The lead Alexandria Clone, one who's take on Personal Stasis instead made a bubble around herself, cleared the rubble as the others started emerging from somewhere underground. The naked Hispanic woman laughed, silently, and started to talk, only to make no noise at all.
Stasis bubble means sound can't travel, I realized, as an Asian man, flying on a stream of mist, tried to attack her with more of the substance, which I Saw was superheated by his Shard. The clone took off, at extreme speeds, right up the stream as it flowed around her, before striking the man so hard he practically exploded, dead instantly as he was smushed like a bug on a windshield, his remains flying off to drop into the river.
Time to go to work, I thought, taking a half-step out to check my Temporal Protection power. I'd thought it passive, but my ability to read powers had started to let me read myself, but only when the Shard was active and slotted, my Constellation of Possibility still obtuse to my senses. I'd thought it had no visual component, but I'd been wrong, the shadowy mist it created in its standard form nigh-invisible when the power was working on a passive level. Feeding it energy, the now silvery shadows subtly drifted from my armor, and I pushed them into my blade, the orichalcum starting to wisp as well.
While I was doing this more Alexandria clones emerged, and the lead False Host turned to look at the rest of us, as attacks slid off it, unable to even scratch her. Creating blades of air around me, I couldn't stretch my power to them, as they were not me, merely created and controlled by me, but the hair-thin mithril tendril I extended trailed faint metallic mist as I tried to See the other clones coming out, tried to figure out what they could do as well.
The Area Temporal Stasis wielding clone darted over, obviously getting ready to fly down the length of the bridge, bulldozing the defenders, and I knew I was out of time, only having a dozen seconds of preparation, but grateful for that much regardless.
Nodding to myself, I took hold of my sword and threw it, Unidirectional Telekinesis pushing the blade even faster, and making sure it struck my target, the blade accelerating with a loud crack.
It darted forward, trailing shadows, and pierced the bubble around the False Host as if it wasn't there, but it slowed down even as the False Host froze in surprise. The golden blade made it to her, piercing her stomach, but only by a few inches, blood welling up around the blade only to stop in mid-air as it entered the stasis bubble, the protections on it already spent.
Loses it that fast? I thought grimly. That meant it was effectively melee or bust. Lovely.
The False Host desperately gripped the sword, trying to pull it out, only to be unable to do so, the blade stuck in the very Stasis that protected her. Before she could do something stupid, like try and run off with my blade, I Strode forward, the Mark on my sword a shining beacon, and firmly grasped the hilt. The False Host looked up to me, fear writ large on not-Alexandria's not-features, and, with a single yank, I pushed forward as I lifted the blade high, cutting the False Host in half from the sternum upwards.
As the Clone died, its power failed, a blast of sound accompanying the spurt of gore, my Acoustokinesis picking out a few key words from the mess, Cauldron and Director of the PRT among them.
Looking at the increasingly large gang of not-Alexandrias, a couple tried to use the weaponized versions of the woman's 'Brute' power to freeze me in place, or freeze only part of me in place, or freeze the space around me in order to trap, and likely suffocate, me.
They all failed, finding no purchase on my protected form.
With a single step, I Strode amongst them, and started killing the naked, emaciated women, lashing out with blade and claw, keeping my tendrils in reserve while I was being watched, however there were just too many of them.
They tried to kill me right back, but any speed their powers granted meant nothing when the False Hosts found their impenetrable flesh all too vulnerable against me, a hundred mile an hour punch doing nothing when the frail knuckles met metal armor and enhanced physiology, my body held in place by sourceless flight as they broke against me.
However, they weren't stupid, unfortunately, and started to try and move past me to attack the others, who themselves were still trying to help, only taking out a small fraction of the False Alexandrias, those without any Brute powers whatsoever.
I cut one woman in half, only for her to vanish and reappear a dozen feet away, intact, turning and Stasis Leaping away in the direction of Philadelphia, disappearing only to reappear a dozen feet away a second later, doing so again as I was attacked by yet more False Hosts.
More than that, the attackers had met the front line, and were eviscerating it, tearing through armor as if it wasn't there, just like the real Alexandria could, or cutting through them by only putting parts of their foes into Stasis, and then moving those at the speed Alexandria flew. Brutes were thrown backwards as their internals likely ruptured, while those without supernatural toughness just tore themselves apart in gory eruptions.
No! I thought, turning, and attacked from behind, I exploded with metal tendrils, but it wasn't enough, Temporal Protection fading on anything more than a dozen feet away. I needed to somehow cover this entire bridge, in close melee, which was something I couldn't do.
But I knew who could.
"M̷o̷u̶s̷e̸" I called, "t̴o̷ ̷m̶e̷!̴"
The woman appeared, looking surprised at the devastation. "Wha, I didn't mean to-" she started to say, as the woman froze in place, caught in Stasis.
"M̷̘̣̓͠à̵̦̔r̶̢̈k̷̠͔̂ ̴̙̭̆̾B̷̰̊a̵͎͖͊͊r̶̪͝r̷̪͂ą̸͚͆g̸͚̈̐e̷̙͖̍̊!̸̙̇̑" I told her Shard, itself not frozen, even as I moved around her, extending metal tendrils to pull her tight against my chest, Stasis-based death all around us. However the Shard would not act while its Host could not. I tried to extend Temporal Protection to her as well, but that Shard balked, as it was only meant to protect me.
She's one of mine, I informed it, when the power wouldn't extend through my skin, mentally reaching instead inside of her, to the second Shard she carried.
The power still didn't want to function, and I had half a moment of doubt, wondering if I'd just gotten Karen killed, but no, that wasn't happening. Covering us both with Healing Fire to negate any effects of being frozen, I mentally took hold of Temporal Protection and practically yelled MINE! in its metaphorical face, feeding it energy directly, until something gave and the power flowed outwards.
Mouse unfroze, and I commanded both her and her Shard, "N̷O̷W̷!̴" feeding it as much energy as was safe.
"Wha-?" she started to ask, as the air around us warped, and I Strode up, carrying her, as her Shard finally got to work. Dozens, then hundreds of identical ice daggers, each inscribed with my Host's glowing mark, rained down on the battlefield as the Not-Alexandrias attacked. Unfortunately, Temporal Protection didn't extend to those frozen knives either, as I'd hoped they might, but that was merely plan A. Plan B, where doing this would've inscribed my Mark upon them, was also a no-go. Thankfully, I had a quite a few more.
"Vej-Nephilim!" The woman, whose back was being held in place against my chest demanded, hands tight on her buckler and blade, pulling them in close to her body, demanded. "What's going on!?"
But I didn't have time to explain, and instead used my connection to the woman to piggyback onto her Mark frequency, just as Taylor and I had discovered we could use each other's powers. Unlike Taylor, the Scion-granted Shard tried to resist, but I reached out, in the space between spaces, and took hold of it.
I'd given it Data, I'd given it Energy, and in so doing had given it life. It was Mine, and it would obey me. The Shard relented, the struggle over in an instant, and it happily drank up the Energy I poured into it, hyper-charging the Shard, as what I was about to do was not what it was designed for.
But trying new things was what the Shards were truly designed to do, and I'd promised a technique, back when I'd first Seen it, back when I'd first saved Mouse from a fate worse than death.
And I meant to deliver.
Feeding it my plan, and the energy to warp and shape, I slaved it to my own Shard, which I could not empower directly, and the two practically hummed in anticipation, the vague awareness of the space around every Mark snapping into crystal-clear focus. Karen, even as strong as I'd made her, could not pull this off, yet, but I was far stronger than the other woman, and couldn't help but smile as I gave both shards a single command:
Using Marked Teleportation had always been an instant change, there one moment and gone the next, but this was a long stream of action, the world blurring in one extended silver flash as I swung outwards with every weapon I had, hyper-aware of the placement of everything around our Marks, able to split Stasis'd flesh as smoothly as butter while moving around the defenders, killing ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred, more, the individual *pops* of our transport combining into a roar, trailing silver fire as we jumped, time seeming to slow as I devoted everything I had to moving, killing, and continuing as fast as our combined powers would hold out, and that wouldn't be for long.
In what felt like hours, but was only a few seconds, every single False Host in range had been killed, the first split corpse only just hitting the ground as we stopped on a Mark at the end of the bridge, a bit of Aerokinesis clearing the area as I let Mouse go, no longer held to me by metal tendrils.
The woman dropped to her knees and vomited, still holding tightly onto her weapon, and I Strode her home, so Panacea could look at her, not wanting to leave one of mine vulnerable. Striding forward, I stopped overlooking the tunnel entrance, even as more Alexandria Clones came up it, dropping down on one that could selectively Stasis parts of her own body, killing her instantly as she reached up with a grasping hand to try and tear me apart, a look of surprise on her face as my blade cleaved through her 'invincible' fingers, and then her chest.
There were more coming, but not nearly the amount that'd first emerged. They must've built up before breaking out, like a zit filling with pus before it bursts, I thought, flying down the tunnel at speed, Sonic Flight ripping the stone up behind me and collapsing it as I descended.
I went deep, several hundred feet down in a straight line, lower than any of the caves I'd discovered, slaughtering a few dozen more False Hosts as I did so, one trying to dive into the side of the tunnel, rock coming apart around her, as I reached her, but she was close enough that a metal tendril could lash out and render her intestines the consistency of chunky salsa as I slowed just enough to kill her, moving on.
Finally, I Saw a massive Corona of power at the end, but not the Bloody Red & Yellow of Doppelganger Duplication that I remembered from Echidna, all those months ago.
No, I emerged into a cavity, thirty feet across, and found myself in a hollow, crimson-blue flesh-lined sphere that brought to mind nothing less than the inside of a twisted heart, but one that burned with ITERATION so strongly my eyes watered. It was a different color than Echidna's Shard, Flesh, Bone, Blood, and Viscera mixing into something the likes of which I had never laid eyes on before, but there was no doubt in my mind that this was her.
Or what was left of her.
Just as each of the False Hosts gave me insight into the Shard itself, each holding a fraction of the true Shard's power, my memory of Echidna's Shard, which would without question be a Major power, and Adaptational Replication, the power I'd copied from something that I'd thought was Echidna, which was a Major power, were insights into what I looked upon now.
A full Shard, unfettered, should burn out its Host in seconds, but if they didn't, if they somehow survived, it'd look a great deal like this.
The twisting, pulsing flesh that made up the walls of the room bulged, splitting open obscenely, dropping another Alexandria Clone onto the floor, the False Host possessing the ability to create a solid shield of Stasis at will.
It was no defense to the Air Blade I manifested behind her, decapitating her in an instant, only to see the organic floor appear to absorb the corpse in seconds, the power pulsing as it pulled from something in the center, another False Host starting to form.
Turning my eyes to that center, I saw a fleshy mound seemingly made up of hundred of grasping arms, all folded in tight to hold something within, the entire perverse organ shifting to grip whatever it held more tightly.
Found you, I thought, darting over to it, and reaching out with metal tendrils, making sure not to touch it directly.
It didn't matter.
The second my metal touched the flesh, something pulled at me, my vision wavering even as I reflexively pulled back, power torn from me as ITERATION pulsed, and a second bulge joined the first that was already forming, halfway across the room.
I shuddered, as a shiver of soul-deep revulsion worked its way out of my guts, and I lashed out with Stellar Creation as another Alexandria clone formed, catching the False Host before it could fully wake, destroying the body utterly before it could be re-absorbed by whatever the hell this was.
Alright, plan, I don't fucking know, Q, I thought, manifesting dozens of Air Blades. My Temporal Protection did not extend to them, and to extract someone who was protected against such abilities, that meant I didn't need to be careful.
Sending the blades deep into the meaty formation, the dark blue-red flesh parted, blood spurting as the walls shuddered in silent agony. In response to my attack, the outer layer opened up, like a Lovecraftian flower made of writhing, discolored human arms, revealing Alexandria. The woman was limp, held in place by sickly tentacles, each ending in a boneless human hand, rubbery fingers grasping the Triumviteer tightly.
To my side, the bulging flesh parted, and I saw a version of myself, naked and emaciated, hit the spongy floor. It looked up, and instead of eyes it had two intricately formed crystals, the Purple & Red Flames of its REAP swirling outwards, reaching out for me.
With a flex of will, I increased the sound of its heartbeat, causing it to explode.
Note to self, don't touch, I thought, trying not to think too hard about killing another version of myself, and returned my attention to Alexandria, as yet another clone of her started to form. More air blades reached in, cutting into that which held the Triumviteer captive, only for the outer layer to snap shut like a venus fly-trap, trying to trap whoever moved to save the woman.
Instead, all it did was close on my compressed air, setting itself up for my next move.
A single silver sun dart was fired into the mass, which touched the trapped blades, setting off an explosion which blew the fleshy flower to pieces, freeing the woman, who gasped, coming out of the eternal nightmare she'd been trapped in, and which Echidna had tried to pull me into as well.
The woman started to fly upwards, directly for the meaty ceiling, where she'd be caught once again. However, she was damn fast, and hit the flesh before I could stop her, where she promptly passed out once more, the long muscular tendrils wrapping around her as she went slack, and it started to lower her back to the wrecked holding mechanism, making me wonder how many times this had already happened.
Moving to the woman, I caught hold of her, and used an air blade to sever the tendril, breaking the connection and waking her once again. She tried to fly away, to drag me into the walls as she panicked bllindly, and she could, but before she'd risen more than a few feet I Strode us both high above the city, even as I mentally commanded the bits of starstuff I'd left behind to expand outwards.
Alexandria twisted, trying to slam a fist into me at blistering speed, only, with the crack of splintering bone, to break her arm against my plate mail. The woman screamed, her ulna having snapped in such a way that it'd pierced her arm and the bone was now sticking out of her costume as she bled from the wound. I sighed, taking us, not to our own defensive position, but in the opposite direction, covering the woman with Healing Fire even as I touched a metal tendril to her flesh through her now torn costume, dumping Get Better into the idiotic woman.
"Hell of a way to say thank you," I mused, as we stood amongst the trees, far away from everything else. I could feel Taylor's presence, extending the Insect Network even this far, but I mentally waved her off as she turned her attention my way.
"Vejovis!" the woman I held spat, voice thick with pain.
"Nephilim," I corrected mildly, knowing that, the second I let go of her, however healed she was, she'd stay that way. While part of me was tempted just to kill her now, to remove her as a threat, from what Herb told me, she was one of the few holding Cauldron together, and without her it was a question of when Eidolon tried to kill us all, not if.
If he was in front of me, the choice would be easier, I mused. Though, if he were in front of me, it would be harder to kill him than it would be for me to end Becky here and now.
I couldn't tell how much she was healing, which was a bit of an issue, but between the high-intensity Healing Fire, only Stellar Negation not setting the forest ablaze around us, and Biokinesis at full blast, it shouldn't be that long. Checking the woman's arm, the flesh had re-knit, my costume cleaning off the blood to reveal unblemished skin.
Pulling the Healing Fire from her, I let go, stepping away. "There you go, Costa-Brown," I told her, as she flew back, through a tree, thankfully once more in stasis as she sent splinters flying in every direction. "Vejovis insists you're worth saving, but I don't see it," I remarked, shaking my head. "At least I know my Tinkertech works on you. Try to avoid getting caught again, saving you was a pain. Now, I've got work to do," I sneered, Striding back over Philadelphia, once more starting to fire Absolute Territory beams down into the masses as I considered what I'd just seen.
Well, that explains the production capacity, I thought darkly, looking down at the city and at the masses of power that roamed it. Now that I knew what to look for, and now that the battle was underway, I could spot the patterns, False Hosts of similar types emerging from specific districts of the city, all coming together to assault the emplacements on the river's edge. If they used the tunnel systems I found, the ones that twisted this way and that, they'd meet and mix from what I could only call Spawning Chambers. If, for instance, I wanted to deny Echidna her False Hosts that attacked with blasts of rock, I'd need to chase the trapped True Host down in the northeastern part of the city.
I'd had no idea how the broken Sharded Host had been able to distribute out its creations, but if it had somehow spread itself out, that solved that question. This Shard was working at almost full capacity, on a thin veneer of its original configuration keeping it stable, stretched across like slowly splitting skin over its hard surface.
Alright, so now what, I wondered, but I had the answer.
Striding back to the chamber I'd pulled Alexandria from, I shifted to Shadow Form and dropped through the now charred flesh, and the still slowly expanding sun, trying to find the base. Deeper down, I tried to tap Mineral Manipulation and Aerokinesis to find the voids that would be other Spawning Chambers, but the ground was so riddled with half-flooded tunnels that it was nearly impossible to make heads or tails of what I was feeling. I finally guessed and headed right for the nearest one.
On the bright side, I succeeded in finding another Spawning Chamber.
On the not so bright side, my vision grayed out as I passed through the flesh wall, as even insubstantial the 'contact' was enough, and it was only my momentum that pushed me into the main chamber, the exit tunnel held closed with something distinctly sphincter-like.
Regardless, Air Blades were manifested, and the gathered False Hosts, all with variations of the Piercing Dash, power lunged for me, only to be ripped to shreds. The shreds were re-absorbed into the twitching, organic floors, and I started forming silver suns, sending them out even as I turned to look at the flesh-flower in the center, trying to figure out how to free the True Host within.
I only had a moment's warning as the entire chamber flexed, before surging inwards, the walls, floor, and ceiling all closing in on me, trying to capture me by any means possible.
I Strode out right before it touched me, emerging back on the surface, turning and Striding again as attacks steaked upwards, tracking me, along with several instances of Trickster's power.
Too close, I thought, setting those Suns to expand. I'd kill the Host, but I couldn't risk trying to save her, not when-
I felt something in my being yanked, something trying to teleport it away, even though none of the Tricksters had a lock on me, and it was only by Striding with it did I not have my heart torn out of my chest, only to find myself in another flesh chamber, tentacled arms reaching up towards me, a Trickster Clone standing nearby, glowing blue-green eyes intent on me, holding my organs in place.
No! I thought, teleporting out anyways, even as I felt something inside me tear, a cold emptiness in my chest as I made it to the surface. Desperate, I clawed open my costume, blood spurting as I revealed the unbeating void, and desperately stuffed Healing Flames inside myself, Injury Empowerment spurring me on, as I felt another Trickster hook into my right hand, tearing it away in a spurt of blood, my blade falling to the rubble below.
How!? I thought, Striding to South America, covering my stump of a wrist in silver flames as well, but the feeling of more invisible hooks grew, they're line of sight!
Only, as the tearing feeling grew, did I realize that the entire point of these stupid clones was that each one was a little different, another take on the power, though I'd already seen several that were essentially the exact same ability with only surface level changes.
Rather than loose another limb, I went with it, already spinning up a Hypersonic Detonator, letting it go the second I arrived, face-first into my attacker, this Trickster with purple glowing palms, killing everything around me, even as I could feel my flesh writhe, my hand slowly re-growing itself under the blistering heat of Healing Flames.
Striding to the South Pacific, I gasped in pain, getting lightheaded as I still lacked a heartbeat, though several seconds later, with a sound like thunder as I curled up, floating above the waves, it started again, bits of silver flame exiting my chest and healing the gory hole I'd frantically ripped into myself.
"Nephilim!" I heard, realizing that someone was calling me. "Nephilim, are you alright?" It was Quinn. "It says here you're off the coast of the Philippines!"
"Ȉ̷̢̨̳͓̳̬̰͚̠̘̞̪̼͔̮̫̪́̂̄̊̎͋̆̾̆'̷̨͔̦͚̤͕̗̝̞̬̥̟̹̰͓̆̈́́͋̎́͜͠m̴̛̼̥̠̾̈́̈́̿̑͛̉̓̕͝ ̸̦͕̼͍̣̽̍̀̽̋̿̀̄͗́̚̚͠͝f̸̧̡̖̟̣̹̼̠̹̋̅͗̋͗͋ȉ̴̺̲̪͎͈͉̖̟͜n̴̢͓̩͇͕̥̺̱̱̦͇͉̈́̋͒͐̄̉̎̂e̵̩̤̙̮̗͕͕̥̘͈̟̟̣̺̟͈̿̒͌̌̔ͅ,̴̩͖͓̥̦̩̤̹̰̦̫͑͜" I bit out, shuddering, trying to center myself, repeating, "I'm fine. New Trickster Variant. Takes pieces of you, and doesn't need line of sight. Leaving the zone doesn't help. I-"
I could feel the hooks start to dig into me again, as I hadn't killed the one that'd stolen my left hand, which was still slowly reforming. This time, however, I could feel it pulling my skull. "Lethal threat, trying to take my head, killing the fuck out of it now," I amended, creating a hand of silvery star as I Strode to where I was being dragged, launching it at the Trickster even as I tried to Stride out, but this time Echidna didn't try and trap me in a flesh flower, the entire structure already collapsing down on me.
I killed the Trickster, and tried to fight through it, even as the world started to grey out. Desperately, I tried to Stride home, only to find the power had a mass limit, and all of Echidna far acceded it. I tried to set off another Hypersonic Detonator, but my control over my own powers was slow, sluggish, like writing with a numbed hand, and while my scream of soul-deep pain echoed outwards, it wasn't enough force to free myself.
Beams of Absolute Territory punched out in every direction, but couldn't block the flesh, projected metal tried to cut, but fell limp around me, my Stars were only sparks when I tried to form them, shields winking out before they were created. My body crackled with electricity, charring some of the suffocating flesh pressing down in me in every direction, my control worsening every moment. Even my own muscles started to fail, weaker than I'd ever felt in my life.
"h-help," I barely choked out, barely able to twitch, as everything went dark.
And I fell into a gaping maw of blackness.