Supernova (Renegades, #3)

“Except I didn’t—”

Narcissa screamed, a sound of pure agony, as the fire drew closer. Adrian was never sure how much of Phobia’s ability was simple illusion, but the girl’s pain sounded real enough. He cringed. “I didn’t create him, and even if I did, I still wouldn’t know how to stop him.”

“Well, start thinking of something,” said Nova. “One thing I do know, the best way to fight Phobia”—she squared her shoulders—“is by being brave.” She descended the stairs into the sanctuary and stood facing the searing-hot flames. They were so bright Adrian had to lower his visor again so he could stand to look at them, but Nova didn’t flinch away.

“Nova?” He could feel the heat of the flames even through his armor, and she was standing so much closer than he was. He was amazed she could stand it.

Then, she stepped into the fire.





CHAPTER FORTY-SIX




“NOVA!” ADRIAN YELLED—and his scream split through the sudden, unexpected silence. The inferno had disappeared as quickly as it had come.

Nova, untouched, stood only a few feet from the others, who were clutching one another on the floor. Their faces were ashen, their hair drenched with sweat.

How long had Phobia been tormenting them? How long had they been trying to stand up to their greatest fears, as the Anarchist slowly wore them down to their greatest weaknesses?

BANG.

They all jumped at the gunshot. It was earsplittingly loud, and Adrian spun around, trying to find its source, sure the gun had been fired only inches from his head. But the sanctuary was empty.

BANG.

Nova whimpered, bringing his attention back to her. Her eyes were shut tight and she was trembling from head to foot, both hands gripping her head.

BANG!

A shadow rose up in front of Nova. For a moment, Adrian could see the hazy outline of Phobia forming, the billowing cloak, the sharp scythe, but then he morphed into something else.

A man. A mammoth of a man, towering over Nova’s small frame. His chin was rough with stubble. He had pale hair tied at the nape of his neck. There was a splatter of dried blood on his brow.

He was holding a gun, pressing it against Nova’s forehead.

A hatred like Adrian had never known surged inside him and the next thing he knew, he had crashed into the man’s side. They both fell. The man landed on his back beside the altar, but Adrian’s momentum sent him rolling across the floor. He struck a column that shook from the impact of his armor.

On the other side of the sanctuary, Nova released a shuddering breath and fell to her knees.

The man started to cackle. His body dissolved into wisps of shadowy smoke, before re-forming again into a long black cloak. The gun elongated into a staff and a hooked blade.

“Master Everhart,” said Phobia, his raspy voice making Adrian twitch with loathing. “I had hoped our paths would cross again before this night was through.”

Adrian climbed to his feet, one hand braced on an intricately carved cabinet. He peered into the blackness where a face should have been and realized this was the moment he had spent years imagining. He had found his mother’s killer. Justice was within reach.

“You killed my mother,” he said through gritted teeth. The image came unbidden to his mind. His mother’s broken body, her silent scream. Dread filled him all over again, but he needed to stall. He needed time to think.

Behind Phobia, he saw Nova urging the others to run. Narcissa seemed keen on the idea, but Oscar and Danna were staring at Nova in disbelief. They didn’t trust her. Why would they?

But then … how on earth had they come to trust the mirror walker?

“So I did,” rasped Phobia. “It might have been my favorite death of all. Do you know what her greatest fear was?”

Adrian clenched his fists.

“It’s an easy one to guess. It usually is with mothers.” Disgust and boredom oozed over the word. “She feared losing you. She feared that this dark, cruel world would ruin her darling little boy. Ruin him or kill him, whichever came first.” He chuckled. “Would you like to know what was the last thing she ever saw?”

Adrian said nothing.

“Me … holding the body of her dead son in my arms. I didn’t even have to say anything. She took one look and started to scream and then … she just gave up. I think she might have actually forgotten that she could fly.” He made a quiet tsking sound. “Her scream was a symphony. I can hear it to this day.”

With a guttural roar, Adrian grabbed the narrow cabinet beside him and flung the whole thing at Phobia.

The villain dissolved before impact, wisping away in a cloud of smoke. The cabinet crashed onto its side, its door swinging open and an assortment of chalices and urns spilling across the floor.

Phobia appeared again, rising up on top of the altar. “You’re very much like her, you know.”

Adrian ripped a statue from a nearby alcove and threw that, too. Phobia blocked it with the handle of the scythe, sending the marble figurine skittering into the choir. “You also fear losing the ones you love. It’s a common fear. One shared by prodigies and humans alike. But for you there is an added element of … responsibility. Your greatest fear is to lose your loved ones, while you are powerless to stop it.”

Adrian sprang upward, vaulting himself onto the altar. This time he reached for Phobia’s throat, as if to strangle him, but again the villain vanished the moment he touched him.

He reappeared behind Danna and grabbed her forehead with one skeletal hand. He pulled her back against his cloak, angling the scythe so that the tip of the blade pressed into the soft spot at the base of her throat.

“Nothing is quite as debilitating,” whispered Phobia, “as seeing a loved one suffer.”

Adrian called for the concussive energy beam in his arm, only too late remembering that Queen Bee had cut that tattoo from his skin. “No!”

Snarling, Danna grabbed two of Phobia’s skeletal fingers and bent them back as hard as she could. The fingers snapped off in her hand. Phobia hissed, his grip loosening enough for her to slip out from his choke hold. The moment she was clear, a volley of throwing stars sliced through Phobia’s cloak. He evaporated into the air again, as did the bones Danna had ripped from his hand. The stars struck the wall on the other side of the sanctuary—one lodging into the mortar between stones, the other two rebounding and skidding across the floor.

“Danna, Oscar, get out of here!” Nova shouted. She raced past the altar and gathered up the discarded throwing stars. “You’re not superheroes anymore, and he’s just going to keep using you against Adrian if you don’t leave!”

Oscar sent her a frazzled look, then turned to Adrian. “I’m sorry, is this a thing we’re doing again?”

“What?” said Adrian.

“Trusting her!” Oscar yelled.

Before Adrian could respond, Phobia re-formed, towering behind Oscar. He raised the scythe, and Adrian gasped, already envisioning the swing of the blade coming down on Oscar’s throat.

But then a war cry erupted through the chamber, and Danna came charging down the aisle. She launched herself into a series of forward flips that took her beneath Phobia’s outstretched arm. It happened so fast it wasn’t until Danna had lobbed herself onto a shrine, scattering unlit votive candles, that Adrian realized she had stolen the scythe.

“We may not be prodigies anymore,” Danna said, casting a glare toward Nova, “but we’re still superheroes.”

“How quaint.” Phobia jutted a pale finger toward her, and the scythe became a twisting serpent in Danna’s grip. She cried out and dropped it. The moment the creature hit the stone floor, it scattered into a million black spiders, scurrying in every direction. Narcissa and Oscar both screamed.

The spiders merged with Phobia’s cloak, and he seemed to grow taller, as if he were pulling the very shadows around him.

Adrian’s mind searched his options. He could jump high, he could lift heavy things, he could crush his gauntleted fist through concrete walls, he could … draw things. What could he draw? It all seemed useless against Phobia.

“All right, Nightmare,” said Oscar, his voice thick with disdain. “You must know his weakness, right? How do we defeat this guy?”

Phobia continued to grow, darkness surrounding him like mist. His body stretched upward until he seemed to take over the whole sanctuary. He was a giant composed of shadows and smoke, about to engulf them all.

“Well?” Oscar said.

Nova shook her head. “I don’t know.”

Her panic was evident.

How do you kill a phantom? How do you kill a nightmare?

“Helpful, as always,” muttered Oscar.

“I told you to run!” Nova shouted.

Adrian took a step back, craning his head as Phobia’s massive form expanded, a living black hole sucking the light from the room. The scythe was in his hand again, a blade hanging ominously overhead.

Blood pounded against Adrian’s temples.