Staring at the oncoming volley of death, I shifted mental gears.
Could I handle this by myself? Possibly, but not without also killing everyone else withing a mile or so, causing Cauldron to freak out, and that was if the gathered hordes didn't have some kind of ability to defend themselves from the two nuke-level techniques I possessed, the base powers they used Major Shards for a reason.
Thankfully, I didn't need to, and while I wasn't in command of the gathered parahumans, I was in control of the PD.
New Wave's common power sprang to life at my mental touch, extending out a silver disk of force under my feet, allowing me a steady platform to work from. "Break, you and your cousins port in to Gauge, copy Glimpse, and return to base. You can't run strategy like you did while I was gone, but I want you riding shotgun, with Overwatch's power to interface with their cameras at a distance, and watch the PD's backs."
While I was doing this, I started using Aerokinesis to start spot-creating shields to catch and deflect projectiles coming our way, lightning crackling as it hit a target and spent its unnatural momentum, Ice and stone deflected off-course, fireballs exploding in mid-air and igniting the shields that stopped them, the detonated hardened air further deflecting attacks as I reached out with Acoustokinesis to ramp up force of those shockwaves.
Piggybacking Taylor's power, I spotted Herb warp in, homing in on the Mark that he, Mouse, and I had made sure to leave on every one of our people participating in this fight, just in case. He then used Quinn's summoning to pull in Replicants, who pulled in more, and so on, before they all dissolved into static, using Overwatch's ability to ride the network connection our comm units all had back to base.
While this was happening, I continued issuing orders. "Mouse, grab the Relay Insect canisters we've prepared, we're definitely going to need them. Bring them to me."
"Yes, Sir," she replied, not joking in the slightest, appearing in mere seconds with the first two, letting them go and teleporting away as Taylor moved forward in her living armor, quickly opening them up as she reached out with her power, awakening them out of hibernation and pulling the Swarm out.
Looking back at the masses arranged against us, through Strider's power I could start to feel the space around us shift and warp, Eggplant Purple and Seafoam Green Flames reaching out around us from several different points across the river. In response packed air in a shell and created a small, silver sun, before I Strode us all a few hundred feet to the right, leaving the shell and seed flame behind.
Two seconds later, as Mouse reappeared next to us with the next set of canisters, several naked, twisted clones appeared where we'd just been, three Ballistics bloating before exploding, living suicide bombers, as several others I didn't recognize did similar things with fire and stone. A second warp went off a second later, dropping twisted, inhuman clones with transformational powers ready to kill whoever was left from the first blast, but the fire from the first attack set had touched my Sun, and I claimed it, lashing it out at the shell and setting off a silver detonation, even as I watched more Trickster clones start to reach out to me with their powers to try the same thing again.
Striding more, Taylor started to use my movement to better spread out her Relay bugs, and Herb reported in, telling me, "Got it, Neph, but we can't watch you."
"The others need it more," I replied softly. "Don't bother strategizing, I'll throw things off, just watch their backs. Lady Bug, I'm dropping you further back too."
"I can figh-" she started to argue, but caught herself, nodding. "Alright."
Striding her into the forests behind me, I could still feel her through our shared power, and toggled my comm to reach all of the PD. "This is your commander. This is an apocalypse-level scenario if we don't stop it, so don't hold back," I ordered, watching as only a few dozen of the Capes on our side were returning fire, or otherwise fighting. To the side, I watched as Alexandria plowed right into a portion of the front line, ripping through the clones like a scythe through tall grass, tanking everything they threw at her.
A squad of clones was dumped, not right on me, but on the ground nearby, opening fire upwards. Air shields stopped the elemental attacks, but the Ballistic shots tore right through them, and, even dodging through the air, I lost a couple of shields to them, still not having managed to figure out how to do the reverse of what Victoria had learned, and pull the shields inward so as to not include my armor.
Right, use all your powers, dumbass, I thought, toggling on Unidirectional Telekinesis and using Aerokinesis to feel the attacks rocketing through the air towards me. I was already subconsciously nudging the projectiles away, but they had too much mass for my anti-bullet technique to work. Mentally designating everything moving at me at speed as 'enemy fire', I pulled upon the second power, directing the Shard to apply the telekinesis to them, directing them straight up.
In a moment, the shrapnel flying towards me shone a brilliant silver, and started firing up into the sky instead, missing me. I held that use in place with a mental hand, as I created Air Shields to block incoming fire with another, a third tapping into Taylor's network to monitor the situation, a fourth keeping the Healing Fire wings active, handling all four tasks at once, with room for more, like when I'd tried to unlock STING, and failed. Exactly like when I'd tried to access that power, actually. Before I could do more with that realization, iron spikes shot out of the ground, skewering the clones, the dirt rippling as Kaiser's power killed them.
Returning to my briefing, I continued. "The Echidnas you can see right now aren't real," I revealed, unable to See any Flames of power around them. "That means the real one is hidden somewhere. If you see an Echidna the Clones are protecting at all costs, that might be it, but with the Trickster clones, it's more likely they'll try to take you to her. If you get teleported, run, and blast your way out. If it's us pulling you out, we'll drop you off in the staging area, so if it's not there, it wasn't us. Don't try and fight her, I'll be on my way to do that, just get out, because each one of you she captures and copies is another new combatant that will try and kill the rest of us."
The Relay bugs continued to spread out, and my map of the area continued to grow, eyes everywhere showing me the masses of clones teeming around on the ground, most massing and heading in our direction. From the wreckage of the city, wood shifted and grew, Taylor able to multitask far better than I as dozens, then hundreds of Dryads started pulling themselves out of wooden wreckage across what was once Philadelphia.
The clones fell on them, ripping the constructs apart, but that wasted their time, and my partner was just getting started, creating more and more as she worked, defending them with steel spears that impaled nearby clones, her constructs' weaker bodies shifting and covering themselves with metal until they looked like ferrous versions of the girl's own living armor, at which point the completed Dryads started tearing into as many Clones as they could, staining themselves red with blood and guts, before they finally fell to the enemy, but were quickly replaced.
"This isn't going to be pretty," I warned, already seeing the slaughter that was starting. Fighting Endbringers was high in losses, but actually rather clean, as were most Cape fights. My people, eliminating literal monsters in the Zones, had gotten a bit more actual combat, but the foes there weren't human. Hell, I wasn't looking forward to this, but I'd fought things just like these clones, though even those things had looked more monstrous, and I'd do it again if need be. "But saving the world rarely is," I continued, trying not to dwell on my thoughts. That's not what was needed now. "Let's go to work, people," I finished, taking a deep breath, before Striding to the other side of the city.
And meeting an entirely new field of enemies, the group we'd seen only one front.
Cracking mental knuckles, I reached for my powers, gathering them to me, and took a runner's stance on the air, knowing it wasn't needed, but it helped me focus. With a sharp crack, Sonic Flight kicked in, throwing me forward, picking up speed as I pulled on my other flight powers to double, triple, quadruple my speed, as the clones spotted me and started launching attacks of their own.
I looked, trying to See Echidna, but not spotting her.
Then we'll have to just drag her out, I thought, diving down for the masses, Mineral Manipulation reaching forward to throw stone shrapnel in every direction, and deflecting the stone-based attacks. Spears of blackness reached up for me, warping space as they travelled, but Lightning Leap let me dance between them, moving at right angles before emerging, just as fast as I'd been a moment ago.
Reaching the front lines, warped, twisted naked men and women leapt for me with glowing claws, questing tentacles, blades of orange light, and more, a few blurring towards me at blinding speed, only to glow silver and be thrown high into the air even faster. But I did not hit the clones, I moved past them, taking the shockwave made by Sonic Flight and ramping it up as I expanded the noise into an ongoing explosion that rippled out from behind me, turning everyone I passed into a meaty paste, even as the explosions spread outwards, the sound of my passage rich with my power.
This was important as I pulled on Shatterbird's Silicakinesis, the destruction of the city breaking most of the glass, but what was left was enough. I didn't scream. I didn't need to. With the sound of my flight, I formed a flying tide of glass knives in my wake, ripping apart even more Clones. I could see Trickster's power reaching out, trying to catch me, even as something else invisible hit, me, paralyzing me for a half second, before something else in me flared and I was free, Striding away right before I could be moved wherever the clones wanted me to be.
Reappearing in another ally-less section, I could see the wreckage I'd left behind, torn bodies and fountains of viscera still rising up into the air, but I had no time to stop, I had to keep moving, and took off atop another shockwave, gritting my teeth as foreign feeling started to slam into me, but they slid off just as fast. "Be warned, Enemy Masters!" I called out, Emotional Stability worth its weight in whatever the Shard equivalent of Gold was. "Paralyzation, and emotional variants encountered!"
Once more, I dropped down towards the Clones, who reacted the same way the first group had, seemingly learning nothing. Powers reached up for me, and, pushing myself, I Saw everything, understanding the Shards even as they were turned against me by the legions of false-Hosts, which let me start to dodge and counter them before the powers were even used, but only if I could See the user.
I need more eyes, I thought grimly, having to stop another pass as true-Hosts started to make it into the field of battle, many having a similar idea as I had, going somewhere and letting loose, which meant that I needed to slow down, or at least change strategy.
Reappearing, and getting ready for one more pass, the Clones were ready, walls of fire turned on me, too much for even me to weather, and I shifted gears, teleporting into the thick of things instead, appearing near a 'cloned' Echidna, slamming her with a charged Absolute Territory beam even as the not-scylla reached for me, blasting it to pieces, where it instantly started to fade, revealing itself to be the projection I assumed it was.
Thank Christ she's not recursive, I thought, having hoped, but not completely sure until this moment. The clones around me went nuts, though, charging me as I lashed out with Anarchic Structure Inducement. The Manton-limited power slid right off them, unfortunately, but did blast them back, long enough for me to use Mass Material Skating to grab hold of them all, swirling them around and clumping them together as I leapt forward, Orichalcum sword lifted, and spent a Crystal Shield bringing it down on the clumped clones, striking with the flat of the blade to try and not just cut through the few in reach and miss the others.
They exploded into gore under the force, Acoustokinesis shaping the shockwave, to pass harmlessly around me, some of the shrapnel shoved upwards by silver telekinesis, but most painting me, and everything else, red with blood, shocking me enough to freeze at the unexpected results of my attack.
In that moment, I was yanked elsewhere, reappearing in a circle of hostile clones, who leapt for me, several shoving blades directly into me, only to be stopped cold by my costume and armor.
SHIT, I thought, and reacted instinctually, lashing out as I filled the space with air-blades in every direction, metal tendrils shooting out from my costume and skewering those near me, twisting around and taking the Metal Projection created attacks with me, wetly ripping through the flesh of the false-Hosts around me in a shower of blood and gore, human faces in rictuses of anger, pain, and even horror, turned into so much meat.
Striding away, I found myself over the city, taking a deep breath. Come on, Lee, I thought, You knew it was going to be bad. I took the Healing Fire that made up my faux-angelic 'wings' and wrapped them around myself to fix my injuries.
They did nothing.
"Not hurt," I muttered to myself, the silver fire at least cleaning me of viscera, feeling Taylor reaching out to me, fear/concern/worry in her mental touch, but I pushed it away, communicating directly to her,
I'm okay. Focus on the others.
Okay, time to step this up, I thought, shifting the Healing Fire to the plasma from Stellar Creation, seeing Trickster's Shard already reaching up for me. You want me, you'll get me.
Keying into the Insect Network, I swung my hands together even as I was yanked away into another deathtrap, away from the fighting. It was obviously meant to place me away from help, but all it did was let me not worry about friendly fire.
My hands met, and I clapped, taking the sound and ramping it upwards in a half-powered Hypersonic Disintegrator, one without a neutralizing shell.
The sound was a bomb blast, destroying everything around me so utterly there was no time to watch as human became corpse, everything just gone, even as my Acoustokinesis pulled as hard as it could to lessen the blast before it hit anyone friendly, though I did take out a lot of nearby Relay bugs in the process.
Doing so broke open the ground, compressed and reduces to rubble which Mineral Manipulation took hold of and shoved up and out, excavating the area, and revealing dozens of tunnels dug out of the ground below me, many half-filled with water, and with hundreds more now-dead clones that had apparently been waiting within.
This, this I can work with, I thought, flying towards one entrance, even as more Clones poured out, falling over the edge of the crater, coming for me. Moving to one rocky tunnel entrance, I took the sound of my own flight and shoved it into the cave, ramping up the noise and sending the shockwave down the tunnel, killing everything within.
Moving to the second cave, so many Clones were pouring in, firing more and more abilities, that it was getting hard to think even with Emotional Stability to wipe their effects several times a second. Between my Air Shields, Telekinesis, wings of star-stuff, and metal tendrils that still pierced any that got too close, touch-based abilities weren't getting to me, but a new ability, from a single clone, cut through all of it and struck me, cutting deep into my flesh and nearly severing my arm.
Teleporting to the side, I turned to see what had hit me, even as I covered my left arm with Healing Fire, as Metal Projection tendrils pulled the flesh tight, my Injury Empowerment flooding my system as much as my adrenaline, strengthening me and bringing the world into sharper focus.
Death and destruction spread out in every direction, even as several friendlies closed, raining attacks down on the clones, but I searched for the one that'd struck me, opening my wings wide and firing star darts down, keeping that process going as I moved back and forth in bursts of lightning, jinking and dodging around and through waves of attacks, pushing my attention through the foreign emotions that tried to drown me, my thoughts starting to move jerkily, fast and slow beyond my control, racing even as the world seemed to slow.
. . . There, I thought, seeing it was a clone, floating in the air, with a twisted version of Absolute Territory.
Shit, they got Legend, I thought, even as the naked man brought his hands together, another beam firing out for me, which I tried to dodge. The beam missed, but through the IN I could feel it curve around, coming at me from behind. "Legend's been caught! Someone free him or we're fucked!" I yelled, accelerating as fast as I could, the Clone charging me, firing another beam of Absolute Territory forward.
I could see its game, I'd dodge this attack, only to be hit in the back by the first that'd missed me, but I'd seen that piercing formation of Absolute Territory used, and know I knew how to do it to.
Charging both hands with the same technique, as well as a single Metal Projection tendril from my back, I hit the oncoming beam, catching it with my left hand, even as I extended the tendril to meet the piercing laser right as it struck me.
While Legend was strong, and thus so was this clone, I had an ocean of power to pull from, further fueled by Injury Empowerment which apparently also enhanced other Shards, and was barely stopped as I flew down the beam, which split apart under my grasping hand. Following it up to the source, the Legend Clone tried to flee, form already shifting to light, but he slammed right into a wall of hardened air, held up just long enough for me to shove my fist through his heart, as easily as if I was punching air, his copied flesh yielding under my Absolute Territory.
Ripping my hand up, I no longer had the ability to pierce, but I had more than enough raw strength to tear through his spine, shoulders, ripping his head off and crushing it in my palm, the attacks from below renewing a second later, as I Strode down to the middle of them, Sun-wings extending out as I burned through them, only now realizing I'd dropped my sword after that first attack.
Following the Mark I'd put in it, I reappeared, finding it in the hands of a Clone who was charging an injured true-Host, having empowered the blade with its Bleeding Strike Shard.
Darting forward, I caught the Clone's wrist, the naked woman turning, clawed hands reaching for me, full of power, but it took less than a second to rip the clone's arm off, still holding the sword, and take a quick step forward, burning a normal shield in a palm-strike which turned the emaciated, twisted false-Host's torso into a red slurry that exploded outwards.
The true-Host faltered, as the other Clones charged us both, other true-Hosts coming as well. With a twist, I peeled silver Healing Fire from my arm, pouring it over the injured man as I stepped close to negate the possible damage, wings flaring and sending sun dart 'feathers' out to pierce and burn, several Dryads charging in, a few catching fire from proximity to me as I raised the temperature around us both.
Grabbing the man, I Strode us to the side, and somewhere he wouldn't cook the second I left, letting him go and dismissing the healing fire from him, Striding again to another group as dozens of ice shards fell down around the injured true-Host, Mouse coming in to save him as I left.
Overlooking the city, I demanded, "Status of Legend?"
"He's safe," Overwatch replied instantly. "Touched by Echidna, but not taken in. Only four clones were made. Alexandria, Legend, and Gauge all eliminated one each."
Good. "I got the last one," I reported, as attacks stretched up at me, the Clones having a hate-on for me in particular. Given I'd already killed several thousand of them, that was understandable. "See if you can give him a camera, a comm unit, and Replicant oversight. One of those fuckers was enough."
Striding again, I stopped long enough to grab a large piece of Rubble, the size of a city bus, and Strode back over the city, finding it easier and easier to do so, though I still couldn't aim well enough to teleport directly to someone. I kept the building piece intact with a Lift Field, charging the entire thing with Unidirectional Telekinesis until it shown brilliantly. Striding again so I was over a friendly-less area, I let it go.
It wasn't Momentum Infusion, wasn't anything close, but with a roar of displaced air it still dropped like a meteor, striking a projected Echidna, but also the vanguard around it, letting me hit where the clone density was thickest, as the massive projectile detonated with pure force, the rubble the not-Echidna was standing on giving way to reveal a deep cavern, with thousands of clones inside.
Slamming a sound negation zone over the top, I Strode inside, reaching deep and commanding, "D̴̛͉́̾į̶̫̽e̵̢̘͠.̴̼̞̦̥̎̄" Taking the sound, I ramped it up, until it slammed into the walls, killing everything in fountains of red and brown, the walls of the cavern giving way under the blast, further caving in as I Strode back out, Acoustokinesis starting to feel weak from over-use.
Looking around, as more attacks came for me, and Trickster's power reached up to drag me into another death-trap, I saw we'd only put a dent into the teeming, screaming, naked horde, and we had a long way to go. I'd killed more in the last few minutes than I had in my entire time here, and it wasn't close to enough.
I thought I'd feel excited, to finally let loose with my powers; or determined, to stop this threat before it could harm others; or sad, that I hadn't been able to help these people; or maybe even angry, either at others, over the fact that things had gone this far, not stopped by the people who were supposed to be protecting the world, or myself, that I hadn't eliminated Echidna when I'd had the chance, but prioritized saving Dinah. I expected, seeing a threat beyond any other I faced, to feel something that would spur me to action, to carry me through the slaughter to come.
But all I felt, was tired.