Category Archives: Volume Four: The Point of the Knife

4.13.2

 

NERO

Nero looked out from the back porch of his farmhouse at the once quaint scenery of his private acreage, nestled into the Appalachian Mountains. He drank a swig of beer and sighed as he watched the mountainside smolder. The forest burned, stinging his eyes and filling his lungs with smoke. John Denver’s Country Roads played from the speaker on the window behind him. He liked things to have an irony to them. Destroying a patch of West Virginia while playing a song written about it in the background hit that sweet spot.

Pretty soon the fire would reach his house. He drained the rest of his beer. He reached down for the revolver at his feet.

A helicopter soared overhead and landed in the clearing behind his house. He could barely hear the chopper’s blades over the forest’s fire song and John Denver crooning.

Come to think of it, he could barely hear John Denver anymore, either.

Cynic disembarked the copter, flanked by two of the Primum capes and Danger Close.

She wore the same lady suit she always wore that made her look like Hilary Clinton merged with a soccer mom. Danger Close looked ever the same, a Top Gun wannabe.

The Primum capes didn’t seem bothered by the fire in their fancy white armor that made them look somewhere between a knight and a super soldier. Nero snorted and spat. His armor meant nothing, just another way to quicken his power. Their armor actually protected them.

Cynic approached him with a scowl on her face. Nero made sure of the revolver tucked into the back of his pants and greeted her with all the defensive posturing he could muster. Crossed arms, nose turned up, jaw clenched tight. He hated her. He hated her and he made sure she knew it from the bottom of his mind to the very tics of his body.

“I know what you’re going to do,” Cynic said as she approached. “Please don’t waste my time.”

Nero planned on doing just that, anyway. He pulled the pistol out of his pants, which caused the Primum to freak the fuck out and get between Nero and the director. Danger Close watched, his expression unchanging.

A teasing mood struck Nero. “You know, if I wanted to kill her, I could. There would be nothing you three could do to stop me. I’d guess you’d buy her enough time to get to the helicopter before I brought it down.”

“Ma’am?” Danger Close asked.

“Need I remind you, Nero, of what my death would do to you?” Cynic asked.

She didn’t need to remind him. She could ruin his life if she wanted. “You know, I think I’d literally rather kill myself than have this conversation.”

Cynic glowered at him. “It wasn’t funny the first ti—”

The sharp report of the pistol cut off the end of her sentence. The bullet danced inside his brain and sent him for a loop, and at the top of that loop he spun off into the night.

Color filled his vision, silver and sapphire, and beyond that the infinite void bore down on him. It folded him up and threw him along the invisible current, a body floating on the sea. He revolved aimlessly until molten copper pierced the veil of darkness and drenched him in burning metal.

He exploded back into life. His porch was in pieces, the speaker melted into slag. Cynic, Danger Close, and the two Primum were now a hundred feet back from his porch.

“Glad you got that off your chest?” she asked.

Nero stretched his muscles. His body was always stiff coming out of death. He grimaced, feeling a migraine come on as his brain reknit itself inside his skull. A sharp pricking sensation accompanied the skin and skull closing, forcing the bullet out of his head. It plunked to the ground at his feet.

“Worth it.”

The energy he’d gained crossing back into life flooded through his veins and made him feel like he could topple mountains and upend cities.

Instead, he fed the energy back into the ground as tremors and heat, and let it die out as he walked next to Cynic back to the helicopter. The two Primum capes watched him warily over their shoulders as they led the way. Danger Close didn’t seem to really care one way or the other whether or not Nero killed them all. He smoked a cigarette and kept a steady pace behind them.

“So, what’s going on?” Nero asked.

“There’s been a development.” Cynic snapped a glare at him. “A bad one. Several bad ones, actually. I have a few new assignments for you.”

They climbed into the helicopter, which drowned out any potential conversation until the doors closed. Once they were in the air, Cynic resumed. “By the end of the year, the U.S. will no longer be part of the UWC.”

“Am I supposed to give a shit?” Nero asked. He loved the games, the teasing. Cynic knew he’d follow her orders even if he hated it. He still made her fish for his obedience.

“Yes. The country with the largest military infrastructure, population, and per capita just pulled out of supporting OPI. It means our belts tighten and God knows how many capes drop out of patriotism. It means rival organizations and the unity we’ve fought so hard to achieve fractured.” Cynic looked like she could crack a walnut with her teeth. “You know all this. You’re just being difficult.”

“I’m being difficult because it’s the one thing I can do, madame dictator,” Nero said. “What kind of problems does this make for us?”

“OPI Central will have to move. Likely we’ll return to the old Foundation base in Buenos Aires. That’s the only facility with the space for HQ.” Cynic shook her head. “For now, we have until the end of the year to pack our things. That gives us about two months to clear Central.”

“I’ll miss New York,” Nero said.

“You were barely ever there,” Cynic replied. “What do you care?”

“They have this awesome coffee shop I like.” Nero grinned and summoned the mental image of one of the baristas he took back to his hotel one time. He made sure Cynic got a good view of her spread eagle on the bed. “What’s the other bad news?”

“Some local capes reported a huge disturbance in Chile that I think may be connected to Gabe and his little resistance.” Cynic no doubt dropped that line hoping that just the mention of Gabe’s name would boil Nero’s blood.

But Nero had already let off all his steam about their fight. Gabe’s name didn’t do much for him. He already knew that Gabe would never be able to kill him. After all, Megajoule hadn’t, and while Gabe was a fighter and Megajoule wasn’t, the kid had half the power Megajoule had. One of these days, Nero would take him down. A fun fight. A regular day, just like the rest. Until he died of old age.

If he could die of old age.

Nero greeted that thought like he greeted everything. Head on. He relished Cynic’s squeamish expression as he thought of himself dying of old age, rejuvenating to the point right before his death, and then expiring again, over and over. Forever.

“You’re doing well for yourself,” Nero told Danger Close.

Danger Close merely grunted.

“Houston Hero, and now you’re Cynic’s private bodyguard. You’ve got some ambition.” Nero couldn’t help that his smile looked more like a snarl, but he owned that fact and smiled very wide for Danger Close. “You thinking about replacing me?”

“Nah,” Danger Close said.

Hm, someone whose buttons he couldn’t immediately press. Nero would get him eventually. “Where are we headed now, then?”

“Central. To put together your team for Chile,” Cynic said.

Nero hated New York. He hated the crowded monstrosity made up of glittering skyscrapers gathered so close a fart couldn’t pass through them, he hated the streets clogged with traffic, and most of all he hated that people crammed into every nook and cranny of the metropolis. You couldn’t turn around without finding someone new. For Nero, that was his worst nightmare.

OPI Central just had to be the biggest tower in the city. The Titan Tower, they called it, and just like every other OPI building, they’d plastered Megajoule’s face on the side. He imagined the regular people found his blown up face and self-assured grin soothing, even if he was dead.

Even if the people in that tower had ordered Nero to kill him. Funny that. Funny that.

Cynic never went through lobbies, she landed on the top of every building she went to and entered in secret. Nero kept his head down and followed her around, while her two Primum led the way. He noted the silver stars on their pauldrons. “Standard package, huh? Superman lite?”

“It’s what’s practical,” Cynic said. “Most Primum are. Has to do with the kind of person that would become a soldier in the first place.”

Nero grunted. He didn’t really care. Bulletproof meant little to him. He could fly. He had super strength. He was not the kind of person that would want to become a Primum.

Wind Rider and Meltdown were waiting in the conference room overlooking the bay. They sat on the far ends of the table from each other and didn’t seem to be talking before Cynic opened the door.

Hard to believe they were husband and wife, sometimes. After all, Meltdown looked so much like Bedevil with golden hair and brown eyes, and Wind Rider cheated on Bedevil. Why marry practically the same woman if you didn’t want her the first time?

Nero wondered if it was a slap in the face the day Bedevil found out Wind Rider married her clone. He barked a laugh at that thought, considering Bedevil had jumped the bones of Megajoule’s clone.

“What’s so funny?” Wind Rider asked. Even when he was grim and dour, he sounded like an airhead surfer douche bag to Nero.

“Just thinking about clones,” Nero said.

Danger Close let out a small laugh with a grim smile. At least they had a sense of humor in common.

Meltdown was a reserved girl, but Nero knew when he’d struck a nerve, and he’d just struck gold, apparently. One moment she was only lightly frowning and the next she wore a vicious scowl. “What is this, Cynic? What did you call us for?”

“I believe we’ve found Gabe, Bedevil, and Templar,” Cynic said. “Which means we’ve found Linear and Archimedes, too, and whoever is behind their escape.”

“Why would someone be behind it?” Wind Rider asked. “Archimedes is smart enough to have organized this on his own.”

“Not without me finding out,” Cynic said. “I want you three to go and investigate the sightings in Chile. The local OPI chapter reported a huge explosion and signs of a battle. The town of Puerto Guadal was wiped out, apparently.”

“Damn,” Wind Rider said. “What do you think happened?”

“That’s what you’re going to find out,” Cynic said. “I’ll leave you all to it. When you determine the cause, we’ll meet back up in Buenos Aires.”

Meltdown stammered. She gripped the table and looked to Cynic. “Is the U.S. leaving the UWC going to cause problems for us? I have family in Wyoming.”

Cynic looked, for just a moment, a woman unhinged. Nero frowned as he saw her face betray the insane pressures of OPI, the UWC, and the States all squeezing in from opposite sides, and if there’d been any sympathy for her inside him, he’d have pitied her. But Nero thought that she’d made this bed and now she’d lie in it.

He did, however, pity Meltdown. She was the only person in this room he did pity, actually. Caught in a marriage with Wind Rider, hailed as the next Megajoule because she had power over electromagnetic energy, and yet she couldn’t be older than 24. And yet she was just a lookalike replacement to the girl Wind Rider screwed over. Nero doubted he could set her fears to ease, but he’d try. “We’ll figure it out. It’s not the first time the States have said they’re going to leave the UWC. Brazil threatens the same on the regular. Mexico, too. It’s saber rattling, nothing new.”

“It’s the first time anyone’s voted on it,” Meltdown said.

Nero shrugged. “You know they once voted to make beer illegal, right? Just because there’s a vote doesn’t mean it won’t get overturned later. Or even rejected by the people.”

“Public opinion is largely behind the move,” Cynic said, her voice low like she was slipping a knife through the ribs of the conversation.

“Whatever. They want to leave because of what happened in Houston, right?” Nero asked. “Let’s bring them back the person that did it. We bring them Gabe and tell them—”

“If we tell them Gabe is responsible for everything in Houston this last half year, they’ll move their exit from the UWC up to this week,” Cynic said. “No. That’s not an option.”

“Then we give them everyone else,” Nero said. “I’ll kill Gabe. He’s got to go, now. But we bring them Archimedes, Linear, Templar, and Bedevil? Tell them a bunch of top capes orchestrated a rebellion because of some personal vendettas?”

Cynic tapped her heels on the floor. The tapping grated on Nero, but he said nothing. “Fine. Bring them back.”

“One more thing,” Nero said. “I’ll need Carnality. I promised her another Gabe.”

4.13.1

ARC 13: SHADOW INFERIOR

BEDEVIL

“Gabe!” Bedevil screamed.

She swung through the empty streets of Puerto Guadal, racing to the shoreline, hoping she could catch him before he crossed the lake. She vaulted, spun, and shot over the houses and shops. Maisa surfed through the sky behind Bedevil, suspended on a disk made of hard light.

The wound in Bedevil’s side dragged a knife along her nerve endings. She grit her teeth, latched onto a nearby house with her tendrils, and slung herself through the air like an arrow. She reached with every tendril for Gabe, she reached with her hand even though it tore the burning scab in her side.

Gabe accelerated out of her grasp and practically disappeared across the lake. The waters parted, the lake sliced in two by his flight. The mountains roared and shook their icy caps free as he impacted in the opposite shore.

“Gabe!” Bedevil screamed, falling to her hands and knees into the mud. The cold water of the Carrera lake washed over her fingers, her whole left and her maimed right. She searched the shore for a boat, or anything she could use to chase after him. “Gabe,” she cried again, her voice weakened. There was nothing to use.

Another thunderous roar reported from the mountains across the lake. Bedevil jumped to her feet and screamed one last time: “GABE! PLEASE!”

Maisa caught up and jumped off her solid disk of light. She threw herself into Bedevil’s uninjured side, supporting Bedevil before she fell to her knees again. Bedevil screamed out wordlessly, clutching her hands to her chest. She leaned into Maisa’s embrace and cried into the girl’s hair, and Maisa returned by weeping into Bedevil’s dress.

“I have to—” Bedevil pulled free of Maisa, choking on her sobs and the mucus draining from her ugly cry. She wiped her nose. “How fast can you fly?”

Maisa gathered herself, too. “Not as fast as he can. Not even close.”

Bedevil’s body shook, it trembled. She felt the same as the day she found out that Megajoule died. Only worse, because now she had seen it happen and could have stopped it, and she didn’t. “I love him.”

“I know,” Maisa said.

“But I didn’t tell him!” Bedevil’s mind drowned in rage and grief like she’d nearly drowned in the bottle. “I can’t lose him. I love him, Maisa. I love him. I didn’t tell him before this and I can’t swallow that pain again.” Gentle babbling of waves on the shore backed her weeping, accompanied by the occasional drum beat of a superpowered battle from the mountains, growing more faint and faint, like a dying heartbeat.

Maisa rubbed Bedevil’s back. “He knows.”

“No, no he doesn’t.” Bedevil stood up. “The only time I ever said it was to try and make him stay, and I didn’t mean it. He doesn’t know that I love him.”

“Sometimes you don’t need to say it.” Maisa found her feet as well and wiped mud from her legs. “Sometimes you just know. He loves you.”

Bedevil’s voice caught in her throat. She’d hoped and yet she’d felt she’d never truly win his heart. She was caught in the painful place of knowing he cared for her and knowing she didn’t deserve it. So she said nothing to Maisa, nothing about that pit of doubt inside her. Instead, she gathered her wits and wiped her eyes. “You’re right. And I’ll tell him. We’ll find him and save him.”

“Like he saved me from the Fear,” Maisa said. “It’s our turn to save him.”

Bedevil couldn’t help the worry that he was already gone. That the person Gabe no longer existed, dissolved away inside the Fear’s power.

“Bedevil! Maisa!” Templar ran down the street toward them. She skidded to a stop and launched into her next statement without a breath to pause. “Epione woke up. Oracle is alive. What on earth just happened?”

“Gabe,” Bedevil said. “He was taken by the Fear.” Her mind lifted from the haze of grief, sharpened like a blade’s edge. There was no room for grief, only action, now. She wiped her eyes and steeled her heart.

She would save Gabe or she would die trying. And if he was already gone, she would fulfill his last request. She would kill him and spare him that hell. “Where is Archimedes?” Bedevil asked Templar.

“An hour out. He’s coming back but the Shark was already halfway to Houston again.” Templar put a hand on Bedevil’s shoulder. “Here.”

The pain in Bedevil’s side seeped out of her like Templar turned on a valve. The blackened skin shifted to purple, blue, a sickly green-yellow, and then back to her normal skin color. The scab shrunk until it was gone, and the only mark left was a slight discoloration, a patch that looked a little more gray than the surrounding skin.

Bedevil stretched her torso. The pain was gone. “Thanks.”

“Do you hear that?” Maisa asked.

Templar looked up from Bedevil.

Bedevil heard a horrible, retching sound, like someone choking. Times a hundred. The sound came from each building around them.

A door opened. A haggard, pale face emerged from the shadow. Eyes black and bubbling. Mouth spilling ink. The person fell from the doorframe, spewing black bile onto the ground.

Templar leaned forward, her eyes dark. “Oh, God, no. It’s like Syria again.”

“What do you mean?” Bedevil felt a jolt of fear run through her body. Templar never spoke about Syria.

Templar’s face looked pale and frightening, furious and afraid. “The people… they aren’t alive, anymore. They’ve been smothered by the Fear. Killing them is a mercy.” She charged the person choking on their inky vomit. A single graze from Templar’s fingers and the person crunched in on themselves, spilling smoking blood that looked more like tar all over the street.

Doors opened. Growling from the darkened houses. Bedevil pulled Maisa close to her.

“Stay with me.” She wrenched chunks from the nearby houses and ripped stone from the street. Her tendrils created a ring of debris around her, and she set them on an orbit of lethal velocity around her and Maisa.

Zombified residents merged into one stream of pursuers. They sprinted after Bedevil and Maisa. They clawed their own faces. Blood mingled with ink into a black-red waterfall.

The residents collided with Bedevil’s protective ring of wood and rock. They fell underfoot of the mass charging behind them, trampling each other in their mad chase.

They screamed as they fell: “ENEMY! ENEMY!”

Enemy. Epione. They would tear her apart if they got the chance. “Maisa! Get us back to the house!”

Maisa created a disk of light and jumped on. Bedevil stumbled.

A Fear zombie scrambled through her ring. A young man, eyes wide in horror, jaw retracted so far she thought it might leap out of his face. He gurgled on the ink spilling from his mouth.

All she could think of was Gabe.

Bedevil smashed him with a tendril. She pulled herself onto Maisa’s disk with telekinesis, and together they lifted into the air above the village, away from the mob. Maisa formed a razor disk of light in her hand and tossed it into the crowd to thin out the herd.

A huge flesh-colored vine burst from the next street over, a stringy blob of bodies which Templar stood atop. The vine grew and grew into a tower. Wiry strands shot from the blob and wrapped up residents blow, subsuming them into the shifting mass of flesh. The tower became a giant humanoid arm which hurled Templar clear out of the village. Once she was gone, the arm dissolved into a pile of broken bodies that could no longer move.

Bedevil watched in amazement as the surviving residents streamed out of Puerto Guadal, stampeding up the road for Oracle’s house. They knew where Epione was. “Faster!”

Maisa groaned. “This is as fast as I can go!”

“No it isn’t,” Bedevil said. “Take us close to the ground.”

Maisa obeyed and they descended. Bedevil kept her ring of death up while splitting more tendrils off to pull them along. She latched onto rocks and plants, and propelled them down the path. She smashed rocks into the Fear zombies, to thin out the herd following them.

Templar dashed along the path next to them, so Bedevil scooped her up to Maisa’s disk.

“Nice work,” Bedevil said.

“Syria taught me well,” Templar said.

“The Fear was in Syria?” Bedevil asked.

“Yes. Kassandra had a cape in her employ who’d become a host. It’s the same one, Rorschach. It smothers out entire groups and turns them into puppets.” Templar frowned.

“Is Gabe a puppet?” Bedevil asked. If he was, it meant he was gone.

“There’s a difference between a host and these puppets. The host is something they need to live, while the puppets are short-lived soldiers. They only last a few days at most. They mostly tend to be Lightweight powered people or below.” Templar looked over her shoulder. “They’ll tear each other apart once they fulfill their purpose.”

“They want Epione,” Bedevil said.

“We’re here!” Maisa brought them to a stop over the the rickety fence outside Oracle’s home.

All that was left in Gabe’s wake was a foundation and a blasted pile of debris, blackened and smoking from his incredible heat. Oracle and Epione sat on the stairs leading up to the ruined porch, which was at least somewhat intact.

“Epione, we have incoming!” Bedevil shouted.

“I know,” Epione said, rising to her feet. “Lend me your power. Your telekinesis will extend the reach of my Affect control.”

Bedevil did not question it. She offered her hand to Epione. Epione grabbed Bedevil by the wrist, and Bedevil grimaced at the sensation of someone chopping off her tendrils.

She felt an empty space in the back of her mind where her power normally resided.

The puppet residents washed over the fence, trampling each other in their horrific charge. Different residents surged from the pack — Bedevil recognized the woman who made the dress she was wearing, and the baker she bought pan amasado from, and the fisherwoman who gossiped with her about Gabe. They either rode the wavefront of the crowd or disappeared underfoot, crushed by the stampede.

They were already dead, Bedevil told herself. They were gone, nothing was left. Yet, their screams sounded like they were still in there, somewhere, and that twisted her heart.

Epione reached her hands out. The stampede was fifty feet from them.

A huge chunk simply fell, their voices cut off mid-scream, and then another patch, and then a large arc like an invisible scythe of death sliced through their ranks. Two more passes of this and the entire crowd was gone, fallen before them.

Epione tapped Bedevil on the shoulder and her power returned.

Bedevil, in response and out of panic, grabbed Epione’s hand. “Where have you been?”

Epione frowned and looked at her hand as dispassionately as a mortician observing a cadaver. “Please don’t touch me without my permission.”

Bedevil released her. “Right. Sorry. Why didn’t you warn us? Why didn’t you see this?”

“I understand. You’re stressed.” Epione observed her handiwork and sighed. “I did see it. I was trapped inside Gabe’s mind for three months. When I died using Nero’s power, I separated myself from my body entirely to protect my mind.” Epione’s mouth twisted into another frown that seemed disconnected from the rest of her face. “It took advantage of that and kept me from returning like a bully holding someone underwater. So I tried to warn Gabe in his dreams, but that didn’t work.”

“He’s had this thing in him since the airport. Why didn’t you see it then?” Bedevil asked. “How did you miss it?”

“It hid from me. It learned that I could see it.”

Oracle interjected into the conversation. “It hid from me, too. I should have been able to see it influencing his memories, but it was clever. It hid from everyone who could have warned Gabe.” She searched for the railing and couldn’t find it, and reached out for help to stand. Bedevil offered that help. Once Oracle stood, Bedevil saw that her eyes were healed from whatever damage Gabe had done to them, but that the light that shone within them was gone. Templar, most likely. “It’s a testament to his willpower that he was even able to tell me that Megajoule had infected his mind.”

Bedevil hissed. She crumpled like someone had hit her in the chest. “Oh my God, I knew about it.”

“What?” Templar asked. “How?”

“He told me that Megajoule was in his head and he said Oracle put him there, and I forgot about it in everything that happened. He never mentioned it again, said it was normal.” God, damn it. She couldn’t fight these tears. “If I’d remembered… If I’d…”

“It’s not your fault,” Oracle said. “We all missed it.”

“Now, we’ll fix it,” Maisa said. “We can help him.”

“We can.” Epione put a hand on Bedevil’s back. “He’s still in there.”

They were the words she wanted to hear but they didn’t make Bedevil feel better. If anything, they made it worse, knowing he was trapped in there. Knowing that he was stuck inside whatever hell Rorschach was subjecting him to. “If he could beat it on his own, he would have.”

“I tried to help him but the Fear’s pulling on a lot of strength from his memories. Gabe has more negative emotions than many I’ve met. He just keeps them bottled up.” This time, when Epione frowned, it seemed genuine all across her face. “He casts a large shadow.”

Bedevil wiped her tears. She stood. “He’s so bright. Can he beat it?”

“He can,” Epione said. “I saw what was wrong with him.”

“What?” Templar asked. “He’s a hero. He’s the only person to ever go one to one with the Fear and win.”

“But he doesn’t believe that,” Epione said. “He sees himself as inferior. As inadequate. And worse, he sees us all that way, too.”

“That doesn’t sound like him,” Maisa said.

Bedevil understood what Epione meant, though. “He sees everyone as inferior to Megajoule. To the heroes we could be but aren’t. He told me once that people amaze him and disappoint him, all at the same time.”

“Rorschach is leveraging that weakness.” Epione tilted her head and closed her eyes. “Gabe is strong, though. He’s still fighting. I don’t know how long he’ll last, but once he loses, the Fear will possess his body like it did Tim Prince.”

“And then what?” Templar asked.

“Then it uses him to do as much damage as it can. To inspire more of itself and give its kind a toehold here on Earth.” Oracle snorted. “Like it always does with its’ hosts.”

“He took it under the earth in case that happened. If it wins, he can collapse the rock in on himself and imprison the Fear underground,” Epione said.

“He can beat it,” Bedevil said. She hoped. She prayed. “We can defeat it. You need to tell us how, Ep.”

Epione opened her eyes again. She looked down and her voice became small. “How do you teach him he’s wrong? He’s always seen us as lesser than his ideal. Even if he admired our efforts, he doesn’t believe in anyone. Not you, not me, not even himself.”

“We could teach him to believe,” Bedevil said. “We can show him we’re at least trying to be the heroes he wants us to be.

“How?” Templar asked.

Bedevil stammered, searching for an answer. After trying to string a few words together, she managed some kind of plan. “For months, he’s only thought about Flashfire and the Underground. Oracle says he believes in Flashfire.”

“He believes in you, too,” Oracle said.

Those words were a dagger in her heart. If that were true, he wouldn’t have fallen and he wouldn’t have had it hiding inside him all these months. “He needs more than me.”

Epione pondered that for a moment. She smiled the sterile smile that Bedevil had grown accustomed to in the last year. “Yes. Let’s go get the Underground.”

 

 

2.5.3

The news cuts to a press conference. A severe woman grips the edges of the podium. Elena Prince, I presume. She’s got no mirth on her face, malevolent or otherwise. The only thing she shares with Tim Prince is a vague sibling resemblance. A man waits behind her, dressed in a nice suit, his hands folded behind him. He looks like Tim, I’ll admit, only far older and more built. I’m guessing that’s Senator Prince.

Elena clears her throat. “My father will have more to say, but Tim has done something unforgivable. FIS told us they’ll be organizing a manhunt with OPI. I will help bring my brother to justice as Snow Owl and take my place in the Harris Hawks again. Thank you.” She steps away from the podium.

“Who?” Bedevil asks.

“She used to be a big damn hero back in the day. She retired right after Doc and I moved here… sometime in 2048? Five years ago or so.” I tell her. “I don’t know much about her team, but she could fly and had some ice powers. I think Gyrfalcon was also on her team.”

“She said FIS is putting together a manhunt,” Bedevil says.

“With OPI, which means you might be sent on it.”

Bedevil nods. “I’ll twist his head off like a bottle cap, if that makes you feel any better.”

I am reminded of our very first meeting, when she completely decapitated that gar-girl. I imagine the same thing happening to Tim. “… a little.”

She contemplates her juice for a moment. Then, she says, “It’s good, right? It means you can focus on getting your friend back.”

The thought of letting FIS handle this chafes me. Despite that, I’d be a fool not to let them. They can’t do anything but disavow Tim Prince at this point, they have to cover up their mistake. They’ll put an end to it. We forced their hand. Especially if capes from OPI are involved. “Yeah, it is good. We can get Flash. Pandahead is finished. For now.” That makes me feel better. He can’t do anything but run, now. He didn’t really win, he just delayed the inevitable.

He’ll pay for murdering those kids. After I get Flashfire, I’m going after him myself if they haven’t already caught him. I doubt his sister will be able to deal the final blow, anyway.

We arrive at the Third Ward, exit the sky-rail, and take the short walk back to my place. The entire time I’m trying to figure out how to sell Bedevil helping me out to Doc and how to get back in touch with my friends.

Bedevil studies my apartment block with soberish eyes for the first time. “God, what a dump.”

“Sorry I don’t live in a castle in the sky, like someone around here.”

Bedevil mumbles something and then finishes off her juice. I decide not to pursue that one.

We climb the stairs, one step at a time, and I’m still trying to work out what to say to Doc. I fumble with my keys outside the door, thumbing through each individual key I own, all three of them.

“What’s taking so long?” Bedevil asks.

The door swings open. Epione grins at me, her makeup smeared all over her face.“Gabe!” She throws her arms around me. “Oh my God, I thought you’d died!” She steps back just as fast as she pounced on me, straightening out her chest armor. She’s still in all of her gear.

“Hey, hey, it’s okay, I’m okay. What are you doing here?”

Epione nods. “We went exactly where you told us! Remember? Go back to my apartment, you said.”

Right, I vaguely recall that. “Is everyone okay? Where’s Maisa?”

“She wanted to go help Lugs and Mil-dot,” Epione says. “We sent them back to my house to get some of my funds, that way we have money for a while.”

I worry for a moment about her going off with them. She’s a capable girl, so I turn my attention to the injured. “Is Saw Off okay?”

Drone walks up behind Epione. “Hoped Doc could take her wounds, but he couldn’t. He’s just patching her up regular style, now. Who’s your friend?”

Epione registers Bedevil for the first time. Her eyes pop open. “That’s… that’s Bedevil.”

Drone cocks an eyebrow. “Inheritors Bedevil?”

“Yes, Inheritors Bedevil,” I say. “Kitsune. You’ve met her.”

“The same Inheritors Bedevil that destroyed the Santos hideout and cost us valuable information?” Drone asks.

“Oh boy,” Bedevil says.

I better get a handle on this situation. “We worked out our differences. She’s going to help us get Flashfire back.”

Epione, without provocation, throws her arms around Bedevil. “Oh my goodness, thank you! Thank you!”

Drone eyes me suspiciously. I’m guessing we’ll have words later. Right now, I walk into my apartment to survey the situation.

Bloody hand prints cover the walls, the counter, just about every surface someone could put a hand on, even the carpet. The delicious smell of baking cookies wafts over this grisly sight.

Remise is laid up on the couch, her right side covered in white bandages. Some of the skin beneath the white gauze is red, the skin warped and cracked.

“Remise! Are you okay?” I ask.

“Moi?” she says, leaning up. She grunts a little. “I’m fine. One of those guards got a good lick in with some kind of napalm power, but we took care a’ him.”

Saw Off screams in my room.

“Oh, no,” I say.

An alarm clock crashes into the bathroom door, ejected from my room like Saw Off shot it out her nose. I run in, hoping to stop whatever’s going on. Doc runs into me, trying to escape from her wrath, and nearly falls back. “Gabe! Why would you send them here?!”

I grab his arms to steady him, and keep him from falling over. “Hey! What the hell is going on?”

Doc closes the door before Saw Off can throw more of my junk at him. “Besides the destruction of property? The girl your friends brought needed urgent care.” He shakes his head. “What the hell happened, Gabe?”

“A lot,” I say. “Is she going to be okay?”

“I can hear you talking about me!” Saw Off shouts, her voice hoarse. Something thumps against the door.

“Just fine.” Doc scowls. “I told her she needed to be on bed rest for a few days. Are you okay?”

“You gave away my bed?” I ask.

“For a few days. Are you injured?”

“But… it’s my bed.”

“Well, just crash wherever you crashed last night, or on the couch. And answer my damn question.”

“I’m okay! Not injured, I think, and Remise is on the couch.”

“So, wherever you crashed last night,” Doc says. “You’re sure you’re not injured?”

The idea of staying with Bedevil makes me extremely uncomfortable, given what happened between us. Even if we are being friendly, staying with her is a big deal.

I nod. “I saw… something… last night. Did Megajoule ever talk about the Fear?”

Doc furrows his brow. “He talked about fear in general. Nothing that earned a the before the name.” He rubs his chin. “He did speak about a fear, but I don’t think I had clearance enough to know about the Fear.”

“Maybe it’s in his videos, somewhere. He tried to tell me about it once, but someone else cut him off,” I say.

Doc grumbles.

I look back at Bedevil, where Epione and Drone are in the middle of an interrogation. Epione looks happy, Drone suspicious. Epione laughs and hugs Bedevil again. “I can’t believe you’d want to help us!”

“You brought her back? Reunion go well, then?” Doc asks.

“Not a reunion, and well enough she wants to help us get Flashfire out of FIS holding.”

Doc snorts. “Good luck with that.”

The smell of baked sweets hits my nostrils again. “Are you making cookies?”

“Epione is,” Doc says. “Says they’ll be delicious.”

I return to the living room. “You guys done playing twenty questions yet? We need to get a move on.”

“Oh, too bad,” Bedevil says, nervous laughter leaking out of her like a bad faucet. “We were just on past flings.”

Welp, time to steer my friends far away from that topic. “Time’s a wasting. We need to find Flash.”

“I’ve called Iso and some of the other masks to help us start that,” Drone says. “I’m going to try and find a way into FIS’ networks to see if I can start shaking branches. They can’t have taken him very far.”

“Okay,” I say. “Bedevil, could you sneak Drone into FIS?”

Bedevil looks flabbergasted by the request. “Um, what?”

“She’s a machine telepath, she can project her mind into your cell phone, or we could give you one of the watches-”

“I’m not making another watch for her,” Drone says.

“So the cell phone,” I continue. Drone glares at Bedevil. I think she’s picked up on the awkward air between us, which is not good. She knows about our break up but I don’t think she knows about the sex. Still, you can’t hide that shit from your work wife, no way no how. “We put her mind in your phone and you carry that into FIS. Would that work, Drone?”

“Okay, hang on, I can’t just go with this anymore,” Drone says. “We’re trusting her? She’s OPI! She’s a cape and she’s frankly done more damage than good for us!”

Bedevil looks to me for support. She can’t muster any words in her defense.

“She wants to help us,” I say. “We’ve sorted that out for now.”

“Yeah, and why does she want to help us?” Drone asks. “How do you know she isn’t gaming us to bring us in? Or are we just supposed to trust she’s doing this because you look like Megajoule?”

Bedevil recoils from that remark. She retreats, walks toward the door.

“Drone, we both know there are way worse reasons to help the Underground,” I say. “I had nowhere else to go, and neither did you. So get off your fucking high horse and trust me.”

Drone glares at me, and I’m reminded of a bull about to run a matador down.

“Yeah, maybe she is helping because I look like Megajoule.” I shake my head. “To be honest, that just makes me trust her more than some masks I’ve never met.”

Bedevil stops, reaches for the door knob but falls short.

“Cookies!” Epione shouts, opening the oven. She puts them onto the counter. She makes for a strange sight: she’s dressed in her black armor, sans the mask, her make-up is a mess, either from crying or from sweat (though I’ve never seen Epione cry) and now she smiles gleefully as she scrapes the cookies from the tray.

Bedevil turns from the door knob, and I can see tears on her cheeks. “Cookies?” she asks with trepidation.

“Cookies,” Epione repeats, a true priestess of sugar.

Bedevil floats over there. She uses her telekinesis to retrieve a small tendril-full and gives one to me.

“Thanks.” I nibble on it. Wow. These are fantastic, they melt in my mouth.

Remise sits up. “Oh, bring one t’ me!”

Another cookie floats through the air toward her. She takes it and eats it in one bite. “Oh, tha’s fookin’ amazin’.”

“I know! I found the recipe online,” Epione says. “The important part was browning the butter!”

“Oh my god,” Bedevil mutters as she chews on her cookie.

“So… we good?” I ask Drone.

Drone crosses her arms over her chest, scowls, but nods.

“Okay-”

“Hey!” Doc shouts, running from his room. “Check the news!”

Remise grabs the remote and turns the TV on, and flips it to a news channel.

“-four different Houston teams are leading the manhunt, though all registered OPI heroes are advised to assist, which brings the total number of people hunting for Tim Prince to just over 3000 registered capes. FIS also has several squadrons of agents on the case. This will be the largest manhunt in UWC history for any non-cloak, though some are debating labeling Tim Prince as such over the events last night.”

Wow. Three thousand capes. That’s… a lot.

“They’ll find him for sure,” Epione says.

“Yeah, no doubt about that,” Remise says. “Guess we can chalk this up to a victory?”

I guess so, but something about it still rubs me the wrong way. I am pleased that everyone’s leaping on him though. It restores a bit of my faith in humanity that they immediately jump up to stop him when they find out what happened.

They should have a long time ago, but can’t exactly change that now. “Okay, that’s their problem then. We let them deal with Pandahead, and we use that distraction to get Flashfire back.” I turn to Epione. “Last night, what happened when I went back?”

“Well,” Epione says. “I was blind for a little, and when I could see again, Lugs was driving us. We decided to come here instead of my mansion, because we didn’t know if they could figure out where we were meeting from capturing Flashfire, and we had Saw Off, who was injured badly.”

Good grief, she’s talking about it like it’s not a big deal. I put a hand on her shoulder. “Are you okay?”

Epione smiles. “Of course. We’ll get him back. We put out the word that he’d been captured, and a whole bunch of the other masks in Houston have already responded. They want to help. We’re meeting with a few tomorrow night at the Street Devils’ hideout.”

Flashfire mentioned some Street Devils, once, but we’ve never worked with them. I wonder how many mask groups Flashfire knows.

“Iso’s looking into places they could’ve taken him,” Drone says.

“I want to talk to Maisa, while I have the time.”

Bedevil looks at me, her eyes begging me not to leave her in a room full of people she’s only truly just met. Sorry, chickita, but I need my watch.

I open the door to my room.

Saw Off is sprawled out on my bed, hard glaring at the ceiling. Her eyes, brimming with danger, lock onto me, and I get the feeling of a forest predator catching sight of their next meal. “Hello, Gabe Babe.”

Bedevil walks in behind me. “You’re not leaving me with them, I barely know them.”

“You barely know me,” I say.

She rocks her hand back and forth to say, “I sort of know you.”

Saw Off grunts and winces as she fights to her elbows. The blanket shifts down from her chest, her entire torso is wrapped in bandages. She’s not bleeding through them, so that’s good. Doc probably used the clotting gel on her. She groans as she steadies herself.

“How are you?” I ask.

Saw Off scowls. “I’ve had worse.”

“I’m… so sorry. This is all my fault,” I say. “Vaquero…”

“He’s dead. It happens.” Saw Off sniffs and looks away from me. “All the time. People die.”

From the sound of her voice, she’s not taking it very well. But I decide to let it be, since people process shit differently.

Saw Off eyes Bedevil. “You pallin’ around with my Gabe Babe?”

Bedevil stammers.

“I’m not your Gabe Babe,” I say. “Go back to sleep. I only came for my watch.”

“I wasn’t sleeping.” Saw Off  grimaces and lays back down.

“Okay, go back to staring at the ceiling like a weirdy,” I say, retrieving my watch from my dresser.

I step out of the room, Bedevil behind me. I close the door and start up the watch. Bedevil waits near me, leaning against the wall. The others are still in the living room, discussing our next move.

Bedevil won’t meet my eyes. “So… are you and Saw Off…?” Her hands fiddle with her jacket. “I really hope I didn’t ruin anything between you and… somebody else.”

“No,” I say. “I told you I’m not seeing anybody. And if I was seeing somebody, it sure as hell wouldn’t be Saw Off.”

“Sorry, I shouldn’t even be making a deal out of it,” Bedevil says. “That’s… not my place.”

“If something bothers you, you should say something.”

“What are you going to do after you get your friend back?” Bedevil asks.

I stop fiddling with my watch. “I don’t know. Go back to busting up pimps and trying to figure out my powers.”

“You want to stay here in Houston, for the rest of your life?” she asks.

“Maisa?” I flip between the watch’s radio channels. “I don’t know the answer to that. I’ll probably die on the streets.”

Bedevil frowns. “No. You can’t. I won’t let you.”

“You shouldn’t-”

“Gabe?” Maisa asks over the comms.

“Yes!” I say. “Maisa! Are you okay?”

“I am okay. I am here at the mansion with Lugs and Mil-dot. They’re looking for Epione’s safe.”

Bedevil sniffles.

“Is someone else there?” Maisa asks.

“Yeah, a friend of mine. Her name is Ruby.”

“Hello, Ruby.”

Bedevil wipes her nose. “H-hey, Maisa. I’m… I’m glad to meet you.”

“I will be glad-” Maisa stops in the middle of her sentence. “Someone is outside.”

My blood runs cold. “Wh-what do you mean? Who’s outside?” Could it be heroes on our trail? FIS running Jason through the system or something?

Maisa screams. Glass shatters through the comms.

“Gabe!” Maisa shouts. “They’re-” She screams again, there’s the sound of a scuffle.

“Maisa!” I shout into the comm. At this point, Drone and Epione are staring down the hall at us.

The longest seconds of my life pass and the watch comm scratches as someone picks it up.

“Hello, Megajoule,” Tim Prince says. “I was hoping to get in touch with you again.”

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