Vampire blood is surprisingly sweet. Also very oily, likely because it serves a dual purpose as a sort of organic hydraulic fluid. I'd have to experiment with it more later; I wasn't about to shift to a new blood type in the middle of a combat situation, but I definitely saw potential.
"Hey Tofu, what was that noise?" asked Pebbles, from behind the rocks.
"Nothing! Just some vampires," I replied, while hurriedly cleaning off my face.
"You need any help?"
"I'm fine. Is Buzzer ready to move?"
"Yeah, he's not leaking anymore at least."
I heard a bit of scuffling, before Pebbles came around the rocks, supporting a slightly limping Buzzer.
"Whoa, what happened here?" asked Pebbles, taking in the scene. Then he looked ahead and spotted the two surviving vampires, "Uh, Tofu? Vamps."
"I know, but they refuse to get close, so we should be safe for now. We should try to get as far as we can before more come though."
"Crimeny, what happened here? Oh hey there Tofu," said Buzzer, who couldn't follow our conversation with his damaged eardrums. "Hey Pebbles, ten bucks says he eats some of this."
"... I didn't hear a no."
We made our way back through the tunnel, the two vampires retreating ahead of us, but not leaving. They were definitely going to try at least one more time, likely with an ambush at the egg chamber. It was the best place to take advantage of their numbers.
"Pebbles, I suspect the vampires will try to surround us at the egg chamber."
"Yeah, it's kinda looking that way. Think we can force our way past them?"
"Perhaps, but it will be difficult while protecting Buzzer. If there are too many it could go badly."
"You can count on the too many part. If anything could get them to swarm us, it would be those eggs."
"Oh yeah. Vamps are a bunch of cowards, but they'll still defend the eggs. Never actually seen so many in one spot before either."
"Ah, then I might have an idea."
I explained my plan to Pebbles, and eventually managed to convey the plan to Buzzer as well by bending my fingers into letters. For some reason, he didn't seem to like that.
"Oh my god, I swear I can hear bones snapping. I'm deaf and I can hear it. Cut it out, I get it already!" exclaimed Buzzer, incorrectly. My fingers were completely silent as I popped them back into place.
I marched ahead of Pebbles and Buzzer, forcing the vampires to put more distance between us. The two of them had stayed ahead of us the entire time, nervously fanning their wings and ducking behind whatever poor cover the linear tunnel could give. When we reached the egg chamber they both disappeared around opposite corners and went silent. Blatantly an ambush, but there wasn't much we could do about it since they were in our path.
I reached the tunnel opening myself, and gave the room a quick scan. The vampires were nearly out of sight, hidden on the ceiling or along the irregular walls, but here or there a wing or limb poked out. I was able to count at least a dozen from my position.
It was the worst ambush I'd ever seen, and that included the random muggers who sometimes tried to jump me. I knew the vampires were capable of hiding better than this; the ones I killed on our way in hid just fine. Even the fact that I had no choice but to enter the trap wasn't properly implemented into this ambush. They should have continued leading me with the initial two vampires to distract my attention, then have the others come from behind to surprise me with numbers. If it worked (it wouldn't), it would have minimized their losses.
Vampires weren't this dumb. Which meant there was a danger I wasn't seeing. Again. Bleh.
Perhaps one of the vampires had a power? Improbable, but not impossible. Maybe there were mutants, or a specialized soldier caste whose abilities could make use of this scenario to their advantage. Or it could simply be that they had a human master who was controlling them, and mishandling them much like the late rat-stitcher had once mis-handled his own minions.
A wide variety of possibilities. Frustrating. If this situation went badly, I'd be forced to run for it, and leave Pebbles and Buzzer behind.
Oh well. First things first: take the initiative away from the vampires.
Rather than enter the chamber proper, I moved to the side along the wall. A trough filled with water ringed the entire room, deceptively deep, inside of which were eggs, larva, and multiple dead bodies. Apparently the adult vampires dumped the drained victims in with the eggs, to give sustenance to the young. I grabbed one of these larvae and pulled it out of the water.
The vampires didn't like that. A susurration of wings swept the cavern as the vampires reacted, but kept their positions.
The larva wriggled in my grip. It was segmented, with little flukes that likely helped it to maneuver underwater. The head was rather large in comparison to the rest of its body, in order to support the musculature needed to chew dessicated corpses. It had an impressive number of teeth for such a small thing.
I crushed it. Its shriek cut off abruptly before it popped and died. Then I grabbed another from the pool and killed that one as well.
The vampires were definitely reacting now. Their angry whine echoed around the chamber, all pretense of an ambush completely ruined. They started moving.
Next I grabbed a handful of eggs. Translucent and a bit slimy, I somewhat wondered if I could save a few for later to see how they cooked. Fresh chicken eggs were so expensive, and I'd been using the powdered variety so far. Maybe with some ketc-
Something slammed into my helmet, jarring my head, and ricocheted into the ceiling. Instantly I ducked low, presenting a smaller profile, and calculated the vector. That had been a gunshot! Two more shots rang out, one of them hitting me in the shoulder, but not managing to penetrate my suit. I charged in the direction of the shooter, zeroing in with the help of the muzzle flash.
Vampires were emerging from all over now, no longer content to bide their time, and several ran to block my path. I lashed out, quickly breaking legs, joints, necks, anything that would disable them for me to slip past. Eventually though, I was forced to stop when a veritable wall of bodies blocked my way, but not before I caught a glimpse of the shooter. It was a normal vampire, no different than any of the dozens of others, holding a large automatic pistol in a double handed grip with its secondary hands. So they were smart enough to use tools.
I switched priorities now that I understood the threat. The gun was a concern, but I had my suit and helmet. Somewhat more pressing was the sheer number of vampires. I saw at least thirty-nine, with likely more out of line-of-sight, although I couldn't be certain. The droning whine that now filled the cavern was even more deafening than the gunshots, and using sound to gather information was basically useless. I was definitely going to be able to put my anti-swarm tactics into practice.
First countermeasure: I needed to put my back to the nearest wall to limit vectors of attack. Easily done (after shoving a few vampires out of my way), although I'd need to be aware of the water trough when it came to footing. Next, I'd need more fuel. Also easily acquired as the next batch of vampires rushed me. Five of them came at me from the crowd, spacing themselves equally in a semi-circle around me. I unlocked joints in my arm and struck with a whiplike motion, catching all five of them with a strike that I'd tested on concrete. Traction claws tore through weak chitin using brute force more than anything, and three of the vampires died while the final two fell to the floor, critically wounded. Several vampires tried to jump in past the swing, only to then die as my other arm came around and caught them instead. In essence, I was simply flailing my arms at full force, highly inefficient both in energy spent and precision, yet, strangely effective. The imprecise movements had the benefit of being unpredictable, and putting as much force as possible into the blows meant even a glancing hit could break necks and shatter carapace. Still, moving this much muscle this quickly was energy intensive, which meant I needed to move on to the next phase.
I stabbed a foot through one of the fresh corpses, immediately extending spikes into the innards and discharging micro units which immediately went to work. Normally I would never begin harvesting in the middle of combat unless it was an emergency, but this would both keep me topped off while I kept the horde back, and would set the stage for the next phase of my plan. Inside the corpse, my micro units harvested resources, and began converting biomass.
I was going to need tendrils. Lots and lots of tendrils.
I continued flailing, slowly creating a small field of corpses and loose limbs around me. Vampires continued to filter into the cave to bolster their numbers, and the swarms' attempts to overwhelm me increased. Besides just physical bodies, they also tried to overwhelm me with sound, using the vibrations of their wings in concert to create an ultrasonic attack much like Buzzer's. It was uncomfortable, but nowhere near as bad as a banshee scream. Then they tried to kill me with bullets again. It turned out there were actually two vampires with guns in the crowd, and they had frighteningly good aim. Socket's equipment proved its worth several times over, as bullets bounced off my helmet and failed to penetrate my suit.
The breaking point of the fight came after I'd killed twenty-five of the vampires. They stopped advancing, and nervously milled around as they hesitated over how to proceed. It seemed I'd hit their breaking point for risk and return. Quite the difference from humans, who would have either broken much earlier in panic, or would have gone into a 'bloodlust' and refused to retreat until a much larger percentage of the group was dead. Vampires were normally solitary hunters, and were more aware of the individual risk they each faced. Now that their strategies had proven ineffective, they were far more willing to cut their losses and run. But, I needed them to stay a little bit longer.
I started rapidly crushing eggs and stabbing larva, making sure to pull some from the pool so that their screeches echoed. If the vampires retreated, they'd lose multiple nests worth of young, practically an entire generation. Considering the difficulty of acquiring their main food source, it wasn't something they could easily replace.
Their reaction was immediate.
The swarm moved forward as one, using the last desperate tactic available to them, and the next lash of my arm crushed through four vampires before being stopped by the sheer press of bodies. Multiple clawed hands latched on to prevent me from moving, and despite grievous losses on their end, both of my arms were quickly suppressed under grasping vampire bodies. I felt multiple bites prick me as the rest of the swarm charged my main body.
That's when the dozens of corpses beneath them popped open, and hundreds of tentacles sprang forth.
I'd converted the surrounding corpses into a field of grasping traps, all connected to the original corpse I'd stepped in; they'd been too focused on my wild flailing to notice the thin tendrils radiating outward across the floor. Now almost half the swarm was stuck grappling with thick octopus like tentacles and cable like tendrils, all composed of foldable muscle. Tentacles and tendrils attached to torsos and looped around limbs, pulling vampires deeper into the melee and then constricting to break chitin and expose their innards to thinner, micro unit injecting tendrils. Even before they finished dying, their bodies became fuel for the traps. Still, I tried to make it as quick as possible, so as not to risk the chance of a trigger.
Over the next minute, I monitored the results of my plan. Drawing them in had gone well, the bites I received in return proving to be a non-factor as they had the same difficulty in draining me that Sanguine once had. The blood they drank deconstructed inside them, and the result seemed to bother them quite a bit, making freeing my arms easy. Any vampires directly over a corpse trap were caught and crushed to death by tendrils, but quite a few escaped, sometimes sacrificing limbs to do so. These predictably ran off as fast as possible, barely stopping to maybe grab an egg or larva before fleeing the cave. Somewhat sloppy of me to leave so many survivors, but I'd needed to sacrifice precision for speed. Effectiveness through inefficiency as it were. All totaled, I'd killed twenty-five vampires during the opening fight, twenty-seven with grappler traps, and another fifteen through various crushings and the general chaoticness of the trap. About thirty or so slipped away, or hadn't gotten within range.
I shivered mentally. While successful, this plan represented almost two month's worth of operational resources. Grossly wasteful, although the vampire bodies provided the bulk of the necessary materials. This strategy was only made possible by the very thing it was meant to counter. Still, I'd like to avoid such situations in the future, even if I now had a safe counter to use on swarms. I was going to have to leave most of this biomass behind.
So much waste...
I quickly repaired my main body, allowing myself to bulk up my combat form a bit just in case; I still hadn't encountered whatever was causing the vampires to swarm. Once finished, I regretfully unhooked myself from the network of traps, and watched as over a thousand pounds of good biomass disintegrated into useless mush. Sigh. At least there were a few chunks of chitin and meat left over here and there. A result of not being able to properly disperse micro units in the rush. Maybe something would come along and make a meal of the scraps.
I left the former egg chamber behind, quickly retracing my path through the entrance tunnel. Soon I encountered a monotone vampire whine coming from two figures ahead of me. It seemed Pebbles and Buzzer had successfully snuck past the vampires while I distracted them. Buzzer's imitation vampire whine was apparently good enough to make the vampires ignore them. At least when there were bigger threats to worry about.
"Gah," exclaimed Pebbles, turning to me. Then he flinched at the looming appearance of my combat form, "You are way too quiet for how big you are, you know that?"
"That is by design."
"Well whatever works. How'd it go? We didn't stick around long after the fireworks started."
"It went very well. I was somewhat worried about possible special circumstances, but there were only regular vampires, and they aren't strong enough to put me at risk."
"Hah. Not strong enough for you? Careful with the flexing, the universe is listening and it likes to prove us wrong."
"Hah, right, you and metaphors. No worries Tofu, I'm sure you can solve whatever it throws at you with some elbow grease."
"Where do I acquire elbow grease?"
He laughed, "Brute force Tofu. A strong back and a stiff upper lip. All you gotta do is be strong enough to take what the world throws at you."
"I would prefer foreknowledge of the situation and well planned countermeasures."
"Bah, if brute force isn't working, you're just not using enough of it."
Our climb through the sewers continued without problems, and Pebbles passed the time by trying to explain the metaphors he used. I decided to take his advice with "a grain of salt."
"Please tell me we're almost there," said Buzzer.
"I swear, if he wasn't already concussed I'd hit him," Pebbles said to me, "I wish I was the deaf one."
We were climbing the last ladder to the surface. No vampires had pursued us, so we were taking it slow to allow Buzzer to not strain himself. That of course hadn't stopped Buzzer from complaining. Pebbles climbed out first, followed by Buzzer. Before I could see out of the entrance, I already knew there was trouble from how both Pebbles and Buzzer were cursing.
"Well well well, what have we here?"
I didn't recognize that voice. Popping my head cautiously over the lip of the entrance, I quickly took in the situation. Mikey and Zaps were both in handcuffs, sitting on the curb next to the van, and between us and them were two heroes. One was Avos, the telekinetic hero from earlier, and the other was another hero I didn't recognize. He wore a green bodysuit with a white pentagon on the chest, and from his lack of armor and bulging muscles I thought it likely he had a strength increasing power.
"Alright, all of you out of there, and get down on the ground," said Avos.
"Hey, I know what this looks like, but we didn't-"
"Shut it. You're under arrest on suspicion of damaging Fortress City infrastructure. During a lockdown, I might add."
"What!? The hell we did! We were rescuing Buzzer after you bozos freaking lost him! We wouldn't even be here if- hey!" exclaimed Pebbles, as the cape in green grabbed his shoulder and easily forced him to the ground, cuffing him after. Definitely a strength power.
"Yeah yeah, you can explain to the judge how you aren't responsible for fifteen square blocks suddenly losing power, although that might be a bit difficult considering your zappy friend's rep. Until then I suggest you retain the right to remain silent."
"I didn't do nothing," said Zaps in the background.
"And I'm the wandergheist. Now I won't say it again, get out and on the ground."
I proceeded to exit the sewer, which prompted both Avos and the green suited hero to tense. My current appearance wasn't exactly non-threatening. After assuring them I would comply, and explaining to them that Buzzer was currently deaf and needed medical treatment, the three of us wound up in cuffs sitting next to Mikey and Zaps. Not exactly the way I wanted today to end up. I briefly considered killing the two heroes, but quickly discarded that idea. I didn't know enough about their powersets. Perhaps some of us could have escaped if we scattered, but they called in the arrest immediately, and backup was already on the way. Not to mention that Buzzer was still injured, and we didn't have a cowl with us, so any resistance on our part was equivalent to admitting guilt. We'd just need to rely on the lawyers to get us out. Not the worst situation, considering Buzzer was supposed to still be working with the sweeper team, and it was their fault they lost him so we had an excuse for being here.
...And I didn't think they had any proof we destroyed the gizmo in the sewer, the most likely culprit for the blackout.
"Can't believe this shabby treatment! I risked my neck to hunt these vamps, doing my part for the community, and look where it gets me. Could at least let the injured man, the goddamn real hero sit in the van, but noooo, let's put him on the cold hard street. Used to be there were heroes who served the community, instead of wrongfully accusing honest citizens who were just trying to help. And another thing!-"
"Does he ever shut up?" asked Avos.
"Not if he can help it," muttered Pebbles.
At least the fact that Buzzer was complaining meant his injuries couldn't be too bad. I was almost more worried about Mikey, who was very pale. Was he that worried about being arrested?
"Are you alright Mikey?"
"Uh, t-there's, um-" he pointed, his eyes going wide.
My head whipped in the direction he was staring, startling the two heroes who had been keeping a wary eye on me. In the direction Mikey stared, over by the manhole we'd used, was a vampire.
Both heroes snapped to attention and faced the threat. It stood there calmly, despite being wholly outnumbered.
"What's it doing?" asked Avos
"Who cares? Crush it," responded the green suited hero.
Avos lifted his hand. In response, the vampire unfolded its wings.
The shockwave that emerged hit Avos head on, and blasted him back so violently that he was thrown nearly half a block away before hitting the ground and collapsing. Our entire group was also blown back from the point of impact, and only the green suited hero remained stationary. To his credit, he quickly sprang into action, trying to get to the vampire and stop it, but the vampire responded with another blast that hit the cape directly. At first he seemed unaffected, but when he tried to move, he staggered twice and fell over, bleeding from the ears, eyes, and nose. His sense of balance must have been destroyed by the direct hit of the ultrasonic blast.
He should have worn a full helmet.
I spat metal slugs at the vampire. Maybe killing it would improve our situation with the heroes? It was worth trying. Either way, I doubted the vampire would leave us alone after it was through with them. Hopefully I'd get a chance to dissect it afterwards. It's shockwave ability was obviously a power of some kind, and I wanted to see if it had any differences when compared to normal vampires. It was possible that I could... huh...
My slugs hit a barrier. About two feet from the vampire, a glimmering shield had popped into existence, deflecting my attack.
Two powers?... Time to leave.
I slipped my hands out of my cuffs, and moved towards my teammates. Pebbles was unaffected by the blast, Zaps was still trying to stand, but was animated, and Mikey was a bit scuffed, but was otherwise fine.
Buzzer wasn't moving, and Pebbles was already trying to help him. Somehow he'd removed his own cuffs.
"...He's breathing," said Pebbles, after checking Buzzer, "Tofu, get the others and bring the van around. Hurry."
I was already heading to them. Quickly ripping their cuffs off, I asked Mikey to start the van before turning back again for Buzzer. I intended to assist with moving Buzzer to the van, but got distracted when another blast exploded by the cape. The vampire had used its shockwave to knock the hero senseless again, and was using its shield power to flatten the hero against the street. Now it crouched over him with its proboscis extended and stabbing into the hero's neck. Blood flowed into the vampire, and its carapace began to bloat unnaturally. Rather than becoming deformed; however, it appeared to be taking on a semblance of muscle definition. As it drained the hero, it gained more and more muscle mass, as well as several feet of height.
I debated trying to shoot it while its shield was occupied, but I wasn't sure if my shots would kill it. It was obviously gaining the power of the downed super (something I was told couldn't happen), and it might already be strong enough to survive, or be able to use more than one shield, or even have other powers it could draw upon. It was better to run, and I hesitated to draw its attention to us while we withdrew.
Zaps had no such compunction.
Before I could stop him, Zaps extended his arms in the direction of the vampire, and two bolts of electricity burst forth from his gloved hands. One was intercepted by the vampire's shield, but the other curved around it and connected with the vampire's side, shocking it. The vampire convulsed in pain, spitting up some of its stolen blood, and began flapping its wings.
The shockwave went wild, smashing into the side of the apartment building. Most of the windows were already broken, but a cloud of debris and dust bloomed out of the dwelling that got hit. Zaps responded with two more bolts. Again the shield intercepted one, but the other bolt curved enough to bypass the shield, and the vampire took another shock. This time it braced before the impact, and its enhanced physique allowed it to endure the bolt even if it shuddered in pain. Its wings began vibrating as it lined up a shockwave on Zaps.
So I threw a car door at it.
Its shield intercepted my impromptu projectile, but Zaps let loose with another two bolts at the same time, and both of them hit the vampire. Apparently its shield could only intercept one target at a time, and it was blown off its feet by the impact of dual bolts, tumbling behind a parked car.
"Zaps, Tofu, let's go!" yelled Pebbles.
"One sec! I think we got it," yelled Zaps.
I too wanted to confirm the target's death, but only because I didn't want it blasting the van when we turned our backs. Making sure to flank from a different angle than Zaps, I circled around the car behind which the vampire had landed.
* eeeeEEEEEEEEEEEEE BOOM*
The car itself was hit with a shockwave, and it flipped end over end in my direction, forcing me to scramble out of the way.
"I got it, I got it!" yelled Zaps, unleashing two bolts that both missed. One was close enough to get intercepted by the vampire's shield, but the other grounded itself on a metal signpost near the target. Surprisingly, the vampire took this opportunity to leap away, smashing through one of the first floor windows of the adjacent building, and escaping into the apartment. After a while, it became apparent that it wasn't coming back.
"Hells yeah, showed that mosquito who's the boss! Up high Tofu!" said Zaps. He raised his hand in a high-five gesture. I was hesitant to reciprocate, as his hand was still crackling with electricity.
"Hey! Move it or lose it! We gotta go!" yelled Pebbles.
"What about the capes?" asked Zaps, completely forgetting about the high-five.
"Ah... damnit, if they're alive grab them too."
I walked over to check the unfortunate cape. Looking him over, he actually didn't look that bad (minus the blood leaking from his sensory organs), and when I checked for a pulse I found one. Perhaps his power included regeneration of some kind? The vampire drained what looked like several litres of blood, more than enough to kill the average human. If his power let him survive, that meant the vampire had copied his power, not stolen it.
I picked the hero up carefully, and made my way to the van while pondering the vampire's power. Was it possible that vampires really could steal powers by biting?... No, that didn't fit with their behavior. If each vampire was capable of stealing powers in the same manner, they would have quickly overwhelmed humanity. One swarm could overwhelm a super, whose power would get added to a minimum of one vampire, then along with the new powered vamp they would overwhelm more supers, continuing exponentially. This particular vampire must have just gotten lucky, and gained a power theft ability.
It would be nice if I was that lucky.
"PUT HIM DOWN! NOW!" yelled Magenta.
But not today it seemed. I started to place the hero back down.
"Central I've got multiple heroes down, powered minions at the scene. I need back-up, now!"
Wait, why would she need... oh.
I looked around at the general destruction. The broken cars, windows, road. The injured heroes, the multiple boneheads, myself in full combat form.
And not a vampire in sight.
"...I can explain?"