Category Archives: Volume Four: The Point of the Knife

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 Cynic commissioned the creation of Megajoule’s clones and had them all put down. A recording of Meltdown warning Cynic that Gabe was coming for Buenos Aires.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cynic couldn’t reply.

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

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

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

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

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.

4.14.6

Nero sat in the Foundation meeting room, slicing an apple with a knife, and wondering how much pressure it would take to cut into his thumb while he did so. He listened along with the Argentinian president, the honorable Lucio Genz, to Cynic’s usual line of bullshit. The president sat upright and proper, his hands folded on the table. He gave Nero the impression of an ancient emperor’s marble bust; severe, stern, eyes shining with a vision.

“The threat is being handled,” Cynic said in Spanish, for what must have been the tenth time that conversation. “We’re currently searching for the Cloak right now.”

Lucio leaned back no more than an inch. Just like Nero, he wasn’t buying anything she said. “So it is a Cloak.” Christ, Nero thought, even his voice is severe. “I’ve stuck my neck out for you, Cynic.”

“I’m aware.” Every word she spoke seemed to drive her closer to a panic attack. She reached to adjust her dress coat, and Nero gleefully noted that her hands trembled. “It is OPI’s mission to protect the UWC, and every nation in it.”

“I don’t want another Houston in Buenos Aires,” Lucio said.

“There won’t be. We will protect the UWC.” Cynic’s glare could have cut through steel. “You have my assurance.”

“Here is my assurance,” Lucio said. “If you fail to keep up your end, I will not hesitate to throw you under the bus.”

Cynic’s jaw tightened so much that Nero thought she would crack a tooth. Nero could have stepped in to defend her, or add something to the conversation, but he loved to watch her squirm.

“I know you’re holding back information. If you don’t deliver a full brief to my desk by tomorrow morning, then I will follow the States’ lead and pursue withdrawal from the UWC.” Lucio stood, straightened his suit, and left with his two guards in tow.

Nero ate another slice of his apple. In English, he said, “Nice job.”

Cynic was far too exhausted to reply to Nero’s barb. “Meltdown warned us that he’s coming here.”

“Are you really going to write a report?” Nero asked.

Cynic chewed on her lip. “I… Where is Meltdown?”

“Under house arrest,” Nero said. He’d handled all that when they returned to Foundation while Cynic dealt with the president and marshaled the various resources at her command. Both Meltdown and Wind Rider were locked in their room until further notice. They’d made no attempts to escape, which he’d kind of hoped for given their powers. “Do you have any tracking on him?”

“We lost him once he exited the atmosphere. Thermal imaging tracked him until he expelled the heat.” Cynic frowned. “We know he’s coming here, though. We just don’t know when. The Primum are on standby, and the Argentinian Navy has three destroyers on standby near the port. You’ll be ready to go if we see him coming?”

“Christ, should we drop a nuke on him, too?” Nero asked.

“Do you think?” Cynic frowned. “That would be risky, and it could destroy some treaties or even prompt a nuclear exchange.”

“I was joking,” Nero said. “Did you send any capes up after him?”

“We sent a small team of Primum that can fly, but almost all of the capes with flight mechanisms can only operate in the atmosphere,” Cynic said. “He’s… he’s untouchable, Nero. With the Fear…”

Nero sighed. “Weak.” He stood up. “It’s unbecoming on you, Cynic. When he comes, we’ll handle him.” He finished off his apple, left the core on the Foundation table, and strolled out of the room. He wandered through HQ noting how pretentious the walls were, hewn in ragged patterns to resemble cave rock. The one feature he thought was nifty was the flooring; light shone inside the opaque tiling, lighting everything from below. It provided a moody atmosphere as he made his way to Carnality’s room.

“Knock, knock,” he said, entering in.

Carnality’s room was like his own; furnished about as well as a cruise ship room, and just as cramped. Carnality reclined on her bed, completely nude and still full bodied from the blood in her veins, and watched some cartoon Nero didn’t know. She grinned as he entered and closed the door behind him. “Nero, darling. What can I help you with?”

She was not weak like Meltdown or Cynic. She was a woman of steel and he wanted her. He doubted he could have made that clearer from his expression or as he stripped off his jacket. Carnality turned off her show, stretched her legs in a languish fashion.

Before he could jump her, the room shook as if an earthquake rocked the city. Carnality’s desk toppled over, one of her lamps fell, and her TV dropped off the wall from its post. Nero grabbed onto the door to keep himself upright.

The quake passed in a second.

Carnality stared at Nero, eyes wide.

“What—” Nero started.

A second quake followed, and he knew this was not natural. On the heels of the second, there was a third, and a fourth, and explosions clapping so loud that Nero knew Gabe had come for them at last.

Carnality summoned her blood armor in a flash, and wordlessly the two of them sprinted back to the Foundation command room. Sirens blared from hidden speakers. People flooded the halls. A torrent of Primum and OPI employees rushed to their positions.

The command room was already full of OPI officials and the president Lucio Genz, who’d not gotten off the property before the attack had started. Cynic, Phrygian, and a few of the assistant directors stood watching frantic reports coming in across the city. A team of responders sat at desks, one at each screen, and called out messages. “One of the destroyers suffered a direct hit!”

Cynic responded. “Send Primum out to evacuate the survivors and return them to shore. Move the other ships away from the site.”

Another responder: “There’s flooding along the shoreline!” And another: “One of the projectiles hit Mataderos!”

And again, Cynic’s orders came with a cool demeanor. Gone was the panicked, trembling woman Nero saw only minutes before. She deployed capes according to their powers and the needs of the area.

“There’s a massive heat signature holding at twenty five kilometers above the city.” With that announcement, the room fell silent. Cynic and the directors knew what that meant.

“It’s him,” Nero said.

“Mobilize the Primum to catch anymore projectiles,” Cynic commanded. “Nero, prepare your team, all of them, yes, all of them, for flight—”

One of the responders interrupted her. “We have confirmed visual on a target moving down Au Acceso Oeste.”

The command screen displayed a feed from a White Shark hovering over a highway. A lone figure sped toward it, and at the last moment, vaulted into the air with a massive explosion of black tar. There was only a second of footage before the feed cut off, but Nero saw. It was Gabe, wrapped in black coils along his entire body like some kind of armor.

The sight of Gabe turned the president pale. “That is the son of Megajoule!”

“Then what’s the heat signature?” one of the directors asked.

“Nero, take your team to Oeste.” Cynic snapped her finger. “I’ll send as many Primum and capes as I can.”

“We’ve got reports of Fear puppets following in the target’s wake,” another responder said.

“And soldiers, I’ll send soldiers,” Cynic said, her tough exterior cracking for just a second. She composed herself. “Go! Nero!”

Nero did not wait a second longer. “Carnality, get Meltdown and Wind Rider. They’re coming with us.” He ran for the armory, to don the death armor. As he sprinted away, another responder called out words that chilled him to the core:

“Visual of another target confirmed on one of the destroyers.”


 

Bedevil wished she’d waited to put on Archimedes’ suit for her, because Saw Off kept snickering at her and it was uncomfortable to sit in. Still, everyone else had suited up in their mask outfits, outside of Oracle, who would not be fighting in any capacity, and Krater, who did not need armor. Krater gave her a reassuring smile as her eyes fell on him. “It’s gonna be alright, little lady.”

Bedevil smiled back. “Thanks.”

“You know, I never said it while you were around, but I’m sorry about how the Houston Heroes did you. May was a bitch to you, and the others weren’t acting like proper capes, in my opinion. I shoulda said something back then, and I didn’t.” Krater covered his mouth with his hand, chewing on that regret. He shook his head.

“No sweat, Krater. I was a drunk back then,” Bedevil said.

“You got off the sauce, huh?” he asked.

“Yeah.” Thanks to Gabe, pushing her to be better. Pushing her to fly. Not by his strength, but her own. Now that she could, he needed her to turn around and do the same.

“Proud of you,” Krater said.

Bedevil chuckled. Her amusement died out when she saw Longinus fretting over his bible. She patted Krater’s arm. “’Scuse me.”

Longinus, too, was dressed for the coming battle. His old Inheritors outfit, a tight body-suit that struggled against Longinus’ gut, had accumulated wear and tear from battles. There were dark smudges on his torso and arms. He mumbled to himself as he ran his fingers over the scriptures.

“Do you really not have your powers?” Bedevil asked.

Longinus stopped his ramblings. He closed the bible. “I know that I can still call upon the Lord’s power, but something has bothered me. The last time I used my power, it was to help… help kill Julian. I called upon my power to blind and stun him, and Nero—”

“I do not want to hear this.” Bedevil closed her eyes and counted to ten. “Tell me what the problem is.”

“How can this power be righteous if the last time I used it, I killed a good man?” Longinus asked.

Bedevil sat down next to him with just enough room that they wouldn’t bump elbows. “Aren’t you the priest? I can’t answer that.”

Longinus had no answer, either, as evidenced by his silence.

Gabe would want her to say something to Longinus, something that set his fears at ease. She needed Longinus to be on the ball, too. So: “I don’t know about God, Longinus. I haven’t believed in anything since my mom and dad got divorced, and no one made me go to church after that. But I remember enough to know that Christianity is all about forgiveness.”

Longinus thumped his fingers on his bible again. For a long time, he didn’t say anything, and Bedevil had nothing to add to her point, so she also stayed silent. After a few minutes, Longinus said, “You’re right. You’re right. He calls the broken. While we were still sinners, he died for us.”

“Okay, ease up on the preaching,” Bedevil said. “Or else I’ll kick you out of the ship.”

Longinus laughed, though it didn’t last long. A solemnity came over him, but it seemed to Bedevil that the light in his eyes had ignited once again. “That same verse… it says, ‘It is rare indeed for anyone to die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die.’”

“Greater love hath no man than this,” Bedevil repeated, the Sunday School she had endured calling it to mind. “That a man lay down his life for his friends.” She’d actually had the verse on her mind, recently, when she thought of how she’d convinced Gabe to stop thinking like a martyr. Yet, that was part of why she loved him: He gave so much of himself to others.

“What is your plan for getting him out?” Longinus asked.

“Last time we freed someone from the Fear, Gabe tried to make himself the host. The Fear responded and tried to enter him, but we killed it before it completed the process. Or… well, it managed to survive as some tiny sliver, Epione said.” Bedevil had grown more and more sure of what she’d do to save Gabe. “If we can’t find someway to get it out of him, I want to take it from him.”

Longinus held a hand out to her. She shifted uncomfortably from his touch.

He retreated his hand and looked down at the bible again. “Let me, instead. You have a life to live, Bedevil. My joy is past me. Your joy — your joy with him — it is ahead of you, and I’d not allow you to throw it away when I could save it.”

Bedevil chewed on her lip. It made more sense, she had to admit. Part of her bristled at someone else taking the burden, though. Of possibly becoming this thing’s slave. “Longinus—”

“No. I won’t hear it. I will take it.” Longinus gazed into her eyes. The fire that had ignited had grown into a full flame. “I will die for him and atone for what I’ve done.”

Epione gasped awake across from them, startling Maisa and Flashfire next to her. “It’s starting! He’s lost control again!”

“How far are we?” Bedevil asked. “Do you know what’s happening?”

“We’re five minutes from Buenos Aires,” Archimedes called from the cockpit. “Linear doesn’t have any data to work with yet, so I don’t have probabilities for you. As for our exit, once we get him— HOLY SHIT!”

Bedevil scrambled to the cockpit and wedged herself between Archimedes and Linear to look out the window. Two streaks of fire sliced through the afternoon sky and struck the city, while another landed somewhere in the bay. Three warships maneuvered in the bay, one a smoking wreck. Bedevil breathed out.

A point of blinding orange light hung in the sky, way above the city.

Epione leaned in over Bedevil’s shoulder. “That’s him. He’s… he’s fighting it but it’s going to fall. And it’s going to kill a lot more people than those meteors just did.” She closed her eyes. “And there’s more… there’s… other entities. One’s coming in from the land, and one is on one of the destroyers. But Gabe’s body…” She pointed at the light. “That’s him.”

Bedevil snapped her fingers and turned back to the Underground. “Okay. Only Longinus, Maisa, and I can fly. Maisa, you can take one other person, right? Can you bring Epione?”

Epione shook her head. “Let me go down to the warships.”

“What, why?” Bedevil asked.

“I’ll only hold you back in the sky. And the people on the ground, they have no idea these other entities are just shadows of Gabe. They’ll try to kill them and find out that the real threat is up in the sky.”

“What if we need you?” Bedevil asked. “If we get the Fear out, you’ll need to kill it.”

Epione smiled at her. “Which one I go to doesn’t matter. I’ll still be able to influence it from one of the other shadows, and I won’t have to worry about falling out of the sky if I go to the ships.”

Bedevil’s next choice was easy, then. “Okay. Archimedes, get ready to drop me, Maisa, Longinus, and Flashfire.”

Flashfire looked to Epione. “I—” He chuckled. “I shouldn’t worry about you, should I?”

Epione’s smile never changed. Bedevil still saw that behind her eyes, there was a tumult of emotions she couldn’t control. “No. You don’t.”

“Okay. Then I’m with you, Bedevil.” Flashfire looked back to her — and wow, Bedevil only just now noticed how handsome he was. She’d keep that little tidbit to herself— and she saw his determination. “We’ll save Gabe.”

“The rest of you go to the warships. We’ll meet back up once,” if, she thought, “we save Gabe.”

Archimedes flew them in toward the point in the sky. “Gabe’s starting to drop. I’ll put you on a path to intercept. Once you have him, comm me. I’ve got plans for after this fight is over. We’re going to come out as the good guys this time.”

The four rescuers stood at the bay doors, waiting for them to open. Bedevil donned one of the airdrop helmets for high altitudes. The others copied her. She tested the comms, found them working.

“Doors opening in three, two, one!” Archimedes shouted.

Hydraulics hissed and wind screamed through the White Shark as the bay door dropped down. Bedevil held her breath and dived out over the burning city.


 

The fire hasn’t gone out yet.

I tend the flames of my Affect, trying so hard to keep them alight despite the howling wind of the Fear around me. We are woven together so that I can see what the Fear sees, hear what it hears, feel what it feels. I can sense through the doppelgangers as they cleave into Buenos Aires.

There are two smoking wounds in the city below us. I hear gunfire through one of the doppelgangers ripping its way through the metal corridors of a battleship, through dozens of men and women. Capes fall before the other doppelganger that walks along a highway, rising again as puppets to the Fear’s will.

But since we are woven together, I pull at my own threads to resist the Fear. I burn the coils wrapping around me. The Fear wants my body to drop out of the sky and start its own meteoric descent, the final blow on Foundation.

I resist with all the fire inside me.

But I am not enough.

We begin.

VOTE ON TOP WEB FICTION / JOIN THE DISCORD

4.14.5

See the woman I love underneath the shadow of the clergy house. See that she stood before the door with color close to vantablack in shade. The weight of the door pulled her closer, guided her trembling hand — her whole left — by an almost magnetic energy. Even with the curious draw to knock, the words she had yet to speak repelled her; the unspoken pain and the rage threatening to leak out of every pore held her back.

In the end, Templar knocked on the door. They made a lonely pair on the porch of Longinus’ home. Home? Far more a hiding place. The bottom side of a rock. The windows and the musty wood. The stone walkway caked with dirt. Grass overgrown. Longinus did not keep this place up. There was a tiny chapel of red brick just behind them, overlooking the coast.

“How long has it been?” Bedevil asked.

“Since?” Templar looked her over, saw what she meant. “Ah. A little over a year. I saw Jamie the most, but even he got busy.”

Bedevil dwelt on the winds that had blown them all apart. The drinking, the regret. Would Mega be ashamed if he was alive? Would he understand that life had a way of doing that? She imagined he did. “You know, it wasn’t all on you. I should have reached out, too.”

“I was the leader.” Templar’s eyes searched the blackness of the door for some image Bedevil could only imagine. “I should have made every effort to ensure you were safe. Instead, I let you get swept under a rug.”

“I have a phone.” Bedevil would own her own wrongs. She would not let Templar bear all the weight of their dissolution. “I have an email and the ability to send a letter. But I was too busy drinking myself into oblivion.”

Templar did not break her gaze from the door. “It’s not your fault.”

“Oh.” Bedevil wanted to lighten the mood a bit. She shrugged. “I wasn’t aware you were there forcing beer through a funnel into my mouth. Or maybe you used your power to give me a crippling addiction.”

Templar snorted. She looked away. “Maybe that would have been easier, huh?”

“If you were a monster?” Bedevil asked.

“Monsters are easier to understand.” Templar frowned, and though she never cried, her eyes told the story of sleepless nights.

The statement struck Bedevil, but once she’d thought on it, she realized that made perfect sense from Templar. When she was in the Inheritors, Templar stared at reports and rogue psych-evals. She was the one who faced Kassandra in Syria.

Bedevil, on the other hand, had more experience with plain old people. She smiled at Templar. “You can handle the monsters, then.” After she spoke, she realized that Longinus had still not answered the door. “Where is he?”

Templar shook her head, a small gesture. No telling. She knocked again.

A voice grumbled through the walls. “Give me a fuck— a second…”

Bedevil had not heard his voice in years. Through the walls she could tell he’d developed a gravel, like she had, from drinking. Alcohol and smoke left their marks. Not just that. They were still writing on his words.

Bedevil’s heart almost broke there on the porch. Like had called out to like. A man torn apart by monstrous guilt. A man who’d grinned at her, a cup of coffee infused with THC in his hands, and encouraged her before she’d joined the Inheritors. And yet, that same man was there as Megajoule died.

Where was Longinus truly, then?

At the door, now, fumbling with the keys. Bedevil steadied herself.

The vantablack door peeled back to reveal a haggard man’s face in the crack, peering out with blinking, drunken eyes. He stared at them behind smudged glasses, as if he did not know their faces, and then came the connection. Those dull eyes widened, his lips parted beneath his rough beard. He said no words.

“Longinus?” Templar asked.

Longinus opened the door wide. His mouth worked to speak but made no sound.

Bedevil fared no better. Her rage dissipated at the sight of him, wretched and clinging to the door like a raft. His blinking, dullard eyes. His pallor expression. His clothes and clerical collar unwashed, reeking even from two feet away.

“Templar,” Longinus said at last. “Bedevil. Do come in.”

Without protest, they followed Longinus into his home. They sat with him in the tiny living room, where they had to move aside clothes and books just to make space. Bedevil found the couch lumpy and uncomfortable. She adjusted it and found another book underneath, which she set aside.

“Your hand,” Longinus said. “What happened to it?”

“I was in a bad fight.” Bedevil didn’t have the patience for niceties or catching up. “Longinus, we came to ask for your help. Have you been watching the news?”

“I try not to.” Longinus stared through her. “But I know about Gabe, if that’s what you mean. Is that why you are here, after all these years?”

“Gabe’s been taken by the Fear.”

Longinus sat upright. He scratched his beard, and all the while his gaze still pierced through Bedevil, somewhere far away.

“You’ve fought the Fear, haven’t you?” Bedevil, stirred by a sense of urgency to free Gabe, became frustrated at his apathy.

Longinus sighed. “You don’t want my help.”

“Longinus,” Templar said. “We do.”

“No, he’s right.” Bedevil glared at him, marshaling her anger. “I don’t want your help, Longinus. I know the truth of what you’ve done. I know you helped murder Julian and I know that you hid when the rest of us were left wondering why. You buried your head in this church and I can tell you tried to bury yourself. I can tell you’ve had nothing to drink that wasn’t hard liquor in God knows how long, and that you’ve stained every room in this building with pot. Am I wrong about any of that?”

Longinus gawked. He retreated into his recliner as far as he could, as if it would hide him from Bedevil’s words. “No,” he mustered, when he found nowhere else to run.

“I don’t want your help at all. But I need it. You’ve fought the Fear. I need your help rescuing Gabe.” Bedevil rose. She marched over to his recliner. “And I’m not taking no for an answer. I’m not going to let you die in this place by yourself. You need to come with us as much as we need you. Am I wrong about that, either?”

Longinus pulled his glasses from his face, a stammering wreck of a man. Once the glasses were off, Bedevil saw the deep bags beneath his eyes. “No. You’re not.”

“You killed him,” Bedevil whispered. She knelt in front of Longinus. “Why?”

“I…” Longinus shook his head, as if that would dispel her like a drunken hallucination. “I don’t know. I don’t know. I was afraid of Cynic and Nero.”

“No,” Bedevil said. “You weren’t.”

“Please, I don’t know. I picked a side I thought would win. I picked the side that…”

“That required less of you,” Bedevil answered for him.

“They didn’t require me at all,” Longinus said. “They let me retire in peace. No more Fear.”

“You killed him over the Fear?” Bedevil asked. A sudden bout of disgust hit her, thinking of how Gabe dove into the Fear to save Maisa even after he’d seen the worst of it once before. How unlike Gabe this Longinus was. “Really?”

“Really?” Longinus found his fire at last. He sat up and his gaze finally found its way to her eyes, not far away. “You’ve seen it.”

“The love of my life is in it right now,” Bedevil said.

Longinus faltered.

“Please, Longinus. I am so angry with you, I am so hurt by you.” Bedevil could have clasped her hands. “But I don’t care about that right now. I care about Gabe. He needs your help. We can hash out the rest later, once he’s safe.”

Longinus was somewhere between a sage man pondering his future and a cornered beast, trapped by hunters with spears and fire. He had nowhere to run, nowhere to go.

“Please. Help me.”

Longinus put a hand on her shoulder. He stood up and stumbled from her, awkwardly glanced over his shoulder. He disappeared into his kitchen, shuffled around for a few moments, and then returned, a black bible in his hand. There was not a cross on the cover, but a single, golden ‘I.’

He thumped his fingers on the bible. “For a long time, I’ve not had sermons. No one in this town is Episcopalian.” He caressed the leather cover, his fingers tracing out the golden letter. “When I gave them, though, I was a rotten preacher. Who knew that a murderer stood behind the pulpit? Most who came in the first years knew I was an Inheritor. They didn’t know that I was part of their end.

“One thing they did know. I could not bring myself to the pulpit some days.” He sagged his shoulders, defeated. “Some days it was drink, and the people would say, ‘He’s had too much.’ Other days, I couldn’t even muster the strength to open the bottle. And then they wouldn’t know what to say.”

“I’m surprised you’re still a priest,” Bedevil said.

A miniscule smile haunted his lips. “I am poured out like water, and my bones are all out of joint. My heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast. My strength is dried up.”

Templar spoke now: “What are you saying?”

“I haven’t opened this book in years. I have not called my power since I used it to slay the man I called my brother.” Longinus placed his bible on a coffee table already too full with books, and the entire pile clattered to the ground. “And now, when I recite verses, I feel nothing.”

“What are you saying?” Templar asked again, her voice like the edge of a knife.

“I am saying I can’t help you,” Longinus said.

Bedevil couldn’t believe it. She knew he was lying, she could just tell. “You’re a coward,” was the only thing she had to say, before fleeing out the front door. She ran out to the chapel and fell to her knees there, her hand against the brick.

It was the smell that caught her first.

Longinus mentioned he drank a lot. Bedevil did not expect to find a half-drunken bottle of whiskey resting two feet from her.

The smell woke something inside her blood. It stirred the ravenous beast that Bedevil had not heard from in the three months she’d spent in Chile. She was not prepared for how her skin began to crawl, how her mouth dried out, and how her stomach turned.

Why not? She wondered. The last three days had been a nightmare. Would anyone blame her if she drank? Would Gabe? He wouldn’t, he wouldn’t. He loved her. Maybe he’d be mad, but he would understand, right? The beast inside begged. It demanded.

Drink.

Drink.

Drink.

Bedevil reached for the bottle, grasped it around the neck. She waited there for a moment, feeling like she was tottering over the edge of a cliff.

There was no grand moment of resistance, no triumphant roar. She simply thought, ‘I must be better than this,’ and let go of the bottle. Standing took more work, like a rocket hitting escape velocity, but she managed to get to her feet, and walk away.

Bedevil walked over to the cliff that overlooked the ocean. They’d flown so much she was barely even sure of where they were; somewhere north, possibly even Canada. Gulls hung in the air above her, cawing and drifting along the wind.

Wings. Bedevil paid attention to their wings, how they held them aloft. Archimedes told her that the wingspan required to lift an adult was almost seven meters. That was easily within the length of her tendrils. She wove them into the shape of bat wings, like Archimedes had advised her. He’d told her she needed a takeoff speed of around fifteen miles per hour. Easy. She hooked some of her tendrils into the cliff-side.

She vaulted herself up.

Her invisible wings caught on the ocean breeze and lifted her up. Bedevil cheered as she rose on the currents, flapping her new wings wildly to take her higher.

See the woman I love soar faster than she’s ever flown before, save when she latched onto me or Megajoule. See her whoop as she dropped low over the water and stabbed her fingers into the sea. See her land and fall to her knees when she could not keep up with the velocity of her flight. See her land in a heap of laughter.

“Bedevil!” Templar shouted. “You flew!”

Bedevil sat up with a grin, which she lost when she saw that Longinus trailed behind Templar, carrying his bible and a pack in the crook of his arm. He could not meet her glare, but he wore a faint smile. Bedevil rose to greet them. “I thought you weren’t coming.”

Longinus grimaced. Still he could not raise his eyes. “I think that he would be upset with me if I did not go to help Gabe.”

“God or Megajoule?” Bedevil asked.

“Both,” Longinus answered. “You’re right. I’ve been a coward. Let me atone.”

Templar turned her head to the right, listening to the comm in her ear. “Atonement can wait. Archimedes is calling us back to the White Shark.”

Still, Bedevil felt uneasy that Longinus was coming after he’d tried to weasel his way out of it. Not that she would rake him over the coals for that, but the Fear operated on cowardice. Bedevil worried that his weakness would fuel the entity inside Gabe.

She said none of this, though, and only hurried with Templar and Longinus back to the White Shark. Archimedes waited with the bay door opened, and as soon as they were on board, it closed behind them. “What’s going on?” Templar asked.

“Gabe is going to attack Buenos Aires,” Epione said. “He’s lost control again.”

Bedevil turned to Longinus. She hadn’t said anything as they ran, but now she would. Then, seeing that he watched her, she reconsidered. Why demoralize him further? They’d have words, true. After Gabe was safe. For now, she nodded at him. “Thank you, Longinus.”

The White Shark leapt into the air while everyone got settled, and Archimedes came out of the cockpit to brief them. “I’ve had my ear to the ground. The capes lost Gabe in Argentina, close to the border of Paraguay. They have reason to believe the Fear will attack Buenos Aires soon.”

“He called out to me,” Epione said. “He was in trouble.”

Flashfire scowled. He looked ready for a fight. “We’re going to get him out of there.”

“How long until we’re at the city?” Bedevil asked.

“With a hard burn, we can be there in eight hours,” Archimedes said. “Epione is keeping an eye on him. She says he’s in orbit right now.”

“Orbit?” Remise guffawed. “What, you mean he’s in space?”

“Yeah. Either the Fear is keeping him alive or he has some way to breathe we didn’t know about,” Archimedes said.

“Megajoule could do that,” Bedevil said. “He never explained it, but he didn’t need to breathe for hours. He said that was really uncomfortable, though.”

“Whatever it is, it’s not good for us.” Archimedes nodded to Bedevil. “You’re the one who’s going to get close. I made you a suit with the White Shark’s mesh printer. Come try it on, tell me if it needs adjustments.”

A suit. Bedevil hadn’t worn one in a while. Was it excitement or dread at the thought? She didn’t know, but she rose to find out. Archimedes handed her a spandex suit that looked like it was the base of something grander. The material was white and gray, except for the gloves and shoes, which were bright red.

“I tried to incorporate your color scheme a bit.” Archimedes offered her one last piece: her Inheritors cape, the same fire-engine red as the gloves and boots. “Do you want it?”

Bedevil stared at the cape. That life felt so long ago. The girl that wore this cape with pride, well, Bedevil wasn’t her. Not anymore. She’d grown up, been through hell, fallen in love, and now she was fighting for everything she held dear.

Bedevil took the cape and unfolded the fabric. She saw that the bottom was frayed, torn, stained and dirty. The cape was rough around the edges, but like her, it had been through hell.

She donned it with a new pride.

See the woman I love, dressed in her armor, looking every part the cape she once was and more. See her becoming more. See her coming to save me.

VOTE ON TOP WEB FICTION / JOIN THE DISCORD

4.14.4

Meltdown drags me through the jungle. I stumble along behind her, weakened by my lack of food and water. Exhaustion lays a thick blanket over my head despite my restful night of sleep. Her relentless pull picks me up into the air as she takes flight.

“Stop, stop.” I grab her arm and reach my feet down, anchoring myself to a root. “If they catch you helping me, they’ll kill you, too. No one else is dying because of me.”

Meltdown groans in frustration as she fails to free me from the ground. “I can’t let her get you! If we fly up…”

“Someone will catch us,” I say. “Why are you helping me? Just let me go!”

“No!” Meltdown lands in front of me. “No. I can’t. You’re not evil, you’re a victim. You’re a good person, and I won’t let the Fear or Carnality or Nero or anyone take you!”

I can’t even see her expression. But I hear in her voice that she would die defending me. That she is possibly one of the few true heroes in the capes. I hear that she stands alone and has for years, even with a husband. I don’t just hear it, I feel it.

I wrench my hand free of her. “I can’t let you take that fall. Go back. Go back and tell the others you found me, before Carnality finds us—”

“TOO LATE, DARLING!”

Carnality becomes my entire world as she sweeps me off my feet. Her face is so close to mine that despite my nearsightedness the image of her is burned into my mind. Bloody red eyes shining with delight. Sharp fangs exposed in barbaric grin. White marble skin, yet her cheeks are rosy and flushed with blood.

A monster right out of my nightmares.

The Fear strains at the prison. My power screams on the edge of my mind, demanding I use it to save myself. The Fear shrieks. Save yourself. Kill them all and save yourself.

We land together but separate as we roll. The suit eats all of the damage It hums with energy I can’t draw from. All it is now is an extra shield. I can’t even discharge the damn thing.

Which means at some point, it will run out of room to store energy and I’ll be left to take the punishment Carnality dishes out. She doesn’t relent, either. She launches at me, claws first, shrieking against my arms and my chest. My head starts to feel light, I guess from hunger and from thirst.

“Come on, darling, give me a show! Give me a fight!” Carnality swipes at me again, this time grazing my cheek with the tip of her middle-finger nail. Blood flows from the wound in a long strand toward Carnality and sinks into her skin through her neck. She grins at me. “Show me what you showed me in Puerto Guadal.”

“Shit,” I mutter. She has no idea that I can’t use my power.

I should let her kill me. Destroy the Fear inside me, so it can’t harm anyone else. I’m out of options anyway, now that OPI has caught up to me. So fast. I thought I’d have more time. I can almost taste how close I am to repelling the Fear. Just a little more and I could have woven a prison that would restrain it while liberating my power.

I open my mind and reach out to Epione one last time. One last chance, Ep. Are you there? I’m in trouble.

Within the storm, deep within my Affect, there is a whisper so slight and tiny that it must be coming from far away. No, Gabe. I hear you, but I’m not close enough.

Can you tell Bedevil I love her?

Silence from her. Carnality paces. She could kill me in a few seconds just by draining me of blood, but I think that she wants this to drag on. A red spear forms in her hand, aimed for my heart. “Come on, darling, come on!”

Epione responds. A faint signal. Gabe, please, don’t die. We need you.

Shit.

White light fills my vision for an instant, followed by a crackling roar. Carnality falls to her knees. A shaft of lightning recedes from her back to Meltdown’s hand.

Meltdown is just as much an elemental as I am. Arcs of plasma and energy as she soars above Carnality. Another bolt floods everything with sharp light and a thunderous boom, and again, as if Meltdown beats a drum with each attack. Carnality draws from more of my blood, nearly blacking me out, and forms a shield in front of her that blocks Meltdown’s fourth bolt.

“Gabe, run!” Meltdown shouts.

I listen to her. I can only manage a hobble between my exhaustion and the blood Carnality drained from me, but I put distance between us. More bouts of lightning report behind me, evidence of Meltdown’s assault. Electricity crackles in the air and runs invisible fingers on my skin, making my exposed hairs stand at attention.

More blurry figures fly through the trees around me, but I keep going. I run until my foot snags under a root and I eat dirt.

I scramble to my knees, back up to my feet, and start moving again.

Until fire explodes through the forest and something with the force of a  train hits me in the back. Nero screams in my ear, but the words aren’t meant for me. “Kill him fast!” The blurry figures fly around me, but I can make out splotches of white. Primum, they have to be.

I roll away from him, and with my feeble, human arm, I sock him across the jaw.

The blow stuns Nero enough for me to retreat a few feet back before he starts swinging. He’s pouring out energy, so much that the suit is getting close to capacity. It’s already close to its peak of twenty thousand degrees internally. The material around my skin glows.

Nero meets my eyes. “You’re not possessed right now, are you?”

“You still want to kill me, don’t you?” I ask, putting my fists up.

Nero’s stunned expression switches to a grin. “You’re lucky Meltdown found you first.”

“Nero, if I ever get out of the Fear’s grasp, I’m going to kill you. I will find a way.” I let my anger fill my words. “I’m going to kill you or I’m going to bury you or freeze you or launch you into space or any number of things that are worse than death.” Part of this rant is true. If I ever get the chance, vengeance and justice for Nero will be the same thing. It will be me making sure he never kills again. But, the other part is a taunt. If he kills me now, well, so much the better for it.

“You won’t,” Nero replies. He crouches, shifts forward onto the balls of his feet. The onslaught is coming. My death with it.

I notice too late that my right arm is still out of my control. The hand won’t form into a fist. The forearm twists, the arm hinges the elbow on its own.

Nero charges.

My right arm raises to meet him and catches the blow in my right hand. Energy flows into me.

The Fear activated my power through my hand.

I TOLD YOU. YOU COULD NOT RESTRAIN ME LONG. YOUR PRISON IS FLAWED.

My mind is ripped in two. One part of me crushed underneath Sledge’s horrible body in the Second Ward. One part of me here, in the jungle, unable to stop the Fear from flooding Nero’s body with every single joule of energy stored inside my suit until he is vaporized.

Sledge whips at me with long tentacles lined with bone spikes. I close my eyes and struggle to keep myself here.

I’m torn apart again, and I’m floating over a city that I’ve never seen before. There’s a building shaped like an anvil with a golden statue of some cape, and then a meteor strikes the city. A huge plume of fire and dust shoves me free of the vision.

But in the impact crater, it’s not a lump of interstellar metal. I rise from the crater, ink spilling from my eyes and mouth.

The Fear is going to use me to destroy a city.

God, damn it, if they hadn’t caught me. If I’d had a little more time to concentrate. I could’ve built a prison that worked. I scream out in rage. “I was this close!” And then I realize, I still have some control of my body. The Fear is only using my arm and my power.

Meltdown screams back in the clearing I left her in.

The blurry Primum close in. Nero is reforming out of thin air.

Stay alive, Gabe, we need you.

I summon my power and launch through the woods, using the Earth’s rotation as my momentum. That blast costs me my right leg, which begins to kick like a stubborn horse as I fly through the woods, and absorbing the landing steals the sight from my left eye permanently.

In my good right eye, I make out Carnality atop Meltdown, spear aimed for Meltdown’s neck.

I could blast off right now, retain control of most of my body, and figure out the prison again. But I can’t leave Meltdown to die.

Carnality tries to steal some of my blood, but I create a seal of kinetically frozen air around my neck. The seal cuts off her power.

I kick off into another kinetic leap using my left leg. This blast costs me my neck, which starts to twist my head away from my target so I can’t see. I hold my breath and pray to the God I don’t believe in. I swing a wild left haymaker, empowered by Earth’s gravity.

Carnality screams as I punch her right off Meltdown. I hear her crashing through the trees. The arm I hit her with betrays me and starts to flail along with my right.

I collapse near Meltdown. “You… go…” I can barely speak. “Tell… OPI… I’m going to attack a city… with an anvil building…” My throat strains against my words.

Meltdown gasps. “Buenos Aires. The Fear is aiming for Foundation.”

I recall what the Fear said to Nero. That it would crack the foundation of the world. It was being cheeky. “I’m doing… what I can… to stop it… I’ll try and stop it from using my body.” After that, the Fear chokes me so I can’t speak.

All I have left is my access to my power, my left leg, my right eye, and my torso. I use my leg and waist to roll away from Meltdown. I drink in all the energy I can, feeling the Fear take hold more and more as each joule enters me.

I launch myself up. The jungle peels away and I’m surrounded by bright blue sky. My left leg leaves my control at last. The Fear doesn’t have complete control. I still have my right eye. I burn the energy I have hard, until the sky isn’t blue, but a dark black.

My kinetic sense tells me that I’ve entered low-earth-orbit, that the horizon is falling away faster than I am falling. There’s very little energy around me. I stare out at the void, see the moon peeking just above the blue-green curve below me. I feel no need to breathe; an application of my power activates the kinetic chemical reactions of breathing for me. I can stay up here for a long time. Hours, at least.

The Fear begins to pick at the corners of my mind, at the last defense I’ve made around my power and my right eye.

My vision goes first, and I sink into my mind, clinging to my power. In my mind’s eye, I hold the bronze fire of my Affect in my hands. All around me the dark coils of ink close in, freed from the prison I wove around them. The black hole grows and grows until it is all I can see, and the fire in my hands sputters like a candle against a hurricane.

I fold my hands around it. I must protect the flame at all costs.

The coils begin to shred into me. YOUR FEARS ARE SO MANY. THEY OUTNUMBER YOU, HUMAN. I’m in too many places to count. I’m being crushed by Sledge. I’m being swallowed by the corpse pile of my brothers. I’m being dragged through Parlor, through the bodies of dead children. I’m being ridiculed and overwhelmed by Nero.

Hours pass as the memories wash over me.

It takes ages of struggling, but the black coils of the Fear wrench my fingers open, and the Fear has my power.

That is not the end of my awareness. The Fear drags my mind up to the surface of my body and forces me to look through my eyes.

We soar toward a hulking satellite. The machine dwarfs me. Yet, the Fear moves my body through it, shredding the metals apart like butter, and rips it to pieces. The Fear works and works at the satellite, crunching it into three metal balls roughly the size of a sedan each.

The Fear guides these metallic meteors down through the atmosphere, through the first fires of reentry. As we slip back into the atmosphere, the Fear speaks to me with my own voice. “Your power is wasted on you. I will show you its proper use.”

I see that my vision has come true. We hover over Buenos Aires.

The Fear opens my mouth, My stomach lurches and I vomit up ink, more ink than I could have held in my gut. More ink than should exist inside me. The blob separates into two halves and they slowly take shape into perfect copies of me. These two dopplegangers fall out of the sky, toward the city.

The Fear uses my voice to speak again. “We begin.”

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4.14.3

The storm rages. Inside my heart and over the nighttime jungle, it cracks whips of lightning, their tips laced with powerful thunder. I can almost taste the sound waves traveling through the air and rain, laced with vibrational energy. Even that temptation frays at the prison in my mind. I could take that energy, if I wished.

If I survive, sound. Sound is what I will try next. I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me before.

So many things I’ve missed because my head was too stuck up my own ass to realize they were right in front of me. And even then, I wasn’t really examining myself. I was just… I don’t even know. Hiding. Hiding behind a mask because I was afraid of my own face.

Another bolt of lightning rips apart the darkness. Not that it’s any use to me, without my glasses or goggles.

I guide my way through the jungle with my fumbling hands. I’m unworried about minor injuries. The suit Archimedes made for me protects my skin. I am worried about picking up a disease, a parasite, or getting caught by capes.

My hand scrapes on something smooth. I press my fingers against the barrier and find it wobbles. Not a boulder or the side of a hill, no. This is a wall. I press my nose to it and feel the scrape of stone, the coolness of the brick. There’s slimy moss, too, and it is slick from rain. I extend my reach and find that the wall is crumbling, and not even as wide as the span of my arms, and only slightly taller than I am. There is a piece of metal embedded into the wall at about eye level.

A cross. The metal thing is a cross. A symbol of faith.

I’ve never believed too much in God. Thinking on it, I’m somewhat of an affront to him, aren’t I? Made by someone’s power, gifted to them by the Affect, and a direct copy of a man long dead. What would God say about me?

No, I’ve never believed too much in God. Perhaps because I am scared to do so.

Perhaps I am scared to believe in anyone at all.

I rest my back against the stone. I listen carefully and make sure that no one is near. I don’t see any lights nearby, any indication that I’ve stumbled onto civilization somehow. I think that I’ve found only the ruins of some old church or mission, the only piece left hundreds of years on this little wall. I decide that I will rest here, even though I’d like to be out of the rain.

The few times I’ve fallen asleep, the Fear dragged me under and turned my rest into a nightmarish battle. The end result is that I haven’t felt very well rested. It’s only been two days since I managed to imprison the Fear, but those two days feel like months thanks to those nightmares. I don’t wish to sleep, even if I must. Even if I prevail in the dream, the battle is so exhausting. A cruel joke of a fight. Like falling into knives.

If you look, it takes you. Closing my eyes is looking, unfortunately.

And if I lose in the dream, what happens out here? The Fear can go on much longer than I can.

What did Bedevil say to me, back then in Houston? I can’t let an obstacle dictate how far I can go. My power is unusable. The Fear is tearing up my brain matter. Neither of these should dictate how far I can go.

I sit cross-legged under the wall and close my eyes. Sleep threatens me as soon as my eyelids shut but I balloon my lungs and hold the breath for a ten-count.

I don’t have a pencil, a paper, or anything to write on. Even so, I want to dictate who I am. I want so fervently to acknowledge who I am and what I believe. I’ve always worried that I am only a sum of questions, and that, in answering those questions, I will disappear.

Now, I believe differently.

In answering those questions, I will find out who I really am.

Who am I? I am Gabe.

What do I want? I want many things. I want to save the world. I want to feel Bedevil’s arms around me and the soft beating of her heart. I want to taste her lips and make love to her again. I want a kid, when I settle down. I hope she wants a kid. I want my friends safe and happy. I want Maisa to feel loved. I want to kill Nero and Cynic. But I also want them to face justice, not vengeance. I want to go home. I want to eat a cheeseburger. I want those jellybeans back, babe.

Where are you going? Toward something. Toward myself.

What am I afraid of? That no matter how hard I fight, no matter what I do, nothing will change.

What do I need? Right now, clean water and food. A restful night of sleep. I need my friends. I need Bedevil.

What am I?

That’s… a strange question, isn’t it? That’s not something that’s so easy to answer. I’m almost asking ‘what’s a clone?’ or ‘what’s a human?’ or even ‘what’s a superhero?’

All good questions. What am I? I am a human. Even if I am a clone, or a cape, or a mask, beneath all of that, I am a human.

I am just like all the other humans, deep down. Embroiled in this world with them, struggling to fulfill my needs and desires. We are entangled in each other, arms interlocked in a constant battle for ourselves. Together we sink or rise.

That’s what Bedevil meant. I believe we are all sinking. Megajoule rose. The rest of us sink.

I disdain us all.

Something inside me chafes, it screams and it rages as I turn my gaze upon it to study it. I disdain us all. I disdain us. I disdain us. It hurts. It hurts so bad to look at that.

If you look, it takes you.

No, that’s what it wants me to think. It doesn’t want me to look because it’s scared that if I cast light on it, the shadow will disappear. If I surround it in light, there is no place for a shadow to go. It’s just that the light I am casting now is not quite bright enough, not encompassing enough.

Now… how do I do make it brighter?

That’s not something I have the answer to just yet, but I can sense it just beyond the horizon. Bedevil, thank you. I know you can’t hear me from wherever you are. Epione hasn’t been back to relay any messages. But still, I hope you know how much I owe you. How much I have leaned upon your love in this fight.

God, it’s almost like I’m dying. I wonder if this is what Megajoule felt in his final days. If he thought of his wife. If he thought of his mistakes.

There is so much of me that is him. Yet, I disdain myself. Even him. Even him. That’s how the Fear has used him against me. Because I believe both that he is beyond my reach and that he is a parasite on my soul. Because I hate him and I love him. Because I am torn between those two things: wanting to be my own person and wanting to be him.

There’s a part of me that is him. I can’t deny that. Denying it and being afraid of it, that gave the Fear the toehold in my psyche.

Still, Bedevil. Thank you. I love you.

A silver light sparks and grows in my mind’s eye, gently blossoming as if a rose. The silver fire warms me and weaves into my Affect, and I feel Bedevil’s love within it. I don’t know how I know, I just know it’s what she gave me. Her perfect gift.

The Fear quiets inside. The storm calms.

I drift into peaceful oblivion.

A soft murmur stirs me from that peace.

“…you dead?” she asks.

I open my eyes. It is mid-morning, judging by the dim light reflecting off the sopping leaves and mud-soaked dirt. A woman stands in front of me, dressed in white. Golden hair spills down her shoulders, and she holds a hand out at me. Is it Bedevil?

She mutters to herself. She looks around her to see if anyone else is nearby.

My lips crack open, startling the woman. “Bedevil? Ruby?” My body feels weak. I don’t know how long I’ve been under this wall but I am too weak now to resist anyone. My spirit feels strong but my body… it’s suffering. I haven’t eaten in days.

She stares at me for a moment. In her silence I study her as best I can. A white spandex outfit, laced with green. A green smudge around her eyes. Probably a bolero mask. Some kind of backpack? She must be a cape.

Then I’ve been caught. “Not Bedevil,” I say.

She retreats a step back from me. She reaches her hand out and lightning dances between her fingertips. Ah, now I recognize her. Meltdown. One of the capes the Fear almost killed in Puerto Guadal. I can’t do anything against her right now, not with my power restrained as it is, and even then, I can’t do anything against electromagnetic energy. The Fear rages — it does not want me to die. Even so, it’s the second best thing that can happen to me now.

I close my eyes. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you. Go ahead.”

“You’re… you’re Gabe. Not the Fear,” she says.

I open my eyes again. Would it be better to bait her into killing me? Spare everyone the trouble? Ah, but then again, I’d be creating trouble for my friends. I told Bedevil I would fight this until I fell and after I fell, I would get back up again and fight it until I beat it. Until I won. “You’re hesitating.”

“You don’t have ink coming out of you,” Meltdown says.

“No. I’m…” How to explain? “I don’t know very much about what I did but I trapped it inside me.”

“You’re not possessed.”

“Sharing a cell,” I tell her.

Meltdown pauses. “I… I don’t even know… what to do or what to say.”

“Neither do I.”

Incredibly, she sits down.

“Don’t you have back up?” I ask.

“We’re sweeping the jungle, in search parties. I have back up nearby. I’m supposed to buzz for them.”

I can’t read her expression from the wall. I don’t want to move because I’ll spook her. “So why don’t you?”

“I thought you were dead.”

“That’s not an answer,” I say. “You saw what I did in Chile.”

“That wasn’t you,” Meltdown says.

“It was my body.”

“Were you in control?”

Only briefly. Only for a moment, to beg Nero to kill me. “No.”

“I know what the Fear does,” Meltdown says. “I’m one of the few who knows. We thought you were lost completely. But I’ve seen hosts still aware right up until they died. I’ve never seen a host restrain it, though.”

“Don’t you think you should buzz them, then? Or kill me?” I ask. “Since you’ve never seen that before, how can you believe me?”

“You want me to kill you.” Meltdown’s voice wavers. From here she really looks like Bedevil.

“Aren’t you Wind Rider’s wife?” I ask.

Meltdown nods. That much I can make out, at least.

Yikes. She looks like Bedevil. I wonder if she realizes that. Oh, no fucking doubt. Looking like someone else is all I’ve ever obsessed about.

They also called her the next Megajoule. Interesting that she’s the other half of my pie, though likely just a coincidence. “It’s tough being in someone else’s shadow, isn’t it?”

“What would you…” She trails off. “Yeah.”

“It’s okay, I know.” I smile, even though it takes all the effort in the world. “I know all about it. Inferiority. Right?”

“Why do you think you know me?” she asks.

“Because I know myself.” Somewhat. I know the part of myself that is a part of her. Weird that I’m sitting her, talking to her about her issues. “So why aren’t you calling for backup?”

Meltdown starts several words and gives them up halfway in. She stutters, trying to form her response.

I simply wait. I have no control over this situation outside of speaking to her.

“I don’t know. You don’t seem… You are acting like…”

“Gabe?” I ask.

“Yes,” Meltdown says. “Gabe is not my enemy.”

“Hmm, I distinctly remember you throwing a lightning bolt at Gabe,” I say.

Meltdown starts. “I… Yeah… I did.”

I chuckle. That all seems like a lifetime ago, now. “I forgive you. We were just on opposite sides, as we are now.”

“I don’t know if we are,” Meltdown says. “You are fighting against the Fear.”

“I am. Are you?” I ask.

“Of course.”

“Then we are on the same side.” I laugh. “This would be easier if the Fear wasn’t inside me, huh?”

My laugh must be infectious, because it draws a chuckle from Meltdown. Here, she is not like Bedevil at all. This laugh is her own, or… or… what? Borrowed…

Something borrowed.

“Where are you headed? Anywhere but here?” she asks.

I laugh again. The absurdity of it all tickles me. “I’m afraid I don’t have the strength to move. And, well, if you are on my tail… I don’t suppose it matters.”

“Are you trying to get back to your friends?”

“I was. Or to find a nice cliff and throw myself off of it,” I say.

“Would that even kill you?” Meltdown asks.

“Right now, it would,” I say. “I used my power to imprison the Fear. If I use my power at all, if I lose focus, then the prison will break.”

“I see,” Meltdown says. She gasps. “Gabe, you’re bleeding. Your neck.”

I press my hand against my neck, right above the collar of my suit. Sure enough, there is a smattering of blood on my fingers. “I’ve been stumbling around the jungle—”

“No!” Meltdown shouts. “Carnality!”

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