The fire rises higher and higher, swallowing the garden. I scream but I can’t hear my own voice.
In tandem with my cry, Hasuji shears through the door with a super-sonic swing of his sword, geared up in his military ceramics armor and visor. He brandishes his katana and takes a swing at the first person he sees: Bedevil.
Bedevil shrieks in agony, and Hasuji primes for another blow, aimed for center mass.
My body moves on its own and I warp in between them, catching his blade with my shoulder. All I can think is that I have to protect Bedevil. He’ll absolutely kill her, like he killed Vaquero. I summon all the energy I can and go in swinging with another Freezer Burn.
The next thing I know, Hasuji is laid out, his helmet caved into his face, and his jaw is in pieces. Blood pools beneath his head and he stares up at nothing.
I rush to Bedevil’s side. Hasuji sliced the fingers of her right hand off, right at the knuckle. Blood pours from each nub. Bedevil screams and weeps, but the blood stops flowing from her fingers as she stifles the wounds with a telekinetic tourniquet. She waves me off with her intact hand. “Go, Doc.”
Remise throws herself to the ground. “Watch out!”
The hairs on my arm stand up. Instinctively, I throw up a kinetic shield, freezing the air molecules into a disk in front of me.
Pain jolts through my body and my vision goes white. My muscles roar with flame, and I disconnect from my body for a second as if I’ve fallen into a pool of eternal light.
My vision pops back in, but I can’t hear anything over the ringing in my ears. Bedevil kicks and flails on the ground as another seizure grips her, and Pawpaw barks at her and nuzzles under her face. Saw Off screams and ducks for cover, and Remise shouts at me, but her voice is far away, muffled by a wall of sound in my ears.
“-bolt, they hit us with a god damn lightning bolt!” Mil-dot shouts from behind me.
I climb to my feet. Doc might still be alive. There’s something wrong with Bedevil, but I can’t remember what right now.
Megajoule screams in my ear: “Get the hell out of here!”
I stumble to the door, despite Remise screaming at me to stop, and warp off the porch toward the garden. Gunfire in the woods. Doesn’t matter. Doc might need my help. If he survived.
The fire is extinguished, but it completely destroyed the garden. The flowers have turned to ash, the bench scorched and twisted.
Nero stands over Doc’s body, rolling his shoulder. He spits blood out of his mouth. There isn’t a scratch on him. “Really thought he might have pulled it off, actually. The eggs always thought he’d be my weakness.” Nero sighs, his eyebrows knitted down in a predator’s pantomime of sorrow. “What a shame, Doc.”
I scream and launch at him with burning hands aimed for his throat. Heat floods into me as I absorb every scrap of energy around me, searing away the grief, the confusion, the doubt, and the fear roiling inside me, and all that is left is fury.
His skin lights up like mine does when I’m holding too much heat, and he grins as we meet fist to fist. The first strikes are instinct; they happen without my awareness, but as I push him back toward the cabins with a blazing assault of kicks and fists, I pick up his pattern. He favors a hard right haymaker, filled with so much strength the air pops as he swings his fist.
I smash his jaw. A shock-wave travels up my arm, counteracting the kinetic energy I infuse my strike with.
Nero howls with laughter. “Fuck yeah! I’ve been dying for this!” He tackles me, and we fly back with a sudden burst of destructive force. The garden ruptures under our flight, energy overwhelms me. I absorb all that I can, but I feel his power vibrating on my bones.
I hit the ranch house back first, exploding through the living room wall. I smash into the couch and roll into the dining room, destroying all the furniture in my wake.
Nero jumps through the hole I made, his arms shining, his eyes glowing and billowing with flame. Maisa screams and tries to flee up the stairs, Drone presses against the wall, stammering at the demon in front of us.
I get out from under the couch in time to see Saw Off sprint right at Nero.
“Who-” is all Nero gets out before Saw Off rocks a shotgun sneeze into his chest.
The point-blank shotgun blast shreds through part of his chest armor, exposing a painful contraption beneath — an iron maiden stabbing into Nero’s chest. Nero steps backs and thunks against the wall, clutching the gaping chest wound she just gave him. He cackles, and wheezes through blood. “You first, then.”
Nero warps toward her, blurring through the air, exploding the floor beneath him as he crosses the distance in the blink of an eye. I blast in between them, catching his blow on my face. Nero snarls and knees my gut with a kick that bursts through the sound barrier. I shoot up through the ceiling, crashing into Doc’s old room. There’s so much force behind the kick I have to redistribute it instead of absorbing it all.
I shoot back down, narrowly missing his skull with a kick. Before I can get another attack in, Nero pounces for Drone with blazing claws out for the kill, but blinding lights from Maisa send him off course, crashing into the wall beside Drone instead.
Epione reaches a hand out to take his power while he’s dazed. Yes!
Nero roars and fires erupt from his body. A wave of pure force pulses from his body, crunches the wood beneath him, and knocks Epione on her back before she can get her hands on him. He reaches to kill her.
I shoot a ball of wind at him by stimulating the molecules of air, knocking him into the wall.
Nero turns his smoldering gaze on me, and he lunges, trailing smoke and hot wind behind him.
He crashes into me and Saw Off flies into the nearby wall from the wind blast of our collision. The TV falls to pieces, the coffee table bursts apart, the floorboards disintegrate beneath us.
Nero’s got a huge well of power behind his attack. He pushes through my absorption, sweeping me off my feet, and we shoot like a bullet from hell back into the yard.
He never stops fucking laughing.
Nero’s hand sparks with flame, and a red laser washes over me from his palm, so hot the air around us steams. The heat doesn’t bother me, but there’s force behind the beam, and I can’t see through it worth a damn. I kick free, landing in the garden. Nero crashes into the cabin Epione stayed in.
I struggle to my feet. He’s got regeneration, clearly, and an energy release power a lot like mine. I don’t know the limits of his healing factor. Sledge could regenerate from any fatal wound, but I found the weak point through temperature. I just need to find the right angle on this son of a bitch and I’ll have him.
He’s still not up. Did I actually K.O. him already?
Nero rises in the shadows of the cabin, casting light on it from his molten arms.
The light of his skin is diminished. I hope that means he’s running out of gas. I don’t know how he gets more power yet, but I’ll figure it out.
Nero cracks his neck and steps up to the hole in the wall.
“WHY?!” I roar, drinking deep of the energy of Earth’s rotation. I rush him and plant my foot into his chest with all the force of a meteor.
Nero rips out the back of the cabin. He blurs back in, smiling as he hacks up blood. “Holy shit, kid, you’re good!”
I charge forward, screaming, and he meets me, laughing. Energy, heat, light, and sound pass between us as fast as our blows. I can’t see the rest of the world: it all boils down to his face, his smug laughter, the grin I’m going to rip from his teeth.
I conjure the energy of falling into the earth in time with my steps, removing the shackles of friction from my footwork. With that, I gain torrents of energy to blast Nero with, and each time his resistance weakens. His punches don’t pop in the air, his fists aren’t alight with energy.
I shatter his nose with a well-timed elbow strike.
Nero retreats from me, blood pouring from his face. He shows me a crimson smile. “Come on! Come on! At least you’re putting up a fight, not like Doc!”
My heart demands that he dies. “FUCK. YOU!”
I duck under his last attack, a haymaker so slow and weak a child could’ve dodged it, and utilizing every ounce of energy I drained from the gravity, the heat in the air, and the damage Nero dealt, I ram my fist through the armor around his chest and out the other side. The shock-wave of energy rips apart his entire torso and pulps him down into his suit, and the force carries through the air, blowing loose debris and half broken wood free of the cabin.
Nero goes down in a bloodied, trembling heap.
My lungs burn. I gulp air to cool them and count to ten while I wait for him to regenerate, ready to keep going if he gets back up.
After ten seconds, nothing’s happened. He’s a broken doll, nothing more.
Gunfire near the house finally breaks me out of the spell I’ve been under.
A squad of elite FIS agents storms the porch of the bed and breakfast. Gunfire and fighting, shouting and screaming. I can’t see Remise or Mil-dot, I don’t know where Echo or Lugs are, Bedevil’s having another seizure, Maisa and Drone can’t do anything about this. Epione’s the only one who stands a chance, and I don’t think she can take on that many agents by herself.
I spare one last glance at Nero to make sure he’s down and then shoot back across the lawn, through the hole in the living room wall.
I arrive in a hail of bullets and shrieks. The FIS agents retreat back from Saw Off’s shotgun sneeze, Maisa throws blinding lights at them, and Epione grapples with one closest to her. The agent’s arms drop as she gets a hold of his cheeks and his eyes glaze over like the nurses she stilled in the pharmacy.
“They don’t have powers!” Epione shouts at me.
Bad news for Epione, but perfect for me.
I’m still on murder-mode, and I carry heat and death in my wake as I waltz through the agents trying to kill my friends. My hands blaze with light, steaming the air, cauterizing the flesh as I cripple those in my path, removing hands and legs. I melt guns, I sear faces with light touches. In a few heartbeats, the agents are all down, either dead or unconscious, and I’m still standing.
I rush to Bedevil’s side. She’s no longer seizing up, and her breathing is normal again. She’s not okay, but she’s alive. Pawpaw isn’t in the house anymore, and I don’t see Bedevil’s cats. I hope they’re okay, wherever they’re hiding.
“Remise and Mil-dot went out to the woods,” Drone says.
Saw Off trots out after them. “I’m going to go help. I’ll get Lugs.” She checks the porch and garden to make sure it’s clear, and then creeps out.
I roll Bedevil onto her side, in case she throws up again. “Epione, can you help Bedevil?”
Epione stumbles and falls against the wall.
“Are you okay?” I warp to her and help her stand.
Epione clings to me like an exhausted toddler. “..drug… needle… syringe…” She points at the ground, at the FIS agent she wrestled. He clutches a syringe gun. I check myself for any needles, but I’m in the clear.
“Maisa and Drone, you can still walk, right?” I ask. “Help me get Bedevil and Epione to the cars. I’ll cover you while you get out of here.”
Maisa helps Bedevil up to her feet and Drone gets Epione. Just as they get steady to walk, Echo comes down the stairs. “Jesus H. Christ,” she says, looking at the damage. “I’m going to have to apologize to Crane.”
“Echo, help us get to the cars. I’m going to back up the others in the woods.” I’m trying to keep it together, but Doc is dead, Bedevil’s hurt all over again, and Epione is drugged. “Once you get out of here, we can retreat and figure out what to do.”
Echo nods. She helps Maisa with Bedevil. I step out onto the porch to make sure they have a clear shot to the cars.
As I step out onto the lawn, a gale force wind swallows me. I absorb the energy of the force and search for the source.
I recognize the two people the come out of the woods, one flying and one on foot. The man hovers through the air with a flurry of wind, wearing a costume that invokes colors of wind and nature, while the woman runs toward me with the form of a linebacker, decked out in jet-black armor with a red sash across her waist. I recognize them from dozens of interviews, photo-ops, and videos of their missions.
Wind Rider and Templar. Bedevil’s old teammates, Megajoule’s sidekicks in life. The Inheritors.