Supernova (Renegades, #3)

How do you kill a phantom?

“You want to know fear?” said Phobia, his voice bellowing from all directions. His form engulfed them, blacking out the rest of the world. “Fear of the dark. Fear of being trapped. Fear of death. I am master of them all.” As the sanctuary succumbed to impenetrable darkness, Adrian and the others were forced together, crowding against the altar.

“I’m not afraid of you,” said Adrian, daring to step forward into the shadows. His heavy boots clanged on the stone floor.

“Actually, you are,” said Phobia, with a low, sinister laugh. “But you are even more afraid to know the truth.”

Adrian hesitated.

Phobia’s voice dropped to a whisper. “Or do you already know?”

Heat climbed up Adrian’s neck. It wasn’t true. It couldn’t be.

“I suppose I should be grateful,” Phobia rasped. “It’s a rare gift indeed to meet one’s maker.”

Adrian shrank back, colliding with the wall.

Another game, he told himself. Phobia was toying with him.

“It’s impossible,” he said. “You would have died years ago. Faded away to nothing, like all the rest!”

“Is that so?” Phobia’s hood had reached the vaulted ceiling, so that the blackness enguled the room. Nothing but shadow in every direction. It felt like death itself closing in on them, sucking the warmth from the air, suffocating them, slowly, agonizingly.…

“I suppose I should be dead,” said Phobia, “but you were so clever in your fearful youth, to imbue me with an endless source of strength. A bottomless well of power. Your … own … fears.”

Adrian shuddered. “What are you talking about?”

“I used to worry that they would fade as you got older, but I needn’t have bothered. Fears might change, but they never go away. You once feared losing your mother above all else, but once that nightmare came to pass … there was another lurking to take its place. Fear that you would lose your new family. Fear that the Renegades would collapse. Fear that Ace Anarchy would win. Fear that you would always be in your fathers’ shadows. Fear that you would lose more loved ones. Fear that you would be weak and helpless when it mattered the most.” He cackled, almost delightedly. “There is no end to your fears, Master Everhart, and there is no end to the life they give me.”

Adrian tried to swallow, but it was like swallowing a mouthful of sand. He started to choke.

The refrain persisted in the back of his thoughts—impossible—but he knew that was only because Phobia was right. He was terrified of this truth.

Because if he had created this monster, that meant he had created his mother’s murderer. But instead of the anger that had propelled him in his search for the killer, all he felt now was a deep, weary distress. He had created this thing. On some level, he was responsible for every unspeakable act Phobia had ever committed. His imagination had rendered a soulless creature and set it loose on the world. He had made him to be a villain, a killer, everything Adrian loathed.

Adrian clenched his jaw until he thought his teeth might break.

Phobia was his own worst nightmare come to life, and it was entirely Adrian’s fault.

And now, Phobia was going to kill him, his friends, Nova. People he would give anything to protect.

It had a sick sort of completeness to it. Adrian even found himself wondering if maybe he deserved to die, now that he knew one of his drawings had been the cause of so much suffering. The guilt of it settled into his core.

Maybe a death at Phobia’s hands would be fitting. He even suspected, though he didn’t know for sure, that all his creations might perish, too, when his own life was ended. That would provide its own sort of justice, if Adrian’s and Phobia’s deaths were intrinsically knotted together. It lacked only that moment of satisfaction that Adrian might have known to see his mother’s killer ended once and for all. It lacked only his own yearning for revenge.

Nova believed there was a way for Adrian to destroy Phobia. Perhaps this was it. Perhaps his own death was the only way.

A rumbling laugh shook the wall. “Ah, the sweet bravery of one who is ready to die,” crooned Phobia. “But don’t overindulge your self-sacrificial fantasies just yet. I’m not going to kill you.” The enormous scythe swung lazily overhead, a shard of silver light glinting in the blackness. “I’m going to kill them, while you watch, and know that you can do nothing to stop me.”

“No!” Adrian jerked forward, but collapsed to one knee. The darkness had thickened to something tangible, rendering him trapped. He could barely make out the stricken faces of his friends through the shadows. “No … you can’t…”

Phobia knew his fears too well. He knew how this would torment Adrian. To be powerless, to lose his loved ones and be unable to stop it, just like he’d lost his mother. His rib cage squeezed inward, suffocating him. He couldn’t let this happen. He couldn’t let Phobia win. There had to be a way to defeat him. He would do anything. Anything.

Then, suddenly, he knew.

Or, he hoped.

Because if this didn’t work, it would be the biggest mistake of his life.

Coughing against the press of shadows, Adrian reached for the plate of armor and retracted the protective suit. It clanked inward along his limbs, leaving him in the remains of his Renegade uniform, still shirtless, his skin dotted with dried blood and the bandages he’d hastily drawn on himself in the belfry.

“Adrian!” Nova yelled through the chasm. He could barely see her in the gathering dark. “What are you doing?”

“I have an idea,” he yelled back, pulling out Nova’s pen, the one with the hidden blow-dart chamber. He opened it up and pulled the single dart from the chamber, sloshing with familiar thick green liquid. His mouth ran dry.

“No, it won’t work!” yelled Nova. “Don’t waste it!”

Ignoring her, Adrian grabbed a massive leather-bound tome from the shrine and spread it out on the floor. Pressing the pen against the pages, he started to draw.

Phobia’s voice boomed through the cathedral. “I’m impressed.” Adrian’s gaze traveled up the length of the shadows, into the emptiness beneath Phobia’s hood, which now brushed the ceiling beams so far above them. “Your courage is remarkable, for such insignificant creatures. But you know what they say about courage. One cannot—”

“—be brave who has no fear, yakkity-yak,” said Adrian, remembering how Winston Pratt had once mocked Phobia’s favorite saying. “But do you know what they say about fear?”

The hood fluttered around Phobia’s obscured face.

Adrian pressed his hand into the book and pulled his drawing from the brittle pages. A narrow rod, the length of his forearm, with a flat cross at one end. It glowed like a lit ember in the darkness.

His hand started to shake.

“Adrian,” Nova croaked. “Is that a firebrand?”

Adrian ignored her, facing off against the shadows. “One cannot be afraid,” he said, “when they have nothing left to lose.”

His gut lurched, even as he angled the brand toward himself.

“Adrian!” Nova yelled, her voice hitched with panic. “Adrian!”

He braced himself and, before he could talk himself out of it, thrust the heated iron against the immunity tattoo on his chest. A cry of pain ripped out of him. Almost immediately, the sickening aroma of burnt flesh filled the sanctuary.

When he pulled the brand away, a deep red X had destroyed the tattoo.

He dropped the firebrand with a shudder. He felt suddenly dizzy with pain, white spots creeping into his vision, but adrenaline and will kept him standing.

Closing his fist around the dart full of Agent N, he searched the depths of Phobia’s hood. The phantom who had haunted his childhood dreams. The nightmare who had stolen his mother from him.

The monster he had created.

Phobia hissed, sounding almost worried for a moment, before his low cackle shook the sanctuary again. “Don’t be a fool. More than any prodigy I have ever crossed, you fear being powerless. You would never—”

Adrian set his jaw and drove the needle into his own thigh.





CHAPTER FORTY-SEVEN




ADRIAN SANK TO one knee, knowing there was nothing else he could do. Either this worked, or he’d just given up everything on a whim. On a chance. He didn’t even know if it was a good chance.

That, and his chest was burning and he thought he might pass out from pain and blood loss, and the shadows of Phobia’s cloak were still engulfing him, still closing in around him and his friends, still swallowing them whole.

When the effects of Agent N began, he was almost too weak to notice them. The sensation was reminiscent of being in the quarantine with Max, before he’d discovered the Vitality Charm and given himself the tattoo. It was like a spark extinguishing inside him. A chill sweeping through his body. A slow draining-away of strength, concentrated in his hands. The fingers that had sketched so many amazing things in his nearly seventeen years.

The fingers that had sketched Phobia himself.