Dustdevil blasted the door of the high school open with her wind power. “Let’s go!”
“I still hear her,” Remise said. “Both of ‘em. Warspeed’s breathing bad, like she’s been hit.”
Epione listened to the discordant music and watched the dark colors bleeding from the left wing of the high school, leading her to Maisa. Remise dashed that way so fast Epione could barely keep up. Dustdevil had an easier time bouncing off her little gusts of wind, using those to launch forward. Her power was like a weaker version of the power Epione stole from Jettison.
Epione had to admit the thought tempted her, taking other people’s powers all the time. Using them, seeing what they did. After Remise’s power hurt her, though, Epione wasn’t quite as tempted as she used to be. When she had Remise’s power, it was like someone ran a sword through her brain.
“This way!” Remise said. “They’re just this way!” She drew her fencing saber and rushed down one of the hallways.
Epione rounded the corner right behind Dustdevil.
Maisa cowered under the gaze of Warspeed at the end of a long hallway wrapped by green lockers, her shoulder bleeding, midnight black despair spilling from her, coloring the air like dark food coloring in water. A bright shaft of hope bloomed and pierced the despair when she saw Remise running right at her.
“Let ‘er go!” Remise shouted.
Warspeed, to Epione’s shock, was dressed in Pandahead’s outfit. The woman raised her rifle to Remise.
Dustdevil shot a wind blast from her hand, ripping the gun out of Warspeed’s hands. Warspeed grabbed at Maisa, pulling her close.
Remise reeled her sword arm back, and flung her blade.
The saber took Warspeed right in the shoulder, shoving her away from Maisa before she could teleport them away. Maisa booked it toward Remise.
Epione still hadn’t made it to the end of the hallway, She felt so slow compared to the other two, and a little useless. She couldn’t do anything unless she touched Warspeed.
An inkling of green fury betrayed the Warspeed clone’s arrival, folding out of thin air between Remise and Maisa. Warspeed appeared gun already unloading its magazine. Remise dodged out of the barrage just a hair too late, and Epione winced as she heard bullet impact flesh. Dustdevil shot another wind blast, throwing the other bullets off their mark.
The second Warspeed warped to Maisa, folded up again, and then appeared by the first Warspeed, who was still impaled in the shoulder by Remise’s saber.
The new Warspeed pointed her gun at the wounded Warspeed’s chest. The wounded Warspeed screamed once before the sound of the assault rifle ripped through the school.
The second Warspeed pulled Maisa in close and they disappeared into thin air.
Epione arrived at the end of the hallway, cursing that she couldn’t have gotten there sooner.
“Damn it!” Remise shouted, struggling to her feet. She wasn’t bad, the bullet had only grazed her knee, and she could move her leg fine after she’d stood up. “Mil-dot, where did they go?”
Mil-dot spoke over the comms, “I don’t know. Did one of the clones shoot the other?”
“Yeah,” Dustdevil said. “Weird.”
“Pyre told us about that,” Epione said. “He said the clones would try to kill each other after a little.” No try about it, this Warspeed was dead, her chest caved in from the barrage of bullets the other unloaded on her.
Remise pulled her saber from the corpse’s shoulder. “Let’s link back up with Gabe. Where is he, Mil-dot?”
“I don’t know, I lost track of him. Last I saw he was headed back to you.”
“Gabe?” Remise said over the comm. “Are you there?”
The trio stood there, uncertainly waiting for his answer. Blackened fear spread from Dustdevil as she eyed the dark hallway of the high school.
“Are you afraid?” Epione asked. “I could make you not afraid.”
Dustdevil tilted her head. “No, it’s fine, don’t exert yourself. It’s a minor annoyance.”
A wave of black color filled the high school, washing over the three of them. The inky tide flowed from the northern part of the school, where Epione knew that warehouse waited. Pandahead had used his Thermos, and the power had just reached them.
Dustdevil shuddered. “Uh, maybe, actually, yeah.”
“No answer,” Remise said. “I don’t like this.”
“Me neither,” Epione said. “What’s going on at the warehouse, Mil-dot?”
Mil-dot’s voice wavered. “I… can’t look over there. I know what will happen if I do. It’s been going on for a while.”
“That means they aren’t winning,” Epione said. “Come on. I can help them fight it, and we’ll get out of here after that.”
Dustdevil looked uncertain. “You… you can fight whatever this feeling is?”
“Yeah, she’s great,” Remise said. “Now, quitcher bitching, and let’s go.” She cleaned her saber of Warspeed’s blood, and followed after Epione.
Epione led them to the cafeteria of the high school. The fold up tables were all stored to the sides of the eating area, and various kitchens that resembled cafes from across the world looked into the dining room from an elevated area three or four feet up. Huge windows revealed the high school pavilion, and beyond that, the warehouse.
Pandahead floated through the air, supported by shadowed limbs that spilled from the Thermos he carried. Shadows from the warehouse and from beneath him danced in unnatural patterns, dueling with four capes beneath him.
Krater screamed like he was terrified but still fought with the Thermos’ tendrils. They pecked at him, turning his skin to rock, and slipped away from each attack. Almost as if they could choose when they were substantial and when they were mere shadow. The other capes Epione did not recognize, save for the one in the red mask, Abyss.
Remise averted her eyes from Pandahead. Dustdevil didn’t catch the warning, and black vapors drifted from her eyes and mouth, through the massive windows, and beyond to Pandahead. With a tiny voice, trembling in terror, she asked, “What is this?”
Epione grabbed Dustdevil’s hand with her own, and stilled the fear the girl felt. The vapor stopped trailing away from Dustdevil’s mouth. “It’s okay. We can help them.” Epione offered her hand to Remise, too.
The three of them walked to the back door of the cafeteria, hand in hand.
The fight spilled into the high school yard. As they approached, Epione perceived the Thermos.
Beyond the Thermos, beyond what others could see, hear, or smell, Epione felt the hole within stretching deeper than there was depth in three dimensions, beyond the pale of the universe and into another place, a realm of colors echoing into an infinite rainbow mosaic.
Around the Thermos and Pandahead there gathered a shrouded mist of dark threads, woven around a vibrating, pulsing sphere, the edges of which were distorted and imprecise as if made of fuzz. Limbs and cavities surfaced on the sphere and sunk down again, called forth and destroyed by a tide of black ink. The sphere seemed to rotate in on itself, and Epione gleaned into that pocket that formed there.
She no longer stood in the cafeteria, though she felt Remise and Dustdevil holding her hands. Instead, she stood on the surface of the sphere, watching the form refract and swallow colors around it. The Thermos fed threads from Krater, Abyss, and the other two capes.
But more than that, the Thermos fed dozens and dozens of thread from Pandahead. Where the others had black vapors, or little wisps of darkness, Pandahead was a furnace of smoke sinking into the sphere through the Thermos.
“Epione!” Remise shouted.
Epione opened her eyes.
Abyss raised a handgun and aimed it for Pandahead, firing once. The bullet took Pandahead right in the heart.
Remise gasped. “He-”
The Thermos exploded. The sphere on the other end inverted through the pinprick point between the two universes, riding along the smoke into Pandahead’s body. Pandahead screamed out, clawing at his helmet.
The limbs, tendrils, and shadows wrapped around Pandahead in a massive column of flesh woven from threads of darkness from the four capes, Remise, and Dustdevil. Epione gasped as she saw threads trickle from her, too. The little negative emotions she’d kept: hunger, frustration, slight pain. All of it fuel to the fire of this monster. She felt sick to her stomach with just those few pithy feelings threaded from her, so how much worse did the others feel?
The column pulled apart and transformed into a gargantuan ink blot. Shapes of limbs appeared and disappeared out of thin air like Warspeed, puppeteered by the warping sphere inside the Thermos. Epione had once seen ferrofluid responding to a magnetic field in a chemistry class. The physical body swallowing Pandahead moved in response to the sphere’s vibrations in the same way.
The Ink Blot slammed a massive appendage into Krater. Krater caught the wrecking ball of shadow in his hands, and returned by smashing his fists through the ink, rupturing the entire limb up to the Blot’s main body. The Blot formed another in its place, this one in the shape of a human arm. The Blot swung this new arm at Krater, who caught it again. Stone spread from the impact site along the Blot’s arm.
Krater stepped back, his eyes wide. His own chest was covered in rock.
The Ink Blot crushed him underneath the stone arm, and the arm sloughed off the main body like the debris from Krater’s chest, crumbling into dust.
Abyss took off his mask, and a stream of nauseating black-purple color shot from his face into the Blot. The Blot grew with this color as the Sphere wove it into more physical mass. The Blot formed a human face within its form, and returned a hundred fold the beam that Abyss shot at it. The other two heroes it grabbed with dozens of tentacles, dragging them into its body as they kicked and screamed.
The Sphere resounded with a deep gong, and Remise and Dustdevil screamed out.
Remise covered her ears with her hands and screwed her eyes shut. “It hurts, what is that?”
“Keep holding my hand,” Epione said.
“It hurts, it hurts, it hurts, it hurts, oh God, it hurts.” Remise fell to nonsense babbling. Dustdevil shook, her whole body seized up.
Epione didn’t have time to ask them if they trusted her. They wouldn’t answer, anyway.
Epione squeezed their hands, and sealed their emotions away inside a gray rock, one for the each of them, making them like her, except for one thing: their need to see this mission through. Remise stopped babbling, and Dustdevil body eased up. They both looked to her.
“What do we do now?” Remise asked, her voice flat.
Epione nodded to the back door of the cafeteria, still locked shut. “Dustdevil, open the door.”
Dustdevil blasted the door open with her power, and they stepped out into the school yard.
The Ink Blot rolled forward to Downtown Houston, passing the edge of the high school yard. At the same instant, hundreds and hundreds of those black threads whipped from the south, weaving into the Ink Blot’s body. The Blot grew larger and larger, reverberating with the Sphere’s warbling. The sound was not a shriek or a roar: it was a ringing tone, tinnitus in the ear, buzzing in the bone.
Another group of capes ran up to the Blot, joined by police officers. Epione recognized Trainwreck and Afterthought among their number. The officers unloaded their guns, Afterthought hefted his own rifle, and Trainwreck ran in for the kill.
The Blot exploded into hundreds of razor sharp wires that whipped through the capes and police. Blood sprayed across the field, and in a flash, all those that crossed the field were either dead or mutilated beyond saving.
“Were you fast enough to see that, Remise?” Epione asked.
“I saw it all,” Remise said. Her accent was gone, thanks to Epione’s meddling.
Another storm of wires lashed from the Blot, dicing the bodies to tiny pieces, faster than Epione keep track of. The Ink Blot’s body undulated in rhythms she couldn’t pierce, fed the dark threads of fear from all that laid eyes on the Blot’s form too quickly for Epione to track them.
She sensed Tim Prince and a few others caught within the Ink Blot, struggling for air as they sank deeper into the Thermos’ influence. She sensed desperation, panic, and fear that fueled the Blot even more, providing material for it to grow faster.
Epione had to put an end to it now. She could see how this would end; this thing would devour the world if they didn’t catch it here and now. “Remise, I need your senses. Dustdevil, I need you to clear me a path.”
“The last time you used my senses, they hurt you,” Remise said.
“I know,” Epione said. Beneath her gray surface, she felt a twinge of something, a crack through the armor she put on years ago. From that crack a trickle of black fear dripped from her. Fear.
Closing the Thermos seemed like the only option. She felt where it was, still held in Pandahead’s frozen hands as he dangled inside the Blot. That was the portal between the two halves of the Fear, lying behind a field of razor threads and a massive, warping ball of ink.
To get close enough to close it, she needed Remise’s senses.
“Okay,” Remise said.
Epione took Remise’s power.
All of Downtown Houston folded into her, over mixing into her senses like bad pancake batter, like dry cookies, like every recipe she botched because the kitchen lights were too bright. Cars screamed all across the city like Mother screaming in her ear. Lightning arced into her retinas, thunder boomed into her bones, the fall of rain found her skin even a mile away. Epione became a collapsing star, everything burning and sinking inside.
Inside the Blot, she heard Tim Prince, fragile, a terrified child: “Help! Please!”
She opened her eyes and focused on the Fear, whipping its bladed wire threads all across the field painted in blood. Before she could not see them; now they moved like they were in molasses. “Dustdevil, now!”
Dustdevil shot a wind blast into the flurry of thread, and Epione took her chance. She ran into the wires. Tires squealed on 610, filling her nostrils with the smell of burning rubber, digging picks into her ears, squeezing her brain inside her head. The Blot’s tone picked at her seams and threatened to unravel her, but she pressed on.
She was scared she’d die without seeing Jason again. She was scared she’d fail and this thing would eat everyone alive. The terror came leaking out of her emotionless state, splashing out the fissure she left so she could feel the small emotions. A geyser of inky black shot from her into the air.
The Sphere beyond the Thermos seemed to spin toward her, even as she dashed through the bramble of deadly thread toward the Blot, to Pandahead.
A voice spoke directly into her head, past the ever-shrinking world that crushed her alive.
The noise shrieked all around her, wrapping her in agony. The Sphere released dark colors in a dazzling pattern. The colors wormed their way into her eyes, and beyond, into her armor. Anger, need, grief, jealousy, hunger, pain, sorrow, depression, fear, Fear, FEAR.
The negative emotions wrenched her armor open.
Jason, for Jason, for Jason, for Jason, find Jason, all she could think was that she loved Jason. If this monster was going to make her feel, she’d stoke the most powerful positive emotion she had into full fire to ward away the other things she felt.
Her own colors formed an aura around her, silver, pink, and white.
The wires recoiled from her aura, hissing like water in a hot pan.
The Blot rippled, and her Mother’s face formed in the shadow, screaming, “WORTHLESS WORTHLESS WORTHLESS WORTHLESS WORTHLESS WORTHLESS WORTHLESS WORTHLESS WORTHLESS WORTHLESS WORTHLESS”
Epione stepped into the Blot, climbing up limbs that burned when exposed to her pink-white light. The Fear used negative emotions to hurt her, to hurt everyone, and got stronger when those negative emotions fed back into its form. It seemed the inverse was true; her positive emotions hurt the Fear in return.
WORTHLESS WORTHLESS WORTHLESS, her mother’s voice right in her mind.
She ripped fibers of the Blot’s body free with her glowing hands, and dug Pandahead from the mass. He no longer had his helmet on, and tar dribbled down his chin. He screamed in pain, but still held the Thermos in his hands.
Epione took the cup from him, and crushed it, severing the link between the Fear and Tim.
The Blot shrieked and whirled around them, the heart of a black hurricane. Evil emotions arced like lightning, deep red with hate, with fury. Pandahead stared at her. “Oh, fuck.”
Epione could only watch as the Blot’s furious storm wrapped tightly around a single point above them, wound so tight she could only see a pinprick of pitch black against the bright Houston skyscrapers.
The pinprick exploded into a tube of threads that wormed into Tim Prince’s mouth. Tim fell onto his back, clawing at his mouth, and shouting, “No! No! NO!”
Epione leaned down to help him, but he scurried from her, got to his feet, and dashed toward the warehouses waiting at the opposite end of the field.
Epione’s pink light burned higher and higher, and the silver flame licked the sky. Epione gasped as those colors pulled free of her and flipped into the night to join the other stars.
Without that protective aura of positive emotion, her colors overcame her, washing her in rainbow patterns, covering everything she could see. The city pinched her tight with every sound, smell, sight, and sensation, and Epione cried out. The dark emotions the Fear imbued in her corded around her veins, splaying her arms like she was on a crucifix.
Epione couldn’t breathe as sickly yellow cowardice filled her lungs, she couldn’t see through the dark purple frustration pooling in her eyes.
She felt someone pick her up, and that was the last she felt that wasn’t the world ending all around her.