Category Archives: Volume Four: The Point of the Knife

4.15.3

Tim Prince’s smile splits his face like a knife. He scratches at his beard, a bit overgrown since his incarceration. His eyes are dead and dark. “What makes you think that I have a power?”

“I was possessed by the Fear, too. The only way that’s possible is if you have an Affect for it to use. If you don’t have a bright Affect, then you’ll just be one of those puppets. That’s not what happened to you.” I’m sure no matter what his power is I could waltz in there and destroy him, but one, I don’t want to do that, and two, there’s a tiny primordial doubt that maybe I can’t.

Tim rubs his chin, trying to hide his smile. “I got lucky.”

“You’re lying. You lied back then when I asked you about your power, and you’re lying now.” I pet Isabelle for comfort, as if she’s come kind of holy bauble. “You had a power that the Fear wanted. You have to be Cruiserweight at the very least. But it would have been subtle. Something nobody noticed, not even your family.”

“Say I tell you what it is. What do I get out of it?”

“I’ll let you look at Isabelle a little longer instead of handing her to the guard.” I pet her again, just to let that point sink in.

Tim chews his lip. “Yeah, cool. Keep the dog here. Not like I have a choice, anyway, and I like you a lot more than I like that other guy. The fat one with the beard.”

“Archimedes?” I ask.

“Yeah, him,” Tim says.

“So what is it? Your power?”

Tim walks over to the panel window. He stares at me through it and presses his fingers against the glass. “If I could touch you, I could make you suffer.”

I hold Isabelle close to my chest, as if Tim will leap through that glass and try to use his power on her.

“I could also take your suffering away.” Tim pulls his hand away and drops it to his side. “I’m like your girl, Epione, just… smaller scope. I saw all that she could do that night in the Second Ward and I realized I was nowhere close to her.”

I thought Epione would be the only one of her kind, but why wouldn’t there be more? Emotions are the flames of our Affect. It shouldn’t surprise me anymore than there being more than one pyrokinetic or telekinetic. “You’re an empath.”

“Yeah, but only for one color. I can kinda sense the other ones, but it’s like everything is dim except for purple. Darker shades are pain and suffering.” He frowns. “Lighter shades… my sister was light purple a lot. Really she was bronze, like you, but purple was a big color for her. It is for you, too.”

There’s an actual hint of remorse on his face. I didn’t think he’d be like this. I took him for a sociopath… but now I have to wonder if that was the Fear. How much of his evil came from its corruption. “What’s light purple?”

“Compassion.” Tim sighs. “So yeah. I have a power.”

“Is that how you captured the Fear?” Epione could battle with it, and she destroyed the Thermos, which I doubt anyone else could have done.

“Yeah. Trapped it in a prison made of suffering. Kind of like burying it in its own food, I guess. I kept reweaving the prison with new pain, and that kept it down for a while. Until you raided Parlor, and I lost my fuel source. I tried to keep it up with that kid Maisa, but one person wasn’t enough.”

The truth relaxes me. I ease up on petting Isabelle, though she whines for my attention. He might be able to make me feel like I’m in pain, but he can’t bust out of those walls. I suspect that he’s able to project his Affect around like Epione, but I’m not going to say that. I don’t want to isolate him and I can talk to Epione about it.

“You got something on your mind,” Tim says.

“I do. The Fear told me that it created more of itself in the battle for Buenos Aires. You spent a long time with Rorschach.”

Tim retreats from the window. “Yeah, I did. I don’t really know how it grows or makes babies or whatever. I just know that it ate pain. I know that it killed my sister.”

“Then tell me everything you know about it. Doesn’t matter how little,” I say. “I’m going to kill every last one of its kind before it kills us. I promise.”

Tim sits down on the bed again. “Yeah, yeah, the hero routine. But why do you want to work with me, anyway? You hate me. I’m giving you pain just by being here.”

I had a feeling he’d want to address the elephant in the room. “You’re neutralized. You’re not a threat anymore. Make no mistake, I would set this puppy down and smash through that glass the instant I thought you might be again.”

Tim pales. He stuffs whatever banter he had planned.

“You were a coward and people suffered for it.” I set Isabelle down and let her run around the room, yipping like nothing is wrong. “Don’t mistake me for your friend. I’ll be polite but that’s the extent of any grace you’ll get from me.”

“Yeah,” Tim says at last. “Got it.”

“You said you don’t know how it reproduces. Not a single idea, even with all the stuff it showed you?” I ask.

“How do you know what it showed me?”

“It showed me, too. I figure if we put our heads together as former hosts, we can get somewhere.”

Tim considers that. He rubs his chin again, and says, “I dunno if that’s something we can figure out in one night.”

“I know. I want to bring Epione tomorrow,” I say. “Think over it.”

Tim nods. “Sure.”

I stand up, and strangely, give him a bit of a nod myself. He doesn’t really deserve my respect, not after everything he’s done out of cowardice, but I know what it’s like to be corrupted by that monster. He didn’t have to say a damn thing to me.  “Thanks, Tim.”

“Just be sure to bring the dog next time,” he says, as I leave him be.

I don’t return to my apartment right away. Instead, I find myself knocking at Epione, Remise, and Echo’s apartment.

Epione answers the door. She smiles, as usual, but there’s more emotion behind it. More genuine meaning. “Hello, Gabe. You brought your dog! I thought you’d be asleep by now.”

“I couldn’t… I went to talk to Tim.”

Epione nods, but she doesn’t stop smiling. “Come in, then.”

Remise and Echo are playing games together in their living room. Their apartment doesn’t overlook the sea, like mine, but has a wonderful view of downtown Buenos Aires. Despite the destruction, some of the buildings still have their lights on. It’s another hopeful sign to me. People get on with their lives.

The same thought hits me as Remise grins at me. “Oi, Gabe!”

“Reminds me of old times,” I say. I set Isabelle down so she can explore the apartment, which she does with a gusto. “Reminds me of Drone.”

Remise’s grin dies out. “Yeah. I regret not playing with her more. I just always seemed to win.” This is the closest I’ve ever seen Remise to crying, I think. She purses her lips and stares at the floor. “I just thought it wasn’t fun for her to lose all the time.”

Echo grabs Remise’s hand. “She loved all of you. She didn’t feel that you neglected her. I talked with her a lot while she was at the hostel.”

I can’t forget the day I found out. I can’t forget that I wasn’t there to help her. I know it wasn’t my fault, but it’s painful for me to imagine her out of her element, dying in those woods. I’m glad I don’t know the specifics. It would haunt me.

“She was my work wife,” I say. “I’m going to find a way to honor her. Mil-dot, Vaquero, and Asperity, too. The Bay Biters. They all lost their lives doing the right thing, and they deserve to be honored for it.”

I’ve been thinking about the best way to do that, but I’m not sure. If they ask me to speak at a public event, maybe.

For now, I change the topic. “Did you know that Tim had a power?”

Epione’s smile vanishes. “I suspected. Once I knew more about the Fear.”

“He agreed to tell me what he knows. Maybe we can create profile for hosts and start looking for new entities.” They’re out there, somewhere. The Fear made more of itself. “Something that’s more immediate, though. Do you know what his power is?”

“Oh, shit, now I want to know,” Remise says. She leans into Echo. They both look tantalized.

“He’s like me,” Epione said. “Right?”

“How did you know?” I ask.

“I’ve felt someone like me close by since we moved in. Like an echo, I suppose. Someone else who can bend the Affect. He’s weaker, though.”

I whistle at Isabelle, who is trying to teeth on their couch. “He said he can only use one color. Purple. Suffering, but compassion, too.”

“You’re saying he’s an empath, but just for one emotion,” Remise says. “Wild.”

“Yeah. Makes sense, though. Bedevil’s not the only telekinetic in the world. She just happens to be the best,” I say.

Echo drapes her leg across Remise’s lap. The one that used to be broken, I notice. There’s a thin white scar along her ankle. She purrs, and says, “You would say that, Gabe. My Remise here, she’s the fastest person in the world.”

I chuckle. “Sure, sure. But I don’t know a lot of telekinetics that could put Krater down for a ten count.”

“She’s gonna be on your new team, right? The new Underground or whatever?” Remise asks.

That’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot, actually. If Argentina lets Archimedes and Oracle start up a new cape org, then they’ll want me as the face. They’ll want me to lead a team. They’ll want something symbolic.

“The Inheritors,” I say at last. “We’re going to start up the Inheritors again. Bedevil is going to be on the table with Archimedes, so she can’t be on the team, really. She already said she wanted to learn how to lead, but I’m going to see if she’ll lead us.”

“The Inheritors.” Remise whistles. “You gonna take his slogan, too?”

“Nah,” I say. “They’re good words, but they’re not for that.”

“Well, you have to have good words,” Echo says.

“And a new cape name,” Epione says from behind me. “I have a lot of recommendations. Mostly from Greek myth.”

I laugh and get my back to a wall so I don’t feel so surrounded. “One thing at a time. My first question was to ask you if you wanted to be on the team. Remise and Epione, I mean. No offense, Echo.”

Echo bares her fangs at me. I get a spooky flashback to Carnality, but she turns her snarl into a grin. “It’s fine. I’m not interested in being a big name cape, anyway. I’d rather work on the street level. I was actually thinking of joining Saw Off’s new team—”

“Oh, you are absolutely not gonna do that,” Remise says.

“Why not?” Echo whines and pouts, and slaps her leg on Remise’s lap. “I’ll be good, I promise!”

“Mhm,” Remise says. “You’ll be good by not joining up with Saw Off.”

“Well?” I ask. “Are you two in? Epione, you can steal any power we come up against, and Remise, if you get outfitted with good gear from Archimedes, you could go toe to toe with almost anyone out there.”

“I don’t need gear,” Remise says. “I just need a good sword.”

“Sure, but when someone slams you with super strength that can shatter steel, you’ll want a little more than a sword.”

Remise frowns. She crosses her arms and turns her nose up at me. “Won’t hit me. But aye, I’m for you, Gabe. Always wanted to be an official cape. Almost was once, and this is as good a second chance as I’ll get.”

“And I’ve got more tricks up my sleeve than just borrowing powers.” Epione beckons me to her room. “In fact, I want to show you something, Gabe.”

Well, that’s not ominous. I take a last look at Isabelle, gnawing on their coffee table, and chuckle. I follow Epione.

Once the door is closed, I say, “I heard about you and Flashfire.”

“Yes,” Epione says. Her voice tightens. This Epione is more emotional, more expressive than she used to be. She still does things that are off-kilter, like tapping wood and other little things I’ve come to understand as tics to her autism. Despite that, she seems more open.

“I’m sorry.”

“It was my call. I’ve tried, but I wasn’t able to rekindle it. It’s somewhat like… a bald spot on my Affect. I’m not even able to get more love for him if I tried.” She wipes her eyes. “It sucks, Gabe. I took off my armor and the first feelings I get are sorrow and regret. I feel all these things about him but love, and it’s terrible. I’m jealous of you and Bedevil, of Remise and Echo, and I can’t do anything about it.”

“I’m…” I shut my mouth. I don’t have any words for her. Just like I didn’t have any for Flashfire.

“I’m seething when I see him with Saw Off. I’m hurt just to look at his face. But if I even try to imagine myself with him—” She shudders. Tears dance down her cheeks. It’s like seeing a miracle. “—there’s nothing. There’s nothing there but an empty hole.”

“If it makes you feel any better, I doubt he’ll do anything with Saw Off,” I say. “I can help you with a dating profile, I guess?”

Epione scoffs. “I don’t think that’s for me, Gabe. I don’t know if I can love someone that way at all, anymore.”

I frown. “Either way, I’m here to help.”

“I’m here to help,” Epione parrots. “That should be your slogan.”

That tickles me a bit. The words remind me of the epitaph over the doors to Foundation. Look for the helpers.

“Here’s what I wanted to show you,” Epione says. She grabs my hand and produces a small ruby ring. “A while ago, you asked me if it was possible to put emotions into objects instead of projecting them or holding onto them. You asked me if I could store Affect inside an object, though you didn’t know that’s what you were asking. Tim’s Thermos made me suspect that I could.”

The ring, for some reason, makes my blood run cold. It feels heavier than it should be. “What did you put in it?”

“Carnality,” Epione says. “This is Carnality’s power.”

I gasp and almost drop the ring, but steady myself. “You put her Affect in the ring?”

“I had the idea that if I do become a cape, this will elevate me beyond just being able to fight the Fear. I’ll be able to keep up with everyone. My idea is that if we were to capture cloaks or criminals, and they were sentenced to something like life imprisonment or death by a court, then I could take their powers and use them.” Epione smiles. This time it is chilling.

I can’t fault her, though. This is inspired. I return the ring to her hand. “Would this work on Nero? Cynic?”

“Cynic, yes, but I already asked Archimedes, and he would not allow it. Not before her trial, anyway. He doesn’t think anyone should have Cynic’s power.”

I shrug. “It would be really useful.”

“It might also turn us into her, too. I won’t use Carnality’s power if I don’t have to. I already held onto it for a long time, and sometimes I remember things that she experienced.” Epione grimaces, recalling some unpleasant thought. “Nero, I don’t know. I figured his power out, though. He hasn’t had a real body since he died the first time. Every body he’s made since then is a simulacrum. His real form is just his Affect. I suspect that I might be able to contain him inside an object, like Tim did with the Fear.”

I quote Remise from earlier. “Wild. Now we just need to find Nero.”

“No easy task. Remise and I have both looked for him. I think he’s left town.”

“Yeah, I’ve searched, too.” I don’t like it, not one bit, but until he shows his face I can’t do anything about it. “Mr. Gold arrived, right? Maybe he can help.”

“Maybe.” Epione closes the ring with Carnality’s power inside a lock-box, and hides that inside her closet. “No one else can use that besides me, but it’s better to be safe.”

My phone buzzes. Bedevil sent me a pic of her frowning in bed alone.

“Duty calls,” I say. “I can practice my line on her, too.”

“What line is that?” Epione asks.

“I’m here to help.”

4.15.2

“Surprise!”

My apartment is filled with people: Bedevil front and center; Maisa, Remise, Echo, Epione, Lugs, Krater, Oracle, Linear, and Archimedes. They grin at me, and Remise holds out one of those confetti popper things. Glitter and paper drifts over the coffee table, landing on an assortment of presents.

Pawpaw bounds toward me from their feet, trailed by Bedevil’s five cats. All of her animals are back with us, safe and sound.

“Pawpaw!” I shout, and drop to my knees to meet him.

I am nearly buried in floof as Pawpaw jumps up and slams his paws into my stomach. He whines, wags his tail so hard it might fall off, and tries to lick my face.

Only then do I notice the balloons, the confetti sinking through the air after someone shot it off, and the huge banner that says, “Happy Birthday, Gabe!”

“You threw me a surprise party? This is what Saw Off couldn’t shut up about?”

“It’s a testimony to the density of your skull that Saw Off didn’t spoil the surprise,” Archimedes says. “Also, I didn’t get you anything.”

“But, I don’t even know when my birthday is.” I manage to wrestle free of Pawpaw’s affection, but I don’t stop petting him as I stand up. “The date on my license isn’t real.”

“I know the date of your creation,” Linear says. “The files from Cynic that I thought were purged has the dates of all the clones’ birthdays.”

I stop scratching Pawpaw’s head, unable to voice what I’m feeling. It’s a strange cocktail; gratitude, joy, pain, regret, and love, mostly love. Love for the woman coming up to me, her golden hair tied in a pony tail, her hazel eyes crinkled in joy. “Happy birthday. I love you.” She offers up a small white box tied up by a red ribbon.

I smile at her and open the box.

Inside is a bag of dog treats and a small card. I eye her suspiciously. “Is it Pawpaw’s birthday or mine?”

Bedevil snickers. “I thought you’d want to treat him. But the card, read it later, okay?”

“Okay.” I close the box. I drink in the sight of my friends. Remise and Epione sit together on one of our couches, and Linear, Oracle, and Archimedes sit across from them on the other. Krater stands — stooping so as not to bump his head on the ceiling — by the dining table with Lugs. The balcony doors are open, letting in the soft whisper of waves lapping on the shore. We are bathed in warm, yellow light from Foundation’s lighting.

“Open your presents!” Saw Off demands. She slices her hand through the air in a demanding gesture, pointing to the handful of gifts on the coffee table.

“Wait, what about the cupcakes?” Archimedes asks. “I think we should eat first.”

I chuckle, but Bedevil squeezes my hand. “It’s his birthday. What do you want to do first?”

Honestly, I’m starving from my long day of work. “I never thought I’d agree with Arch, but yeah, I’m hungry.”

Bedevil gets flustered by my request. “Okay, but they’re just cupcakes, they won’t fill you up. We can get food first if you really want.”

“Is there a problem with the cupcakes?” I ask.

“She made them!” Epione says. “Well, I helped. But mostly she made them. It was her idea to make you cupcakes.”

Bedevil is still flustered and trying to hide her face. “Okay, okay. If you don’t like them, it’s okay.” She trudges over to the kitchen like a soldier to her duty, and brings back a tray of cupcakes.

The cupcakes have white icing tinged with red or blue swirls. Captain Crunch cereal tops each cupcake. Bedevil blushes and almost refuses to bring the cupcakes to me. “I… You don’t have to like them, okay?”

I laugh and laugh, which flusters Bedevil. She tries to retreat to the kitchen, but I run over to her, and grab one of the cupcakes. I take a huge bite before she can pull it away from me. It’s delicious. “This is great!”

Bedevil sighs in relief. “You’re sure?”

“Just bring the damn things over here!” Archimedes says. “Or else our tutoring is off!”

Bedevil relents and the party enjoys her cupcakes while I look through the presents everyone got me. To be honest, I’m mostly just happy because I’ve never gotten a real birthday party before. I never told anyone the date on my license so they wouldn’t try to make up a fake one, and Doc never… Doc didn’t want to tell me the date of my cloning. Guess it was too painful for him.

Krater got me some cologne. “It’s actually from a brand I sponsor,” he tells me. “I didn’t know they stocked it this far south but I was damn happy to see it!”

It smells pungent, but I thank him and move on to the next one.

Saw Off got me a little toy grenade that clips onto a key chain. “They wouldn’t let me get you a real one,” she explains.

Flashfire got me a blank military dog tag. “You’re my brother, so I thought it was good.”

“But why is it blank?” I ask.

He shakes his head and tells me to move onto the next one.

There’s one addressed from Oracle, Linear, and Archimedes, though his name looks hastily added, and in the same handwriting as Oracle’s. I purse my lips at her and then chuckle, and she chuckles with me.

They got me a dog collar.

“Okay, I feel like we should just have a birthday for Pawpaw,” I say.

“Keep going!” Epione says.

The next present is from Remise, Echo, and Epione. A dog bed. One that is way too small for Pawpaw.

And the pieces start to come together.

I am sure I look like a wide-eyed dope. Bedevil looks smugger than she’s ever looked.

“Where?” I ask.

“In our bedroom. Be sweet, she doesn’t know who you—”

I jump out of my seat and run to our bedroom.

On our bed there is a tiny, squeaky, yellow Shih Tzu. She barks at me as I approach, kneeling at the edge of the bed, and sticks her tail into the air. She cowers from me at first until Bedevil brings me the dog treats. I tease her over with the treats and hold her close to my chest while she eats. She yips and whines, and licks at my face. I’ve never had a dog of my own. “What’s her name?”

“Whatever you want it to be,” Bedevil says. She offers me the card, and I open it. Adoption papers for the dog, plus a handwritten note from Bedevil herself.

I thought that you had so much love to give, you could spare a little more for another.

I love you to the stars.

Ruby.

My throat catches. I am overwhelmed by all of this. “I love you, too.”

Bedevil runs her good hand through my hair. She kisses me and then smiles at the puppy trying to worm its way between our lips. “So, what are you naming her?”

“Hmmm.” I heft the puppy in my hands and look her in the eyes. She whines. “Isabelle.”

“Why Isabelle?”

I shrug. “She looks like a little bell. So, she Isabelle.”

Bedevil snorts and laughs. “I hate you.”

“Hey, quit making out!” Saw Off shouts. “And get back in here!”

I bring Isabelle out for everyone to meet. The smug bastards all grin at me. They knew. I grin back and hold Isabelle close to my chest, and enjoy the party.

Hours later, after we’ve all shot the shit, traded stories of the last month, and eaten all of Bedevil’s cupcakes, there’s a knock on the door. Bedevil checks it and finds Longinus and Templar standing outside. Templar holds a box of dog treats in her hands. “I got the memo a little late, sorry.”

Longinus carries a bottle of wine with him, and smiles sadly as he enters behind Templar. “I’m sorry that I couldn’t get you anything on such short notice…” He trails off. “Is that… a puppy?”

He sets the bottle of wine down on the kitchen. Bedevil frowns and swerves away from it. She stands behind me and grips my shoulder. I kiss her hand. It’s tough, even still. Addiction… you never stop wanting it. They say it’s a matter of when, not if, you relapse.

I try to make it easier on her. She sits next to me and pets Isabelle, but she stares off into the distance.

“Would anyone like wine?” Longinus asks. “Gabe?”

“Oh, no thank you. I don’t drink,” I tell him.

Bedevil frowns at me. “Since when?” she asks.

“Probably about four months now.” I lock eyes with her.

She understands that as long as she doesn’t drink, I won’t either. Her eyes glisten.

She lays her head against my shoulder while we spend the rest of the night in good company. I am content to watch my friends drink and laugh, and play with Isabelle and Pawpaw, and the cats. I am content to feel the weight of Bedevil against me and feel her humming. My thermal sense maps out her heat for me, shows me her heartbeat rising and her blood racing as she runs her fingers on my chest.

I am happy to see Maisa laughing with Echo and Remise, saddened to see the discontent between Epione and Flashfire, amused to see Saw Off trying to flirt with Krater. Hopeful at Longinus chatting with Templar.

I sigh and smile, and nuzzle into Bedevil’s golden hair.

Later that evening, the party wraps up. Bedevil’s cupcakes are gone, my friends leave aside from Bedevil and Maisa. Bedevil cleans up in the kitchen, while Maisa and I play with Isabelle. The little puppy pounces around the couch and tries to get Pawpaw to play. The old dog does his best but all he can do is lumber after her as she charges around our apartment.

It’s not a bad place. The late night sea breeze is cool and carries a pleasant scent with it. The size is enormous for an apartment. It reminds me of the one Bedevil lived in back in Houston. There are two bedrooms, one for us and one for Maisa. The couches are spacious, wide enough for four people each to sit comfortably. The coffee table is made of mahogany and polished glass. I’m told this room used to belong to one of the former Foundation capes. When Foundation became OPI, they stopped using the HQ and they offered the room up as a special reservation for tourists.

I’m not complaining. I’ve got to live here, now. I only wish Doc could see the opulence. He probably would have flipped out at me.

“She’s rambunctious,” Maisa says, watching Isabelle dart around the room.

“Yeah.” I grin at the puppy. “When did you pull this off?”

“I got her today,” Maisa says. “Bedevil and I picked her out a week ago, though, and we already filled the forms for you. You just need to sign it.”

“And your lessons with Arch?” I ask Bedevil.

“Today I baked you cupcakes and helped set up the apartment,” Bedevil says. “Archimedes made an exception for today.”

I smile at her. “Thank you. Thank you both. This was really special for me.”

We clean up for the night, and while Bedevil showers, I sit in bed and play with Isabelle. I’m trying to get my mind off tomorrow, and the party helped with that for a while. Now that I’m headed for sleep, though, my mind is a jumble. What am I going to say to the court?

I haven’t really thought about it. I’ve kept myself busy helping the city.

Bedevil returns from her shower, towel wrapped around her. “She’s so cute.”

“Why a Shih Tzu, though?” I ask.

“You’re a sucker for cute things,” Bedevil says. She crawls onto the bed and kisses me, and cuddles into my chest. Isabelle plays with her good hand, still not tuckered out just yet.

“You got me there,” I say, and kiss her back, and take Isabelle outside to put her down for the night.

Bedevil and I celebrate my birthday the best way a young couple in love can.

She falls asleep against me, naked, her body vibrating with energy. I stroke her hair until I am certain she’s out. And I sit there for a while longer, breathing her in.

I hear scratching at my door and find Isabelle whining, wanting to be let in.

“You have a dog bed, don’t you?” I ask.

Isabelle whines at me.

“Hmm.” Bedevil also happened to buy a leash, so I clip that onto Isabelle’s collar. I pick her up and carry her to the balcony, where I fly down to the shore that the HQ overlooks. Sure enough, Isabelle does her business, and buries it in sand.

I take her back to the HQ and decide to walk her around the halls. She bounces happily, still not tired. Her claws make a pitter-patter on the tiles as she leads the way back to the lobby.

The grand entry of Foundation is eerie this late at night. There’s no one but a single clerk at the desks, staring at his computer with a frown, and he ignores me. The fountain babbles, the lone voice within the lobby, and Isabelle charges for it until she meets the end of her leash. I follow her there, amused by her limitless energy.

Guess she really is the dog for me.

I sit down on the tile and hold Isabelle over the fountain water. She yips and whines, and her legs start paddling.

I glance at one of the halls. I tell myself I don’t want to go down there, that I should wait until tomorrow to see her.

Then, something else occurs to me. I pick Isabelle up and carry her into the hall, past the sign that says CONTAINMENT. I march down the hall until I make it to an elevator, where I swipe my keycard. The elevator doors open, I step inside, and punch the button for B-3. The elevator lurches.

Isabelle whines in my arms.

I shush her and whisper into her ear. “It’s okay, Izzie, it’s okay.”

Yet, I agree with her. I don’t like where I am going.

The elevator opens on a more spartan hall than all the others, and I walk past doors with dark windows. Each one of these is a cell meant to hold Heavyweight people. Guards wander the hall, Argentinian soldiers now instead of the OPI capes that were stalking the prison the first day we arrived.

I find the one door with the light on in this level. A guard stands by.

“Uh, are you sure you want to bring that dog in?” he asks me.

I nod. “It’ll help open him up, I think.”

“Nothing’s opened him up,” the guard replies. “Archimedes came down here yesterday. I could hear him from outside.”

“Archimedes won’t get anywhere by yelling at him.” I enter the room.

There’s a single chair facing a huge panel window that is currently dark. I sit in that chair and tap the button that will wake Tim Prince up from his slumber.

His room lights up, and I find that he is currently awake, sitting on his bed. There’s not much in there with him, just a bed, a table that is bolted to the wall and a chair bolted to the table, and a toilet. His gaze falls on me and his blank face lights up.

“Nice dog,” Tim says. “Real cutie.”

“Thanks. I just got her.”

“You come down here just to show her off?” he asks.

I shake my head. “No. I came down here to talk to you. There’s something I’ve wanted to know, since I got free of the Fear.”

“What is it?” Tim asks, his eyebrows raised in curiosity.

“You have a power, don’t you?”

In answer, Tim grins at me, and I’m reminded of a tiger snarling from its cage in a zoo.

 

4.15.1

ARC 15: NEW FOUNDATION

A month goes by like the snap of a finger.

At dawn, Bedevil and I walk hand in hand — okay, if I’m being honest, it’s more like I’m dragging her by the hand — into the relief crew tent, as we have every day for the last month. Even this early, workers swarm the tent, waiting for orders and supplies.

Mago, the Argentinian cape in charge of the relief efforts, works at a temporary desk alongside a few other clerks. He’s performed a miracle coordinating the repair and rescue efforts of Buenos Aires. While he’s a stick-thin man, he gives me the impression of an unshakable tower. Unlike most capes, he’s just dressed in a work outfit with large overalls, and he has a bushy beard and long, unkempt hair.

Mago greets me with a big smile that splits his beard, and in Spanish, he says, “If it isn’t the lovebirds! Same time as always.”

“The butt crack of dawn, just like I like it. We’ll probably need an IV of coffee for her.” I pat Bedevil’s head.

Bedevil grumbles at me. “Up too late.”

“Nobody’s fault but yours,” I reply in English. “Besides, I told you to sleep in.”

“Nuuuuhhhh.” Bedevil stuffs her face into my chest and clings to my arm. “Nuuuuhhh.”

I laugh and switch back to Spanish for Mago’s sake. “Coffee?”

“We’ve got a pot brewing,” he says. “While I’ve got you, here’s where we could use your help today.”

Mago tells me where he needs us most while Bedevil gets some coffee. She drinks it with a sour face and even though I’m supposed to be listening to Mago, I can’t help but stare at her. I drink her in; her golden hair and eyes, her sleepy pout at the coffee, and the way she sticks her tongue out at me when she notices me watching.

Fireworks explode inside my chest. I am wild for her.

“Oi, lovebird, you gonna join me anytime soon?” Mago asks.

I chuckle and listen in.

The work is not easy, and we’ve been at it for weeks. I’ve tried to go where I’m needed most; clearing rubble and hauling heavy things around. Bedevil and I work together for the most part, since her telekinesis makes her incredible at construction and cleaning debris.

We take vans out to the disaster sites. We crowd shoulder to shoulder inside. While we ride out, I stare out the window at the scars the Fear left on the city. Huge craters, collapsed buildings, and broken roads. There are still bodies lying around in places. Even though it didn’t destroy the city, the Fear made good on its promise to break the foundation of the world.

Yet, in that destruction, the people of Buenos Aires work day and night to rebuild. The buildings they replace, the roads they repair. The craters they fill with dirt, cement, and rebar skeletons to provide a solid foundation again. From the window of the van I see them smiling and laughing as they work. I smile at their resilience. This is a good city.

Our van pulls up to the site we’re working on, the ruins of one of the collapsed skyscrapers and some of the buildings it crushed. The damage sprawls for nearly a block.

Bedevil stares at the wreckage and frowns. “There’s still so much left to be done.”

“Do you think this counts as me lifting a building like Megajoule?” I ask. “I mean, you’re here, too. It’s technically a whole building at this point.”

Bedevil snorts. “You’re a turd.”

“We’ve reached the phase of our relationship where you’re calling me a turd.” I wrap my arm around her and hold her close, and gesture grandly. “It’s a new stage of us.”

Bedevil sticks her tongue out at me, again. But once she’s done, I can see her smile wistfully. She rubs her left ring finger with her thumb. I know what she’s thinking about. A certain paper that got burnt up in Oracle’s old home, where she’d written her name and mine together over and over again.

A new stage of us. I’ve thought about it, too.

I’ll have to bite my lip a little bit longer. Not until after we’ve settled everything with Cynic and Lucio Genz.

The one big thing I’ve worried about is Nero. No one found him after the fight with the Fear, and Cynic has no idea where he is. He just up and disappeared. I’ve spent a few evenings scanning the city with Remise, but we’ve not been able to find him at all. Linear’s watched cameras but the city’s CCTV is in chaos from the destruction.

I’ll find him and I’ll kill him, though.

I use my power to keep the workers cool and to lift the things they can’t lift. Chunks of stone that each weigh more than a ton are no hurdle for me anymore, so I haul them over to piles for trash compactors or Krater to take care of later.

At around noon, we take a lunch break. The crews are provided with boxed rations which are mostly sandwiches and fruit, and I’m not gonna complain about free food. At the start of the clean-up, the other workers didn’t want to sit near me much less look at me. I think they thought I was a god.

Now?

“Ey, Gabe, did you get an apple? I’ve got some grapes, do you want to trade?” a worker named Lucas asks me.

“Fuck your grapes,” I answer, but I offer him a slice of my apple anyway.

I listen to their stories. Lucas is a shop clerk with a two year old daughter. He hasn’t found his wife since the attack, and the longer the time goes on, the more the spark in his eyes die. I don’t want to lie to him but I don’t want him to give up hope. So, I told him I’d look for her when I could.

Mattie, as he wants me to call him instead of Mateo, is the eldest son of two sixty-somethings that own a mechanic shop on the southern outskirts of Buenos Aires. They were spared from most of the trouble, and so he’s been using his spare time to volunteer.

A twenty year old girl named Alma that kind of reminds me of Saw Off asks me about Houston, and tells me that she’s dreamed of visiting the U.S. I tell her about Houston but I try not to tell her that with the U.S. closing its borders, she might not get the chance to go.

Isabelle is looking for her dog, and his description reminds me of Pawpaw. I promise to help look for him. Lorenzo has had trouble affording food so I give him my sandwich.

I start to feel a bit like the Giving Tree, but they all want to talk to me, too, so it’s not completely just me being a doormat. I always make them tell me a bit about themselves while I’ve got them for a minute, and being human, they like to give it.

They don’t realize that we’re linking arms as we do so, that our colors entwine together and they’ve given me a piece of themselves to reflect on. I’m not sure it matters, since they get a piece of me, too.

Bedevil sits next to me toward the end of our lunch. She leans into my shoulder, takes my hand in hers, and brings it to her lips for a kiss. The touch of her lips still sends a jolt through my body, even though it’s been almost half a year since we first kissed.

I lean my head on hers as I watch the other workers finish up their lunches. “I’ve been thinking about something.”

“What?” Bedevil asks.

“It’s just that… well, I’m worried about something and I’m afraid you’ll reject me.”

Bedevil pulls back and puts her left hand on my cheek. “I swear that I won’t reject you.”

“When is it okay to fart in front of you?” I ask.

Bedevil slaps my shoulder. “You fuckin’ ass. You had me worked up. I thought it was gonna be something like kinky or… or…”

“Or that I have an extra dimensional demon of pain inside me?” I ask.

“Yeah, that.” Bedevil rubs her forehead against my arm, not unlike a cat. “I’ve been thinking about something, lately, too.”

“Is it a kinky thing?”

“You wish. No. I just…” She pauses, tapping her chin. A piece of me that made it to her. A piece of Megajoule, really, but that’s okay. He got it from somewhere, too. “I can’t express it with words, but do you know that feeling when you lose a bunch of weight?”

“Were you fat at one point?” I ask.

“No!” Bedevil growls. “Like if you take off a heavy backpack or something, and then you stand up straight.”

I nod. “I am light, now.”

“Yeah. It’s good. I’m really happy that you are.”

I smile. “I hated that I borrowed so much from him, you know. I hated myself. But I don’t, anymore.” Not that it’s been completely easy to rid myself of those thoughts. I suspect I’ll have dark days in the future. But I know why, now, and I know what to do about them. “I’ve been thinking about something else, too. What we’re going to do next. I know Oracle and Archimedes have been negotiating with the government to set up Foundation again.”

Bedevil nods. “It’s going well. OPI is a roadblock but once Cynic is tried before the senate I don’t think they will be anymore.”

“Look at what happened to you and me, and Megajoule. Hell, Wind Rider, Meltdown, Templar, Longinus. How many of these people went uncared for after they suffered? Where was OPI’s therapy? Where were the aftercare people?”

“I was assigned a counselor,” Bedevil says. “They didn’t make me go, though, not after the first appointment.”

“That’s what I mean. OPI didn’t take care of people.” I click my tongue. “We should take care of people.”

Bedevil squeezes my arm. “We will. I promise.” She checks her phone after and gasps at the time. “Hey, babe, I’ve got to go. I’ll see you tonight when you get back, okay? Arch’s gonna be so pissed at me for being late.”

I kiss her on the cheek. “It’s fine, love, he knows you’re out here helping.”

“He literally said it was a waste of time for me to be out here instead of learning.” Bedevil looks like he’s said a lot of things like that. She snorts, and adds, “He didn’t tell me at all what he and Oracle had planned.”

“Front toward enemy. You were a substitute for me while I was gone,” I say. “He probably didn’t want to mess you up from saving me.”

“That… makes sense…” She furrows her brow. She’s so cute. “Okay. I’ve got to go. I’ll see you.”

With that Bedevil steps up, balances on her feet, bends over to give me a kiss, and then launches into the air with her telekinesis. I watch her fly off, still amazed that she knows how to fly on her own, now.

When I look back down, the workers are grinning at me.

Late that afternoon, Flashfire and Saw Off show up at my work site. Saw Off trots up to me like she always has, like the first day I met her in the firing range. “Gabe Babe! How’s it hanging? Are you ready for your special day?”

“What’s special about today?” I ask.

“She means it’s the day before Cynic’s trial,” Flashfire says. He walks up and pats me on the shoulder. “Hey, brother. How’s it going out here?”

“It goes. The work is slow, but it goes.” I grin at him. “Has Archimedes let you back into the command room, yet?”

Flashfire scowls. It’s not bitter and angry, like it used to be when he would stalk around Epione’s backyard by himself. Lighter, friendlier. Being out of Houston has been good for him. “I don’t want OPI to be replaced by another OPI. If it’s the same business as usual, you can count me out.”

I try my best to reassure him. “Bedevil and Templar are gonna be on the new table of Foundation. You think they’ll let things go the same way this time?”

“No. But still.”

I pull him into a side hug, leveraging my height and a slight boost to strength with kinetic energy so that he can’t worm his way out of it with judo. “It’ll be fiiiine. You’re just paranoid.”

Saw Off has already started flirting with Mattie, so she’s left us alone for the time being.

Flashfire pulls free of the hug. He sighs, and he struggles to speak.

“What’s up?” I ask. Flashfire is the type to be concerned about twenty different things at once and to get really upset about each one.

“It’s about me and Ep, Gabe.”

Oh. “Shit, dude.”

“Yeah. It’s… We called it. Threw in the towel.”

“It’s over,” I murmur. “I’m sorry.” I haven’t been paying attention to my friends since the incident. I’ve been working every day to help clean up the city. To be fair, so have they, and we’ve all been a bit quiet since we’ve started working.

“She told me about what happened.” Flashfire blows a raspberry and sighs. He’s rattled and busted by it, I can see that. “What the hell do you say to that, dude? She literally lost her love for me fighting the Fear. She lost it saving lives. You can’t be mad about it, she didn’t know.”

And then, Flashfire turns on me and I see the pain running all the way down to the core of his heart, a deep well of it in his eyes. “And you didn’t, you fought the Fear and you still love Bedevil, so why did she lose it when she has power over that stuff?”

“I…” Shit, I have no idea what to say. “I don’t really have the right words to say to you.”

He shakes his head and wipes his eyes, and composes himself. “I’ll bounce back.”

“I know, you’re hot,” I say. “Everyone thinks so.”

Laughter cuts through his sorrow, and he kicks a rock while laughing. “I’ve never seen it, myself. I’ve been asked to model, my brothers and sisters called me ‘pretty boy’ back in the army.”

“Maybe you’re just not your type.”

He grins, though his eyes are red and tears trickle down his cheeks. “I’m glad you’re back. I missed you, bro.”

“I missed you, too. I wanted to come rescue you about three different times, but…”

“But sometimes you just can’t,” Flashfire says. “Trust me, I know. Sometimes there’s walls you can’t see between you and the people you want to protect.”

“You two done with your manly tears session?” Saw Off asks, trotting up to us. “We’re gonna be late if we don’t hurry.”

“Late for what?” I ask.

“A little thing. Will you fly us back?” Flashfire asks.

I shrug. I guess I’ll see what they’re up to. “Hey, guys, tell Mago I had to call it a little early today!” I shout to the other workers.

“Sure thing, lovebird!” Mattie shouts back.

I place my arms around both their waists, drink in all of our kinetic energy, and launch us into the air. I’ve gotten better at manipulating gravity since I’ve started helping clean up the city. Easier to fly with others, now.

We return to the Foundation HQ, landing in the courtyard together.

The one thing that I love about this building is the inscription over the walls. It is a vague translation of an old quote from a famous celebrity of the 20th century, named Mr. Rogers. I didn’t realize it at first, until one of the capes explained it to me. Roughly, it means: “Look for the altruistic ones.”

But the quote it is invoking moves me.

Look for the helpers.

The thing I like less about the courtyard is the giant gold statue of one of the first Foundation heroes. Not like there’s much I can do about that. Not like they’d let me melt it.

“Do you think they would let me melt the statue?” I ask Flashfire as I set him and Saw Off down.

“I’d let you do it,” Saw Off says. “When are we doing this? Tonight? As part of the—”

“God, Caileigh, just… shush!” Flashfire says.

Now, I’m curious. “What are you two planning?” I’m worried my plans to propose to Bedevil have been spoiled somehow.

“Nothing, it’s nothing,” Flashfire shakes his head and scowls at Saw Off. “Come on.”

Okaaaaay, then. I follow them into Foundation HQ, where we’ve all been living for the past month. The HQ reminds me of an anvil, a fitting metaphor as we aim to help build a new world in the face of the Fear.

The lobby is, again, far too garish for me. Marble columns, glittering gold, a babbling fountain. Oh, and tons and tons of capes and OPI agents, and now Argentinian officials, too. They watch me enter but no one bars us from heading into the living quarters.

I am suspicious, now. Saw Off is practically buzzing with excitement, and she bounces up and down as we make it back to my apartment. Saw Off stares at me and gestures to the door. “Open it.”

I take out my keycard, squinting at her. I worry I’m about to eat a grenade.

I open the door.

A flash of light and a pop, and a cheer: “Surprise!”

4.14.10

The giant melts away, scattered by the wind. Burning threads of darkness ride the breezes until they disintegrate.

Megajoule’s slogan resounds over the city. The words “Reach, Dream, Strive, Become,” echo off the skyscrapers, carried by my thundering voice. The chant catches with the Primum and the soldiers, with the regular capes fighting for their lives against the puppet. Reach, they shout, dream, strive, become. It becomes a rallying war cry. Triumphantly they cheer as the giant collapses into nothing.

I land in the midst of the puppets, swinging my blood conjured bat. Despite the Fear’s death, they don’t fall. They continue with their relentless onslaught, and only just now that I am in the midst of them do I feel how huge their numbers are.

But I am not alone.  Bedevil swings in to my side, her power whipping bodies and puppets into the air. Krater charges through dozens at a time. Epione uses Carnality’s power to its extent, conjuring blood blades and carving a path through the zombies. Meltdown flies over the horde and rains lightning upon them. She crushes them with gravitational pulses. Longinus, Flashfire, Maisa, and Remise all contribute to the battle. Light and fire. Blood and death.

The tide is not too much for me to bear. The zombie’s feeble attacks bounce off my skin. Neither is it too much for my friends. Bedevil is untouchable, she flies by her own power and pulls apart the horde beneath her. The others are much the same.

It’s the rest of our side I’m worried about. The Primum, the capes, the regular soldiers. I bound over to the line and find that the soldiers are retreating as the horde pushes over the line of tanks. The zombies are whipped into a frenzy by my Fear’s death, and they’re taking it out on the line. “We need help over here!” I call, and raise my hand up. I set it aglow with the energy inside me like a brief flare so that my friends can see where they are needed.

As I do that, a small group of people bound over the tanks and pass the struggling soldiers. There must be about a dozen of them. They aren’t wearing cape outfits but homemade costumes or civilian clothes. They don’t have anything official on them. They’re masks.

A man in a track suit skids over the tanks on a jet of green flame from his heels. He hurls fire bolts into the puppets, each one a different color than the last. He whirls in the air, and I hear him shouting, “Reach! Dream! Strive! Become!” like it’s some kind of religious mantra. “Hold the line! Help Gabe!”

I suppose it is somewhat spiritual. I fall into chanting it again, too, and dive into the fight next to Roman Candle (for lack of a better name). Others join. A woman flies by on ethereal wings. Her feathers fall on the zombies, and where they touch, they burn and destroy. Another mask with super speed blurs over the line with a flurry of kicks. Another, and another. “Protect the line!” I don’t know who shouts that. “Help Gabe!”

“Reach! Dream! Strive! Become!”

And then Bedevil is at my side, summoned by the flare I gave off. There are tears in her eyes and she chants with the others, too, repeating Megajoule’s slogan.

Our slogan, now.

We fight as one. We shout as one.

We beat the horde down as one. The soldiers rally, the capes join us, and we funnel the horde into a firing line so that we can finally bring them down. I grieve for them; it’s partially my fault that they are gone, possessed by the Fear, but there’s nothing left to do but save others from this misery.

I won’t lie. It is an hour or more of bloody, exhausting work. It’s a mess, and by the end of it, I am exhausted. It’s been days since I’ve had a meal and slept in a decent bed. Someone catches me as I collapse to my knees; it’s Bedevil.

“Hey, baby, I’m here,” Bedevil says. Her voice is so lovely. I’ve always loved her voice. “Are you okay?”

We’ve cleared the line and now it’s just the capes hunting the stragglers down. I see people wandering the aftermath, checking the bodies and searching for fallen comrades. I climb to my feet with Bedevil’s help. There’s something I need to make sure of while I’m still here. Before the battle closes, I have to make sure that Carnality is destroyed. “Help me find Carnality.”

Bedevil lifts me up and we float across the highway by her power. I can’t believe the wreckage; thousands of bodies litter the pavement, spread out into the houses and buildings. I can hear screams; I want to help whoever it is but I’m so tired, and other capes have already gone to hunt the rest of the puppets down.

“Here,” Bedevil says, bringing us down near where the Fear died. I find Carnality’s body amid the others.

She still stares up at nothing with blood-red eyes, a trickle of ink spilling from her lips. The ink stains her marble skin like someone ran a sharpie from her mouth to her jaw. There’s no life left in her.

I kneel down next to her and place my hand on her chest.

“Gross,” Bedevil says.

“Hardly the grossest thing I’ve done near you,” I say. I try to manage some humor, but between the solemn environment and my exhaustion, I don’t manage much.

I have a lot of energy stored in the suit, though, and I will that into Carnality’s body. Her body glows and starts to crack apart as I flood her with heat. Over the course of two minutes, she disintegrates into ashes. Those ashes melt dissolve into gray dust that melds with the blood and dirt.

I heave a sigh of relief. Unlike with Nero, her power won’t bring her back. It just made her extremely hard to kill as long as she had blood.

Bedevil helps me stand and we work our way back toward the line. As we start our journey back over there, I see Meltdown huddled over a body. My heart drops into my stomach. “Ruby, wait.” I point to Meltdown’s crouched form and Bedevil takes us over to her.

Meltdown cradles Wind Rider’s head in her lap. He isn’t breathing. There’s a nasty gash on his throat and another in his side, and from my heat sense, his blood isn’t flowing anymore. He’s dead.

Meltdown isn’t crying. She sits there, trembling, and looks at something far away, far far away from a dead husband and a broken city. Bedevil shudders at the sight, and sheds her own tears. I won’t hold that against her; even if it ended badly and he married someone else, at some point she loved him.

We sit down next to Meltdown. I know at times like this, you just don’t say anything. Not until she does, anyway, and she doesn’t. Not for a long time. Not until Longinus finds us all sitting here in the middle of the death, the battle almost over.

He frowns at his former teammate’s body. “Would you like me to pray for him?”

Meltdown wipes her eyes and nods.

Longinus kneels down and closes Wind Rider’s eyes. “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord; even so saith the Spirit, for they rest from their labors.” A simple little recitation, but enough that Meltdown begins to cry.

I try not to, but despite everything, I’m so exhausted that I almost pass out on Bedevil. She doesn’t try to stop me. She holds me close, a little closer than she normally would, I think, and hums a soft song.

Some Primum nearby come and offer to take Wind Rider’s body. Emergency workers are crawling through the field now, searching for survivors, but they also take some of the dead, too. Christ — sorry, Longinus— just looking at it hurts. This will take weeks to clean. The city burns from the where the Fear’s payload landed. This city will be wrecked for months. Maybe years.

“I’ll take care of Meltdown and see to Wind Rider,” Longinus says. “I don’t know what’s going to happen now. I can’t imagine Cynic will just let us walk.”

“I’m surprised we’re not under arrest already.” I climb to my feet. “I think we’ve got more important things to worry about, though. I need to go help find bodies. I can use my heat sense—” I stumble to my knees mid sentence, unable to stand a second longer.

“Love,” Bedevil whispers. “We’ve got to find you some food and somewhere to sleep.”

I support my weight on her and stand. “No. I’ve got to help. The Fear used my power to do all this damage. I’m going to fix it as best as I can.”

“Gabe, you’ve already done enough. You killed the Fear.” Bedevil looks worried for me. “I don’t want to lose you because you’re too stubborn to go take a nap.”

She’s not wrong. I’m exhausted and in danger of burning out after all this fighting. I haven’t eaten in three days, but the water that Longinus gave me sated my thirst. Still, I have strength to go on, and there may be people trapped in the wreckage back in the city.

“Back when I was really burnt out, you told me my power was for when we found the people that needed saving. My power couldn’t help in finding her like Remise or Drone could.” I tap her on the cheek, a gesture that makes her smile, even if just a little.

How far I’ve come, though, from that time. “But I learned that I could use my power for medicine, like when someone here went through detox and needed me to regulate her temperature, or if I needed to sear a wound closed. I can use it to see heat signatures through rubble and feel sound worming through the earth. I can find the people that need saving, and then save them.”

Bedevil has no reply, but her face softens as she sees my determination to go on. She squeezes my arm.

“You also said that Megajoule was the kind who’d catch the falling building and leave the work of finding survivors and repairs to everyone after. He did the heavy lifting and left the details to others. You said that I’d be the first one inside that building if I’d caught it. You were right then, and you still are. I’m strong enough to do both.”

Bedevil sighs and smiles. “I did say that, didn’t I?”

“Yeah.” I grin back at her. “Would you like to help me?”

“Always,” she says.

Not long after, as Bedevil brings me to the line of tanks where emergency services care for soldiers, the others from the Underground catch up with us, along with Krater. They’re all worn out, just as much as I am. And just as I am, they look ready to continue on. The work is not done, yet.

“I’m going into the city to help find survivors,” I tell them.

Remise pats me on the shoulder. “We’re headed that way ourselves. Figured ye would be going. What about Cynic and OPI? Nero?”

“If they want to send someone to stop us, they’re welcome to try,” I say. I am admittedly worried that no one has seen Nero in all this battle. I know he was here, but I haven’t seen him at all in the aftermath.

Bedevil squeezes my arm. “Maybe you shouldn’t be making threats when you’re tired, babe.”

“We don’t need to worry,” Flashfire says, the only one still wearing his helmet from the drop team. “Archimedes says the president arrested Cynic, and that they’re negotiating with him right now. We’re free to help with the rescues.”

Well, that’s a fantastic cherry on top of this entire pie. It’s justice of a sort. Not sure where that leaves Nero, but if I see him, I’ll have Epione take his powers and we’ll figure out what to do with him after.

We split up into two groups. Bedevil, Maisa, Remise, and I go to the southern side of Buenos Aires, where I hit first, while Epione, Krater, and Flashfire go to fish through the northern side.

I’ve been told that the anarchy following the emergence of superpowers was the worst time in history. I’d heard that towns were wiped off the map, that cities were left with festering wounds, and millions were killed across the world. I’ve seen the scars of battle in Houston, on old homes and streets that haven’t been renovated in over thirty years and so still tell the history of a time when the superpowered did as they wished.

I imagine that this is what it was like to live through that time. We walk through the wreckage of smoldering skyscrapers and broken streets. Walls of dust and smoke move like waves in the ocean, swallowing everything in their path and making it difficult to use my heat sense. People wander the streets looking for loved ones in the wreckage.

I pick up a few heat signatures in a crumbling hotel, and Remise confirms heartbeats through the stone. Bedevil and I dig while Maisa throws her flashing lights into the air to signal for rescue workers.

My muscles scream for sleep, my eyes want to close forever, and my heart is pounding like I just ran a marathon. I do not give up. I dig using my power, removing huge pieces of rock and cement by robbing the energy of gravity from them, turning them weightless.

I dig until I hear a single cry for help. A young boy’s voice. I see him staring out through the rubble, and beside him, his mother, bleeding from a head wound but still conscious. She smiles as she sees me and cries tears of relief as I pull her son out.

I scoop her into my arms. In Spanish, I tell her: “It’s okay. My name’s Gabe. I’m here to help.”

The woman weeps and laughs and clings to me. “I know who you are.”

“Good. That’s good.”

 

ARC 14: COLOR ENTWINING // END

4.14.9

My bond with the Fear weakens. Carnality screams, squirming as the Fear moves her body without her permission. Host and parasite launch into the air, jettisoning ink to fly. I’m guessing Carnality could have done that with blood, now that I think about it, but chose not to waste it on flight when she could jump the length of a football field.

But with the Fear, she’s not limited to blood, but can use the matter it creates. A blend of their powers.

The Fear swells Carnality until she is a corrupted version of herself at full strength. Instead of rosy skin and blood red eyes, she becomes gray and pallid, and her eyes jet black from the Fear taking over control. Instead of a graceful dancer’s body, she is engorged with muscle to a grotesque point. She rockets over me, aimed toward the city and the battle while riding the torrent of the Fear’s ink. All the while she shrieks for Nero, for anyone, to help her.

Rotation is working against me now, so I can’t punch up the speed quite fast enough to catch her. A handful of seconds is all it takes before we’re both flying over the horde of Fear puppets again. Streams of blood pull from the wounded, whether they are zombies, capes, soldiers, or citizens trying to flee.

“Carnality! You’ve got to…” I don’t even know what to say to her. I don’t know what the Fear is using in her psychology that gives it power over her. If it were Nero I could guess, but Carnality, I’ve got no clue.

I can’t help her. There’s only one other way this ends. She has to die.

No easy task. Not like before where I’d drained her of blood by removing her from her source. She has no limit and the Fear can push her farther. Each passing second she draws more and more, too, and each passing second her claws hit with increasing force.

Carnality screams. From every pore and every orifice she weaves a massive sphere of blood. She crashes it down into the battlefield.

A tsunami of ink and blood washes over me. I root myself in place, absorbing the force, and fly out of the wave. Carnality catches me as a surface. We spin together and she begs, “Please, get it out of me!” All the while the Fear unleashes its fury through her, with claws that could sheer through diamond, with fists that could — and do — overwhelm my energy absorption. She’s beyond Krater in strength, now, and while I can control energy, I do have a limit. I don’t want to melt everyone around me.

“Carnality, whatever it’s using against you, whatever it’s showing you, you have to resist. You can resist!” I struggle to spin around so that I have the advantage, but she’s got leverage from all the thrust she generates with the Fear’s ink and her blood. The crimson flash-flood swallows everyone below us.

“I don’t want to see this!” Carnality claws at me before turning to her own face, but her claws can’t scratch the bruised marble of her skin. “I don’t want it!”

She’s just too damn strong. If it was just her, I could take her. The Fear is doing everything it can to keep me from a killing blow. Wires materialize out of nothing to swerve my fists and my kicks.

Tendrils wrench me free of Carnality and the Fear. Lightning spears through the Fear. Two golden haired woman dive into the fray, two women that could almost be sisters. Bedevil scoops me into her telekinetic embrace while Meltdown hammers with her power, cowing the possessed Carnality like a lion tamer. Behind her, Maisa and Flashfire dive in on their board of light, while Longinus chants from his Bible. Pillars of fire descend from the sky at his command.

The last to arrive is Krater, bearing sweet Epione on his back and trailing Remise behind his thunderous charge.

“We’ve got to get Epione to Carnality,” Bedevil says.

“Right, she’ll take the power. Without the Affect the Fear has nothing to leech on.” I grab Bedevil’s hand. “Let’s go!”

Just the touch of her hand is electric to me. After months of being dulled by the Fear, after months of my memories tainted, to touch and to love — it is a pleasure, a delight down to my core. To fly and to fight again, to clear a path through the wires with the woman I love — I am alive.

Carnality can’t keep up with every single front. Not when Meltdown tears the Fear’s limbs to shreds, not when Maisa blocks a stream of boiling tar with a hard light shield, and not when Bedevil and I wrench the Fear’s defenses open like a cracking a walnut. Carnality can do nothing but stare in horror as Krater and Epione slip right up close. She throws her deadly spears but they bounce off Krater’s skin. Krater seizes both of Carnality’s wrists. Bedevil uses her telekinesis to help and I jump down there to grip her around the waist. She shrieks in horror.

Epione reaches a shining hand, covered in white fire. The ink peels away from her touch, exposing Carnality’s bare body. Epione grabs a hold of Carnality’s shoulder.

“Got it!”

Krater rips Carnality into the air, out of my grasp, and rolls back with her like an alligator. He roars out in triumph, and the demoness is dead at last. She stares at nothing, now, still in horror. A look of shock on her face.

“God damn, Gabe!” Remise shouts. “It’s good to—”

We’ve no time to celebrate. The core of the Fear bounces along the bloody tide, over the bodies of the dead and the living that still fight. My connection to the Fear’s mind has returned, and I hear the words it howls into the Affect as defiance.

I HAVE SLAIN WORLDS. I HAVE CONSUMED SPECIES.

A massive tar hand punches through the battle, tossing puppets as it crawls free. A giant stands, easily the size of a three story building. It is a misshapen thing, a mockery of the human form with five arms dangling from the torso.

It wears my face.

There are nine of us. Myself, Bedevil, Krater, Epione, Remise, Meltdown, Maisa, Flashfire, and Longinus. Nine heartbeats in rhythm with each other. Nine minds that know they must destroy this thing once and for all.

Nine burning fires that will cast out the darkness.

I move first. I warp through the air toward the giant, and meet it head on. The five arms swing in huge arcs to swat me away but I bounce between them, leaving burning patches in the giant’s skin. I keep the Fear’s attention on me while my friends get in close. I know I have its attention because the Fear is shrieking into my mind.

Nine hearts beating as one. Nine hunters that move together in destroying the predator that has stalked and killed and taken too much from them. I can’t focus on what the others are doing but I trust them. Bedevil protects me from one blow, Krater catches another, but we all keep moving as we try to bring the giant down.

The Fear weaves new mass out of the fear of everyone watching to protect the core it hides in its chest. Each blow rips away a limb or a chunk of its flesh, and while it heals those wounds, it heals them slower each time we make them.

I sense it. What I did inside my body, we’re doing out here in the real world. We’re surrounding the Fear with our light. We are its opposite. Our blazing Affects surround the shadow so it can’t exist and it can’t draw from the darkness beyond us. We’re cutting it off from its fuel source and we’ve left it no path to escape.

Krater lands a vicious blow followed by a lightning strike from Meltdown, ripping the Fear’s head wide open and exposing the black sphere inside. I take my chance and warp up there. “Gabe!” Epione shouts.

A weapon woven of blood appears in my hand. I grip the handle and laugh as it becomes a baseball bat like the one I used to lug around while fighting Dresden. Like the one that gave me my name so long ago. I grin and rise, flying for the core.

I reel back—

Everything slows, like I’m stuck in molasses.

The Fear pulls me into our connection to speak one last time before I commit to the attack.

I WILL GIVE YOU EVERYTHING YOU COULD EVER DREAM OF. I WILL GIVE YOU THIS WORLD AND YOU COULD RULE OVER IT. OVER ALL THE OTHERS OF YOUR KIND.

“So, you do get scared.” I convey amusement along our bond. “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man.”

YOU ARE BENEATH ME.

It shows me the worlds that have fallen to its kind. It shows me worlds with species wiped away as the Fear fed upon their terror. It shows me their growth; like a tumor, propagating and corrupting each new victim. Exponentially the Fear grows, and it wipes out worlds.

I HAVE ALREADY BEGUN THE WORK. I AM THE POINT OF THE KNIFE. I HAVE CREATED SEEDS THAT WILL BECOME MY CHILDREN. THE WORLD WAS WATCHING AND THEY ARE AFRAID.

“I have something to show you, too.”

Across our bond I show it the trajectory of humanity. I show the Fear a humble ape evolving into an upright human. They learn how to harness fire, they learn how to build, they learn how to grow together. Humanity and the human evolve in tandem, moving along their meandering paths. They fill the earth with themselves. They, too, grow exponentially.

I show the Fear humans that are afraid and humans that are brave; often the same human, who has learned not to be afraid. I show him the species that hunts predators for the thrill of it.

“Say what you will of us. We grow faster than you do. We will surpass you, as I am surpassing you now. If you knock us down—” I show it Bedevil, who rose again on her own wings after all the pain she endured. I show it Maisa, who went from a sex slave to a powerful woman that fights just as hard as anyone else. I show it Epione, who mastered the power that overwhelmed her time and time again. “— we’ll get back up. We’ll bounce back. Humans thrive on second chances.”

I turn my wrath toward the Fear at last. I pull away from the bond we share, letting time flow at a normal speed again. I finally understand Megajoule’s slogan. They weren’t just vaguely noble words that gave people hope. They weren’t random.

They were a road map to defeating the Fear. They were a guide for how to become our truest selves.

I speak them aloud, and fill my voice with energy to carry the words across the city. I do this because these words belong to me, now. They belong to everyone.

“Reach!”

One

“Dream!”

Heartbeat

“Strive!”

To

“Become!”

Impact.

Home run.


 

Cynic could not decide how she felt. On the one hand, she was ecstatic, she was relieved, and she was full of hope. She hadn’t experienced such a cocktail of emotions in a long time. Not since Julian was alive. Maybe not even then. She watched and held her breath as Gabe led the charge against Carnality and the Fear.

On the other hand, with President Lucio Genz standing next to her, she could feel the executioner’s ax over her neck. He would ask questions that would be difficult to answer, even for her. Cynic could read them brewing in his mind. Who is this man? What is that monstrosity and why was I not warned? Is my country safe? Why didn’t Cynic tell us about this? Why didn’t—

On and on the questions marched through the president’s mind and Cynic struggled to plan on how to answer them.

Still, the questions would wait until this battle was done, and by then she would have gathered her wits. She waited with baited breath while the Underground — what else to call them? Not the Inheritors, no, even though three of them fought beside Gabe — and she cheered when she saw Carnality go down. A fortunate thing; deal with two loose ends at once. The Archimedes Bullets never worked on Carnality.

Cynic searched the battle for Nero and could not find him. She did, however, find Wind Rider.

He was dead, lying broken on the ground not far from where the Underground fought the Fear. Cynic would have to review the footage and find out what killed him.

“Ma’am?” one of the responders asked. “There’s a White Shark requesting to land in the hangar. They have the call sign right, but I wanted to run it by you before—”

Cynic tapped her screen and took command of the call. She cast the audio to her ear piece. “Who is this?”

“Old friends,” Archimedes replied. “We come bearing gifts.”

“If you land in that hangar, I’m going to have you arrested immediately,” Cynic said. “And tried for treason.”

“Is that anyway to greet an old friend?” Archimedes asked. Cynic could hear his smirk and she already wanted to punch him.

“I repeat—”

Archimedes’ voice popped in on the speakers, addressing everyone in the room. His face filled the main screens, so all eyes were on him. “Well, you see, here’s the thing. I’ve got control of your computers. I’ve got your call sign. And, one more time, I’ve got gifts. But not for you, Cynic, oh no. I’ve got a gift for President Lucio Genz and the rest of the UWC. That’s right, I know you’re in there, President Genz. I know everything in that room.”

Cynic was cold. Whether it was fury or terror — well, this was a day of indecisive emotions. “What is this?” She knew that their system wasn’t fully set up. She began reading his mind immediately, but before she could dig too deep, he conjured up an image of a brick wall in his head. Cynic could work around that but she’d rather just arrest him. “Someone, go bring that White Shark into the hangar and arrest everyone on board!”

“You still haven’t asked how I know all this,” Archimedes asked. “Same old Cynic. Can’t see the bigger picture. Can’t see the forest for the trees.”

The camera shifted to the right.

Oracle sat in the seat next to Archimedes. Cynic could hardly say what she felt now. Disbelief, mostly. The woman before her was even older than the last time Cynic saw her. Her braids were turning more white than silver. Her eyes did not shine with the same power they did when she worked for OPI and the Sovereigns.

Despite all that, there was no question it was Oracle. The same Oracle that Cynic remembered had died the day Megajoule performed his coup.

Oracle cackled. “From the look on your face, old friend, I can see you remember me. Memory is a funny thing, isn’t it?”

Cynic’s mouth was so dry. “You rewrote my memory of the day you died.”

Oracle wore her same enigmatic smile. The smile that made her look ethereal, like she belonged to the heavens and not the earth. “President Genz? Do you remember meeting me?”

Lucio Genz’ eyes widened in shock. “I… I do. I remember. You asked me to help overthrow OPI and I laughed you out of my office… until you… you showed me something…” He rubbed his forehead.

“Here,” Oracle said. “You may need a refresher.”

Files filled the screens around Oracle. Audio recordings played over the speakers. One that proved that she commissioned the creation of Megajoule’s clones and had them all put down. A recording of Meltdown warning Cynic that Gabe was coming for Buenos Aires.

An audio recording proving that she ordered the death of Megajoule. That she commissioned the help of Carnality to do so.

Worse, the information she’d gathered on everyone around her, her directors, the UWC senate, the agents in every city in the UWC, hell, even the little things like Nero sleeping with Carnality, or that Wind Rider had an affair on Bedevil.

The worst one of all was a document she kept on the Houston director Marcy May. A document showing that she knew Tim Prince was the mask Pandahead and that he had a Fear entity trapped within his thermos. They’d let it go on to observe how the Fear worked. They’d let hundreds of children get trafficked because they wanted to know how it fed and to see if they could communicate with it or appease it.

Files, videos, audio recordings. They were a symphony of her demise. Every eye fell on her, from the responders, to the Primum, to the directors, and to Lucio Genz and his capes.

She had no words, except a question. “Wh… where did you get all of this?” Some of it was new, so new that there was no way Oracle could have gotten it without a double agent. “Who did you put up to this?”

Oracle’s smile became a toothy grin. “I put you up to it, Cynthia.”

Cynic couldn’t reply.

“Around three years back, I came back to the OPI headquarters with a revolver and an intent to kill you. I infiltrated and rewrote the memories of security guards, until I made it to your office. I was going to end it once and for all, and make you pay for what you’d done.” Oracle’s smile could not hold up to that bitter memory. She cleared her throat, but her eyes glistened with tears. “I couldn’t do it. Not because I wasn’t capable of killing you, but I realized something. Julian asked me to tear down OPI. I realized if I killed you, I’d never do that. So, I erased all evidence of my presence. Camera feeds, memories, all of it.

“Some of the recordings I made myself, like the one of you ordering Megajoule’s death. Others, I recruited you to make for me. I knew about your little stash of blackmail. You were so paranoid, even when I knew you, and I saw the memories of you uploading files to the drive connected to your pacemaker. Clever, but I also saw the memory of your pass code, and I had my dear friend Archimedes get the data from that drive.”

Cynic knew now what she felt. It was the single second before the executioner’s ax dropped onto her neck. She closed her eyes while rough hands grabbed her from behind to restrain her.

Oracle leaned back into her chair. “I don’t mean to gloat. But I believe that is called a checkmate.”

4.14.8

After all the horror, Bedevil is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. The sight of her strikes me so hard I begin to weep, but I am also so overjoyed that I can’t help but laugh with my sobs. I can’t even voice her name, between my raw throat and the overwhelming emotions of seeing her face. I cry out a word that sounds roughly like “Roo” as I rush toward her.

At first, she is unsure of what to say. She disbelieves but there is a glimmer of hope in her eyes. From her face, I know exactly what she is thinking: that I am a dream. That she has gone mad from the last three days.

The disbelief gives way when she sees that I no longer bleed ink from my eyes or my mouth. It turns to hope. It transforms into tears, and then she is in my arms, wailing my name as she clings to me as if I were a lifesaver. She curls up into me so that I am holding her up by her knees and her arms, and she kisses my neck and runs her hands all over me. There is not enough of me that she can touch, she searches for more and more. She caresses my cheeks with her fingers. I can barely make out “I love you,” between her wailing.

“I love you,” I answer.

Bedevil pulls back so she can look me in the eyes. Her eyes are incredible, like stolen gold from the sun. Her lips quiver as she feels my face, and I can’t help but chuckle through my tears. “It’s you.”

I smile, and swallow the lump in my throat so I can speak. “It’s me.” I kiss her cheek and press my forehead against hers. I am light.

Maisa, Flashfire, and Longinus arrive together. “Gabe!” Maisa sprints off her board and runs to me. Bedevil hops down to her feet but does not let go of me.

I reach out and catch her with my one arm, pulling her into a group hug with me and Bedevil. “My sister.” Flashfire is at her heels. I haven’t seen him in months at this point but it feels like it’s been years, and I am so happy to see him alive and well. I grab him and join him in my bear hug. “My brother.”

We hold each other, crying, laughing, our hearts beating together.

Longinus watches from a few feet away. He smiles the awkward smile of someone who doesn’t want to intrude. “And Longinus,” I say, “I don’t know you but I’m sure you’re great, too.”

He smiles, a real smile this time.

Flashfire laughs. “Everyone told me you were in trouble, and right when I get here, you’ve got it handled.”

“Does anyone have any water?” My mouth is so dry.

Longinus holds his hand out, and recites a scripture: “Therefore you will joyously draw water from the springs of salvation.” A small spring bubbles out of his hand, materializing from his palm. He cups his hands together and offers me a drink. Even though it’s only natural, he seems amazed that I lean over to drink from his hands. The water is cool, clear, and it tastes sweeter than fruit. I drink my fill.

“And, I can’t see at all, does anyone have my goggles?” I ask.

Bedevil pulls them out from a pouch in her suit, and hands them to me. I put them on and they snap the world into focus again. “Oh, that’s a huge relief.”

I break the group hug off, though Bedevil still hangs onto me. I sense the Fear moving away through the city. The longer we let that go on, the worse it will be. “We have to stop the Fear. We can’t let it get a new host. I’ll know. My connection with it will be severed.”

My friends nod. Longinus recites a verse that lets him fly into the air and Maisa forms a surfboard of light. Flashfire hops on and looks to me. “You know where this thing is going?”

I can sense it frantically searching for a new host, for something to grab onto. It needs someone Heavyweight to leech off of, which rules out almost all of the city. The capes, on the other hand, could end up as a new host. “I do. Follow me.” I look down at Bedevil. “I saw you fly. That was really cool.”

Bedevil blushes. “It’s nothing.”

“No, it was awesome.” I grin. “But we might need something a little faster. Hang onto me.”

Using my power again is like stretching my muscles after sleeping. It feels so good to drink the energy in and to shoot up into the air, Bedevil clinging to me and laughing as we soar into the sky. The world sings with power for me to take; with sound and with heat, with movement and life. I drink deep from that cup, taking in just enough that I won’t burn Bedevil.

It’s much easier to coil the energy inside of me now, or to cast off excess in different ways. I can store it as sound, or vibrations, not just heat. While that raises the limit of what I can safely store for those around me, I’ll still start to shine and radiate heat if I get going too much, though.

My time in orbit gave me some intuition on flying. I drink in the energy of my rotational velocity to punch up my speed.

I can sense the Fear moving underground through the city. It’s like a wounded beast; erratic, darting this way and that without a clear destination. My goggles zoom in to show me a massive battle on the northwest highway, which seems to be the general direction the Fear is headed.

I wince as I see the craters from the Fear’s projectiles. Entire sections of Buenos Aires are burning, collapsed and ruined.

Can’t think about that now. After the battle, maybe, if we don’t have to run.

On second thought, I don’t want to run from Cynic anymore. I’ve got ideas for how to take care of Nero, I’m confident I can handle Carnality, and with those two out of the way, Cynic will be no trouble to me. Still, that’s for after, not now.

A mob of Fear possessed humans swarm the defenses set up on the highway. They claw their way over each other to try and break line of tanks and barricades. White Sharks hold position overhead, firing in on the horde, while a swarm of Primum hold the perimeter around the possessed.

Lightning strikes into the heart of the screaming army, while miniature tornados shepherd the puppets away from the houses.

I sense the mimic version consolidated back into the Fear’s core. There’s no sense of strategy anymore. It’s become a desperate, wild beast backed into a corner.

A squad of Primum flies by me. They plunge down at the horde like cormorants diving for fish in the sea. The puppets are just human servants to the Fear, but enough of them can overpower a Primum. One of the capes is pulled beneath their ink-stained number.

I bowl into the patch that took that cape down. I tear the Primum free and pull him up out of the horde. “You’re good! Keep going!” I shout, and let him free to rejoin his comrades. He’s utterly amazed that I saved his life, utterly amazed that I’m here at all. Me too, dude, me too.

Bedevil clings to me, swatting away enemies that try to snatch us from the air in the same way.

The puppets undulate, crushing each other to climb up into the air to get at the Primum. They gawk at me as I shoot over them. Their eyes are haunting; pain and terror are all they have left. I know they are dead. It doesn’t make it easier to see them like that, though.

“What are we looking for?” Bedevil asks.

The Fear has to make a choice. Retreat back into the Affect for good, wait and bide it’s time, or commit to the attack. It is a highly intelligent creature but still driven by predatory instinct. I think it’s going to commit. “The Fear is searching for a new host. We’ve got to—”

“Darling!”

Carnality’s voice cuts through the din of battle. A crimson spike sprouts up from the battle, and she is on top of it with her arms wide. She is a demoness, not a human, a creature whose eyes only hold hunger. Blood-conjured blades hail down upon me, glancing off my skin as I drink their energy. Like with Sledge’s claws, though, they slice the the surface of my arm and create a wound.

That wound gives Carnality access to my blood. She uses her hemokinesis to wrench me free of Bedevil, and pulls me to her perch above the battlefield. The zombies swarm at the base of the construct.

I still have not forgotten her horrifying face; her marble skin, her blood-red eyes, her fanged teeth. She conjures a spear and pokes it at my chest. “At last we get to play, darling.”

“Carnality!” She’s got me pinned with her power, but I have a way out of that. “We can play later. Look at this city! I’m not the enemy right now!”

“I was brought here to kill you, darling. I was not brought here to kill anyone else.” Carnality presses the point of her spear against my armor.

I keep my focus on the Fear. It’s waiting below the surface. “Carnality, if you dig down into the ground, we can—”

Carnality interrupts me with a harsh shriek, reels back with her spear, and thrusts it at my chest.

If there’s no way to avoid this battle, I’ll need to end it fast. From the Fear, I learned several things about my power. Things I already knew but didn’t think about all the ways they could be applied. One of those is the shield of kinetically frozen air. The shield can act as a seal on holes, leaks, or, you guessed it, cuts.

I seal my wound up using my power, cutting Carnality off from controlling my blood. I conjure another shield so she can’t do any damage with her shield, and slam into her shield first.

The only fighter I could compare her to would be Krater; her strength is extraordinary. Trying to shove her free of the blood-conjured spire is like trying to move a mountain. It’s going to take a lot of energy to do so, and the last time I fought so hard I melted a theme park.

But I also know more about my options, and I have the suit to help manage the energy storage, too. I drink deep of kinetics, of the sound, of the heat within the air. Carnality is unphased by the fluctuations in temperature as I unleash my full power on her.

“The last one burned so brightly, too!” Carnality delights as we trade blows and I boil through her blood weaponry. She swipes with pearl claws, but finds no purchase on me. “I’ve killed Gabes before! I helped kill Megajoule!”

“If you think I’m the same as them, you’re going to lose!” I smash her with blows that Nero would pale at, with fists that would shatter towers and kicks that would crack bunkers wide open. She conjures shields to block me from hitting her but I disintegrate them.

She’s on the defensive, despite her cavalier attitude. We fight through the horde, who can’t bear to get close to me from the heat pouring off my skin. It’s a good thing Bedevil isn’t still clinging to me, otherwise she’d be toasted Bedevil right now.

Heh.

The last time I felt like this was definitely against Krater. My disbelief in gods quakes. We clash and the earth shakes beneath us. I notice an important fact: she can’t fly. She jumps in huge bounds that covers yards at a time, but while I can hover and glide, she must come down at some point.

Another important fact I notice, as one of my meteoric kicks finds a home in her stomach. Blood feeds to her from the dead and the living as we fight. When I land a particularly vicious blow, the rosy color in her cheeks fades, and her body shrinks.

She’s actively fueling herself with blood. She’s like the Fear; she needs it to keep her strength up. But no wonder they had trouble with her. The more blood she drinks in, the stronger she becomes. At points she even surpasses Krater in strength.

Yet for me, strength is merely a form of energy to maneuver around.

I close the gap between us, eating a blow from her spear across my waist that cuts into the armor and bites into my flesh despite my energy absorption. I’m too focused on what I’m about to do to prevent the damage, but I seal the wound with another shield.

I grapple her into a bear hug and blast off into the air, away from the battle. Carnality’s lusty grin turns into a terrified shriek as we fly into the sky together. I disorient her to further my advantage by spinning us in erratic circles, like we’re trapped on the world’s shittiest rollercoaster.

We’re in my domain now. I belong to the sky and the sun, to fire and to stars. She has no place up here and she knows it, so she claws as much as she can at me. Yet now I blaze brighter like a tungsten filament. Now, I have all the power.

I bring my strength to bear against Carnality, who can no longer pull on blood to strengthen herself. With one punch that dazzles like the rising sun, I hit her with all of the force of a nuke. She rockets back down to the earth, a modern day Icarus. They say there is no difference between the sea and the pavement after a certain velocity, but I’ll have to ask her if she agrees — she’s still alive.

A few seconds later and I land right next to her broken body. She weeps as she sees me land near her. No longer is she some fertility goddess, but now a gaunt creature made of skin and bones. Her eyes are a faded pink, her face pale white. She is naked without the blood armor she wore.

I take no pleasure in this, but I drop down next to her to end her life.

Without warning, the Fear’s tone shrieks across my mind, and the core materializes right above Carnality’s body. An inky spray shoots me back before I can start drinking the energy in. I roll and land on my butt, a hundred feet away.

Carnality rises from her burial mound. Ink wraps around her like the armor she conjured from blood. The tar fills her eyes and her mouth, while she shrieks and claws at her own lips. “Nero! Where are you?!” she cries, and for a half-second, I pity her.

Because I know what’s happening to her. I know what it feels like.

The Fear has chosen a new host.

4.14.7

Nero would never admit he was afraid. The gnawing beast in his gut could not be fear. The Fear was ahead of him, not inside. It was charging down the highway toward a line of tanks, capes, and soldiers. White Sharks and Argentinian Air Defense craft hovered over the line.

Their own White Shark brought them down. Energy coursed through his veins from his power, as he’d killed himself a few times to stockpile some strength on the flight over. His death suit pressed its deadly needles against his skin, ready to stab once he ran out of power.

Two thousand feet and closing in, Gabe hovered across broken pavement, his hands outstretched as if to proclaim: I am here. Come and find yourself wanting.

Gabe did not come alone. A stuttering, shrieking army of former Buenos Aires citizens sprinted at his flanks. The Fear’s power transformed them into his puppets, snuffing out their Affects forever. Later, when he was not staring them down across the highway, he might call them zombies as a joke. Zombies, he would say with an easy chuckle despite the gnawing beast that was not fear in his gut.

Meltdown spoke. “We have to get him out. He’s still in there, Nero.”

Nero snapped his head at her. “He’s far gone. And even if he is, do you think his life is more important than everyone in this city? Our priority is to kill him, end of story.” He knew Gabe was in there. He had no remorse for that. But even if he did, he wasn’t so stupid as to think they could save him now. “If you can’t do that, stay on the White Shark, because you’ll only get in the way. And when Cynic expels you from OPI and you are brought up on charges of interference with cape business, don’t you blame anyone but yourself.”

Meltdown did not back down from his rant. Something in her had changed these last few days. Nero cursed the rotten luck that she had happened on Gabe first and found him while he was in control.

She didn’t reply to his barb the way he anticipated, though. She just nodded. “When you wake up at night and wonder where your soul went—”

Nero interrupted her. “I won’t.”

The White Shark whipped around, bringing them face to face with Gabe. When Nero saw him at Puerto Guadal, he still seemed human even if he bled ink from his eyes. This Gabe looked like a parody of a person. An amorphous creature of tar and sewage wearing a mask of Gabe’s face. Nero had only said he was gone to shut Meltdown up, but seeing this monster up close confirmed Nero’s suspicions. There was nothing of Gabe left.

“On my lead! Wind Rider, keep those puppets off of us! Meltdown, hit him with everything you’ve got! Carnality, stay with me. Don’t get separated!” Nero leapt from the White Shark. Carnality laughed and followed after him, while Meltdown and Wind Rider took to the sky above. And just behind them, waves of Primum capes flew in to meet the front of the Fear’s puppet army.

Whoever won, Nero knew that no one watching would forget the capes that jumped into the horde, preceded by arcs of lightning from Meltdown and gales from Wind Rider. Nero had to imagine as he poured himself out upon Gabe that the people would cheer his name at last. They would no longer speak in hushed tones of Megajoule.

Gabe lashed out in response to Nero, but Nero had so much power stockpiled that they left no mark on his skin.

Shadow and fire and blood. Gabe’s expression never changed as Nero pressed his assault. Coils burned and retreated from Nero only to be sliced by Carnality’s blood spear. The coils packed in dense formation around Gabe, shielding him from their attacks in a spheroid shell.

Nero channeled the remaining energy into his fist. He pressed his palm against the coils and unleashed his fire, melting through Gabe’s outer defenses. “Carnality!” The needles stabbed into his heart a second later and administered their deadly shock.  His Affect went on a trip into the dark in a parabolic arc, and returned to his body with power that surged through his muscles.

He opened his eyes and saw Carnality, her spear poised before the opening Nero made in the shell. Gabe’s face stared out at her and she stared back, stammering as its power overwhelmed her. Coils of ink gripped at her face like feelers, pulling her toward Gabe’s body.

Nero jumped up. A new appendage formed behind Gabe’s back, ending in a sharp spike to puncture through Carnality. The tip glowed like a filament flowing with electricity, and the air squealed at sudden temperature spike. The burning stinger reeled back to kill her — and halted halfway through the movement.

Gabe’s face changed expression then, into an agonized snarl. His eyes locked on Nero. “Nero! Do it!”

Nero did not hesitate. He charged. Slammed his fist through the mask and unloaded a massive wave of destructive force. The blow disintegrated Gabe into a slimy puddle on the highway. There was no body inside, not like the other hosts.

“It’s not him!” Nero said over the comms. The words of the responder haunted him. Multiple targets. “It was some kind of projection!”

“The puppets aren’t stopping,” Meltdown said. “There’s too many!”

The chaos of battle surrounded Nero; he was adrift in an ocean of screaming Fear zombies, flying capes, and howling wind. For a moment, Nero lost himself in the sound and movement, and felt the gnawing creature in his gut.


 

Epione dropped onto the deck of the warship, sensing the colors flowing from inside the ship and in the command room. The shadow Gabe stood atop the bridge. Threads of negative emotion, as dark and strong as black hole, ran from him to the passengers aboard the ship. As soon as the White Shark dropped Epione and the others off, those strands started to pull at their colors, too.

With Epione it found no purchase. For Krater, Templar, Saw Off and Remise, it frayed at the edge of their colors, but unlike before it did not overwhelm them. This time they burned too bright for that.

She sensed colors winking out inside the ship. Soldiers whose Affects were not strong enough to resist the Fear were snuffed out and filled with the Fear’s power, turning them into more puppets for its use. They raced down the corridors toward the upper deck doors, and Epione knew they were coming for her. From the way that the shadow Gabe’s eyes fell upon her, she knew that this was her battle.

The doors burst open and the puppets churned out, scrambling over each other in a human tidal wave. “Krater, shut that door,” Epione said. “More will come! They aren’t alive anymore.”

“Don’t have to tell me twice!” Krater dropped to all fours and charged into the stream of zombies.

She neglected to tell him about the people still trying to survive below deck, but they had other escape routes, and by the time they finished with the shadow, those soldiers would be dead. A flash of low yellow guilt wafted out of her mouth, but she didn’t have time to think about that. “Saw Off and Templar, go help him.” Epione pointed the line of people. “Your powers will help you here. Remise, come with me. We’ll face the Fear.”

Remise nodded. “Just don’t make me go all flat again.”

“I don’t need to!” Epione climbed the stairs to the bridge deck two at a time. She made it to the same deck as the shadow Gabe, but before she stepped out to face him, Remise pulled her back into cover.

As Epione stumbled back, a jet stream of boiling pitch missed her by inches thanks to Remise. Now was no time to let that scare her. She worked to think of a plan. The coils required the Fear to have a source of emotions to convert into physical form. The creature was not starved for fuel. An entire city was in panic; the puppets slaughtering the soldiers below fed the agony up along the threads of Affect connecting them to their master.

Too much longer and the Fear would become omnipotent, and even Epione would not be able to stop that.

“We need some way to get close,” Epione said over the comms.

“I can do that,” Archimedes responded. He piloted the White Shark back around and held position just off the side of the ship. The nose turned toward the bridge, and Epione saw the flash of the muzzle before she heard the steady brrrrt of miniguns unloading hell on the shadow. Another white-hot whip of coils lashed out, leaving a smoking scar in the White Shark’s plating. Archimedes shouted: “Now!”

Epione and Remise dashed out to the bridge deck.

The shadow Gabe stood at least nine feet tall, retracting the coils it fired at the White Shark into its right arm. Remise guided Epione around another barrage, and then Epione was upon the shadow. She reached out to touch it and influence its Affect, but it retreated, covering its back with a field of coils.

Epione caught a lash along her arm. The razor wire cut into the padding and bit into her shoulder.

The shadow dived off the edge of the ship, into the water, and disappeared inside the murky depths of the bay. Epione tracked its movement back to the city. “It’s headed back to the city. Archimedes, we need a ride!”

Krater, Saw Off, and Templar finished their work on the deck below, and Krater pinched the metal of the door shut, crushing the mechanisms so that more puppets could not follow. The initial wave was already dead. “What the hell is wrong with them?” Saw Off called.

“They’re zombies!” Remise called. “Nobody’s home!”

Epione could feel the last colors disappearing below deck. She dared not tell her friends. They had a mission.


 

Bedevil felt like she was diving through the skies of hell. Buenos Aires was submerged in a soup of pyroclastic smoke. Skyscrapers peeked out of the black-gray shroud. Some were actively falling apart, burning from the immense meteoric impact of Gabe’s projectiles.

Longinus chanted out scripture over the comms. An ethereal tone rang under his voice, growing in intensity as he recited from his bible. “Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”

His flight speed picked up and he soared up to meet Bedevil. “We won’t catch him going this slow. He’ll hit the ground first! Latch on to me.”

“Maisa, Flash, we’re going ahead,” Bedevil said. “We’ll slow him down.” She latched onto Longinus with her telekinesis and folded her invisible wings close to her body. The shift swung her downward as they slipped into a tower of smoke.

“I’m going to try and exorcise him,” Longinus said.

“Have you done that before?” Bedevil asked.

“No,” Longinus answered. “But I have discovered new powers attached to verses I’ve never considered as powerful before. It’s worth a try.”

Bedevil would try anything at this point.

A white beam of fire split the smoke above them. From the angle it couldn’t have come from anywhere but Gabe. Bedevil remembered that Archimedes’ suit had an attachment in the glove that could channel pure energy through it.

“In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one!” As Longinus recited this verse, a shimmering orb surrounded them just in time to stop another bolt from Gabe.

They passed out the other end of the smoke, seconds from rendezvous with Gabe’s flight path. He shone like a falling star. The air shimmered around him and as they flew into his influence, Bedevil’s helmet started to beep with an environmental hazard warning. The Fear was pushing Gabe’s power to the max. If it made it to the ground it would start melting buildings, roads. Gabe would incinerate people.

Bedevil reached out as far as she could with her tendrils and entangled Gabe by the leg. His momentum didn’t stop, though. They spun together in a wide arc, two bodies revolving around each other. Bedevil broke his fall, though, and that was what mattered. She latched back onto Longinus. “Take us up! Start whatever you’re going to do.”

Longinus took off his helmet, despite the high temperatures. He shouted at Gabe but Bedevil could only make out certain words. “We know and rely… love…”

Gabe grabbed onto Bedevil’s tendrils with one blazing hand, and spooled up her tendril around his body, trying to close the distance. Bedevil flexed her power to keep him at bay, but Gabe — the Fear — was stronger with Gabe’s dynakinesis. Bedevil ripped off her helmet. “Gabe! Gabe! Please listen to me! I love you! Fight it!”

Longinus continued his exorcism: “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and—” Bedevil couldn’t make out anymore, as Gabe dragged her closer and the air hissed from the energy radiating from his body. The sweltering heat kissed her cheeks and started to burn. “—love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence—” Bedevil slapped at Gabe with more tendrils to keep him away, but it wasn’t working. Neither could she let him go.

Longinus screamed out: “There is no fear in love! Perfect love drives out fear! The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”

No power came with Longinus’ chant. No miraculous intervention punctuated the end of his words. But Gabe’s eyes widened and he faltered in his attempt to burn Bedevil alive. Bedevil used the opportunity to unwind her tendril from his body.

“Gabe!” Maisa shouted, arriving at last with Flashfire. She threw disks of light that bounced off his body.

The Fear took control again and kicked  free of Bedevil’s tendrils, launching Gabe down. Bedevil screamed. She could not lose him or let him kill the people in the city below. She took flight on her own, tucked her wings in so that she chased Gabe down. She fell into the sea of smoke, panicking as his light got brighter and brighter from the energy he drank in around him.

And then the light died out, and there was a resounding clap as if by thunder, and the smoke dissipated from around her, broken apart by a massive wave of force.


 

 

 

 

 

 

Last chance.

There is not a single part of me that has not been violated. Not a single molecule within me that hasn’t been raked and striped with bloody wounds. The Fear has poisoned me down to my core. Within the void of my mind, I am a lifeless corpse. I am a wavering thought trapped between neurons that only know the impulse of pain.

The people that I have loved and the people I have fought come to carve out their piece of the Fear. On three fronts they arrive; by land and by sky and by sea. Burning Nero charges out in front of a military blockade, with the demoness Carnality, and the reluctant Wind Rider and Meltdown. The White Shark screams over the broken warship, depositing shining Epione, stalwart Krater, cool Templar and fiery Saw Off, and the adept Remise.

And Bedevil flies to me, latched onto a man I’ve only seen in pictures: Longinus, who cries out against the fire in the sky. Behind them, Maisa surfs the air on a board of light. Flashfire holds onto her. Almost in unison they call my name.

Gabe, they shout.

Bedevil is knocked free of Longinus and me. She falls. I cry out.

She flips through the air, and soars up by herself. Neither Longinus nor Maisa were within reach of her telekinesis. She figured out how to fly.

She can fly. By herself, without Megajoule, without me.

That reignites my will to fight. Bronze light sparks in the void.

The Fear shakes in my mind. It speaks to me in a voice that changes with each syllable, shifting from Megajoule’s voice to Sledge’s, to Pandahead and Bedevil, to Doc and to Cynic. Somehow it traps a memory in each word, hammering on my soul with a club made of suicidal thoughts and agony.

YOUR RESISTANCE IS UNSIGHTLY. LIKE A WORM SQUIRMING BETWEEN MY FINGERS.

I refuse to give up. I rise to do battle. Bronze light sparks—

And catches flame.

I hear Longinus’ words across the void: “Perfect love drives out fear!”

Bedevil screams: “I love you!”

Silver light ignites in the dark and joins the bronze fire. The love that Bedevil gave me. I weave myself out of the twin flames, giving structure to my Affect again. It’s not much; a wire frame compared to the immense form of the Fear trapped in my mind with me.

I wrench control away from the Fear for a brief second. On all three fronts I prevent someone from dying, but I’m not even sure who I save. I see Nero through one lens to the real world and shout: “Nero! Do it!”

The Fear rips me from control right after. We tumble through the void. WEAK!

I crash my fist into the Fear, woven with Bedevil’s silver fire. The love weakens and almost gets consumed by the Fear. I remember what happened to poor Epione’s love and I retreat, unwilling to expend my love for Bedevil just to win this fight. That’s not the way. I’m not going to trade everything I live for just to stall the Fear.

I want to win, god damn it.

YOU ARE OUTNUMBERED. YOUR FEARS ARE TOO MANY.

We circle each other, the Fear morphing between forms with each step. Megajoule, Sledge, Pandahead, Bedevil, Flashfire, Doc, Krater, Maisa. Nero, Cynic. The people I’ve disdained. I see all the memories I share with them.

The memory of getting my glasses leaps out to me as if it has a life of its own. It blares and echoes in my mind and says, ‘Look at this, this is it! This is it!’

“You need glasses,” Doc said. “I’ll put an order in for some.”

Thirty-One hesitated. “Glasses?”

“Yeah, like the one he’s wearing.” Doc pointed at the technician. “Just like them.”

“Not like Megajoule?” Thirty-One asked.

If I’m not like Megajoule, who am I like?

I am like Megajoule, though. There are parts of me that I inherited from him. My face, the fight to end the Fear, and my power are all from him.

There are things that Bedevil gave me, like her courage and her love. Flashfire gave me hope and he gave me the will to fight injustice. Doc gave me his wit and his sense of humor, and he gave me some of his regrets. Krater gave me heroism and charisma. Maisa gives me her curiosity and joy, every day.

Even those I would call my enemies gave me things. Nero showed me hunger and confidence. Sledge showed me conviction. Pandahead showed me that the universe doesn’t care about me.

Everything I am I have taken from other people. And everything they are, they have taken from other people. We are all composites of each other. We are colors entwining, Affects woven together, arms entangled. Together we sink or rise.

I rise.

I speak into the void: “You only have one color. You only have fear.”

Colors spark in the darkness, a thousand candles blooming into bonfires that become a raging inferno of white light. They weave into one white-bronze fire. I take the things that others have given to me and make myself out of them. I change them to fit into me.

I understand why Epione lost her love for Flashfire. She used it as the sole weapon. A string by itself is weak. Threaded together with dozens, hundreds, thousands of other strings? It is a cable of solid light that can’t be cut. I rise from the light, an elemental made of stardust and the colors I’ve been afraid to let shine. All my colors woven together. I am brightness itself. “We outnumber you, shadow.”

The Fear retreats from me. The void shakes. The prison is breaking apart.

“All of the hate and pain and sorrow you’ve used against me, the only reason you’ve been able to use them is because I was afraid to face them, and that gave you power.” I coalesce and form a diamond-fire fist. “But the truth is, you belong to me, too! All of this is mine! You only have the power I give you!”

YOU CAN’T ESCAPE A BLACK HOLE!

I can.

I crash into the Fear. Light floods the void. And instead of weaving a new prison around it, I fill myself with so much light that the Fear has no place inside of me that it can live. There is no place within me that is shrouded from me.

The Fear and I are no longer one. We are two. The Fear is outside my body, a mere ball of ink and coils with the face of Megajoule. We fall together through smoke and fire. My power sings to me; I am laden with energy that shines through the dense cloud.  I am in control of myself again.

I summon my power. My rage. My courage. My love. I put every ounce of that energy into my fist and punch the Fear down. The power sends a wave that parts the smoke from me, kills the fires below, and buries the Fear in the pavement with an ear-splitting crash.

I’m free.

I’m free!

I laugh and dive after my enemy. “I told you! I told you that I would find a way to beat you!”

The Fear weaves itself a new body from the emotions it had stored elsewhere, but once that pool runs out, it won’t be able to grow anymore. I chase it down into the street. I land a flying kick that hits like a meteor, rupturing the Fear’s new form. The core smashes into the earth and disappears through the rock. Even so, I’m not worried. I can still sense its location.

I fill my lungs with air. Feels like it’s been years since I’ve breathed. Feels like surfacing after being buried at the bottom of the ocean.

I spread my arms and I laugh. There is no darkness in me anymore. I am light, I am light, I am light.