“What the hell am I looking at here?” I asked, confused by the literal wall of reddish brown material.
Dragoon sighed and grabbed my hand, pressing it against the cold contents of the room.
Five-thousand and forty-one kilograms of material accessible.
I recoiled from the doorway, my jaw almost hitting the floor. “What the fuck? How the hell is that even possible? Where did you get five tonnes of meat?”
“Repository has been working overtime with the help of Powerhouse to get you a nice stockpile before we show up on Xalanni,” she replied, “You’re going to have a hell of a job to do, so I wanted you to start off with a good amount to fall back on.” That confident face of hers cracked for a moment, revealing the nervous Alexis behind the confident mask of Dragoon. “I want to make sure that you can’t get put down before you get out of hand for them.”
“I’m still not thrilled about being pointed in the direction of another army,” I grumbled as I eyed the room that was literally packed with animal protein, “I know that’s what my power does best and all, but that doesn’t mean I enjoy devouring hundreds of people.”
An involuntary shiver ran down my spine as I remembered the droves of people I consumed on Vuuldar only weeks ago. They were terrified, most of them screaming and floundering as I swept them up into the mass of biting and gnawing tendrils.
“I know, and I’m sorry that I have to ask it of you.” She sighed and let her head fall, another sign of the stress taking its toll on her. Alexis wouldn’t say it, but being put in the position of leadership was eating away at her. She wanted to spend more time with her group, with the Sentries, but there were so many other people she needed to check in with. Without our lynchpin we had been scattered and she was clearly dealing with some guilt.
At least Parasite wasn’t nearly as closed off now, though he was still a bit avoidant towards me. Whether it was because I reminded him of trauma or because he just enjoyed being around Ragdoll, I couldn’t tell. I sincerely hoped that it was the latter for his sake.
“Whatever it takes,” I said softly, reaching my hand back to the immense stockpile of meat. Letting a slow breath escape, I gave the go-ahead to Eldritch to consume it. In a few seconds, the meat simply faded from existence, placed into my private stockpile. I closed my eyes and looked inward, amazed at the literal mountain of protein that Repository had conjured for me.
It will give us a hundred tonnes for an hour or two-hundred for fifteen minutes.
I gulped, the number being announced to me making it feel all too real. At my peak of power during Feast Day, I had been about two-hundred tonnes. I had battled back Forest and Titan, holding my own against a pair of natural disasters that came in human form.
And that was where Dragoon was going to have me start.
It won’t be like back then. I won’t try to wrest away control again. We are much stronger together than we are apart.
“You’d better not be bullshitting me,” I whispered back to Eldritch.
Alexis gave me a curious glance, “It has an opinion?”
“It detected my anxiety about being so massive,” I confessed, “It assured me that it’s learning that we’re more dangerous when we work in tandem as opposed to alone. Your insistence that we train so much has managed to take some of the dangerous animal out of my Neklim half.”
“I guess it’s fitting we finally get it a bit domesticated before our last real fight,” she said with a sigh. “You’re going to be okay with this?”
“You’re sending Adamant with me. I know he’ll make sure I get to full size without too much issue. I’m more worried for you guys honestly. That building looks like something out of a horror movie, and I can’t imagine exactly what the fuck they have living in there.”
“We’ll have enough firepower to flatten a damn city. Though, I wish that Psycho was in a different form today,” Dragoon confessed, “We’ll have plenty of muscle to see it through. As much utility as his Bipolar state gives him it doesn’t have the same kind of punch through as Narcissism or Schizophrenia.”
At the mention of Psycho’s schizophrenia, Eldritch writhed around, vividly remembering the flood of phantasms that swarmed us on Vuuldar.
“Bipolar isn’t likely to turn on you at least,” I said, trying to offer some kind of optimism.
There was a tense pause, neither of us quite knowing what to say. Instead of saying anything, I reached a hand out and squeezed her forearm gently. “We’re going to make it through this. Zellig is expecting us to go to Marn. We’re going to just show up on their doorstep and start breaking things. Relay is going to deliver people around the city to give the garrison soldiers even less time to respond. Everyone but me will be able to communicate with those little earpieces you made. And, after we demolish those pivotal spots in Selir, Interface uses that other function of the Crimson City and literally talks to the rest of the Trillodan on the planet and demands their surrender.”
“You make it sound simple.”
“I mean, it kind of is. Some of the best things in life are incredibly simple.”
“Titan’s plan was supposed to be simple too. Go to the other planets where humans lived in exile and recruit the Adapted. But then Zellig and the Trillodan showed up and introduced complications. As much as I hated his point, Shockwave was right. Zellig has always been four steps ahead of us. He outwitted Titan and knew how to get under Infinite’s skin. Who is to say he won’t have a counterplay in place for us this time?”
“He might,” I said, unwilling to lie to her, “But so what? He’d have a plan against us too on Marn. We aren’t soldiers, and you aren’t a general who has been doing this for literal centuries. He is. We’re the rebels, the upstarts. The best thing we can do is struggle and fight back. We have to hope that our hellbent tenacity is better than his cold, cutting ability.”
“Not exactly reassuring.”
“You just fed me a stockpile of meat because you want me to turn into a biological superweapon so an alien army can’t put me down. Let’s be honest: we’re desperate.”
My friend let out a chuckle and nodded, “Fair point.”
A soft pair of steps crept up the hall towards us, bringing a smile to my face. “Murphy!”
He offered a weak grin, his usual impish demeanor still muted behind that wall of trauma. “I figured I should come see you two before everything starts to get to hell. Crazy to think a few months ago we weren’t even a Reckoner group,” he said wistfully, as if remembering a simpler time would wash away the pain of the present.
“Yeah, that was better,” Alexis said, laughing, “Watching Siphon nearly beat you to death was just the best.”
“And nearly being smothered to death by Kudzu,” he said with a shudder.
“Don’t forget being blasted across a street by Shockwave,” I added. “You’re right, Murphy, fighting gangsters with super-powers was definitely a better chapter.”
Finally that impish smirk reappeared as he leaned forward to hit me in the shoulder. “Maybe we’ll get to do it again. I think it’d be nice to go back to Tso’got after this, go back to something a little more normal.”
While that sounded like a great dream for him, Alexis and I both hesitated to answer. “Back on Tso’got, I’m the most hated criminal alive,” I reminded him. “Someone leaked my identity after Feast Day. I’m not sure what happens if I go back.”
“Oh,” Murphy said, his grin fading. “Right.”
“I’m not even sure I want to go back to Tso’got,” I admitted, the words tumbling out of my mouth. “All that place is now is where my parents died and where my life exploded in a single night.”
“You have your girlfriend though,” Alexis whispered.
“With any luck, Xana’s moved on,” I said. “I don’t think I’m the guy she started dating, and I don’t want to burden her by making her fraternize with the biggest murderer in Ciel’s history.”
It felt weird to say out loud, but it was the truth. Nicholas Weld had been branded an enemy of the government after Feast Day. The last thing that our home city needed was for me to come back, to terrorize more people. The last thing Xana deserved was to be guilty by association and ostracized for my sake.
We aren’t the same as we were then. I was a mindless animal a few months ago, bent only by your will. Now we are one entity, one organism.
As comforting as Eldritch’s input was, I knew that the Zari back on Tso’got wouldn’t be so receptive.
“We should think about what the fuck we do after this once we make it out of today,” I said, trying to put on a smile. “First things first, we topple the most dominant empire in all of history!” I looked at my two childhood friends, taking a shaky breath, “No matter what happens after this, I want to know that you two are going to make it out of this with me.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” Alexis affirmed.
“I finally have a boyfriend,” Murphy laughed, “I can’t die now.”
The three of us stepped in for a group hug, taking a moment of stillness and solace before the storm we were about to walk into.
“Alright,” Alexis said, her friendly demeanor quickly replaced by the stern voice and commanding presence of our leader, “Murphy, let’s get suited up. It’s showtime.”
There were ninety-four Adapted who were combat ready and another fourteen who were going to be staying back as a support. Most of those were Cognates or people with more utilitarian gifts, like Repository or Organelle. Even so, they had been equipped with a rifle that had been quickly assembled by Multi-task, our self-duplicating workhorse who had been one of the many hands to help Dragoon’s plans become a reality.
Dragoon’s plan was to have Infinite land us on the surface and blitz a small area that would become our rally point with Relay serving as our main source of quick relocation. He had borrowed a gift of Visualization from Powerhouse; with the extra power, he could bind himself to each location and quickly transport groups of people with no trouble.
Titan had employed a strategy like this on Tso’got, using Relay to get all of his Family members around quickly to disrupt Suppression and Snatchers regularly. Even though Dragoon was a better wartime commander, she was smart enough to recognize how well Titan had utilized some of the tools at his disposal.
Even if Zellig was always ahead of us, the other Trillodan weren’t so well prepared. Even if he could warn them exactly where we would be going, Zellig couldn’t predict when we’d arrive or how quickly we could get into position. With us literally warping around the city, the Trillodan military would be on the backfoot, at least for a little while.
“You ready,” a familiar voice said, pulling me out of my thoughts. My premier bodyguard for the first chunk of the invasion, Adamant. Even though Vuuldar had gone to shit, Adamant had been key in providing me protection while I grew and amassed mutations. Not one to break up a good pairing, Dragoon had put him with me for the first leg of our siege.
“As ready as I’ll ever be,” I said, offering a weak smile.
Six other people closed around us, all of them looking to me: Guardian, Razorwire, Distortion, Playlist, Exchange, and Maul all here to protect me. Most of them I had seen or worked with. The only exception to that was Maul. Another one of Titan’s shadowy group on Tso’got, he was an Enhancer who pushed himself into a berserker rage that adjusted his physiology. Sometimes he would don an exoskeleton, other times he’d turn into a werewolf basically.
The only commonality was its distinctly primal nature.
“We’re going to make sure you’re set up and kicking ass, and then we’ll fall back to help other groups around,” Guardian said politely, “Once you don’t need the protection, I’m going to hang back with Relay and the Cognates to make sure nothing untoward happens to them.”
“Y-yeah,” I said, nerves starting to get the better of me.
“Hey,” Playlist said, patting me on the back, “You’ve got us watching your back. You’ll be just fine!” I noticed a faint little green aura around his skin and felt my anxiety starting to subside.
I mouthed a silent ‘thank you’ to Playlist as he used his gift to lower the stress of the whole room.
One last pair entered the galley and all eyes turned to see Dragoon in her finished suit alongside Infinite. Infinite had purportedly never had a proper costume and had opted for something in Tso’got’s muted color scheme. While most of the people from Vuuldar had bright tunics and patterned garments, people from Tso’got opted for simplicity and grey or black. A few notable exceptions were Clemency with his cobalt armor or Shockwave with his scarlet suit and gold mask.
Infinite though opted for an oversized black leather coat that looked very much like something Titan would have worn. Her red hair flowed free but her face was covered by a white mask that had a blue fractal etched across.
“You ready?” Dragoon asked.
Infinite nodded. “Two quick jumps and we’re going to find ourselves right in the middle of Selir. After that, you’re all on your own,” she said, her voice a bit coarse.
“Anyone got any issues with that?” Dragoon called to the whole mass of people gathered. “Any last minute reservations?”
“Fuck no!” Shockwave bellowed, a manic grin creeping out from the bottom of his gilded mask. “We’re fucking Adapted! What do we do?”
“Fight!” the whole room roared in reply.
With everyone’s blood pumping, Dragoon gave a nod to Infinite. The Altered raised a hand, and a moment later the entire room had that dizzying sensation that came from being ripped through space. A split second later, we were subject to it again. Immediately after the second jump, there was a heinous grinding sound as the ship crashed, the remaining inertia dragging us along a street. Most of us staggered and toppled over, finding our feet as quick as we could.
Through it all, Infinite stood firm. Once the ship had come to a halt, she pointed at Interface and the two of them disappeared.
Our most powerful player had her own mission, and it meant we couldn’t rely on her to bail us out. There was no more safety net of the Prime Trio; we were on our own.
“Relay!” Dragoon shouted, her voice magnified by her armor, “Get people out!”
In a blur of action, the teleporter started dispersing swaths of people from the ship, relocating them to their point of conflict. We were high on the list, with me and my seven bodyguards being warped off the ship and into the middle of a street that stared straight at a massive barracks made of reinforced steel and coated in panes of reflective glass. All around us were massive structures of ornate metal work with equally complicated and decorative glass to emphasize uniqueness.
The only places I had seen pictures of that looked so esteemed or well decorated were cathedrals back on Earth.
We can marvel later. We have a job to do.
I reached into my stockpile, seizing hold of the immense volume that Repository had gifted me and lit it all ablaze.
Eldritch began to grow as guided by my directive of creating a hundred tonnes of growth that would last an hour. Even though we had plenty of material, the starting process was slow and when I was most vulnerable.
“Company,” Maul said, pointing at the massive garrison. Sure enough, droves of soldiers were frantically sprinting out and the building itself was coming to life with turrets appearing from the walls and with glass sliding away to make room for tanks and other ships to quickly mobilize.
Guardian stepped beside me and raised a hand, creating a barrier around the two of us while I continued to gain size. “Adamant, Playlist, we need to drive them back for a little, give them something else to worry about!”
Adamant smirked, nodding to Exchange, “Do what you do best.”
The blonde haired kid touched a piece of paper and little threads of gold connected to it, lingering for just a moment. Planting his foot, more threads of gold spread out across the ground and then faded. With his power set, Exchange charged forward, each step launching him several meters, as if he weighed nothing.
The scrambling Trillodan response team tried to fire on him but had issues hitting someone so mobile. As soon as he got close, bodies started flying all over the place as he ran interference, causing as much chaos as possible, constantly bouncing between targets and literally throwing his weight around. Maul snarled as he transformed, his dark green flak jacket suddenly strained as he swelled with muscle. His face narrowed as his jaw set into a grotesque snout. Giving a primal roar, he charged forward on all fours with alarming speed. Several Trillodan lasers peppered him on his approach, but he continued the charge.
“Don’t you worry,” Adamant said softly, “I’m going to make sure you get to at least forty-tonnes.”
I could feel the buzz of energy in the air around Adamant as he made the contract with me, our circumstances now entwined. As more countermeasures started to whir to life, I continued to grow in the safety of Guardian’s barrier.
“Playlist, get ready,” Guardian said.
“Distortion,” Adamant snapped, “Get him close.”
Playlist put on his headphones and a purple glow surrounded him as he called on his most devastating gift. The air shimmered around him as Distortion warped him closer to the fight. One of the Trillodan tanks turned towards us down the road, but Playlist raised his hand and turned half of the metal into shrapnel.
Adamant whistled, “Never gets old seeing that shit,” he said with a laugh. “His ‘Power’ songs are a hell of a fucking thing.”
“No kidding,” I muttered, my voice now a raspy hiss. Nearly five-tonnes of mass were grown, leaving me standing at about nine feet tall, nearly reaching the top of Guardian’s safe zone. “Guardian, you’re going to have to let me out. The best thing for me to mutate is to get into a fight. I need the conflict.” I could feel Eldritch bristling, the smell of blood and metal making him itch for the fight.
We need to hunt to evolve.
I didn’t bother to let Guardian know about Eldritch’s affirmation.
“Adamant, you got him?”
“He’s still my charge for another 35 tonnes,” he said, “Let us out. We’ve got an army to ruin.”
Guardian nodded and opened a hole in the barrier, letting the two of us charge forward into the melee that was going on. Most of the turrets and defenses on the building were fixated on Playlist, but they might as well have been using water guns. While he had a Power song playing, he was damn near unkillable. The only downside was that he was forced to walk forward, unable to act with any sense of real urgency.
However, as I lumbered forward, many changed targets and started opening up on me. A salvo of missiles and laser bored into me, immediately shaving away nearly a full tonne of growth in a matter of seconds.
I felt all the remaining tendrils react to the violence, immediately toughening and becoming resistant to the elements and physical trauma. Invigorated, I shouldered down and kept charging forward, still losing material as fast as I could grow it.
Up on that ledge!
A massive laser turret was bearing down on us and still punching holes through the layers of growth despite the mutation.
“Adamant, the turret!”
He smiled, as if glad to have purpose as he charged forward. With it turned on me, it might as well have had a target painted on it. A few Trillodan tried to stop Adamant and were smacked out of his way; his gift would not be stopped by such trifling people like these footsoldiers. Planting his feet, he launched himself and scaled the side of the building like a human spider. Once he was close enough, he threw himself onto the platform and pushed his hand against the turret, crumpling the controls like a tin can.
With one threat down, Adamant turned to the next which was a pair of tanks that had been forced to drive around Playlist. They attempted to turn on me, but Adamant landed on one, ripping the door free and dispatching the driver. Running to the next, he shouldered it and rolled the damned thing over.
Around the fringes of the building, more soldiers were amassing, trying to construct additional battlements and defensive countermeasures to put us down; many of the engineers found themselves being yanked away by nearly imperceptible thread as Razorwire stuck to the shadows.
I fought forward, each step met with barrage after barrage of munition and laser fire. I was growing as fast as they were ripping me apart, but Eldritch had to shorten the lifespan of our growth by half to meet the immediate demand.
Spots of calcification blossomed on the exterior of the Neklim, turning into a layer of bone armor that substantially tempered the damage I was sustaining. Shambling forward, I gave more control over to Eldritch who was more familiar with the bestial movements. Tendrils found purchase in the road, letting us gallop forward and finally join the fray.
Playlist stepped aside as we chased down a group of soldiers who wouldn’t push us back fast enough. Their armor cracked under my grasp and I stripped them of flesh in a matter of seconds, adding to my grotesque stockpile.
The armor on our outer layer cracked and allowed for me to whip my arm forward, the tendrils stretching to give me extra reach and sweep up a few more unlucky Trillodan. With the change in reach we were finally managing to outgrow the damage they were dishing out, I had become the primary target for the Trillodan garrison.
But I noticed it wasn’t without cost. Both Maul and Exchange had taken some serious damage and been pulled back to Guardian thanks to Distortion. Off the side, the little ambushes from Razorwire had stopped and Playlist had to retreat with his song running out; now he was by guardian glowing red, inducing anxiety among the ranks of the Trillodan. While it was helpful, it meant I was the only threat. My only remaining companion was Adamant who was actually growing in strength the more the Trillodan opposed his goal of protecting me.
More and more soldiers armed to the teeth began to take positions, skirting around the edge of the building and setting up barricades. To my surprise, several buildings were blown to bits; with an easier sightline, it meant that more munitions could be thrown my way. And as more soldiers joined the fray, more advanced weaponry came alongside it. Green vials of acid doused me and electrical charges bored into my growths to try and paralyze my limbs.
I had made it to fifteen tonnes but I started to falter, even with Adamant doing his best to destroy some of the bigger weapons they kept mounting to put me down. Biological mutations simply weren’t keeping up.
Eldritch roared as he tried to approach one of the mounted barricades, lashing an arm forward and being repelled by an invisible wall. Towards the back of their lines, a generator was creating a forcefield to keep us back.
A selectively permeable wall?
I wasn’t sure what to tell Eldritch as I slammed my arm into it again, unable to bash through. Another salvo of rockets delivered a toxic payload that started to bore through my armor and the flesh beneath.
Feeling a rush of strength, I raged against the Trillodan force field, actually stressing the field enough that my arm started to push through.
As soon as I started to make progress, a massive explosion ripped one of my legs off completely. I faltered and part of my arm was severed thanks to the force field acting like a pair of scissors. The growths started to shift to make me mobile again, but the Trillodan smelled blood. Down the road, a massive cannon had been erected and I saw it lining up another shot.
“Adamant!” I roared, pointing an arm towards the weapon. He saw it as another round tore into my side, the explosive payload ripping away a full tonne of mass. From fifteen to eleven in a matter of twenty seconds, even with an extra mutation.
I willed myself to get up, to fight, to keep growing. But the Trillodan seemed endless as more and more soldiers warped in, answering the distress call from this installation. Even Adamant was starting to tire; as powerful as his gift made him, he had his own limitations. He couldn’t shrug off damage indefinitely or keep smashing tanks forever. Once he tired, I was on my own.
And I was nowhere near equipped to fight this army. These weren’t the disorganized and frightened Ellayans on Vuuldar. This was the most dangerous military force ever known. Eldritch was starting to feel the weight too; this was far beyond what we knew how to withstand, far beyond something we were equipped to fight. It knew that they were the superior predator. We were so out of out league, this was a fight that all of Eldritch’s instinct demanded we run from.
Forgetting the pain I was suffering for a moment, I screamed at Eldritch to get up, to fight. If we fell here, we died. Our friends died. And the Trillodan make themselves immortal with our gifts. There was nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. We only had one option.
“Get up, Eldritch! Get up and fight!”
As I screamed at the monster to rise, to fight the crippling sense of defeat that was weighing us down, I felt something snap.
A well of energy started to fill inside me, fed by every laser and explosive that the Trillodan blasted me with. I tried to hold off as long as possible, letting them chew me down to eight tonnes before seizing that energy, unsure of exactly what would happen.
The moment I tapped into it, Eldritch cried out in rage. An unnatural roar shook the city around me, shattering glass and dropping many of the Trillodan soldiers to their knees. We lunged forward, the energy from our new Retaliation gift shattering the forcefield like glass.
Funneling energy into a hand, we flung globules of mass that were filled with Retaliation; as they landed, they exploded and sent chunks of gore and viscera flying amongst the Trillodan ranks. Rampaging forward, I devoured the bodies before me and shifted more control to Eldritch, allowing the monster to run wild with his new Adaptation. The predator roared again and grabbed soldiers by the fistful since they no longer had a wall to hide behind.
We became a whirlwind of activity as we charged through the ranks of Trillodan, responding to their explosive salvo’s with our own. As we obtained more size, we made our own troops to battle back against their ranks. Hundred-kilogram Neklim soldiers fought tooth and nail, all of them rigged to blow if they started to falter. For each soldier I consumed, I could make a dozen more of my own.
I pointed out threats to the voracious predator and Eldritch responded appropriately. With the division of labor, we continued to grow and thrash our way through the ranks of the garrison, even after Adamant saluted us and left with Guardian and the others. It had likely cost us four of our own, but the warmachine who was responsible for Feast Day had finally arrived and wasn’t about to be stopped.
Since I hadn’t been drilled by an orbital cannon yet, I said a silent thank you to Infinite who was already up there, undoubtedly causing hell. Without that massive deterrent, I could hold up my end of the plan that Dragoon had laid out.
Alright Drag, the rest is up to you.