After all the horror, Bedevil is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. The sight of her strikes me so hard I begin to weep, but I am also so overjoyed that I can’t help but laugh with my sobs. I can’t even voice her name, between my raw throat and the overwhelming emotions of seeing her face. I cry out a word that sounds roughly like “Roo” as I rush toward her.
At first, she is unsure of what to say. She disbelieves but there is a glimmer of hope in her eyes. From her face, I know exactly what she is thinking: that I am a dream. That she has gone mad from the last three days.
The disbelief gives way when she sees that I no longer bleed ink from my eyes or my mouth. It turns to hope. It transforms into tears, and then she is in my arms, wailing my name as she clings to me as if I were a lifesaver. She curls up into me so that I am holding her up by her knees and her arms, and she kisses my neck and runs her hands all over me. There is not enough of me that she can touch, she searches for more and more. She caresses my cheeks with her fingers. I can barely make out “I love you,” between her wailing.
“I love you,” I answer.
Bedevil pulls back so she can look me in the eyes. Her eyes are incredible, like stolen gold from the sun. Her lips quiver as she feels my face, and I can’t help but chuckle through my tears. “It’s you.”
I smile, and swallow the lump in my throat so I can speak. “It’s me.” I kiss her cheek and press my forehead against hers. I am light.
Maisa, Flashfire, and Longinus arrive together. “Gabe!” Maisa sprints off her board and runs to me. Bedevil hops down to her feet but does not let go of me.
I reach out and catch her with my one arm, pulling her into a group hug with me and Bedevil. “My sister.” Flashfire is at her heels. I haven’t seen him in months at this point but it feels like it’s been years, and I am so happy to see him alive and well. I grab him and join him in my bear hug. “My brother.”
We hold each other, crying, laughing, our hearts beating together.
Longinus watches from a few feet away. He smiles the awkward smile of someone who doesn’t want to intrude. “And Longinus,” I say, “I don’t know you but I’m sure you’re great, too.”
He smiles, a real smile this time.
Flashfire laughs. “Everyone told me you were in trouble, and right when I get here, you’ve got it handled.”
“Does anyone have any water?” My mouth is so dry.
Longinus holds his hand out, and recites a scripture: “Therefore you will joyously draw water from the springs of salvation.” A small spring bubbles out of his hand, materializing from his palm. He cups his hands together and offers me a drink. Even though it’s only natural, he seems amazed that I lean over to drink from his hands. The water is cool, clear, and it tastes sweeter than fruit. I drink my fill.
“And, I can’t see at all, does anyone have my goggles?” I ask.
Bedevil pulls them out from a pouch in her suit, and hands them to me. I put them on and they snap the world into focus again. “Oh, that’s a huge relief.”
I break the group hug off, though Bedevil still hangs onto me. I sense the Fear moving away through the city. The longer we let that go on, the worse it will be. “We have to stop the Fear. We can’t let it get a new host. I’ll know. My connection with it will be severed.”
My friends nod. Longinus recites a verse that lets him fly into the air and Maisa forms a surfboard of light. Flashfire hops on and looks to me. “You know where this thing is going?”
I can sense it frantically searching for a new host, for something to grab onto. It needs someone Heavyweight to leech off of, which rules out almost all of the city. The capes, on the other hand, could end up as a new host. “I do. Follow me.” I look down at Bedevil. “I saw you fly. That was really cool.”
Bedevil blushes. “It’s nothing.”
“No, it was awesome.” I grin. “But we might need something a little faster. Hang onto me.”
Using my power again is like stretching my muscles after sleeping. It feels so good to drink the energy in and to shoot up into the air, Bedevil clinging to me and laughing as we soar into the sky. The world sings with power for me to take; with sound and with heat, with movement and life. I drink deep from that cup, taking in just enough that I won’t burn Bedevil.
It’s much easier to coil the energy inside of me now, or to cast off excess in different ways. I can store it as sound, or vibrations, not just heat. While that raises the limit of what I can safely store for those around me, I’ll still start to shine and radiate heat if I get going too much, though.
My time in orbit gave me some intuition on flying. I drink in the energy of my rotational velocity to punch up my speed.
I can sense the Fear moving underground through the city. It’s like a wounded beast; erratic, darting this way and that without a clear destination. My goggles zoom in to show me a massive battle on the northwest highway, which seems to be the general direction the Fear is headed.
I wince as I see the craters from the Fear’s projectiles. Entire sections of Buenos Aires are burning, collapsed and ruined.
Can’t think about that now. After the battle, maybe, if we don’t have to run.
On second thought, I don’t want to run from Cynic anymore. I’ve got ideas for how to take care of Nero, I’m confident I can handle Carnality, and with those two out of the way, Cynic will be no trouble to me. Still, that’s for after, not now.
A mob of Fear possessed humans swarm the defenses set up on the highway. They claw their way over each other to try and break line of tanks and barricades. White Sharks hold position overhead, firing in on the horde, while a swarm of Primum hold the perimeter around the possessed.
Lightning strikes into the heart of the screaming army, while miniature tornados shepherd the puppets away from the houses.
I sense the mimic version consolidated back into the Fear’s core. There’s no sense of strategy anymore. It’s become a desperate, wild beast backed into a corner.
A squad of Primum flies by me. They plunge down at the horde like cormorants diving for fish in the sea. The puppets are just human servants to the Fear, but enough of them can overpower a Primum. One of the capes is pulled beneath their ink-stained number.
I bowl into the patch that took that cape down. I tear the Primum free and pull him up out of the horde. “You’re good! Keep going!” I shout, and let him free to rejoin his comrades. He’s utterly amazed that I saved his life, utterly amazed that I’m here at all. Me too, dude, me too.
Bedevil clings to me, swatting away enemies that try to snatch us from the air in the same way.
The puppets undulate, crushing each other to climb up into the air to get at the Primum. They gawk at me as I shoot over them. Their eyes are haunting; pain and terror are all they have left. I know they are dead. It doesn’t make it easier to see them like that, though.
“What are we looking for?” Bedevil asks.
The Fear has to make a choice. Retreat back into the Affect for good, wait and bide it’s time, or commit to the attack. It is a highly intelligent creature but still driven by predatory instinct. I think it’s going to commit. “The Fear is searching for a new host. We’ve got to—”
Carnality’s voice cuts through the din of battle. A crimson spike sprouts up from the battle, and she is on top of it with her arms wide. She is a demoness, not a human, a creature whose eyes only hold hunger. Blood-conjured blades hail down upon me, glancing off my skin as I drink their energy. Like with Sledge’s claws, though, they slice the the surface of my arm and create a wound.
That wound gives Carnality access to my blood. She uses her hemokinesis to wrench me free of Bedevil, and pulls me to her perch above the battlefield. The zombies swarm at the base of the construct.
I still have not forgotten her horrifying face; her marble skin, her blood-red eyes, her fanged teeth. She conjures a spear and pokes it at my chest. “At last we get to play, darling.”
“Carnality!” She’s got me pinned with her power, but I have a way out of that. “We can play later. Look at this city! I’m not the enemy right now!”
“I was brought here to kill you, darling. I was not brought here to kill anyone else.” Carnality presses the point of her spear against my armor.
I keep my focus on the Fear. It’s waiting below the surface. “Carnality, if you dig down into the ground, we can—”
Carnality interrupts me with a harsh shriek, reels back with her spear, and thrusts it at my chest.
If there’s no way to avoid this battle, I’ll need to end it fast. From the Fear, I learned several things about my power. Things I already knew but didn’t think about all the ways they could be applied. One of those is the shield of kinetically frozen air. The shield can act as a seal on holes, leaks, or, you guessed it, cuts.
I seal my wound up using my power, cutting Carnality off from controlling my blood. I conjure another shield so she can’t do any damage with her shield, and slam into her shield first.
The only fighter I could compare her to would be Krater; her strength is extraordinary. Trying to shove her free of the blood-conjured spire is like trying to move a mountain. It’s going to take a lot of energy to do so, and the last time I fought so hard I melted a theme park.
But I also know more about my options, and I have the suit to help manage the energy storage, too. I drink deep of kinetics, of the sound, of the heat within the air. Carnality is unphased by the fluctuations in temperature as I unleash my full power on her.
“The last one burned so brightly, too!” Carnality delights as we trade blows and I boil through her blood weaponry. She swipes with pearl claws, but finds no purchase on me. “I’ve killed Gabes before! I helped kill Megajoule!”
“If you think I’m the same as them, you’re going to lose!” I smash her with blows that Nero would pale at, with fists that would shatter towers and kicks that would crack bunkers wide open. She conjures shields to block me from hitting her but I disintegrate them.
She’s on the defensive, despite her cavalier attitude. We fight through the horde, who can’t bear to get close to me from the heat pouring off my skin. It’s a good thing Bedevil isn’t still clinging to me, otherwise she’d be toasted Bedevil right now.
The last time I felt like this was definitely against Krater. My disbelief in gods quakes. We clash and the earth shakes beneath us. I notice an important fact: she can’t fly. She jumps in huge bounds that covers yards at a time, but while I can hover and glide, she must come down at some point.
Another important fact I notice, as one of my meteoric kicks finds a home in her stomach. Blood feeds to her from the dead and the living as we fight. When I land a particularly vicious blow, the rosy color in her cheeks fades, and her body shrinks.
She’s actively fueling herself with blood. She’s like the Fear; she needs it to keep her strength up. But no wonder they had trouble with her. The more blood she drinks in, the stronger she becomes. At points she even surpasses Krater in strength.
Yet for me, strength is merely a form of energy to maneuver around.
I close the gap between us, eating a blow from her spear across my waist that cuts into the armor and bites into my flesh despite my energy absorption. I’m too focused on what I’m about to do to prevent the damage, but I seal the wound with another shield.
I grapple her into a bear hug and blast off into the air, away from the battle. Carnality’s lusty grin turns into a terrified shriek as we fly into the sky together. I disorient her to further my advantage by spinning us in erratic circles, like we’re trapped on the world’s shittiest rollercoaster.
We’re in my domain now. I belong to the sky and the sun, to fire and to stars. She has no place up here and she knows it, so she claws as much as she can at me. Yet now I blaze brighter like a tungsten filament. Now, I have all the power.
I bring my strength to bear against Carnality, who can no longer pull on blood to strengthen herself. With one punch that dazzles like the rising sun, I hit her with all of the force of a nuke. She rockets back down to the earth, a modern day Icarus. They say there is no difference between the sea and the pavement after a certain velocity, but I’ll have to ask her if she agrees — she’s still alive.
A few seconds later and I land right next to her broken body. She weeps as she sees me land near her. No longer is she some fertility goddess, but now a gaunt creature made of skin and bones. Her eyes are a faded pink, her face pale white. She is naked without the blood armor she wore.
I take no pleasure in this, but I drop down next to her to end her life.
Without warning, the Fear’s tone shrieks across my mind, and the core materializes right above Carnality’s body. An inky spray shoots me back before I can start drinking the energy in. I roll and land on my butt, a hundred feet away.
Carnality rises from her burial mound. Ink wraps around her like the armor she conjured from blood. The tar fills her eyes and her mouth, while she shrieks and claws at her own lips. “Nero! Where are you?!” she cries, and for a half-second, I pity her.
Because I know what’s happening to her. I know what it feels like.
The Fear has chosen a new host.