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Darlings, I do enjoy a good Halloween -- a nice night on the town, an amusing costume, a bottle or two of champagne. But this is not a good Halloween at all.

Everyone in the city is suffering from a state of extreme terror -- some sort of evil dust motes are threatening everyone with lifelike mannequins of their worst fears, and the only people who seem to be immune are myself and the reluctant supervillain Synthia -- because we're both cyborgs with computer-enhanced brains -- and my fellow superhero Squid Kid -- who is not so much immune as she is simply very enthusiastic about scary horror.

Now it turns out that this fear plague is a result of a local supervillain named Beelzebambi who has opened a portal to Hell -- or at least to an interdimensional realm of primal fear, which seems to be pretty much the same thing.

So that's why the three of us are here across the street from Metro City's Montclair Park looking at what is certainly the worst example of municipal grounds maintenance ever.

"Why would you even build a temple of skulls next to a Bugs Bunny-themed playground?" I ask. "That sort of juxtaposition really detracts from any terror the temple might have caused."

"This isn't really the time for light-hearted superhero banter, Defender," says Synthia. "Someone's opened up a drive-thru branch of Hell in the middle of a park in Metro City. I think we're fairly lucky that all the awful stuff is mostly sticking to the park itself, and that there aren't monsters attacking us already."

Well, I will certainly grant you that things seem quite daunting right now. In addition to the temple of skulls, the park's trees have turned into grasping, skeletal figures, the ground is broken by jagged rocks, metal pipes, and ancient bones, and there's a distinct impression of clouds of swirling blackness overhead.

And to top it all off, sputtering and howling and screaming in the center of the park is a glowing portal hanging in mid-air, filling the area with harsh white light.

"H-Holy crap," Squid Kid says hoarsely. "It's like every haunted house ride in my life, dialed up to a billion. Christmas has come early. I mean, Halloween has come on time. You know what I mean."

"How are we supposed to do anything about this?" Synthia asks. "This is way out of my field of experience."

"I'm afraid I've no idea," I say. "I might have some sort of clue if this were a technological matter, but magic is simply not my thing. What about you, Lenore dear? You're the only one of us who got powers from magic -- think you can cast a few spells at that thing?"

"Not me," she says. "My powers didn't come with any ability to do sorcery. What kinda monsters do you think are gonna come out of that portal?"

"Maybe if we fed her some more of those dust motes," says Synthia. "She came up with some nice insights then -- maybe she could do it again."

"I don't think I want to expose her to any more of those things than we have to," I say. "I don't think it's healthy for her."

At that moment, a particularly shabby panhandler bumbles into us.

"Th-Thought I wouldn't find you," he gasps. "Thought y-you were already dead."

Synthia surprises me by grabbing his lapels a bit forcefully. "Cosmo, you freak," she snarls. "What the hell are you doing here?"

I take a closer look. His jacket and pants are torn and grimy, his boutonniere is falling to pieces, his cummerbund is split, his bow tie has gone missing, and his top hat looks like it's been stepped on -- but it's definitely Cosmo the Astounding, supervillain magician.

"Synthia, dear, let's not dismember the ridiculous old prestidigitator yet," I say. "We're looking for someone with some expertise in magic, after all."

"Let's find someone else," Synthia snarls. "Even among the villains, there's no one lower, sneakier, more deceitful, or more likely to pinch a girl's ass when she's passcoded than Cosmo."

"No, no, I -- I can't handle this terror anymore," Cosmo stammers. "I'd f-foreseen that you'd be all that could save us -- pl-please, you've got to do something about this!"

"Really?" I say. "Well, let's hear some details, Cosmo. I think we need to know how to shut that portal down."

"We can't trust this guy, Defender," says Synthia. "He's a weasel. You heroes should know that better than anyone."

"Do you know anyone else with any knowledge of magic, dear?" I say. "We're a bit low on choices right now."

"I just wanna know how Beelzebambi did this," says Lenore. "I thought she just did fire stuff -- if I'd known she could do all this powerful demonic stuff, I would've been a lot more terrified of her."

"Sh-She was only able to do it with my h-help," says Cosmo.

It's my turn to grab him by his jacket and slam him against a wall. "Explain yourself quickly, you old fraud. If you caused all this chaos and horror, and just showed up now so you can gloat about it, I'm going to do something truly awful to you."

"N-No, it wasn't me," Cosmo stammers. "I just got her the book. She wanted a spell book, s-said she wanted to m-move up the supervillain ranks and make herself a spellcasting demon -- and she was willing to pay a lot of money for it. Wh-What do I care? So the psycho demon bitch gets eaten by interplanar monsters when she tries to cast her first spell? Fine, no one would miss her."

"Someone would miss her, dear," I say. "I've met the girl's parents, and they'd very much like to have their daughter back, if someone could figure out how to reverse her transformation."

But Cosmo clearly wasn't really listening to me. "But Bambi figures out that she can combine some of the spells in the book to open up a portal to Hell. And I try to tell her no, and I try to get the other villains to pay attention, but they just ignore me, as usual. And now she's gone and done it, and you're the only one who can fix things."

"Okay, magician, that's all great," says Synthia. "Now we need you to get off your ass and cast a spell that'll close that portal and get everything back to normal."

"I can't do it," he says. "Bambi opened the portal and was taken by the primal fear demons within. They hold her captive, and the portal cannot be closed until she's freed. She formed the portal -- it will stay open as long as she's trapped inside."

"Well, fine," says Squiddie. "But we're bringin' you with us. None of us can do any magic."

"No, no, you don't understand!" Cosmo cries. "You can't all go. When I say 'only you can do this,' I mean only one person, specifically Defender. Anyone else will be useless!"

"That's a large amount of bull, Cosmo," I tell him. "We'll have a better chance of getting in, getting Beelzebambi, and getting out if there are more of us there to assist. And all three of us have been more than capable of resisting the fear plague."

"You're wrong," Cosmo says. "It's a primal fear dimension. As bad as it is out here, it's vastly worse on the other side of that portal. I would be catatonic in seconds. Squid Kid may enjoy fear and horror, but she's already undergone extreme mental, emotional, and physical stress from constantly being frightened. She's already exhausted and wouldn't last much longer than I would. Synthia's cybernetic brain implants don't shield her brain enough -- she might last five minutes, and then you'd have to get her and Bambi out."

"And you think I'm somehow completely immune to fear?" I say. "I get frightened of many things, Cosmo. Everyone does."

"Yes, but the computerized shields in your head are more sophisticated, more able to expel the full effects of truly primal terror," Cosmo says. "Not that it will be easy for you. You'll be subjected to horrors undreamed of, all designed specifically to strike at your emotional core. If you can't resist or survive those terrors, they'll be able to get past your shields. And that'll be the end for you."

"I don't think I'm entirely buying this," says Synthia. "Since when did Cosmo know a damn thing about cyborg brain implants?"

"I'm a sorcerer, young lady," says Cosmo, sounding almost proud for the first time since we've talked to him tonight. "You have no idea what magic can reveal to me."

"Alright, I don't like where this is going," says Lenore. "We're not going to send Defender in there all by herself. That's one person against... I don't even know what or how many or what kind of odds. That's too scary for me to contemplate or accept."

"If she doesn't do it, everyone in the city spends the next month being fed on by fear demons," says Cosmo. "Then they'll start spreading out, looking for more people to terrify. There's just no other way."

"There's got to be another way," says Lenore.

"There may be, dear," I say. "But I think we're going to do things the way Cosmo suggests."

"It's bull, Defender," she says, sounding for once more angry than scared. "It's a suicide mission. They should get the Council of Thaumaturges for this kinda crap."

"I wish," said Cosmo. "If they even tried to 'port in, these guys would be all over 'em like a Vegas buffet."

"I'm afraid he's right, Lenore," I say. "It's me or no one. Time for the old stiff-upper-lip, 'tis-a-far-far-better-thing, et cetera, et cetera."

"Christ," Cosmo groans. "Superheroes and their fucking nobility."

"Whatever, magician," I reply. "Just tell me what I need to do to get in there, save Beelzebambi, and get out alive."

"Well, you go in, find Bambi, and lead her out."

"Don't get smart with me, dumbass."

"No, seriously, they won't hide her from you," he says. "You won't have to go far. They'll probably lead you right to her. When you find her, you lead her out."

"Is this one of those things where I can't look back at her?" I ask.

"No, you're thinking of the Persephone story," Cosmo says. "You can look at her all you want. You can carry her, if you want. But leading her out is where things are going to get more difficult. You have to get through your fears and hers before they'll let either of you leave."

"So what kind of fears are we talking about then?"

"I don't know," he says. "I have no idea what Bambi is afraid of. You should know what your own fears are, though. You'll have to get through them somehow -- fight them, avoid them, ignore them, whatever it takes to resist them. Just don't expect those neural stunners and pacification burstcasts to do anything to what you'll meet inside. And if you can't get past them, you and Bambi won't make it back here at all."

"No pressure, as the hoary old cliché goes, hmm?"

"To hell with it, Defender," says Squid Kid. "I forbid you to do it. Forbid, forbid, forbid. Let's focus on evacuating people and let some serious experts take care of this mystical crap."

"I'm with the goth girl," says Synthia. "I may not have superhero tendencies, but I sure wouldn't commit suicide for the sake of Beelzebambi."

"Nothing to be done for it, darlings," I say as breezily as I can. "My sense of noblesse oblige drives me forward."

And I start walking toward the portal before they can do anything else to talk me out of it. And they know I'm doing the right thing, because they don't do anything else to stop me.

Montclair Park gets deathly quiet the minute I step foot on its lawn. Like it was waiting for me. No more howls, no more screams, no more rumblings. No sound but the portal, emitting a constant dull roar. It lights up the park like harsh white neon, pouring out of a hovering circle 20 feet in diameter.

A rough-hewn stone staircase rises out of the earth as I approach the portal. I walk up it and walk through the glowing, roaring circle as quickly as I can, before my nerve fails me.

Stepping through the portal isn't what I expected. There's no change in the sound or light being emitted by the portal. The air feels a bit heavier. And there are no monsters waiting for me. No monsters, no ghosts, no people, no nothing. I'm looking down a dark stone hallway.

And I won't say I'm frightened. But I am very, very nervous. Much more nervous than I've been all night. Much more nervous than I've been in a while. I can feel the computerized bonding goo in my brain humming, trying to regulate my emotional responses -- and for once, not doing a particularly good job.

I walk down the hallway, because where else can I go?

There aren't many light sources -- just enough torches to create lots of flickering shadows, which is surely by design. The entire corridor is lined with cells with heavy iron doors designed to keep prisoners in captivity a long time -- and they're all flung wide open and empty. The message seems quite clear: the monsters here aren't being held prisoner, they won't fling themselves against their cell doors to make you shrink back from their fury -- the terrors here roam free.

It's not a very long hallway -- it opens into a gigantic, red-lit room dominated by a vast, deep pit leading down into blackness. Like Cosmo said, they don't try to hide Beelzebambi at all. The black-haired, red-skinned, horned, winged demon cheerleader is crouched at the edge of the pit, staring down into it and weeping. Quite a change from the maniacal, giggling Beelzebambi I'm used to dealing with.

I walk up to her as quickly as I can, avoiding looking into the pit -- I know better than to gaze into any abyss. I take her by the arm and say, "Come on, Beelzebambi, we need to leave now."

She looks up at me like a scared kitten. "I can't leave," she whispers. "No one gets away."

"You can leave," I say. "I'm getting you out of here right now."

I pull her to her feet, and we turn to go back down the corridor.

I can't see the corridor anymore. There's a 50-foot dust-mote demon standing in the way.

Bambi screams and clings to me like she's a three-year-old on her first Halloween -- and frankly, who can blame her? As for me, I just barely keep myself from taking an instinctive step backwards and right into the pit.

"You want to take her away with you, don't you?" comes a colossal buzzing voice from deep inside the thing. "We will work to stop you."

"Now see here, darling," I say, my voice pitched up at least an extra octave and completely undoing all of my false bravado. "You've no right to keep either of us here, and we expect you to let us both leave unharmed."

"You will have to run the gamut of your fears," it buzzes at us. "If you fail, you will stay here until you die, and that will not be long. You will have to run the gamut of your fears."

"Well, fine, dear, we'll run it and get through them, and you'd better let us go. No going back on your word."

"We do not lie," it says. "We are the oldest, strongest, most honest emotion. We never lie. We do not need to."

And with that, it dissolves into a horde of scurrying, foot-long cockroaches and disappears into the walls.

"Let's go, Bambi," I say, pulling the still flinching demon cheerleader behind me. "Only one way to the exit."

We cross the threshold into the corridor, and everything changes around us.

We find ourselves inside a church, an old one, fairly large. Looks very much like a cross between St. Mary's Cathedral downtown and a country Baptist church. There's a great big cross at the front, some confessionals in the back, and some weird red-tinted stained glass windows all along the sides. The air smells like burning incense, and I can hear Gregorian chants in the background.

There are three clergymen walking down the aisle toward us -- one is a stereotyped blow-dried televangelist, one is a rabbi, and the third is a Hare Krishna. It's like some kind of old joke -- but Beelzebambi immediately clings to me even tighter and starts screaming again.

They start flicking holy water at us. I'm badly tempted to laugh if it weren't that Bambi's skin sizzles wherever water touches it... and dang it, mine is, too! How am I able to feel this through my armor?!

Oh, obviously, this is one of Bambi's fears, right? Don't know why she has a phobia about preachers, but I suppose if anyone would, it's be a demon. And it looks like any nightmare she has is going to affect me the same way.

At least I'm not as scared as she is. But I am fairly frightened, dears, which is a bit of a shock, because I've got no significant quarrels with any religions -- but I suppose I'm quite lucky that my cybernetic brain is still blocking at least some of the effects of Bambi's terror.

There's a door behind us, but I don't much want to reverse course -- I want to get us out of here as quickly as we can. I'd also rather avoid confronting these guys when they're able to burn both of us with holy water, so I grab Beelzebambi and lift us both into the air. We can fly over their heads and look for another exit.

But no, that doesn't work either. There is no good reason for clergymen to be able to hover.

I hit them with a flurry of neural stunners. As expected, there's no effect.

They're closing in, holy water spraying like lawn sprinklers. They're going to burn us to a crisp if we can't figure out --

Wait a minute -- "burn" -- this isn't my nightmare, it's Bambi's. She's the only one who can act against them.

"Turn up the fire, Bambi!" I shout at her. "Torch them, or we'll never get away!"

"I can't!" she wails. "There's religion all over the place! They're hitting me with holiness and everything! Holiness hurts!"

They're almost on us. There's holy water dripping from their pores, which shouldn't be nearly as horrifying as it seems to me now

"Torch them now, Bambi! Do it or they'll -- they'll convert you!"

Well, that does it. Her eyes get big as saucers, and she pops off with an arc of flame that pushes all three of the "preachers" back.

"That's it!" I shout. "Keep going! Don't let up on them, Beelzebambi! Don't let them strike back at you!"

She ups the intensity of the flames until there's a solid wall of fire, then pushes it straight at the three preachers, engulfing them in fire.

"Eat that!" she screams at them. "I'm not afraid of you! I was never afraid of you! Satanism always reigns over all other religions! Hail Satan! Hail Satan! Hail Satan!"

The two of us spend a happy minute or two chanting "Hail Satan" while the clergymen burn down to ash. Well, I mainly do it to make sure she doesn't decide to burn me with the other guys.

I do hope I haven't given her any ideas. The last thing I need is for Bambi to go on a minister-burning spree once we get back to Metro City.

"That was so awesome!" Beelzebambi giggles once the flames have died down. "Should we set the whole church on fire?"

"I think not," I say. "What if they start sending... bigger preachers after you? Besides, it's more important that we push forward and try to find the exit."

"Oh, okay," she says, a bit disappointed. "Probably for the best -- this place is still giving me the major creeps."

We head for a side door near the front of the sanctuary, throw it open, run down a hallway... and all of a sudden, we're somewhere else entirely.

It takes me a moment to recognize where I am. It looks like the old sitting room in my home, with the odd cream-colored drapes, the old grand piano, the crenellation along the floorboards, and the silver service Mother prefers to display but never use -- but everything seems weirdly stretched upwards. And I realize everything looks like the same height as everything looked to me when I was a little girl.

And that's when a piercing, cruel whisper comes from behind us: "Young madame, I hope you have practiced your scales this week."

Oh god, Madame Chaplaine, scourge of my childhood, knuckle-rapping hellbeast, and the reason I hate classical music to this day.

Beelzebambi and I both spin around, and there she is, dressed in her severe spinster-black dress, a look of barely suppressed contempt on her face, her hair pulled back into the most perfectly, terribly round bun of all time, and seemingly 20 feet tall.

I wasn't expecting to get such a shock, and I can barely keep myself from crying. I thought I was free of her years ago. Beelzebambi immediately screams, just once, then stifles herself, whimpering in fear. This is my personal terror, but she's feeling it, too -- possibly worse than I am. Maybe she had a hateful piano teacher, too.

"Please take your seat on the bench, young madame," she says to me. Then she fixes her glare on Beelzebambi. "Young madames. Perhaps we shall enjoy a duet today."

I'm on the piano bench almost before I know it, with Bambi right beside me. God, do I even remember how to play anything anymore? I'm not sure I could even handle Chopsticks right now.

"Let us begin with something simple," Madame Chaplaine says icily. "Do you suppose you can handle 'Mary Had a Little Lamb?' "

Well, I suppose I could handle that -- if I hadn't just realized this piano was completely lacking in black keys. And it doesn't help that Beelzebambi, in a full weeping panic, just starts pounding on the keys at random. I try to pick out the notes to the tune as best as I can, but it still comes out sounding like an utter cacophony.

Madame Chaplaine raps both of us across our knuckles with that terrible metal baton she always carried. It stings, but it also scares the dickens out of me, too. My word, I'd forgotten what a horrible, horrible woman she was.

"That was even worse than I expected it to be, young madames," she says. "Time to move on to something a bit simpler. Let's try Stravinsky's Rite of Spring."

"B-But wait," I stammer. "I've never played the Rite of Spring. I've never practiced it. It was never assigned to me, even when I was little."

"Never mind that, young madame," she says. "I expect you to play the Rite of Spring, and I expect it to be done correctly. Or there will be severe consequences."

"No," I say. "It's ridiculous to expect me to play it. I've never even seen the music, and even if I had, it's something professional musicians have to really work at to make it sound good -- it would be almost impossible for an amateur to do, especially one who hasn't played the piano in years. I won't play it, and you can't make me."

"Don't talk back to me," Madame Chaplaine hisses. "I'll speak to your mother."

"Oh, you'll speak to my mother? I'll speak to her, too. I assure you she will listen to me more than she'll listen to you, dear. You work for my family. Don't forget that, and don't presume the privilege to abuse me when you're standing in my home."

Madame Chaplaine opens her mouth to reply, but then seemingly turns to stone and evaporates into the usual black dust motes.

"I wasn't scared at all," Beelzebambi says, wiping tears out of her eyes as she jumps off the piano bench. "But that was totally way cool."

"Well, I'm relieved we have your unflinching bravery to lead us forward," I tell her as I get off the bench. I wish I could say I planned that, but Madame Chaplaine always infuriated me just as much as she terrified me. I'm glad anger is a good counter to fear, but I doubt I'll be able to rely on my rage to get us through this.

"Where to next?" Bambi asks.

"The double doors out of the room," I say. "I believe they'll point us in the right direction."

We push the doors up, step into the hallway... and everything changes around us.

We're back on the streets of Metro City. For a moment, I think we've passed all the tests and escaped safe and sound, but it's broad daylight here, and it feels like summer, not late October. Besides, that was all much, much too easy.

"Stop right there, evildoers!" shouts a voice behind us.

The street behind us is filled with superheroes. But with a few minor differences.

Miss Mega is about 20 feet tall and far more musclebound and brutish than she'd ever be happy about. Gearbox looks like a giant sawmill with a few extra knives attached. El Phantasmo is accompanied by a small army of those long-haired ghost girls that are in all the new Japanese movies. Hypothermia is more jagged and far colder, and he has a fang-filled mouth. Jonni Rotten is eating a baby. Hybrid is the most realistic movie werewolf I've ever seen. The Chrome Cobra has at least eight arms, all holding bloody fireaxes.

Beelzebambi doesn't even scream. She just makes a high-pitched squeak.

"My god, Bambi," I say. "We're nowhere near that bad."

"Come quietly or be dessstroyed," says the Cobra with an ominous hiss. "Or just be dessstroyed. Jussst like we dessstroy everyone."

Again, this is obviously Bambi's fear, but it's infecting me pretty bad, too. Even beyond the fact that these are monster versions of people I know and trust, I can't help getting very worried that they're going to attack me, kill me, and bury me in a shallow grave.

Bambi turns and runs -- and because she's a crazy cheerleader demon, that means she spreads her giant batwings and flies away as fast as she can. And I fly after her, partly because I can't afford for her to get stuck in this fear dimension forever, and partly because I really want to get away from the "heroes" before they put me in jail, the hospital, or the morgue.

I catch up with Bambi almost immediately -- she flies pretty fast for someone who has to use wings, but IDP armor is faster than anything on Earth other than speedsters. I grab her arm and pull her up short. I'm not much good at being the drill sergeant, but maybe it'll help her calm down. Maybe it'll help calm me down, too.

"I need you to shape up fast, Bambi," I tell her. "You won't do yourself any good if you just run off in a panic. You'll never make the A-list of the supervillain world if everyone thinks you're a coward."

"Don't listen to her, darling humanoid," says a vaguely familiar voice nearby. "Everyone already knows you're a coward."

And floating up next to us is me. Or rather, the nightmare monster version of me, with an elongated, curved helmet, claws and spikes in the armor, and an utterly incongruous organic mouth, complete with drool and snaggle-toothed fangs.

"What's this, dear?" my doppelganger sneers. "You brought another human with you? I'm going to lay eggs in her brain."

"Beelzebambi," I say. "We have got to talk about correcting some of your opinions about me."

I hit the evil me with an energy net, then drag Beelzebambi behind me as we fly off. We don't get far, unfortunately. We get knocked out of the air when a bunch of el Phantasmo's ghost girls swarm over us and drag us down to earth.

I try to kick my way free of them, almost as frantic and terrified as Bambi (I saw that damn movie, too, and it gave me nightmares for a couple of days), but they back off on their own after a few seconds when Miss Mega crashes down in front of us.

"MISS MEGA SMAAAASH!" she bellows and slams both fists into the ground. We bounce about 25 feet in the air -- and a good thing, too, because the ground completely disintegrates below us. Thank god she hit the ground and not us -- I think there's a good reason everyone gets so nervous once Mega starts unleashing her full strength on something.

Before we can drop into the crater below, I grab Bambi again and fly us away, staying low to the ground -- I want to put distance between us fast and not give them any visual clues about where we are. But I suspect they can find us anyway. You can't outrun nightmares, right?

And we can't outrun Express either. He catches up to us easy, spins us around a few hundred times, and throws us against a wall. I can't even see him -- he's moving fast enough to be completely invisible. Bambi is on another terrified crying jag, and I'd probably be even more worried if I could even get my bearings.

And these nightmares aren't even beating us up the way they could be. They're really treating us with kid gloves, roughing us up just a little, enough to get Bambi's anxieties cranked up as high as possible. And we can't outrun them, we can't out-fight them.

"Ssssurrender," whispers the Cobra's voice from all around us. "Sssurrender and perhapsss we'll let you live."

Oh, well, of course.

"I surrender," I say. "Bambi, dear, we only ever beat you up when you resist or when you're in the middle of committing a crime. Give up, and we stop hitting you, right?"

"B-But I don't wanna go to jail," she blubbers.

"I really don't care, my dear," I tell her. "Give up, and you don't have anything to fear from these people. That's the way we operate, and you know it."

She stammers, she whines, she doesn't want to do it. But when monster werewolf Hybrid and blood-soaked zombie Jonni Rotten show up, she gets the right words out. The moment she says "Take me to jail," all the fake heroes and the city around us dissolve and disappear.

It goes on like that for what seems like a nerve-wrackingly long time. We find ourselves in a high-society party where no one pays any attention to me -- an experience I'm ashamed to admit causes me significant distress. We get out of that one when I go into the kitchen and start helping with food prep -- apparently, the fear of losing my social contacts is overcome by helping other people.

After that, we have to deal with Bambi's fear of a particular bully from elementary school (resisted by actually standing up and fighting the bully), my perfectly understandable fear of bear traps (I have to get through that by purposely stepping on a bear trap, which is quite the maddest thing I've ever done in my life), a phobia about hot stoves (a fear that both of us actually share and which Beelzebambi, of all people, should have really gotten over long before now), and Bambi's mortal terror of haunted houses. Turns out the only way to conquer that particular fear is to run screaming all over the place as monstrous spirits of the unquiet dead chase you until you finally find a door that isn't locked. It takes much too long and frazzles us quite to the breaking point.

And after that, there's a quiet room filled with flowers and tissue boxes and one big oblong box. A big oblong box with me inside it.

I try to back out the door, and of course, it's closed and locked.

"Bambi, I need you to burn this door down," I say, probably a bit louder and higher pitched than I intend. "Please, burn it down as fast as you can."

But I get no response. I look around, and she's fainted on the floor. She's been getting hit by the frights far worse than me the entire time, and I guess the strain finally got to be too much.

Or maybe she was more scared this time because I'm more scared. Maybe the computerized bonding goo in my brain that's been shielding me from all the fear effects finally overheated and quit working. Maybe I'm worn out and emotional, and it's all affecting her worse. Maybe this is the worst fear imaginable for anyone. Surely I can't be the only person afraid of this, right?

It's an open casket. It can't possibly be an open casket. No funeral home would leave that casket open.

I don't want to look, but it's positioned just perfectly to draw your eyes to it.

It's barely recognizable. So many parts of the body have been removed. It's so mangled. There's just enough there to let me identify it. The right shade of blonde hair. An old scar across the knuckles from that trip in the rain forest. That mole above the eyebrow. But there's so little left once the Intergalactic Defense Patrol takes back its cybernetic implants.

And that's what I have to look forward to. Whether I live to be 100 or I get killed next week by some supervillain, that's the sorry mess of a corpse I'll leave behind. That's what I'll leave for my family and friends after the IDP pulls its property out of my body. And it's horrified me from the moment I learned about it.

I'm really not sure why it bothers me so. I'm not afraid of dead bodies. I'm not particularly worried about the idea of dying -- you can't do dangerous superheroics if you are. Mutilation isn't something I relish being exposed to, but it doesn't really give me the heebie-jeebies. But combining death, mutilation, and me just hits my phobia buttons hard.

Yes, I make a good show of being comfortable with the idea. I do that by avoiding really thinking about it. Because when I think about it seriously, I just want to go curl up and cry somewhere.

I try the door again. It rattles -- and then it opens. I start to rush through, but there's another 50-foot-tall dust-mote demon standing in front of me. I don't know how it fit itself into a funeral home, but there it is all the same.

"Do you give up?" it asks with a touch of glee in its voice. "We will keep you here. We will feed on your terrors. Do you surrender to the monster in the box?"

"No," I gasp out. "I don't surrender. I'm fine."

"If you surrender quickly, we will not keep you too long," it says. "We are able to show mercy."

And as it scuttles back into the woodwork, I realize I almost told it, without thinking, that it could have me, just so long as I didn't have to go back in the room.

But it's already gone, and the door slams in my face. I turn around, and the room has shrunk to half the size it was before. I'm standing right next to the coffin.

My body looks even worse than I expected up close. Half the skull is collapsed. The flesh looks like it's been blasted open pore by pore. My eyes are completely missing.

In fact, I have biological eyes, but they've been enhanced by enough IDP cyber-tech that removing the augmentations would probably destroy the remaining structure. Probably what happened to my skin, my skull, and pretty much everything else that was left over.

I don't want this to be the way I end up. It's not a vanity thing -- I like to look good, but I assure you I'm not obsessed with my appearance like some people I know at the clubs. I just don't want to look like that.

I hate the idea that the IDP will bring that back to my family someday. "Here's this sack of skin, we decided to dump it on your doorstep instead of flushing it out of an airlock." My mother and father may often seem heartless, but I have no doubts that they love me and would be horrified to see me like this, dumped out like a bundle of garbage.

I think that's what scares me the most -- the idea that the only thing the IDP really values about me is the technology they've stuffed inside me. They'll harvest the tech one day, and whatever is left will be dumped. Bad enough to be disrespected by the IDP when I'm putting my life on the line, but to be discarded like that sends a message to my family and friends and anyone else who knows about me -- that I was worthless and insignificant and disposable.

I know this, but it doesn't stop the fear. I don't want to be nothing. I don't want to be a pile of meat to be dropped on my parents' doorstep.

I have to find a way to get past this. I have to do it for my sake, and for Bambi's, and for the rest of the world out there.

I could attack the casket, shoot it with stunners, knock it over. You have to be brave to attack something scary, right?

I could shout at it, denounce it, get angry at it. Anger helps you get past fear, right?

I could ignore it, go sit on the couch, pretend it's not there, try to make origami animals out of the tissues. Ignoring your fears proves they don't affect you, right?

I could laugh at it, use some of my patented dry wit, make a wide variety of jokes, both sophisticated and crude. You have to laugh at your fears, right?

I could find another way to escape, something other than the door out, since the dust motes are outside. Sometimes the only way to get over fear is to run away from it, right?

But I can't imagine that any of that will work. I suspect that's the true trap of this place -- some fears you simply never can escape.

"I'll never get away from you, will I?" I say. To myself, to my corpse. One last speech before I walk out the door and let the dust motes have me. "You'll be with me forever, one way or another. I'll always know you're what I've got to look forward to, ultimately. And as scary and horrible as it may be, I suppose it could be worse, right? If I had to choose between a clean, perfect funeral and the opportunity to help a few hundred or a few thousand people, I suppose it would be better to have the mincemeat corpse, don't you think, dear? I'll never stop being afraid, I really don't think I will. I'll never love you or look forward to you. I'll dread you constantly. But you're the best option I have, you're an honorable endpoint, and I think I can accept that."

I steel myself to go take my medicine with the dust motes, hoping I can persuade them to let Beelzebambi go, or at least that the Council of Thaumaturges will figure out a way to rescue me in time... and then the funeral home evaporates away. The portal back to Metro City is right in front of me.

"We do not lie," says the voice of the dust motes. "You have faced the challenges, and you and your associate may depart. We will run wild in your dimension someday, but it will be another night."

"What, are you serious?" I ask. "For that speech? You fear demons are soft-hearted little dears, aren't you?"

"Would you like to continue to enjoy our hospitality?" asks the voice.

"No, thank you, we'll be going."

I grab Beelzebambi and fly us both back out the portal.

We land in the middle of Montclair Park, which still looks like the grounds of some particularly ornate haunted house attraction -- or it does for about five seconds. After that, the portal hiccups, the light coming out of it changes from harsh white to shimmering blue, the howls coming out of it pitch up another few octaves, and a tremendous wind blows backwards into it. Then the portal vanishes, and every last speck of Halloween monster décor goes along with it.

Five seconds later, I get knocked flat by a flying tackle.

"Holy crap, you did it!" Squid Kid shouts. "I'm not afraid of everything anymore! I can't believe I was actually enjoying that!"

"Giddoff me," I gasp. "At least spare my near-regal dignity, Lenore."

Squiddie pulls me to my feet as Synthia strolls up, dragging Cosmo by his collar. Beelzebambi is still quite unconscious at my feet, but with the fear plague over, I suspect it won't be long before she wakes up again.

"Five minutes has got to be some kind of record for dealing with a cross-dimensional invasion," says Synthia. "I was about to go raid a coffee house but you were out so fast."

"What, five minutes?" I scoff. "That was at least three hours. Probably a great deal more. The accommodations were horrible, too. I would not recommend that as a vacation spot anytime soon."

"Well, Miss Defender, I must offer my congratulations," says Cosmo, rapidly regaining his usual irritating showman persona. "You've certainly saved the city and quite possibly the whole world, though of course, you couldn't have accomplished that feat without the aid of Cosmo himself!"

"Do clam up, you dried-up has-been," I tell him. I have no patience for his act right now.

"Well, my good deed for the day is done, I suppose," he says. "Time for me to depart."

I almost get him with a stunner blast. Damn, this is ultimately all his fault, with his stupid willingness to cater to Beelzebambi's mad obsessions. Just to make sure I don't lose both of them, I drop an energy net on Bambi before she wakes up.

"Oh also," says Synthia. "These guys said they know you."

"Officer Van Ness, I believe you know Officer Uddyghvim and Supervisor Bonecrack. I'm Investigator 8-Nexim-23."

Well, well, it's been a while since I saw any members of the Intergalactic Defense Patrol here on Earth. I was trained with Uddyghvim, who hails from the opposite end of the galaxy -- she looks like a green-furred, eyeless combination of a fox and a cow. Bonecrack was our training supervisor -- think of him as a ten-foot-tall lizard-wasp. I'm not acquainted with 8-Nexim-23, but it's probably a Dazikite -- I've never seen one face-to-face, but they're supposed to be big on numerical names. Of course, they're all wearing IDP battlesuits like mine, so none of their features are visible.

I'm a bit nervous about 8-Nexim-23 being here, actually -- the IDP doesn't send Investigators out unless something serious is happening.

"Welcome to Earth, fellow officers -- I've taken care of an eight-four-niner," I reply. That's IDP code for an interdimensional invasion. If it were just me and the IDP officers, I'd be less formal, but in front of civilians, we always go into a bit of police talk.

"Acknowledged," says Nexim. "What's the bogey model and incursion?"

"Incursion seems to be roped off, but confirmation is pending. Model is mystical, possible Class Zero, designation unknown."

"Is the civilian component designated for ops-class debriefing?" asks Bonecrack. Translation: Who are these non-IDP schmucks, and do we need to be including them in the conversation?

"My associates are Squid Kid, one of the local crimefighters, and Synthia, a visitor to the city," I say. "And Beelzebambi, a wanted fugitive here on Earth. Squid Kid and Synthia assisted in the investigation. Beelzebambi was a hostage of the Class Zeros. I think they're debriefing-worthy, sir."

"Earth citizens, we are honored to visit your homeworld," says Nexim. "We're here as part of an official investigation. Officer, would you please set your internal security recorder to scan mode so we can review it?"

Translation: They want to scan my internal logs to determine exactly what happened here. And a request from an Investigator is actually the exact opposite of a request, so I flip the switches to "Public" and let them scan away -- which, luckily, takes just a few seconds, thanks to the computerized bonding goo in our brains.

Once they've got the last who-knows-how-many-hours scanned, I say, "I do hope I'm not in serious trouble. I don't remember the last time I saw an Investigator in the field, much less one backed up by an officer and a supervisor."

"You're not in any trouble at all," says Nexim. "Your suit signals and life signs vanished from the IDP's sensors. Normally, that means the officer has been killed in action, but your battle gear and cybernetics didn't teleport into HQ the way they're programmed to do. There were concerns that someone had figured out a way to lock down your cybernetics, likely for some sort of illicit use. Additionally, we wanted to find whoever or whatever had killed one of our most successful officers and bring him, her, or it to justice."

"I see," I say. "Well, obviously, my suit signals disappeared because I was off in some other universe. But while we're on the subject -- what do you mean, 'most successful officer'? I thought I was considered something of a basket case."

"That's ridiculous," says Bonecrack. "Most worlds have a contingent of at least six IDP officers. You've been flying solo longer than anyone. Sure, you've got a bunch of civilian superheroes as backup, but you're still handling situations like this by yourself. Just don't go getting a swelled ego, kid -- you were already too full of yourself during training. Don't make me bust you back to desk duty."

"Before we continue further," says Nexim, "Everything else we have to discuss is IDP-officers-only material. I must request that all non-IDP personnel vacate the area so we can discuss matters confidentially."

"He means you Earthers need to clear off for a bit," says Uddyghvim. "Sorry, but I think you'd call it 'cop business.' "

"Lenore, Synthia, they're right," I say. "Could you take Beelzebambi off to the other side of the park. That energy net should hold her for at least another 15-20 minutes."

Once they've reluctantly trucked off for the north side of Montclair Park -- Lenore was probably hoping my fellow officers would take off their helmets and reveal monstrous gothy alien faces -- the rest of us get down to brass tacks.

"Officer Van Ness, I think we'll have to take the one with the horns and the wings -- Beelzebambi, was it? -- into custody," says Nexim. "Anyone capable of opening a dimensional incursion on that scale could potentially be a threat to the space-time continuum."

"I disagree, sir," I reply. "Beelzebambi is a relatively low-level threat. The only reason she was able to open that portal was because she'd been provided a spellbook by Cosmo the Astounding. She's part-demon, but she's a low-imagination brawler, ultimately -- throws around fire and attitude and not much else. The IDP maintains a policy in nearly all cases of leaving criminals to be punished in their own jurisdiction, and I think Beelzebambi should be punished here for her crimes committed on Earth."

"Someone's been studying her regulation books," says Uddyghvim.

"I hardly need to study something that's encoded into my bonding goo, dear," I say.

"In that case, can we get hold of this spellbook?" asks Nexim. "It would at least let us lock the threat down in a more permanent fashion?"

"I don't know whether that will be possible," I say. "I didn't see it with Cosmo at any point, and Beelzebambi didn't have it either. It may be that the fear demons themselves have it."

"You should've taken more care to take possession of it," says Bonecrack. "It should've been one of the items you were looking for when you went to retrieve the demon girl."

"Perhaps so, Supervisor, but I was more focused on trying to rescue her as quickly as possible so the portal would shut down."

"Hmm, I think I agree," says Nexim. "Try to keep an eye out for it -- if this Cosmo character has it, try to get it away from him. If I know interdimensional incursionists, they always leave their worst tools where the worst people can find them, and we don't want to give anyone else a chance to use it again. Your sensors recorded the quantum signature of this 'primal fear dimension' -- we'll program the universal sensors to monitor for that signature if it pops up again."

"Your friend Synthia is a wanted criminal, too," says Uddyghvim. "You're not going to let her go, are you?"

"She told us she was planning on turning herself in," I say. "That's generally what she does -- when she can get away from the actual criminals who use her password to make her work for them, she turns herself in at the nearest police station. Frankly, if she decides she'd rather just hitch a ride out of town to avoid her latest controller, that's fine with me. The poor girl never seems to catch a break."

"Doesn't seem like a hardened criminal, at any rate," says Bonecrack. "If the problem is the password, she's a victim of criminal coercion."

"That's been the legal system's general opinion," I tell them. "Charges are usually dropped, her password gets changed, and she tries to get a normal job. And then some other supervillain hacks the new password and takes her on a bank robbing spree."

"This is normally out of our jurisdiction," says Nexim. "But it seems like a good cause. Tell her I've changed her password for her."

"What, really?" I say, surprised. "If that's something the armor can do, I've never been told about it."

"Investigators have a few extra capabilities," says Nexim. "I added some characters and symbols that aren't present in any Earth alphabets, so her codes should be a lot more difficult to crack now. Not impossible, unfortunately -- her cyberware has built-in security flaws that make it unusually easy to break the codes. She has had it rough -- I'm not sure there's much we can do to improve her situation."

"I'll say this," rumbles Bonecrack. "Whoever put her together did a rotten job of it. Maybe the worst programming I've seen. There's gotta be technologists here on Earth who could upgrade her out of those crappy cyberparts and repair those programming errors. Maybe not any of your so-called superhero types -- all the battlesuit drones know how to do is build weapons -- but see if you can get some real engineers working on her."

"I'll see what I can do," I say. "Maybe Hypothermia or Iota could help out. Any other questions about tonight's fuss?"

"I don't think so," says Nexim. "The Investigators' Tribunal will probably get a kick out of your log recording. We'll contact you if we've got any more questions. Very good to see that you're okay, Officer Van Ness."

"Thank you, sirs," I say. "Thanks for coming."

"And for the record, Officer," Nexim adds, "That last fear you had, in the funeral home?"

"Think nothing of it, sir. It still scares me, but I think I accept it now. No one else gets a pretty-corpse guarantee, and it's silly for me to expect otherwise."

"Be quiet, Officer," says Nexim. "You're completely wrong. Yes, we take possession of your cyberwear after you die, but we never return a mutilated body. There's extensive reconstruction."

"Right," says Bonecrack. "We don't disrespect our officers that way."

"What?" I ask. "But I'd always understood -- Officer Zyllinar told me --"

"Zyllinar tells you a lot of pog-guano, Van Ness," says Uddyghvim. "What do you expect? How many times have you kicked him in his testicular cluster anyway?"

After that, my fellow IDP officers take off, we stick Beelzebambi back in jail (she takes demented delight in telling everyone "I surrender -- now you can't hurt me!"), and everything slowly wraps itself up.

Synthia is overjoyed to hear that her password has been changed. She insists on going back to Ming's Bar, beats Black Hat to a pulp, and drags him off to the nearest police station. Squid Kid decides, for once in her life, that she's had enough Halloween 'til next year and goes home to sleep off her fear hangover.

I get a call from the Chrome Cobra. I admit I expect her to yell at me for zapping her with neural stunners and sticking her to her ceiling with energy nets, but instead, she asks me, a bit nervously, if she'd really stabbed me with a hard-light spear or if she'd hallucinated the whole thing. I tell her yes, she speared me like a cheese cube on a party tray. She mumbles a bit, says she's sorry, and hangs up. I suspect I can torture the poor girl for weeks by demanding more abject apologies.

So the night's over, and everything seems to be under control. I had expected a bit more chaos on the streets after all that fear plague nonsense, but things are actually pretty quiet. As long as everyone else is taking a rest, I don't see any reason why I shouldn't join them, so I head for home.

I find Father in the office, merrily typing along on the computer and checking the family's financials. I almost tell him this experience should make him question his obsessions with money, but I suppose as long as he's happy, I should let him enjoy himself.

Mother is in the kitchen making herself a cocktail. After a night like tonight, who can blame her?

"Hello, Heather," she says as I come in. "Did you have fun at the Halloween parties tonight?"

"Missed them again, Mother. It seems the whole city was briefly taken over by fear demons."

"Fear demons? Really?" she says. "I did have some -- I think they were nightmares, Heather, and I suppose it's the type of thing I'd like to blame on fear demons. I assume the problem was taken care of by the police or those superheroes?"

"Yes, I heard it was all taken care of by a police officer," I tell her. "I hope your nightmares weren't too unpleasant."

She takes a quick swig of her cocktail. "I hope I don't have any more of them, dear. I know you don't have very much fondness for my mother, right?"

"No, I don't," I say. "I am sorry, but Grandmama is really a terrible person."

"I won't argue with you, Heather. Your uncle and I didn't have happy childhoods, and it was all the fault of that woman. I wish we didn't have to keep getting her approval for what we spend money on..."

"You don't have to, Mother. You and Father don't rely on her for money. You're some of the richest people in the city, and that money is all yours. She can deny you an inheritance someday, but she can't take away what is already yours."

"Public opinion is nothing to be sniffed at, young lady," she says. "My mother knows a lot of influential people. She talks to a lot of influential people. She can harness quite a lot of creative bile, when she wants to."

"She knows influential people in Boston, Mother," I reply. "We shouldn't care what anyone in Boston says about us. And I question Grandmama's ability to persuade anyone of anything. 'My daughter won't do what I want her to." Boo hoo, the poor lamb."

She laughs despite herself. "Someday you'll be saying the same thing about me, I expect."

"You are not Grandmama," I say. "And besides, a good way to keep me from thinking of you that way is not to be a stingy hatemongering monster like Grandmama, right? Would you care to reconsider your donation to the soup kitchen?"

"Touché, my dear," she says with a grin.

And that's the story of how I spent all day Halloween successfully wrangling the Van Ness family's record-breaking contribution to the St. Nicholas Soup Kitchen and Ministry in downtown Metro City.

Didn't I tell you, my dears, that I was entirely beyond awesome?

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