Category Archives: Inheritors

EPISODE THIRTY-FOUR

DISCORD / NEWSLETTER

Rorschach towers over Terminal C as a thick tangle of ink, just shy of the terminal’s glass ceiling. Massive arms support a trembling heart made of thousands of coiled shadow threads that undulate and worm around each other. Maisa and Tim Prince surface from the heart, reaching desperate hands out for any life line.

About a dozen people stand amid the benches, frozen in place, staring in shocked horror at Rorschach. Krater and Empyreal charge through the gates, and Snow Owl soars over them toward Rorschach. They see me burst through the wall, and Krater stops in his tracks. “Home Run!” His jaw drops as he sees my face, and he says, “No fuckin’ way, little man.”

“Bedevil, Epione, help those people!” I blast through the air, aimed right for the heart. For Maisa.

I’m not the only one charging in: Snow Owl rockets through the Terminal, and a blast of chilly wind chases after her, pelting me and the Blot with golf-ball sized pieces of hail. I expend energy to stay on course.

Rorschach’s entire mass vibrates, and a buzzing tone echoes across the Terminal, sawing through my skin and into my bones: GAAAAAAAAYYEYYYYYEEEEEEEEEBBBBABAAAAAAAA

I’ve heard it before, deep in the heart of my own fear. I grit my teeth and fight through it.

Rorschach swipes at me with two of its massive limbs. A giant, flaming hand just misses me. This thing copies powers; that must be someone’s from the airport.
I bounce off the elbow of the second limb, and launch right at Rorschach’s core.

I sink into sludge, and the coils of shadow shrink from my touch like frightened insects. I use energy to warp to Maisa. “I’m here, Maisa!”

Maisa doesn’t reply to me. The threads of Fear pack her mouth, cover her eyes and ears, and prevent her from moving. I try to dig her from Rorschach’s body. As my hands enter the heart of coils, images flood my mind.

I hurtle through the void on the back of a swarm of squirming, chitinous ropes. Stars rush past the swarm at speeds so fast they shift into a single orb of light in the distance. I slow, and the orb fades to reveal I’m approaching the edge of a galaxy.

I blink, and I’m back in Terminal C, pulling at threads with burning hands. The coils drag Maisa under the surface.

Snow Owl’s icy storm reaches Rorschach, and she smashes into the heart, grabs at Tim Prince, trying to pull him free. He’s just as stuck as Maisa is, and Snow Owl screams in frustration trying to get him out of the heart. When she can’t free him, Snow Owl flies up, dragging all of Rorschach with her.

“What are you doing?” I shout.

“Saving my brother!” Snow Owl flies straight up, toward the glass ceiling.

“Help me, Megajoule!”

I cover Maisa’s head and hold on for dear life, absorbing energy from my back.

We shatter the glass and keep going. Snow Owl lifts the entire hulking monster into the air above the terminals. I see the airport stretch out below us, and the hotel on the other end of the airport. People watch out of the windows.

“You can fly, right?” Snow Owl shouts.

I claw around Maisa. I have to dig her out before we fall. “Wait! The girl-”

My stomach flips as we drop back down into the terminal. Rorschach vibrates and the finger stabs hard into the back of my head. We hit the ground hard, I can’t grab a hold of anything, and I fall off.

I crash to the floor, absorbing all the energy I can, and rebound up with a kinetic burst, trying to get back on Rorschach’s core. Rorschach swings its limbs in huge arcs, easy enough to avoid, but I let a few of them clip me so I can absorb some energy. The amount they give me is huge, making my skin glow brighter with each hit.

I bounce between the arms and kick the flaming one with a huge amount of kinetic energy, absorbing heat from the arm before it ends up burning one of these civilians to death. Below me I see Bedevil using her telekinesis to pull a handful of people through the hole I made in the wall.

The flaming arm tries to wrap around me, and I punch it with another surge of energy, expending so much I lose my glowing aura. The red-hot threads burst, and the arm ruptures, uncoiling all the way back to Rorschach’s heart.

Rorschach’s body explodes into a field of lashes, and another arm grows from the heart. The wires slice through the benches, the stone, and the bodies below. Two of the closest civilians get diced, but Bedevil pulls a third person out of the way. I infuse myself with kinetic energy and blast out of there, grabbing another civie lady from the onslaught.

Snow Owl’s still trying to pull Tim from the heart, but I see Maisa drowning helplessly. I dash over to Bedevil and Epione, holding the paralyzed woman in my arms. Krater bounds in, smashing one of the arms apart. Another arm regenerates in the old one’s place, covered in rock. Wires lash across Krater’s skin, leaving him with thin stone scars.

“How do I get Maisa out?” I ask Epione.

Bedevil takes the woman from me while Epione looks at Rorschach. “The Fear is feeding all these people’s pain into its own body. As soon as you damage it, it repairs itself with that pain.”

I turn around. “Like Sledge. Then, if we get these people out, and I hit it hard enough, it won’t be able to grow back again.”

“Look out!” Bedevil holds her hands out.

Krater careens through the air toward us, but stops short as Bedevil’s telekinesis cushions him. She sets him down on the ground, and he groans as he climbs to his feet. Krater steps back when he sees us. “You… You’re…”

“We can talk about it later. Right now, we need to stop that thing.” I point at Rorschach.

Krater hesitates, but settles on a curt nod. “We’re definitely talking about it later.”

“We’ll get the people out,” Bedevil says. She floats into the air, and slings over to the other side of the room.

I need enough energy to blast this thing to smithereens. My options are gather heat, or let it pummel me. My plan is why not both?

I suck in as much heat as I can without supercooling the air around me, and jump into the razor wires. They slice through some of my clothes, but I absorb them as they enter my skin, so that they only leave minor abrasions. Rorschach swings another arm my way, and I let it hit me, absorbing everything I can from the attack.

I absorb so much my skin shines. Rorschach shoves into me, trying to bury me in the ground, but I push back with the the same amount of energy he’s pressing down on me.

I just realized how Megajoule carried that building. Feeding the energy of falling back into itself.

Rorschach lifts up into the air again. Snow Owl carries it back outside through the glass ceiling. Second verse, same as the first. Maybe she’s hoping that it will crack open.

Danger Close, Jettison, and Tachikaze rush into the room. Danger Close is in a new, sleeker mech suit that looks like a cross between a beetle’s exoskeleton and plate armor. Still has four arms, though, and he aims two of those at me. “This is an OPI operation, you’re in the way! Stand down!” His two other arms aim up, and shoot rockets at Rorschach. They explode and destroy another arm.

“Don’t you see who he is?” Empyreal runs up beside me, but steers clear when he feels the heat coming off my body. “He’s not just a vigilante!”

“It’s a trick, like in the Second Ward where they used decoys. Megajoule is dead.” Danger Close flies up, chasing after Snow Owl and the Fear. “Tachikaze, slice those limbs off. Jettison, get ready!”

Jettison doesn’t look like he’s in any position to do anything. He looks badly beaten, his leg is in a cast, and he can’t even fly higher than a few feet.

Bedevil pulls the last of the civilians through the hole. Tachikaze draws her sword and falls into a practiced stance. She swings her blade three times, each attack launching a ghostly arc through the air.

I’m glowing, but I need more. This thing is coming down soon, and I need to attack before it recovers. I can feed energy from something’s attack right back into it, in a kind of feedback loop. That doesn’t gain me any energy. What if I leapt into the air, and at the height of the jump, I absorbed the force of gravity on my own body? If I’m not moving, I could just charge myself like a battery. Draw in as much as I can and unleash it all at once.

No more time to think about it. Rorschach falls into the terminal, trailing wounded arms from Tachikaze’s attacks. It holds out one arm, catching itself by rupturing that limb.

I turn to Bedevil. “I’m going to make an opening. When I do, help me get her out.”

She nods. “Got it.”

I blast up into the air, almost to the ceiling, and try to draw in the energy of gravity.

Yes! I stop dead in the air, and energy pours into me. I suck in heat, too, building up a huge amount of heat inside me. The air shimmers, and my sweat hisses on my skin, which glows like a piece of steel pulled from a furnace.

Rorschach reforms its body, slower than before now that it can’t draw on the fear of the civilians.

GAAAAAAAAYYYYYEEEEEEEEEEEBBBBAAAAAAAAAA

The awful tone vibrates on every molecule inside of me.

One by one

I explode down, kicking into Rorschach’s core like a bullet. The coils unravel, the ink and wires tear apart as I transfer all of the energy I have into the heart.

Into the dark

The inside of Rorschach is deeper than it should be, stretching into a starless void. Maisa screams inside, and she reaches up for me even as inky tendrils swallow her alive.

ONE BY ONE

I dive in.

INTO THE DARK.

The world tears in two. I’m inside the Fear, shooting toward Maisa, and I’m in a dark hallway. Hundreds of my fellow clones charge me from the shadows, all dressed in my vigilante costume. Superheated fists, kinetic kicks, and glowing poles storm around me.

ENNNNEEEEEMMMMMYYYYYYY

One of the clones shouts at me: “You fight so hard!”

Another: “You fight so well!”

“They made us!” my brother screams.

“They buried us!” My brothers wash over me as a tidal wave of Megajoule’s clones, crushing me under their weight.

One of the Gabes stares me in the eyes, and it’s like I’m looking in a mirror. “You forgot.”

I close my eyes and focus. I’m in the Fear. Maisa needs me.

I’m zooming through the void toward her.

Arachnid legs surface from the tar around us and bash me off course, sending me farther into the dark. I blink and I’m falling not inside the Fear but over Houston, down into the Second Ward. I crash into the alley.

“Black hole, Gabe, black hole!” Sledge stares down at me, his muscled form ballooning until the buildings around us can’t contain him. They grin down at me. “Impossible to escape. Just as impossible as the world you want.”

I’m in my apartment, in the living room. Asperity’s headless corpse floats at me while Dustdevil and Carapace weep beside him. The Bay Biters and Pyre litter the floor, drenching my carpet in blood. Asperity stretches his hand out, a specter of death.

“One by one,” Dustdevil says.

“Into the dark,” Carapace finishes.

I’m in the lab, I’m watching scientists take my own brothers away to die. “One by one,” Doc says, watching from behind a clipboard.

“Spaghettification,” Sledge screeches in the alley as he grows ropes of his own flesh to tie me.

I’m being divided. Just like Parlor.

I close my eyes. Breathe. Focus. I reassemble myself. G for Good. A for Able. B for Beautiful. E for Enough. G for Gabe. G for Gabe. I claw my way out of the ink, screaming, “MAISA!”

“Gabe!” Maisa wrestles against a mountain of black fibers, and she’s losing. “Help me! I don’t know where I am!”

I blast toward her. Tendrils chase after me. I’m so close. The event horizon.

I stretch my hand out to her, I fly as far as I can, I reach and reach and reach.

Maisa sinks into the dark. Thousands of hands seize me with mottled fingers. Desiccated children, my brothers, Asperity, the Bay Biters. The dead overwhelm me, pulling me back into their mass.

The bodies compress into a singular mass, and stretch into Megajoule’s face. He leers at me, his eyes wide with frantic glee, and screeches, “THERE IS NO ESCAPE.”

Sledge howls out of the corpse void, “THE WORLD YOU WANT.”

“IT’S IMPOSSIBLE!” Lugs screams, as my fellow clones rip his metal arm free of his body.

Alley. Dark hallway. Apartment. Park bench. Lab. Bedroom. Living room. Houston. Drawn and quartered by my own worst memories. Dismembered and ripped apart, one by one, into the dark, one by one, into the dark, one path.

One path you can’t get off.

One path taking you into the shadow. Forever.

Forever.

How do I escape? I don’t know.
I don’t know.
I don’t know
I don’t know
I don’t kno
I don’t kn
I don’t
I don
I do
I d
I
I
I
I
I
.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I
I
I
I w
I wi
I wil
I will
I will win.
I will save her.
I will not surrender to the Fear.

I erupt from the tar, and rip my way through the threads and coiled shadow, through the arachnid legs, through my memories, through the guilt, through Megajoule’s face. I burn like the sun, scorching my way to freedom.

Maisa is right in front of me. I grab her.

Hands hook into my shoulders, and around my waist, and lift me up into the light.

I’m not in the dark, anymore. I’m in Terminal C, clutching one of Maisa’s arms. and I have her halfway out of the void inside Rorschach.

Bedevil is on one side of me, latched on with her telekinesis, and Epione is on the other, pulling Maisa’s other hand. Krater grasps her waist from behind, and pushes her up.

We heave, one last time, and wrench Maisa free from the Fear. I wrap her in my arms and launch backwards, landing on my feet near the boarding entrance.

The mass of threads spools back into Tim Prince, and he drops into the benches, unconscious. Snow Owl rushes to his side.

Maisa gawks at me, like she can’t believe we freed her from that monster. Her shock gives way to tears of relief, and a sobbing smile. She throws her arms around me.

I sink to my knees. “It’s okay, I’m here. I won’t let anyone hurt you again.”

Bedevil stumbles toward us, starting her own ugly cry, and Epione follows, taking off her mask. Realization dawns over Krater’s face as he sees the girl I tried to tell him about back when we first fought. He looks down at the ground uncertainly. Tachikaze, Empyreal, Jettison, and Danger Close are dumbfounded, transfixed at the sight of us huddled around Maisa.

Maisa weeps into my shoulder.

“It’s okay.” I can’t hold back my own tears. They run down my cheeks, and sobs wrack me and leave my body shaking. I cry out: “I’ve got you.”

INHERITORS WILL RETURN ON AUGUST 27TH FOR ARC 3.

EPISODE THIRTY-THREE

DISCORD / NEWSLETTER

Overcome with relief that she’s alive, I say, “Oh, my God, Maisa! I’m so sorry I didn’t get you. I’m sorry. Tell me where you are, and I’ll come now. I promise.”

“I’m in the back of a van. He’s taking me somewhere.”

I start back toward the apartment. I need to suit up. The others chase after me as I dash up the stairs. “Do you know where?”

Maisa is quiet for a moment. Then, “I don’t know, we’re on a weird highway.”

“What do you mean? Weird how?” I ask. “Can you see anything?”

“No.” Maisa chokes up. “Gabe, he killed everyone.”

My blood runs cold. “What do you mean?”

“Those people that came to help him. The warping lady, the machine man, and the one that can fly. He just killed them. That’s where I got the ear piece from.” Her voice grows frantic. “Gabe, he’s wrong. He’s not the same.”

“How?” I make it to my floor. Bedevil floats in behind me, and the other three come running up the stairs.

Maisa pauses. I hear her breathing, steady, slow, but ragged. A second or two passes, and she says, “He wouldn’t shut up before. He spoke about everything he saw. He has not said a word since you tried to rescue me. His eyes don’t focus on anything, and he doesn’t look at people when they talk to him. He always makes this expression like he’s fighting or in pain.”

“Maisa, I’m coming to get you.” Those other Fear entities – I shudder at the thought of their being more than one – latched on to people. If they feed off fear, then I don’t want Maisa to turn into this thing’s food or become some kind of host to it. “Maisa, I know this sucks, but you need to be brave. This thing that’s taken over Pandahead, it feeds off your fear. If you’re brave, it’ll be like you smelling bad to it. Can you tell me anything else about what you see?”

I open the door to my apartment. Mr. Gold leans on the counter, looking at his phone, and Saw Off leans on the fridge door, staring at him like she just saw the latest piece from Smith & Wesson.

“Planes.”

An airport. Holy shit, he’s trying to take her out of the country. “Do you see any signs?”

Maisa pauses and let’s out a little ‘Ah,’ as she searches. “It says, ‘Thank you for flying HSA.’”

“Houston South Airport,” I say before my breath escapes me.

“Holy fuck,” Remise says. “He’s going rogue!”

Mr. Gold snaps up from the counter, and pockets his phone. “That’s going to turn into an incident. No way is Tim Prince going to get through security. We have to go now.”

“Hang on, Maisa, we’re coming. Just stay brave, okay?”

“I’ll try.”

“I’ll be on this comm the whole time, I promise.” I point at Bedevil. “Are you okay to go?”

Bedevil nods.

“Epione, you too. You’ve fought this thing.” I look at Saw Off, Remise, and Drone. “You three, I don’t think you’re equipped to fight this thing, but we’ll need you for a getaway. I doubt OPI and FIS will just let us fight this thing by ourselves. They’ll send heroes and fish.”

Mr. Gold pulls another, smaller phone from his pocket and hands it to me. “Burner. I can keep you updated on our side of things. You’ll want to know who they’re sending.”

I take the phone. “Thanks. Let’s move!”

The apartment becomes a flurry of action. I draw a bit of heat from the air, prompting Saw Off to hiss from the chill, and warp to my room. I dash inside, for my closet, and grab my last spare jacket and mask. I’ll need to make another.

Remise’s words echo through my head. Your mask is holding you back.

I put the mask in my pocket. “Maisa, you okay?”

“Yes. We’re in a garage. I won’t be able to talk when he gets me out of the car,” she says.

Bedevil runs into the room, digging through the duffel bag of clothes I recovered from her apartment. She grabs her vigilante hoodie, but not the mask.

“You’re not masking up?” I ask.

Bedevil dons the red hoodie and slips one of her sneakers on. “No point. Besides, if this thing really does use people’s fear against them, it might help to have a famous hero inspire them.” She floats in the air as she fits the other sneaker to her foot. “Not like OPI doesn’t already know about me, anyway.”

“True,” I say. “Okay, Maisa, talk to me as long as you can, alright?”

Maisa doesn’t respond. Shit. She must already be out of the car.

“Gabe.” Bedevil flies over to me. “Come on. She needs us.” She reaches her hand out to me.

I take her offered hand and squeeze. “You go on ahead. I’ll be right behind you. Need to finish prepping.”

Bedevil nods, pauses for a moment, and then plants a kiss on my cheek. “I’m looking forward to that date. Don’t let me down.” She leaves me with that.

I sneak into my bathroom real quick. I’ve got an idea. I grab the old package of contacts I rarely use, tear it open, and put them in. I blink, letting the film connect with my eyes, and then put my glasses back on. The contacts adjust to the change in perception automatically, simulating my nearsightedness again. I take off my glasses to test them, and they restore me to 20-20 in half a second. Nifty little things. Thirty bucks at your local pharmacy.

If the Fear feeds off… well… fear, how do you stop people from being afraid? Bedevil just gave me the key. You have a famous hero show up and tell them it’s going to be okay. Like I did with Maisa and the girls when I first rescued them. Like I did with Mr. Gold.

But I’m not sure if I should, yet.

The others are waiting by the door, ready to go. When they see me coming, we all exit en masse, and rush down to the garage, no time for words. Mr. Gold takes his own car, and we jump in the van, and Remise drives us off to the airport.

I turn on the radio, waiting for any emergency broadcasts.

“I’m going to take us to a neighborhood that runs near the east side of the airport,” Remise says. “Has a view of the landin’ strip and all.”

Bedevil squeezes my hand with telekinesis, and intertwines her tendrils with my fingers. It’s an odd feeling, an invisible hand that feels more like a wriggling mass of snakes, but I like it.

Ten minutes into our trip, the popular song of the week cuts off to an alarm tone. An automated voice says: “This is the Emergency Broadcast System. If you’re currently on the road or out, please return home or shelter indoors as soon as possible.”

“It’s started,” Drone says. “Feeds are going crazy right now, there are a bunch of people near the airport wondering what’s going on.”

“Anything from inside?” I ask.

“Nothing yet,” Drone says.

My pocket buzzes. The burner phone is ringing, so I answer.

“Gabe. Rorschach went off,” Mr. Gold says. “It’s taken over a terminal in the airport. Multiple hostages, reports of injured and dead already.”

“What’s the plan?” I ask.

“OPI is sending in a team of heroes specialized in fighting bigger threats like this, plus heroes that might have some edge in this particular fight. The roster is Krater, Danger Close, Tachikaze, Snow Owl, Empyreal, and Jettison. I’m not sure what the plan is for dealing with the Blot. I’m guessing they have orders to kill Tim Prince. They have dozens of teams outside, ready to go. Lots of heroes, lots of agents.”

“Okay.” My top priority is Maisa. That said, something doesn’t sit right about letting them kill Tim Prince. I know he’s a slaver, but I can’t help but think the Fear might have corrupted him. The Thermos had Megajoule on it. Maybe he needs to believe in something, too. “We’re close.”

“Two minutes,” Remise says.

“One other thing,” Mr. Gold says. “Cynic is here. Director Myers herself.”

Wow. The Head Director of all OPI. This is monumental, then. “Okay. Let us know if anything changes.”

“Copy. Good luck, Gabe.” Mr. Gold hangs up.

I put the burner back in my pocket.

“Almost there.” Remise looks over at me. “Your ear piece is squealing.”

“Huh?” I ask, but right after, I hear what she’s talking about. The ear piece rings, a tiny tone I couldn’t hear over the car until just now. The tone stays steady for a second, and then shrieks into a high pitch whine. I rip the ear piece out.

Maisa screams: “GAAAAAAAYYYYYEEEEEEEEBBBBBAAAAAAAAAAA! EEEEEEEENEEEEEEEEEEMMMMMYYYYYYYYYYYYYY!”

The ear piece hisses and pops in my lap, rupturing like a jolt of electricity went through the plastic.

“The fuck was that?” Saw Off makes a disturbed face.

“It said ‘enemy,’” Epione says.

Unnerved, I push the pieces of the comm off my lap to the floor of the van, just as Remise stops. Epione, Bedevil, and I rush out the doors.

“Give ‘em hell!” Remise shouts. “We’ll be right here!”

Drone’s voice comes in over my watch. “You’ve got this.”

We sprint across the huge cement pavilion, and I draw in heat from the ground and above me the entire way over. The huge planes are parked away from the airport building. Forklifts and cargo cars cower beside them, and confused staff watch the three of us approach without moving a muscle. Faces press against the glass windows of the planes.

The airport building is modern steel, glass, and columns painted red and white. Drone buzzes in my ear. “Terminal C.”

I slow my pace for a second. “Got it! Bedevil, latch on. Epione, on my back!”
Epione jumps on me piggy back style, and Bedevil wraps tendrils around both of us. I use the heat I’ve gathered and bound toward Terminal C. There are tons of jet bridges.

“Okay,” Drone says. “Got into the surveillance feeds. Rorschach is in the terminal directly above you. But I don’t think you should go in from the bridges right in there, Rorschach will hit you hard.”

“How soon until the heroes get there?” Krater can take one of Rorschach’s punches head on. I’ll let him get first in.

“On the way now. The terminal entrance is on lock-down, but they’re about to breach.”

“What’s Rorschach doing?” I ask.

“I’ve got it on the feed. It’s… not moving. At all. Just floating there. There are about a dozen people inside with it, and they aren’t moving.”

“Which bridge should we go in?” Bedevil asks.

“Two over to your left. That will get you in Terminal D. Gabe, you can get through one inch walls, right?” Drone asks.

“Yeah.” I bound up to the jet bridge Drone pointed out, and warp down the hall until we make it to the gate. I grab the handle and draw in as much heat as I can, freezing the lock to dust. I return that heat to my hand, and shove it through the metal, ripping the bridge gate right open.

I set Epione down. “You good?”

“Yes,” Epione says. “Just nervous. This thing remembers us.”

“I won’t let you get hurt,” Bedevil says. “Stick with me.”

Terminal D is empty, and the doors are open. There are rows of blue benches for waiting fliers, posters about flight safety adorn the walls, and abandoned purses and carry-ons litter the room. I can feel that finger digging in the back of my head again, and with it I hear the long wail of the Fear. Bedevil shudders. “God,” she says. “This is…”

“Awful, I know.” I listen against the wall. No fighting yet, they haven’t breached the doors.

I notice that a family cowers between one row near us.

“Hey!” I call. “You need to get out of here!”

The father looks up, and shakes his head frantically. The mother huddles with her arms around her two, younger girls. They’re too afraid to move.

They need a reason to be brave. I approach, my hands out. “It’s okay. I’m here.”

The father extends his arm in front of his wife and children, rising to his knees so that he’s between me and them. “Stay back!”

“It’s gonna be okay.” Remise is right. My mask is holding me back, and I can’t spend my whole life being afraid of my own face. It’s not Megajoule’s, even if I’m about to pretend it is. “Promise.”

I take off my mask.

The father stares at me for a moment. “You’re-”

Bedevil gasps, and slings through the air, landing next to me. “What are you doing?”

“Megajoule and Bedevil,” the father says. “You’re gonna save us.”

“Yeah, we are,” I say. “I need you to get your family out of here. Get them to safety.”

Drone buzzes on my watch. “If they go to the main entrance, FIS has a blockade set up.”

“Get to the lobby,” I say. “Go!”

The father heeds my advice, and runs for it, shepherding his family out of the terminal.

Bedevil and Epione stare at me, their eyes wide.

“You’re right, having a famous hero does help.” I toss the mask aside.

Just as I do, there’s a loud crunching sound from the other side of the wall, the sound of metal collapsing. They’ve breached the doors. Rorschach’s finger in my mind turns into an ice pick, and the tone squeals in my head. Bedevil winces with me.

“Let’s go!” I press my foot against the wall, summon as much energy as I can, and kick my way through the metal and brick.

EPISODE THIRTY-TWO

DISCORD / NEWSLETTER

Mr. Gold returns the next morning, around 9 AM. I’m already up, making a pot of coffee.

Mr. Gold holds a white box in his arms. “Morning. I brought donuts.” He looks into my living room at the pile of people asleep there: Epione is on the couch, Drone is on a blow up mattress we had to move the oak table for, and Remise is buried in a bunch of blankets behind the couch. Saw Off and Bedevil are splitting my bed, as it was made for me, and two women half my size can split it easy. I’ve been on the floor by my desk, with Pawpaw to keep me company.

We’re dangerously low on blankets and pillows. Doc decided to check into a hotel for a few days while we figured out the living situation.

Mr. Gold places the box on the counter.

“Sprinkles?” I ask.

In a monotone voice, he asks, “What kind of LEO do you take me for?”

Unsure of where that puts us on the position of sprinkles, I open the box.

There are sprinkles.

“You mostly work with females,” Mr. Gold observes, looking into the living room. He’s wearing a bullet proof vest underneath his button up, and a chest holster for his golden gun. His eyes are sharp, clear, absorbing all the details of my life.

“Just how it shook down, I guess. Flashfire’s in your Gallery somewhere, Lugs is… disarmed, Doc doesn’t fight, and neither does Iso.” Asperity, too, but doesn’t bear mentioning. I feel a flash of guilt for his death. “Then there’s you.”

“On that note. Have you reviewed the files?”

I shake my head. “No. I was waiting for this morning, for everyone to rest from the battle. I have a feeling we’ll need it.”

“Not a bad call.” Mr. Gold looks at the coffee. “Spare some?”

“Of course.” I open the cupboard and pull out some mugs. “Cream, sugar?”

Mr. Gold holds a hand up. “For heathens.”

“Look, this isn’t nice coffee, I got it for three bucks at a grocery store.”

“All the same,” Mr. Gold says. “I take it black.”

The door to my room opens, and Saw Off steps out. She’s wearing pajamas with piranhas all over them. She yawns and walks into the kitchen, and sees Mr. Gold for the first time. “You’re that fish from the port.”

Mr. Gold’s face does not change, but his eyes narrow. “You’re a dangerous terrorist.”

Saw Off grins. “Got a name?”

“Agent Javier Aguellar,” Mr. Gold says.

Saw Off purrs, and I feel the enormous weight of her affections shift from my shoulders.

“Coffee?” I ask her.

“Yes. Lots of cream and sugar.” Saw Off investigates the donuts. “All sprinkles? Really?”

Mr. Gold eyes her suspiciously.

The room to Doc’s door opens, and Mil-dot emerges from the dark, her eyes red, her face haggard as if she’d gotten zero hours of sleep. Considering Lugs, I bet that was the case.

“Mil! Is… is Lugs okay?” I ask.

Mil-dot frowns. “No. He’ll live, but he isn’t okay.”

Saw Off’s piranha grin fades into a tight frown, and her voice is heavy as she says, “He lost his power.”

I don’t know what to say. It’s my fault that he lost his arm. It was my mission that all these people got hurt on.

Everyone else wakes up at our conversation. Epione, Remise, and Drone stretch and groan as they stir from their slumber, but Bedevil doesn’t come out of my room. She’s probably still recovering from the withdrawals. I’ll catch her up later.

Mr. Gold slaps the counter. “Have you figured out where Pandahead’s going?”

“No.” I pour him a cup of coffee. Maisa’s been on my mind all night. I checked the ear comm, but no one responded, so I gave it to Drone to look at it. “I have an idea, though. You have contacts in OPI. I want to get in touch with Snow Owl. She’s Tim Prince’s sister, and she may have a good idea of where he’ll go. I also want to get in touch with the Ministers. Lily and Empyreal both vouched for me after Sledge, and they’re Canis class. They can find anybody.”

“I can get you in touch with them,” Mr. Gold says.

“Alright, Mr. Gold.” I grab another donut. “Let’s look at your data.”

We gather in the living room while Mr. Gold connects his personal tablet to the TV, and then inserts the data drive. While he does that, I realize we’re missing someone.

“Remise, where’s Echo?” I ask.

Remise’s expression turns grim. “She left town for a little. While she heals up.”

“Will she be okay?”

Remise shrugs, and takes a sip of coffee. “Hope so, Gabe.”

I can’t help but feel guilty for it. They all joined because of me. Both teams were cut in two and we suffered no losses. The 2nd Amendment, too. Lugs, and before him, Vaquero. They all have every right to hate me.

A folder pops up on screen and Mr. Gold opens it up. There are only a handful of files inside, and he clicks the first one.

A PDF dossier opens up and he scrolls through that. “There have been six Fear incidents that we’re aware of.” He shows pictures of battlefields that are littered with the corpses of soldiers and superheroes, accompanied by a picture of a huge, shadowy, inky monster. “The entity that appeared last night is code named Rorschach, due to its resemblance to an ink blot.”

Epione gasps at the images. “That’s the one.”

Mr. Gold continues: “Rorschach was the first entity to appear, in Norway. The government requested OPI aid and we handled it, but it was unknown what happened to the creature until Syria, where it appeared again.”

“Does that have anything to do with the Syrian Supers war?” I ask.

“Everything,” Mr. Gold says. “Our presence there was ostensibly to shut down an international villain group, but really we were investigating the second Fear event. After Syria, Rorschach disappeared. Until last night, when it appeared in the hands of Pandahead.”

“They were connected,” Epione says. “Does your file say anything about there being other people connected to Rorschach?”

“No,” Mr. Gold says. “Unfortunately that was beyond what I was able to gather.”

“What about the other two entities?” I ask.

“One is code named Sapiens, because it takes on a humanoid form.” He opens one of the videos. The clip looks like it’s somewhere in urban ruins, and the signs look Mandarin. I’m guessing this is somewhere in China, but I can’t say for sure. “It appeared in the Hellpact, twice. From the data I have, I’m unaware of where it went after this event.” The clip shows a team of heroes moving toward a floating figure, wrapped in shadow like Rorschach. Half the heroes falter and scream, giving into the psychic attack, but the rest continue on to fight. The camera feed cuts out as Sapiens blurs out of focus.

“That’s connected to a person,” Epione says. “I can see the real form.”

Mr. Gold raises an eyebrow. “What’s her power?”

I shrug. “Learning more about it every day.”

“The last one is called Subsume.” Mr. Gold plays the last video in his folder. “This took place in Africa.”

The clip shows another humanoid inky figure teleporting through a group of African soldiers. One of the frontliners is shooting fire from his hands, and another generates some kind of dark aura. Subsume grabs both of them and absorbs them into their body, and generates a flaming aura around their body. The clip cuts off as Subsume attacks the person wearing the camera.

“Each one of the entities could manipulate powers in some way. Subsume absorbs and combines the powers in new ways, Rorschach copies powers along each of its limbs, and no one could use their powers near Sapiens.” Mr. Gold sighs.

“Wait,” Epione says. “Go back to the clip of Subsume. Pause it right before it kills the cameraman.”

Mr. Gold rewinds the clip to the point Epione’s talking about.

I see what she saw. The face is a human, and the body is the Fear. The person trapped inside screams, their eyes wide.

Pandahead, and these people. Each of these Fear entities is tied to a person. “They’re parasites.”

“They feed off negative emotion,” Epione says. “I saw Rorschach fueling itself by drawing on everyone’s fear. It made new limbs with those emotions.”

“So, wha, they’re aliens?” Remise asks.

“The files are inconclusive on that,” Mr. Gold says. “As far as I know they are unsure of the Fear’s origins.”

“Let’s not assume anything about where they came from,” I say. “The only thing we know for sure is one has latched itself onto Pandahead. Judging from what Epione told us, he might not be in control anymore. He didn’t become that ink blot thing at Parlor, and only did so last night after he was wounded.”

“That means his next actions are unpredictable,” says Mr. Gold. “We can’t assume the Fear will do the same things Pandahead would do if he were in control.”

“No, we can’t. Still, Snow Owl might shed some light on where he went last night, if he could make his own decisions.”

Mr. Gold nods. “I’ll get you in touch with her. Last I heard, she and her surviving teammates were in the hospital, but I can get you into her room if we play our cards right. It’s risky, but it’s the best way to talk with her without getting recorded somehow.”

“Yeesh, nice to know they’re always listening, Big Brother,” I say. Remise snickers at my comment.

“That’s the world we live in.” Mr. Gold disconnects his tablet from the TV. “You know how hard it is to manage an entire nation of people with powers? You should try it sometime. You need accurate, up to date intel.”

He’s not wrong. A big factor of the Underground’s effectiveness is Drone, sitting behind the scenes, digging up all the info she can. Parlor went as well as it did because we had eyes all over the place. I shrug. “Let me get dressed, we can go see if Snow Owl’s got an idea.”

I step into my room carefully, trying not to wake Bedevil, but I notice she’s not in bed. Pawpaw looks out the open window, wagging his tail. I poke my head out, but I can’t tell if she’s in the alley from here. Bedevil’s cats mew from various corners of my room. I set out the new bowls I got for them last night, and fill them with Bedevil’s preferred brand of pet foods.

I put on some walking around clothes, and head back out to the living room. “Hey, Gold, gimme a sec. I gotta go check something.”

Mr. Gold nods.

I head out my apartment and descend to the street, and run over to the alley below my bedroom window.

Bedevil is sitting against a dumpster, a third-empty bottle of whiskey in her hands. She takes a sip and spits it out. She gasps as I approach, and a brief flash of grief betrays her stoic expression. She turns her face away from me.

“You okay?” I ask.

Bedevil doesn’t say anything.

I approach where she’s sitting, hands in my pockets. I don’t want to spook her or make her mad. But, what the heck do I say? She told me she was trying to quit, and here she is, giving up on that. Should I be mad? Should I tell her it’s okay? I stammer.

Bedevil stands up, using the wall, and stumbles a bit as she finds her feet. Out of nowhere, she chucks the bottle into the wall, shattering it and spilling alcohol all over the brick. She leans down and picks the DVD case hiding Jamie’s ring, and throws it at the ground. “You shoulda told me you saw it.”

I frown, and look at her. “Yeah. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t. Don’t do that.” Bedevil locks eyes with me. Her gaze is impassioned, bordering on furious. “Don’t look at me like that.”

“Like what?”

Bedevil’s brow furrows. “Like you pity me.”

“I don’t pity you,” I say.

“Bullshit. Bullshit, I know that look. I’ve gotten it from every teammate I’ve had, I’ve gotten it from every director, from my mom, from my dad!” Bedevil kicks the DVD case. “They always look at me like I’m lost. Like I’ve got nothing since Megajoule died. Like I’m weak!” Her face twists, and her voice breaks as she says, “You’re disappointed in me.”

I think for a moment, and rub my chin. I’d rather phrase myself very carefully than say something stupid.

“Just… leave me alone,” Bedevil says. She turns back to the dumpster.

“Sledge almost killed me last night.”

Bedevil stops, and studies my scarred face. “Yeah.”

“The truth is, I almost let him.” I cross my arms, just the memory of that feels cold. I’m angry with myself that I let it get that far. “I went into the fight thinking that I could die to protect the other heroes. I went in thinking, ah, Sledge will beat me, but that’s okay because I didn’t die for nothing.” I frown. “That was stupid. It’s always been stupid, but that’s how I went to every fight. Thinking that if I die, it’s okay, because it was for a good cause.”

Bedevil’s face softens, and she turns her whole body to face me.

“I saw you cheering me on in my head while I was fighting. Telling me to live. I realized I couldn’t lose, I didn’t want to lose, I didn’t want to die. Your training, your lessons.” A lump forms in my throat, and tears well in my eyes. I didn’t even realize how emotional this made me. “They saved my life.”

Bedevil starts to cry, too. She squeaks, “Gabe.”

“You helped me,” I say. “Even though I had these walls, you tore them down. I want to help you the same way. You’re not weak because you need some help. In fact, you’re probably the strongest person that I know.”

Bedevil shakes her head, and her voice is choked up as she says, “No, I’m not. You know so many strong people.”

“I do.” I take a step toward her. “But you’re the strongest of my friends. You’ve done so much for me, I just wanted to thank you for all that. You’re probably one of the few real heroes in OPI. You went after Warspeed when you saw her on the street. You helped me train, you took me in. You stood up for me against Krater.”

Bedevil sniffs and rubs her eyes free of tears. She closes the gap between us, and picks up the movie case with Jamie’s ring, and then looks up at me.

“The truth is, after getting to know you, I realized that I adore you.” I pause. I meant to say admire.

Bedevil’s hazel eyes widen, and she stammers nonsense.

“Fuck it.” I lean forward and press my lips against hers. Bedevil falls into step in a heartbeat. I grab her by the waist and pull her into a fierce kiss, while my other hand entangles into the hair at the back of her neck. Bedevil claws into me, leaning into our embrace.

We part to breathe, and I kiss along her jaw, eliciting a hot gasp in my ear. I wrap my arms around her and hold her against my chest. She melts into me, sighing into my shoulder.

“Wanna go on a date, after this is over?” I ask.

Bedevil pulls free from me. “I do… but…” She looks away. “I hurt you.”

“Yes.” No point lying. “I don’t want to ride in on Mega’s coattails or something. I want to take it slow, I want you to like me because of me.”

Bedevil studies me for a second. “Gabe, I do. I’m not even thinking about him anymore. You’re not even like him, you know?”

I make a funny face at her.

“I mean it,” she says. “He was… he was always concerned with the bigger picture. He caught a building, yeah, but he didn’t stop to check in on the people inside, he let other people handle that.”

“He didn’t have a power geared for rescues.”

“So? You don’t either, and I could put money on you being the first one inside.” Bedevil puts her hand in mine. “You went and got my animals from my place. You thought of that, when I didn’t. You’re always so aware of people around you and you always get what they need.”

I close my hand around hers. We interlock our fingers.

Her eyes fall on the broken bottle. “I need help.”

“I know.” I stroke her cheek. “I’ll be there every step of the way, if you want.”

“Yeah.” Bedevil steps up onto her toes and kisses me.

“Gabe!” Drone shouts at the end of the alley.

“Ack!” Bedevil loses her balance and falls backward.

I catch her by her waist, making it incredibly obvious what position we were in.

Drone jogs toward us, Remise and Epione in tow. They don’t look happy at all. “I got Sledge’s ear piece working!” She thrusts her hand out, revealing the little device. A blue light blinks on the bottom side.

I help Bedevil find her feet, and then I pick the ear piece from Drone’s palm and put it in my ear. “Hello?”

There’s a few seconds of silence, and then Maisa says, “Gabe!”

EPISODE THIRTY-ONE

DISCORD / NEWSLETTER

“She’ll be okay,” Doc says, looking down at Bedevil sleeping in my bed. “But she’s an absolute idiot, and you should have stopped her.”

My room doesn’t feel like my room anymore. Saw Off put up some posters of random horror thriller movies and a boy band called Red Midnight. I take a knee next to the bedside, to find my old sheets have been replaced by silk pink sheets. “Damn, what did you let Saw Off do in here?”

“Didn’t let her do anything, this is her room now. She started paying me for it.”

Wow, I’ve been evicted from my own room. Oh, well, I guess I did tell Doc I’d live somewhere else for a while. “How’s Lugs?”

“Surviving. He’s in my bed.” Doc rubs his chin. “I don’t know when our apartment became a hospice center but here we are.”

I place my elbows on the bed and look at Bedevil. Her nostrils are caked in blood, but other than that she seems peaceful. I brush an errant strand of hair from her face. It reminds me of how she dozed off on the couch this morning, while Pawpaw and the cats whined at me for food.

It hits me. Pawpaw and the cats are still at her apartment, and she just became an enemy of the state. “I have to go do something, Doc.” If I’m fast enough, nobody will be searching her place, yet.

“Good grief, kid, haven’t you done enough tonight?”

I can’t break away from her face. “No. She needs me to do this. You ever lost an animal?”

Doc doesn’t say anything in response, so we just sit there quietly for a few seconds while I gather the strength to stand. When I do, he stares into my eyes. “She needs real help. Help you can’t give.”

“I know.”

“Even if she gets that help, she’ll still need someone supporting her through it. She’ll need somebody to push her. Somebody to make her stick to it.” He looks at Bedevil sleeping in the bed Saw Off commandeered from me. “You want to do that.”

“I don’t think she wants me to,” I say. She’s incredibly stubborn, self-reliant, and I know she’s distancing herself because of what happened between us already. I don’t know how to bridge that gap.

“She could do it alone, likely. It would be miserable.” Doc doesn’t look at her anymore, just at me. “She could spend every night fighting, making ground but never enough. Yes, you could do it alone, anyone can do life alone.” He opens the door and slips out.

I think about how Megajoule must have felt at the top. The number one OPI hero, the one that everyone counted on to save the world. Did he feel alone?

He had a team.

No, he had sidekicks.

Bedevil is not my sidekick, I don’t want her to be that. As she starts to snore and drool, I realize that if she were going to be anything to me, it would be a partner. Not just her. Epione, too. Remise, Drone. Flashfire. All of them my friends, none of them my lackeys.

I get my ass kicked when I’m alone, trying to carry all the world by myself. The only reason I ended up overcoming Sledge by myself was because she pushed me this past week to see the walls I’d built up in my head.

I step out into the living room with my last back-up jacket and a spare mask. I check myself in the bathroom mirror before I leave. Sledge left three hideous claw marks through my left eyebrow, one of which cut into my eyelid. Doc wanted to take the wound. I only let him put the sealing gel in.

I put my mask on before heading out. Dustdevil and Carapace are still in my living room, so I can’t just walk around willy-nilly.

Remise, Epione, Drone, Iso, Carapace, and Dustdevil crowd my living room, filling the tiny space with a heated argument. Dustdevil’s still wearing her mask, weirdly enough.

“She mind-controlled us!” Dustdevil says, jabbing her finger at Epione.

Epione stares down at the floor.

I got the details of what happened from Remise. Epione stilled their emotions and used their powers to fight the Fear. I don’t blame her for making that call, because she might have saved the entire city. At the same time, I get why Dustdevil is upset. Remise doesn’t look very happy, either.

Carapace is the other participant in this argument. Her eyes are red, her face is broken. “But you’re alive.”

“I don’t care. She just warped my brain while I was pissing my pants at that monster, and acts like I should be grateful about it!” Dustdevil turns her back on everyone, and sees me. “And you! This was your stupid idea!”

It was. I can’t blame her for that.

Dustdevil walks up to me, and stabs her finger into my chest, too. “You brought us all on this. Echo lost her entire team, we lost Asperity, and we have nothing to show for it. You don’t even have the decency to show your face.” Dustdevil takes off her mask. She’s a young, black girl with long purple-silver hair, scowling with rage. Maybe 17 years old. I didn’t expect that.

I don’t really have anything to say. All this is my fault.

Remise raises an eyebrow at me.

I could show her who I am. That would fix some of this, maybe. Give her something to believe in. But if I take off my mask, and show her that I’m Megajoule, we won’t be equals anymore. We won’t be partners. I don’t want that.

“I’m sorry, Dustdevil. You’re right. I fucked you over.” I turn away from her. “There’s something I have to do.”

“I’m fucking out,” Dustdevil says. She collects her backpack and heads for the door.

“Wait!” Carapace cries. “Don’t leave. Don’t leave. Asperity… I can’t be alone, Dust!”

Dustdevil runs out the door, and Carapace buries her head into the coffee table. She wails into the oak. After a moment, she quiets, and then runs out the door to chase Dustdevil down.

Remise crosses her arms. “Epione, ain’t gonna say what ye did was right. But Ah’m glad you saved our lives.”

Epione wears no expression, betrays no thought or feeling. She’s fallen back to the flat state she showed to me the other night.

“You shoulda taken your mask off.” Remise looks at me as she says this.

“What, and then have her do whatever I say because I’m Megajoule?” I ask.

“Maybe she’d understand. Ye don’t know as long as ye hide behind it.”

“What?” Drone says. “What if Dustdevil or Carapace decided to tell FIS?”

“What if ye had, back when ye joined?” Remise says. “But ye didn’t. Neither would they. They ain’t stupid.”

She’s not wrong, but neither is Drone. I don’t know what the right path is here.

“Lemme show ye something, Gabe.” Remise turns on my TV, and flips to a news channel. She uses our TV’s rewind feature to go back a few minutes.

My favorite stern newscaster lady is on an emergency update. A scrolling subtitle reads WAR IN THE SECOND WARD. “-terrible event that has many recalling memories of the Anarchy. FIS and OPI are currently involved in a manhunt for both members of a terrorist organization known as Sanctified Remnant, as well as Tim Prince. Citizens are advised to stay out of the Second Ward as they are still at large. As for the large monster that was witnessed by many, no trace of that has been seen since the incident.”

“Nothing about Epione bringing it down,” Remise says. “But!”

“Home Run interfered with authorities trying to capture Pandahead,” the newscaster lady says. “FIS is offering double the reward for information that will lead to his capture, and classifying him as a terrorist villain at this point.”

Remise pauses the video. “Your mask is holding you back.”

I don’t know what to do about it right now. “I’ll be back in a little.”

Remise nods.

I head out into the night, moving along the rooftops as fast as I can. After a little, I take off the mask and hop onto the sky rail, taking that over to Bedevil’s apartments.

I feel responsible for Asperity’s death, for Maisa not getting rescued, for all this coming down on our heads. If I wasn’t a vigilante, would I still have all this in my way? If the world knew who I was, would they help, or hinder me?

The sky rail drops me off near Bedevil’s place, and I rush up trying to figure out how I’m going to get all these animals with me. I can’t take the sky rail back. I’ll have to hoof it.

I crank Drone’s watch and rush up the stairs. I still have my key. “Drone, can you check if there’s anybody in the apartment?”

My watch lights up. “Yeah.” The watch goes dim as she ports her mind into the CCTV circuit. She comes back after I rush up another flight of stairs. “Door’s not open. No FIS vans or OPI heroes around.”

I head up to her apartment, and open the door.

Pawpaw and the cats run up to greet me.

To my right, someone says, “This is agent Aguellar, checking in.”

I snap my head to the kitchen.

Mr. Gold stands there. He stares at me, his golden gun in his hand, a practiced finger along the side, showing his trigger discipline. His other hand holds a phone to his ear.

I hold my breath while I wait for him to finish. “Yes. The apartment is clear. I’ll call you back if I find anything.” He hangs the phone up. “I wondered when you would show.”

I close the door behind me so the animals wouldn’t get out. “Is anyone else here?”

“No. I came alone. They couldn’t devote too many agents outside of the Second Ward.” Mr. Gold holsters his gun. “I figured if anyone knew anything about Megajoule, it would be his former sidekick.”

“Well, you weren’t wrong.”

“What are you doing here?” he asks.

“Getting her animals back.”

He studies my face. “You aren’t Megajoule. I realize that.”

“No.” My heart is beating so fast. Are we about to fight? Advantage, Mr. Gold is alone. Tight quarters means he can’t use some of his gold manipulation tricks. Disadvantage, I’m burnt out from tonight. Pawpaw whines at my knees, wagging his tail with all his might. “What are you doing here?”

“I want to help.” Mr. Gold approaches me from the kitchen.

I retreat a step back.

Mr. Gold holds a hand up, and removes a data drive from his pocket. “Everything I could find on Pandahead’s ability. Which, I think we both know by now, is not his ability.”

“This is about the Fear?” I ask, taking the drive.

“Yes.” Mr. Gold steps back from me. “Most of the information out there is beyond my security level. I had to call in some favors and promise some to get what I’ve got on that drive. The most important thing is that the Fear is not some force, or single entity.”

Chills all across my body as I realize what he’s suggesting.

“They are a species. The one inside Pandahead’s Thermos is one of many.”

I don’t know what to do with that information right this second. “Why help me?”

“I realized I was on the wrong side when a child trafficker ordered me to gun down Megajoule.” Mr. Gold shakes his head. “There’s something else. I know where they’re holding Jason deClaire.”

Flashfire. “Where?”

“A secure facility called a Rogue’s Gallery,” Mr. Gold says. “There’s one near Galveston. Where are you taking these animals?”

“Back to my place.”

“I have my car downstairs,” Mr. Gold says. “Would you accept my help, here?”

“What are you going to do after this?” I ask.

Mr. Gold furrows his brow, and rubs his chin. Some of his mannerisms are similar to Doc, actually. “I don’t know. I’ve no intention of turning you in. I could give you the information I have, and go on my way.” He pauses and considers his next words. “I served this country for twenty years. Serving this country now means stopping Pandahead. It means preparing for that.” He points at the drive.

I put the drive in my pocket. “Okay. I’m with you there. You’re willing to be an enemy of the state?”

“No one has to know that I’m helping you,” Mr. Gold says.

“How can I trust that you’re not going to pinch my friends?”

Mr. Gold meets my eyes. “You don’t. You have to trust me.”

He looks sincere enough. His behavior at Parlor lines up with what he’s saying right now. And the Underground can scatter fast if we get pinched. “Okay. I’ll trust you. But I’ll kick you if you backstab me.” I walk over to Bedevil’s couch and grab the pillows Bedevil gave me while I was sleeping there. I pull the pillow cases off them. “Put the cats in these.”

While Mr. Gold wrangles the cats into those cases, I check her room for any valuables she’ll need, wallet, charger, clothes. I look through her closet for a duffel bag.

There’s a box labeled “Inheritors” in the back. Consumed by curiosity, I open the lid.

There’s a collection of mementos from her time with the team. A group photo of her, Megajoule, Longinus, Templar, and Wind Rider. Wind Rider, Jamie. Same person. Same broken ring. Underneath the photo is her old, red domino mask, small like Jettison’s. Beneath that, her old boots.

Below all of her little things is a white cape. She never wore a white cape, but Megajoule did.

I close the box and pick it up. She could probably stand to lose every single thing in this closet, but I don’t think she’d forgive me if I left the box behind. She does have a travel bag, so I load some summer clothes, her charger, some underwear, as well as her toothbrush, soap, and shampoo from her shower. I notice she has an acoustic guitar, so I grab that, too. Might as well, since Mr. Gold is helping me.
Last thing. I grab a few of her shark documentaries and the one case I know has the ring inside. I hear the two halves clink together as I put the movie inside her duffel bag. “Okay, that should do it.”

“You’ve got a lot there,” Mr. Gold says, three pillow cases full of yowling cats in his hands. “We should hurry.”

I hook Pawpaw’s leash to his collar, and we book it out of there. True to his word, Mr. Gold brought his personal car, a little black sedan, and we put everything inside. We let the cats out into the back seat, and I have Pawpaw sit on my lap, and we take off into the night.

I don’t even know how to strike up a conversation with the man who tried to arrest me two weeks ago. Neither does he, so we ride in tense silence. I pet Pawpaw, who tries to lick my face over and over.

We make it to my apartment complex, and put the cats back into the pillow cases despite their protesting, and head upstairs.

I knock on my door.

“Nice place,” Mr. Gold says, eyeing the concrete apartment block.

“Is that a compliment?”

“No.”

Doc opens the door, and sees that I have a bunch of shit, a dog, a new friend who has three cases full of angry cats, and a guitar. “Kid. What the fuck.”

“Yeah, yeah, let me in.”

Iso took off, but Remise, Drone, and Epione are still here. Saw Off’s chewing on a pixie stick in the kitchen. Guessing Mil-dot’s still in Doc’s room, with Lugs.

“Ah shit, tha’s a dog! Tha’s a puppy!” Remise says, a smile lighting up her whole face. “Come ‘ere ye stupid mutt!” She holds her hands out, and Pawpaw lumbers over to her for pets.

Drone stammers at the sight of Mr. Gold. “You’re a fish.”

“That’s extremely disrespectful,” Mr. Gold says, letting the cats out of the bags. They aren’t very happy, but they settle down fast when they see they have a new apartment to roam around.

Doc puts a hand to his forehead and groans. “Oh my God, kid. You can’t do this.”

“Whoops,” I say, carrying the bag and guitar to my room.

Bedevil’s still asleep, so I set her stuff gently by the bed, trying to not make any noise. Unfortunately, the guitar gives me away, buzzing with sound as I set it against the wall.

“Hmmm?” Bedevil stirs from her sleep, and blinks in the dark.

I turn on my lamp.

“Gabe?” Her eyebrows shoot up her face in shock as Lyle, Tim, and Kyle the cats run into the room, following her voice. “Gabe,” she squeaks, petting them as they nuzzle into her chest.

I smile as she cries into their fur, but our reunion is interrupted by Remise entering the room. “Gabe, I almost forgot, I have to show ye this.”

Remise carries a zip lock baggie full of shattered plastic. She opens it and dumps the contents on the floor, inviting me to huddle next to her by patting the carpet. I get on my haunches and look at the remnants. “What is this?”

“The Thermos,” Remise says. “Take a good look at it.”

Pandahead’s Thermos. Remise told me Epione broke it, and Tim ran for it after that. The cup’s an old piece of junk, the printed design is worn and faded so much I can’t really tell what used to be on the outside.

Until Remise starts putting pieces together for me, so I can see the message printed right underneath the rim of the lid.

Reach. Dream. Strive. Become.

I recognize the design on the body of the Thermos after that, the same one that was on the poster near where I rescued Maisa, the one that played the clip of the Titan Tower incident. A cartoon Megajoule flexing his muscles and grinning for the audience.

EPISODE THIRTY

DISCORD / NEWSLETTER

The dust settles as the rain picks up, turning into a full drizzle. Thunder grumbles just seconds after a flash of lightning. The storm will let its full strength out soon.

I stumble back into the alley, toward the fallen heroes. There are dozens of minor scratches all over me, but the worst cuts are the one along my back, the one in my left side, and the one that ripped my mask up. I press my fingers against the left eye.

Intact. I blink and open it. Stiff, painful, and I can’t actually see thanks to the blood and the goggles being ruined. Being nearsighted sucks sometimes. Still, I sigh in relief. Being nearsighted sucks, but being nearsighted with only one eye would be even worse.

The rain sizzles as it hits my skin. I check my thermometer. I’m only holding a couple thousand degrees, which I can usually restrain inside my body without bringing it to the skin, but now it sits right on top. My power’s fizzled, I gassed myself for that fight. I release the heat into the air and ground so I don’t have to concentrate around other people.

Empyreal’s struggling still, but Lily’s managed to staunch the wound. Snow Owl’s gotten to her knees. Gyrfalcon is still unconscious.

The four of us look at each other, unable to say anything.

“Well,” I manage after a second of awkward silence. “I forgot to feed my girl’s dog, so I better…” I click my tongue, and point my thumb behind my back.

“Wait!” Snow Owl climbs to her feet using the chain link fence. “Where are you going?”

“Tim still has a girl, a kid I rescued,” I say. “He kidnapped her. I’ve got to rescue her.”

Lily stands up. “Not like that you aren’t.”

I look down. My new jacket is torn to shreds, I’m a bloody mess, and my body aches. Can barely put one foot in front of the other, plus if I don’t get my eye looked at soon with some disinfectant, there’s a chance I might still lose it. “I have to try.”

“I thought you were a villain,” Empyreal says weakly.

I don’t really know what to say to that. I turn to walk off, to find someway to meet back up with the others. I check my watch, but it’s been destroyed yet again. Drone is gonna be pissed at me for breaking her tech again. To be fair, it was probably Sledge’s doing.

“You need help,” Lily says, coming to my side.

“I’ve got friends.” I gesture to Empyreal. “Your boss needs you more than I do right now.”

“Hold it!” a new voice shouts at the end of the alley. Jettison floats in over the crater I buried Sledge in, and takes in the brick wall bearing claw marks and black spots from our battle. He lands against the wall, supporting himself with his arm. His left leg he lifts up to avoid putting weight on.

I sigh. Of course. “I’m only here to rescue a child. Please, let me go.”

“I can’t do that.” Jettison raises his other hand and points it at me.

Snow Owl alights in between us, stumbling as she does so. She rights herself, and says, “Jettison, stand down.”

Jettison falters, looking at me incredulously. “But, Snow-”

“I wouldn’t be alive right now if it weren’t for him.” Snow Owl stands tall. “He saved all of our lives. He killed Sledge.”

“He-” Jettison blinks and stammers, and looks at me with wide eyes. “No, no, Snow, we have orders to bring him in. All of this is his fault.”

Snow Owl looks down. Her helmet is still crumpled at the top and the visor cracked into pieces. “No, it’s my brother’s fault.”

Lily joins the conversation, saying, “You can’t. He saved our lives. He’s trying to save more.”

I still don’t know what to say. I can’t find any words for my defense.

Empyreal joins us, clinging to the wall for support as he presses the bandage Lily put on him to his chest. “He’s a hero.” He looks behind his shoulder and shakes his head at someone, but Gyrfalcon isn’t conscious.

“Heroes don’t-” He points at my mask. “Heroes don’t hide who they are.”

“This one does,” Snow Owl. “Stand down.”

Jettison looks at me, at Snow Owl, then Empyreal and Lily. He scowls and drops his hand.

I squeak out a “Thank you,” and stumble to the end of the alley. No one stops me.

I take another look at my handiwork, glancing at the blood puddle in the crater to make sure Sledge isn’t secretly regenerating. There’s nothing. Guess Sledge needs something I destroyed to regenerate. Probably a nerve ending or brain matter.

A small piece of metal in the stain catches my eye. I step into the crater and, gagging, grab at the little doohickey with my fingers.

An ear comm. How the hell did this survive? Lucky placement, I guess. I put it to my ear. “Hello?”

Nobody answers.

Hmm, better hold on to it, just in case.

I climb out of the crater. I’m getting weaker by the second. I have to go on. I have to link back up with the Underground, I have to find Maisa. No falling here.

I limp down the street, and despite my resolution to go on, I fall to my hands and knees. Fine, I’ll crawl. I’ll crawl as far as I have to.

Invisible tendrils wrap around my chest.

“Gabe!” Bedevil says, righting me with her telekinesis. She sets me against a wall, tucking us into another alley. “What happened? You’re bleeding!”

“You should see the other guy,” I manage with a chuckle. “They’re just blood.”

Honestly, I’m not happy about that fight. In a very weird way, I understand Sledge. They were like me, wanting to make the world better, even if the way they wanted to do that was fucked up.

Bedevil blinks. “Who?”

“Sledge,” I say. “They’re gone. For good.”

Bedevil’s eyes widen, her face twists into an ugly cry. She starts to tremble worse than a chihuahua. “Oh my God.” She hugs me. “Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God.” She falls into weepy mumbling.

“Did you run into them?” I ask.

Bedevil lets go of me. She nods, wipes her eyes. “I was with Jettison. Carapace, too.” She pauses and swallows. In a shaking voice, she says, “Lugs and Asperity.”

A chill runs down my spine. “Are they…” I can’t voice that.

“Lugs is alive, but Sledge took his arm.” Bedevil stops between each sentence as they get shorter and shorter, choked by tears. “Asperity. I tried. To save. Couldn’t. Gabe.” She starts to cry again. “I’m so sorry.”

I stand up, using the wall as a brace. Now, I’m no longer conflicted about that fight. I’m glad I killed the bastard. “Can you help me walk?”

Bedevil clears her throat. “Yes.” She presses tendrils against my back to support me, and wraps my arm around her shoulder.

“Do you know what’s going on at the warehouse?”

“Tim used his power,” Bedevil says.

“I know.”

“You were there?”

I nod. “For a little.” I just missed her. Can’t think about it now. Maybe Remise and Epione got her. I have to hope. “Here, if we go south to the railroad and Harrisburg, we can meet back up with the Underground. Then you can get back to OPI.”

“Gabe…” she says, softly, but trails off. She turns us south. “Your eye looks really bad.”

“It’s intact.”

“It might scar.”

The rain starts to pelt down a little harder, so Bedevil weaves an invisible umbrella above us. I can see the droplets hit the surface and roll off, falling to the ground a couple feet from me. “I think a scar would be kind of cool. Girls dig scars, right?”

Bedevil’s frown eases up, and the faintest smile graces her lips. “Yeah, they do.” Her hair is matted with rain, she has a black eye, blood all over her arms that I’m sure isn’t hers. Her costume is torn, and she’s a mess.

Wait. “Bedevs.”

“I told you not to call me that,” she says.

“I don’t smell alcohol.”

Bedevil stammers. She looks away. “I cleaned up a little before the mission, I try not to smell like alcohol when I’m on the job.”

“No. I’ve smelled you like that before.” The night we screwed and a few other times she came in after the job. Is that creepy? Whatever. “This is different.”

Bedevil is quiet as we limp a little further down the road. Finally, she says, “I haven’t had a drink since last night.”

“What?”

“What what? What else is there? I haven’t had a drink since last night, doofus,” she says.

“Why?”

“Because I don’t need their rehab, I’m strong enough to do it on my own,” Bedevil says.

I know that quitting on your own is a stupid idea. I try to be gentle as I can, and say, “Bedevs, that’s not…”

Bedevil stops walking and glares at me. “What, do you want me to go? After rehab, I won’t come back, they’ll shuffle me somewhere else, and you and I won’t…” She stops herself, shakes her head, and continues, “And I can’t help you if that happens.”

“It sounded like you didn’t have a choice,” I say.

“No, I have a three day grace period. If I stay sober that whole time, I can get the rehab waived.” A trickle of blood runs down her nose.

“Uh, Ruby, you’re bleeding,” I say.

Bedevil hisses and wipes her nose.

“Are you okay?”

“It’s nothing,” she says, staring at her fingers.

Behind us, to my horror, Krater shouts, “Hey!”

Bedevil turns around, I don’t. “Krater! What’s going on?”

“What’s going on? What’s going on? We got our asses stomped on! Who is that?” His voice is getting closer. Shit shit shit shit shit shit shit shit.

Okay, advantages, it’s very rainy, there’s two of us to one of him, I’m more mobile, disadvantages, I’m pretty injured, possibly burnt out on my power right now, and Bedevil’s nose bleed leads me to believe she’s not doing so hot either.

“He’s a civie, he got injured by that Sledge guy,” Bedevil says. “I’m helping him get back to his home.”

“Turn him around,” Krater says. “Let me see him.”

“What, why?” Bedevil sounds as indignant as she can.

“’Cause I see the mask, Bedevil, I know that ain’t just a civie! Show me who he is!” Krater shouts.

I turn around. No point hiding.

Krater stands alone in the road a hundred feet from us. Rain patters patches of stone across his skin. He stares at me, his eyes wide. “Home Run.” He takes a step forward.

Bedevil holds her hand out. “Don’t!”

“Fuck off,” Krater says, coming closer. “When I tell May about this, it’ll be better for you to choke in your sleep tonight.”

“Fuck you, asshole!” I shout, stepping forward. “What the fuck is wrong with you? She’s your teammate!”

“Seems to me like she’s yours,” Krater says, glaring at us both. He rolls his shoulder and starts a jog toward us.

“I said don’t!” Bedevil shouts.

Krater roars and drops to all fours, crushing the street under his bear crawl toward us. I can’t summon more than a drop of energy, Sledge wore me out. We’re gonna get ransacked.

He’s a second from mangling me alive when Bedevil holds both of her hands out. The umbrella protecting me from the rain disappears, and Krater lifts off the ground, splayed out crucifix style. Krater flails his massive limbs, trying to wrench free of her telekinetic grip. He screams, “Bedev-” before tendrils gag his mouth.

Bedevil’s nose erupts with blood, her body shakes, her fingers lock in and claw into her palm while her arm trembles under the strain.

Bedevil screams and hurls Krater into the sidewalk, shoving him through the pavement and into the sewers. She reaches a hand toward the warehouse next to us. The wall shakes and trembles, and pulls free of the building in huge chunks. Bedevil, with one last harrowing shriek, slams all that brick and metal into Krater and the sewer, crushing him there.

“Serves you right,” Bedevil says. She turns back to me, her mouth and cheeks drenched in her own blood. Her gaze seems to fall behind me, and she stands straight up as her jaw goes slack. She stumbles.

“Ruby!” I grab her shoulders and try to support her, but her entire body stiffens up, and she falls into me, rigid as a board. I don’t know what’s happening, but blood is pouring out of her nose. “Ruby! Talk to me!”

Bedevil convulses as I lay her on to the ground. Her body spasms, her eyes widen and dilate, blood pours out of her nose while her mouth foams from spittle. Her expressions contorts and her mouth opens in agony but she makes no sound beyond raspy breathing.

Seizure.

Fuck, I’ve got no clue what to do. Rain starts to pour on us. I put my body over her. Bedevil looks through me, pale as a sheet.

Wait, Flashfire had us take first aid lessons. You’re supposed to keep their head supported, so I put my hands behind her head. Keep the area around her clear. I’m doing the best I can by covering her from the rain and staying clear of her. Whisper comforting words.

“Ruby, it’s gonna be okay, I’m here. I’m here. I’m not leaving. I’ll be right by your side, the whole way. I promise. You’re gonna make it, and after this we’ll get you somewhere to sleep, and somewhere to eat.” I stroke her hair, I don’t know what else to do.

Bedevil stares up through me. Telekinetic tendrils lash against me with no warning, buckling my elbows. I turn on my power, but it’s weak protection at best. A nearby fire hydrant explodes upward. Windows shatter next to us. I cover her as best I can.

“There’s this place called the Rise n’ Shine,” I whisper to her. “The waitresses call you Puddin’ and skate around, and they have delicious pancakes, I’ll take you there, it’ll be great.”

A wave of invisible tendrils shove me from her, squirming all around me with no aim. She’s not in control of this. I push through her telekinesis. Another tendril smacks me in the face. One smashes into my shin. I fight back to covering her from the rain, and get my hands under her again.

More tendrils surround me, squeeze me. Too much. She’ll pulp me if this doesn’t subside, my power is gassed.

“Please, come back,” I whisper, not very comforting but sincere. “Please, don’t die.”

Bedevil’s body relaxes, her tendrils relent.

She gags, so I turn her to the side, and cover her from the rain while she vomits onto the sidewalk. Last part, after it subsides you’re supposed to stay still. Even with the rain pelting my back, I caress her shoulder, and whisper, “It’s okay. It’s okay.”

“Gabe,” Bedevil whines through her puke.

“It’s okay,” I whisper. “I’m sorry, I’m going to have to carry you.”

We’re only a block from the railroad, so I carry her there as quick as I can, and jump down from the bridge. I can hear distant gunfire still, so the police must be busy with the Sanctified Remnant.

I carry Bedevil down into the railroad. “Looks like you’re in this for the long haul.”

“Mhm,” Bedevil murmurs, though she sounds sleepy and far off. The first aid course said that seizures made people confused for a while. I wonder if she’s even aware that she had one.

Ahead of me, I see the other Underground members waiting near where we split off originally. Drone, Iso, and Remise confer quietly, but fall silent as they see me approaching with Bedevil in my arms. Behind them, Carapace holds the headless body of Asperity while Dustdevil weeps into her shoulder. Epione sits cross-legged by herself, staring at the ground.

Maisa is nowhere to be seen.

EPISODE TWENTY-NINE: EPIONE

DISCORD / NEWSLETTER

Dustdevil blasted the door of the high school open with her wind power. “Let’s go!”

“I still hear her,” Remise said. “Both of ‘em. Warspeed’s breathing bad, like she’s been hit.”

Epione listened to the discordant music and watched the dark colors bleeding from the left wing of the high school, leading her to Maisa. Remise dashed that way so fast Epione could barely keep up. Dustdevil had an easier time bouncing off her little gusts of wind, using those to launch forward. Her power was like a weaker version of the power Epione stole from Jettison.

Epione had to admit the thought tempted her, taking other people’s powers all the time. Using them, seeing what they did. After Remise’s power hurt her, though, Epione wasn’t quite as tempted as she used to be. When she had Remise’s power, it was like someone ran a sword through her brain.

“This way!” Remise said. “They’re just this way!” She drew her fencing saber and rushed down one of the hallways.

Epione rounded the corner right behind Dustdevil.

Maisa cowered under the gaze of Warspeed at the end of a long hallway wrapped by green lockers, her shoulder bleeding, midnight black despair spilling from her, coloring the air like dark food coloring in water. A bright shaft of hope bloomed and pierced the despair when she saw Remise running right at her.

“Let ‘er go!” Remise shouted.

Warspeed, to Epione’s shock, was dressed in Pandahead’s outfit. The woman raised her rifle to Remise.

Dustdevil shot a wind blast from her hand, ripping the gun out of Warspeed’s hands. Warspeed grabbed at Maisa, pulling her close.

Remise reeled her sword arm back, and flung her blade.

The saber took Warspeed right in the shoulder, shoving her away from Maisa before she could teleport them away. Maisa booked it toward Remise.

Epione still hadn’t made it to the end of the hallway, She felt so slow compared to the other two, and a little useless. She couldn’t do anything unless she touched Warspeed.

An inkling of green fury betrayed the Warspeed clone’s arrival, folding out of thin air between Remise and Maisa. Warspeed appeared gun already unloading its magazine. Remise dodged out of the barrage just a hair too late, and Epione winced as she heard bullet impact flesh. Dustdevil shot another wind blast, throwing the other bullets off their mark.

The second Warspeed warped to Maisa, folded up again, and then appeared by the first Warspeed, who was still impaled in the shoulder by Remise’s saber.

The new Warspeed pointed her gun at the wounded Warspeed’s chest. The wounded Warspeed screamed once before the sound of the assault rifle ripped through the school.

The second Warspeed pulled Maisa in close and they disappeared into thin air.

Epione arrived at the end of the hallway, cursing that she couldn’t have gotten there sooner.

“Damn it!” Remise shouted, struggling to her feet. She wasn’t bad, the bullet had only grazed her knee, and she could move her leg fine after she’d stood up. “Mil-dot, where did they go?”

Mil-dot spoke over the comms, “I don’t know. Did one of the clones shoot the other?”

“Yeah,” Dustdevil said. “Weird.”

“Pyre told us about that,” Epione said. “He said the clones would try to kill each other after a little.” No try about it, this Warspeed was dead, her chest caved in from the barrage of bullets the other unloaded on her.

Remise pulled her saber from the corpse’s shoulder. “Let’s link back up with Gabe. Where is he, Mil-dot?”

“I don’t know, I lost track of him. Last I saw he was headed back to you.”

“Gabe?” Remise said over the comm. “Are you there?”

The trio stood there, uncertainly waiting for his answer. Blackened fear spread from Dustdevil as she eyed the dark hallway of the high school.

“Are you afraid?” Epione asked. “I could make you not afraid.”

Dustdevil tilted her head. “No, it’s fine, don’t exert yourself. It’s a minor annoyance.”

A wave of black color filled the high school, washing over the three of them. The inky tide flowed from the northern part of the school, where Epione knew that warehouse waited. Pandahead had used his Thermos, and the power had just reached them.

Dustdevil shuddered. “Uh, maybe, actually, yeah.”

“No answer,” Remise said. “I don’t like this.”

“Me neither,” Epione said. “What’s going on at the warehouse, Mil-dot?”

Mil-dot’s voice wavered. “I… can’t look over there. I know what will happen if I do. It’s been going on for a while.”

“That means they aren’t winning,” Epione said. “Come on. I can help them fight it, and we’ll get out of here after that.”

Dustdevil looked uncertain. “You… you can fight whatever this feeling is?”

“Yeah, she’s great,” Remise said. “Now, quitcher bitching, and let’s go.” She cleaned her saber of Warspeed’s blood, and followed after Epione.

Epione led them to the cafeteria of the high school. The fold up tables were all stored to the sides of the eating area, and various kitchens that resembled cafes from across the world looked into the dining room from an elevated area three or four feet up. Huge windows revealed the high school pavilion, and beyond that, the warehouse.

Pandahead floated through the air, supported by shadowed limbs that spilled from the Thermos he carried. Shadows from the warehouse and from beneath him danced in unnatural patterns, dueling with four OPI heroes beneath him.

Krater screamed like he was terrified, but still fought with the Thermos’ tendrils. They pecked at him, turning his skin to rock, and slipped away from each attack. Almost as if they could choose when they were substantial and when they were mere shadow. The other heroes Epione did not recognize, save for the one in the red mask, Abyss.

Remise averted her eyes from Pandahead. Dustdevil didn’t catch the warning, and black vapors drifted from her eyes and mouth, through the massive windows, and beyond to Pandahead. With a tiny voice, trembling in terror, she asked, “What is this?”

Epione grabbed Dustdevil’s hand with her own, and stilled the fear the girl felt. The vapor stopped trailing away from Dustdevil’s mouth. “It’s okay. We can help them.” Epione offered her hand to Remise, too.

The three of them walked to the back door of the cafeteria, hand in hand.

The fight spilled into the high school yard. As they approached, Epione perceived the Thermos.

Beyond the Thermos, beyond what others could see, hear, or smell, Epione felt the hole within stretching deeper than there was depth in three dimensions, beyond the pale of the universe and into another place, a realm of colors echoing into an infinite rainbow mosaic.

Around the Thermos and Pandahead there gathered a shrouded mist of dark threads, woven around a vibrating, pulsing sphere, the edges of which were distorted and imprecise as if made of fuzz. Limbs and cavities surfaced on the sphere and sunk down again, called forth and destroyed by a tide of black ink. The sphere seemed to rotate in on itself, and Epione gleaned into that pocket that formed there.

She no longer stood in the cafeteria, though she felt Remise and Dustdevil holding her hands. Instead, she stood on the surface of the sphere, watching the form refract and swallow colors around it. The Thermos fed threads from Krater, Abyss, and the other two heroes.

But more than that, the Thermos fed dozens and dozens of thread from Pandahead. Where the others had black vapors, or little wisps of darkness, Pandahead was a furnace of smoke sinking into the sphere through the Thermos.

“Epione!” Remise shouted.

Epione opened her eyes.

Abyss raised a handgun and aimed it for Pandahead, firing once. The bullet took Pandahead right in the heart.

Remise gasped. “He-”

The Thermos exploded. The sphere on the other end inverted through the pinprick point between the two universes, riding along the smoke into Pandahead’s body. Pandahead screamed out, clawing at his helmet.

The limbs, tendrils, and shadows wrapped around Pandahead in a massive column of flesh woven from threads of darkness from the four heroes, Remise, and Dustdevil. Epione gasped as she saw threads trickle from her, too. The little negative emotions she’d kept: hunger, frustration, slight pain. All of it fuel to the fire of this monster. She felt sick to her stomach with just those few pithy feelings threaded from her, so how much worse did the others feel?

The column pulled apart and transformed into a gargantuan ink blot. Shapes of limbs appeared and disappeared out of thin air like Warspeed, puppeteered by the warping sphere inside the Thermos. Epione had once seen ferrofluid responding to a magnetic field in a chemistry class. The physical body swallowing Pandahead moved in response to the sphere’s vibrations in the same way.

The Ink Blot slammed a massive appendage into Krater. Krater caught the wrecking ball of shadow in his hands, and returned by smashing his fists through the ink, rupturing the entire limb up to the Blot’s main body. The Blot formed another in its place, this one in the shape of a human arm. The Blot swung this new arm at Krater, who caught it again. Stone spread from the impact site along the Blot’s arm.

Krater stepped back, his eyes wide. His own chest was covered in rock.

The Ink Blot crushed him underneath the stone arm, and the arm sloughed off the main body like the debris from Krater’s chest, crumbling into dust.

Abyss took off his mask, and a stream of nauseating black-purple color shot from his face into the Blot. The Blot grew with this color as the Sphere wove it into more physical mass. The Blot formed a human face within its form, and returned a hundred fold the beam that Abyss shot at it. The other two heroes it grabbed with dozens of tentacles, dragging them into its body as they kicked and screamed.

The Sphere resounded with a deep gong, and Remise and Dustdevil screamed out.

Remise covered her ears with her hands and screwed her eyes shut. “It hurts, what is that?”

“Keep holding my hand,” Epione said.

“It hurts, it hurts, it hurts, it hurts, oh God, it hurts.” Remise fell to nonsense babbling. Dustdevil shook, her whole body seized up.

Epione didn’t have time to ask them if they trusted her. They wouldn’t answer, anyway.

Epione squeezed their hands, and sealed their emotions away inside a gray rock, one for the each of them, making them like her, except for one thing: their need to see this mission through. Remise stopped babbling, and Dustdevil body eased up. They both looked to her.

“What do we do now?” Remise asked, her voice flat.

Epione nodded to the back door of the cafeteria, still locked shut. “Dustdevil, open the door.”

Dustdevil blasted the door open with her power, and they stepped out into the school yard.

The Ink Blot rolled forward to Downtown Houston, passing the edge of the high school yard. At the same instant, hundreds and hundreds of those black threads whipped from the south, weaving into the Ink Blot’s body. The Blot grew larger and larger, reverberating with the Sphere’s warbling. The sound was not a shriek or a roar: it was a ringing tone, tinnitus in the ear, buzzing in the bone.

Another group of heroes ran up to the Blot, joined by police officers. Epione recognized Trainwreck and Afterthought among their number. The officers unloaded their guns, Afterthought hefted his own rifle, and Trainwreck ran in for the kill.
The Blot exploded into hundreds of razor sharp wires that whipped through the heroes and police. Blood sprayed across the field, and in a flash, all those that crossed the field were either dead or mutilated beyond saving.

“Were you fast enough to see that, Remise?” Epione asked.

“I saw it all,” Remise said. Her accent was gone, thanks to Epione’s meddling.

Another storm of wires lashed from the Blot, dicing the bodies to tiny pieces, faster than Epione keep track of. The Ink Blot’s body undulated in rhythms she couldn’t pierce, fed the dark threads of fear from all that laid eyes on the Blot’s form too quickly for Epione to track them.

She sensed Tim Prince and a few others caught within the Ink Blot, struggling for air as they sank deeper into the Thermos’ influence. She sensed desperation, panic, and fear that fueled the Blot even more, providing material for it to grow faster.

Epione had to put an end to it now. She could see how this would end; this thing would devour the world if they didn’t catch it here and now. “Remise, I need your senses. Dustdevil, I need you to clear me a path.”

“The last time you used my senses, they hurt you,” Remise said.

“I know,” Epione said. Beneath her gray surface, she felt a twinge of something, a crack through the armor she put on years ago. From that crack a trickle of black fear dripped from her. Fear.

Closing the Thermos seemed like the only option. She felt where it was, still held in Pandahead’s frozen hands as he dangled inside the Blot. That was the portal between the two halves of the Fear, lying behind a field of razor threads and a massive, warping ball of ink.

To get close enough to close it, she needed Remise’s senses.

“Okay,” Remise said.

Epione took Remise’s power.

All of Downtown Houston folded into her, over mixing into her senses like bad pancake batter, like dry cookies, like every recipe she botched because the kitchen lights were too bright. Cars screamed all across the city like Mother screaming in her ear. Lightning arced into her retinas, thunder boomed into her bones, the fall of rain found her skin even a mile away. Epione became a collapsing star, everything burning and sinking inside.

Inside the Blot, she heard Tim Prince, fragile, a terrified child: “Help! Please!”

She opened her eyes and focused on the Fear, whipping its bladed wire threads all across the field painted in blood. Before she could not see them; now they moved like they were in molasses. “Dustdevil, now!”

Dustdevil shot a wind blast into the flurry of thread, and Epione took her chance. She ran into the wires. Tires squealed on 610, filling her nostrils with the smell of burning rubber, digging picks into her ears, squeezing her brain inside her head. The Blot’s tone picked at her seams and threatened to unravel her, but she pressed on.

She was scared she’d die without seeing Jason again. She was scared she’d fail and this thing would eat everyone alive. The terror came leaking out of her emotionless state, splashing out the fissure she left so she could feel the small emotions. A geyser of inky black shot from her into the air.

The Sphere beyond the Thermos seemed to spin toward her, even as she dashed through the bramble of deadly thread toward the Blot, to Pandahead.

A voice spoke directly into her head, past the ever-shrinking world that crushed her alive.

I SEEEEEEESSEEEEESEEEEESEEEEEEEEE

The noise shrieked all around her, wrapping her in agony. The Sphere released dark colors in a dazzling pattern. The colors wormed their way into her eyes, and beyond, into her armor. Anger, need, grief, jealousy, hunger, pain, sorrow, depression, fear, Fear, FEAR.

The negative emotions wrenched her armor open.

Jason, for Jason, for Jason, for Jason, find Jason, all she could think was that she loved Jason. If this monster was going to make her feel, she’d stoke the most powerful positive emotion she had into full fire to ward away the other things she felt.

Her own colors formed an aura around her, silver, pink, and white.

The wires recoiled from her aura, hissing like water in a hot pan.

The Blot rippled, and her Mother’s face formed in the shadow, screaming, “WORTHLESS WORTHLESS WORTHLESS WORTHLESS WORTHLESS WORTHLESS WORTHLESS WORTHLESS WORTHLESS WORTHLESS WORTHLESS”

Epione stepped into the Blot, climbing up limbs that burned when exposed to her pink-white light. The Fear used negative emotions to hurt her, to hurt everyone, and got stronger when those negative emotions fed back into its form. It seemed the inverse was true; her positive emotions hurt the Fear in return.

WORTHLESS WORTHLESS WORTHLESS, her mother’s voice right in her mind.

She ripped fibers of the Blot’s body free with her glowing hands, and dug Pandahead from the mass. He no longer had his helmet on, and tar dribbled down his chin. He screamed in pain, but still held the Thermos in his hands.

Epione took the cup from him, and crushed it, severing the link between the Fear and Tim.

The Blot shrieked and whirled around them, the heart of a black hurricane. Evil emotions arced like lightning, deep red with hate, with fury. Pandahead stared at her. “Oh, fuck.”

Epione could only watch as the Blot’s furious storm wrapped tightly around a single point above them, wound so tight she could only see a pinprick of pitch black against the bright Houston skyscrapers.

The pinprick exploded into a tube of threads that wormed into Tim Prince’s mouth. Tim fell onto his back, clawing at his mouth, and shouting, “No! No! NO!”

Epione leaned down to help him, but he scurried from her, got to his feet, and dashed toward the warehouses waiting at the opposite end of the field.

Epione’s pink light burned higher and higher, and the silver flame licked the sky. Epione gasped as those colors pulled free of her and flipped into the night to join the other stars.

Without that protective aura of positive emotion, her colors overcame her, washing her in rainbow patterns, covering everything she could see. The city pinched her tight with every sound, smell, sight, and sensation, and Epione cried out. The dark emotions the Fear imbued in her corded around her veins, splaying her arms like she was on a crucifix.

Epione couldn’t breathe as sickly yellow cowardice filled her lungs, she couldn’t see through the dark purple frustration pooling in her eyes.

She felt someone pick her up, and that was the last she felt that wasn’t the world ending all around her.

EPISODE TWENTY-EIGHT

DISCORD / NEWSLETTER

I jump into the alley, landing between Empyreal and Sledge. Sledge cracks a smile, Empyreal gasps at my arrival.

I don’t miss a beat. I warp right into Sledge’s personal space, and grab their chest to drain some heat back. I need to confirm that Sledge struggles to heal from my temperature based attacks.

Sledge’s chest ices over but their arms still move, whipping at me like a monster’s tail. Black horns grow along the skin, turning his arms into meaty flails. I dodge one but eat the other on my shoulder, and absorb the energy that I can. The horns don’t penetrate deep, stopped by my power, but they do manage to scratch the surface of my skin.

Sledge grimaces. Their chest thaws for a few seconds, and they snap a glare at me. “This won’t be a repeat of our last fight.”

I infuse myself with kinetic energy and dance in, jabbing at him. Sledge claws at me, mostly missing. Mostly. One of their strikes catches me on the back, ripping open my jacket and my back.

I put all of my heat inside into my hands, drawing from the air around me, and slash across Sledge’s arm and leg, ripping them clean off. Sledge falls back but catches themselves on their arm. They flip up, slapping me in the face with a kick.

I fall back into Empyreal. He steadies me.

“You… are Home Run…” he wheezes. His coughs blood into his hand, still clutching the open wound. “The… villain…” Empyreal stumbles and leans, about to fall forward.

“Hey, hey, dude, settle in.” I grab him, and sit him down next to Lily. “I got this.”

“He’s a monster,” Lily says, looking at Sledge. “I can sense his intent. He’s going to kill us all.”

I look her in the eyes. “No, he isn’t.”

“You’re wounded,” Lily says.

“I’m fine.” I smile beneath my mask. “I’m gonna hit him as hard as I can, and when you see an opening, you run for it.”

Empyreal points behind me, and with a weak voice, he says, “He’s up again.”

Sledge has reformed their body into a monstrosity. They stand at least a foot taller than they did before, their limbs dangle and whip across the ground, wicked talons curve from their hands and feet, and armored callouses cover their body.

Good grief. I stand, and face them. “Do all that for me?”

Sledge stares at me. “You’ve threatened everything.”

“You’re a vigilante, too.”

“I’ve always worked for the FIS, always to defend our country. I may not be on OPI rosters, but I am a hero and their ally,” Sledge says.

“You gonna prove that by killing OPI heroes?”

“These are children playing at being heroes. They do not guard the Hellpact, nor do they fight against OPI’s enemies. They dress up and patrol around like comic book characters.” Sledge spits. “Pageantry.”

A chill runs down my spine. I said the same thing to Krater.

I look back at the survivors. Not a one of them, save Lily, is in any condition to fight. Gyrfalcon is still unconscious. Snow Owl can barely string three words together, and Empyreal can’t even breathe right.

“I am sorry, but I must defend Tim. You all are in the way.”

“Why? Why not just get a new slaver?” I ask. Not that I want him to, but that seems preferable to fighting a losing battle. OPI’s already winning.

“Because you will not let me. You will hunt that one down, and the next, and the next, perpetuating your cycle of violence, because you can not stand a few suffering to save many from the same fate.”

“You shouldn’t stand any!”

“The world you want,” Sledge says. “The one where no one gets hurt, the one where no one suffers. It is noble, it is beautiful, it is brilliant.”

I can’t find the words to reply to him.

“It is impossible.” Sledge shakes their head. “I’m doing what I can to make the world we actually live in better.”

“Bullshit,” I say.

Sledge sighs. “You’ll settle for nothing less than perfection.”

“No, I will. But you’re just fucked in the head if you think this is anything close to good,” I say. “Replacing one slaver with another. We can do better than that. We have to.” If I stall long enough, back-up will arrive. More OPI heroes, or even the Underground. If it comes to blows before then, I could pull another Heatwave Home Run. There’s a metal bar in the dumpster by Sledge.

“A shame that we can’t agree, here. If there was some middle ground between us, I could compromise.”

“There isn’t a middle ground between what I want and what you want.”

“You don’t know what I want.” Sledge whips their arms back.

No more words. I warp over to the dumpster and grab the metal bar. I put as much of my heat as I can into it, and dash into Sledge’s guard, swinging as hard as I can.
Sledge opens their body up so my bat swipes right through. I hit the dumpster, crumpling it like a cardboard box. Sledge grabs the bat, claws my wrist, and pulls the pole free. They throw it down to the end of the alley. “As I said, this won’t go the same way.”

They explode into a flurry of limbs and claws, replenishing my stores of energy but also nicking me with a dozen cuts. Sledge rolls their body into a ball and shoots out a dozen arms, flopping over me and slicing through my defense in one quick spin.

I put my hands up for a guard, trying to fill my hands with heat. That’s the best chance I’ve got right now. I’m still waiting for Lily to find a good opening.

Sledge sees that I’m staring at the wounded behind him. They dash for the downed heroes, claws out.

Damn it! I jump up and kick off the warehouse wall using my power.

My power falters. I’m losing my grip. Like the fight with Trainwreck, I’m burning myself out again.

Doesn’t matter, I just need to hold Sledge off long enough for them to get help.

I wedge myself between Sledge and his prey with a weakened dash, and Sledge’s claws find a home in my shoulder instead. I shout, and see right before Sledge pulls me back that Lily is staring at me in horror, frozen in place. Empyreal’s fainted. Snow Owl can’t even open her eyes.

They aren’t going to get away.

My power is failing me. Sledge puts a beat down on me, dragging his claws deeper and deeper in to my skin. At first he was only leaving small abrasions, thin red lines, but now he’s cutting into me.

Sledge smashes me against the warehouse wall, and whips me across the alley into the apartment, crunching into the brick. Sledge slings me up and down into the pavement, and then rag-dolls me into the crumpled dumpster. I can’t hear anything, can barely feel, vision spins, everything spins, and my power won’t work.

I thought if I could just hold him off long enough, they’d get away, and maybe Home Run would go down in history as someone who saved people, not as a villain. Now we’ll all die, and none of it will matter. Maisa, Bedevil, the Underground, they’ll all wonder why I failed.

Head down, hands busy, no time to wonder if I have a soul or not. Yet, in this last moment, that’s all I can think about.

“You’ve got a heroic heart.” Sledge grips my throat and slams me into the brick wall. “I do admire that, dying for others.”

Dying. I came into this fight expecting to die. I go into every fight expecting to die. I fight with a sword hanging over my neck, a noose wrapped around my throat of my own making.

I’m defeating myself before I even begin. Bedevil’s voice in my head: “You’re holding yourself back.”

He clenches to crush my windpipe.

All those training exercises with Bedevil crushing me after I’d already lost my grip on my power were good for something after all. I’m not as strong as I should be, but I’m strong enough to stop Sledge from killing me. I absorb the pressure they’re putting on my neck, and channel it to my hands. I grab Sledge’s arm. “I’m done dying.”

I wrench Sledge’s wrist back with kinetic energy, snapping their elbow. I press my foot into their chest, brace myself against the bricks, and push the wall of muscle back for some breathing room.

From what I could tell, Sledge really does recover from temperature damage slower. They have perfect control over their own body, but that just means that healing is a function of their will, not an automatic response. I’m guessing that they have to use ambient temperature to change their own internal temperature. They’re probably really good at preventing environmental change in their temperature, but they couldn’t stop me from directly taking or adding heat.

If I fluctuate their core temp rapidly enough, I might be able to overload his ability to heal from the damage, the same way my own power got burned out from using it too much, too fast.

Sledge’s hands grow into black talons again. He claws at me. I dodge the first and eat the second along my back. The talons rip through my jacket, and tear through the skin on my back with cold fire.

I smash my fist into Sledge’s chest, holding the image of stopping all the molecules of air in my hand, flash-freezing Sledge’s skin. I follow up with my left, transferring as much heat as I can in one blow. Sledge’s skin thaws and sizzles, blackens to a crisp. Sledge screams.

“I call this one Freezer Burn, you Stretch Armstrong fuck!”

Bam! One fist hot, one fist cold. I shower Sledge with jabs alternating between freezing and superheated.

“How can I prove you wrong if I die here?” My freezing strike ices them over. Sledge has to thaw to move their limbs, so they can’t put up a good defense for my follow up punch. I jab with my superheated fist, pumping hundreds of degrees into their body. I didn’t have time to read my thermometer before this, but I’m guessing I’m fluctuating them between thousands of degrees. “How can I make a better world than this shitty one if I die?”

I see Bedevil’s ugly cry in my mind’s eye. Her hazel eyes brim with tears. She needs me to live.

Snow Owl, Empyreal, Lily, and Gyrfalcon are somewhere behind me, but they feel worlds away. Even so, they need me to live, too.

Maisa needs me to live.

Megajoule needs me to live.

I need me to live.

Sledge manages to catch my freezing fist before it hits their torso. Frostbite spreads up their arm to the shoulder. “The world you want is impossible.”

I grab his neck with both hands and pull him in. “Only because you’re in my way!” Tear it down, he told me. No more looking down into gutters, no more looking down at street pavements, no more at the bloodied floorboards of dark apartment hallways. “It can’t go on like this! The world needs better!”

Sledge tears into my side. Their claws dig deep into my muscle before I start absorbing the energy. I can’t even feel it.

I flip back, kicking him into the air with a kinetic strike, and land on my feet. Sledge crashes to the end of the alley. The burns on his skin heal far slower than they did before. I’m right. I’m overloading him.

Blood drips out of my jacket. Doesn’t matter.

I look back over my shoulder. Snow Owl’s staring at me, her eyes wide. Gyrfalcon’s still out, Empyreal slumps against the wall, holding his hand to the wound in his chest. Lily staunches the wound with part of her shirt.

“You’re…” Snow Owl trails off. “You’re bleeding.”

“I’m okay. You’ll be okay, I promise.” I turn back to Sledge, rising to his feet.

We charge at each other, screaming.

We meet in a flurry of claws, ice, and fire. He rips my jacket to shreds, cutting into the skin as much as he can before I stop him with my power. I smash him over and over. Again.

Again. I hear Bedevil cheering me on in my head. Again. Again.

Atta boy.

Hot fist, cold fist, hot, cold. Each time the burns and frozen parts of his body heal slower, each time I gain more ground. He can go toe to toe with me so I have to go farther. I let him claw into me as much as I can without him tearing something vital up.

Sledge rips through my mask with a claw, tearing through my left goggle. I can’t feel any pain, but blood covers my left eye. If I lost it, it’s fine. It’s fine. Keep going. No more holding myself back. The light roiling in my skin shines through my shredded jacket and mask, illuminating the alley.

Sledge digs claws into my chest, ripping the last shreds of my jacket free. Their eyes are frantic, wide, desperate. “You can’t-”

Bedevil: “I don’t want to hear the words ‘I can’t’ come out of your mouth.”

“Fuck you, I can, too!” I shout. No more time to waste, I’m losing too much blood. I shove my hands against his chest and drain all the heat I can from their body. I press forward, through the storm of talons and muscle. The ground cracks underneath my legs with each step.

I lift Sledge above me. He feels like an entire tower on my shoulders.

I scream out, and with every ounce of energy I’d held onto for just this, I hurl him into the pavement.

 

All the energy releases from Sledge’s body in a white hot explosion of superheated wind and kinetic energy. The street caves in, windows shatter, and buildings around us tremble. The block shakes, and the blast claps over the city so loud it buzzes in my bones.

A massive cloud of dust rises over the alley, parts like a curtain, and reveals the crater. I stumble toward it and look inside with my good eye, waving dust out of my face.

Sledge is an inert blood stain at the bottom of the rubble.

I don’t fall. I don’t kneel. I stand up and raise my head toward the sky, watching the plume of dust broken apart by the first droplets of rain, and lit from above by flashes of lightning, and from underneath by the light shining from my skin.

I throw my fists into the air, and I scream. Half in rage, half in triumph. Rage because the world needs to be changed, triumph because I am alive to change it.

For the first time, I feel all the pain from the fight. Agony courses through my veins, surging with the adrenaline of victory.

My lungs burn with my scream. My body shakes.

My heart beats in my chest, and throbs in my head.