Meltdown drags me through the jungle. I stumble along behind her, weakened by my lack of food and water. Exhaustion lays a thick blanket over my head despite my restful night of sleep. Her relentless pull picks me up into the air as she takes flight.
“Stop, stop.” I grab her arm and reach my feet down, anchoring myself to a root. “If they catch you helping me, they’ll kill you, too. No one else is dying because of me.”
Meltdown groans in frustration as she fails to free me from the ground. “I can’t let her get you! If we fly up…”
“Someone will catch us,” I say. “Why are you helping me? Just let me go!”
“No!” Meltdown lands in front of me. “No. I can’t. You’re not evil, you’re a victim. You’re a good person, and I won’t let the Fear or Carnality or Nero or anyone take you!”
I can’t even see her expression. But I hear in her voice that she would die defending me. That she is possibly one of the few true heroes in the capes. I hear that she stands alone and has for years, even with a husband. I don’t just hear it, I feel it.
I wrench my hand free of her. “I can’t let you take that fall. Go back. Go back and tell the others you found me, before Carnality finds us—”
“TOO LATE, DARLING!”
Carnality becomes my entire world as she sweeps me off my feet. Her face is so close to mine that despite my nearsightedness the image of her is burned into my mind. Bloody red eyes shining with delight. Sharp fangs exposed in barbaric grin. White marble skin, yet her cheeks are rosy and flushed with blood.
A monster right out of my nightmares.
The Fear strains at the prison. My power screams on the edge of my mind, demanding I use it to save myself. The Fear shrieks. Save yourself. Kill them all and save yourself.
We land together but separate as we roll. The suit eats all of the damage It hums with energy I can’t draw from. All it is now is an extra shield. I can’t even discharge the damn thing.
Which means at some point, it will run out of room to store energy and I’ll be left to take the punishment Carnality dishes out. She doesn’t relent, either. She launches at me, claws first, shrieking against my arms and my chest. My head starts to feel light, I guess from hunger and from thirst.
“Come on, darling, give me a show! Give me a fight!” Carnality swipes at me again, this time grazing my cheek with the tip of her middle-finger nail. Blood flows from the wound in a long strand toward Carnality and sinks into her skin through her neck. She grins at me. “Show me what you showed me in Puerto Guadal.”
“Shit,” I mutter. She has no idea that I can’t use my power.
I should let her kill me. Destroy the Fear inside me, so it can’t harm anyone else. I’m out of options anyway, now that OPI has caught up to me. So fast. I thought I’d have more time. I can almost taste how close I am to repelling the Fear. Just a little more and I could have woven a prison that would restrain it while liberating my power.
I open my mind and reach out to Epione one last time. One last chance, Ep. Are you there? I’m in trouble.
Within the storm, deep within my Affect, there is a whisper so slight and tiny that it must be coming from far away. No, Gabe. I hear you, but I’m not close enough.
Can you tell Bedevil I love her?
Silence from her. Carnality paces. She could kill me in a few seconds just by draining me of blood, but I think that she wants this to drag on. A red spear forms in her hand, aimed for my heart. “Come on, darling, come on!”
Epione responds. A faint signal. Gabe, please, don’t die. We need you.
White light fills my vision for an instant, followed by a crackling roar. Carnality falls to her knees. A shaft of lightning recedes from her back to Meltdown’s hand.
Meltdown is just as much an elemental as I am. Arcs of plasma and energy as she soars above Carnality. Another bolt floods everything with sharp light and a thunderous boom, and again, as if Meltdown beats a drum with each attack. Carnality draws from more of my blood, nearly blacking me out, and forms a shield in front of her that blocks Meltdown’s fourth bolt.
“Gabe, run!” Meltdown shouts.
I listen to her. I can only manage a hobble between my exhaustion and the blood Carnality drained from me, but I put distance between us. More bouts of lightning report behind me, evidence of Meltdown’s assault. Electricity crackles in the air and runs invisible fingers on my skin, making my exposed hairs stand at attention.
More blurry figures fly through the trees around me, but I keep going. I run until my foot snags under a root and I eat dirt.
I scramble to my knees, back up to my feet, and start moving again.
Until fire explodes through the forest and something with the force of a train hits me in the back. Nero screams in my ear, but the words aren’t meant for me. “Kill him fast!” The blurry figures fly around me, but I can make out splotches of white. Primum, they have to be.
I roll away from him, and with my feeble, human arm, I sock him across the jaw.
The blow stuns Nero enough for me to retreat a few feet back before he starts swinging. He’s pouring out energy, so much that the suit is getting close to capacity. It’s already close to its peak of twenty thousand degrees internally. The material around my skin glows.
Nero meets my eyes. “You’re not possessed right now, are you?”
“You still want to kill me, don’t you?” I ask, putting my fists up.
Nero’s stunned expression switches to a grin. “You’re lucky Meltdown found you first.”
“Nero, if I ever get out of the Fear’s grasp, I’m going to kill you. I will find a way.” I let my anger fill my words. “I’m going to kill you or I’m going to bury you or freeze you or launch you into space or any number of things that are worse than death.” Part of this rant is true. If I ever get the chance, vengeance and justice for Nero will be the same thing. It will be me making sure he never kills again. But, the other part is a taunt. If he kills me now, well, so much the better for it.
“You won’t,” Nero replies. He crouches, shifts forward onto the balls of his feet. The onslaught is coming. My death with it.
I notice too late that my right arm is still out of my control. The hand won’t form into a fist. The forearm twists, the arm hinges the elbow on its own.
My right arm raises to meet him and catches the blow in my right hand. Energy flows into me.
The Fear activated my power through my hand.
I TOLD YOU. YOU COULD NOT RESTRAIN ME LONG. YOUR PRISON IS FLAWED.
My mind is ripped in two. One part of me crushed underneath Sledge’s horrible body in the Second Ward. One part of me here, in the jungle, unable to stop the Fear from flooding Nero’s body with every single joule of energy stored inside my suit until he is vaporized.
Sledge whips at me with long tentacles lined with bone spikes. I close my eyes and struggle to keep myself here.
I’m torn apart again, and I’m floating over a city that I’ve never seen before. There’s a building shaped like an anvil with a golden statue of some cape, and then a meteor strikes the city. A huge plume of fire and dust shoves me free of the vision.
But in the impact crater, it’s not a lump of interstellar metal. I rise from the crater, ink spilling from my eyes and mouth.
The Fear is going to use me to destroy a city.
God, damn it, if they hadn’t caught me. If I’d had a little more time to concentrate. I could’ve built a prison that worked. I scream out in rage. “I was this close!” And then I realize, I still have some control of my body. The Fear is only using my arm and my power.
Meltdown screams back in the clearing I left her in.
The blurry Primum close in. Nero is reforming out of thin air.
Stay alive, Gabe, we need you.
I summon my power and launch through the woods, using the Earth’s rotation as my momentum. That blast costs me my right leg, which begins to kick like a stubborn horse as I fly through the woods, and absorbing the landing steals the sight from my left eye permanently.
In my good right eye, I make out Carnality atop Meltdown, spear aimed for Meltdown’s neck.
I could blast off right now, retain control of most of my body, and figure out the prison again. But I can’t leave Meltdown to die.
Carnality tries to steal some of my blood, but I create a seal of kinetically frozen air around my neck. The seal cuts off her power.
I kick off into another kinetic leap using my left leg. This blast costs me my neck, which starts to twist my head away from my target so I can’t see. I hold my breath and pray to the God I don’t believe in. I swing a wild left haymaker, empowered by Earth’s gravity.
Carnality screams as I punch her right off Meltdown. I hear her crashing through the trees. The arm I hit her with betrays me and starts to flail along with my right.
I collapse near Meltdown. “You… go…” I can barely speak. “Tell… OPI… I’m going to attack a city… with an anvil building…” My throat strains against my words.
Meltdown gasps. “Buenos Aires. The Fear is aiming for Foundation.”
I recall what the Fear said to Nero. That it would crack the foundation of the world. It was being cheeky. “I’m doing… what I can… to stop it… I’ll try and stop it from using my body.” After that, the Fear chokes me so I can’t speak.
All I have left is my access to my power, my left leg, my right eye, and my torso. I use my leg and waist to roll away from Meltdown. I drink in all the energy I can, feeling the Fear take hold more and more as each joule enters me.
I launch myself up. The jungle peels away and I’m surrounded by bright blue sky. My left leg leaves my control at last. The Fear doesn’t have complete control. I still have my right eye. I burn the energy I have hard, until the sky isn’t blue, but a dark black.
My kinetic sense tells me that I’ve entered low-earth-orbit, that the horizon is falling away faster than I am falling. There’s very little energy around me. I stare out at the void, see the moon peeking just above the blue-green curve below me. I feel no need to breathe; an application of my power activates the kinetic chemical reactions of breathing for me. I can stay up here for a long time. Hours, at least.
The Fear begins to pick at the corners of my mind, at the last defense I’ve made around my power and my right eye.
My vision goes first, and I sink into my mind, clinging to my power. In my mind’s eye, I hold the bronze fire of my Affect in my hands. All around me the dark coils of ink close in, freed from the prison I wove around them. The black hole grows and grows until it is all I can see, and the fire in my hands sputters like a candle against a hurricane.
I fold my hands around it. I must protect the flame at all costs.
The coils begin to shred into me. YOUR FEARS ARE SO MANY. THEY OUTNUMBER YOU, HUMAN. I’m in too many places to count. I’m being crushed by Sledge. I’m being swallowed by the corpse pile of my brothers. I’m being dragged through Parlor, through the bodies of dead children. I’m being ridiculed and overwhelmed by Nero.
Hours pass as the memories wash over me.
It takes ages of struggling, but the black coils of the Fear wrench my fingers open, and the Fear has my power.
That is not the end of my awareness. The Fear drags my mind up to the surface of my body and forces me to look through my eyes.
We soar toward a hulking satellite. The machine dwarfs me. Yet, the Fear moves my body through it, shredding the metals apart like butter, and rips it to pieces. The Fear works and works at the satellite, crunching it into three metal balls roughly the size of a sedan each.
The Fear guides these metallic meteors down through the atmosphere, through the first fires of reentry. As we slip back into the atmosphere, the Fear speaks to me with my own voice. “Your power is wasted on you. I will show you its proper use.”
I see that my vision has come true. We hover over Buenos Aires.
The Fear opens my mouth, My stomach lurches and I vomit up ink, more ink than I could have held in my gut. More ink than should exist inside me. The blob separates into two halves and they slowly take shape into perfect copies of me. These two dopplegangers fall out of the sky, toward the city.
The Fear uses my voice to speak again. “We begin.”