“Scout it,” Noelle gave the order. “Recuperate while we wait.”
Marissa sent a hawk flying through the dense foliage. Noelle could feel that dull thrum of adrenaline, feel as though time had slowed down, her perceptions and reaction times cranked up to the maximum as she assessed every skeleton and bog zombie between her team and the hawk’s ultimate destination – a clearing with a withered crone standing idle in the center.
Everything was a clue, the placement the enemy had chosen for each unit crucial, because it would force them to maneuver one way or another. Was that treasure chest placed at the back of the swamp-dungeon because the enemy Overlord had wanted to put it as far out of reach as possible or was it because he wanted to bait them into a trap on that side of the room?
It would be impossible to guess from that one clue alone, but the position of the monsters, lighter on that end of the room-
“Stay to the right,” she ordered.
There were reports of assent from the others.
Like being aware one was dreaming without actually disturbing the dream, it was a rare thing to be in the zone and to be aware she was in the zone. She knew she was right.
“Cody, go ranged.”
Cody’s Highwayman sheathed his rapier and drew twin pistols from his belt.
“Luke, wind magic, wind spirits. Dimplecheeks doesn’t usually use casters as an overlord, but he’ll stick to old habits. He’ll have teleportation. Mars, circle around, poke at her from range. Go!”
They charged into the clearing. The hag, Dimplecheeks, summoned two Über demons as they breached the threshold, then teleported to the far end of the room. Luke’s shaman was already setting down wind spirits who were spewing forth miniature tornadoes, casting out gusts of wind that would accelerate his team and slow down or push their enemies.
“Enemy team just turned around,” Jess reported. “They’re backtracking for the portal. They’re going to invade en-masse.”
“Fuck,” Noelle said. Her mind was racing, covering a dozen factors at once – positioning her Challenger to best benefit her allies in the fight, avoiding the hag’s spells, calculating the damage her team was doing, keeping track of her items, and those of her team. “How many rooms?”
“They were one room past portal, they’ll be entering around now.”
Ten seconds at best. “We can’t kill her before they show.”
“Want me to send troops?” Jess asked.
“No. Fortify your dungeon. If they take us out, you hold them off.”
“You know my boss monster isn’t that strong. They’re only three rooms from fighting it.”
“Hold them off,” Noelle said.
Sure enough, the enemy appeared at the entryway of the boss room. Her team was hurt from the fight with the hag, and the enemy team hadn’t ventured far enough in to burn all of their resources.
Dying was inevitable. That didn’t mean that their efforts were futile. She had to slow them down- She challenged the enemy’s Chronomancer to a one-on-one duel, consequently shrugged off the vast majority of the damage the remainder of the enemy inflicted, and charged to close the distance to strike the mage down in three blows.
She challenged the hag the second her target was down, landed two good hits, dropping their target to a third of her total health.
Then Cody fell, with Luke falling shortly after.
Noelle managed to use her own body to absorb the worst of the enemy attacks while Marissa ‘kited’ across the area’s perimeter, maintaining a consistent distance as she fired arrows at them.
Caught between the approaching enemy and a cloud of poison fog the hag had cast, Mars chose to rush through the latter. Her health dropped to zero and she collapsed.
“Fuck! Fuck, fuck, fuck!” Cody was shouting. He kicked something.
It was as though Cody’s tantrum were happening in a very distant place. Noelle’s focus was entirely on slowing the enemy down. She challenged the enemy’s barbarian, because he did the lowest damage and everyone she didn’t challenge would do less damage to her. She took a swig of the potion she still had in her inventory from the start of the game. It wouldn’t restore even five percent of her health, but there was a dim possibility that it would force the enemy to land just one more attack. Take a half second, or invest a few magic points into an ability to catch her. Magic points they couldn’t use to take Jess on.
The three remaining enemy heroes bum-rushed her, cutting off her fighting retreat and forcing her into one location. The hag landed a toxin-bomb on her, and her health disappeared in an instant. The screen turned to shades of crimson and black, and a timer appeared in the dead center.
Forty five seconds to respawn. The enemy players were surrounded in flares of light. Level ups. It would make up for the expense of passing through the portal. It had been a good maneuver, perfectly timed, so they could disengage from Jess’ own forces and backtrack through her dungeon.
“Fuck!” Cody shouted.
Cody would take thirty seconds to respawn. Thirty to forty-five seconds before they spawned at the checkpoint…
No, the enemy’s bandit was backtracking through the dungeon. Hacking away at the checkpoint flag.
Now twenty to thirty-five seconds before they spawned at the dungeon entrance.
She watched the clock count down, bought new items, continued to watch the clock.
“Go!” she shouted.
Luke appeared soon after. So did the enemy Chronomancer, in Jess’ checkpoint room. The enemy was on the second to last room, dispatching goblin grenadiers and goblin gunners, fighting their way past the trenches Jess had laid down.
They defeated the last of the monsters. The blood gate was satisfied and opened, giving them free rein to fight Jess’ end boss, an ogre king.
The boss Dimplecheeks had put in the checkpoint room, halfway through his dungeon, was just as tough and more dangerous.
Mars and Noelle respawned, and they charged through the dungeon.
Jess had half her health remaining, the hag had one-third, but there were four enemies in Jess’ boss room and Cody hadn’t even reached the hag.
By the time Cody and Luke were in the hag’s room, it was thirty-twenty five in the enemy’s favor. The ogre king was tough, but slow, easy to hit. The enemy delivered damage steadily, while Luke and Cody were forced to adapt as the more fragile hag teleported to inconvenient spots, costing them precious seconds each time.
Noelle and Mars joined the fray.
When the fighting stopped and the screen went dark, Noelle wasn’t entirely sure if they’d won or lost.
Letters in gold script flashed across the screen. ‘Victory!’
The others were out of their chairs, cheering. She joined them. They hugged. She turned, saw Krouse perched on the desk in the center of the room beside Chris and Oliver. He was smiling.
Noelle hugged him, and for once she was able to forget all her doubts and insecurities, all her issues, the way even physical contact would leave her with a pit in her stomach. She hugged him tight, and it was good. It felt right.
“We’re going to nationals!” Cody whooped.
“That was you,” Krouse whispered to her. “You made the difference. You won.”
Her breath was too hot as it passed through her lips. The exertion, this body mass, it made her feel feverish. Worse than feverish. She felt like she had when she’d been camping as a child, standing too close to the fire, seeing how long she could endure it.
Only it was all over, inside her. A prickling, almost unbearable heat.
I know why you showed me that, she thought. She looked at Trickster; he adjusted his hat, swapped Sundancer with one of the flying capes. The sun fizzled out as she landed. One threat out of commission. Ballistic and the other cape he’d arrived with were down as well.
She tried to read Trickster’s body language. Back straight, walking with confidence. He’d hesitated when she’d asked for his help. Now there wasn’t a trace of doubt.
She’d admired that about him, had been jealous of it. The confidence. The sense of pride.
But the memory that had flashed across her consciousness, almost more vivid than reality, the emotions very real as she recalled them, it hadn’t served the intended purpose.
You can’t convince me that way, she thought. This victory and that one don’t even compare.
There wasn’t a reply, of course.
“Bitch! Run!” Regent hollered. “Go to Tattletale!”
Only his head, shoulders and one arm were free of Noelle’s grip. She tugged and pulled him in faster. He put his free arm inside her flesh, found something more or less solid and managed to push back enough to avoid having his head pulled in.
Trickster and Noelle wheeled around. Bitch, the girl with the dogs, was the last Undersider here. Trickster couldn’t find an angle to swap the girl with anyone else. The boy in the armor would be too large, and Trickster’s field of vision didn’t allow for him to get his eyes on her and someone more appropriate.
Noelle tagged several of the bodies in her internal stomachs, felt flesh constrict tight against them, felt the pre-prepared nuggets of flesh in her gullet forming into close replicas in an instant. Timing was crucial; if she spat them out too soon, they’d be malformed, missing limbs or features. Too late, and there was extra material.
She retched, sending them flying in the direction of the girl with the dogs. Bodies for Trickster to use.
But the boy with the armor was already moving. He slammed one hand into the ground, and a cloud of debris and dust masked him and Bitch.
She couldn’t wholly control the vomit, lost one of the powered ones. Not one of the Undersiders, she was relieved to note. It had been the big one, who’d been with the tinker. He’d called himself Über. She didn’t try to reclaim him. He was more or less useless. The loss still pained her. Better to have him than one of the unpowered ones.
Her vomit caught Genesis, who was presently a charging bull with a jellyfish-like tentacles trailing behind her. The vomit blinded Genesis, and Noelle struck her hard enough to kill. The body collapsed and started disintegrating.
“Hey,” Regent said. “Monster girl.”
Noelle snarled as she glanced down at the boy who was stuck inside one of her legs. Only his face was left to be consumed. Her voice was hoarse with emotion as she asked, “What?”
“When you make my clone, do you think you could give him a goatee?”
Noelle didn’t dignify the question with a response. She flexed and drew Regent completely within her body. She’d hurt him later. For now, she needed him to help her escape so she could hunt down his friends.
She ran. The simple act of moving flooded her body with endorphins and adrenaline. It felt good, made her feel strong. That was another avenue of attack, as her body tried to work its manipulations on her mind. The hunger, the heightened emotions, rewarding her with pleasant memories and good feelings when she operated in sync with it.
It was a matter of weeks, days or hours before she lost enough ground that she was the one trying to manipulate her body into doing what she wanted, with it calling all the shots. If the process continued, she would eventually be subsumed entirely, unable to do anything but observe, and maybe not even that.
The pavement had been cracked like a sheet of glass, and the footing was unsteady, but the mass of her body was crushing fragments underfoot, and she had four good legs, with five more for further support. Falling wasn’t a concern.
Noelle passed through the cloud of dust that the one in armor had sent flying into the air. She saw the armored tinker punching the ground once more, leaped to clear the ground that suddenly plunged into a pit in front of her. She picked out a selection from those within her and, with her rightmost head, sent a stream of bodies at him. He punched the ground with his other hand, and pavement tilted upward in a makeshift barrier, blocking the worst of the stream and flying bodies.
The ones who did land in his vicinity were on him in moments. One was the little space-warper, another was a copy of the firebreathing acrobat with the rich smell, and three were copies of the unpowered people she’d absorbed. They mobbed the armored tinker.
She hadn’t included the Undersiders in that stream. Until they were more fully absorbed, there was a good chance that she’d spit them out if she tried to copy them. Using any one person too frequently carried the same risks, and she suspected that it would be more difficult now that she was so full.
The girl in silver armor, with white flowing clothes was dashing toward her from the other side, not any slower for the shattered ground underfoot. Noelle picked out unpowered individuals she could afford to lose, closed her muscles tight around them, and spat out the partially formed nuggets along with a mess of the internal fluids.
The girl ducked low, landing on a fragment of road, using her forward momentum to skid toward Noelle as though she were snowboarding. There was an explosion of debris as she kicked off the ground, and the girl soared toward Noelle, twisting in the air to land a kick with that same foot.
It felt like getting hit by a cannon. Noelle’s stride broke and she had to plant one foot to the side to keep from falling over.
She’d lost ground, and Bitch was swiftly increasing the distance between them.
Noelle hesitated, then decided to let the girl go for the time being. Better to defend herself, establish a better position. While stationary, she could spit up an Undersider, swallow them back up again. She’d read up on them, had talked to Trickster about them. She had a good sense of what they were capable of.
But which one? She had three. Regent might work against this girl in white, but his influence would be too minor in the big picture. His smell was weakest of the three.
Not that it was really a smell… but she was peculiarly aware of the people with powers, active or otherwise. Each had a texture and a tone and a flavor, something she felt like she could come to understand. She might have said it was taste, might have compared it to when she’d tried wine that one time and tried to see what the wine aficionados looked for when they sampled a vintage. Except the word ‘smell’ worked better, because smell and taste were really very similar and smell worked over distances.
There was a difference in Skitter, Grue’s and Eidolon’s smells, along with a handful of the other visiting capes. A smell that set them apart from the other parahumans in the same way that the other parahumans were set apart from the people who could have powers but didn’t. An intensity.
She wished she’d spent more time researching the powers. She hadn’t been able to bring herself to, had wanted only to distract herself from the thoughts of what was happening to her.
Which one to use? Skitter was more dangerous in a general sense, but she wouldn’t stop the girl in white now. That left Grue.
She didn’t spit, but simply contracted and let the body spill forth. Sure enough, the real Grue tumbled out, prostrate, unable to move. A tongue snaked out of her center-mouth and caught him before he could try to escape. She’d swallowed him by the time her Grue was on its feet.
Noelle only had a glimpse of her Grue’s real form before he started cloaking himself in darkness. He was muscular, broad-shouldered, his long hair slicked to his head by the fluids of the vomit. Angry red ulcers studded his dark skin at set intervals.
He cast a glance over his shoulder at her as the darkness crept up over his shoulders and the back of his head. His eyes were black from corner to corner, his teeth too large, misshapen much like his fingernails were, tangled together to the point that he couldn’t open his mouth. It forced him into a perpetual grimace with his teeth bared.
He turned his back to her as the darkness covered his face, squared his shoulders. The body language was clear. He was protecting her.
He’s one of the useful ones, then. Her copies of the little space warper had been like that. Naturally inclined toward teamwork, disciplined. The other three were more likely to run off. They were still useful, but they did things in their own way.
Spheres of darkness appeared in her Grue’s hands. One after the other, he hurled them at the girl in white. The first missed, and the second seemed like it might do the same, until it arced in the air to strike her from the side.
The darkness was more like gum than smoke, and she struggled. Noelle’s Grue closed the distance, moving over the surface of the road much as the girl in white had.
Then Noelle saw why and how. A thread of darkness, barely thicker than a finger, extended from the sticky darkness to her Grue. That would be how he’d moved the projectile in the air, and how he was absorbing her power.
The boy in armor created a fissure that spat debris into the air as it parted, aiming to separate the Grue and the girl in white. By intent or accident, he cut the thread of darkness in the process. Noelle’s Grue stopped, turned to face the tinker and created more spheres in his hands.
Those two were occupied. Noelle turned to see Trickster dealing with the flying heroes. Two were on the ground, prone. That would be the result of Trickster baiting them into shooting one another. The remaining hero had a weapon in hand but wasn’t shooting.
Eidolon was there too. His smell was interesting. Complicated, but somehow off. If he was using any particular method of attack on Trickster, then Noelle couldn’t see it.
Trickster disappeared from the skirmish with the flying heroes, putting one of her creations in his place.
She sniffed him out. He was in the midst of the one batch of bodies that had piled up against the tinker’s makeshift wall. They were turning on him, grabbing for his arms and legs. He teleported to keep them from getting any serious leverage, but the escape was slow.
“Leave him!” she ordered, and her voice came out with surprising volume.
They didn’t listen. They struck him, gripped his costume and dragged him to the ground.
Trickster shouted in alarm as he was submerged in the mass of clones.
Noelle advanced on her creations in as threatening a manner as she could, the ground shaking with her advance. They noticed and backed away.
Trickster, for his part, didn’t even flinch as she closed the distance between the two of them, stepping within a few feet of him.
It would be all too easy to just snap her tongue at him. Catch him, swallow him.
She held off. Instead, she faced Eidolon and the other flying cape.
Trickster adjusted his hat and did the same. The two of them against the world.
“It’s not you, it’s me,” she said.
Krouse folded his arms. ”You can’t blame me at least a little?”
“No,” Noelle said, shaking her head. If I could only explain, I would… She could feel her throat seize up. Worrying that her voice might crack if she spoke at the normal volume, she lowered her voice to a hush as she said, “You’ve been great.”
He spread his arms, “I don’t get it. I thought we were doing fine.”
Doing fine? How many hours had she spent lying awake in bed, agonizing over this relationship? Hating herself?
She’d relapsed because of it, and recovering was proving to be a long, hard road.
“We aren’t!” Noelle said, “This is… it’s not working.”
“I’m okay with it. I enjoy spending time with you, and I didn’t get any impression you were having that bad of a time, either.”
“But we don’t- we aren’t-” She stared down at her feet. ”We’re stalled. It isn’t fair to you.”
“That’s what you’re worried about?”
Only part of it.
“Don’t dismiss my concerns,” she said, and the anger in her own words surprised her.
“No’, it’s fine. It’s cool. I get that there’s stuff you’ve got going on that you don’t want to tell me about,” Krouse said.
Her breath caught in her throat at that. Had Marissa told him? Or had he figured it out? It wasn’t like she hadn’t left signs.
He continued without a pause, “…I can be a bit of a jerk sometimes, but I’m not an idiot. And I’m not going to twist your arm to get you to share, either. That’s your stuff, and I figure you’ll tell me in time. Or you won’t.”
“It’s not fair to you.” Noelle knew she was repeating herself, but it was the only argument she could make. All of the others would involve discussing other topics, her issues.
And she couldn’t bring herself to do that. Marissa knew, would keep quiet because she got it. Marissa knew, wouldn’t bring it up, would back her up when needed.
Noelle loved Krouse, but she knew he wasn’t so graceful. It would become something jarring, intruding on their everyday interactions.
“I’m not saying things have to be equitable or balanced or fair or any of that. So who cares if things aren’t fair?” Krouse asked.
“Don’t do that!”
She could see his expression change to bewilderment at her reaction. He spread his arms, as if he were asking a question without opening his mouth. I’m being irrational… but that’s the disease at work.
It took her a long time to find the words.
“Someone said, a little while ago,” Noelle spoke without looking at Krouse, “That I can’t really forge a good relationship with others until I have a good relationship with myself.“
“You don’t?” He asked. “I think you’re fantastic, if that counts for anything.”
The words stung, nettled her, as if they personified his lack of understanding. She said as much, “You don’t know me.”
“I’ve been getting to know you some. And I have yet to see anything that’s going to scare me away.”
She couldn’t keep going down this road, couldn’t have an argument, or she’d let something slip. She stared at her feet. ”…I don’t think we should date.”
“Okay. If you think that’s for the best. But I just need you to do one thing. Look me in the eye as you tell me that.”
Noelle glanced up at him, then looked back down. She tried to find the words, but both brain and mouth failed her.
“Because,” he went on, “I think you’ve seemed happier than I’ve ever seen you since we started going out. Marissa said so, too.”
It’s… it’s a bad time for me, she thought, as if voicing the words in her head would let her utter them out loud. The wrong moment. Any earlier or later in my recovery…
He continued, “If you really feel like us dating is making things worse in the long run, then I’m perfectly okay with breaking it off. I can leave the club if that makes things easier on your end. It was your thing before it was mine, and you’ve got enough on your plate with being team captain.”
“I don’t want you to leave the club,” she said, meaning it.
“Okay,” he said. He paused very deliberately. She didn’t take the invitation to speak.
He sighed, ”Listen, I get the feeling today is a bad day. Don’t know why it is, but it is. And that happens. Fine. But I’m not willing to end this if it’s because the stars aligned wrong. So I’m asking you to tell me that you’re worse off because we’re together. Not asking for an explanation, just-”
Can’t do this. Can’t break it off. Not when he’s being this good about it. Not when it’s making the both of us this miserable.
“Never mind,” she said, abrupt. I’ll find another way.
“I’m- just never mind. Can we forget this conversation happened?”
“Sure,” he said.
Her feelings were a chaotic storm. Relief, quiet joy, fear, misery, self loathing, panic…
I’m not well, she thought.
”Want me to walk you home?” His voice was gentle.
She nodded mutely, unable to find the words to speak. A simple five word confession would simultaneously explain everything and spoil the tone of their relationship. She knew it, knew she was being irrational, that her recent relapse was making her that way, was making her nasty and emotional and unpredictable.
How could he not notice? The way she picked at her food, the way Marissa got on her case about eating? The countless other clues? Yes, she’d been in recovery for much of the time they’d known each other, but… hadn’t he been paying attention?
She simultaneously loved and hated him, in that moment. He was the best thing in the world for her, and the worst thing in the world for her, both at the same time.
And it wasn’t fair to him, putting that on his shoulders.
She was fighting with Eidolon. The realization startled her. She’d been adrift in vivid memories, and she’d lost time.
She sniffed, for lack of a better word, and found Skitter prone on the ground. Her tongue snatched the girl up, and she swallowed the girl anew. The taste and smell were right. Good.
That spooked her. Her body wasn’t making good decisions when it was on autopilot. Or, at least, it wasn’t making decisions she’d accept. Almost losing an Undersider? No.
She double checked. Skitter, Grue, Regent and the little space warper were safely ensconced inside her, each tucked away in neat little wombs, unconscious and helpless and safe from the ongoing fighting.
Why did you show me that? Why was that so important?
There was no reply. Never a reply.
Eidolon reached out with one hand, and she instinctively rushed out of the way.
The gravity effect hit her, and she could feel her flesh tearing, feel the extremities ripping: her ears, nose, lips and all the little pieces of her monstrous lower half. At her shoulders, the top of her head, the flesh above her spine on her lower half, the flesh was pulled down and away until it started to rip.
Eidolon fell out of the air, hitting the ground hard.
Noelle turned her head, saw Regent. Her Regent. He was only half-formed, one arm missing, the features of his face more like a fetus than a teenage boy.
She smiled. Maybe her other half had made some good decisions.
Her flesh was already knitting back together, everything shuffling into their proper places or shifting around to fill in gaps. The fluid that welled from a bottomless source in her monstrous lower half bubbled up and coursed through her veins to supply the needed materials.
The girl in white hit her again, striking the joint of one outstretched limb. Noelle swiped at the girl in mid-air with her other forelimb, came within inches of making contact.
The ground underfoot shattered. Noelle leaped before the tinker could repeat the effect and sink her into another sand trap.
There was another explosion from beneath her. She leaped to avoid the worst of that one. She vomited in the direction of the tinker, but he was anticipating the attack. He provoked an eruption of rock shards and dust midway between them. The bulk of the flying bodies and fluids were knocked off course by the plume of debris. With a third strike he raised a barrier around himself. Two of the three bodies that hadn’t been stopped by the debris were caught on the shards of pavement. One suffered a broken back, the other hit the edge of a fragment with enough force that his stomach was ripped open.
The third flew over the barrier. The tinker caught it with a punch, and the piledriver in his gauntlet extended twice in an instant, punching two neat holes through the upper body.
He didn’t even wait for the body to hit the ground before striking and creating another fissure that extended beneath the barrier and beneath her. She leaped out of the way before it opened wide enough to catch her or one of her feet.
It was bad timing. She had been distracted by the recent vision. Eidolon hit her square-on with another gravity attack. Her flesh was savaged and split, she was almost immobilized under the force of it. If the tinker used his power now-
Trickster broke Eidolon’s contact with the gravity field by teleporting him. The hero reacted in an instant, releasing a half-dozen blue sparks from each hand. They grew until they were each three feet across, crackling with electricity, moving at a walking pace as they slowly homed in on Trickster.
He had to teleport to avoid the closest one. Only some of the orbs followed him to his new destination, the others remaining where they were.
Noelle opened fire on the tinker, two streams of vomit, each directed to one side of him.
She considered vomiting on the electric orbs, then thought twice about it.
Trickster teleported again, trying to maintain distance, but Eidolon had created more of the sparks, and the things were spreading out evenly across the battlefield, moving closer to Trickster if he got within ten paces of them.
It threatened to hamper her own movements too, Noelle noted.
Eidolon raised a hand in Trickster’s direction, and Trickster was quick to teleport away. The gravity slam hit one of Noelle’s creations instead. Trickster wound up within two paces of one orb, and had to scramble back before it touched him.
Noelle looked at him, remembered the scene from the most recent memory. In this moment, with so many other people to be angry at, so many others to hate, she didn’t feel that bottomless resentment for Trickster that she’d experienced ever since the transformations started.
It wasn’t you, she thought. I keep saying it was your fault. It wasn’t.
She was already moving towards him as the thought came to her.
I blamed you for giving me the elixir. The potion. Whatever you call it. But it was me. I heard you guys talking about how the people who drank the stuff were supposed to get tested for psychiatric issues. I didn’t tell you the Simurgh showed me visions of my worst days, of my relapses, my lowest points. That she drove me into a state where I was reluctant to take the full dose, eager for a compromise.
She started running.
I knew all this, and if I’d only had the courage to say it, maybe this all would have gone a different way.
Oh, the irony, that this was what she’d become.
She crashed into the first of the lightning orbs. She felt the current surge inside her, settle in her bones, latent.
A heartbeat later, every single orb that Eidolon had cast out flashed with visible arcs of electricity, striking her. The energy ripped through her, stripping flesh from around the bone of her arm, her ribs, her spine, and the larger bones of her lower body. The electricity surged to the ground and out the top of her head, stabbing toward the sky in a visible lightning strike.
Noelle staggered, touched one hand to her face, where her flesh had been distorted by the strike, separated from bone so it hung down, large patches of hair at the crown of her head burned away. The ends of her fingers where she’d touched the orb were blasted away, revealing bone.
She could feel it growing back, flesh knitting together.
Even this wasn’t enough to kill her.
She touched another, and it was worse, drawing on the residual energy from the first contact.
The third was worse still.
She’d complained of the sheer heat of this body before, but this… it was heat and pain on an inhuman level. Transcendant. Were she regular Noelle, Noelle without the powers, without the monstrous lower half and warped brain, even a tenth of this would knock her out, stop her heart from the sheer intensity of it.
On contact with the fourth orb, her frontmost legs collapsed under her, with everything within a half-foot of the major bones being rendered to little more than ash. There was nothing to connect flesh to bone, and she toppled.
She roared, and for perhaps the second time in the past hour, both she and her monstrous half were in agreement. With her other legs, she pushed herself forward, and extended one of her long tongues for the orb closest to Trickster. To Krouse. She screamed in pain and fury as it ripped through her, and another bolt stabbed toward the sky.
Too much damage, too fast. She wasn’t healing fast enough.
A series of lightning strikes nearby marked the deaths of some of her clones.
Eidolon was there, too, at the end of the street. The glow beneath his hood and sleeves was almost blue in the reflected luminescence of the twenty or thirty orbs that hovered around him. A further twenty or thirty orbs were spread out over their immediate surroundings.
The others… the tinker had created short walls of stone to shield himself and the girl in white. The rest of the battlefield consisted of bodies and other fallen.
Eidolon spoke into his wrist. Noelle realized that there were other capes nearby when they each came to a stop, resting on rooftops and behind cover a few blocks away.
Short of Eidolon, there was nobody for Trickster to swap himself with. And given that Eidolon had so many orbs in his immediate vicinity… no, Trickster swapping himself for Eidolon wasn’t an option.
Her other half hated him, and she was realizing just how much her monstrous body had been influencing her without her knowledge, now that her emotions were all pointed at this one individual, this one target. It left her feelings towards everyone else at an almost normal level. Her feelings for Krouse, her hatred of the Undersiders, her anger at Coil, each had been twisted, magnified, warped.
“If he does another gravity attack, I’m kind of dead,” Trickster said.
“He won’t,” Noelle rasped, “He’d knock those orbs out of the air, and he’s counting on them to destroy me. They probably will.”
As some of her tendons and ligaments knit together, she got two legs under her and positioned herself as close to Trickster as she could without touching him, shielding him from the orbs that were approaching at a crawling pace.
“I’m sorry,” Trickster said.
Noelle couldn’t bring herself to reply. She wanted to say she was sorry too, that his apology was unnecessary, but a kind of indignant rage was rising deep within her, threatening to overwhelm her. All of it was directed at Eidolon.
And in the midst of that rage, she felt a killing instinct she hadn’t experienced before. Even coming this far, she’d never wanted to kill. She’d wanted the Undersiders dead, yes, she’d tried to kill people, but a part of her had always held back from wanting to kill, from wishing to carry out the act of murder herself.
To execute this man who sought to end her existence.
It wasn’t her desire, not really. It was her body’s.
“You want to kill?” she asked. “You really think you can fight your way through this?”
“What?” Trickster asked. “What are you talking about?”
Not talking to you, she thought. “I have two conditions. Don’t harm Trickster, and make it a nice memory this time.”
Then she let her defenses down. Her other self took over, and it wasn’t her memory that she experienced.
Some of the others departed early. Others were readied to depart soon after arrival. Still others, this one included, were to wait.
They were one, they were all. A collective, a single entity, a trillion times a trillion entities. Each with a function in the whole, each with a role in the cycles, each with an individual identity.
As one, they traveled. The distance was immeasurable, the passage of time impossible to convey. There was no standard, for there were realms they had traveled where time and space operated on different levels.
For all, their own kind was the only standard, the only thing that remained relatively static through the cycles. When they met their own kind they shared with each other. When a new cycle was carried out, everything of the parent was borne by their spawn.
And the collective moved toward their destination. They operated as a whole to decipher it, to pick apart the permutations, see the futures and the possibilities.
But for this one entity, which existed as part of the whole, there was a target within that destination. When it came time for this one to depart, it would seek out a particular individual, and it would bond with that individual. This one would fragment itself if others met the criteria; if there was time and opportunity enough then it would move to better candidates, younger or more able ones with a greater ability to affect the cycle. This one would wait until the time was right, and then it would activate, come into the identity and role that had been ingrained into its being.
All to serve this cycle.
With the help of the collective, this one could see its objective. A single living being. This one encoded that being, the time and place in its very makeup. It would be ready.
Noelle’s eyes went wide.
It wasn’t me.
Whatever her body was, the intelligence and purpose that lurked inside her other half, whatever these powers were. It had all gone to the wrong person.
Gone to the wrong person, askew from the beginning, then twisted further by her own psychological issues, messed up by the fact that she’d only taken half a dose.
The realization and the confusion that came with the vision were compounded as she stared at her surroundings.
Her minions surrounded her: two copies of Trickster; a skinny girl with long dark hair, covering herself with her arms and a carpeting of rodents, Skitter; a Grue; a Regent; two blondes who would be copies of the girl in white; four of the civilians, and one she didn’t recognize as any of the civilians she’d absorbed. The tinker. Eight of them in all.
Her flesh was knitting together. Wounds as bad as the ones before, and worse ones. Eidolon had apparently wanted to spare her captives, because the electricity had only affected her, her flesh as it surrounded her bones. He had selected that power with their safety in mind.
And there he was, in front of her. Eidolon, on his knees, covered in bile and blood.
“Why?” he asked, in an eerie, distorted voice.
You want to know why I did this? Where would I start? Why would I even tell you, when you tried to kill me, kill Trickster?
She was breathing too hard to respond, even with her nearly bottomless stamina.
“Why isn’t it working?” He asked.
“I…” she had to stop for breath, “I don’t care. Whatever it is.”
“I was supposed to get stronger, and there’s nothing. Nothing at all to reach for.”
She turned, saw Trickster on his hands and knees, covered in the fluids of her vomit.
You weren’t supposed to hurt him.
You were supposed to give me a nice vision, for that matter, she thought.
“Why?” Eidolon asked.
“I don’t care,” she said, again. She took a deep breath before speaking again, though there was little point, when it was this entire body that was so drained. “I… it’s your choice. We continue this fight, and my creatures run, they do whatever damage they can, and it’s weeks before you find every last one… or you let me go.”
Eidolon struggled to his feet. “Let you go?”
“Three Undersiders down. Three to go. Then I give myself up. Deal stands.”
“What’s to say you keep that promise?”
“Nothing. But you don’t have another choice, do you?”
Eidolon didn’t respond.
“I’ll even let you call in reinforcements,” she offered.
“Your knight in shining armor took it,” Eidolon spoke. “The wristband I use for communications.”
Noelle turned to Trickster, and he extended one hand, holding out one of the wristband displays. Noelle took it.
Her Skitter was watching, looking concerned.
“Don’t fucking look at me,” Noelle spat the words at her minion.
Her Skitter turned her eyes to the ground.
“Trickster said you thrived on this kind of impossible fight. Prove it. Or die horribly. I don’t care.”
Her Skitter looked up and smiled, lopsided. Half the girl’s face was paralyzed, Noelle realized. She wondered if the real Skitter had spaces between each of her teeth like that, or the gnarled twist of a nose.
Noelle turned back to Eidolon, waited for his decision.
“Okay,” he intoned. She gave him a curt nod.
Tentatively, Eidolon slid the armband into place and pressed a button. “Requesting reinforcements to my location. In bad shape, need to mop up some clones.”
Her Regent said something she couldn’t make out. He talked as though his tongue was too large for his mouth. He had more muscle than fit on his frame, stretching his skin almost comically tight. It was easy to believe the problem extended to the inside of his mouth.
“And they let me pass uncontested,” she said.
He spoke into the armband again. “Do not engage target Echidna.”
“Understood,” a woman’s voice came from the armband.
“Echidna?” Noelle asked.
“One of the PRT members coined it,” Eidolon said. He was eyeing her minions warily. “Said he had a three year old girl called Noelle, didn’t want to associate her with something like you.”
“What was his last name?”
Eidolon gave her a wary look. “Meinhardt.”
“Okay,” Noelle said.
Then she turned to run, leaving Trickster behind.
Her nose led her to the remaining Undersiders.
Back home, insofar as she had one. The same place where she’d been kept contained for weeks. Coil’s headquarters.
Surfacing from her dream, she’d temporarily supplanted the killer instinct that was demanding Eidolon’s head. Now that she was closer, her thoughts were afire with thoughts of revenge, and that killer instinct was welling up again. The idea that she’d maybe had the chance to get back to normal, that her friends had maybe been close to going home, and the Undersiders had taken all that away, it made her want to scream. To inflict punishments worse than death on them.
Her vision from before lingered. The entity. The thing that was taking her over, that had made her a monster, it had an identity, now. She wouldn’t say it had a face, but it was no longer a vague malevolent force, now.
Part of her felt sympathetic for it, because this thing that shared her body had been wronged by some nebulous circumstance. In that, at least, they were kindred.
Another part of her was just bewildered. The memory it had shared with her was so vast, it changed everything, had left her feeling like her problems here were so small, so miniscule. Even this, this fight, her revenge, in a way it felt artificial, false.
It’s not my world, she thought. It’s almost like a game. Killing characters in some false, barbaric setting.
If she felt like she was more in sync with it, now, did that mean she’d lost ground in her perpetual war with the entity, her other half? So much ground lost, so fast, in the heat of this battle?
She shook her head. Focus.
The tunnels that Coil had used to move his trucks in and out of the base had been collapsed, and it had been recent. She could smell the smoke from the explosives. She spat out a Vista, then another, and another, until she had one that could give her a way in, shrinking the rubble and expanding the corridor.
In her restlessness, unable to shake the idea that her sanity was slipping away moment by moment, she pushed her way through the last length of the rubble, absorbing it into herself and spitting it out behind her, moving through it as though she were a thick fluid; even her bones dissolved when needed. The only thing that slowed her down were the capes she’d stored within herself. Each of the three Undersiders, the tinker, and the girl in white. She used her strength to wedge gaps sufficient to squeeze the individual organs through.
She brute-forced her way through the last few feet of the barrier, and paced her way into the interior, the ground shaking with her footfalls. The vault door was still open, crumpled, and the entire interior was lit only by red emergency lights.
Tattletale was on the metal walkway, hands gripping the railing. Bitch was on the ground, with no less than seven dogs around her, each of varying size.
Noelle could smell the Protectorate and Wards members moving towards her location. She was put in mind of the memory her entity had granted her only a little while ago, of the night her team had passed the qualifiers for nationals. She’d passed the point of no return, and now the enemy forces were collapsing in on her.
She smiled a little. She would almost thank Tattletale for this, if she wasn’t so eager to rend the girl limb from limb, to wipe the smile from her face and hear her screams. All that aside, Noelle hadn’t felt more like herself in a long time, and she had these circumstances to thank.
The difference between this scenario and that one, really, was that the reinforcements were minutes away. This fight wouldn’t last that long.
“Well then,” Tattletale grinned. Her tightening grip on the railing betrayed the emotion she was trying to hide. “Come on. Do your worst.”