Category Archives: Volume Six: Though Guiltless

6.20.1

The pulpit never hid Longinus well enough for his liking. The crowd of churchgoers — finally, a crowd of Episcopalians, would wonders never cease, and in Argentina for God’s sake! — seemed less a mass of humans than a lump of flesh with a thousand eyes watching him, their arms and legs knotted together in the manner of a rat king. Did it seem that there were too many eyes, too many mouths, too many of every limb for the head count?

He suppressed a shudder and instead launched into his sermon on the grace of God in difficult times. Always a lovely sermon and given the looming war with the States, he felt that the people might have needed it.

“Grace is undeserved,” Longinus said, “and yet it is so necessary for us to function. What is a human without the grace of Jesus? What are hard times without the touch of His presence?” From there he brought up again the parable of a man who builds his house on shifting sand. “Faith in God’s grace will preserve us when the flood comes.”

And then Longinus spotted him, hiding in the crowd. The other eyes and mouths were open and receptive, vacant for the coming of God’s word. Yet his eyes were red, full of tears, and his mouth pinched tight like a petulant child. But this wasn’t a petulant child, at least, not in the time Longinus had known him.

This was Gabe, sitting for the first time ever in one of Longinus’ pew. A broken man. Torn apart by wolves, it seemed to Longinus. Beset on all sides.

Already submerged in the flood, his house of sand dashed away.

The service ended in the usual way with a benediction, a long line of faithful asking for advice and prayer in their lives, or perhaps just sharing gossip that Longinus offered a smile over, but Gabe lingered in the pew.  Even after all the parishioners had left, Gabe remained alone.

Normally, Longinus would have felt fine approaching him. But something in Gabe’s expression terrified him, something in the man’s countenance that spoke of a fury on tight leash. How he reminded Longinus of Julian! That was the face a man wore while his legacy swallowed him alive. Longinus, who previously had done nothing but watch while his brother whirled further and further down, needed to intervene this time. This time he would not let it happen.

“Lovely sermon,” Gabe said as Longinus sat next to him. He choked the words out, but through anger or sorrow Longinus couldn’t tell. Likely both, likely the boy never felt sadness without some rage to accompany it. The emotion sounded familiar in Gabe’s voice.

“Yes, well, it’s one of my favorites.”

“Do you really believe it?”

Longinus, taken aback, scoffed at the mere suggestion. “I’ve done a lot in my life, questioned many of my choices, but I’ve never questioned that.”

“Never?” Gabe’s eyes, oh God his eyes! Behind the glasses they burned and burned, a fire that would not rest.

“I mean… I can’t say never,” Longinus said, truthfully. He recalled some nights where he stayed awake and stared at his closet, worrying the lurking darkness would manifest and eat him alive. He’d often wondered why a just God would allow the Fear to exist. That maybe this universe wasn’t divinely ordained.

Sometimes that doubt was better than the alternative: that God had created the Fear. That God did not make this universe for man, for the glory of Jesus Christ, but as the feeding ground of a predator that haunted Longinus’ waking and sleeping.

“Your sermon. Difficult times.” The act of speaking just a handful of words at a time exhausted Gabe. Each sentence left him shuddering at the end. “Does God… allow that? You say the flood comes. Isn’t he in charge?”

Theodicy, age old beast. Longinus knew this line of questioning, he’d asked them himself in seminary. He’d seen so many others struggle with the weight of evil in the world. He struggled now, even behind the pulpit. What Gabe was really asking was, “Why do bad things happen to me?”

So Longinus set about answering that. Or rather, he set about letting Jesus Christ answer it, because he was not so arrogant that he thought any platitude he wove would do the trick. “Once, Jesus was was walking along and came across a blind man with his followers. The man had apparently been blind from birth. Christ’s followers asked him, ‘Who sinned that he was born blind, this man or his father?’ But Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man or his father sinned. This happened to that God’s work might be revealed through him.’”

Longinus trailed off, remembering the rest of Jesus’ statement.

I must do the work of the one who sent me while it is day. Night is approaching, when no one can work.

“So God let that man be blinded so he could have glory?” Gabe asked.

“No. Sometimes, bad things happen in this life, and it is God’s call to fix them and restore them. The glory of God is the glory of man, too, Gabe. Don’t mistake it for ego or arrogance. His glory is our healing.” Longinus stood up, the words night is approaching still echoing in his head. Gabe looked up at him and again, reminded Longinus of Julian so keenly that he was drawn into the past. To both Gabe and Julian, he said: “You did not sin. Neither did your father.”

Gabe turned his face away from Longinus to look upon the cross. “I don’t think that’s true.” He stood, too, and left without saying goodbye.

Longinus watched the boy go, dwelling on the damned words from that verse. God’s voice spoke into his soul.

Night is coming. Soon, no one will work.

VOLUME SIX: THOUGH GUILTLESS

ARC 20: THE MAN OR HIS FATHER

I am surrounded by a tidal wave of humanity. I am standing atop a building, which they crash into, rising further until they reach the lip. They threaten to drown me in their number, to make me join the bloated mass. I climb higher, onto an AC unit, and try to take off into the sky. My power leaves me there on the rooftop, with only a baseball bat to defend myself.

The wave of people reach the unity. I see faces I know in the mass: Epione, Meltdown, Maisa, Archimedes, Longinus, Mr. Gold, more and more and more, and worst of all, Ruby. Ruby fills this horde, her face screams up at me no matter what I do. “You let him take me!” her clones scream in unison. The horde chants together, one maddening voice: “You let him take us!”

This is a dream. I am not here.

I’m NOT HERE!

A claw squeezes my ankle. I panic. Swing my bat. Swing swing batter batter, swing swing. Break a face, break an arm, hell, break two. I kill a Mr. Gold, I cave in Maisa’s face. Survival at all costs. They’re Doppelganger’s, they aren’t my friends!

The lines are blurred, aren’t they? Clone, original, friend, foe. Life was much easier when I was toppling governments and fighting ancient deities. Well, not easier, but it made more sense.

Crunched faces, broken bones, burning lungs. Doesn’t make much sense anymore.

I step down into a sea of the dying and dead. Those not quite gone fumble with twitching, busted hands, blood foaming in their mouths as they squawk for help. Flashfire clutches his severed leg like a baby. Maisa groans and cries, “Gabe, Gabe.”

“Gabe,” Ruby says.

Her voice snaps me out of my stupor. It’s the real Bedevil, it has to be, it has to be my wife. This all is a nightmare, from before I met Doppelganger to now, just a cruel dream. I dig through the corpses, desperate for her to be alive.

She is only just. Her eye popped free of her socket, dangling by her ear, and her nose is crunched in. She spits blood. Accusing finger raises, points at my heart.

A beam of light from the tip of her nail cuts through my heart and the dream dissolves away in a heap of busted-mirror images, showing my life like stained glass. I lift my bat up above my head, still dripping with blood.

A hand snatches me by the scruff of my neck and lifts me up into light.

The rooftop and corpses are replaced by a small living room, a perfect replica of Epione’s McMansion game room that the Underground used to watch movies in while planning our excursions. Epione and Flashfire sit on the couch, waiting patiently in their mask costumes.

I wear my old costume as well, goggles, black ski-mask, and leather jacket. The icons of Home Run, not me, not anymore. I’ve rejected that old self, put him behind me, but Epione has conjured him up again.

“I take it this is real,” I say.

Epione nods. “You were having a bad dream.”

Flashfire leans on his arms, staring at the TV’s black screen. He is haunted by wherever Epione pulled him from. “Me too.” He turns to face me but his eyes can’t meet mine. He offers me a meager smirk.

Epione rises and walks around the room, her hands caressing the furniture, from the couches to the TV, to her collection of video games. She holds up a make-up box and smiles at it, fonder than any of the smiles she gives to people. “Just as I remember. Welcome to our first meeting, Gabe. We’ve got to discuss our game plan for the next few weeks.”

“I don’t like feeling surrounded like this,” Flashfire says with a shiver. “Why don’t we just make an announcement and deal with whoever starts screaming about their father or whatever?”

“Because we don’t know where he took our friends yet,” I say, thinking of Ruby. I can’t lose her. If she’s still alive I’ve got to do everything I can to get her back. “Once we know that—”

“We still can’t just announce this.” Epione sets her make-up box down and rejoins us at the couches, though she looks like someone tore her from nirvana. “We can’t let a bunch of clones lose into the world, Gabe. No offense to you. These aren’t… what happens if two Bedevils wander around? What happens when two Meltdowns exist? We can’t let these copies just go into the world.”

“What about me?” I ask. “These are people, the same as you and I. They’re brainwashed but we proved we can break them free of that.”

Epione lays her hand on mine, a gentle touch, but for all the gentleness I feel like she’s breaking my hand. “Gabe, if you think like that, we’ll lose.”

“We can’t just kill them.”

“No. We can’t. Not because it’s immoral but because it would cause us more problems. We need to grab them all in one fell swoop, so they can’t scatter and tell Doppelganger we’re on to him.”

I hate this. It’s against everything I stand for. Clones are people, no matter who made them or what commands are in their head. I don’t want my first option to be killing them, especially since they have no control over it. I can kill people like Nero, Carnality, and others that are aware of what they’re doing. I don’t want to do the same to these clones, not if we can give them a chance to get free. I fought so hard for Paul, so hard for Kassandra… “We can trust Kassandra.”

Epione chews on her lip. “Yes, we can. But we can’t exactly talk to her, she’s under lock and key.”

“Can you bring her into this dream? Not now, but maybe tomorrow?”

Epione nods. “I can bring anyone into this place. They can leave whenever they want.”

“You’re sure Kassandra is good?” Flashfire asks. “We’ve got no idea if we can trust her beyond the fact that you pulled that weird thing out of her Affect. Maybe she still wants to serve Doppelganger?”

“She doesn’t,” Epione says. “I watched her mind for hours with Cynic’s ring.”

“Where is the ring?” I ask.

“In my pocket…” Epione fades away, her eyes widening. She bolts upright. “Wait.”

“Wait what?” From her expression, this can’t be good.

The dream collapses the same way as the others do, my last image being that of Epione bolting upright in panic. I snap awake in my bed. My first instinct is to lean over and see if Ruby is sleeping next to me.

She isn’t. Our bed is empty.

I get up slowly, so as not to alert her if she’s in the apartment. I don’t want her to think I’m freaking out.

Our bedroom door is open, and from here I can see she isn’t in the apartment. Maisa’s door is closed. Isabelle sleeps in her little bed underneath our coffee table, but I can’t see Pawpaw, who usually sleeps wrapped around her bed like a guardian dragon.

The door of our apartment opens and closes, and not-Bedevil walks into view, Pawpaw on a leash. From our clock, it is around 5 a.m. “You’re up early.”

“Pawpaw was whining for a walk,” not-Bedevil replies, grinning at me. She’s a little out of breath. “I figured I wouldn’t get back to sleep.” She unleashes the old dog, who takes his place by Isabelle’s bed. Two of the cats, Tim and Lyle, sneak out from behind our couch but retreat when they see not-Bedevil. I bet they can tell, too.

Don’t worry, animals. I’ll get your mom back.

Not-Bedevil enters our room, stripping her running clothes off. God damn it, I wish the sight of her didn’t thrill me, that the curves and her legs didn’t make me want to take her now. I’m a hot-blooded young man, okay! And she looks… she looks just like her, and it hurts.

Please, don’t be unkind to me. This hurts too much.

Not-Bedevil joins me on the bed, kissing me passionately. She breathes into my neck. “I want you.”

“Maisa might hear us,” I say, trying to gently push her off me. Her skin, her lips, her eyes, they repulse me.

“Mmmm, she won’t, she won’t.” Not-Bedevil strokes the inside of my thigh, working her way up. “Please, I’ve been thinking about it all morning. I want you to plunge inside me. I want you to cum in me.”

Fuck. I need an out, right now. I can’t ever have sex with this woman again. I say the first thing that comes to mind, the least sexiest phrase I can think of:

“I’ve got diarrhea.”

Not-Bedevil pulls back from me, a strange look in her eyes. It’s not… disgust. It’s not anger, either. It’s a guilt of a kind. “Oh.”

“Yeah, I’m sorry, I feel awful. The whole works, runny and—”

“That’s—” Not-Bedevil interrupts me, cutting off what would have been as long a description I could manage. “…okay, baby.” She gets up, not breaking eye contact the whole way. “Do you want me to go to the store and get you something?”

A reprieve. I know I should keep my eye on her at all times, but I need her out of this apartment ASAP. “Yeah, that would be nice.”

Not-Bedevil goes to get me some medicine, which I find to be a testament to Doppelganger’s ability to recreate someone. The real Ruby would be out the door the minute she thought I might be sick, and she’d come back with three boxes of crackers, tomato soup, and tums.

God, I miss her already. I know this isn’t her.

My phone pings. I’ve got a text from Epione.

A picture.

Cynic’s ring. Snapped in half.

HELL 1.2

The revelation that they were in China, buried in the middle of a ruined city filled with God knows what kinds of superhumans, should have dashed their hopes of rescue. It should have deflated them and made them resigned to their fate at the hands of Doppelgänger.

Instead, it lit a fire under the three women. Three days passed, which they could tell by watching through the safe-box. They determined no one was watching them through the cameras and they hid their discarded food underneath one of the cots. The propped up the cot frame they’d broken by simply slotting the leg back in place.

The Thin Man lurked outside the vault door, reading his book, but if his twin lurked, too, then they must have switched out while Bedevil slept or plotted an escape. She only ever saw the one clone beneath the window.

Echo was dead; there was no mistaking that. They dragged her off. They did not return her. Bedevil spent a night mourning but now she had to focus on saving Meltdown and Maisa.

After three days, Doppelgänger did not return. The only visitors they had were clones that came and replaced their bedpans. Bedevil had a theory: “He’s left the compound.”

“How do you figure?” Meltdown asked. She’d pepped up since Bedevil convinced her to get off her cot.

“He visited us every day, or at least more often. I’ve only seen one Thin Man. I think Doppelgänger is out. I think he’s left.” Bedevil couldn’t admit she was pinning hope of escape on a suspicion, but she had such little hope it would not survive if she didn’t find support for it. And it was likely Doppelgänger had to leave the compound at some point. Even more likely that his absence was their best chance for escape.

Her stomach rumbled; the price of their gambit to clear their minds and avoid being drugged. It had worked but now they were hungry, edging toward starving.

Meltdown didn’t agree right away, and Bedevil couldn’t blame her. She’d made an assumption based only on what she could observe: the singular, harshly bright hallway, the changing days, and the scarecrow man standing guard alone. Assumptions carried risk. Meltdown hesitated, visibly afraid at the prospect they’d make a wrong mistake. Yet she nodded in the end. “What’s our plan?”

“We need to deal with the Thin Man, first. If we kill him, we end his power cancellation.”

Meltdown left her cot, scooting closer to where Bedevil sat under the safe-box they opened. “You’re sure?”

Maisa slept in her cot, still recovering from the beating the Thin Man gave her after the clones took Echo. A flash of pity and guilt stopped Bedevil from speaking; pity that the girl was here, guilt that she couldn’t stop the Thin Man from hurting the girl. Guilt that Maisa was imprisoned yet again, locked away like she must have been when she was in Pandahead’s ring.

“I’m sure,” Bedevil said. “When he got angry, I felt my power return for a second. I think he needs to be in control and if he isn’t, we might get our powers back. And if we kill him, definitely.”

“How do we kill him?” Meltdown asked. “He’s armed.”

Bedevil pointed to the leg of the cot they’d ripped free. “A few more of those and we are, too. The door opens outward, which means he’s disadvantaged coming in. The operating table Doppelgänger uses isn’t bolted down and it’s made of metal, which means we could use it as cover and charge him out the door. We get him riled up — which he probably will be once we ambush him — or we kill him, and we can use our powers to escape this place.”

Meltdown thought about it. “But the other clones.”

“Yeah, that’s what I’m working on. We need to get him to open the door on his own, without any of our clones involved. At least until we can get our powers back. We’d need to wait until we’re sure he’s alone.”

“What if we wait until they change out our bedpans, a couple or so minutes after that, and then you and I start another fight? D-man wants us alive and if we threaten to kill each other the weird guy has to intervene, doesn’t he?” Meltdown shrugged as if this was a pitiful offering, but to Bedevil it was a divine gift. Of course he wanted them alive! He wanted more and more powerful clones, and that was why he’d gotten rid of Echo. She was… well, Welterweight, maybe Cruiserweight.

That made Bedevil the worst sort of person. Turned her into someone like Doppelgänger, turned her into a creature whose only aim was survival.

Staring at Maisa, her breath whistling through her broken nose as she slept, Bedevil realized she’d do whatever it took to get them home. If that meant sacrificing some of her humanity… well, she’d given it up piece by piece for years, and only just now had she regained it. What was a little more to make sure these two held their loved ones again?

When she saw Gabe again, she’d know it was worth it.

But God! A spear in her heart. She thought it, mandated it: Echo is dead. You can’t change that.

“Let’s pick a fight, then.”

They woke Maisa and explained their plan. Meltdown put on another minor show of theatrics, as she had once or twice the last few days to throw off the suspicion of their earlier endeavor, and Maisa and Bedevil wrenched two more cot legs free. They replaced them, only unfastened, and waited.

Midday turned to afternoon outside and the vault door opened yet again. The clones and the Thin Man entered the room to replace the bed pans. The clones — two of Bedevil, one of Meltdown, one of Mr. Gold — did their duty while the Thin Man stared them down.

Her heart stopped when she realized he was studying her, eyes squinted in suspicion, which made his gaunt face look even more like some ghoulish mask you could buy in a Halloween store. Cast in the harsh light from behind him, his suspicion transcended into the full attention of some dread demon, its hell eyes burning through her scalp to mine out her thoughts. She almost wanted to scream: Yes! We are plotting our escape!

“Where is Echo?” Meltdown asked, full of hate. Her question pulled the demon’s eye away from Bedevil.

The Thin Man placed his long, spindly fingers on Meltdown’s jaw and clamped down, pulling her eyes up to meet him. Not that she needed the help, she was very willing to stare him down. “Shut your mouth, bitch. You’ve run it constantly these past few days, and father will not mind if I take your tongue.”

With that, he released her, the clones departed with the old bedpans, and he shut the vault door behind him.

The girls wordlessly grabbed their weapons, their plan already cemented in their mind. A simple plan, with only one moving part: the vault door. The simpler a plan was, the more likely to succeed, Bedevil hoped.

Or the more likely to be stomped on by a greater snare than they anticipated.

But it was either wait to die or force the issue now.

Thus armed with scraps of metal, they overturned the operating table. Bedevil sawed the restraints free and used them as dusters, in case she needed to punch someone. The other pair she gave to Maisa, who trained often in hand-to-hand.

They were exhausted, starving.

Desperate to win.

Meltdown started her horrendous shrieking, ranting and raving: “I can’t die here! I can’t! My baby! My Jamie! My Jason!”

“Shut up!” Bedevil screamed back at her.

“Both of you calm down!” Maisa shouted, adding to the pantomime fight. “Put that down, Bedevil!”

“You don’t have the guts!” Meltdown’s shrieking filled the space, pressed against the walls, and dug into Bedevil’s ears so deep she thought the sound would slice her brain.

“You don’t think I do?” Bedevil played at swinging the leg around, smacking it against the stone and table, hoping it would ring loud enough for the Thin Man to hear. Hoping that he was not summoning the clones but decided to investigate alone. She knew if he brought anyone else they were dead. “Just shut up! Shut up or I’ll make you shut up!”

“Come on!”

“I’ll fucking kill you, you psycho!”

The mechanism hissed. The moment of truth came. The vault door swung open.

The Thin Man stood there, blinking in surprise, alone.

The trio screamed in unison, a last ditch warcry to give their muscles as much energy as they could muster, and charged forward with the table. The Thin Man had no time at all to shout, only to aim his gun and fire once.

The bullet pinged and Bedevil felt a pinch in her hip somewhere, and then warmth even as they charged. Her legs threatened to give out but Maisa and Meltdown did not relent. They slammed into the Thin Man, throwing him to the ground. His gun clattered to Bedevil’s feet.

Meltdown smashed the Thin Man in the face with her makeshift pole while Bedevil fumbled at the gun with shaking hands. Her leg, her upper thigh, she’d been shot, she dropped the gun, the Thin Man kicked Meltdown—

Maisa soared by on her board of light. “My power!”

“Go!” Bedevil shouted. “Find out where we are!”

Electricity crackled around Meltdown’s head, feeding in tendrils from the lights and the outlets lining the walls. A wave of force emanated in a sphere around her, flinging the table, the gun, and their makeshift cudgels. Bedevil dove to the ground, unable to hear over the wall of sound accompanying the unleashed Meltdown.

Bedevil grabbed the gun and fired at the Thin Man, who’d been shoved against the wall by Meltdown’s gravity burst. He rushed to take cover behind the vault door, covering his head with his lanky arms.

The wall between her and her power vanished. She was right. She took no chances: with all of the tendrils at her command, she pressed the vault door in on the Thin Man. The mechanism and the hinges gave the shrill cry of their demise, and with them the Thin Man as he was pinched between the metal slab and the wall.

A bolt of lightning struck the vault door, and the Thin Man’s cry became monstrous. The smell of sizzling flesh hit Bedevil’s nose, a metallic, sulfurous, yet sweet smell, too many smells.

The inhuman scream shrank into a horrible squeaking and at last into nothing.

The Thin Man’s end did not coincide with the end of their escape. At the end of the hall, Meltdown already rushed to help Maisa, who trapped a Bedevil clone within a dome of hard light. Bedevil flung herself down the hall to join them.

Their battlefield was the basement lobby of a bank, their freedom tantalizingly close at twenty feet above, beyond a field of razor wire strung across the stairwell to keep intruders from entering. With their powers they’d easily slice through that, but only if they weren’t interrupted.

Two clones, one of Meltdown and one of Maisa, erupted from one of the side doors with lightning and colorful saws strobing with power. Bedevil aimed the gun but an invisible giant’s fist slammed her down, trying to grind her into bone meal. Not her telekinesis, but Meltdown’s gravity manipulation. She propped herself up with her tendrils, forming a cushion around herself to keep from being crushed.

The buzz of lightning, the whisper of Maisa’s constructs, the screams of battle. The gun burst under the enormous pressure, her ears popped, it was awful, awful, God almighty, awful. Gabe, she thought at the last miserable moment, I’m sorry I couldn’t make it back to you. I’m sorry you’ll never know I died here.

Then she was free, as Maisa’s disk removed the clone Meltdown’s head. The clone Maisa responded in kind, trying to behead the original Maisa, but Bedevil flung the clone into the barbed wire and trussed her up with her telekinesis.

“We’ve got to go,” Bedevil said.

Maisa stared at her twin, bleeding out in a tangle of barbed wire, a wild and unnerving look in her eyes. Her own death mirrored there before her, robbing her of her will to fight on.

“Maisa! Come on!” Bedevil had no gentleness left; she seized Maisa by her arm, intent on dragging her out of the bank if she wouldn’t move.

But Maisa whispered a handful of words that would doom them. “We’ve got to find Echo.”

Bedevil couldn’t afford a rescue mission. She knew it was pointless: Echo was dead. She repeated the mantra. “Come on, Maisa, she’s been gone for three days. She’s not—”

“Gabe would never forgive us if we left her behind!” Maisa slipped free of Bedevil, sprinting through the doors before Bedevil could stop her.

Meltdown made to chase the girl, but whether to join or stop her, Bedevil couldn’t tell. She tried to give the woman direction: “We’ve got to retreat, Meltdown. Help me catch her. We can’t do this right now!”

“She’s right. Gabe would never forgive us if we didn’t rescue her.” Meltdown didn’t wait for a reply. She disappeared through the door.

Bedevil snarled. How dare they invoke her love? How dare they say his name like a god, as if everything he’d said was law. They didn’t know that he’d nearly killed himself three times over flinging himself into trouble, only surviving by the skin of his teeth or the help of his friends. They didn’t see him bloodied and broken after Sledge, after Nero, after every goddamn fight.

They only saw the ideal of him. Like Doppelgänger did when he claimed Gabe couldn’t save the world.

None of them knew the man himself, just what he presented. She shared his bed, she knew his heart.

And… and…

And they were right. Gabe would never forgive her if she gave up on Echo without making certain.

Bedevil charged through the door after her friends, hoping that this wasn’t a suicide mission. Her hopes were dashed immediately: Maisa held a wall of light against a squadron of clones pushing down the hall. Bedevil, Mr. Gold, Meltdown, Maisa, Echo, more faces she recognized from New Foundation. They marched forward, their own powers smashing against Maisa’s shields, all dressed in the same black armor with the strange symbol: paper dolls, holding hands.

Bedevil glanced to her right and saw Meltdown gawking at a window, or really at what lay beyond it: rows upon rows upon rows of naked bodies stacked like books on top of each other. Packed like meat. So many people, all sitting there, quiet and still. Eyes open but seeing nothing. Mouth twisted into a vacant smile.

She reached out with her tendrils to crush it all. Her telekinesis ripped through cement, through glass, through flesh and bone. The worst thing was the naked clones made no sound as she brought the ceiling down on them.

Once that task was done, she turned to Maisa’s failing barrier. These imitations were not as strong as the originals, or else they would have busted through Maisa’s hard light long before this. Bedevil intended to show them how much stronger she was.

She collapsed the hallway, forcing a cave in and tons of rubble onto Doppelgänger’s clones. She didn’t know if that killed them or if they collectively had the power to survive, but it didn’t matter.

Bedevil grabbed Meltdown, whirling her away from the destroyed storage room. She tried to ignore a forearm sticking out of the ruin, groping around as nerve endings fired off. Easy enough: she was furious. They’d risked their escape and they had nothing to show for it. “We’re leaving. Now.”

Neither Meltdown nor Maisa could protest. They followed without a word.

She led the way out of the basement, ripping the barbed wire away as simple as a broom clears a cobweb from the corner of a room, and the trio escaped by punching through a glass door.

Over collapsed buildings and broken streets they soared, staring down at the end result of an unchecked superhuman war; a skyline of broken daggers, snaked through by a black river that bubbled and smoked like tar. No signs of human life, no lights, no fires, no safety. They’d made it free of Doppelgänger’s dungeon but they had no idea where they were. In some nameless Chinese graveyard, possibly crawling with bogeymen.

They alighted in a cube of a building, opened to the world by a charred hole in the top, and climbed down a flight of stairs and found a small room to hide away in. There was a singular window at an inconvenient height to look out, but that meant they wouldn’t have unwanted spies.

Bedevil could not find victory in this escape. She barely considered it one; they were still lost in an unknown land, a dangerous other world she’d scarcely believed existed. Meltdown and Maisa were in similar spaces, though Maisa found the energy to help Bedevil remove the bullet in her hip. With her tendrils and a strip of Maisa’s gown, they covered the wound. She hadn’t started to feel the pain yet but she knew it would come.

“Thank you,” Bedevil said, patting Maisa’s arm. “Are you okay?”

“I’m not injured.” The girl sat down next to Bedevil and scooted close, sharing her warmth. “I’m… We’re free. That’s it.”

“Yeah, that’s it.” Bedevil leaned into Maisa. The adrenaline began to wear off; pain started to take its place. They’d escaped, but she wondered if they’d even survive the night.

“That’s not it.” Meltdown looked hideous, an accusing judge staring down her nose at a murderer. “We left behind one of our own.”

“We didn’t leave behind anyone,” Bedevil said. “She’s gone, Meltdown. She’s dead.”

“You don’t know that. We didn’t get to see.” Meltdown stayed at her end of the room, and Maisa offered no statement one way or the other. She stammered, averted her eyes, and left Bedevil to the argument.

“We didn’t need to see. He took her because he didn’t need her anymore. What would you do if you were him?” Bedevil asked.

“I wouldn’t give up on her! Gabe wouldn’t!”

“Stop saying his name like it justifies being stupid.”

Meltdown started at that. “Stupid? Is it stupid to care about our friends?”

“No, it’s not.” Bedevil wanted to back track, wanted to forget all of this. She wanted to curl up and go to sleep. “But it is stupid to try and dig up a corpse because you refuse to see the truth. It’s stupid to get us killed because you can’t accept that!”

Meltdown sniffled, the accusation cutting deep. “She’s… we don’t know. That’s awful, Bedevil. That’s god damn awful and cruel and heartless—”

Bedevil rose to her feet, but her wounded leg betrayed her, bringing her to her knees. She gasped, pain running its blade through the bottom half of her body, and she couldn’t say another word.

I do care, she thought. I have to care about all of you.  

HELL 1.1

Bedevil was missing five of her teeth. Two of her bottom right molars, one of her bottom left, and one from her upper left. Mostly from the back of her mouth, but he’d taken one of her incisors from the top, too, marring her smile. The gaps in her mouth throbbed when she ran her tongue over them. Otherwise, they ached in a remote fashion, such that she was unbothered as long as she didn’t focus on it.

He took all of her hair. She tried not to dwell on it, but it made her feel ugly.

After sleeping for a bit the first night (though, she couldn’t really say if it was night), she measured out the dimensions of their prison as best she could and determined, by way of the deposit boxes lining the walls, that they were in a bank vault. There wouldn’t be money in the boxes, but valuables, or so she guessed. Bedevil found every box she tried to open locked.

Maisa was very helpful, helping Bedevil try out the boxes, but Meltdown slept a long while and Echo just watched them as they worked, not contributing.

Every so often, someone would come and change their bedpans, and bring them a pitiful meal of bread, scrambled eggs, and milk. Maisa and Bedevil put their heads together but they were tired and delirious, often so tired all they could do was sleep. Doppelgänger put sedatives in their food to keep them compliant, probably.

There was a single window above the vault door that always let in a harsh white light, and with Maisa’s help Bedevil was able to climb up and look through it. The window let her see a hallway that turned sharply to the right. There were two doors to the right and one to the left. Bedevil could just see the top of the Thin Man’s head in front of the vault door, where he sat with a book.

Time passed. Drugged and underfed, they couldn’t find flaws in their prison. They slept often. She felt her hair growing, which gave her a rough estimate of time. A week or so and she had gone from a clean scalp to a scratchy buzz cut.

The door to the vault hissed and swung outward — important, Bedevil thought, that’s very important if we try to escape — and in walked Doppelgänger flanked by two of the Thin Men and five more behind. The light blinded her for a moment, but as they entered and she adjusted to the light, she made them out.

Bedevil stiffened her body, her only resort against crying out in terror, as she came face to face with a clone of herself. Like looking in a mirror, only her expression was blank, her eyes were dead. Her hair long and beautiful. She fought against the instinct to grab a rock, a piece of metal, and bash her twin’s head in.

The other three were clones of Meltdown, Maisa, and Mr. Gold. The final person was an African man that Bedevil had never seen before.

Each of the clones, including the Thin Men, wore strange black bodysuits with a symbol on their chest that resembled a trio of white paper dolls holding hands.

Echo whimpered in the dark.

Doppelgänger extended his hand to Bedevil as if he were escorting her to a ball. “My dear, would you be so kind as to get onto the table?”

Bedevil complied, though she wanted to chew his head off. She lied down on the table, and her own clone strapped her by the wrists and ankles. One of the Thin Men swabbed her elbow with a cotton ball soaked with alcohol, while the other squeezed her arm with a tourniquet.

Doppelgänger pulled a needle from his tote, connected by way of a tube to a blood bag.

“I don’t get it,” Bedevil said. “Why not just take my toes, or my fingers?”

“You mean like I’ve done to myself? Harsh measures, when I was more unpracticed. The hair, the teeth, those are far more useful to me.” Doppelgänger tapped her elbow, gripped her forearm. He gave her a sorry look. “You can look away if you want.”

Needles did not scare her. She looked him in the eyes while he punctured her vein, watching in silence as the tube filled with blood.

“You’re strong. The others have broken down and wailed by now, but you don’t.” Doppelgänger seemed to want to fill the silence rather than make meaningful conversation, in that he didn’t immediately pursue the topic again when she refused to answer. “Are you waiting for him?”

Bedevil tried not to let that get her, but it elicited a tiny gasp that did not go unnoticed.

Doppelgänger smirked at her. “In time, I’ll return you to him.”

“I want to believe that,” she said.

“I know you do.”

“How much blood are you taking?” she asked.

“Enough,” he said. “We’ll feed you after. You need to stay strong. Grow your hair back for me. I work best with hair and teeth, and I don’t want to ruin your smile for when I give you back to Gabe.”

“He’ll come looking for me when he finds out I’m missing,” she said.

“He doesn’t know you’re missing.” Doppelgänger smirked again, an ungracious victor.

Bedevil realized what that meant. There was already a clone of her at New Foundation. One that was posing as Gabe’s fiancee. One that was living in their apartment, pretending to be in love with him, pretending to love their dogs, their cats, and their mission.

One that was sharing his bed.

One that was having sex with him.

Her stomach flipped. Her head felt like it would pop off her neck. “Why?”

“Why what, dear?” Doppelgänger asked, moving on from that news like it meant nothing.

“Why are you doing this?” Her heart trembled and her body shook with agony. Her face twisted out of her control, tears spilled down her cheeks. Everything inside her threatened to escape, her rage, her anguish.

“Ah.” Doppelgänger sat back from her, allowing her space to breathe. “When I was a young man, I was addicted to porn and masturbation.”

Of all the things in the world she expected him to say, that was not it.

Doppelgänger patted her arm, and strangely, she felt no lechery in his touch. “I know that makes me sound like some kind of pervert, or like a freak, but it’s the truth. When I was thirteen I discovered the internet and a very short amount of time later I was watching porn from when I got home from school to late into the night. My parents noticed something was wrong with me. I went through therapy. I came out the other side and of course, by then I had my power.”

Doppelgänger gave her a little smile that expected an accusation, but Bedevil was struck speechless by his admission and had no accusation for him.

“You must be thinking — he satisfied himself with his clones. Keep in mind that I didn’t learn how to flash clone people until after I’d left OPI and by then I’d committed to my path.”

“Your path?”

“To saving the world.”

“You can’t save the world.”

“But you think Gabe can? You said it yourself: the minute he finds out you are missing — which he will not — he would drop everything and come running for you. He would leave New Foundation behind. He would abandon his mission for those he loves, because they are more important than the mission. Tell me I am wrong.”

Bedevil could not.

“He loves. That is his weakness. I removed that from myself.”

“How?” Bedevil asked.

“My power is over genetics. Once I realized I could sway it, I cut out the one part of my life that was holding me back. With my power, I removed my penis and my sex drive. I have no need for them and they will not help the world. Sex only creates attachment and lack of it creates loneliness, Bedevil. Ripe breeding ground for the Fear. Gabe can’t defeat that. He can’t defeat our base natures, what is in our hearts. He can pummel ink all he wants but so long as humans exist, our own natures betray us. I can make us better. Perfect.”

Bedevil tried to come up with a counter, but on the face of it, she wondered if he wasn’t on to something. She’d spent most of her last six years drinking until she puked, and when she didn’t puke anymore, drinking until she blacked out. If someone could have shifted her genetics to make her not alcoholic, or replaced her with a version of her that never got on the sauce, maybe Gabe wouldn’t have gotten hurt. Maybe she’d have kept the team together after Julian’s death. Maybe all the mistakes she made wouldn’t have happened.

But what of Paul, who was nothing but a big ball of fear thanks to Doppelgänger’s influence? She thought of how Doppelgänger’s touch affected Gabe. Would a world full of Doppelgänger’s puppets really stand a chance against the Fear?

It sounded reasonable on its face but positive emotion was how they’d beaten the Fear, not lack of emotion.

Not that he wasn’t insane, based off his callous disregard for human life, but at least he attempted to justify himself. Maybe Bedevil could influence him. “Gabe’s already beaten the Fear.”

“He’s beaten one instance of it. There are two more in this world that we know of. Possibly more. And according to what we know, there are many more on the way. Tell me, do you think Gabe can defeat all of them himself? He didn’t even beat his alone. I’m going to save us, because I will surrender what is necessary to win. That is why I am doing this. There must be someone.”

With a flourish of his hand, he pointed at Echo, who squeaked on her cot as he singled her out. “Take her. We have use of her.”

“What?” Bedevil could do nothing but gawk and wrestle against her restraints while the four Inheritors clones obeyed his command. Maisa jumped in front of them and Echo, but the clone of Mr. Gold slapped her out of the way, while the other three clones seized Echo.

Echo kicked and tried to bite the clones, but they barely reacted to her outburst. They wore no expressions, they did not seem to notice pain. These clones were so different from Paul. More complacent. Doppelgänger’s control over his power had grown.

“Bedevil! Help! PLEASE!” Echo’s screams devolved into guttural cries as they marched her out of the vault.

The Thin Men pulled the needle from Bedevil’s vein, placed a bandage on the puncture, and offered her a small cookie while undoing her straps. Bedevil wanted to grab the needle and jam it into Doppelgänger’s eye, but that wouldn’t save Echo.

She realized that was the last time she’d see Echo alive. Whatever use he had for her, it was fatal. Otherwise he’d have kept her here, with the living.

Doppelgänger patted her arm again. “When this is all over, you’ll thank me. In the meantime, keep growing your hair unless you want me to take even more teeth than I have. I promise you, you’ll see Gabe again.”

He stood, nodded to one of the Thin Men. “Make sure they get some rest.” With that, he and the other clones departed.

The Thin Man revealed a pistol hidden in his waistband. He pointed the gun at Meltdown and Maisa while he shoved Bedevil back to the cots..

“You’re a fucking ugly monster!” Maisa rose with her voice, standing to face the Thin Man.

The Thin Man aimed the gun at Maisa and motioned for her to sit down.

Maisa verbally assaulted him with renewed fervor. “You know you’re fucking expendable! If you stop working, if you stop being useful, he’ll toss you out just like he did that girl!”

The Thin Man struck her for her defiance, the slap sounding like a gunshot in the vault. Bedevil stood up but the gun’s presence kept her from rushing in.

“Weak,” Maisa spat.

“What did you say?” he asked, the first words Bedevil heard him speak at all. His sonorous, musical voice caught her off guard, so imposing for someone so thin.

“I said it was weak!” Maisa shrieked. She lashed out with her nails and caught him on the cheek, leaving a bloody wound.

“Maisa!” Bedevil jumped to intervene, knowing that he’d shoot her down for that. But the Thin Man was quick, giving Bedevil the backside of his fist. He sent her tumbling, and all she could think was that she’d failed both Echo and Maisa in the span of five minutes.

The Thin Man yanked Maisa by the collar of her gown and became a savage, arm whirling in a vicious circle, again and again, beating Maisa with the gun so badly Bedevil thought he would smash her nose in and crush her skull. He snarled as he let her go, his chest heaving, and just for a moment, a single second, Bedevil felt her power.

The Thin Man straightened up and the wall slammed down between her and her telekinesis, but she knew that somehow they’d triggered a weakness in his ability. Blood? Anger? Something.

The Thin Man dropped Maisa like a sack and then exited the room, closing the vault door behind him without even a backward glance. A moment later, clones brought them food and left.

Bedevil stared at her food, clarity striking. They were going to die here.

She couldn’t allow that to happen. She refused to give up. “Don’t eat the food,” she said to Maisa and Meltdown.

Despondence claimed Meltdown, kept her in her cot with her back turned toward Bedevil and Maisa. “I’m not hungry, anyway.”

“Why not?” Maisa asked.

“We’re being drugged.”

Maisa jolted upright at that, hurling the tray of food from her. They were lucky there was no glass, otherwise the sound of breaking would have summoned the Thin Man or Doppelganger.

Meltdown rolled over in her cot to face Maisa and Bedevil. “There’s no way out of this.”

“Don’t say that,” Bedevil said. “There’s always a way out.”

“He’s thought of everything. He keeps us drugged. Whatever we try to do, he’ll just stop us. We’re nothing better than slaves now.” Meltdown shrugged, which pissed Bedevil off. “He’s probably listening to us right now. He’ll send someone to make sure we eat our food.”

“I’ve looked for microphones.” Bedevil wrestled her anger at Meltdown, calming herself. She had to remember that Meltdown likely felt more lost than she did. Her child in another woman’s arms, not just her lover. That and the drugs were potent. Even now that she’d decided not to eat her food, she still felt sluggish.

“Could be tiny. They could be listening from somewhere, who knows? The microphones could be inside a safe-box.” Meltdown shifted onto her back and reached her hand up toward the ceiling. “At this point I just want him to end it. I don’t want to grow hair for him. I’d rather he just kill me and use the rest of me.”

Bedevil did not need Meltdown giving up. She needed a fire under all of their asses. “Listen. We already agreed we weren’t giving up. We’re down one which means we need all hands on deck. Otherwise, you’re killing us just as much as you’re killing yourself.”

“We’re already dead.” Meltdown rolled back over.

“You’re gonna let Jamie get raised by another woman?” Bedevil asked.

Meltdown grunted, not taking the bait.

“There aren’t any microphones, anyway. No cameras, either.” Bedevil didn’t really know why she was still talking, since it seemed like she lost the argument. “Just so you know.”

“Not even a vent they could spy through,” Maisa said. “We’ve looked all over. There’s nothing.”

But Bedevil’s mind was already racing. There were no vents. Yet all this time they hadn’t run out of oxygen, which meant air had to be coming from somewhere. The only thing she could think of was the safe-boxes lining the wall.  “Maisa. Help me look for an air current.”

“An air… current?”

“There has to be some ventilation, otherwise we’d have already run out of air.”

Maisa gasped and bounced up off the cot. She scurried across the room, searching the safe-boxes on one side while Bedevil searched the other side. Bedevil climbed over cots, running her fingers in front of each safe-box, searching for a whisper, a breath, anything. If they found it, they found salvation.

Maisa squealed from one corner of the room. “A breeze!”

Bedevil joined Maisa at the safe-box she pointed out. As Maisa said, a current of air kissed Bedevil’s cheeks. The safe-boxes were tiny, too small to crawl through, but maybe they had hollowed out a few to make a ventilation shaft. Something they could crawl through. At least Maisa.

“How are we going to open it?” Maisa asked.

“We need something to pry it. We’re strong enough.” One thing they’d learned about the Affect and metallic-souled people: they often had higher levels of strength than ordinary humans. Even people with mental powers had roughly three times the strength as a normal human. That was true whether or not they had access to their power. Which meant between Bedevil, Maisa, and Meltdown, they had enough strength to pull open a safe-box.

But Meltdown still waited in her cot for their oncoming death, rather than try and avoid it. Bedevil went to her and knelt down to meet her face to face. “Listen. I want to get out of here. I don’t care if you’re throwing a pity party, because I’m going to crash it. You’ve got a man and a baby to get back to. I’ve got a fiancé. Maisa has her friends.” Bedevil put her hand on Meltdown’s cheek, neither trying to slap her or caress her, but to remind her of the strength Bedevil had. “You’re an Inheritor. Get up.”

Meltdown glared at Bedevil, frowning and refusing to move. Tears welled in her eyes, spilling onto her nose and down to the cot. She placed her hand on top of Bedevil’s, shaking her head and whining, clearly trying to guilt Bedevil into leaving her alone.

That wasn’t going to happen. “Get up, Meltdown. I need you. Maisa needs you. No one’s listening. If they were, they would have already come to make us eat the food.”

Meltdown exhaled a shaky breath, gripping Bedevil’s hand. She shifted — and sat up. “Okay.”

“Okay. I need you to make a distraction,” Bedevil said. “I need you to do some wailing.”

“Okay,” Meltdown agreed, rising with Bedevil.

“We’re going to pry one of these cots apart.” Bedevil pointed at a vacant one. The frames of the cot were ramshackle metal skeletons, screwed at each joint. They could rip it apart but not without making a lot of noise. “Then, we’re going to open a safe-box and hopefully find out where our air is coming from. If there’s a way to crawl out, we’ll do it.”

Meltdown wiped her eyes, nodding along with Bedevil’s plan. “Okay. Argue with me so it’s not like I’m just screaming. That sounds too much like a distraction.”

“Can do. Topic?” Bedevil asked, snapping her fingers at Maisa to go ahead and start working on the cot’s frame.

“You already raised an excellent one,” Meltdown said. “My baby.”

Bedevil didn’t wait. She launched into their fake argument. “Meltdown, think of Jamie!”

“I am thinking of Jamie!” Meltdown raised her voice, making a show of anger. “If I make them angry they’re going to hurt my baby and I can’t do anything to stop it! You want to rock the boat when he said he’ll give us back to New Foundation once they’re all settled!”

Bedevil yelled back at Meltdown: “I don’t care what he said!” Even while she yelled, she joined Maisa at the cot.

Meltdown continued, pacing around the room and slamming cots around. “You can’t just think of us for one second, all you can think about is getting back to Gabe! You’re a selfish cunt!”

Bedevil tried not to think too hard about what Meltdown was screaming and just let her have her tirade. She gripped one of the legs and put her heel into the frame for leverage, with Maisa’s help.

They wrenched, the frame digging painfully into Bedevil’s bare heel, and the metal shrieked.

But not as loud as Meltdown shrieked: “You don’t know what you’re fucking doing!”

The leg popped free. They had a makeshift crowbar. Bedevil and Maisa hurried over to the safe-box they felt the air current through and jammed one end of the leg in. While Meltdown barked and yelled about how she’d failed as a mother and she just wanted Jamie to be safe, that was really all it was, Bedevil and Maisa pried the safe-box open.

A sharp pounding on the other side of the vault door told them to shut up. The three girls waited in tense silence, knowing that if the door opened they were lost. The Thin Man would shoot them down for trying to escape, no questions.

The vault door did not open.

Bedevil peered into the open safe-box. She cursed; they hadn’t excavated out a larger shaft, but only enough to stick her arm into.

She could see daylight, the outside world. A tiny square of the outside world, but nonetheless, it lifted her spirits. Until she saw what she was staring at.

A ruined square, buildings collapsed in as if by an earthquake, concrete scorched black and bearing the scars of a superhuman war. A sign with Mandarin letters and a smiling Chinese woman applying blush to her cheeks.

“Holy God,” Bedevil whispered, gaping at the apocalypse. “We’re in the Hellpact.”