Wind Rider and Templar hold a little ways off from us. I step between them and my friends.
Templar frowns at me. No, not a frown, she just looks like that. With dour expression, she says, “Gabe, I have to ask you to stand down. I know this is not what we’d hoped, but if you surrender, no one else has to get hurt.”
“No one else?” I ask. “Doc’s already dead! Bedevil’s had a seizure, and you threw a fucking lightning bolt at us!” I have a guess that Meltdown, Wind Rider’s wife, is the one that threw it, considering he’s here.
“We can help her,” Wind Rider says, hovering above us. “We have medics on site. Everyone can be cared for, immediately. Please don’t make this harder than it has to be, Gabe.”
I know what Cynic has in store for both Epione and me if we surrender. We’ll become lab rats so she can control superpowers. What I don’t know is what happens to the others. Prison or death. Maybe both. I can’t trust these two, even if they used to be his sidekicks.
“We don’t want to hurt you,” Templar says. “We don’t want anyone else to die.”
Cynic sent them to manipulate me. Worse, she probably thought they’d hurt Bedevil’s resolve. It’s a good thing Bedevil’s not conscious right now, because I’d bet she’d turn Wind Rider into pulled pork if she got the chance.
“Why are you even here? You don’t know me. Worse,” I say as I point at Wind Rider. “You were a scumbag to Bedevil.”
Wind Rider scowls at me. “You don’t know us either. You don’t know her.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Templar says.
“It does.” Wind Rider doesn’t look like he wants this fight to end here. I’ve struck a nerve.
Templar’s stone face softens with desperation, just a bit. “Please.”
I nod to Echo. “I can’t.”
Echo books it, dragging Maisa and Bedevil with her. Drone runs as fasts as she can after them while carrying Epione.
Wind Rider holds his hand out and invisible cords wrap around my arms, not unlike Bedevil’s telekinetic tendrils. I wonder for a brief second if he got the idea from her, in between becoming her teammate and breaking her heart.
It’s odd to see them both rushing at me from the brush of swamp wood, the early morning sun at their backs. Wind Rider’s dark form is outlined in brilliant jade by the light, and Templar’s platinum-gold hair whips and glows like fire with the same light. Her black armor drinks in the light.
Templar shouts, “Stand down!”
I always expected to see them on TV, or if I ever got the chance to see them in real life, from the audience. Maybe, just maybe, shaking hands on a stage or something.
I snap free of Wind Rider’s coils the same as Bedevil’s tendrils, gaining a boost of energy in the process. His power isn’t as effective on me, but it can harry my friends as they flee. Still, the worse threat is Templar, with her biological manipulation. She needs to go first.
I come in jabbing, hoping to knock her out in one hit, but she leans out of my swing. My knuckles only just graze her cheek.
My fist feels like someone dunked it in warm water. I recoil from her, bounce back far enough that she can’t reach me without sprinting, and see that the fist is fused together so I can’t unfurl it. There are no fingers, just a lump of bone and flesh. Which means I can’t use my right hand to do anything but attack.
New plan: get her as far away as possible without making direct contact.
Torrents of wind swallow me again as Wind Rider dive bombs right by me. With the energy I got bursting through his coils, I slip my non-fused hand through and grab Wind Rider by the ankle.
“Let go!” he shouts, flailing and flying, spinning me round and round like a tornado.
I grit my teeth and try to slow him by absorbing the energy of him revolving me over and over. We come to a stop, but Templar clocks me with a naked fist, and my face tingles, the skin around my mouth shifting. Templar hooks her fingers on my cheeks, and more of my skin shifts, but I knee her hard and then use Wind Rider as a bat when her guard is down. They connect, I release. The two of them fly over the tree line and out into the woods somewhere.
My mouth is sealed shut. Shit. I don’t know how to reverse her changes right now, but I can still fight. Echo’s already led the others into the woods on the opposite side of the property, so maybe they can get away.
We’re split up. Remise, Mil-dot, and Saw Off are in the woods. The woods light up with strange colors. An explosion and more gunfire. How did they find us?
No time to think right now. Deal with it, retreat, and regroup. We’ll figure it out.
I rush into the forest with my fused hand and mouth, warping between the trees when I have enough clearance to finesse, running and stumbling on underbrush when I can’t. I chase the strange lights and find Mil-dot and Saw Off retreating from one of those heroes in white armor, like the kind around Cynic at the airport. I’m guessing they’re some kind of elite OPI soldier.
The OPI soldier manipulates blobs of light from his hand, flashing and shifting color so fast they could trigger another seizure, — is Bedevil okay? — and they dance around Mil-dot and Saw Off. The effect is obvious: Saw Off bumbles into trees, Mil-dot covers her eyes and runs blindly.
From the other side come more FIS elite operatives and another pair of the OPI soldiers in white armor. I can’t call out to Saw Off or Mil-dot, so I have to make a choice: take out the guy dazing them with his lights, or take out the group coming in at them?
I make a call: Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. I rush the OPI soldier waving his blobs of light. He meets me with a dazzling spray of colors. I wrench my eyes shut so I don’t get thrown off and try to fight him blind.
The OPI soldier bashes me in the face. I can absorb the energy but he’s getting a bunch of licks in, and the longer I dawdle the worse it gets for Mil-dot and Saw Off.
A shotgun sneeze reports from where I left Saw Off, followed by the distinct boom of a sniper rifle. The searing lights outside my eyelids vanish. I open my eyes and see that the OPI soldier is down, a bullet through his chest. Flashfire won’t be happy.
Saw Off grins proudly as she tears through the agents while Mil-dot surgically removes the enemies in Saw Off’s blind spots. They do make a really good team.
Templar rushes out of the woods and grabs Saw Off. Both of her legs rotate around the knee, and her arms bend backwards at inhumane angles. She shrieks in agony. Mil-dot aims her rifle but the gun rips from her hands as Wind Rider soars by her. Shit, I’ve got to-
Someone slams into me. I feel the prick of a needle in my arm. No.
An OPI soldier in white armor. Who the fuck are these guys? Flashfire always talked about OPI having a military branch, and that’s my only guess, but the armor they wear is crazy. Stronger than the armor Hasuji and Tachikaze wear, so that I can’t immediately shred through it with my fists.
The soldier unloads a beam of ice from his hands. I feel nothing, and the beam does not hinder me in any way. Sorry dude, luck of the draw. I kick up, hook my legs around his neck, and spin him into the woods with a burst of kinetic energy.
Chaos drenches the woods along with the morning sun. The haze is just enough that shadows mask all the movement, gunfire, and bodies, but I do make out someone fighting ahead of me. I rush to their aid, hoping I can make the difference.
Danger Close chases my fleeing friends. He’s in a different suit than the last time I saw him: this one is a sleek exoskeleton, a series of bars, gears, and servos that whir around his limbs. He vaults into the air using a grappling hook from his wrist, and jump jets in his heels. As he bounces off the trees, his gear transforms into a glide-suit, and he swoops in after Echo and the others. He flies back up into the air hauling Maisa in his grasp.
I sprint and launch into the air after him, draining the energy of gravity and fueling my flight with it. I don’t fly perfectly but I don’t need to. I shred through the trees I hit as if they were cardboard, losing no momentum as I rocket into Danger Close.
I nab Maisa with my free hand and tangle myself with Danger Close, wrapping my legs around his waist. We fall, the three of us, spinning around my center of gravity. I control the fall, drop Maisa into Echo’s arms, and then drag Danger Close back into the woods.
Danger Close slams another sedative into my thigh with one of those guns. I haven’t felt the first one yet, but I can’t imagine it will be long. Luckily I’m bigger than Epione, more muscular, and that buys me time.
Danger Close shoots a rocket into my chest from a launcher on his shoulder. The explosions separates us and I fall into the forest, somewhere near the parking lot.
My legs wobble, my arms are sluggish. My mind clouds. I fight to stand, but I don’t think I have a lot of fight left in me. Hopefully, Echo and the others swing back around, Bedevil can recover, she’s really strong, she could take Krater by herself. I’ve already removed the biggest threats, and I’m sure the others-
A deafening roar, a plume of fire and wood from the property. A screaming human bullet through the ranch house, immolating the grass beneath as it flies right at me.
I try to dodge but I’m a hair too sluggish. Even conjuring kinetic energy is slow.
Nero meets me head-on, blazing hands around my neck. He brays laughter like the world’s deadliest donkey. Together we crunch into the van — we needed that to escape — and Nero lays into me, laughing all the way.
I grab his shredded collar and flip us out of the wrecked car. Nero cackles, we blast off into the sky in an atomic explosion, so hot that the pavement and the van’s chassis melt into slag. The following burst of force breaks the earth and topples the trees in a ring around the driveway.
“I wish you could say something!” Nero’s eyes are the eyes of a man wearing no seat belt on the fastest roller coaster in the world. His face is completely free of wounds or scars, his skin is luminous like a newborn. “The look on your face now! You’ve got no idea!”
He’s right, I don’t. He was dead.
No. I do have an idea. Doc killed him. I killed him. Even his armor kills him. He didn’t heal from the wounds until now.
He regenerates from death.
I should have run when Doc told me to. He was trying to buy me time, his last gift to me. I threw it away.
My muscles don’t respond to my call anymore, so I use kinetic energy to swing weak haymakers at Nero. Nero laughs and laughs. It’s a cruel joke of a fight now.
The flaming demon throws me into the dirt with a thunderous boom. Fire fills the sky as he unleashes his full power on me. He falls like a meteor with a velocity that would turn a normal human into an ash stain. I use all of my available strength to keep myself alive by converting the energy downward. Even so, his strength bruises my broken body even more, and he laughs, and laughs, overtaken by shrill Satanic hysterics.
“Come on, come on!” Nero pulls me up to my feet. “Let’s be sporting!”
I scream behind my mouth muzzled by skin, as the sedatives worm exhausting fingers around my brain. My eyes can’t stay open. I can’t stay up.
And Nero waits for me, berserker’s grin splitting his face cheek to cheek, fists up, feet bouncing like this is a schoolyard game. A cruel joke of a fight.
I step forward into darkness.