I squeezed the trigger and an orange ball fired from the barrel; an instant later it hit the ground between the Adapted, splattering the area with scalding hot metal. Beleth was quick to provide cover for the group and contain the damage from my gauss cannon.
My favorite gun Vaneel had designed for me, one that had held up remarkably well when I had the pleasure to fight against Clemency.
I fired a few more rounds for emphasis, driving the group back. Without Shockwave or Dragoon getting time to take aim, none of them had a way to answer my incendiary salvo. They retreated between the buildings, buying themselves a temporary reprieve. I could hear them the whole time, trying to find a good place to defend from.
“How long until you get desperate,” I wondered aloud. “How long until you have no choice but to confront me?”
I dropped down and closed my eyes a moment, syncing back up with the frequency relay that Vaneel had set up last week. While Dragoon and her cronies couldn’t reach out for help, I was still connected to my best friend and the Immortal Matron.
“You’re letting that monster eat half the garrison,” came a biting voice. “How many have to die before you’ve proved your point?”
I sighed, “I only brought fourteen-hundred soldiers back with me. I’m not proud of this sacrifice, but there needs to be the right amount of engagement to keep the Adapted present. Without this ruse, they would run. Once it starts to drop, nothing is going to stop that Crimson City from crashing.”
“And you’re sure the core isn’t going to detonate on impact and annihilate the planet?”
“It won’t,” Vaneel said, “I trust my math.”
“Good thing I do as well,” the Matron replied. “Zellig, you realize that the Eternal Council is going to pin this on you. They are going to insist that you could have spared the lives of the garrison and still enacted your scheme.” She paused, clearly mulling over her next words. “Councilman Baarl is going to make it impossible to defend you. He will ensure you are to blame for the deaths of those soldiers.”
While the words were heavy, I wasn’t unprepared to stomach that fact. I knew that this gambit of mine was costly. If Eldritch wasn’t here to cause such commotion and destruction, the Eternal Council would never understand or condone my extreme actions. The destruction of Selir, led by my hand, would be branded the act of a deluded terrorist. However, allowing the Adapted to ransack the city freely would have been blasphemous as well; I had a duty to protect my people and allowing invaders to pillage freely was unthinkable.
I needed a middle ground. I needed the Adapted to be as threatening as possible to warrant such extreme measures without seeming completely insane. Eldritch playing the role of monstrosity fit my narrative perfectly. But the Immortal Matron was right, when the council learned that I had foreseen and planned for these events to unfold, they would ask why I allowed for the senseless loss of life.
My message would be impossible to ignore, but someone would have to pay the high price for the end result. I would be the easiest scapegoat.
“I know,” I replied. “But their sacrifice, and eventually my own will all be worth it in the end. I know that you will see to that.”
There was a wry chuckle from her end, “You put much faith in an old woman. You are really willing to gamble your life on my ability to follow through?”
“I put faith in my Matron,” I replied, somber. “You have guided us this far, and I know you’ll take the Trillodan well beyond what I ever could.”
“Then I will ensure that our ideals are realized,” she said. “How long until this plan of yours comes to fruition?”
“In about an hour it will all come crashing down. Commander Hel’t is standing by to bombard whatever survives in the crater.”
“You think someone would survive that sort of impact?”
“I dare not doubt the tenacity of the Adapted,” I answered with a laugh, “Some of them have proven incredibly hard to put down. Besides, even if no one in Selir survives, I feel there is a good chance that Infinite might manage to withstand the impact. She could single-handedly annihilate the rest of Xalanni if unchecked.”
Even though I couldn’t see her, I could visualize the Matron furrowing her brow. “Why do you think that?”
“Vaneel, you know more of the particulars.”
“She is built on the idea of compounding powers. Each one on the stack acts like a multiplier if they have a way to work in conjunction. Six powers allows her to replicate most Adapted. Eight powers allows her to mimic Titan who is magnitudes more powerful than most. With eleven gifts she could mimic a void door; even with limited range on that teleportation, the amount of energy required for such a feat is astounding.”
“You think she could redirect that sort of energy output in a most…destructive capacity?”
“I’m sure of it,” Vaneel replied. “From all the memories we have seen of her, she deliberately limits herself to avoid letting out some kind of traumatic manifestation. Infinite holds back due to concern of those nearby; if there was no one left alive, I think she’d be interested in making the guilty party pay. And the most damning thing to consider is that she accomplished that Void Door feat with eleven powers. According to what she confessed to some, she can take two more gifts.”
“More than enough firepower to flatten a continent if she really wanted to,” the Immortal Matron concluded with a sigh. “Then yes, Zellig, I think you’re right to have your fellow commander ensure she is removed.”
In the distance I heard more of my operatives engaging with the other six Adapted in the zone. “With your leave, Matron, I have work to do.”
“Good luck,” she replied.
I severed the connection and focused myself back on the present, allowing my hearing to pull in the scattered sounds of combat around me. Four whole city blocks quarantined off from the rest of the city, safe from the living nightmare I’d allowed Eldritch to become.
The other Adapted were going to demolish Vaneel’s laboratory and the Arms Discovery; we’d made sure to move all pertinent research findings into backups halfway across Xalanni. The soldiers and operatives who had allowed Vaneel to mutate them with the trials of the Kelotan were more than happy to go out with their dignity and fight the Adapted threat.
They would die as patriots and heroes.
I glanced down at my grey hand, letting out a long sigh. Soon this body would be stripped away and I’d be killed for my reckless actions. Soon this would all be over.
My life for the salvation of my people. A fair trade.
I shouldered the gauss cannon and started stomping back towards the primary group of Adapted. I loathed having to leave Dragoon but Parasite had a quicker response time than I might have thought. And if anyone else besides Shockwave and Beleth had shown up, I’d have stayed to fight. Those two in conjunction were too dangerous.
As strong as I was, I wouldn’t survive a fair joust with them. The two had spent enough time fighting one another and training together that they were a force to be reckoned with. Even without the intervention of Hydra and Ragdoll, I doubt Jai could have done much more besides landing a lucky hit on Beleth.
To my south, another fight had broken out. Of my six remaining operatives, five were actively engaging the enemy and the last was on the move to join their comrades. I trusted my operatives in duels with almost any individual Adapted; I owed it to them to keep this group occupied so they could finish their work.
More samples for Vaneel meant a brighter future for all who survived this ordeal.
I continued to lope along, eventually leaping up onto rooftops as I continued to follow Dragoon’s group. They wanted to rejoin the other Adapted who were trapped in here with them it seemed. While normally ambushing them would be easy, Parasite having Danger Sense gifted to him made it a bit more challenging. Any chance of a proper ambush was never going to work.
More machinations shifted inside my body, a reminder that I had a failsafe in case things went south. Vaneel had advised against using these Selium disks since it would be like pumping myself full of poison; if I was going to die, why not give it a try? He had been opposed to my operatives using it, but none of them were as dependent on machines built into their biology like I was.
Vaneel hoped that I would survive this ordeal and wanted me to remain as intact as possible. He desperately wanted his only true friend to not be given to the gallows; using the Selium was likely to erode parts of my mind and Vaneel dreaded knowing what kind of consequences that might have down the road. I smiled as part of me warmed with his optimism.
I gave him my word that I would only use those disks as a last resort, just in case I managed to survive all of this mess. I would do my best to uphold his idyllic vision of the future. He had compromised and given me three as a last line of defense.
Leaping across another rooftop, the group of six came into view. Flicking the canister of my gauss cannon, it swapped from the explosive shells to the pinpoint laser. Snapping it up, I took aim at Hydra and pulled the trigger; as I did, she spun around as Parasite cried out for her to evade. I didn’t hit her down the middle, but I removed half of the tentacles that comprised her left arm. Despite her ‘arm’ being nearly severed, she turned and charged straight for me, undeterred.
To my surprise, Ragdoll joined her, running so much faster than should have been possible.
Swapping the output of my cannon, I launched an explosive orb his way; the nimble bastard leapt over the top.
The gift of speed he’d been granted boosted his reactions as well. He was going to be a problem. Another two orbs just missed as he streaked forward; I expected him to go for my legs but Ragdoll pulled his torso low to the ground, swinging up into the barrel of my gun.
He hit it hard enough to bend the barrel, rending the weapon useless.
Growling in frustration, I threw my cannon aside and pressed forward, trying to disrupt Ragdoll’s balance; his speed allowed him to flip over my leg and create distance. Turning back around, I felt Hydra approaching thanks to the disturbance in the air from her wings. She dove in and I turned to absorb the blow; as we collided, her regenerated tentacles wrapped around my arm and tried to wrench my elbow out of socket while the talons dug into my forearm.
I was a bit surprised they were sharp enough to pierce my toughened skin.
Claws in my feet dug into the stone and ground us to a halt. Hydra tried to flap her wings and lift me off the ground, but I pulled her back down, using her own tentacles as leverage. A flurry of footsteps behind me gave me all the warning I needed that Ragdoll was lining up another assault. With Hydra holding me, he was liable to go for the body, try and do some serious damage since he knew I could repair my bones on the fly.
The steps drew closer and I tapped into my power supply. Hydra heard the electronics wind up and tried to pull herself free; I ripped my arm free of the talons and seized her wrist, turning and launching her massive frame in front of Ragdoll’s path.
Forced to evade, he abandoned his attack on me and dove over her. I cut him off, lunging the six meters to where he was bound to land. Ragdoll adjusted quickly, weighing down one of his hands to pull his head away from my punch. He tried to transition into a roll and throw himself out of my reach but didn’t account for how much faster overclocking made me.
My foot caught his hip and tossed him into the middle of the road. With Ragdoll down for a moment, I disabled the overclock to avoid unnecessary drain.
Behind me Hydra was running at me on all fours; it was too easy to turn on her and rake my claws across her face, ripping chunks of her snout free. To my surprise, Hydra didn’t abandon the attack after being mutilated but instead retaliated and swung her tentacles in reply. I raised an arm to block, surprised by the impressive force she could put behind that attack. Her talons reached for my face but I grabbed her hand, more than willing to engage in a match of strength. Despite her best efforts, she started to fold backwards, her legs buckling as I started to bend the arm back.
On my flank, a shuffling of feet revealed why Hydra had endured the punishment: Shockwave had been storing power in his hands this whole time. I overclocked my body again and snapped Hydras arm like a twig. In response, she threw her body forward, sinking teeth into my collarbone and wrapping her legs and tail around my own. A muffled ‘do it’ escaped her snout as she glared up at me, defiant.
I couldn’t help but smile. I liked this one. A fighter to the end.
My claws ripped into her side, Hydra’s scales unable to mitigate enough of the damage. I shoved a hand onto her face and used both points of leverage to literally peel her off of me so I could avoid the impending blast from Shockwave. She fought back but didn’t have the strength to resist well enough.
As soon as she was free, another sound warned me of a potentially dangerous attack: the metal grinding of a slide being drawn back. Behind Shockwave, Dragoon had discarded most of her armor and was being held up by Parasite; the only part of her suit she had kept was a single metallic sleeve with the power supply running along her side and back. Glaring at me, she raised the railgun and fired.
I threw myself out of the way as the gun screamed and the spherical projectile narrowly missed ripping my head clean off. As my foot touched the ground, Hydra seized the opportunity and turned, swinging her tail at my face, targeting my eyes with the spiked club on the end. Ducking under, I kept my focus on Shockwave as he continued to hold his charge, looking for the perfect opportunity to fire. For someone who seemed so bloodthirsty, I had to commend his patience.
Hydra was rapidly regenerating, her snout nearly mended and her arm starting to set. I hadn’t seen enough of her to know the details of her healing factor, but this was more potent than I would have wagered. A scuffle along the stone warned me that Ragdoll had gotten back up, and that look in his eyes told me that he wasn’t too badly concussed to fight.
Ragdoll needed to be dealt with. He hit extremely hard without being gifted speed. Now he could simply generate four or five times the momentum. Parasite had destroyed the device in my mouth that allowed me to use a sonic scream, unwittingly having torn part of it out when he ripped most of my tongue out. Without that to disrupt his equilibrium, I had to find another way to limit his mobility and keep him out of the fight. Hydra was going to endure punishment for the group and set up Shockwave and Ragdoll to do the real damage.
And on the periphery of my vision, I had another problem brewing; Beleth was slowly bringing everyone else closer. The methodical gangster wasn’t about to underestimate my speed while overclocked but he wasn’t one to remain un-involved. And as long as he stayed with Shockwave, that piece of living artillery had all the protection he could ever want.
Without a weapon of my own, I was liable to lose. One misstep meant enduring a full-force hit from Shockwave or losing a limb to Dragoon’s railgun.
The metallic grinding warned me another round was imminent. Dragoon barked an order and Ragdoll took off, running around to build momentum as Hydra lumbered forward. The machinations in my body whirred to life as I overclocked again, charging to meet her headlong. Claws out, I ripped through her tentacles and gouged a chunk of her side out in a flash. Stressing my systems, I pressed the attack and shattered her knee with a kick. She tried to flap her wings to stay up and fight; a well placed blow to her chest sent her tumbling into the road.
Ragdoll came streaking in, using his arms as a counterweight as he flipped and brought a leg crashing down on my head. I raised my arms in an X to absorb the blow and felt my bones break. I grunted and grit my teeth in pain from the blow, caught off guard at how much damage Ragdoll could do.
Even though I could have muted my pain, I refused. In my last moments, I wouldn’t forgo being Trillodan. I wouldn’t damper my fear, I wouldn’t damper my suffering. I would feel all the highs and lows of this moment.
Ragdoll pulled his foot back, but my block had cost him his precious momentum. My forearms snapped back into place and a hand caught his ankle; baring my teeth in a smile as I squeezed down and shattered the joint. In defiance, he pulled himself forward, driving his other leg into my chest. When I didn’t fall over, he sat up and tried to punch me with a weighted hand.
I tossed him to the ground as Hydra pulled herself off the ground and lumbered forward, her side already closing the wound. At the corner of my eye, I saw Dragoon shift slightly; I narrowly avoided the shot from the railgun as it screamed by. Hydra was quick to capitalize and slam into me. Even though she was mostly mended, her attack was still clumsy and uncoordinated. A talon found my cheek but she lost most of her teeth for it. When she refused to go down, I hit her in the throat and crushed her windpipe.
She sank to her knees but still grabbed my legs, unwilling to let go as Shockwave raised his hands and brought them together, a white blade of energy leaving his fingertips.
I kicked Hydra off but not fast enough.
My arms got in the way, mitigating some of the damage to my torso. Still, I went flying back nearly thirty meters. Momentum carried me through a stone wall and my body finally came to rest in someone’s living room, their furniture in shambles. A quick assessment told me that my forearms broke in six places, nine ribs had shattered, and my lungs and liver had been riddled with the shrapnel. Chunks of skin and muscle had been torn free from blasting through the wall and my spine had been offset from my rough landing.
Vaneel’s systems sprung to life and started to repair the damage. Nanite infused muscle pulled bone back into place and dedicated peripheral systems fused my metal-coated bones back together. The excess cellular storage I had in my body donated raw material to mend the nicks in my organs and patch over the missing skin.
It was a costly mistake that I’d made, taking that hit. I had burned through nearly half of my cellular storage and a nanite housing had been cracked which was going to limit my efficiency going forward. Another hit like that meant I was likely to sustain lasting damage. I could manage but it was not ideal. Especially if I was fighting half a dozen people.
I had been right the first time. I needed a weapon. Dragoon had been smart to start coordinating threats; she knew I couldn’t evade everything at one time. At least I had managed to cripple Ragdoll. Even though I’m sure he wasn’t down for the count, he was going to be substantially slower with a crushed ankle. Switching the filter on my eyes, I reminded myself of where my next weapons cache was.
Across the street and fifty meters north, just shy of the perimeter that I had set.
I smiled, a plan formulating as I staggered out through the crater I had made in someone’s home.
As soon as they could see me, I wiped the grin from my face and allowed myself to limp, to look haggard. They wanted me dead, they wanted to punish me for all the pain I had caused them and their loved ones. These children had been turned into warriors, into people with a singular purpose.
Titan had summed it up best: Adapted fought. It was their nature. They would see me weakened and pursue relentlessly.
As soon as I stepped outside, Dragoon raised her arm and fired; I avoided and allowed myself to stumble. They all ran forward, and now Beleth felt the safety to join the fray, this time leading the charge. Stone flowed around him as he effortlessly glided forward with Shockwave beside him. Hydra was mending and opted to take to the air while Dragoon, Parasite, and Ragdoll held back.
I had to sell it. If I turned and ran, that would alert Dragoon that it was a trap. I steeled myself knowing full well that I was going to have to endure another hit from Shockwave before this would be over.
As Beleth approached, I started to backpedal, giving the illusion that I was looking for an opening to lunge forward. Beleth didn’t hasten or try to rush. We were nearing the edge of the barrier; all he had to do was calmly advance and eventually I would run out of room to run. The cache was twenty-four meters behind me and I could see the glow in Shockwave’s hands building.
To my surprise, Beleth noticed my slight deviation in focus. Sprinting forward, he put himself within range; the ground erupted around my ankles, twisting the stone like rampant vines. Ripping my ankle free, more sprouted up and continued to ensnare. I roared in frustration and Beleth grinned, creating a spike of stone to lance my heart. Striking the rock, I shattered the tip free and threw it back at the damned mobster.
A wall was in the way before it could pose any threat. As I continued to fight free of the ensnarement, the wall Beleth made slid forward and snapped at the base, flying free like a two tonne projectile.
I overclocked my system and stopped it, shoving the stone slab to the side. Using the burst of speed and strength, I ripped free and leapt free of his sphere of influence.
As soon as my feet touched the ground, Shockwave struck. This time I managed to turn my side to it, allowing my shoulder to take the brunt of the hit. Still, bones shattered and organ damage demanded the rest of my cellular storage as I crashed into another building. What Shockwave hadn’t known was that he’d played his part perfectly; I’d lined myself up to come flying right where I had left my weapons cache. Getting to my feet, I touched the metal case and smiled as it fell away, revealing another one of Vaneel’s custom firearms.
A rectangular gunmetal framework with two yellow compartments on the side by the trigger; while one of Vaneel’s simpler designs this thing was surprisingly devastating. My friend had effectively repurposed a shape charge into a hand cannon for me. While it would have so much kick that it would dislocate shoulders, I could use this dastardly weapon no problem.
Before I could exit the building this time, the wall was ripped apart as Beleth and Shockwave charged forward.
As quickly as I fired, Beleth yanked himself and his fellow Adapted underground, avoiding the cone of destruction that the gun let out. Turning my attention to the rest, I leapt forward, charging the four who were lagging behind. Dragoon let out a round from the railgun, but nothing else was challenging me. After evading, Hydra lumbered forward, her injuries taking more time to heal now. She drew close and I turned the gun on her.
She recoiled and roared in pain as the swath of tentacles was blasted off along with a chunk of the wing behind it. Another pull of the trigger sheared one leg off just below the knee.
Ragdoll hopped to the side and tried to get the proper windup for an attack; I overclocked my system and body checked him mid-flip. As he hit the ground, I turned the weapon on him and blasted him in the chest.
Frantic footsteps behind me, way too fast and too powerful for a normal person. I spun to see Parasite transformed again, his face twisted in rage as he bore down on me. As the gun raised, he pivoted, avoiding the cone of destruction it let out. He planted his foot and threw himself at me, using the same tactic as earlier to try and rip out my eyes. I threw myself backwards and was met with resistance.
I looked down, perplexed that Ragdoll was still breathing. His coat had been reduced to tatters of fabric, but his body was intact; I had made another mistake and doubted the power of his teammate, Armorsmith. Ragdoll had been confident to charge because his coat might as well have been a layer of steel. And now, Ragdoll’s normally smiling face was drawn into a furious sneer as he swung himself around, readying himself to lunge. As I hit the ground, he used his good leg and one hand to throw himself forward. I barely managed to get a hand in the way of the punch and protect my eyes. Turning to face him, I tried to pull up the gun but Parasite leapt forward and grabbed that limb, pulling it into an arm bar.
And while this was happening, Dragon was fumbling with her railgun, trying to sit up and get the angle for a shot. The only reason she hadn’t put a hole in me is because Parasite had dropped her to try and avenge Ragdoll.
Roaring, I snapped my wrist voluntarily, bending my hand back further than should be possible to shoot Parasite in the shoulder. Chunks of bone and muscle came free as his grip faltered. My wrist relocated and I swung around to ensure that Ragdoll stayed down this time.
But his body was pulled away by the ground, leaving me no target.
The stone around me came to life, turning into an endless sea of arms that pulled me down. A few paces away, Beleth and Shockwave surfaced. He had been holding the two of them underground until Shockwave had a proper blast saved up.
I overclocked and tried to fight free of Beleth’s trap but it was hopeless. Starting on my back meant that Beleth had too much of my body to grab hold of, too many limbs to ensnare all at once. Spikes started to dig into my side as he applied more and more pressure, slowly crushing the life out of me.
Shockwave’s hits had done serious damage when my body was allowed to go flying. I would be enduring all of the kinetic payload of his next hit.
As good as my friend’s work was, it wasn’t going to withstand that.
I activated my failsafe, my body rapidly disseminating the first disk of Selium to my muscles.
Shockwave raised his hands and I erupted from the ground, the stone shattering as I ripped free. Gripping a single chunk of stone from the air, I threw it at Shockwave; he evaded, but it cost him precious time. Before he could execute me, I charged his companion. Beleth’s attempt to erect a wall was bashed through.
He tried to sink into the ground, but not quick enough with how fast I could run now. My claws found part of his ribcage and ripped it free, taking his entire right arm with it.
Shockwave screamed and turned to me, raising his hands. My body accessed the second Selium disks and added the catalyst to trigger it’s other function as an explosive. The skin in my palm split open and I threw it forward. The two explosions met in midair; even though I went tumbling back through the street and had several bones break, I had survived it without serious organ damage.
I started to laugh, and was cut off by Dragoon firing the railgun. I was slow to dodge and a chunk of my thigh was torn out. While painful, it wasn’t going to slow me too much in the grand scheme of things. Without Parasite to help hold her up, her attempts to reload the gun were clumsy and slow. Without Beleth, Shockwave didn’t have the protection to build up another charge and he knew it.
“You all did well,” I said, lumbering forward, a massive smile drawn across my face. “But Vaneel designed me to win a war of attrition. I was built for this.”
I knew that Vaneel was likely watching through my optical input; I only hoped he could appreciate exactly how well his work had held up despite such adversity. A few more steps forward and I stopped as the ground shook. Everyone turned to look at the wall of the barrier to see a fourteen-meter tall mass of tentacles watching through the force field. A massive arm slammed against it but to no avail.
I couldn’t help myself and started to laugh.
“Oh, Eldritch,” I said softly, “You’re just in time to lose your friends.”
I had three displacement charges for this lot: one for Dragoon and her superior brain, another for Hydra and her incredible regeneration, and the last for Shockwave and his seemingly infinite energy generation.
My prize for survival: three of the most powerful gifts among the Adapted plundered for the gain of my empire.
With my final purpose reaffirmed, I stalked forward to claim my victory.