Nero would never admit he was afraid. The gnawing beast in his gut could not be fear. The Fear was ahead of him, not inside. It was charging down the highway toward a line of tanks, capes, and soldiers. White Sharks and Argentinian Air Defense craft hovered over the line.
Their own White Shark brought them down. Energy coursed through his veins from his power, as he’d killed himself a few times to stockpile some strength on the flight over. His death suit pressed its deadly needles against his skin, ready to stab once he ran out of power.
Two thousand feet and closing in, Gabe hovered across broken pavement, his hands outstretched as if to proclaim: I am here. Come and find yourself wanting.
Gabe did not come alone. A stuttering, shrieking army of former Buenos Aires citizens sprinted at his flanks. The Fear’s power transformed them into his puppets, snuffing out their Affects forever. Later, when he was not staring them down across the highway, he might call them zombies as a joke. Zombies, he would say with an easy chuckle despite the gnawing beast that was not fear in his gut.
Meltdown spoke. “We have to get him out. He’s still in there, Nero.”
Nero snapped his head at her. “He’s far gone. And even if he is, do you think his life is more important than everyone in this city? Our priority is to kill him, end of story.” He knew Gabe was in there. He had no remorse for that. But even if he did, he wasn’t so stupid as to think they could save him now. “If you can’t do that, stay on the White Shark, because you’ll only get in the way. And when Cynic expels you from OPI and you are brought up on charges of interference with cape business, don’t you blame anyone but yourself.”
Meltdown did not back down from his rant. Something in her had changed these last few days. Nero cursed the rotten luck that she had happened on Gabe first and found him while he was in control.
She didn’t reply to his barb the way he anticipated, though. She just nodded. “When you wake up at night and wonder where your soul went—”
Nero interrupted her. “I won’t.”
The White Shark whipped around, bringing them face to face with Gabe. When Nero saw him at Puerto Guadal, he still seemed human even if he bled ink from his eyes. This Gabe looked like a parody of a person. An amorphous creature of tar and sewage wearing a mask of Gabe’s face. Nero had only said he was gone to shut Meltdown up, but seeing this monster up close confirmed Nero’s suspicions. There was nothing of Gabe left.
“On my lead! Wind Rider, keep those puppets off of us! Meltdown, hit him with everything you’ve got! Carnality, stay with me. Don’t get separated!” Nero leapt from the White Shark. Carnality laughed and followed after him, while Meltdown and Wind Rider took to the sky above. And just behind them, waves of Primum capes flew in to meet the front of the Fear’s puppet army.
Whoever won, Nero knew that no one watching would forget the capes that jumped into the horde, preceded by arcs of lightning from Meltdown and gales from Wind Rider. Nero had to imagine as he poured himself out upon Gabe that the people would cheer his name at last. They would no longer speak in hushed tones of Megajoule.
Gabe lashed out in response to Nero, but Nero had so much power stockpiled that they left no mark on his skin.
Shadow and fire and blood. Gabe’s expression never changed as Nero pressed his assault. Coils burned and retreated from Nero only to be sliced by Carnality’s blood spear. The coils packed in dense formation around Gabe, shielding him from their attacks in a spheroid shell.
Nero channeled the remaining energy into his fist. He pressed his palm against the coils and unleashed his fire, melting through Gabe’s outer defenses. “Carnality!” The needles stabbed into his heart a second later and administered their deadly shock. His Affect went on a trip into the dark in a parabolic arc, and returned to his body with power that surged through his muscles.
He opened his eyes and saw Carnality, her spear poised before the opening Nero made in the shell. Gabe’s face stared out at her and she stared back, stammering as its power overwhelmed her. Coils of ink gripped at her face like feelers, pulling her toward Gabe’s body.
Nero jumped up. A new appendage formed behind Gabe’s back, ending in a sharp spike to puncture through Carnality. The tip glowed like a filament flowing with electricity, and the air squealed at sudden temperature spike. The burning stinger reeled back to kill her — and halted halfway through the movement.
Gabe’s face changed expression then, into an agonized snarl. His eyes locked on Nero. “Nero! Do it!”
Nero did not hesitate. He charged. Slammed his fist through the mask and unloaded a massive wave of destructive force. The blow disintegrated Gabe into a slimy puddle on the highway. There was no body inside, not like the other hosts.
“It’s not him!” Nero said over the comms. The words of the responder haunted him. Multiple targets. “It was some kind of projection!”
“The puppets aren’t stopping,” Meltdown said. “There’s too many!”
The chaos of battle surrounded Nero; he was adrift in an ocean of screaming Fear zombies, flying capes, and howling wind. For a moment, Nero lost himself in the sound and movement, and felt the gnawing creature in his gut.
Epione dropped onto the deck of the warship, sensing the colors flowing from inside the ship and in the command room. The shadow Gabe stood atop the bridge. Threads of negative emotion, as dark and strong as black hole, ran from him to the passengers aboard the ship. As soon as the White Shark dropped Epione and the others off, those strands started to pull at their colors, too.
With Epione it found no purchase. For Krater, Templar, Saw Off and Remise, it frayed at the edge of their colors, but unlike before it did not overwhelm them. This time they burned too bright for that.
She sensed colors winking out inside the ship. Soldiers whose Affects were not strong enough to resist the Fear were snuffed out and filled with the Fear’s power, turning them into more puppets for its use. They raced down the corridors toward the upper deck doors, and Epione knew they were coming for her. From the way that the shadow Gabe’s eyes fell upon her, she knew that this was her battle.
The doors burst open and the puppets churned out, scrambling over each other in a human tidal wave. “Krater, shut that door,” Epione said. “More will come! They aren’t alive anymore.”
“Don’t have to tell me twice!” Krater dropped to all fours and charged into the stream of zombies.
She neglected to tell him about the people still trying to survive below deck, but they had other escape routes, and by the time they finished with the shadow, those soldiers would be dead. A flash of low yellow guilt wafted out of her mouth, but she didn’t have time to think about that. “Saw Off and Templar, go help him.” Epione pointed the line of people. “Your powers will help you here. Remise, come with me. We’ll face the Fear.”
Remise nodded. “Just don’t make me go all flat again.”
“I don’t need to!” Epione climbed the stairs to the bridge deck two at a time. She made it to the same deck as the shadow Gabe, but before she stepped out to face him, Remise pulled her back into cover.
As Epione stumbled back, a jet stream of boiling pitch missed her by inches thanks to Remise. Now was no time to let that scare her. She worked to think of a plan. The coils required the Fear to have a source of emotions to convert into physical form. The creature was not starved for fuel. An entire city was in panic; the puppets slaughtering the soldiers below fed the agony up along the threads of Affect connecting them to their master.
Too much longer and the Fear would become omnipotent, and even Epione would not be able to stop that.
“We need some way to get close,” Epione said over the comms.
“I can do that,” Archimedes responded. He piloted the White Shark back around and held position just off the side of the ship. The nose turned toward the bridge, and Epione saw the flash of the muzzle before she heard the steady brrrrt of miniguns unloading hell on the shadow. Another white-hot whip of coils lashed out, leaving a smoking scar in the White Shark’s plating. Archimedes shouted: “Now!”
Epione and Remise dashed out to the bridge deck.
The shadow Gabe stood at least nine feet tall, retracting the coils it fired at the White Shark into its right arm. Remise guided Epione around another barrage, and then Epione was upon the shadow. She reached out to touch it and influence its Affect, but it retreated, covering its back with a field of coils.
Epione caught a lash along her arm. The razor wire cut into the padding and bit into her shoulder.
The shadow dived off the edge of the ship, into the water, and disappeared inside the murky depths of the bay. Epione tracked its movement back to the city. “It’s headed back to the city. Archimedes, we need a ride!”
Krater, Saw Off, and Templar finished their work on the deck below, and Krater pinched the metal of the door shut, crushing the mechanisms so that more puppets could not follow. The initial wave was already dead. “What the hell is wrong with them?” Saw Off called.
“They’re zombies!” Remise called. “Nobody’s home!”
Epione could feel the last colors disappearing below deck. She dared not tell her friends. They had a mission.
Bedevil felt like she was diving through the skies of hell. Buenos Aires was submerged in a soup of pyroclastic smoke. Skyscrapers peeked out of the black-gray shroud. Some were actively falling apart, burning from the immense meteoric impact of Gabe’s projectiles.
Longinus chanted out scripture over the comms. An ethereal tone rang under his voice, growing in intensity as he recited from his bible. “Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”
His flight speed picked up and he soared up to meet Bedevil. “We won’t catch him going this slow. He’ll hit the ground first! Latch on to me.”
“Maisa, Flash, we’re going ahead,” Bedevil said. “We’ll slow him down.” She latched onto Longinus with her telekinesis and folded her invisible wings close to her body. The shift swung her downward as they slipped into a tower of smoke.
“I’m going to try and exorcise him,” Longinus said.
“Have you done that before?” Bedevil asked.
“No,” Longinus answered. “But I have discovered new powers attached to verses I’ve never considered as powerful before. It’s worth a try.”
Bedevil would try anything at this point.
A white beam of fire split the smoke above them. From the angle it couldn’t have come from anywhere but Gabe. Bedevil remembered that Archimedes’ suit had an attachment in the glove that could channel pure energy through it.
“In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one!” As Longinus recited this verse, a shimmering orb surrounded them just in time to stop another bolt from Gabe.
They passed out the other end of the smoke, seconds from rendezvous with Gabe’s flight path. He shone like a falling star. The air shimmered around him and as they flew into his influence, Bedevil’s helmet started to beep with an environmental hazard warning. The Fear was pushing Gabe’s power to the max. If it made it to the ground it would start melting buildings, roads. Gabe would incinerate people.
Bedevil reached out as far as she could with her tendrils and entangled Gabe by the leg. His momentum didn’t stop, though. They spun together in a wide arc, two bodies revolving around each other. Bedevil broke his fall, though, and that was what mattered. She latched back onto Longinus. “Take us up! Start whatever you’re going to do.”
Longinus took off his helmet, despite the high temperatures. He shouted at Gabe but Bedevil could only make out certain words. “We know and rely… love…”
Gabe grabbed onto Bedevil’s tendrils with one blazing hand, and spooled up her tendril around his body, trying to close the distance. Bedevil flexed her power to keep him at bay, but Gabe — the Fear — was stronger with Gabe’s dynakinesis. Bedevil ripped off her helmet. “Gabe! Gabe! Please listen to me! I love you! Fight it!”
Longinus continued his exorcism: “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and—” Bedevil couldn’t make out anymore, as Gabe dragged her closer and the air hissed from the energy radiating from his body. The sweltering heat kissed her cheeks and started to burn. “—love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence—” Bedevil slapped at Gabe with more tendrils to keep him away, but it wasn’t working. Neither could she let him go.
Longinus screamed out: “There is no fear in love! Perfect love drives out fear! The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”
No power came with Longinus’ chant. No miraculous intervention punctuated the end of his words. But Gabe’s eyes widened and he faltered in his attempt to burn Bedevil alive. Bedevil used the opportunity to unwind her tendril from his body.
“Gabe!” Maisa shouted, arriving at last with Flashfire. She threw disks of light that bounced off his body.
The Fear took control again and kicked free of Bedevil’s tendrils, launching Gabe down. Bedevil screamed. She could not lose him or let him kill the people in the city below. She took flight on her own, tucked her wings in so that she chased Gabe down. She fell into the sea of smoke, panicking as his light got brighter and brighter from the energy he drank in around him.
And then the light died out, and there was a resounding clap as if by thunder, and the smoke dissipated from around her, broken apart by a massive wave of force.
There is not a single part of me that has not been violated. Not a single molecule within me that hasn’t been raked and striped with bloody wounds. The Fear has poisoned me down to my core. Within the void of my mind, I am a lifeless corpse. I am a wavering thought trapped between neurons that only know the impulse of pain.
The people that I have loved and the people I have fought come to carve out their piece of the Fear. On three fronts they arrive; by land and by sky and by sea. Burning Nero charges out in front of a military blockade, with the demoness Carnality, and the reluctant Wind Rider and Meltdown. The White Shark screams over the broken warship, depositing shining Epione, stalwart Krater, cool Templar and fiery Saw Off, and the adept Remise.
And Bedevil flies to me, latched onto a man I’ve only seen in pictures: Longinus, who cries out against the fire in the sky. Behind them, Maisa surfs the air on a board of light. Flashfire holds onto her. Almost in unison they call my name.
Gabe, they shout.
Bedevil is knocked free of Longinus and me. She falls. I cry out.
She flips through the air, and soars up by herself. Neither Longinus nor Maisa were within reach of her telekinesis. She figured out how to fly.
She can fly. By herself, without Megajoule, without me.
That reignites my will to fight. Bronze light sparks in the void.
The Fear shakes in my mind. It speaks to me in a voice that changes with each syllable, shifting from Megajoule’s voice to Sledge’s, to Pandahead and Bedevil, to Doc and to Cynic. Somehow it traps a memory in each word, hammering on my soul with a club made of suicidal thoughts and agony.
YOUR RESISTANCE IS UNSIGHTLY. LIKE A WORM SQUIRMING BETWEEN MY FINGERS.
I refuse to give up. I rise to do battle. Bronze light sparks—
And catches flame.
I hear Longinus’ words across the void: “Perfect love drives out fear!”
Bedevil screams: “I love you!”
Silver light ignites in the dark and joins the bronze fire. The love that Bedevil gave me. I weave myself out of the twin flames, giving structure to my Affect again. It’s not much; a wire frame compared to the immense form of the Fear trapped in my mind with me.
I wrench control away from the Fear for a brief second. On all three fronts I prevent someone from dying, but I’m not even sure who I save. I see Nero through one lens to the real world and shout: “Nero! Do it!”
The Fear rips me from control right after. We tumble through the void. WEAK!
I crash my fist into the Fear, woven with Bedevil’s silver fire. The love weakens and almost gets consumed by the Fear. I remember what happened to poor Epione’s love and I retreat, unwilling to expend my love for Bedevil just to win this fight. That’s not the way. I’m not going to trade everything I live for just to stall the Fear.
I want to win, god damn it.
YOU ARE OUTNUMBERED. YOUR FEARS ARE TOO MANY.
We circle each other, the Fear morphing between forms with each step. Megajoule, Sledge, Pandahead, Bedevil, Flashfire, Doc, Krater, Maisa. Nero, Cynic. The people I’ve disdained. I see all the memories I share with them.
The memory of getting my glasses leaps out to me as if it has a life of its own. It blares and echoes in my mind and says, ‘Look at this, this is it! This is it!’
“You need glasses,” Doc said. “I’ll put an order in for some.”
Thirty-One hesitated. “Glasses?”
“Yeah, like the one he’s wearing.” Doc pointed at the technician. “Just like them.”
“Not like Megajoule?” Thirty-One asked.
If I’m not like Megajoule, who am I like?
I am like Megajoule, though. There are parts of me that I inherited from him. My face, the fight to end the Fear, and my power are all from him.
There are things that Bedevil gave me, like her courage and her love. Flashfire gave me hope and he gave me the will to fight injustice. Doc gave me his wit and his sense of humor, and he gave me some of his regrets. Krater gave me heroism and charisma. Maisa gives me her curiosity and joy, every day.
Even those I would call my enemies gave me things. Nero showed me hunger and confidence. Sledge showed me conviction. Pandahead showed me that the universe doesn’t care about me.
Everything I am I have taken from other people. And everything they are, they have taken from other people. We are all composites of each other. We are colors entwining, Affects woven together, arms entangled. Together we sink or rise.
I speak into the void: “You only have one color. You only have fear.”
Colors spark in the darkness, a thousand candles blooming into bonfires that become a raging inferno of white light. They weave into one white-bronze fire. I take the things that others have given to me and make myself out of them. I change them to fit into me.
I understand why Epione lost her love for Flashfire. She used it as the sole weapon. A string by itself is weak. Threaded together with dozens, hundreds, thousands of other strings? It is a cable of solid light that can’t be cut. I rise from the light, an elemental made of stardust and the colors I’ve been afraid to let shine. All my colors woven together. I am brightness itself. “We outnumber you, shadow.”
The Fear retreats from me. The void shakes. The prison is breaking apart.
“All of the hate and pain and sorrow you’ve used against me, the only reason you’ve been able to use them is because I was afraid to face them, and that gave you power.” I coalesce and form a diamond-fire fist. “But the truth is, you belong to me, too! All of this is mine! You only have the power I give you!”
YOU CAN’T ESCAPE A BLACK HOLE!
I crash into the Fear. Light floods the void. And instead of weaving a new prison around it, I fill myself with so much light that the Fear has no place inside of me that it can live. There is no place within me that is shrouded from me.
The Fear and I are no longer one. We are two. The Fear is outside my body, a mere ball of ink and coils with the face of Megajoule. We fall together through smoke and fire. My power sings to me; I am laden with energy that shines through the dense cloud. I am in control of myself again.
I summon my power. My rage. My courage. My love. I put every ounce of that energy into my fist and punch the Fear down. The power sends a wave that parts the smoke from me, kills the fires below, and buries the Fear in the pavement with an ear-splitting crash.
I laugh and dive after my enemy. “I told you! I told you that I would find a way to beat you!”
The Fear weaves itself a new body from the emotions it had stored elsewhere, but once that pool runs out, it won’t be able to grow anymore. I chase it down into the street. I land a flying kick that hits like a meteor, rupturing the Fear’s new form. The core smashes into the earth and disappears through the rock. Even so, I’m not worried. I can still sense its location.
I fill my lungs with air. Feels like it’s been years since I’ve breathed. Feels like surfacing after being buried at the bottom of the ocean.
I spread my arms and I laugh. There is no darkness in me anymore. I am light, I am light, I am light.