Nero stepped into Puerto Guadal from the White Shark. He stepped into a disaster zone. Instinct kicked in once he saw bodies. The corpses were splayed out face first, ripped up by various injuries. The blood was dry, thank God, which meant that Carnality couldn’t draw on it. She’d agreed to help them. But her blood lust power tended to drive her mad.
“Fan out,” Nero said to his team coming out the White Shark. He noticed that the bodies seemed to funnel in one direction out of the town, like some sort of mad stampede. “Search for signs of survivors. Follow the blood, Carnality.”
Carnality grinned. She was dressed in a flowery dress that went down to her ankles and a floppy sun hat. Not exactly combat ready, but when you were a goddess of death, what you wore into a fight meant very little. For his own part, he was only wearing the mesh under-suit of the Primum armor. No need for his death suit.
Danger Close disembarked the White Shark in his kite suit. The armor was a thin series of plates over the under-suit, with pockets and compartments for his numerous tools.
“Doing pretty well without eyes, huh?” Nero asked.
Danger Close’s helmet concealed his face. Probably a concession from Cynic herself. “Neural implants.”
Meltdown wore a more traditional cape costume. No actual cape, but white spandex with green accent lines, and a bolero mask over her eyes like her husband. She hefted a backpack housing a battery to draw energy from.
Wind Rider looked like a ponce in his regular jade outfit from the Inheritors. Nero thought, Come on, man. Let it go.
Clearly he could not. His wife looked like Bedevil, he wore his classic costume. Always stuck in one time, forever.
Nero went to meet with the capes currently in charge of the perimeter, thinking about how his team seemed to be made of people imprisoned in the past. Three of them waited at the shoreline of the lake — Commander Carbonara or some shit like that, Nero didn’t care what the lake was named — kicking their feet, hands at their colorfully armored waists. Both wore actual capes, which was a sure sign to Nero that he would hate them.
“Hoi. You must be Nero. I’m Octopede.” This cape was tall, in purple armor that had special openings on the back for eight tentacles that draped along the ground like a cape. Looked to be from Chile himself. He had a hungry look in his eyes as he held his hand out for a shake.
Nero shook his hand. “The same.”
“This is Smother,” Octopede said, pointing at the girl next to him in black spandex. Nero wondered if she might have an invulnerability since she wasn’t wearing any visible armor. “She can control the amount of oxygen in a bubble around her. She’s useful in CQC for knocking enemies out or killing them.”
Oh, okay, so she was just stupid, then. Nero chuckled. “Sure.”
Smother glared at him. She also looked like a native Chilean. “Do you have a problem?”
“Never,” Nero said. The only problems he had were with Cynic and Gabe.
Octopede tried to move on. He gestured to the last cape, a short fellow in way more armor than his companions. “And this is Ripple. They can create a gravitational wave in front of them that propagates for a few meters.”
That actually impressed Nero. “More or less gravity?”
“Whichever I prefer,” Ripple said.
“That’s neat.” The mountains across the lake bore scars of an incredible battle, one that must have been responsible for the destruction of the town. Nero hoped that he could follow that trail and find Gabe. Give him a stern talking to. “Wonder who walked away from this one.”
“We don’t know,” Octopede said. “We’re hoping—”
“That I’ll do all the work for you, right.” Nero grinned at the team. “Don’t worry. I brought a bloodhound. Carnality?”
“Carnality? The cloak?” Smother’s eyebrows tried to climb into her hairline. “You… brought her here?”
“Yeah,” Nero said.
“You brought a genocidal supervillain here.” The woman looked like she was about to explode.
“Are you fucking ins—”
“Smother, Central sent them.” Octopede held a hand out. “And whoever carved a gash in that mountain clearly has a lot of power.”
“Right,” Nero said. “So let me find out where they went and take care of them for you.”
Carnality skipped up to him in her sundress and sun hat. “Hello, Nero darling.” She grinned to show off her fangs. Her pale white skin reflected harsh light that made Nero avert his eyes from her. But he still grinned back. “There’s a scent of blood coming from a trail to the north of the town. About three or four miles.”
The native capes were horrified by her presence. They retreated as far back to the shoreline as they could.
“Didn’t look into that?” Nero asked them.
“No. Central told us to wait for your investigation.” Octopede was offended by Nero, but he was clearly holding his tongue to save face. Or because he was terrified of Carnality. Still, Nero knew anger when he saw it, and decided to let it go for now.
Meltdown and Wind Rider joined back up as they entered the town. “No survivors yet,” Meltdown said.
“I don’t think there will be.” It made Nero wonder who Gabe fought. Someone who gave him enough trouble to scar a mountain range. Yet, the town seemed fine outside of the bodies. None of the buildings were damaged.
Danger Close landed on a nearby building with a burst of fire from his rocket-heels. He dropped down to one knee, the metal face of his helmet ominous as he turned toward Nero. “You’ll want to see this.”
In the other street there was a mass of flesh the length of three buildings. Arms and legs poked out of the mass. Blood seeped in random spurts from cracks, along with burning strands of tar. Faces and other muscles were stuck in the goop.
Nero frowned. “This looks like Templar’s work.”
“May I drink it?” Carnality asked.
“You don’t have to ask me,” Nero said.
Her question spooked the rest of the capes present. They watched in apprehension as she removed her sun hat. She raised her arms, caught in orgasmic glee, and surrendered herself to the blood ripping itself free in torrents from the mass of flesh. The blood shrouded her, a curtain that concealed her from the world. Her body drank the blood through every pore, through her mouth and eyes, through her fingertips that danced through the curtain.
Her crimson show thrilled Nero but horrified the others. Meltdown gagged at all the blood swirling around Carnality.
She emerged from the blood a different woman. Her skin was rosy and beautiful. Her ruby lips plump. No longer did she look anorexic but an elegant immortal with the body of a dancer and eyes the color of ripe apples. Before, a picture of death, and now, a fertility goddess. She shuddered and danced, and the blood, puppeteered by her power, danced with her.
Nero bit his lip. He’d seen her like this a few times before. Taken her once like this. A mistake but not one he regretted, in so far as the actual sex went.
Carnality transformed the rest of the blood into a long spear and a glorious dress that overlaid the one she was wearing. Maroon nails grew from her fingertips. “Darlings, shall we go? I’ve been promised another Gabe.”
Nero gestured for her to lead the way, and she did. He reveled in her beauty and in the revulsion of the capes trailing behind him.
Along the path they found more bodies, more tar, and more blood. Carnality sniffed the air. They followed her nose to a huge mound of bodies in front of the rubble of some kind of lodge.
“These are… not rotting,” Carnality said. “Neither are they fresh. Two days. Blood to drain.”
Nero shrugged and let her drink her fill. He was more interested in the remains of the house behind her. “Anything in there? Bodies?”
Carnality searched through the debris while Nero looked on. The other capes either stared at the mound of bodies, seized by dread, or they stood behind Nero like he would protect them from the vampire woman. He just sat back and let her do her work.
“Ah, here, a suit,” Carnality said. “A hint of blood on it.”
She stood up from the broken house, holding a gray mesh suit in her hands.
The suit that Gabe wore the day he escaped from the OPI tower in Houston. The suit he wore while he ripped Nero apart. Carnality brought the suit to Nero. He took it like holy communion, appreciating the sleek material and the collar with the HUD.
“He’s been here,” Nero said.
An explosion somewhere toward the mountains startled all of them. A volcano? A bomb?
“What the fuck was that?” Wind Rider asked.
Nero’s heart picked up its pace. No way he was here. No way he was coming back.
A sonic boom preceded his arrival as he decelerated to a full stop right above them. The air shimmered, laden with heat as if they’d been dropped into the Sahara.
Gabe floated twenty feet above the lawn, observing them. Like a lab technician staring at a rat. Except this lab technician was a molten deity.
Nero’s heart stopped. The clone’s face — there was no emotion. The only times Nero had seen Gabe, he’d been screaming, ranting, or pissed off. Full of fury.
Tar dripped from his face.
Not tar. Ink.
“That’s mine,” Gabe said, pointing at the suit.
Nero couldn’t help it. He poked the bear. “Then come and take it from me.”
As soon as he finished that sentence, Gabe was two inches from his face. Nero felt his stomach implode. Before he could register another fact, he hit the mound of bodies. Tossed aside like trash.
No death suit. Nero would have to die the old fashioned way. He looked down at his stomach and saw a smoldering hole. He willed his legs to move but they refused.
“The Fear! He’s been taken by the Fear!” Danger Close shouted. “Stay back!”
Nero managed to twist his head and watch the death of the capes from Chile. Octopede went down; bisected from head to groin by Gabe’s hand. Another fell with her head twisted off like a bottle cap. In seconds, all that was left was smoking bodies, their powers found wanting in the face of Gabe’s onslaught.
Meltdown and Wind Rider flew out of Gabe’s reach and unleashed their powers. Lighting forked from Meltdown, coupled with the bending of light as she warped gravity around her. Hurricane force gales followed Wind Rider’s path and struck Gabe along his path of destruction. The wind blasted the smoldering corpses away.
Carnality hurled her blood spear at him. The point struck his stomach. The spear shattered. Dissolved.
Then came Danger Close, who tried to tie Gabe down with grappling hooks and bolas that shot out of the compartments on his armor. He launched into the air with a blast from his rocket boots, glided around Gabe and wrapped him up in the grappling hook line.
The bindings around Gabe melted as his skin lit up from within, like he was a piece of steel pulled from the forge. Danger Close spun out of the air and crash-landed.
Nero struggled to get up. When was the last time he’d ever felt this helpless? When two muggers put a bullet in his head. In the brief seconds between his thoughts collapsing into darkness and his fiery resurrection.
Why didn’t I name myself the Phoenix? he thought.
In a superheated gale, Gabe appeared in front of Danger Close. He lifted him by the chin and raised him to eye level. Over Danger Close’s comms, Nero heard Gabe speak.
“I know you. Last time he saw you, he took your eyes. This time, I will not.”
Gabe’s hand crushed Danger Close’s helmet in on his forehead. Danger Close’s scream was cut off by the sickening crunch of metal and ceramic imploding bone.
God damn it, Nero had to move. His arms barely responded to his call and his legs definitely didn’t.
Carnality rejoined, the fierce death goddess screaming in fury. From their fallen allies she drew all the strength she needed. Blood siphoned from the corpses, red strands tied around her fingers like strings of fate. Some of the blood disappeared into her skin, flushing her even more, while a portion of it formed into spears for her to hurl at Gabe.
She needed to cut him to drain him of his blood. If she did that, game over. But her spears either missed as Gabe warped out of their bite or glanced off his skin without so much as a scratch.
Carnality drew more blood and crafted shields out of them, putting some distance between her and Gabe so she could conjure more weapons. Nero had seen rail gun rounds bounce off those shields woven from blood. Nero watched in horror as Gabe smashed them back to their liquid state.
Gabe blasted up into the air, did a loop, and smashed a blazing fist into Carnality. She sailed through the air and bowled through Wind Rider, sending them down the road toward Puerto Guadal. Gabe strode toward Meltdown, who now stood alone.
“No,” Nero said weakly.
Gabe changed course for Nero. He smiled down at Nero, his lips bubbling over with smoking ink. “You won’t die for at least a few more minutes. I severed your spinal cord. Even with your power, you’re so fragile.”
“You’re not Gabe,” Nero said. “You’re the Fear.”
“I am both,” Gabe replied. “I am the shadow they cast together.”
Nero bared his teeth and reached up for Gabe. “I will kill you.”
“No. You won’t. I can see your mind. You fancy yourself a god.” Gabe stood upright, the sun behind his head. “I will crack the foundation of your world. You will see true godhood. You… will…” He trailed off.
Nero cocked his head, still unable to reply. He realized that his body was going into shock.
Gabe’s expression changed in a flash. His passive arrogance transformed into horror. He snapped his head toward Nero. “Nero! Kill me! You have to kill me!”
Before Nero could reply, Gabe doubled over. “No…” He fell to his knees. “No! I almost—”
Nero recoiled from the sight before him. Gabe’s face alternated between terrified and completely blank, like before.
Gabe launched into the sky.
Nero watched from his mound of corpses, unable to move. The only thing he could think as shock finally took him was: Damn.