All I felt was rage.
He’d taken something away from me, a part of me that I was never going to get back. Zellig had managed to corrupt the passenger in my body into something so hideous and ugly that I almost couldn’t stomach myself.
And now he had casually paralyzed my friend in such a definitive fashion that Organelle wasn’t going to be able to undo the damage.
Dragoon begged for me to run. I couldn’t. Not anymore.
This bastard couldn’t keep getting away with this. He had to pay.
I willed my passenger to come out, to overwhelm my body. In an instant, my skin seemed to turn itself inside out. The body I had worked so hard to keep in shape, to keep looking pristine, all gone. My price of strength was to forgo my charm, to do away with my clever and spunky demeanor.
Zellig had taken that away from me, made me as ugly as himself.
For all this ugliness I endured, it did come with a feeling of strength. There was nothing left in me to break. I was living on borrowed time; I should have died in that tube or from being thrown to the bottom of the Crimson City. The only positive that Zellig had bestowed upon me was removing any shackle of caution or concern.
An image of Ragdoll cut in and vanished as quickly as it appeared.
Nothing else mattered right now.
Rage turned into a kind of deathly calm as I twirled the staff in my fingertips; my old power used to have to work to let me manipulate an eight pound piece of metal like this. Now it was easy. I honed in on Zellig, controlling my heart rate as I stepped forward, muttering a soft apology to my friend and captain.
“You aren’t going to beat him,” she insisted, “Don’t go back into a tube, Murphy! Just, run!”
“He’s well beyond listening to you, Dragoon,” Zellig said with a grin. “I recognize that face of his. That, right there, that’s the face of a killer. He has one goal, one objective, one purpose. Isn’t that right?”
I didn’t answer, I just took a few more steps forward, getting closer to striking range and feeling a secondary gift unfurl in the back of my mind. Normally, Dragoon would be right insisting that I couldn’t beat him. No matter how strong this form made me, no matter how durable, Zellig was built to win a war of attrition. In an even exchange of blows, he would simply weather the storm better than I could. He could hit harder, withstand more trauma, and repair more damage than me.
But with the gift of Danger Sense granted to me by Powerhouse, he wouldn’t be landing any hits. It would take a long time to beat him to death, but as long as I played it smart, I had an edge that all his training wasn’t going to be able to overcome.
I took a quick step and swung, bringing the metal down. Zellig raised a forearm to block, his reinforced skeleton more than capable of accepting the punishment. I redirected the staff and brought the other end up towards his face.
Another block and another chuckle from the Trillodan.
Leaning into my gift, I sped up the rate of my swings, staying mobile and dancing around the monolith of muscle. Every time he tried to grab the staff or strike back at me, I carefully adjusted to be just out of reach or a single step ahead. I could see the confusion on his face as I continued to slam the metal against his forearms and torso: he couldn’t rationalize why he couldn’t catch me.
He’d beaten me once after I Altered. Why couldn’t he now?
Growling, Zellig rushed forward, willfully taking a blow to the side of the head. In exchange, he was allowed to get close and reach a hand out; I ducked low and skirted to the left, jabbing an end of the staff into his ribs. He spun around to seize the staff but I pulled it away and smashed his hand in response.
Pressing my advantage, I aimed again for his head. He went to grab the staff, but I collapsed the metal and left Zellig clutching air. Using the weight of the metal to empower my punch, I drove my fist into his chest. His claws were going to drop and dig into my kidneys but were left with nothing as I dove around the side of his legs and drove my heel into the back of his knee. Zellig roared in frustration and turned to tackle me; I planted my hands against the ground and kicked him like a mule, knocking him backwards.
I spun around on my hands, landing casually on my feet as Zellig rolled backwards and dusted himself off. There were literal dents in his muscle where I had hit him and where I had repeatedly battered him with my staff.
Even though he was built to win a war of attrition, I was doing some damage. I was taxing him.
“Danger sense,” he finally said with a snap of his fingers. “That’s what Powerhouse gave you.”
I did my best not to give anything away, but he saw some spark of recognition.
“Clever. Lull me into a fight knowing that you have an edge from our last encounter. And at first, you sold it well. I was beginning to worry that my fight with you on the ship was a fluke, a hoax that I almost didn’t deserve to win! But no, you’re just using an extra advantage! That’s hardly fair.”
“No such thing as a fair fight,” I replied, twirling the staff. Even if he had identified my advantage, he still didn’t have a way to negate it. Even if he knew I could read his actions, he couldn’t alter his brain.
Zellig grinned, “On that, we agree. And it is the only agreeable thing about you,” he said, a hint of disgust in his voice. “I admit, I had forgotten exactly how pitiful your new gift made you look. And smell. Be glad you don’t have my sense of smell, Parasite, you’d regret subjecting anyone to being near your fetid carcass.”
I felt my blood boil, and that smug grin on his face meant he knew.
“You can’t stand it, can you? You can’t stand being ugly. You can’t stand feeling like an aberration, like a freak.”
I sneered and gripped my staff, striking at whatever vulnerability I could find. The difference was that Zellig knew my trick now and wasn’t bothering to counter attack, at least not physically. He knew that wasn’t going to work.
“I can at least own being ugly,” he laughed as he continued to parry and block my attacks, minimizing the damage. “But you, you were such a pretty little specimen. You pride yourself on your appearance. It was something that you made, that you toiled over.”
My attacks grew more furious, more reckless. I had an edge in this fight that I was going to abuse. Weaving quick strikes in between staff hits let me break his guard and find a few heavy blows into his torso and legs, but still not enough to shut him up.
“You’re neglectful parents never even appreciated how well you took care of yourself in their absence. Even if you live through this, you can’t show them how special you really are!”
I screamed in rage as I brought the staff crashing down, trying to cave in his head. Of course he raised a hand to catch the blow, knowing exactly what my bloodthirsty mind would drive me to do. My attempt to rip the staff free was futile; nothing in my power was going to rip it free of his grip. Instead of backing away, I doubled down on my aggressive actions and yanked on the staff to throw myself at Zellig. A foot slammed into his sternum and I flipped backwards off him.
Right as I landed, I rolled to the side, narrowly avoiding an attempt to grab me; immediately following that I avoided my staff being thrown like a javelin. Another series of punches were thrown my way, but nothing could connect. No matter how angry I was, training was going to win out for me. In a hand to hand bout, I could hold my own.
That was until Zellig opened his mouth and screamed.
My ears erupted and my sense of equilibrium was immediately gone. Warm blood trickled down my earlobes as my body frantically tried to regain my ability to hear. There was a warning about a punch coming, but I couldn’t find my footing to properly avoid anything. I felt my jaw crack out of place as my body went sailing down the street and onto a few pieces of broken glass. As quick as he had ruptured my eardrums, my Alteration repaired the damage and my hearing returned to normal.
I got to my feet and tried to brace myself as Zellig charged and let out another sonic scream.
It was just as effective the first time. I couldn’t do a damn thing about him kicking me in the ribs and sending me flying. Glass exploded around me as I sailed into a massive lobby of some kind; I slammed onto the stone and wished that someone on this damned planet believed in using carpet. Groaning, I felt my eardrum pull itself back together as several of my ribs snapped back into place. The pain was intense enough I felt some bile rise in my throat but I managed to push it down.
Zellig wasn’t far behind, visibly enjoying himself.
“You’ve improved,” he said honestly, “A couple of weeks ago, I think I would have gotten under your skin a little better. But you’ve stayed cool, been cautious where it was needed. You have allowed yourself to play to your strengths. I was worried that your newfound ‘gift’ was going to overwhelm you and curtail any chance for a rematch. But, look at you go! You have no inhibitions anymore do you? This ghoulish appearance of yours, it quelled any inclination that you could be normal.”
As he continued to amuse himself, I felt my power start to protest. This new form, as strong as it was, it came with a downside.
The longer I held it and the more I stressed it, the harsher it was going back to normal. Shifting back was painful, no matter what. But doing it after intense use like this likely meant there would be lingering effects. Organelle had been reluctant to tell me that at a certain point my power started to poison me; she insisted that my shifted form started to seep through and it was hard for my body to filter out.
I ignored the panic in the back of my mind as that clock continued to tick, fully aware that the longer this drew out, the harder it was going to hit me to shift back.
Zellig hurt Alexis. Zellig had to pay.
I growled and charged forward, knowing full well he was going to let out another sonic scream and render my danger sense effectively inert. But I knew he was expecting me to be somewhat conservative, somewhat controlled. He and I knew that my finesse coupled with the Danger Sense was why I had made it this long. He would expect me to rely on my training and agility to dance around him.
Throwing that out the window, I planted my feet and literally threw myself at his face. Caught off guard, he shot a hand out to grab me instead of screaming; a hand I could work around and use to pull me closer. Wrapping my legs around his torso, I jabbed a hand into one eye socket, obliterating the organ beneath. When he opened his mouth to sunder my eardrums again, I shoved my hand into his mouth and grabbed his tongue.
His remaining eye narrowed as he closed his mouth around my forearm. Bone immediately started to break as his jaw fought against my incredible regeneration. Determined, I pulled my left hand free of his eye socket and tried to attack his other; a hand clasped my wrist and squeezed hard enough to fracture the small bones beneath his grasp.
Screaming, I ripped my right hand free of his mouth. Skin and muscle were stipped from my hand, but I took something with me: a fistful of the commander’s tongue.
Annoyed, Zellig turned and whipped me into the ground; I tried to get my legs below me to prevent the impact but ended up just dislocating my knees instead. They popped back into place about the time he drove a foot into my chest and sent me sliding across the floor. I finally stopped when I ran into what looked like a marble desk.
I forced myself to stay awake, to stay in this form as my vision started to waver. Bones quickly popped back into place but the pain was unbearable. Still, I pulled myself back to my feet as the massive Trillodan wall of muscle approached me, his pompous air dispelled.
“You look about as ugly as I feel,” I wheezed out as I saw all the dark blood oozing from his mouth. His eye was already rebuilding in its socket, but I had to assume creating a whole new eye was taxing for the unstoppable juggernaut. I dared to smirk, “We might finally have something in common.”
Zellig opened his mouth to reply but all that came out was an almost demonic growl.
I braced myself for his assault, my Danger Sense telling me without a doubt that he was about to subject me to an onslaught I wasn’t likely to survive.
And right before it happened, a bolt of white energy broke through one of the opposing glass walls and slammed into his side. The bolt erupted with a concussive wave, sending the Trillodan commander flying. My eyes widened as I turned and saw a trio of figures making their way to me: Beleth and Shockwave were both on their feet and Dragoon was with them in a chair of stone that Beleth had created for her.
“We figured you could use a little help,” Shockwave said with a grin.
Beleth looked like he was all business, his face scrunched up as he stared forward. “He’s back up and moving, running a circle around-” Beleth stopped his assessment of Zellig’s movement, confused. “He’s…running?”
“Can’t fight both of you without a weapon,” Dragoon said softly, thinking out loud. “He chose the arena which means he probably left himself any number of weapon depots to pillage should he need to. If this is going to be his last stand, he won’t leave himself without options.” Her gaze turned to me, “Murphy, swap back before you kill yourself, please.”
I nodded, bracing myself for what I knew was coming next. My skin flipped back over and a wave of fatigue washed over me. I stumbled, catching myself on this desk. At least I did, until the pain set in behind it. I didn’t know what you could really feel pain in your kidneys and liver, but it felt like someone had stabbed each organ with a serrated blade. My arms went limp and I crashed the floor as I tried to get used to the horrific sensation that I was going to have to live with for at least the next few hours.
“Come on,” Beleth said, walking over to me and extending a hand, “You gotta get back up.”
I accepted his hand up, admittedly caught off guard by his aid. “Thanks,” I said.
“So what are we dealing with?” he asked, immediately back to being a professional. “A handful of us followed the charge in after Multi-task said she’d seen you get abducted. Almanac quickly pinpointed your armor and we pivoted.”
Dragoon’s helmet melted away, showing her bloodstained face. She looked…broken. Not in the way I was, but her spirit had given way. She had conceded her original plan of going to Marn to try and get the drop on Zellig, but he had turned it around on her in about an hour. There was barely any fight left in her. As much as I hurt, that seemed to fade away as I felt a certain empathy with my friend.
As she glanced at me, I wished I knew the right words to instill some life into her, to give her some extra push to fight.
“Drag,” Shockwave said, his voice gentle, “We need to know what we’re up against.”
“Zellig and eight of his cronies,” I answered for her, “I’m guessing he has subjected them to his rudimentary transformative shit. But, I’m not sure.”
“And the force field?” Beleth asked.
“Powered by generators he’s hidden underground,” Dragoon replied, her voice not much more than a whisper. “He planned this so far in advance. He knew,” she lamented, her hand shaking as she started to spiral.
“How many of us are in the arena?” Shockwave asked, changing the direction of the conversation.
“Good,” he said, energy flooding into his hands as they started to glow. “Let’s make it easy for them to find us then!”
He turned and clapped his hands together, firing a blade of kinetic energy out that ripped through the building with a horrific cacophony of rending metal and exploding glass. Beleth dragged the lot of us outside into the glow of the force field on an otherwise unlit street.
“You realize you just announced to everyone where we were.” Beleth said, giving a side-eyed glance to his competitor.
“I know. I’m not one for wasting time chasing people down. I’d much rather they come to me.”
“Even if we kill Zellig, it doesn’t matter,” Dragoon said softly.
She managed to lift her eyes to Shockwave’s, “The Crimson City in orbit is going to crash on us before long and make a crater where the city used to be.”
Both of my saviors fell silent, feeling the gravity of the situation.
“So how do we stop it?” Shockwave asked.
“No,” he interrupted, “You don’t get to shut down, not yet,” he insisted, kneeling in front of her chair so they were at eye level, “Listen to me. You dragged us here, you did the hard part. Now, we’re close to done with all this shit. Like you said, for better or worse, it all ends today. Right?”
“So, I need you to do me a favor and dig out that Dragoon that knows how to dismantle criminal enterprises. I need to talk to her right now. We all do.”
“She had her spine broken,” Dragoon said, tears forming at the corner of her eyes.
“And last I checked, she still had a railgun in her hands,” he shot back. “Last I checked, she was still breathing.”
Gritting my teeth, I took a step closer and tapped on Shockwave’s shoulder, gesturing for him to move out of the way. Sinking to my knees, I managed to get my friend to look at me. “Alexis,” I said, my voice raspy, “Nick is out there. We can’t abandon him, can we?”
“We’ve made it this far. We beat the two dickheads who just saved my life,” I said with a weak laugh, “And you never gave up on me even after I was captured. You never let my fucking broken mind get in the way. So listen,” I demanded, “Your last action as our captain can’t be to just break down on us. You’re fucking Dragoon. You’re the girl who made power armor and hologram generators with scrap metal. You’re the one who ousted Titan and had the balls to talk to Infinite while the rest of us sat scared on a ship.” I grabbed her hand and squeezed, “We’re almost done. All you have to tell us is what to do. We’ll make it happen.”
I saw a spark in her eyes, a little signal that her brain was starting to fire. There was something there, something struggling to get out.
“Why don’t I tunnel out?” Beleth asked, helping jumpstart her brainstorming.
“Because he’d plan for you to be in here,” she said slowly, “Because Zellig wouldn’t want you being able to either tunnel in or out. The forcefield is going to extend below the ground.” I smiled as her eyes lit up, her mind running away with a problem to solve. “He wouldn’t put the generators outside,” she added. “He only got a dozen of us. Statistically, you were more likely to be outside than inside.”
“Which means they are accessible,” Shockwave said with a smile, his hands lighting up for a moment.
“So we just-” Beleth stopped talking, spinning around and erecting a wall of stone right as something glowing green slammed into it. “You’re beacon worked, Curtis,” he snapped as a horribly grotesque figure leapt to the side. It has one immense arm that was dripping a neon-green slime that seemed to be dissolving everything it was touching. The rest of the Trillodan seemed like it had its flesh fused with a black set of power armor. Flesh seeped through cracks in the armor and half of the helmet had fallen away to reveal a lower mandible with a ghoulish tongue flopping out. Where his eyes would have been, the helmet had a green triangle for a display.
Dragoon recognized the monstrosity. “Jai,” she muttered, “The one who dissolved my old suit.”
The monstrous operative cackled as he leapt around, throwing a glob of green slime from his massive right arm. Beleth was quick to intercept the projectile but couldn’t answer with an attack of his own before the grotesque form leapt away. Shockwave grumbled in disappointment, his hands charged up but no longer having a clear target.
“Nimble fucker,” Shockwave said. “If there were a dozen of us, someone must have fucking noticed me destroy a building. It made enough noise for half the city to hear.”
“Around to the right,” I said, pointing down to an onyx-tinted building with gold columns.
Shockwave looked at me with a quizzical expression but didn’t ask, instead taking aim. Sure enough, the mutated Jai came leaping around the corner; Shockwave chuckled as the kinetic bolt drilled the Trillodan square in the chest and sent him tumbling down the street. Before Shockwave could prepare another salvo, the operative launched himself back behind cover.
“If they’re anything like Tol, they’re going to be hard to kill,” Dragoon said softly.
“I like a challenge,” Shockwave replied.
“Not everything needs to be,” Beleth replied, annoyed at how chipper his companion was.
“Two different threats,” I said, frantically looking down the street. “One from above us, one on the road,” I said, wishing I could provide a little more detail. The early alarm system that this provided was handy, but not specific enough to really direct the two powerful Adapted beside me.
“Turtle?” Shockwave asked, his smile gone.
“Fortress,” Beleth replied.
“You got it,” Shockwave said, his hands glowing brighter by the second. “Close or far?”
“Close. Make it count.” Beleth turned to me and Dragoon, “Parasite, every little advance warning you give, relay it fast.”
I nodded right as Jai launched himself off a roof of the building behind us. As he came into view, some kind of silver quadruped came screaming down the road like a bat out of hell. My jaw dropped as I recognized Lail, the first Trillodan operative we had run into on Vuuldar. Back then he had been in an animalistic exoskeleton with a scorpion tail; thanks to this mutation he has fused with the skeleton and just kept adding a grotesque mix of muscle and metal to it.
Jai threw a trio of globules down at us; Beleth created an arch of stone to intercept. Once they did, Shockwave released the energy from one hand and turned that stone into shrapnel that ripped into Jai’s massive limb. Beleth stomped his foot and created a ring of rock around us, easily two meters tall. Lail leapt over the top but that gave him no way to reposition and dodge the blast from Shockwave. He yelped as the kinetic bolt drove him back from the wall.
Before he landed on top of us, Beleth shifted his wall, turning it into a row of spikes that shifted to intercept him. A few managed to knick the operative, but he used his massive hand to push free and clear away from Beleth’s reach.
“Lail is coming back,” I said. “He’s going to go for you, Beleth. Some kind of ranged attack. Like some kind of…needle?” I said, wishing I could explain more. Without me being the direct target for attack, the Danger Sense wasn’t nearly so specific.
Sure enough, Lail came leaping over the walls of Beleth’s fortress again, but now was covered in metallic quills. Beleth’s eyes widened as he frantically created a wall between us and the volley of metal spines. Some of the quills actually managed to partially perforate the wall of stone that Beleth had made, the silver metal providing contrast to the black stone of the road.
“Ready?” Beleth demanded of his companion.
Beleth split the wall and Lail lunged forward like some kind of wild animal; Shockwave clapped and the blade of kinetic energy compacted the primal operative. Metal bones fractured and broke as dark blood sprayed out to the sides. His limp body slid across the road, sparks trailing behind his claws.
On the opposing flank, Jai screamed in anger over his fallen comrade and let out another caustic salvo; Beleth was slower to block and caught a splash on one arm. He screamed as his flesh started to dissolve. Shockwave started dumping energy into his hands, but it wasn’t going to be quick enough to stop the bloodthirsty abomination.
I put myself in front of Shockwave, hoping I could at least use my body to buy time for the Projector to build enough energy for another one of his devastating claps. As I stared down Jai, something seemed off.
My Danger Sense didn’t scream at me for putting myself in harm’s way.
From the sky, a massive monster descended on Jai. It had what looked like a shark’s head with a vaguely humanoid body that was all covered in scales. A long rat-tail extended from the base of it’s spine with a spiked ball at the end. Instead of humanoid arms, there was a quintet of tentacles on the left and what looked like eagle talons on the right. Massive wings extended out from the shoulders that were covered in grey feathers.
Jai turned and avoided a stomp, managing to reply with an acidic salvo to the creature’s chest. It leapt forward, undaunted despite the scales slowly being eaten away. The tentacles whipped down and cracked the stone, driving Jai away, unsure of what to do when a second salvo of acid didn’t stop this beast.
It dawned on me that I had never seen Hydra fully transformed. The scariest Adapted from Vuuldar, here at her full might. It was both unsettling and strangely awe-inspiring.
From behind Jai, a figure zipped into the street and leapt forward, spinning in the air like a drunken acrobat at a speed that was almost impossible for my eye to follow.
Jai turned right on time to see Ragdoll’s foot connect with his head. The force of the kick obliterated any trace of the operative’s head and helmet. As he landed and came to a stop, Ragdoll raised a hand and fist bumped the eagle talons of Hydra before turning to us.
His eyes widened when he saw me. He zoomed forward with a speed that wasn’t his; I felt some reassurance knowing that Powerhouse had been smart enough to give him something extra. Ragdoll had perfect control of his body, and that control extended to additional powers people could stack onto him. His hands clasped the back of my neck as he pressed his forehead against mine, “You okay?”
I felt a mix of shame and comfort at his concern. I was glad he cared, but I felt guilty for dismissing my thought of him earlier. “I’ll manage,” was all I said while the two emotions raged in my head.
He nodded, knowing that was all he was going to get. Hydra lumbered forward, letting me appreciate exactly how big her transformed frame was. Before transformation she and I were the same height. Now she was as big as Zellig. “We’ve got ourselves a mess,” Hydra said, her voice alarmingly deep. “Dragoon, plan?”
“We need to sweep the perimeter,” Dragoon replied. “Beleth can find us the generators that are keeping this field up. If we break free, we can warn the others about what Zellig has planned.”
“And we can’t have that!” a commanding voice roared.
All of us turned to see Zellig standing above us, on top of a golden spire with a massive cannon in his grasp.
I didn’t need Danger Sense to know what was coming next.