Tim Prince sank into the crowd of protesters, hiding between the posters and signs. He let the mob consume him. He heard the drumbeat anthem of victory rhythmically beat behind the chant of “Leave Syria now!” He raised his fist and screamed with them: “Leave Syria now! Leave Syria now!”
The protest swarmed through the heart of downtown Houston, clogging streets and littering the roads with trash. They marched under bright handheld lamps and torches, they sweat out their righteous fury, they conducted as one. The thrill of it all was just enough for Tim to tune out the press cameras lurking on the edge of the crowd.
Tim saw his sister, Elena, watching from one of the nearby rooftops, keeping her eye on him while dressed in her gaudy owl-themed superhero outfit. He debated lobbing his thermos at her, but he didn’t have any super strength or can throwing powers.
Instead, he opened it and took a sip of water. He needed to stay hydrated.
Tim stared at Megajoule’s face grinning at him from the side of his thermos. Tim grinned back. Megajoule had been dead for over a year, but they still slapped his face on merch. Maybe they thought it would make people feel safer.
The feverish cry of “Leave Syria now” faded as an aircraft roared overhead. Sleek and black, the Swordfish near disappeared against the backdrop of the night if not for the glint of lamplight, while the VTOL exhausts on the wings screamed against the protestors’ chant. The helicopter blade spanned the entire street, pounding and beating its own oppressive rhythm over the protestors stamping their feet and chanting “L-v- S-a No-” That was all Tim could hear, even from his own voice.
A projectile popped from the belly of the Swordfish, and white gas swallowed the crowd. The cargo side door slid open, and a man in green armor with a silver cape stepped out. Starfall, Tim thought. He pointed a finger at the crowd, and his voice sounded over a speaker fitted into the helicopter. “Disperse!”
The tear gas smothered the crowd but a rush of wind cleared the white cloud, throwing it up at the aircraft. “Fascists!” someone screamed. The cry took the crowd by storm.
Starfall floated from the Swordfish. “Disperse now! Go home, or you’ll be arrested!”
A woman from the crowd took flight, propelling herself with purple lights that shot out of her hands and feet. She rose to meet Starfall.
“Shoot a Wall Painter!” Starfall shouted, just before the woman tackled him up into the sky.
Tim’s heart stopped. A Wall Painter. His father mentioned using them in Syria.
Within thirty feet, no survivors.
Other powered people started to fly after the hero, but before they could, another projectile popped out of the Swordfish craft and hit the street. If it really was a Wall Painter, Tim had seconds to find some kind of cover, provided he wasn’t close to the center of the blast. Anything flimsy would do.
He grabbed one of the posters and wrapped it over himself just as the bomb popped. The wave of force from the Wall Painter ripped people to shreds, painting the pavement and surviving protesters in their blood. Tim got lucky: he was on the edge of the blast.
Another Wall Painter shot into the crowd, this time only feet from Tim. He turned and ran, but couldn’t push through the crowd fast enough. He was going to die. Probably wouldn’t even feel it, he could close his eyes and just let the energy destroy him from the inside out. The other marchers smashed into him, and he fell beneath their feet.
Tim clutched the thermos to his chest, waiting to be trampled or for the Wall Painter to disintegrate him.
The Wall Painter never popped off. All he felt or saw was the human pile swarming round him.
The other marchers all twisted their heads toward him. Their eyes were missing as if scooped out, and in a single voice, they said, “You are afraid.”
Tim screamed. He was in hell.
The curtain of squirming bodies parted, and Tim gazed into a void beyond. A black hole hung there in the starless dark, and Tim fell toward it. He grabbed for something to hold on to, but found no purchase on limbs slick with blood. He fell toward the black hole. Wires wrapped around his ankles and pulled closer.
A word filled his mind, simple, short, resonating like a bell inside him.
He saw this black hole streak across the universe, over eons, consuming entire worlds in its hunger. It harvested fear, agony, and pain from every planet and ate until there was nothing left. He saw alien species go extinct in one night, the surfaces of their worlds washed over in shadow as darkness devoured them.
Just as he was on the edge of the sphere, he realized he still held his thermos to his chest. Megajoule still grinned at him from the side. Reach. Dream. Strive. Become. Those words emblazoned on the cup gave him a spark of hope, that maybe Megajoule was still alive, and would swoop down and save him from this nightmare.
Tim opened the Thermos, and scooped it into the black hole.
The creature shrieked right into his mind, and the Thermos swallowed the Fear whole.
The void collapsed around him, and the Wall Painter’s force washed over him.
“Tim! Please, say something!” Elena cried, pulling him from his stupor.
Tim opened his eyes, found they were covered in blood, and wiped them. He was smeared in gore from disintegrated protesters. All those who’d trampled him were dead. The march had dispersed, the Swordfish was gone.
“Thank God, you’re okay.” Elena hooked her hand under his armpit and helped him stand. “You must’ve been too buried in the crowd.”
Tim looked down at the Thermos. That wasn’t a dream, or a nightmare. He could still feel the creature, trapped in his cup, sloshing with ancient fury. From it, he felt a well of power the likes of which he’d never had before. He had no idea how he’d done that, or what the thing was, or what he was going to do next. He did know one thing: “God didn’t have anything to do with this.”
Tim turned from his sister and walked away, stepping over the remains of his fellow protesters.
ARC 3: THE FIGHT YOU LOST BEFORE
Ink pours from Pandahead’s mouth. Rorschach unfurls around him, knitting five more arms out of the pitch wires that form its body, and wraps Tim up in a beating shadow heart.
Rorschach brings one of those huge hands up and slams it down on us. I catch it, absorbing the torrent of force from the blow.
Rorschach swats Snow Owl into a wall and flicks Tachikaze away before she can swing her sword.
I push the hand off of me with kinetic energy and turn to Bedevil. “Get her to the van before she gets hurt.”
Bedevil holds Maisa close and slings up toward the broken ceiling. Rorschach swings two fists at her, but I bound up and demolish one hand with a super-powered kick. Krater follows after me and ruptures the other arm with a one-two-punch combo.
Bedevil slings clear over the roof, out of sight.
Good, Maisa’s safe. I trust Bedevil to get her back.
Rorschach changes tactics, exploding two of its arms into a storm of black wires, this time aimed for Epione. I warp down there and rush her out before the Blot dices her to pieces. I take her to the people we’ve rescued on the other side of the hole in the wall. “Here, help the bystanders.”
Epione nods. “On it. Maybe they have a power I can borrow.”
I salute to her and rush back in. Tachikaze slices the razor field apart, and turns her attention to the arms, but for every limb she cuts off two regenerate. They knock Krater off the heart. Snow Owl smashes up and into the heart, trying to pull Tim Prince out the same way I saved Maisa.
The Thermos. He wanted Megajoule to save him.
He’s an awful human, I want to kill him, and at the very least he deserves a long time in jail, but I don’t think I can let him suffer inside this monster.
Rorschach shifts, morphing through the air like its ink blot namesake, and reforms right above the hole in the wall. It smashes through the brick like tissue paper.
“God damn, this thing wants to pooch you!” Krater shouts.
Enemy. It called me enemy.
The Blot reaches a dozen hands toward Epione.
It meant her! She hurt it in the Second Ward!
The hands burst into the razor wires, all aimed at Epione and the civies she’s helping.
Tachikaze slices through the first wave, and the second. I use the opportunity to grab Epione and get her to safety back in Terminal C. I turn back around to grab the bystanders.
Rorschach tears them all apart as I warp toward them, and the Blot enlarges as their deaths feed its strength. Fuck! I can’t think about it right now. I blast through the air, out of the razor wires.
Danger Close flies over the Blot, raining missiles down into the heart aimed for Tim Prince’s head bobbing in the mass. Despite this, Rorschach rolls toward us, and I keep looking for ground to retreat back on. If this thing wants Epione so bad, maybe we can kite it out of the terminal.
Then again, if people start seeing it en masse, it could grow exponentially. There aren’t a lot of good options here. “Epione, you fought this thing, what do we do?”
“I don’t know,” Epione says. “That’s just the form it projects out of the other place. If you really wanted to hurt it, you’d have to force that core to come into our world… I think.”
Empyreal runs up to me. “Megajoule, you have to do something. Their plan is insane. They want to kill Tim Prince and use Jettison as the new host so they can contain it.”
“Epione, if it moves hosts, will it come out of the place?” I ask.
“When he lost control, it did.” Epione makes a cutting motion with her hand. “When I broke the Thermos. Maybe the Thermos was the host until he lost control.”
“Does that mean he has to die?” I ask. I check on the situation: Krater beats through arms as fast as they regenerate, Tachikaze joins him, cutting supporting arms from underneath the main body with her air slashes, and Danger Close peppers the heart with more of his wrist cannons. Snow Owl moves the entire Blot, scattering and crushing the benches under the mass of ink as she tries to pull Tim from the depths.
Epione shakes her head. “I don’t know.”
Obviously the monster gravitates to fear. Tim’s got a lot of that, plus he surrounded himself with abused children and cowardly predators. Plenty to work with in terms of food. To get this thing to come out, we either cut off its food source by killing Tim or find out if its possible to tempt it with a bigger meal.
Jettison’s not doing much in this fight. He floats by the right entrance to the terminal, watching events unfold. I look at Epione. She looks at me, and nods. She dashes toward Jettison, and jumps up, grabbing his ankle. Jettison drops out of the air, landing in the benches with a yelp, and Epione flies back over with his power.
Danger Close tries to shoot at Tim with a wrist machine gun, but Rorschach shelters his head from attacks. He’s apparently important enough to protect, which means there’s no one else here that Rorschach considers a more viable food source.
Rorschach throws Danger Close into the sky above the airport, and slaps Krater straight into the ground. It rolls on all its limbs toward us, bowling over Tachikaze. I put Epione behind me. I can’t leave her unprotected but I need her here to help me fight. What’s worse, she can’t borrow any of these people’s powers without endangering them. We’re in a no win here, at least until Bedevil gets back.
The Blot comes close enough for me to see Snow Owl clearly. Rorschach shrieks its awful tone across my skeleton, sticking me in place for a vital second. Epione is not fazed, but more surprising, Empyreal doesn’t seem to be bothered by the Fear’s sound, either.
Snow Owl grabs Tim Prince’s face. “Tim! Please! Give me this thing!”
She gives him mouth to mouth, shoving her lips into the tar pouring out of Tim. She had the same idea as me, and she’s putting it in action.
The Blot trembles, revolves the arms around the core to crush her. I can’t move. I can’t stop it. “Epione,” I manage. “Help!”
Empyreal runs to her aid, but he can’t fly. He jabs his hand into one of the supporting arms, disintegrating the wires he touches with his silver fire. Epione grabs my shoulder, calming my fear, and I leap up into the air.
A breath too late.
Rorschach stabs through Snow Owl with an inky limb ending in a sharp point, throwing her off the main body. She falls from the heart, her white suit stained red with blood, but before she hits the ground, Rorschach catches her in one hand, and twists her torso free from her legs, bisecting her in one brutal motion.