A chilling feeling crept through Gaff's body as Seth chanted for his Affinity Soul. He knew there had to be a reason that the former Eclipse leader rarely summoned the ultimate manifestation of his power. Like Seth said, there was no one other than himself who knew the creature's form due to its killing potential. The beast had apparently killed the immensely powerful APS Colonel, Jade, with minimal effort. The brainwashed Vapor Adjutant, Koji, kept his shield raised in order to defend his armless master during the summoning process.
"Oh harbinger of limitless darkness, spread the plague of the damned across this land. Bring your awe-inspiring form back to life, ODION!"
A quadrupedal sphinx-like creature materialized upon the battlefield and loomed over both Seth and Koji. Seth directed his brainwashed puppet to leap away as soon as Odion appeared, indicating that just being near the creature was dangerous. Gaff wondered what the special properties of the human-faced beast were, aside from the fact that it clearly possessed the Darkness Affinity. He didn't have much time to ponder, though, as the sound of a gunshot echoed throughout the abandoned area.
This time Gaff blocked the projectile fired by Adrian's Affinity Arm, which was a sniper rifle. This was a miscalculation on his part, however, as the surface of his blade was instantly transmuted into a crystalline substance, rendering it useless. The Darkness Adjutant gritted his teeth and realized that he would have to eliminate the sniper first before returning his attention to Seth. He couldn't shake the feeling, however, that the unknown abilities of Seth's Affinity Soul were an even greater impending threat than the brainwashed Adjutants.
"Dark Emperor!" Gaff called for his own Affinity Soul. The scorpion-like creature was lying in wait toward the rear of the dockyard, behind where Seth and Odion were positioned. "Demonstrate our superiority by skewering that offensive creature!"
The eight-legged beast complied with its master's orders and scuttled forward, preparing to engage its four-legged cousin. Odion crouched forward and easily evaded a jab from the scorpion's deadly tail. Before the sphinx could counter-attack, Dark Emperor tapped into its Solid Affinity and unleashed a massive quake throughout the area. Everyone in the vicinity, including Seth's Affinity Soul, was affected and lost their balance. The oversized scorpion seized the sphinx with its deadly pincers as soon as it saw an opening, tearing into its metallic skin with crushing force.
Suddenly, Odion produced lengthy fangs from its upper jaw that it hadn't possessed a moment ago. The beast's new protrusions were akin to that of a smilodon: curved, slender fangs, almost like tusks, adapted for precision killing. Neither Gaff nor his Affinity Soul foresaw the transformation coming as the sphinx lunged through the scorpion's grasp and struck back with its new appendages. It bit into Dark Emperor's head, killing the rival Affinity Soul instantly before continuing to devour the rest of the arachnid's techno-organic body.
"What's happening…?" asked Gaff, who was mortified by the sight of his Affinity Soul being cannibalized by his foe's. "Why did it suddenly produce those fangs? Your twisted creature eats other Affinity Souls…?!"
"Those fangs are a souvenir from Jade's Affinity Soul, Sabertooth, which Odion had previously consumed," answered Seth, who seemed to take great pleasure in his foe's repulsion and shock. "I suppose it would be most accurate to classify my brilliant pet here as a chimera. Now, watch closely…"
Odion finished feasting upon the rival Affinity Soul and underwent another startling transformation. Its tail began to increase in size exponentially and assumed a bladed shape similar to Dark Emperor's. Two new forearms burst forth from the creature's body as well, which Gaff was certain would emulate the scorpion's deadly pincers. He realized that Odion was immobile during the period where it was painfully assimilating its latest victim, and readied himself to cut the fearsome beast down. Seth caught onto Gaff's plan and ordered his brainwashed Adjutants into action once again.
"My minions can keep you occupied while Odion digests its meal," said Seth while Adrian and Koji moved to cover for the carnivorous Affinity Soul. "Do your best not to kill them, Gaff. You don't want any more sins weighing down your conscience, do you?"
"You spineless bastard. I swear you'll be the only one receiving the gift of death today."
"Then fight your way through them and cut me down already!"
Volume 5: Sacrifice
Alexis clutched onto her trident with both hands, ready to engage her fellow Eclipse alumni. Kat took the initiative by letting a few shots loose from her dual handguns. There was an orb adorning Alexis's weapon that collected vapor from the area around her, allowing her to intensify her control over her affinity. The trinket started to glow and she retaliated by firing an extremely powerful jet of water from the center of three-pronged blades. The Vapor Anomaly's attack outputted more force than the Mental Anomaly's, and Kat's bullets were blown off of their original trajectory.
Now the villainous Anomaly was the one under pressure, forced to defend herself by erecting a telekinetic barrier. She had access to her own power-boosting Affinity Arm, which functioned discreetly as the sunglasses resting upon her face. Thanks to the special spectacles, Kat's barrier was able to withstand the forceful attack, but Alexis slowly advanced while keeping her foe pressured with the water jet. When she reached melee distance, she ceased her aquatic attack and span her trident overhead before thrusting it through the telekinetic shield.
The light-purple barrier shattered much like glass and Kat was at risk of being impaled by the three bladed tips of Alexis's trident. The evil blonde had holstered her handguns while under pressure and made the risky move of seizing one of the trident's protrusions with her bare hand. Since only the tips of the weapon were bladed, Kat remained unharmed and initiated her signature technique. Her right hand produced a thick, purplish aura as she leaned inward and attempted to slap Alexis with it.
The water-wielding redhead knew better than to get hit by Kat's technique and abandoned her trident, leaping back to get some distance from the deadly slap. Without Alexis supporting it, her trident couldn't be held by Kat and collided with a thud against the ground; Affinity Arms could only be wielded by their owners, after all. Alexis let out a concerned gasp as she had almost been defeated right then and there.
"I see you weren't dumb enough to forget," said Kat. She blew on her right hand as if putting out a candle while the purplish aura simultaneously dissipated. "I can temporarily sever your nerve connections to any part of your body I strike. If I hit your shoulder, your arm will go limp. But if I can get you in the neck…"
"Yeah, I remember. It would be game over," said Alexis, finishing the opposition's sentence for her. "I know all of your tricks. However, I've come up with a few new ones since the last time we went at it."
"This time you don't have Master Seth protecting you from behind the scenes. None of your pathetic abilities can save you."
"I don't need or want his protection. I'm fully capable of defending myself."
"Whaaatever," replied Kat. Alexis's indomitable will was starting to irritate her; she had come a long way from the emotionally battered young woman she had been three years ago. Meanwhile, Kat herself hadn't changed much at all. She hastily drew her handguns again and fired a few more shots toward her hated rival. This time, Alexis responded in a different way since she was without her trident. She coated her body in a thick armor of ice and allowed the bullets to impact her, since there was no way they'd pierce her frozen guard. She then charged forward, leaving icy footsteps in her wake and preparing to bring the fight to close combat once again.
Kat wasn't fond of Alexis's new trick and unleashed a telekinetic wave of force in order to break her armor. The coating of ice proved to be more durable than the Mental Anomaly expected and Alexis was hardly fazed, even with Kat's sunglasses powering up her assault. Alexis re-materialized her trident into her grasp and collected her Affinity around the weapon before lashing it forward, letting dozens of deadly ice shards fly toward the villainess. Seth's minion let out an aggravated cry as she shattered the projectiles with another telekinetic force wave. Alexis endured the hit again as she closed the gap, raising her trident overhead and generating a massive blade of ice that she brought crashing down upon the villainess.
Kat avoided being ensnared within Alexis's chilling assault by tapping into her gymnastic talents and somersaulting away. She fired a few more shots at the armored Anomaly while in mid-air, but she was still unable to crack her icy shell. Shards of ice scattered about the terrain from Alexis's reckless attack and it became apparent that the she was trying to ice up the battlefield in order to set up a trap. Kat decided she wasn't having any of it and her entire body started to shine with a purplish aura.
"Majestic keeper of the skies, swoop down and crush my enemies with your deadly talons! Let all hear your brilliant voice, OBSIDIAN!"
A techno-organic eagle materialized in the air above the two combatants, powerfully flapping its wings and whipping up a large gust upon the dockyard below. Alexis was unfazed by the wind thanks to her reinforced armor, nor was she surprised to see an Affinity Soul in Kat's possession; Justine had informed her allies of her encounter with the creature during the final battle with Eclipse in the past. Kat leapt atop the monstrous bird's back and cackled as she prepared for her next assault.
"Let's see if your accursed armor can withstand Obsidian's might! Feast upon that little worm, my majestic pet!"
The Affinity Soul let out a deafening screech at such a high frequency that Alexis's prized armor began to crack. The windows of all the boats and warehouses in the vicinity instantly shattered, though the sound of raining glass was muffled by Obsidian's wailing. The flying beast swooped down and grasped Alexis within its talons, dragging her into the air as it soared over the vast channel that separated the districts of Tempest City. The Vapor Anomaly felt a lot of pressure on her torso as the bird attempted to crush her ice armor using its deadly claw.
"Damn, my armor won't last much longer at this rate...!" thought Alexis. Large cracks spread through the thick ice, which had already been brittled by Obsidian's soundwaves, and chunks of it began to drop from the sky. Alexis anxiously clenched her teeth as she gazed, upside-down, at the city and the body of water below her. She was up too high to manipulate it since her aura's area-of-effect didn't reach far enough. It was a long drop down, but she decided it was preferable to becoming bird food. Kat shouted out from atop her Affinity Soul, though it sounded as if her cries were coming from far away thanks to the deafening effects of Obsidian's scream.
"You still alive down there, you British bitch!?"
Alexis decided to respond with actions instead of words. She materialized her trident and violently gouged it into the techno-organic bird's underbelly. Obsidian screeched in pain and struggled to maintain its flight path as an Affinity Soul's equivalent of blood spilled out of the three-pronged wound. Alexis was dropped and entered free-fall as Obsidian continued to hover above, although its flight abilities were lamer now thanks to its injury. Kat glanced over the eagle's side to witness her quarry escaping and taunting her in return.
"Does that answer your stupid question?! You... Russian… damn, I can't think of any bad words that start with R..."
Alexis shook her head, disappointed at her weak comeback, before returning her attention to more important things. She was falling directly above the wide body of water that segregated the Central and South districts of Tempest City. She knew Kat hadn't been focusing on reading her mind for the last while or her contingency plan would've already been revealed. Alexis closed her eyes and concentrated as her body shone with a light blue aura.
"Gentle guardian of the deepest depths, emerge now and lend your might to my cause. Be the sword to my shield, LEVIATHAN!"
Alexis's fall was broken as a monstrous sea serpent rose from the waters below, allowing her to land atop its head. The metallic hide of the creature was smooth, so Alexis had a difficult time gaining traction after her descent. She managed to slap her palms flat against its back and slid down the length of its body on her hands and knees. As its master recovered, the mighty Leviathan roared out and prepared to face Kat and Obsidian in her stead. It opened its gaping mouth and began to charge up powerful electricity that was stored and transmitted via multiple sacs throughout its body.
"You had an Affinity Soul this entire time?! You unforgivable little…!"
"You're the one who can't be forgiven, Kat. You've betrayed all of humanity for the sake of one man."
"Don't you dare patronize me! He saved me! I owe him everything!"
"I'm sure he did save you," replied Alexis. Kat was surprised by the sincerity in her opponent's statement and was, for once, at a loss for words as Alexis continued on. "But just how far are you willing to sacrifice your own integrity in return for a single act of kindness…? Even you seem to be opposed to his current plans."
"I'm…! You don't even… arrghh!"
Kat furiously stomped her foot against Obsidian as she ran out of words to argue back with. Leviathan finished charging its power-driven attack and spat a brilliant burst of white lightning at the soaring Affinity Soul. Kat directed her aerial beast to dodge the blinding attack and the eagle struck back by firing spherical blasts of light from its mouth. The gargantuan sea serpent boasted hefty bulk and floated stationary in the channel as the projectiles simply bounced off of its hide. It retaliated by unleashing another lightning blast from its mouth; this time Obsidian was struck directly and blown out of the sky.
The Mental Anomaly wasn't finished yet, though. She abandoned her Affinity Soul and made a brave leap through the air, landing atop Leviathan's back. Her persistence astonished the Vapor Anomaly, who stood upright and prepared to defend herself. Kat's target wasn't her, though. The villainess focused her aura in both of her palms and slammed them against Leviathan's mid-back, forcing her nerve-severing power into the Affinity Soul.
Alexis watched the maneuver and was initially in disbelief that Kat's ability would affect the armored beast, but, sure enough, Leviathan let out a painful, weak cry and lost the strength to keep itself afloat. The great serpent fell forward, destroying many of the anchored boats in addition to demolishing much of the structure of the dockyard. Kat laughed wickedly as she ran the length of the creature's body, forcing her opponent to chase her toward the harbor. Once both combatants had returned to solid ground, Alexis hesitantly dismissed her titanic Affinity Soul so that it could recover in the other realm.
"Right back to where we started," said Kat, who was pleased to see Alexis's summon leaving the battlefield. "We've both exhausted our auras, but there's one major difference between then and now."
"Oh? And what's that?"
"Now you've really, really pissed me off. I hate that you're right, I don't support Master Seth's plan in the slightest. It's always 'Leena Booker this, Leena Booker that' during every damn operation, even back when we were still Eclipse! You remember too, don't you? Do you know how much I dream of putting a bullet in that little doll's brain just so the higher-ups will stop blathering on about how important she is all the time?!"
"All I know is that you have serious issues with your own self-worth. How is Leena important? What are the 'higher-ups' planning to do to her?"
"They're going to do what you couldn't... force her to snap and unleash her true, hidden potential. Apparently she's the key to unlocking something-or-other and they're using that Sophie girl's death to push her over the edge. Master Seth has been setting this plan into motion for a long time, gradually breaking her down by tearing apart her close relationships with Felicia, Collin, Axel, and others. Now the person that truly meant the most to Leena is gone and they've painted a target to blame for her death."
"You mean that Leah Andrews, whose name keeps popping up lately, don't you?" asked Alexis. She recalled that Valor had pieced together a theory that lined up with what Kat was revealing now. "That's why Seth messed with her head and started that whole feud between her and Leena? Just to get Leena to hate her? That's… really low, even for Seth."
"You know exactly how ruthless Master Seth can be when it comes to psychological manipulation. Apparently, the more Leena loses control, the more her latent power as the Omega Anomaly will manifest. If Emperor Slade can get that little princess's power under his thumb, like he has with her brother, then you people will have no way to resist them. Leena and her brother are the only two who can either activate or deactivate the God Core which, in turn, will power Slade's so-called 'superior' artificial humans."
"I don't know what you're going on about regarding the 'God Core' or 'artificial humans,' but now I understand why Gaff and Valor were prioritizing protecting Leena at all costs. She's not just our important friend, she's also the key to winning or losing this war, isn't she?"
"Bingo. So your side has already lost."
"How so? Leena's been comatose for weeks… unless she's already woken up?"
"You'll never find out," replied Kat, indicating that she was only telling Alexis all of this since she planned to kill her. "There's one other part of this detestable operation that I can't stomach, as well. Master Seth is planning to… actually, no, never mind. It doesn't matter anymore."
"Why did she suddenly clam up?" thought Alexis. She wasn't sure how much further she should push her luck for information. "Whatever she was going to say sounded really important. I have to stop messing around here and get back to Leena. I want to save her from becoming consumed by darkness like I once was."
"You won't be saving anyone. I'm done messing around with you, too."
In a district far removed from where Gaff and Alexis faced their plights, Sylvia continued her fiery rampage unopposed. The Lady of Magma was tasked with taking out key structures and facilities in order to keep the population of Colonia, specifically Tempest City, contained and easy to wipe out. She had destroyed every bridge leading to Central and wiped all of the airports of the map, during which she had encountered brief resistance from Ash and Vy. After leaving a few brainwashed Adjutants to handle them, her next target was a large army base that was located just outside of the city.
"Not that humans and their little weapons could be much threat to us," the fallen goddess thought as she approached the crucial facility, setting the grass ablaze as she strode across a large field. She had already been sighted by the military personnel and loud alarms were blaring to alert them of her arrival, but she paid no attention to the persistent noise in the background.
"Still... better safe than sorry, I suppose. Anomalies are useless against the big boss, but he has no control over the humans until they're all wiped out and replaced with their affinity-efficient replacements. I guess it's time for another massacre."
Sylvia thrust her arms upward as she ripped two massive balls of magma from the earth below. She began to bombard the aircraft hangars first using her trademark method of attack. As she assaulted the hapless inhabitants of the base, another powerful Anomaly was keeping an eye on her from a distance. The Gamma Anomaly himself, Matt Booker, had sought out and followed Sylvia to this remote location. He had his own plans in mind for the Elemental Goddess.
"Now that I've managed to ditch that annoying Lord of Light by allowing him to babysit my sister, I'm free to take this woman's powers for my own. I don't care if she's an ally! Slade and Seth really piss me off when they try to boss me around and tell me what I can and can't do! If it's so important to have her keeping the population under control like this, then I'll just have to do it myself once I've got her firepower stored within the God Core.
"The other remaining Elemental Gods aren't going to be easy prey, so it'll be handy to have her tricks under my belt when I take them on. Plus, I know it'll reeaaaally piss off that annoyingly righteous Ryan when I rub it in his face that I thrust Excalibur into his woman, heh heh heh…"
Gaff was faced with pressure via close-range combat from Koji, while he knew that Adrian was taking aim from a distance. Battling the Vapor Adjutant while at risk of being shot in the back by the Solid Adjutant wasn't an ideal scenario, so he tried to brainstorm a way to take the sniper out first. Meanwhile, there was the looming threat of Seth's Affinity Soul, which was mutating and assimilating Dark Emperor's most dangerous traits. Gaff wasn't going to be able to execute the cannibalistic beast unless he neutralized the brainwashed Adjutants first, however, which was a great source of inner conflict and frustration for him.
Koji leapt forward to engage Gaff amidst the dockyard wreckage, spitting a stream of water from his mouth to start off his assault. The Darkness Anomaly had a hard time maneuvering thanks to the crystallized breastplate weighing him down. He retrieved his remaining greatsword that hadn't been crystallized by Adrian's ability and did his best to block the surprisingly powerful jet of water. It was deflected in all directions upon contact with his blade and burned his hand, leading him to the startling realization that the water was acidic. The sound of another sniper shot echoed throughout the area and Gaff reflexively teleported in order to avoid suffering another bullet wound. He had teleported a fair distance into the shadow of a building on the nearby street, outside of Adrian's range of vision.
The Vapor Anomaly spun around and used his arm-mounted shield to absorb the sniper shot, which Gaff hadn't anticipated since it was a solid projectile. Koji was able to redirect the bullet with the exact same firing velocity, forcing Gaff to dodge again. He was skilled at deflecting bullets but he couldn't risk having his remaining sword rendered unusable. The bullet redirected by Koji struck the warehouse that towered over Gaff, transmuting the entire structure within a green, crystalline substance.
"Blast…!" thought Gaff, who was starting to feel exasperated from the continued pressure. "Seth is skillfully manipulating them to function in perfect unison. They're herding me into a trap…!"
Meanwhile, Adrian leapt across a few rooftops until he was situated on the crystallized structure overlooking Gaff. The Solid Adjutant knelt down and slammed his palm against the building, shattering it into several, smaller crystal shards. The hardened projectiles rained down upon the former assassin, forcing him to encapsulate himself within a shield of darkness to defend himself. Koji advanced on Gaff's position while he was pinned down and sprayed another acidic jet of water in order to melt the darkness shield.
"They aren't giving me many options here. I have no choice but to strike back…!"
Gaff abandoned his partially-melted shield and was punctured by a few crystal projectiles as he kept away from the acidic attack. The minor injuries weren't enough to faze him and he retaliated by swinging his sword, unleashing a bladed darkness slash in Adrian's direction. The Solid Adjutant was forced to leap to ground level in order to dodge, which was exactly what Gaff wanted. He cast his cloak aside and managed to pull the crystallized breastplate over his head, dropping it to the ground with a massive thud. He cracked his neck, eager to be rid of the extra weight and be able to move more freely. He needed every advantage he could get at this point.
Koji had closed in on Gaff and agilely spun around, bashing the Darkness Adjutant in the chest using his shield. Gaff was sent flying and cursed his luck; Koji's interference made it impossible to close in on Adrian, who had now recovered. Instead of getting distance and returning to sniping like Gaff feared he would do, the older brother of Ash crouched down and placed his palms against the ground. With but a gesture, the powerful Solid Anomaly crushed a layer of cement under their feet to dust.
"What the…?!" exclaimed Gaff, alarmed by the skillful maneuver. Koji leapt back and positioned himself next to Adrian, spraying more water from his mouth that mixed with the powder created by his ally. The terrain transformed into a muddy, wet-cement like substance that Gaff's feet sank into, restricting his movement completely. The two Adjutants then stepped aside as Seth took the stage again, bringing his now-transformed Affinity Soul along with him. Odion was now more frightening than ever as it sported huge pincers and a bladed tail in addition to the tusks it had absorbed earlier.
"It looks like you weren't up to the task after all," said Seth to his enraged opponent. "If you can't even beat my brainwashed minions, how could you ever expect to take down my superior Affinity Soul?"
"Why don't you release your hold over them and let them fight on my side? Their oppressed hearts are screaming out for your demise, just as mine is. There is no way you'll win, Seth, even if you finish me off here. You've made so many enemies that someone is bound to finish the job that I started!"
"On the contrary, I believe that none of your little friends are on your level... therefore I've already won this war. Your hesitation and inability to do what's necessary have disappointed me, Gaff. Would it not have been easiest to execute these Adjutants and then revive them with your necromancing abilities, using them as shields while you land the killing blow?"
"That's not how I do things anymore, you twisted creature."
"Then I'll grant you a slow death instead of a swift one for your stupidity," said the enemy leader. He leapt atop Odion and allowed the beast to approach Gaff, whose feet were still trapped in the cement. Seth continued to rant as his quarry attempted to formulate an escape strategy. "Odion's most fearsome strength is not its ability to consume other Affinity Souls, you know. It naturally generates and breathes a deadly miasma, for which there is no cure."
"So that's how you killed the APS Colonel. I knew you couldn't beat him in a fair fight," commented Gaff. He noticed a slight hint of a black fog emanating from the techno-organic beast's mouth and nostrils. The Affinity Soul then reared its head back, preparing to blast a thicker layer of smog that would certainly kill anyone who breathed it in. Gaff glanced around frantically and considered his options; freeing his feet by hacking through the cement would take too long, but he could still teleport to freedom. His aura was steadily diminishing as the fight dragged on so he didn't want to be reliant on teleporting to survive and sought a way to achieve victory more swiftly.
Teleporting anywhere near Seth's poisonous Affinity Soul was risky since the miasma would likely spread through the area once it began flowing. Gaff chose instead to teleport into Adrian and Koji's shadows as soon as Odion poured poisonous smog onto the street. The Darkness Anomaly seized both Adjutants by the hair, bashing their heads together as hard as he possibly could. His surprise assault was successful and both brainwashed beings were knocked senseless for the time being. He dropped them to the ground and turned his attention toward Seth's noxious Affinity Soul. The miasma was spreading as predicted, so Gaff made a great leap into the air and focused his aura into his blade in order to unleash the most powerful darkness slash that he could muster.
The beast intercepted the projectile with one of its pilfered pincers, preventing harm to its main body. While Gaff was still in mid-leap, Odion rushed forward and lashed out with its bladed tail. Gaff was hard-pressed to block the powerful attack, using his greatsword to parry with minimal success. He managed to avoid being cleaved in two thanks to his quick-thinking, but suffered a deep cut into the left side of his torso and was propelled against the nearest building. The heroic Anomaly felt his right shoulder crack before he hit the ground hard, seething as he attempted to bear the pain from the deep wound; his numerous injuries and repeated use of his powers were severely wearing him out.
"Look how pathetic you are now," taunted Seth from atop Odion's back. "And you even had the gall to insinuate that I was the more incompetent one between the two of us. I guess we know who the top Anomaly of Darkness is now."
"You don't fight with your own strength…! You control others, twisting them from their rightful paths, while you… watch from the shadows…! You… manipulate… your own men... with threats and hostages! Even your own Affinity Soul steals the powers of others! It's a perfect representation of what a pathetic shell of a human being you've regressed into…!"
"Those are nothing but words, Gaff. Despite what you say, you're the one half-dead on the ground while my methods are what have allowed me to transcend above the rest of you sickening vermin. Now it's time for your recommended dose of miasma, my disobedient subordinate."
The chimera resumed its original task of infecting the area with miasma, adding to the already built-up cloud which was spreading toward where Gaff had fallen. The battered warrior struggled to get to his feet and re-materialized his second greatsword into the air before him; the crystal coating had shattered after Adrian was rendered unconscious. Gaff snatched the weapon out of the air and forced his pain-ridden body to assume his usual dual-bladed stance.
"I… am not subordinate to you…!"
Gaff teleported to the opposite side of the street, moving through the shadows to evade death by miasma. As soon as he reappeared, Seth's chiding remarks echoed through the area once again and forced the warrior into another moral dilemma.
"How unlike you! You've decided to let them die while you save yourself!?"
Adrian and Koji were still collapsed on the cement with the miasma steadily spreading toward their position. The two Adjutants were in no condition to save themselves, even if Gaff had wiped out the brainwashing by recalibrating their craniums. Gaff angrily stomped his foot against the ground as he found himself emotionally cornered yet again. He had the perfect chance to land a decisive blow upon Seth and Odion, but he would be forsaking the lives of innocent men if he capitalized on the opportunity. He didn't have long to act; his unconscious allies were as good as dead if they had a single breath of that potent poison.
"I knew it was too easy to knock those two out... Seth allowed me to do it. He's been running the show this entire time, as much as I hate to admit it. He'll never be caught off-guard unless something completely illogical happens… one scenario that he won't have foreseen..."
Gaff steeled his will and marched across the street until he stood between the fallen Adjutants and the looming cloud of miasma. Seth laughed and openly mocked his foe yet again from his safe zone atop Odion's back.
"Hah! There's no way you can save them both in the condition you're in! Do you want to die with them, Gaff?!"
There was no point in responding to Seth's taunts any further; Gaff's mind was already made up. He wouldn't succumb to his old methods of sacrificing others in order to achieve his goals. Killing Seth was a personal vendetta and therefore there was only one life he would willingly cast aside in order to finalize his victory. The former assassin charged forward into the cloud of gas, disappearing within the purplish haze. Every second that Gaff was hidden within the poisonous mist felt like an eternity crawling past to the ruthless villain, who didn't predict his quarry would make such a suicidal move. Seth was in the safest place possible on the chimera's back, but he was still incredibly vulnerable without either of his arms. In a rare moment of anxiety for him, he cried out and taunted his foe yet again.
"There's no way you can hold your breath for that long, Gaff! You're dead now that you've absorbed that miasma, you hear me?! You're-"
Odion suddenly let out a painful howl and staggered violently, nearly bucking its master off its back. Seth struggled to keep his balance and realized what his foe was up to. Gaff had used the miasma as a cover for his strategy, assuming that Seth would take him for dead, and was now positioned beneath the mighty chimera. The resolute warrior had stabbed both of his blades into the beast's underbelly and forced his aura through the broad weapons. Before Seth or Odion had a chance to stop him, the former assassin unleashed a massive darkness blade upward through the quadruped's torso, effectively bisecting it.
Seth was nearly cleaved by the attack, which shot into the sky before him before he tumbled into the poisonous gas below. Odion's final cry droned on as its halves collapsed and exploded magnificently as most Affinity Souls did upon their demise. The twin explosions dispersed the thick cloud of miasma and caused the remnants to harmlessly dissipate in the air before it could reach the defenseless bodies of Adrian and Koji. The renegade leader managed to land on his feet despite the chaos and frantically attempted to catch a glimpse of his vengeful adversary.
Gaff burst forth from Odion's fiery remains and violently thrust both of his blades into Seth's back. The former Eclipse leader went rigid as Gaff pushed both swords through to the hilt, preparing to commit the final execution of the wicked orchestrator that twisted their lives over the last several years. The warrior steadied his stance as he gripped the handles of both blades and lifted them into the air, dangling Seth several inches off the ground.
"Heh… aaauhggh… perfect..." said the villain, who attempted to laugh as he retched a sickening amount of blood. Both men knew that Seth's injuries were fatal; there was no trick or maneuver he could utilize to escape from death now. Gaff started violently coughing as well since he had indeed breathed in the miasma, just as Seth warned that he would, and realized that his timer was also counting down. Gaff's own Darkness Affinity helped him dilute the effectiveness of the poison, but he was only delaying the inevitable.
Despite the hopeless situation, Seth continually attempted to laugh and gloat.
"Heh… aggh… haaahaa… you… finally… did it...! Just like I… huaaaggh… knew you… would! I hope you enjoy your… revenge… hee hee… haa haa… because you've still… lost…!"
"I'm... fine with throwing my own life away... as long as it means that your scheming is finally halted…!"
"I'm glad… you've… aaagghh... accepted it…! But who... will save… Alexis…?!"
"Hah! Did you forget?! She's... completely at Kat's mercy…! Hee hee… you'll be... dead within moments… thanks to the miasma...! You finally got your revenge… and you've… aacck… saved the Adjutants… in the process... but you threw her life away! Let that final thought… sink in… as your insides betray you and you suffer to death…!"
Gaff was overcome with despair. As the Darkness Zone around them disappeared, he indeed sensed Alexis's peril and cursed his reckless decisions. He had already cast his own life aside in order to finish Seth off, but there would be nothing left of him to save hers. He could already feel the miasma eating away at his insides and knew he couldn't fight it off for much longer. There wasn't much time left to think, but he knew what his immediate next move would be. He spoke his final words to his hated enemy.
"Give your younger brother my regards while you rot together in hell."
Gaff gripped the hilts of both of his blades, beginning to pull them in the opposite directions and slowly tearing the mastermind's body apart. Seth closed his eyes tightly and looked as if he were focusing or concentrating despite the intense pain he was bearing. The victorious man knew that even Seth needed a second to make peace with his sins as he accepted death. Suddenly, just as Gaff was about to bisect the villain, Seth's eyes shot open and he began to shriek wildly.
"AaaAAagghhh! It… aaghh… hurts! Why does it hurt so much!? Don't kill me! Stop! Please… you'll doom us all! I'm the only one who-"
Gaff was briefly stunned by his foe's sudden change in demeanor. His own time was short and Alexis was in danger, so he didn't have time to consider Seth's final pleas. He chalked it up to his mortal enemy showing his true cowardice and put all of his force into the final attack.
"I will not be swayed by your pathetic grovelling! Accept your fate like a man… and die already!"
The brutal execution was finally delivered as Gaff tore his blades free from both sides of Seth's body, dividing his fellow Darkness Anomaly in two. He was unfazed by the sickening sight of the renegade leader's remains falling to his feet, knowing that he had both saved and avenged numerous lives with this action. He immediately changed course and began to stagger in Alexis and Kat's direction, but the miasma had fully spread throughout his body now. His coughing became so violent that it impeded his movement and his body started to go numb. He no longer had the strength to grip his blades and dropped them to the cement below. He fell to his knees and stared into the sky, entering a dazed state as death's cold grip tightened around him.
His thoughts were mainly focused on how he wished he had just a little more time left in order to save Alexis. Even though he had avenged his wife's death by defeating Seth, Alexis's life was another precious treasure that he wanted to preserve. As the major events of his life started to flash through his mind like a film reel running at uncontrollable speed, a single statement uttered earlier by Seth brought renewed inspiration to the dying man. His aura had diminished so much, however, that he wasn't sure if he had any tricks left in him.
He struggled to cross his arms over his chest and uttered an unintelligible incantation. It was then that the former Eclipse Number's struggle against fate came to a certain end. What little strength he retained left his body and he collapsed forward, lying motionless in the center of the street. With only the unconscious Adjutants and Seth's corpse nearby to keep him company, his final moment was exactly how he always envisioned it: silent and without glory.
He would have been perfectly content when he drew his final breath if he had been able to reach Alexis, but now...
Alexis collapsed to her knees after Kat struck both of her knees using her nerve-severing ability. The Mental Anomaly snickered evilly as she revelled at the sight of her prey finally incapacitated before her. Alexis tried to conjure up ways to defend herself without the use of her legs, but she wouldn't last long with her complete lack of mobility. She punched her own leg but found that it was completely numb thanks to Kat's temporarily severing her brain's connections to the affected limbs. Kat forcefully kicked Alexis in the chest and knocked her onto her back.
"Oops, my foot slipped," said the blonde woman, accompanied by an out-of-control laugh. Once she calmed herself down, she drew one of her handguns and aimed it toward Alexis's furious glare. "That sure is an angry look you're making, 'Lexi. Do you really want your face to be all wrinkled when you die? Ha ha ha!"
"Stop squawking and just do it already."
"Aww, are you sad that you've finally been dragged off your throne? That you're going to be killed by plain 'ol me, of all people? Are you going to keep acting like you're better than me, even in your last moments?! At least pretend you're upset so I can enjoy this a little bit, you selfish cow!"
"I'm just sad for you, Kat. You can read my mind and yet you ignore everything that you're hearing. Your obsession with Seth has become so extreme that you can't even tell what's real and what isn't anymore. I've never been a rival in your quest for his heart; you're so beneath his notice that these make-believe obstacles of yours will keep cropping up, even if you kill me. You'll never be able to justify how poorly he treats you unless you have someone else to blame, after all."
"You…! Shut…! You shut your mouth!" screamed the renegade. Her composure started to break and she began trembling as she stared into Alexis's defiant eyes, now unable to stop herself from focusing on her rival's thoughts. " No… I can still read it in your thoughts! Stop judging me! I'll shoot you right in your condescending-"
Kat's fears reached their height as she saw her victim's expression change from resolved to astonished. She spun around to see what had captured Alexis's attention and saw Gaff marching toward them from the distance. Though the Darkness Anomaly's body was bloodied and his outfit was torn, he approached at a steady pace and threateningly held his swords out to each side. His head was lowered, with his lengthy bangs masking his face, but his presence made one thing clear to both of the females who beheld his triumphant stride.
"He… he actually beat Seth…?" asked Alexis, who was in starry-eyed disbelief. "He's… really gone…? For real...? Oh my god…"
"No…!" exclaimed Kat. She gritted her teeth together so hard that it almost seemed that they would crack. "Did… did Master Seth really forsake me…? How could he…? I knew I never should've gone along with this ridiculous plan…!"
Gaff didn't utter a word as he approached, but Kat knew that the former assassin was coming to save Alexis. She kept her handgun pointed toward her prey and shakily drew her second firearm to ward off Gaff.
"Stay back, you blasted phantom! Or do you want your precious Alexis to have a hole right in her-"
The menacing warrior dashed forward without warning and lashed out at the villainess with both of his blades. As soon as her position was compromised, she forgot about Alexis and unloaded bullets from both of her pistols into Gaff's chest. He was completely unfazed, even without his breastplate to protect him, which sent Kat into a state of panic. She attempted to cocoon herself within a telekinetic shield at the last second, but Gaff's darkness-infused blades cleaved through it akin to a hot knife through butter.
Kat shrieked when one of Gaff's blades hacked through her right forearm, splitting the bone and forcing her to drop her weapon. She leapt back in order to get some distance from the bloodthirsty being that she was now faced with. Gaff stepped over Alexis's body and continued to advance on their mutual foe, which left the fallen woman in a state of confusion.
"Gaff…?" asked Alexis, to which she received no reply. She stared at the back of her silent savior and felt an ominous feeling overcome her for a reason she couldn't yet discern. Kat, meanwhile, was cradling her stinging wound with no success at stopping the bleeding. She began to shout wildly as she continued to defy her master's murderer.
"I refuse to die here, especially at the hands of the one who killed Master Seth! He will be avenged, do you hear me?! Obsidian, return to my side and turn this traitor into jelly!"
Kat crouched down and agilely sprang into the air, performing a backflip and landing atop the back of her Affinity Soul. The techno-organic eagle flapped its powerful wings and whipped up a gust that blew its audience off-balance. The oversized avian creature then proceeded to unleash a powerful screech that was meant to paralyze prey by attacking their senses. Alexis covered her ears and collapsed onto her elbows as she attempted to bear it, but Gaff stood stationary in the wake of Obsidian's powerful techniques.
"What the hell is wrong with him?" thought Kat as she began to piece together the mystery of Gaff's superhuman feats. "Bullets don't hurt him and he isn't fazed by high-pitched noises?! Impossible, could he be…?"
Gaff responded to the Affinity Soul's attack by leaping into the air and stabbing one of his blades deep into its armored skull. Kat was aghast at the sight of her aggressor hanging from Obsidian's head by his blade, but realized that she was still his primary target. Using the sword in his free hand, Gaff unleashed a fiercely powerful darkness slash that shredded through the eagle's body on its path toward Seth's loyal subordinate. She had no choice but to abandon Obsidian, diving to the ground below while the powerful explosion signaling her pet's death engulfed the air overhead.
"Damn it…! There's no stopping that monster! I have to run! I have to-"
Kat attempted to flee the scene once she realized she was no match for Gaff, but found herself unable to make an exit. She looked down to see that her boots were coated in ice that was slowly making its way up her legs. She glanced over to see that Alexis, who was still collapsed, had pressed her palms against the cement and was spreading a thick layer ice to keep her frozen in place. The renegade was at the height of her hysteria now and cried for her freedom.
"No, Alexis! Let me go…! It… it goes against your principles to kill a person in cold blood, doesn't it?!"
"You wouldn't be the first one. Let's end this chain of hatred here, Kat."
"Don't do this, Alexis! I swear I'll never-"
With the force of gravity behind his attack, Gaff dropped from the sky and vertically cleaved through Kat's torso with both of his blades. An absurd amount of blood sprayed forth from the fatal wounds, splashing all over a seemingly indifferent Gaff. Kat clutched her arms across her chest as she wrenched forward, taking heavy breaths as she grasped onto life. Her sunglasses fell off of her face, clattering into the pool of blood below as she directed a sorrowful, yet sincere, glance in Alexis's direction.
"Perhaps… if Seth and I… had been close like the two of you… then things would've been… would've been… diff-unngh…"
With those final words, Kat lifelessly collapsed forward onto the ground. Alexis hung her head and mourned her deceased enemy. Kat had lived her entire life being a confused, scared, and spiteful person despite her gift to know exactly what those around her were thinking. Seth had entrenched himself so deeply into her vulnerable psyche that, at some point during their confrontation, Alexis realized that Kat was beyond redemption. She did have a slight smile etched upon her face though, as she felt that she had gotten through to her foe in the end.
"Kat… I'm glad that, at least in the end, you didn't refer to him as 'master.' I think you finally figured it out, and that's why you so desperately wanted to live for yourself in those final moments…"
Alexis's inner reflections were interrupted by the clattering of Gaff's blades against the ground. She looked up to see that her savior had dropped both of his Affinity Arms as if he was no longer able to hold onto them. He staggered to take a few steps toward her but his clumsiness seemed to be multiplying by the second to the point where he could barely walk. She realized that the effects of Kat's nerve-severing technique had disappeared upon her death, so the young woman forced herself to her feet and dashed toward the man she loved.
She slid to her knees and caught him as he fell, cradling him in her arms as she attempted to find the source of his debilitating pain. She took note of the large lacerations in his torso, as well as the crystal projectiles and bullets embedded in his body. She became tense as she realized that he was practically a dead man walking. She tapped into her secondary Flora Affinity and pressed her palms against his chest in an attempt to heal his wounds. While the various tears in his body were mending, direct contact with him caused her to realize something that she had been subconsciously denying since he first appeared on the scene.
"Gaff… could you be…? Did you really go that far, just for me…?"
Tears welled up in her eyes as she confirmed that her heroic savior had no pulse, and likely hadn't since he first showed up to confront Kat in her stead. She recalled that her lover possessed a unique ability to control the bodies of the deceased with his Darkness Affinity. To think that he would actually use the ability on himself was almost inconceivable to her, but here they were. His zombie-like body had been running on whatever leftover aura he still possessed at the time of his death, but he had fully expired now.
She clutched him tightly and buried her head in his chest, beginning to sob uncontrollably as she struggled to accept his ultimate fate. A pair of footsteps cautiously approached her from behind and she slowly turned to see who it was. Her psyche was so overwhelmed with despair and sorrow that she didn't even care if it was Seth or some other enemy coming to finish her off.
Thankfully it turned out to be Evan, who observed the situation with a grim look on his face.
"I'm sorry, Alexis. I sensed the intense auras battling in this area, but it looks like I arrived too late. I know you're in a fragile state of mind, but I hope it will come as some consolation that I was able to confirm Seth's demise. It's… not a pretty sight, however."
"So Gaff really did finish him, then…" she replied before she buried her face in Gaff's chest once again. Knowing that Seth had been finished brought some small degree of relief to her. The wicked orchestrator who had twisted their lives had finally been put to rest thanks to Gaff's final sacrifice. With his courageous actions, he had potentially halted the entire catastrophe that currently ravaged Tempest City. Though they were overcome with regret at the loss of their comrade, a glimmer of hope now shone within them.
"I'm grateful to him for avenging my father's death, not to mention Felicia and all the others that fell in Seth's path," stated Evan, who felt a need to fill the silence. "Gaff died as a true hero, despite his past. I think that's exactly what he was trying to accomplish with his relentless crusade against Seth; he was trying to wipe his slate clean before succumbing to death himself."
"You honestly think he intentionally wanted to die along with Seth?" replied Alexis, though her statements were muffled since she refused to pull herself away from Gaff's corpse. "Why?! Why would he leave me behind? I… I'm not ready to let him go… didn't he know how this would affect me?! How could he-"
"Why don't you stop crying and lift your head so you can get a good look at his face?"
Alexis angrily prepared to chastise her ally for being so direct during her grieving moment, but then she snuck a glimpse of her savior's face as requested. He had died with a proud smile on his face. That was the triumphant smile of a man who had killed his mortal enemy and secured the future of the woman he cared about. He had alleviated the deep regret of failing to save his own wife in the past by defying his fate and coming to Alexis's aid in her moment of peril. He was perfectly content when he died and Evan wanted to make sure that Alexis realized and accepted Gaff's expressive final message.
A few moments of silence passed by while she did just that.
Eventually she spoke up again, this time with a request.
"Will you help me bury him? And… Kat as well."
"Of course I will."
"Thank you. Then... we need to warn everyone."
"Warn them about what?"
"I managed to get a lot of information out of Kat. Seth may be dead but he's already set a wicked plan in motion to corrupt Leena, just like he's been trying to do since day one. I fear it's going to succeed this time."
"I seem to recall Jeska hinting at something along those lines as well. This could be a complete disaster if Leena being the 'Omega Anomaly' is really as significant as they keep insinuating it is."
"We may be the only ones who can stop her, unless we're already too late…"
TO BE CONTINUED
Sylvia had finished demolishing the unfortunate army base, leaving not a single survivor in the wake of her destruction. With little care for the lives she had just taken, she moved to make her way back to the heart of the city when she spotted an unexpected visitor. Matt was still standing in the middle of the surrounding field after having followed her to the outskirts of the city. She scowled and moved to confront him; though they were allies he still irritated her so much that she didn't want to be breathing the same air as him if she could help it.
"What are you doing here, Gamma Anomaly? Your tasks lie elsewhere… or do you have some sort of message for me from Seth?"
Matt couldn't help but smile after being confronted by her haughty demeanor. He glanced down at his open palms, seemingly with some level of intrigue, and remained silent to the point of igniting her fury. She balled her fists, which ignited with bright flames, but he finally decided to speak in order to counter the reckless move she was about to make.
"I do have a message from him, actually. He says to keep up the good work."
"That's it? I don't have the patience for your creepy jokes, you demented freak. Don't show your face in front of me again unless you actually have something important to say. You have your mission and I have mine, so leave me the hell alone."
"I'll do exactly that. Thank you for your time."
With that, Matt turned and left the bewildered Lady of Magma alone on the burning field. His twisted smile never once left his face as he hurried back toward the metropolis on foot. The time was drawing near for him to forcefully seize what was needed to ensure his side's victory in the war that currently ravaged Colonia...