My bond with the Fear weakens. Carnality screams, squirming as the Fear moves her body without her permission. Host and parasite launch into the air, jettisoning ink to fly. I’m guessing Carnality could have done that with blood, now that I think about it, but chose not to waste it on flight when she could jump the length of a football field.
But with the Fear, she’s not limited to blood, but can use the matter it creates. A blend of their powers.
The Fear swells Carnality until she is a corrupted version of herself at full strength. Instead of rosy skin and blood red eyes, she becomes gray and pallid, and her eyes jet black from the Fear taking over control. Instead of a graceful dancer’s body, she is engorged with muscle to a grotesque point. She rockets over me, aimed toward the city and the battle while riding the torrent of the Fear’s ink. All the while she shrieks for Nero, for anyone, to help her.
Rotation is working against me now, so I can’t punch up the speed quite fast enough to catch her. A handful of seconds is all it takes before we’re both flying over the horde of Fear puppets again. Streams of blood pull from the wounded, whether they are zombies, capes, soldiers, or citizens trying to flee.
“Carnality! You’ve got to…” I don’t even know what to say to her. I don’t know what the Fear is using in her psychology that gives it power over her. If it were Nero I could guess, but Carnality, I’ve got no clue.
I can’t help her. There’s only one other way this ends. She has to die.
No easy task. Not like before where I’d drained her of blood by removing her from her source. She has no limit and the Fear can push her farther. Each passing second she draws more and more, too, and each passing second her claws hit with increasing force.
Carnality screams. From every pore and every orifice she weaves a massive sphere of blood. She crashes it down into the battlefield.
A tsunami of ink and blood washes over me. I root myself in place, absorbing the force, and fly out of the wave. Carnality catches me as a surface. We spin together and she begs, “Please, get it out of me!” All the while the Fear unleashes its fury through her, with claws that could sheer through diamond, with fists that could — and do — overwhelm my energy absorption. She’s beyond Krater in strength, now, and while I can control energy, I do have a limit. I don’t want to melt everyone around me.
“Carnality, whatever it’s using against you, whatever it’s showing you, you have to resist. You can resist!” I struggle to spin around so that I have the advantage, but she’s got leverage from all the thrust she generates with the Fear’s ink and her blood. The crimson flash-flood swallows everyone below us.
“I don’t want to see this!” Carnality claws at me before turning to her own face, but her claws can’t scratch the bruised marble of her skin. “I don’t want it!”
She’s just too damn strong. If it was just her, I could take her. The Fear is doing everything it can to keep me from a killing blow. Wires materialize out of nothing to swerve my fists and my kicks.
Tendrils wrench me free of Carnality and the Fear. Lightning spears through the Fear. Two golden haired woman dive into the fray, two women that could almost be sisters. Bedevil scoops me into her telekinetic embrace while Meltdown hammers with her power, cowing the possessed Carnality like a lion tamer. Behind her, Maisa and Flashfire dive in on their board of light, while Longinus chants from his Bible. Pillars of fire descend from the sky at his command.
The last to arrive is Krater, bearing sweet Epione on his back and trailing Remise behind his thunderous charge.
“We’ve got to get Epione to Carnality,” Bedevil says.
“Right, she’ll take the power. Without the Affect the Fear has nothing to leech on.” I grab Bedevil’s hand. “Let’s go!”
Just the touch of her hand is electric to me. After months of being dulled by the Fear, after months of my memories tainted, to touch and to love — it is a pleasure, a delight down to my core. To fly and to fight again, to clear a path through the wires with the woman I love — I am alive.
Carnality can’t keep up with every single front. Not when Meltdown tears the Fear’s limbs to shreds, not when Maisa blocks a stream of boiling tar with a hard light shield, and not when Bedevil and I wrench the Fear’s defenses open like a cracking a walnut. Carnality can do nothing but stare in horror as Krater and Epione slip right up close. She throws her deadly spears but they bounce off Krater’s skin. Krater seizes both of Carnality’s wrists. Bedevil uses her telekinesis to help and I jump down there to grip her around the waist. She shrieks in horror.
Epione reaches a shining hand, covered in white fire. The ink peels away from her touch, exposing Carnality’s bare body. Epione grabs a hold of Carnality’s shoulder.
Krater rips Carnality into the air, out of my grasp, and rolls back with her like an alligator. He roars out in triumph, and the demoness is dead at last. She stares at nothing, now, still in horror. A look of shock on her face.
“God damn, Gabe!” Remise shouts. “It’s good to—”
We’ve no time to celebrate. The core of the Fear bounces along the bloody tide, over the bodies of the dead and the living that still fight. My connection to the Fear’s mind has returned, and I hear the words it howls into the Affect as defiance.
I HAVE SLAIN WORLDS. I HAVE CONSUMED SPECIES.
A massive tar hand punches through the battle, tossing puppets as it crawls free. A giant stands, easily the size of a three story building. It is a misshapen thing, a mockery of the human form with five arms dangling from the torso.
It wears my face.
There are nine of us. Myself, Bedevil, Krater, Epione, Remise, Meltdown, Maisa, Flashfire, and Longinus. Nine heartbeats in rhythm with each other. Nine minds that know they must destroy this thing once and for all.
Nine burning fires that will cast out the darkness.
I move first. I warp through the air toward the giant, and meet it head on. The five arms swing in huge arcs to swat me away but I bounce between them, leaving burning patches in the giant’s skin. I keep the Fear’s attention on me while my friends get in close. I know I have its attention because the Fear is shrieking into my mind.
Nine hearts beating as one. Nine hunters that move together in destroying the predator that has stalked and killed and taken too much from them. I can’t focus on what the others are doing but I trust them. Bedevil protects me from one blow, Krater catches another, but we all keep moving as we try to bring the giant down.
The Fear weaves new mass out of the fear of everyone watching to protect the core it hides in its chest. Each blow rips away a limb or a chunk of its flesh, and while it heals those wounds, it heals them slower each time we make them.
I sense it. What I did inside my body, we’re doing out here in the real world. We’re surrounding the Fear with our light. We are its opposite. Our blazing Affects surround the shadow so it can’t exist and it can’t draw from the darkness beyond us. We’re cutting it off from its fuel source and we’ve left it no path to escape.
Krater lands a vicious blow followed by a lightning strike from Meltdown, ripping the Fear’s head wide open and exposing the black sphere inside. I take my chance and warp up there. “Gabe!” Epione shouts.
A weapon woven of blood appears in my hand. I grip the handle and laugh as it becomes a baseball bat like the one I used to lug around while fighting Dresden. Like the one that gave me my name so long ago. I grin and rise, flying for the core.
I reel back—
Everything slows, like I’m stuck in molasses.
The Fear pulls me into our connection to speak one last time before I commit to the attack.
I WILL GIVE YOU EVERYTHING YOU COULD EVER DREAM OF. I WILL GIVE YOU THIS WORLD AND YOU COULD RULE OVER IT. OVER ALL THE OTHERS OF YOUR KIND.
“So, you do get scared.” I convey amusement along our bond. “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man.”
YOU ARE BENEATH ME.
It shows me the worlds that have fallen to its kind. It shows me worlds with species wiped away as the Fear fed upon their terror. It shows me their growth; like a tumor, propagating and corrupting each new victim. Exponentially the Fear grows, and it wipes out worlds.
I HAVE ALREADY BEGUN THE WORK. I AM THE POINT OF THE KNIFE. I HAVE CREATED SEEDS THAT WILL BECOME MY CHILDREN. THE WORLD WAS WATCHING AND THEY ARE AFRAID.
“I have something to show you, too.”
Across our bond I show it the trajectory of humanity. I show the Fear a humble ape evolving into an upright human. They learn how to harness fire, they learn how to build, they learn how to grow together. Humanity and the human evolve in tandem, moving along their meandering paths. They fill the earth with themselves. They, too, grow exponentially.
I show the Fear humans that are afraid and humans that are brave; often the same human, who has learned not to be afraid. I show him the species that hunts predators for the thrill of it.
“Say what you will of us. We grow faster than you do. We will surpass you, as I am surpassing you now. If you knock us down—” I show it Bedevil, who rose again on her own wings after all the pain she endured. I show it Maisa, who went from a sex slave to a powerful woman that fights just as hard as anyone else. I show it Epione, who mastered the power that overwhelmed her time and time again. “— we’ll get back up. We’ll bounce back. Humans thrive on second chances.”
I turn my wrath toward the Fear at last. I pull away from the bond we share, letting time flow at a normal speed again. I finally understand Megajoule’s slogan. They weren’t just vaguely noble words that gave people hope. They weren’t random.
They were a road map to defeating the Fear. They were a guide for how to become our truest selves.
I speak them aloud, and fill my voice with energy to carry the words across the city. I do this because these words belong to me, now. They belong to everyone.
Cynic could not decide how she felt. On the one hand, she was ecstatic, she was relieved, and she was full of hope. She hadn’t experienced such a cocktail of emotions in a long time. Not since Julian was alive. Maybe not even then. She watched and held her breath as Gabe led the charge against Carnality and the Fear.
On the other hand, with President Lucio Genz standing next to her, she could feel the executioner’s ax over her neck. He would ask questions that would be difficult to answer, even for her. Cynic could read them brewing in his mind. Who is this man? What is that monstrosity and why was I not warned? Is my country safe? Why didn’t Cynic tell us about this? Why didn’t—
On and on the questions marched through the president’s mind and Cynic struggled to plan on how to answer them.
Still, the questions would wait until this battle was done, and by then she would have gathered her wits. She waited with baited breath while the Underground — what else to call them? Not the Inheritors, no, even though three of them fought beside Gabe — and she cheered when she saw Carnality go down. A fortunate thing; deal with two loose ends at once. The Archimedes Bullets never worked on Carnality.
Cynic searched the battle for Nero and could not find him. She did, however, find Wind Rider.
He was dead, lying broken on the ground not far from where the Underground fought the Fear. Cynic would have to review the footage and find out what killed him.
“Ma’am?” one of the responders asked. “There’s a White Shark requesting to land in the hangar. They have the call sign right, but I wanted to run it by you before—”
Cynic tapped her screen and took command of the call. She cast the audio to her ear piece. “Who is this?”
“Old friends,” Archimedes replied. “We come bearing gifts.”
“If you land in that hangar, I’m going to have you arrested immediately,” Cynic said. “And tried for treason.”
“Is that anyway to greet an old friend?” Archimedes asked. Cynic could hear his smirk and she already wanted to punch him.
Archimedes’ voice popped in on the speakers, addressing everyone in the room. His face filled the main screens, so all eyes were on him. “Well, you see, here’s the thing. I’ve got control of your computers. I’ve got your call sign. And, one more time, I’ve got gifts. But not for you, Cynic, oh no. I’ve got a gift for President Lucio Genz and the rest of the UWC. That’s right, I know you’re in there, President Genz. I know everything in that room.”
Cynic was cold. Whether it was fury or terror — well, this was a day of indecisive emotions. “What is this?” She knew that their system wasn’t fully set up. She began reading his mind immediately, but before she could dig too deep, he conjured up an image of a brick wall in his head. Cynic could work around that but she’d rather just arrest him. “Someone, go bring that White Shark into the hangar and arrest everyone on board!”
“You still haven’t asked how I know all this,” Archimedes asked. “Same old Cynic. Can’t see the bigger picture. Can’t see the forest for the trees.”
The camera shifted to the right.
Oracle sat in the seat next to Archimedes. Cynic could hardly say what she felt now. Disbelief, mostly. The woman before her was even older than the last time Cynic saw her. Her braids were turning more white than silver. Her eyes did not shine with the same power they did when she worked for OPI and the Sovereigns.
Despite all that, there was no question it was Oracle. The same Oracle that Cynic remembered had died the day Megajoule performed his coup.
Oracle cackled. “From the look on your face, old friend, I can see you remember me. Memory is a funny thing, isn’t it?”
Cynic’s mouth was so dry. “You rewrote my memory of the day you died.”
Oracle wore her same enigmatic smile. The smile that made her look ethereal, like she belonged to the heavens and not the earth. “President Genz? Do you remember meeting me?”
Lucio Genz’ eyes widened in shock. “I… I do. I remember. You asked me to help overthrow OPI and I laughed you out of my office… until you… you showed me something…” He rubbed his forehead.
“Here,” Oracle said. “You may need a refresher.”
Files filled the screens around Oracle. Audio recordings played over the speakers. One that proved that Cynic commissioned the creation of Megajoule’s clones and had them all put down. A recording of Meltdown warning Cynic that Gabe was coming for Buenos Aires.
An audio recording proving that she ordered the death of Megajoule. That she commissioned the help of Carnality to do so.
Worse, the information she’d gathered on everyone around her, her directors, the UWC senate, the agents in every city in the UWC, hell, even the little things like Nero sleeping with Carnality, or that Wind Rider had an affair on Bedevil.
The worst one of all was a document she kept on the Houston director Marcy May. A document showing that she knew Tim Prince was the mask Pandahead and that he had a Fear entity trapped within his thermos. They’d let it go on to observe how the Fear worked. They’d let hundreds of children get trafficked because they wanted to know how it fed and to see if they could communicate with it or appease it.
Files, videos, audio recordings. They were a symphony of her demise. Every eye fell on her, from the responders, to the Primum, to the directors, and to Lucio Genz and his capes.
She had no words, except a question. “Wh… where did you get all of this?” Some of it was new, so new that there was no way Oracle could have gotten it without a double agent. “Who did you put up to this?”
Oracle’s smile became a toothy grin. “I put you up to it, Cynthia.”
Cynic couldn’t reply.
“Around three years back, I came back to the OPI headquarters with a revolver and an intent to kill you. I infiltrated and rewrote the memories of security guards, until I made it to your office. I was going to end it once and for all, and make you pay for what you’d done.” Oracle’s smile could not hold up to that bitter memory. She cleared her throat, but her eyes glistened with tears. “I couldn’t do it. Not because I wasn’t capable of killing you, but I realized something. Julian asked me to tear down OPI. I realized if I killed you, I’d never do that. So, I erased all evidence of my presence. Camera feeds, memories, all of it.
“Some of the recordings I made myself, like the one of you ordering Megajoule’s death. Others, I recruited you to make for me. I knew about your little stash of blackmail. You were so paranoid, even when I knew you, and I saw the memories of you uploading files to the drive connected to your pacemaker. Clever, but I also saw the memory of your pass code, and I had my dear friend Archimedes get the data from that drive.”
Cynic knew now what she felt. It was the single second before the executioner’s ax dropped onto her neck. She closed her eyes while rough hands grabbed her from behind to restrain her.
Oracle leaned back into her chair. “I don’t mean to gloat. But I believe that is called a checkmate.”