barely noticed Zellig charge forward. A massive fist connected with my chin and sent me tumbling, my mouth filled with blood and shattered teeth.
Another snap of his fingers, and the ground exploded around me once again. This time strands of wire shot up, ensnaring my limbs and anchoring me to the ground as they sent an excruciating current across my skin. Tenacity barely kept me conscious through the voltage, but I couldn’t get myself to react in time for Zellig’s kick to my sternum. I was launched free of the snare, the wire degloving my feet and forearms.
That throbbing in my head threatened to spill out, to wash over everyone nearby.
“Not yet,” I muttered as I forced myself to ignore the pain. Ribs snapped back into place as I dodged the next blow from Zellig, buying time to allow my Regeneration to mend me.
As I backed away from his onslaught, he snapped his fingers again.
A piece of rebar shot out from a heap of rubble like it had been fired from a rifle. Before I could react, it tore a hole through me, from one side to the other. I gasped for air as my Regeneration tried to desperately fix my diaphragm and lungs that had just been ripped apart by the invasive piece of metal. Zellig didn’t slow down though, adding insult to injury by backhanding me to the ground.
“When we met the first time,” he said, stomping down and breaking my knee, “I saw that bit of instability in you. I saw your eyes narrow, that rage inside you when you turned on your gifts.” A quick movement and my other knee broke.
I tried to scream, but there was no air in my lungs.
“I knew that you were Titan’s ace in the hole, his unavoidable and indomitable weapon. Eldritch is scary, but you, you’re in a league of your own. But, you have a fatal flaw,” he said, grabbing around my throat, lifting me like I was nothing. “You, Infinite, are so mired in emotions. The cost of your power is control; the nice thing about a volatile person, is they are easy to provoke. Once I could make you angry,” he chuckled, “I could control you. All the power in the world, and look at you.”
As my lung and diaphragm were patched up, Zellig threw me down the street; another wave of plasma torched my skin and forced a silent scream out of my lips again.
“I just had to let you chase me. I let you believe you had the upper hand; sure, I was never going to win a fair fight against you,” he admitted, “But who said I played fair? Salah ensured that this place was littered with mines. All I had to do was bait you close to them. A single surge of battery power from me and I could ensure you were wounded enough not to follow up with that seventh power of yours. Honestly, a few more hits of that I was done for. However, you opted into a fistfight with me. No matter how good your gift makes you, there’s no training like experience.”
Zellig stomped down, shattering my ankles.
“The biggest moment of concern for me, really, was that you might have a moment of clarity. I saw that look in your eyes, the indecision. You wondered what Titan would tell you to do.”
“Shut up,” I gasped.
“You and I know he would have said to run, to avoid engaging with me. He knows I wouldn’t endanger myself like this, not without reason. All I had to do was nudge that bit of insecurity and you were putty. If you’d had the good sense to teleport away, this all would have been for naught.”
His words were like little daggers being jammed under my skin, each utterance another little drop of gasoline for the thing trying to break free. “But, you were after Eldritch. I got him away.”
Zellig barked out a laugh as he picked me up with what little remained of my hair. “I can control Eldritch. Getting him as well would have been an added bonus, no question. But no. Infinite, my dear, this was all for you. Titan was never going to let you be vulnerable, he was going to keep you close to the vest for good reason. All Eldritch was, was a means to an end. I needed something that would require you to be sent out. Once Eldritch was off a leash, I watched him work, knowing that if he wasn’t stopped, he’d be out of control. Titan thought that Mizu would be able to wash him away with a tsunami; of course I realized how absurd it was to fight with a hydro-kinetic near the ocean. I hadn’t overlooked that detail.”
I bared my teeth, throwing myself at him, forcing him to take a step backwards. “I’m not going to be a prisoner!” I screamed, my head threatening to burst.
“Say what you will,” he said with a shrug, “But you will serve the Trillodan Empire, Infinite. That I promise you.” He raised his hand to the heavens, snapping his fingers. In his other hand, he procured a white vial and crushed it. Zellig vanished right as the world began to glow red again.
Through my rage, fear broke through. Zellig had made a point to break my ankles and knees to keep me from running. All his actions were to limit my movement and leave me immobile for another blast.
My only choice was to add more powers, to put more pressure on my mind to preserve my body.
Power Absorption, Reservoir, Expedite.
The air energized and the beam came down a moment later. Energy Absorption again drank up as much power as it could, fueling my Regeneration. Still, even with Reservoir to hold much of the excess, it was too much. Regeneration fueled with Expedite was trying to replace skin and tissues as fast as they were being burned off of me and not quite keeping up.
All the while, my mind began to fracture.
For a moment, I was back on Tso’got. I was back in that basement, the chains were wrapped around my ankles again. I couldn’t see, I could only listen with dread as the door swung open, the squeal of the hinges giving it away. There were heavy footfalls and rough hands touching me, careless and indifferent to the tears on my cheeks.
And then I was back on Vuuldar, the orbital beam finally drawing to a close, but the damage had been done.
Too many powers, too many cycles, and no Command to mitigate. Taking on nine gifts without him had been ill-advised and I had taken on ten after two full resets. I could feel that presence creeping forward, unstoppable now. I felt the pressure in the front of my head as my eyes turned into a pair of black orbs; a blood curdling screech left my lips and black particles were ejected from my skin, bathing as far as I could see in a thin black mist that suffocated all who were unlucky enough to be nearby.
Pain overwhelmed my senses, my adrenaline fading as I rose to my feet.
I wasn’t sure how long I wandered, my whole body hijacked by that fragment of my mind. It didn’t speak as we wandered, my conscious mind only a passenger through the silent wasteland. Regeneration fixed most of my body, but there were plenty of burns that hadn’t been addressed that were sapping strength.
And finally, I was given control again. My eyes returned to normal, and all my powers faded, forcibly removed. Without my Tenacity, I collapsed again, my system shocked into submission.
“Titan,” I whispered as I started to cry, “Titan, I’m so sorry.”
I felt a slight sting in my shoulder, like someone had shot me with a pellet gun. Right after, I heard the march of power armor.
I rolled over in time to see three figures slowly bearing down on me. One clad in a suit that looked like gunmetal, one in sleek purple armor, and the last sporting a yellow suit that was loaded with munitions.
Fear closed my throat as they advanced, taking their time; they had shot me with one of those neural blocks. They were waiting to make sure I couldn’t acquire more powers and fight before getting too close.
All at once, my body went limp, the device finally in place around my spine.
I was supposed to be Titan’s ace in the hole, and I had just failed his whole cause.
And when my beloved Max had needed me most, I had failed.