We were winning.
It felt so strange to say, to even have that aberrant thought that we could actually get an edge against the Trillodan, but so far everything was going off without a hitch.
While it had cost me several people to get Eldritch up to speed, he was now an unstoppable beast who was holding back the majority of the garrison forces. The constant sound of explosions and bestial cries echoing across the city was evidence enough of that. And since the sky hadn’t lit up red due to an orbital strike, it seemed clear that Infinite and Interface had managed to secure the Crimson City.
With no threat from above, the Trillodan were handicapped to deal with Eldritch. It had given us free reign to assault the Arms Discovery building.
But still something felt…wrong. I knew that the Trillodan were a diminished race. Despite all their amazing architecture and construction, the place felt so lifeless. Soldiers were creeping in from all angles but there was something else that was absent. As I watched dozens of Adapted and a horde of Projector or Druid generated monsters lay siege to the ziggurat that housed all of Vaneel’s monstrous creations, it finally dawned on me what it was.
“Selir should have normal people. Someone should be running away from us,” I muttered softly. While there had been an immediate military response, there hadn’t been any kind of civil one.
I turned on the thermal attachment to my visor, looking through the gilded structures, trying to figure out where the fuck everyone else was. Had Zellig warned the Immortal Matron about this being a possibility? She might have equipped every house with a displacement charge to ferry all of her citizens to safety.
“Everything okay?” Multi-task inquired. She and I were both standing a safe distance away from Arms Discovery, watching and waiting for any kind of call for backup. Several other group leaders were taking point on the charge and directing their strike teams as they saw fit. If there was a call for backup, then I would intervene and seize control.
But people like Shockwave, Beleth, Siege, Hydra, they were reliable. They’d get the job done.
“We should have encountered more people. If there were plans to evacuate rapidly, what other kinds of countermeasures does Zellig have waiting for us?” I asked.
She shrugged, “If he has tons of traps waiting for us, why hasn’t he sprung them? We can’t exactly get more invested than we are already. We have no escape plan right now since we haven’t secured a way to get into orbit and use that Crimson City.”
“He’d know I was going to use Eldritch. For better or worse, I have to,” I thought aloud, “but he let him grow. Why? He knows how hard he is to put down.”
“Maybe to make him unstable?” Multi-task offered.
“Maybe, but why not do it already? And even so, we’re nearly two kilometers away from him. If he destabilized Eldritch, his soldiers are closer than we are. He’d keep eating them.” The more I dwelled and had time to think about our situation, it wasn’t sitting right. This seemed too easy, too passive for Zellig. He was proactive, always three steps ahead. We were going to have to win through brute force, but he wouldn’t let me keep the scales tipped for long. “And where the fuck are his legionaries? Even if his regular soldiers aren’t armed to the teeth, that group of monsters are. They wouldn’t miss a fight like this.” I flexed my fingers, assuring myself that my suit was going to hold up when the time came. With any luck, I would never have to use it. With any luck, nothing was going to demand I enter the fray.
But if it came to it, I was more than ready. Toolkit and Armorsmith had made sure that this suit was going to be able to withstand a bomb going off in my face.
I adjusted the channel on my earpiece, calling back to our rendezvous point. “Organelle, how are things back there?”
“Other than Razorwire and Exchange getting mangled pretty badly, things are going fine. We haven’t had any real disturbance on our end.”
I frowned, “Nothing? Not even angry citizens running away? Nothing?”
She paused, “Yeah. Nothing. That is weird now that I think about it.”
My blood ran cold. Zellig could have guessed what locations we were going to attack, but there was no way he could surmise where I was going to establish a fallback point. An evacuation protocol had been put in place long before we arrived. Even though I had opted to change plans and come straight for the jugular, he had anticipated it.
Once again, he was steps ahead of me.
“But if he knew, why leave anything here?” I whispered, “Why leave anyone here to stop us or slow us down? Why leave your mutants here to fight us? Why not just rig the city to blow? Why let us come in and start thrashing things?”
“A fascinating question, Dragoon,” a low rumble of a voice said above me. I spun around as the massive grey figure landed beside me. Multi-task tried to turn and run; Zellig lunged forward and kicked her in the chest sending the tomboy tumbling in the street, her body going completely limp.
My shock was eclipsed by self-preservation as I opened the comm channel, “Zellig’s here! He’s-”
Before I could finish the sentence, he lunged forward and grabbed my arm. I tried to rip myself away, but it was like a vice around my forearm. With his free hand, he raised a vial of pearl-colored liquid and crushed it in his fingertips.
The world swam around me as my vision drew to a single needle point, my whole body feeling like it was being put through a trash compactor. Even though teleportation was seldom a comfortable experience, this was the most heinous and painful mode yet. As we materialized, I didn’t have time to recover; Zellig was already bearing down on me.
Parasite’s training and drilling was the only reason I managed to protect my face from the massive punch that lifted me off the ground and tossed me a full meter backwards. I groaned as I could already feel the bones in my forearms bruising. Despite my opponent, I diverted my attention to my surroundings, doing my best to equip myself with information, anything that could tell me where I had been taken or why.
I hadn’t been taken off world at least. I was still surrounded by ornate and decorative structures of glass and steel that screamed opulence. There were explosions and the sounds of battle in the distance letting me know that I was still somewhere in Selir.
Picking myself up, I stared across at the mountain of muscle who had abducted me. The only time I had fought with him, I hadn’t had my armor. The last time I had truly squared off against Zellig, he had taken Parasite with him as a prize. Given his confident grin and relaxed posture, he wasn’t in any hurry to finish a fight. For as rushed as his actions had been a moment ago, he suddenly seemed to have all the time in the world.
The last thing to do was play into his game. Zellig wanted me to fight him, to try and brawl with him.
Instead, I turned and ran.
“Oh, don’t do that,” he said, laughing.
My suit whirred to life as my empowered strides carried me down the street, back towards the sounds of combat. “Almanac,” I shouted, “I need you to tell me where I am! Relay, get me out! Someone!”
I turned another corner and continued to hurtle forward, pushing my suit to its maximum, knowing that I wasn’t going to win a fight against Zellig. My new suit might utilize some Trillodan technology but Zellig was the product of decades of work by someone way smarter than me.
And a glance over my shoulder told me that I wasn’t going to outrun him either. The gray-skinned giant was charging at me like a freight train.
“Fuck you,” I snarled, pivoting around and grabbing the railgun off my hip. My suit slammed a metal sphere into the chamber as I drew my firearm; as the metal screamed and fired, Zellig tossed himself to the side and rolled back up to his feet, casually anticipating my movement like it was something he’d done a thousand times before. I tried to load a second round into the chamber, but he leapt forward, forcing me back. A second metal sphere entered the chamber and I squeezed the trigger.
Zellig’s hand smacked the barrel to the side as he moved his body out of the way.
I let go of my railgun; he was too close for that to ever see use now. The minigun built around my left wrist whirred to life as I took aim at his face; Zellig shot a hand forward and crushed the machinations with an alarming amount of precision.
“Fucking get off me!” I shrieked. My visor lit up as a blinding beam radiated outward, this one seeming to actually catch him by surprise. The tiny components of my suit shifted and sloughed off some of the excess to allow me to rip myself free of his grasp. Despite being blinded, Zellig stepped forward, his aim still spot on as I had to try and parry his unstoppable strikes. Another one of three struck against my shoulder and nearly dislocated the joint.
I envisioned a new formation for my suit, the neural mesh built into the helmet relaying the instruction. My sleeve shifted and drew to a massive point; I stabbed forward but Zellig attacked the metal itself, breaking the spike in half before it made contact. He snatched it out of the air and tried to turn it on me.
It dissolved back into tiny components before it could make contact.
My right glove flared to life as I charged it with fifty-thousand volts and removed any kind of amperage restriction from the taser. Diverting additional power, my suit whirred as the actuators drove my hand forward, pressing the voltaic glove against Zellig’s torso. The smell of burning flesh filled the air and I felt a small swell of pride, knowing I’d managed to do a little damage.
That was obliterated as a massive fist smashed my helmet.
Blood seeped from my temple as my helmet hastily tried to repair itself, to remove the jagged glass from my display that had lacerated my cheek and hairline. Dizzy, I pushed myself up onto all fours, staggering back to my feet.
I barely registered Zellig before his leg slammed into my side, launching me into the side of a building. The steel column held while my arm did not; my suit did its best to disperse the impact but my shoulder still popped out of socket with a sickening crunch. Fighting through the pain, I forced my arm back into socket and turned to try and fight.
A massive hand wrapped around my helmet, lifting me off the ground entirely. Doing my best not to panic, I directed my armor to adjust the gloves and give me claws; I tried to dig into Zellig’s wrist and sever the tendons.
He laughed and casually tossed me to the side. Before I could get back to my feet, his foot slammed into my torso, cracking ribs despite all my protection. I did my best to roll with the impact and got up to my knees, seizing a grenade from my belt. The Trillodan didn’t even blink as it detonated next to his face.
From the smoke, Zellig stepped forward, his burnt face already on the mend. Charred tissue seemed to dissolve and make way for an entirely new layer of skin right before my eyes. He didn’t bother to hide the smile; he could do this all day.
Raising my hand, I activated the pulse cannon in the glove; the blast of kinetic energy barely made the monster break stride. Zellig didn’t even bother to try and block or evade the attack.
“For all your prowess in leadership,” he said, “You are remarkably adept at avoiding direction confrontation.”
I raised my hands to block and cried out in pain as he attacked the arm I had just forced back into socket. My attempt to use the voltaic glove was met with a heatbutt, cracking my reforged display. I stumbled back and he pressed forward, his claws ripping my helmet clear off. Reforging my suit, I created a blade along my forearm and tried to carve into his throat but he easily avoided my clumsy attack.
Zellig stepped forward and unleashed a quick combo of strikes: I blocked one aimed for my head, but a fist found my ribs and a kick nearly shattered my knee. While I was off balanced, Zellig slammed a foot into my chest and sent me flying back.
Again Parasite’s training saved my life as muscle memory ducked my chin and wrapped my hands around my head; when I finally slammed back into the ground, it didn’t obliterate my skull due to the whiplash.
Groaning, I picked myself up as Zellig walked through the hole my body had made. My vision was starting to swim and I tried to blink blood out of my eyes as I picked my hands up, refusing to surrender.
For better or worse, I had put us on this collision course. We were going to fight to the last man, I was not going to be an exception.
“Fuck you,” I said, blood leaking from my mouth.
Zellig stepped forward, casually pushing aside what looked like a stone table as I kept backpedaling away from him. “Maybe I was wrong about you,” he confessed, “Maybe you don’t hide from a fight. Maybe,” he mused aloud, “Titan had the right idea keeping you pulled away from the real combat. This sort of arena just doesn’t suit you, despite your best efforts.”
“Eat shit,” I replied, doing my best to stay on my feet.
“You envy your compatriots, don’t you. That natural ability to fight. That affinity gifted to them to be such threats. Parasite’s agility and natural knack for violence. Eldritch and his endless hunger. What do you have compared to them? You’re a scared girl in a fucking tin can!”
“Shut up!” I screamed, haphazardly lurching forward.
Zellig stepped around me and drove a foot into the back of my knee, smashing my leg against the ground. I tried to cry out, but his fist smashed through the feeble reconstruction of my helmet and drove me straight to the floor.
I was dimly aware of him stepping around me and raising his leg.
My vision cleared and I screamed as a sudden pressure crushed my back. I tried to roll over and pull my legs up to kick Zellig away from me.
Despite my best effort, my legs didn’t respond.
“Wha-what did you do to me?” I asked, my voice shaking. “Wha-what did you do!”
“I shattered your L4 vertebrae,” Zellig said, his voice cool. “It’s now in about forty pieces. Even Organelle won’t be able to put that one back together I’m afraid.”
I propped myself on my elbows and tried to drag myself away. Zellig just shook his head and followed me, laughing to himself.
“Where are you going to go, little girl? You’re going to grab your railgun and try to punch a hole in me? Maybe hit my heart or my brain?”
I didn’t answer, instead rolling back over and ignoring the excruciating pain in my lower torso. My body wasn’t sure what to make of this, as if it could deny Zellig’s claim that he had just paralyzed my legs. I did my best to crawl forward, the strength from the suit letting me drag myself back through the hole we’d crashed through. I wasn’t too far from my railgun; if I could just grab it and get one shot off…
My hopes shattered as Zellig casually walked by me and kicked it further away.
“Why?” I finally asked, any trace of rebellion and defiance gone.
“You’re of little use to me dead,” he replied like it was so obvious.
“You can already copy us. What use is one more sample for Vaneel?”
Zellig clicked his tongue, “The problem, Dragoon, is that you think too small. You think that I am simply satisfied with copying you? You think that I am content with mimicking the Adapted? No. The Trillodan will perfect you lot. We will edit and tailor that little organism that Skaberen made.”
I fell onto my side, pain sapping what little strength I had in my arms. “So why single me out?”
“Believe it or not, you are the most threatening among the Adapted. Not Infinite, not Titan, you,” he confessed. “You represent unparalleled advancement. While you are only managing to create hackneyed versions of our technology, you have only been at it a few months. Who knows what you would look like in a few years or a few decades.” He knelt down, making sure I could see his voracious smile, “Imagine what someone with our longevity could do with your gift? Imagine the advancement that could come with entire cycles of advancement.”
“I… I’m just too early,” I realized, my heart plummeting.
“Exactly,” he affirmed, “You are a nascent threat. Given another year, you could challenge me or make something to do it on your behalf. If you were allowed proper resources and training, you could be creating advancement for the Trillodan within a year or two.” He clicked his tongue, “Such a shame that your friend Eldritch drew our attention too early. You never got to be the threat that you wanted to be.”
“So why keep me here,” I demanded, frustrated by his enjoyment. “Do you just want to insult me as I die from internal bleeding? Do you get your kicks from taunting a girl on death’s door?”
“No,” he replied, “I confess that I enjoyed, and was pleasantly surprised, by the fight you had in you. But, I don’t delight in making you suffer. Your brain has value to me, but you have additional value.” He rose and tilted his head to the side, like he was listening for something.
A realization sent a chill through my veins. “You’re using me as bait. People are going to have Almanac locate my armor and come chasing me down.”
“And, unfortunately for you, you seem to have been too inspiring a leader,” he replied. “Your fellows aren’t going to let you die. I can hear a few people already coming to your rescue.”
I curled my hand into a fist, silently screaming. “You took me somewhere you could jam the signal. I can’t tell them to let me die.”
“Their loyalty, while commendable, is going to prove lethal.”
“You’re still going to burn for this,” I insisted, curling my lip in a snarl.
“Because of Infinite and Interface above us?” he asked, his lip curling into a smug grin. “You think I would leave myself so vulnerable?”
“You can’t keep Infinite on the surface. She’s too dangerous, too unstable. Where better to put her than the one place where none of you are going to be fighting. Interface can hide while Infinite goes on a rampage to save her beloved Titan. And after that, it’s going to be on Interface to hold my planet hostage, the looming threat of Protocol 37 the symbolic guillotine blade waiting to crash down and behead the Trillodan empire.”
My heart sank as I listened to him lay out my entire plan; he’d known all along. I was three steps behind him, again. Still, just because he knew didn’t mean he could stop my plan.
“Interface was…a challenging complication I must confess. No one can stand in front of Infinite when she’s motivated; I’m not going to pretend that is possible. But, Interface tried to control my systems and I found a way to block them out. While not pleasant for our engineers to reverse engineer, we managed to apply the same safeguards into our core system for the Crimson City. All my lieutenants need to do is isolate Interface. Once that safeguard is prompted, the core will render itself inert and use the remaining energy to give a single burst from the thrusters to break orbit.”
“Infinite can just push the ship back into orbit,” I shot back. “Like you said, she’s not going to be stopped by anything.”
“Stopped? No. But she can only cycle her gifts so many times. I imagine my three lieutenants will do an excellent job forcing her to vary her arsenal. How easy do you think it’ll be for her to conjure another new set to stop the ship from falling then? Or, do you think she’ll crack and accidentally kill her comrades?”
Of course he hadn’t used an orbital cannon to destroy Eldritch; he was going to crash a whole ship on top of him. “That will destroy Selir,” I said, aghast. “You’d destroy your own capital to kill us?”
He clicked his tongue, “Still thinking small, Dragoon. Skaberen was smart enough to send you after some of our most influential buildings due to what they represent. The Eternal Council isn’t in session; destroying the building doesn’t dismantle our government. But when it has become a fixture for countless cycles, seeing it in ruins prompts change. By letting you all attack, I show that there is a threat capable of reaching out and touching the Trillodan.”
“And by destroying the capital, you pave the way for radical changes,” I realized, “You’re going to reshape your society to allow Adaptations to proliferate.”
“I will ensure that my empire survives,” he replied. “I may be branded a war criminal and taken apart, but I will guarantee that Vaneel and the Matron will have the foundation to make a society that is unshakable.”
I grit my teeth and pulled myself one step closer towards my discarded railgun, some part of me longing to keep fighting. “We’re not just samples.”
“You’re right. You are the building blocks for our revival.”
“You’re a fucking psychotic zealot.”
“And you are a child who thought she could bring the most formidable empire down to its knees. I’m well aware of what I am. I am the Immortal Matron’s bloody hands. I am the weapon that brings rivals to their knees. I am her extension to preserve law and order among the stars.” Zellig rose off his knees and rolled his neck, getting warmed up for another bout. “I have nothing but respect for you, Dragoon. Your tenacity, and the tenacity of all of you children is admirable. However, my admiration does not diminish my dedication.”
“Tyrants are senseless brigands who parade around and extort. We do not stoop to such petty antics. We ensure that no other species can access our level of technology and threaten other worlds. We ensure that fledgling planets have a chance to evolve, to not be destroyed before their time by materialistic despots. The Trillodan exist so that there can’t be a tyrant whose reach extends across galaxies.”
I fell onto my side, my vision wavering again, “Instead you became that tyrant. And you’ve all lived so long that you can’t see it.”
Zellig opened his mouth to reply and then twisted abruptly, a hunk of steel screaming by his head and crashing through a glass wall behind him. I grit my teeth and rolled over, my heart dropping as I saw who had come to save me.
“Murphy, no,” I pleaded softly, “No, just run. Just run, please.”
Zellig had almost the opposite reaction, bursting out with maniacal laughter. “Parasite! How fitting we have another meeting! And this time, no Adamant or Ragdoll to bail you out.”
My friend reached into his pocket and pulled out a metal cylinder; with a twist, the staff I had constructed telescoped out. “Drag, can you move?”
“She can’t,” Zellig answered for me, “I broke her spine.”
He glanced at me, his eyes widening as a sneer spread across his face. “You hurt my friend. I’m gonna-”
“Murphy, just leave me. Run,” I begged, doing my best to project and interrupt him, “He wants us to fight him so we stay in Selir. He’s going to crash the fucking Crimson City on top of it!”
“Wait, what?” he demanded, looking at me and then at Zellig for confirmation.
The confident smile from the Trillodan commander was all the confirmation that my friend needed. He turned to run but Zellig raised his hand, snapping his fingers.
A white dome of energy erected itself, quarantining off what had to be several square blocks inside a forcefield. “No one can hear you on those ear pieces,” Zellig said, relishing himself as he sauntered forward, “No one is going to make it through that force field since we buried the generators for it well underground. By the time you managed to find them, the city would be a crater.”
“You’re going to kill everyone.”
“Whoever my men and I can’t capture before the impact will die. But we have displacement charges to ferry us to safety. You lot are not so fortunate.”
“How many others followed you?” I asked.
“Not sure,” Parasite said, not taking his eyes off Zellig.
“Right now, there are a dozen Adapted and eight of my operatives inside this arena.” He stepped forward and stared straight at Parasite, “Now, Parasite, you and I have always had our fights interrupted. I think this time we won’t be so unlucky.”
“Run,” I pleaded. “Don’t be another sample for him. Don’t let him put you back in a tube,” I begged. But, as I looked into his eyes, I knew that my friend had made up his mind and nothing I could say would dissuade him.
Zellig had known that people would come for me, he had taken my ability to unify us under a common cause and twisted it into a weakness. This wasn’t even my cou anymore; Zellig had found a way to turn that on us as well.
Everything we did was playing into his hands perfectly.