False Hosts, imperfect copies of me, died even as they manifest their own stars. Some didn't have Stellar Negation, unable to copy it in time, and burnt to death, for whatever reason not having my own Immunity to heat. Then again, given how each of them seemed to have differing versions of Unlimited Shard Works, it made sense that my other powers would be changed, corrupted, like the False Hosts of ITERATION always were.
As I Saw them though, I was unable to copy their ability to copy, recursive power gain beyond me, though I felt an odd presence in the air. Reaching mentally out, I realize it's power, my power, cut free from the dead False Hosts and dissipating. Reaching out, I pulled it to me, wisps of Purple & Red Flame flowing in from the void to rejoin my internal Sea of Flame, but I was not the only one to do so, the Flames of the other False Hosts brightening as they, too, pulled that freed energy to themselves.
Each kill will empower the rest, I thought, as the clones got over their initial shock at my emergence and started to attack. Swarming up, they climbed the remains of the flesh flower that had kept me trapped, but, only possessing the singular power they copied from me, they were slow.
How Highlander, but there will be only one.
The Stellar Creation power had been warped by the copying, some of the stars sent my way small, but faster than normal, easily blocked as I created a dozen more suns. Some of the stars that I Saw were cold, having frozen a few False Hosts solid, with ice forming underneath those Polar Stars, while others had been formed into blades, or armor, or snarling creations that charged me as well, uncaring of anything in their path.
Seeing these uses, I was able to adapt my own Stellar Creation, taking uses that were close and amalgamating them into the original ability, but some, like the Polar Stars, were so different they formed entirely new Minor powers of their own, in that other world. My own sun darts sped out, faster, smoother, as stellar armor started to form around me, more and more capabilities added to the single Minor Power I wielded against them.
Other False Hosts then copied my copying, but not all could, and as they started to reach me, I fired down into them. Some were killed by the sun darts, but others blocked the attacks, my darts stopped by theirs, or they took the projectiles without issue, immune to the heat, the force in those attacks nothing more than a firm push, and the constructs were too blunt to have any true piercing power. I tried to spin them tighter, but I'm forced to move more and more disks of star in defensive formations as the False Hosts started to pour more fire in my direction, as I try not to be pushed off-balance, and into the hordes below. If I had time, I could manage it, this new use of the Shard, but not now.
Time to move, I thought, as I launched myself into the masses of clones, almost all with some variation of my own face, trying to take the fight in a direction I could control.
Claws of silver starstuff caved in a False Host's chest, burning it even as it slammed a spinning blue star into my own chest, the force of the blow skidding off my armor, the heat not mattering, as I killed it, and move on, pulling the freed energy to me, the others turning and starting to converge on my new location, my inherent strength allowing me speed and maneuverability even without utilizing my flight abilities.
Leaping to the side, I slammed a fist through my own copied face, killing the clone, while I reached out and grab another, swinging it as hard as I could into the horde, slowing them slightly. One False host snarls at me, and I see my own face twisted in contempt and rage, as sharp crystalline claws slammed against my armored chest, finding no purchase as its hands glowed prismatically. However, I could feel something strike my Sea of Flame directly, and in that other world I perceive barbed, writhing tendrils reaching through the infinite void, trying to hook into me and rip out more bits of my power.
I knew, somehow, that this Clone could tear out the Shards of other hosts and gather them into itself, but I've had enough of others trying to consume me, and snarl right back, reaching at the tendrils with hands of Purple & Red Flame, grabbing onto the barbed limbs, and pulling.
The False Host's eyes went wide, as it tried to pull away in reality, to break the connection, but I wrapped a sun-clawed hand around its throat and smiled, as, in the other world I hoisted the Shard closer and closer, creating a bubble of sun around us in reality, to keep out the other False Hosts, and to give me the time I needed.
"Welcome back," I informed it, as I see the twisted amalgamation of Crystal and Flame that is the Clone's 'Shard', my stolen power stitched together with ITERATIONS' own foul flesh. It is a weak, guttering thing, fed on the remains of its ilk, and it struggles like the fish on a hook it was as I reeled it in, Flaming mouth opening wide as the jaws emerged from my Sea of Flame like a breaching leviathan from the deep.
"Mercy!" it shrieked, panicked, the first word any of them have said, and, if I cared, if it had just been the only clone, if it hadn't just tried to steal even more from me, I might have listened. Instead I yanked it close to my Sea, blazing teeth snapping shut as I take my power back, the False Host's body spasming as it died, bits of Flame rising from its mouth as sharpened bits of freezing cold star pierce the bubble of flaming starstuff around us, the False Hosts tearing down my defenses. I toss away the empty shell of a body as I drop the flaming walls, leaping back as the clones trying to hit me with everything they have.
Not sure I can fight them at once, I moved to the side, trying to pick off the outliers. My next target, though, blocked my attacks with a Star Shield of its own, and while I am physically stronger than any of them, by dint of the metal running through my flesh if nothing else, Stellar Creation is a power that works independent of muscular force. What's more, the powers are inviolate in their own way, and I am unable to break through the blazing hot orange star of the False Host with my own silver sun claws.
Instead, all I manage to do is give the others time to close, their own hot and cold stars useless against my Immunity, but the strikes are strong enough discharge my shields, and a ripple goes through the masses, as they copy that power as well.
Shit, I thought, as the strikes suddenly hit a lot harder, and my own strike against a False Host does nothing, though its follow up attack on me is just as weak as the others had been moments ago, its shield having dropped. With the power already shown, and copied, I pop another of my shields to lash out with a kick, the False Host dying instantly, its pulverized body hitting two more, dropping their shields, but the masses close ranks before I can use that opening to whittle the others down.
Okay, they copy base powers, I think, gathering more ambient Flame, my own shields having slowly been built up over weeks of practice. I can work with this.
However, now all of them can now fly, and it complicates things quite a bit more, the Clones trying to dog-pile me from every direction now, and I do not have enough shields to take them all on.
Think, Lee, what powers can you let be copied? Movement powers were dangerous, I needed to make sure none of these False Hosts escaped. I knew what I could do, if I didn't hold back, if I didn't play things carefully, and False Hosts were everything the originals weren't. An unrestrained power copier would kill tens of thousands before it was stopped, at least, and Cauldron eventually realize these False Hosts had used me as a Template.
Can't Stride, can't Lightning Leap, can't even use Marking, I thought, trying keep my distance, but even with the deaths I'd inflicted the space was too small, and their numbers too many to truly separate from the swarm. Maybe if I did the key component of an ability where they couldn't See me to copy it? I thought, desperate, unable to take the time needed to plan as they closed in on me, trying to cut me off, battering me with super-strength as I lost shield after shield, the metal under my costume in places, under my skin in others, straining to absorb the crushing force.
"You can't plan your way to victory!" a False Host crooned in a distorted version of my own voice, and I lashed out at it, but it flew back, the statement a taunt to let others strike me, but no less true for that fact.
"Every moment we grow stronger! Firmer in ourselves!" a second laughed, and I could tell it was right. The first set hadn't been able to handle touching what I was, but with every passing second, they gained skill with the two powers they had, their Flames stabilizing and growing. I was recovering, pulling in more power just being myself, putting myself back together from the tender ministrations as I was drained by the vampiric ITERATION, but these False Hosts were watching me, learning, and better streamlining themselves. While they were batteries to my eternal river, they were dams that could flood in an instant, quickly learning to manage their flow, while I was set curve, unable to burst if need be.
"Your only hope is more power! More Shards to throw against us! Enough to stop us in an instant!" another me shrieked madly from behind, and I twisted as it tried to punch me in the face, slamming into my completely opaque helmet, my neck snapping back, but the metal laced through my spine took most of the force, sending me flying into several other waiting clones.
"Or to flee! Run, Prime, and survive, for now! All it will take is leaving the others to be harvested, and what have they done for you anyways?" another in the back demanded, as I shoved my way out from the mob, flesh bruising and breaking under the blows I suffered.
The statement almost made me hesitate, but I shifted, turning as they started to close again. They have my memories, I reminded myself. They have to have them in order to take me apart. They know how I think. They're right, I can't succeed here, I thought, but I'd had enough of unwinnable bullshit.
They wanted me to hit them with everything I had, and that meant Aero and Acoustokinesis, but that was just as wrong as keeping everything restrained as I was, trying to do nothing at all. Both powers would turn into a tug of war, and while I was stronger than any ten of them, there were a lot more than ten here.
Enough time thinking, I told myself with a grimace, anger bubbling up inside of me once more. Why couldn't this shit just end? FINE! If they wanted hardball, then Fuck It.
I darted to the wall, turning my back on the dozens of clones, and reached to a power, pulling on it, preparing it, even as I hid what I was doing from the others.
"You think that's enough!" my own voice screamed at me as they charged, a few flying past to see what I was hiding, even as I felt arms grab me, wrenching me back, forcing me to spread out, to leave me vulnerable and open to their searching gaze.
But all I cared about was the fact that they were now in range.
Mithral spikes shot out from every limb, extending in every direction as hard and fast as I could make them. The first ones were stopped by shields, but the second to hit each False Host holding me struck true, piercing deep and branching outwards to the next set behind them, followed by the next wave of metal on top of that.
There was a moment of shocked silence, some of the False Hosts having blocked the spikes with Stellar Barriers, or were far enough to throw out tendrils of their own, but over a dozen were skewered, and, as I turned, they were ripped to bloody chunks, over a dozen versions of me torn asunder by my power, as I killed myself by the score.
The others instantly adapted, long tentacles of metal, wood, stone, bone, crystal, and ropy flesh extending from the dozens still surviving, cladding themselves in armor as I did, the room even smaller as each of us, a dozen feet tall now, flew together, and I tore into them as they tore into me, in a race to victory, even as I pulled in more and more of my stolen power back.
It wanted to go to my core, to better rebuild what had been taken, but I imposed my will upon in, redirecting it to a single Shard, one that they'd be hard-pressed to use correctly. For several more seconds, we madly scrambled against each other, tearing, slicing, ripping, but now that the False Hosts had protected themselves in suits of armor, just as I had, it was a Sisyphean task, draining my stamina, tiredness at losing metal assaulting me, just as it surely as it had to be affecting them.
Metal tendrils burst from the wall, tying me down, as I followed the power to an unarmored clone in the back, its version of projection not centered on itself, but on other surfaces. I tried to copy that as well, and integrate it into Metal Projection, but the Minor power ached inside of me, already growing, broadening, deepening, and it started to push against its moorings, straining at the limit that demarcated a Minor power from a Major one, and I let it go, only stealing uses, techniques, and minor variations from the others around me, even as Bone Projection, Stone Projection, Crystal Projection, Flesh Projection, and many others sparked to life in my inner Constellation.
Those anchoring tendrils tried to bite deep, tried to seek out my core, where my fleshy body hung, but its iron couldn't pierce my Mithral, even as the others closed, unfortunately with a little more caution than before, only a few attacking me directly at a time, tearing and fading back in the small chamber, to better let the others take a shot, and take the risk.
Regardless, I broke free of the restraining iron tentacles, as I felt the air around me dry, the traces of my stolen Flame no longer available, and my chosen Shard practically hummed with power.
Let this work, I thought, even as I pulled on Absolute Territory, and shone like a silver star, solid rays of Pierce bursting from me in every direction, as I sought out the hearts of my copies, the False Hosts bearing my visage falling back, even as the closest ones died, armor tearing like taught paper against the piercing spears of light that radiated from me.
The other False Hosts pulled away, even as they tried to copy my Major power, four screaming as they detonated like bombs, their Shards unable to handle the load, and losing cohesion. Armor of metal, strengthened flesh, and the strange interdimensional cloth of my costume held up under the barrage, even as those detonations rocked the cave, causing it to collapse around us.
Lifting my hands high, I fired my Absolute Territory upwards, creating a way out. Hidden from sight, I slammed down on the earth with Mineral Manipulation, trying to kill as many of myself as I could as I escaped, flying up, up, up, until I finally broke the surface, the gore-streaked rubble looking almost like paradise after that dead, organic hell, but I wasn't done.
Eight other beams, azure, crimson, gold, emerald, copper, teal, violet, and black pierced the sky as well, in a rough circle around me, eight other False Hosts clawing their way to the surface, as the others died below me, their unmoored power thick in the air, the ground almost hazy with it, as we all drank it in, consuming as much as we could, to deny it to the others as much as to empower ourselves.
We all grew, our various Projection shards pushed forward. I shifted to the form I'd worn once before, when I'd fought the Simurgh, an enormous humanoid, almost angelic in appearance, with three pairs of great metal wings, though I lacked the Lightform I had used in tandem with it. However, then I had needed pure power, while this time I needed speed, so the form pulled inwards, smoothed out, like the form that which I'd used to close in on Leviathan, my limbs almost becoming unnaturally thin, open ribbons of mithril that would almost seem like ornamentation closing tight into solid, aerodynamic, and smooth armor.
The others twisted and distorted as well, into a variety of shapes. A wrought iron devil, with blackened bat wings and a long, barbed tail; a hulking stone golem with rounded features but blunt mass that could be thrown about at will, a six-legged bone tiger that fell forward to stand on all its limbs, a scorpion's tail arcing upward over its body; a long crystalline snake that reared up, looking oddly familiar; a writhing mass of flesh containing countless screaming mouths, each one promising death; a golden angel, like the one I was a moment ago, but even bulkier, though only with a single pair of wings made of starstuff; a naked man made of smooth obsidian, like a thirty-foot statue that burned with inner fire that shown through its cracks; and a giant spider, seemingly made of metallic cloth that fluttered and snapped in the breeze, its body a thick knot at the center of enormously long legs.
Each one, I could tell, was weaker than me, but together? That was another thing altogether.
In theory, the other False Hosts should have empowered a single representative to fight me, maybe even temporarily boosting them to the point that one twisted copy of myself could overpower me, but their methods were the inverse of mine, refusing to help others, only strengthening themselves.
And I'd been so tempted to do that very thing, to go on a trip collecting every power I could, to break into the Birdcage and reave the abilities that were so strong their users had been locked away, too valuable to be killed, saved for the rainy day of Golden Mourning. That had been my trip to Maine, if I was being honest, and it had been so hard not to abandon New Brockton Bay, write it off as unsalvageable, and seek only to empower myself.
And I had not doubt that, should they win, these False Hosts would do just that, no matter who it hurt.
And so I had to stop them, no matter how much it hurt me.
The consolidated energies of a dozen lesser versions of me sang through my veins, some escaping my grasp to sink into my Sea, but every bit I could hold was forced into Absolute Territory, the power that would make or break this fight. It was strong, but could be overpowered, not with the mutually exclusive nature of Stellar Creation, and would be what I used to end this.
Throwing my hands out, I pulled on the power, full to bursting, and sent out dozens of beams streaking out, careful not to touch Arthropod Control any more than to observe through them, knowing the second I manipulated the power was the second this entire thing spiraled out of control.
I saw the fighting of Clone on True Host had paused, all turning to stare at me and my False Hosts, as each of us shone brilliantly, enough to become a sunrise ourselves to the north of them, even as the true sun set in the west. Communicating through the Insect Network, I sent Taylor a single word, unable to do more, as the language felt clumsy in my mental mouth.
And that was all I had time for, as my Absolute Territory attacks reached their targets, only to be met in some cases by the False Hosts with Absolute Territory beams of their owns, while others spun the ability into spherical barriers, my attacks sliding off, while the glow from one brightened. Turning to See it with my own eyes, it had combined the armoring uses of Bone Projection with Absolute Territory.
The chitinous tiger's body seemed to expand, the crimson energy spilling from it warping and twisting as it grew into a glowing representation of itself, three times as large, the creature now sixty feet tall, as the energy rippled, changing color to match its original self, though now glowing faintly.
We all had watched, had Seen, and had learned, and I didn't hesitate to do the same, Absolute Territory straining under this use as I poured more power into it, forcing the area around me to be me in a way I couldn't put into words.
The bone Tiger charged, its claws infused with the essence of Cut, it's chimeric tail embodying Pierce. Turning my eighty-foot body, clumsy and ponderous, using my two active flight powers to speed my reaction, I met it, head pounding as I caught its first two claws, the second pair of legs tearing into my AT, as its tail shot for my head, which I barely pulled out of the way, twisting and trying to throw the enormous creature, pitting my own will against its own.
And I succeeded, for it was a False Host, and I was not.
Hurling it to the side, I focused inward, at the torn bits of my armor, as the other False Hosts had the benefit of time to stabilize themselves, and I Saw how the stone Golem infused its body with the essence of Durability, and I combined that with the Statue's Hardness, and the Angel's Resilience.
Pain bloomed behind my eyes, as I tried to manage the concepts, each the same but intrinsically different, and apply them to myself, even as I grew claws of my own, the Devil almost dripping with Corruption, Anarchy, and Rot as it flapped its wings, flying at me with reaching talons, and I shifted my stance to try and meet it, only to be blind-sided as the Snake blasted forward even faster, the concept of Tear ripping across me in a way I instinctually wanted to mimic, my flesh starting to sharpen into points, but I took control of myself and slammed a fist into the center of its crystalline scales, Pierce in my claws as I gripped it, taken off my feet by the force and dragged along, out of the Devil's path.
Riding the Serpent, it tried to dig into the earth, only for the rubble to ripple, an enormous orichalcum spear shooting out to try and skewer it through its jawless face. The weapon broke at its base, but not before shoving the False Host off track, and I twisted around, grabbing the weapon as the world blurred by, the Snake rearing up for another underground dive. Taking the weapon, I covered it in a Shield and slammed it down, the spirals etched throughout the shaft enhancing the force of my blow until it was a bomb-blast that picked me up and threw me away, rubble sent flying in every direction.
The Worm was cut, the back half dissipating, leaving only a severed crystalline tail, the False Host's body exposed, the attack having taken its fleshy legs, but that was not enough to kill it. Even now, it tried to regrow its crystalline body, but loosing that much material at once had slowed it, and I leapt forward, flapping my own wings as the Demon had, and struck deep, claws Piercing its flesh as I shifted the charge in my fingers to Cut, and pulled out, silver talons colored red with blood as the False Host died, exploding as the energy held within it destabilized.
This time, I rooted myself, the detonation pressing against my body but passing over me, and I turned as the Statue charged me at a dead sprint, arms outstretched, while a fifteen-foot representation of my own face in fire-veined obsidian snarled silently.
Bringing my hands together, I pulled Absolute Territory to its original configuration, writ large, gathering the ambient Flame in the air and channeling it through the Shard into a thirty-foot wide blast of Pierce that I fired at the False host, the statue crossing its arms as it tried to force its way through, but the stone started to break, and it was forced backwards, twisting as it flickered, losing an arm that fell away, energy dissipating, revealing the smaller core of stone that I'd removed.
I wanted to press the advantage, but the others were closing, charging across the ruined city, circling around me. A crimson wooden hand emerged from the ground, and if it weren't for the fact that it was Flameless, I would have thought it another False Host. Instead, it grabbed Angel's legs, tripping it even as it was ripped from the ground, revealing itself to just be an arm, but one that was quickly growing into a familiar woman.
The Angel swung its sword, charged with Destruction, and sliced into the still forming, Endbringer sized Dryad, but she started regrowing the removed section before the blade had fully exited her, torso extending, and from that a second arm emerged.
Meanwhile, the writhing, screaming Flesh reached me, rolling over itself before extending outward like an enormous mouth, ready to engulf me, teeth charged with Consume, but that was something I was far more familiar with than itself, and charged my own gauntlets with the Concept, leaping forward and tearing through the center of the mass, taking its energy for myself as its teeth dragged along my armor, tearing and eating bits of me in turn.
My head swam, trying to hold the different Concepts, and my mouth face felt wet, but I didn't have a face, only a helmet. I blinked, realizing that it was my flesh, at the center of both shells, that shook and spasmed with the strain, the coppery taste of blood in my mouth, but I wouldn't stop, couldn't stop, or it was all over.
I had lost so much, every step forward accompanied by two steps back. I'd lost my friends, my hopes for cooperation, and I'd almost lost myself to ITERATION. I refused to lose everything now!
Landing at a run, I turned as the Devil struck, claws not piercing deep, but Corruption left copper trails along my form, the corrosive AT breaking down my defenses, while my own Consume claws found its iron flesh harder to pierce, and the Flame that I reclaimed made my fingers burn, carrying the same acrid taint as everything else in that False Host's presence.
Turning, I dropped Consume, and reinforced Resilience through my body, the copper rot stopping, as a beam of black Negation from the Spider made me leap away, the Devil's tail caught in its blast and evaporating as if it never existed, the glowing copper creation regrowing slowly, very slowly, as the Devil pulled back, letting the emerald-glowing Golem step forward, the hundred and fifty foot tall monstrosity swinging a blunted earthen fist of Momentum at me, which I barely dodged, striking with gauntlets of Pierce that bounced off the giant's stony skin.
Remembering the feeling of the dissolution, I shifted gears, Corruption dripping from my claws as I didn't try to strike through its defenses, but dragged my talons over stony flesh, leaving silver trails of acid that ate away at the not-rock.
Another beam of black Negation came howling in, as Dryad continued to trade blows with the Angel, and I pulled back again, letting it pass between us, before I tried to use the same concept myself, but the second I tried to force Negation into my fingers, a flash of agony wracked me, and I lost control of the Absolute Territory, my gauntlets unravelling.
Forcing them back into place, I was distracted long enough that the Golem's arm caught me, sending me flying backwards, through a large pile of rubble, my armor cracked as I stopped, knocked prone. The writhing mass of Flesh tried to leap down to Consume me once more, but another Negation beam came for me, missing, vaporing half of the mindless hunger incarnate instead.
It shrieked, its body charged with Change as it shifted and reformed, the False Host inside safe, but as it shifted I read the patterns of energy in its form, seeing its main body and pushed off from the ground, diving for it with claws of Consume, grasping the False Host hidden within as I stumbled forward, pushed by sheer instinct as I brought that screaming version of myself to my helm, which split open into a metallic copy the Flesh's own form, rings of mithril teeth spinning as I C̸͉̲͙̼͎̅̐͗̃͜͜Ȏ̴̧̼̞̹̻̪͔̠̫̍̚N̶̢̺̯̤̠̱̥̒̅͐͛̊S̸̞͉̉̅Ǔ̵̢̡̼̱͔̪͓̱͍̈́́̅́̔̑͌͌͝M̴͖̟̩̄̆̈́̀̋̕͠E̶̡̠̜̫͖͆D̶̨̢̛̰̟̝̦̗̾͌̉̓̋͂͑͜͝ the malformed version of myself, my face ghastly as it screamed in terror in those final moments, taking its power for my own, empowering Absolute Territory even further.
The Major Power throbbed inside me, as I coughed, gasping, bleeding, but that only activated Injury Empowerment, bolstering my other powers as my body felt like it was melting from the strain.
But I couldn't stop.