ARC 13: SHADOW INFERIOR
“Gabe!” Bedevil screamed.
She swung through the empty streets of Puerto Guadal, racing to the shoreline, hoping she could catch him before he crossed the lake. She vaulted, spun, and shot over the houses and shops. Maisa surfed through the sky behind Bedevil, suspended on a disk made of hard light.
The wound in Bedevil’s side dragged a knife along her nerve endings. She grit her teeth, latched onto a nearby house with her tendrils, and slung herself through the air like an arrow. She reached with every tendril for Gabe, she reached with her hand even though it tore the burning scab in her side.
Gabe accelerated out of her grasp and practically disappeared across the lake. The waters parted, the lake sliced in two by his flight. The mountains roared and shook their icy caps free as he impacted in the opposite shore.
“Gabe!” Bedevil screamed, falling to her hands and knees into the mud. The cold water of the Carrera lake washed over her fingers, her whole left and her maimed right. She searched the shore for a boat, or anything she could use to chase after him. “Gabe,” she cried again, her voice weakened. There was nothing to use.
Another thunderous roar reported from the mountains across the lake. Bedevil jumped to her feet and screamed one last time: “GABE! PLEASE!”
Maisa caught up and jumped off her solid disk of light. She threw herself into Bedevil’s uninjured side, supporting Bedevil before she fell to her knees again. Bedevil screamed out wordlessly, clutching her hands to her chest. She leaned into Maisa’s embrace and cried into the girl’s hair, and Maisa returned by weeping into Bedevil’s dress.
“I have to—” Bedevil pulled free of Maisa, choking on her sobs and the mucus draining from her ugly cry. She wiped her nose. “How fast can you fly?”
Maisa gathered herself, too. “Not as fast as he can. Not even close.”
Bedevil’s body shook, it trembled. She felt the same as the day she found out that Megajoule died. Only worse, because now she had seen it happen and could have stopped it, and she didn’t. “I love him.”
“I know,” Maisa said.
“But I didn’t tell him!” Bedevil’s mind drowned in rage and grief like she’d nearly drowned in the bottle. “I can’t lose him. I love him, Maisa. I love him. I didn’t tell him before this and I can’t swallow that pain again.” Gentle babbling of waves on the shore backed her weeping, accompanied by the occasional drum beat of a superpowered battle from the mountains, growing more faint and faint, like a dying heartbeat.
Maisa rubbed Bedevil’s back. “He knows.”
“No, no he doesn’t.” Bedevil stood up. “The only time I ever said it was to try and make him stay, and I didn’t mean it. He doesn’t know that I love him.”
“Sometimes you don’t need to say it.” Maisa found her feet as well and wiped mud from her legs. “Sometimes you just know. He loves you.”
Bedevil’s voice caught in her throat. She’d hoped and yet she’d felt she’d never truly win his heart. She was caught in the painful place of knowing he cared for her and knowing she didn’t deserve it. So she said nothing to Maisa, nothing about that pit of doubt inside her. Instead, she gathered her wits and wiped her eyes. “You’re right. And I’ll tell him. We’ll find him and save him.”
“Like he saved me from the Fear,” Maisa said. “It’s our turn to save him.”
Bedevil couldn’t help the worry that he was already gone. That the person Gabe no longer existed, dissolved away inside the Fear’s power.
“Bedevil! Maisa!” Templar ran down the street toward them. She skidded to a stop and launched into her next statement without a breath to pause. “Epione woke up. Oracle is alive. What on earth just happened?”
“Gabe,” Bedevil said. “He was taken by the Fear.” Her mind lifted from the haze of grief, sharpened like a blade’s edge. There was no room for grief, only action, now. She wiped her eyes and steeled her heart.
She would save Gabe or she would die trying. And if he was already gone, she would fulfill his last request. She would kill him and spare him that hell. “Where is Archimedes?” Bedevil asked Templar.
“An hour out. He’s coming back but the Shark was already halfway to Houston again.” Templar put a hand on Bedevil’s shoulder. “Here.”
The pain in Bedevil’s side seeped out of her like Templar turned on a valve. The blackened skin shifted to purple, blue, a sickly green-yellow, and then back to her normal skin color. The scab shrunk until it was gone, and the only mark left was a slight discoloration, a patch that looked a little more gray than the surrounding skin.
Bedevil stretched her torso. The pain was gone. “Thanks.”
“Do you hear that?” Maisa asked.
Templar looked up from Bedevil.
Bedevil heard a horrible, retching sound, like someone choking. Times a hundred. The sound came from each building around them.
A door opened. A haggard, pale face emerged from the shadow. Eyes black and bubbling. Mouth spilling ink. The person fell from the doorframe, spewing black bile onto the ground.
Templar leaned forward, her eyes dark. “Oh, God, no. It’s like Syria again.”
“What do you mean?” Bedevil felt a jolt of fear run through her body. Templar never spoke about Syria.
Templar’s face looked pale and frightening, furious and afraid. “The people… they aren’t alive, anymore. They’ve been smothered by the Fear. Killing them is a mercy.” She charged the person choking on their inky vomit. A single graze from Templar’s fingers and the person crunched in on themselves, spilling smoking blood that looked more like tar all over the street.
Doors opened. Growling from the darkened houses. Bedevil pulled Maisa close to her.
“Stay with me.” She wrenched chunks from the nearby houses and ripped stone from the street. Her tendrils created a ring of debris around her, and she set them on an orbit of lethal velocity around her and Maisa.
Zombified residents merged into one stream of pursuers. They sprinted after Bedevil and Maisa. They clawed their own faces. Blood mingled with ink into a black-red waterfall.
The residents collided with Bedevil’s protective ring of wood and rock. They fell underfoot of the mass charging behind them, trampling each other in their mad chase.
They screamed as they fell: “ENEMY! ENEMY!”
Enemy. Epione. They would tear her apart if they got the chance. “Maisa! Get us back to the house!”
Maisa created a disk of light and jumped on. Bedevil stumbled.
A Fear zombie scrambled through her ring. A young man, eyes wide in horror, jaw retracted so far she thought it might leap out of his face. He gurgled on the ink spilling from his mouth.
All she could think of was Gabe.
Bedevil smashed him with a tendril. She pulled herself onto Maisa’s disk with telekinesis, and together they lifted into the air above the village, away from the mob. Maisa formed a razor disk of light in her hand and tossed it into the crowd to thin out the herd.
A huge flesh-colored vine burst from the next street over, a stringy blob of bodies which Templar stood atop. The vine grew and grew into a tower. Wiry strands shot from the blob and wrapped up residents blow, subsuming them into the shifting mass of flesh. The tower became a giant humanoid arm which hurled Templar clear out of the village. Once she was gone, the arm dissolved into a pile of broken bodies that could no longer move.
Bedevil watched in amazement as the surviving residents streamed out of Puerto Guadal, stampeding up the road for Oracle’s house. They knew where Epione was. “Faster!”
Maisa groaned. “This is as fast as I can go!”
“No it isn’t,” Bedevil said. “Take us close to the ground.”
Maisa obeyed and they descended. Bedevil kept her ring of death up while splitting more tendrils off to pull them along. She latched onto rocks and plants, and propelled them down the path. She smashed rocks into the Fear zombies, to thin out the herd following them.
Templar dashed along the path next to them, so Bedevil scooped her up to Maisa’s disk.
“Nice work,” Bedevil said.
“Syria taught me well,” Templar said.
“The Fear was in Syria?” Bedevil asked.
“Yes. Kassandra had a cape in her employ who’d become a host. It’s the same one, Rorschach. It smothers out entire groups and turns them into puppets.” Templar frowned.
“Is Gabe a puppet?” Bedevil asked. If he was, it meant he was gone.
“There’s a difference between a host and these puppets. The host is something they need to live, while the puppets are short-lived soldiers. They only last a few days at most. They mostly tend to be Lightweight powered people or below.” Templar looked over her shoulder. “They’ll tear each other apart once they fulfill their purpose.”
“They want Epione,” Bedevil said.
“We’re here!” Maisa brought them to a stop over the the rickety fence outside Oracle’s home.
All that was left in Gabe’s wake was a foundation and a blasted pile of debris, blackened and smoking from his incredible heat. Oracle and Epione sat on the stairs leading up to the ruined porch, which was at least somewhat intact.
“Epione, we have incoming!” Bedevil shouted.
“I know,” Epione said, rising to her feet. “Lend me your power. Your telekinesis will extend the reach of my Affect control.”
Bedevil did not question it. She offered her hand to Epione. Epione grabbed Bedevil by the wrist, and Bedevil grimaced at the sensation of someone chopping off her tendrils.
She felt an empty space in the back of her mind where her power normally resided.
The puppet residents washed over the fence, trampling each other in their horrific charge. Different residents surged from the pack — Bedevil recognized the woman who made the dress she was wearing, and the baker she bought pan amasado from, and the fisherwoman who gossiped with her about Gabe. They either rode the wavefront of the crowd or disappeared underfoot, crushed by the stampede.
They were already dead, Bedevil told herself. They were gone, nothing was left. Yet, their screams sounded like they were still in there, somewhere, and that twisted her heart.
Epione reached her hands out. The stampede was fifty feet from them.
A huge chunk simply fell, their voices cut off mid-scream, and then another patch, and then a large arc like an invisible scythe of death sliced through their ranks. Two more passes of this and the entire crowd was gone, fallen before them.
Epione tapped Bedevil on the shoulder and her power returned.
Bedevil, in response and out of panic, grabbed Epione’s hand. “Where have you been?”
Epione frowned and looked at her hand as dispassionately as a mortician observing a cadaver. “Please don’t touch me without my permission.”
Bedevil released her. “Right. Sorry. Why didn’t you warn us? Why didn’t you see this?”
“I understand. You’re stressed.” Epione observed her handiwork and sighed. “I did see it. I was trapped inside Gabe’s mind for three months. When I died using Nero’s power, I separated myself from my body entirely to protect my mind.” Epione’s mouth twisted into another frown that seemed disconnected from the rest of her face. “It took advantage of that and kept me from returning like a bully holding someone underwater. So I tried to warn Gabe in his dreams, but that didn’t work.”
“He’s had this thing in him since the airport. Why didn’t you see it then?” Bedevil asked. “How did you miss it?”
“It hid from me. It learned that I could see it.”
Oracle interjected into the conversation. “It hid from me, too. I should have been able to see it influencing his memories, but it was clever. It hid from everyone who could have warned Gabe.” She searched for the railing and couldn’t find it, and reached out for help to stand. Bedevil offered that help. Once Oracle stood, Bedevil saw that her eyes were healed from whatever damage Gabe had done to them, but that the light that shone within them was gone. Templar, most likely. “It’s a testament to his willpower that he was even able to tell me that Megajoule had infected his mind.”
Bedevil hissed. She crumpled like someone had hit her in the chest. “Oh my God, I knew about it.”
“What?” Templar asked. “How?”
“He told me that Megajoule was in his head and he said Oracle put him there, and I forgot about it in everything that happened. He never mentioned it again, said it was normal.” God, damn it. She couldn’t fight these tears. “If I’d remembered… If I’d…”
“It’s not your fault,” Oracle said. “We all missed it.”
“Now, we’ll fix it,” Maisa said. “We can help him.”
“We can.” Epione put a hand on Bedevil’s back. “He’s still in there.”
They were the words she wanted to hear but they didn’t make Bedevil feel better. If anything, they made it worse, knowing he was trapped in there. Knowing that he was stuck inside whatever hell Rorschach was subjecting him to. “If he could beat it on his own, he would have.”
“I tried to help him but the Fear’s pulling on a lot of strength from his memories. Gabe has more negative emotions than many I’ve met. He just keeps them bottled up.” This time, when Epione frowned, it seemed genuine all across her face. “He casts a large shadow.”
Bedevil wiped her tears. She stood. “He’s so bright. Can he beat it?”
“He can,” Epione said. “I saw what was wrong with him.”
“What?” Templar asked. “He’s a hero. He’s the only person to ever go one to one with the Fear and win.”
“But he doesn’t believe that,” Epione said. “He sees himself as inferior. As inadequate. And worse, he sees us all that way, too.”
“That doesn’t sound like him,” Maisa said.
Bedevil understood what Epione meant, though. “He sees everyone as inferior to Megajoule. To the heroes we could be but aren’t. He told me once that people amaze him and disappoint him, all at the same time.”
“Rorschach is leveraging that weakness.” Epione tilted her head and closed her eyes. “Gabe is strong, though. He’s still fighting. I don’t know how long he’ll last, but once he loses, the Fear will possess his body like it did Tim Prince.”
“And then what?” Templar asked.
“Then it uses him to do as much damage as it can. To inspire more of itself and give its kind a toehold here on Earth.” Oracle snorted. “Like it always does with its’ hosts.”
“He took it under the earth in case that happened. If it wins, he can collapse the rock in on himself and imprison the Fear underground,” Epione said.
“He can beat it,” Bedevil said. She hoped. She prayed. “We can defeat it. You need to tell us how, Ep.”
Epione opened her eyes again. She looked down and her voice became small. “How do you teach him he’s wrong? He’s always seen us as lesser than his ideal. Even if he admired our efforts, he doesn’t believe in anyone. Not you, not me, not even himself.”
“We could teach him to believe,” Bedevil said. “We can show him we’re at least trying to be the heroes he wants us to be.
“How?” Templar asked.
Bedevil stammered, searching for an answer. After trying to string a few words together, she managed some kind of plan. “For months, he’s only thought about Flashfire and the Underground. Oracle says he believes in Flashfire.”
“He believes in you, too,” Oracle said.
Those words were a dagger in her heart. If that were true, he wouldn’t have fallen and he wouldn’t have had it hiding inside him all these months. “He needs more than me.”
Epione pondered that for a moment. She smiled the sterile smile that Bedevil had grown accustomed to in the last year. “Yes. Let’s go get the Underground.”