“Wake up boy,” a low, grating voice drawled.
I came awake all at once, with no grogginess or aching head. But since I awoke in complete blackness, I had no idea where I was or who was talking.
I struggled briefly, quickly learning a few things. I was kneeling on the ground, my ankles shackled to the floor. My wrists and elbows were cuffed together behind my back, and my wrists themselves were tethered to the floor. There was a collar around my neck, chained to my elbow cuffs behind and the floor in front. It was pretty obvious that any kind of struggling would cut off my air. I was a little cool, and in someplace vaguely damp that smelled of earth, dust, and mold. A basement maybe? I also realized I was in my costume. Since I definitely hadn’t been when-.
Monica betrayed you.
I shoved that thought aside for a moment and powered up, hoping the flames would let me see my captor or even a way out. Fear wasn’t even an option at this point; I had been captured, probably by a supervillain, and I had to get out as soon as I could. I could be scared in a minute or two.
My fire threw odd shadows around the room, showing I was in a small concrete cell with no light fixtures, no windows, and only a single massive metal door. That was currently propped open, with a dark-robed man standing in the doorway. He was unmasked, and I could clearly see he was old, well into his seventies, clean shaven and neat as a pin, as if he had just walked from an office… or a courtroom. I realized his words had been in a heavy Texan accent.
“Ah, that’s better,” he said. “It’s important for you to hear this.” His voice drawled so much that better sounded like “bettah” and hear sounded like “heah.”
Judge Libra, I thought, recognizing the elderly psychic supervillain. One of the Bureau’s Ten Most Wanted. Monica- Painbreaker’s intended mentor.
“Hear what?” I growled, staring at him defiantly.
“What your fate will be. You have been brought here to be judged for your crimes.”
“Of being what you are. Of denying the true potential of your powers to revel in your petty-minded ability to harm others. Of bringing pain when you could’ve brought… peace.”
I stiffened in shock at that last remark. I wasn’t sure if that was an allusion to my real name or just a dramatic pause.
“You will be judged by a jury of your peers tomorrow morning for the totality of your transgressions. But for now I’m putting you on a bench trial for your most recent crimes,” he continued blithely, a smug little smile on his face.
Dealing with someone like Son of Silver was generally straightforward but deadly. Dealing with the Judge was something entirely different. The Judge had very specific scripts in his head for how things were supposed to go; he had dramatic speeches, last minute reveals, unknown witnesses, unexpected evidence, and courtroom confessions. Those juries that had survived his trials said they went just like any TV or movie courtroom drama, and woe betide those that disrupted his storyline. And when you were dealing with a supervillain that could change your mind for you, there was only a certain amount of nose-tweaking you could do before he chose to crush your mind like a grape. Of course, that would mean I would have to keep my cool in the face of everything he would throw at me.
“What crime?” I asked again.
“You chose to heal only your teammate instead of the dozen of helpless citizens scattered around that plaza. There were people with broken bones, gashes, burns-.”
“Rose Queen was dying,” I snapped, almost forgetting about the chains and half-throttling myself when I tried to make my point.
“Is that so? And what about all those others? Couldn’t you have helped them after you helped your own?” he asked almost kindly.
Screw you, I thought privately, but didn’t say anything. Of course he would guess which buttons to push; it was part of this thing to wring the right emotional reactions out of his sick little scenes. And if he didn’t have to use his powers, all the better.
“I don’t see much in the way of remorse, so I have no alternative than to go ahead with your punishment. This will just be a token, you understand, something that’ll show what awaits you if you’re convicted tomorrow. Now, I suppose you’re too young to remember the Grim Reaper?”
I just shook my head, carefully breathing through my nose, taking deep calming breaths. I thought I knew what was coming now…
“He was a good friend of mine, a good family man and handy provider. Unfortunately he was killed by superheroes when he was just trying to make a living. It was a most untimely death. He had a rather unusual power, one I haven’t seen in decades; pain enhancement.”
Shock was a necessary and expected reaction, but I didn’t have to fake much. Though I was shoving down an inappropriate desire to laugh because the Judge had bought into the same bullshit the academy had tried to foist on Monica.
The thought of her brought my bubbling mirth to an abrupt stop.
“His grandchild inherited his power, and is now working with me to deal out appropriate and proper punishment to the guilty. Painbreaker, he’s yours,” Judge Libra said ponderously, stepping aside to let Monica, in full costume, glide into the room. With a nasty chuckle, he slammed the door shut behind him, the heavy iron sounding like the closing of a tomb.
Monica took two steps over to me and went to her knees, bringing her level with me. She didn’t speak, but took a moment to remove her mask and my helmet. I couldn’t help but notice she didn’t make a move to unchain me though.
“Scream,” she said softly.
“Scream. He expects you to scream. And if you don’t, I’ll have to make you, and I don’t want to do that,” she said insistently.
I glared, my fire flaring enough to illuminate her face fully. She looked like someone who had just gotten news of her own death, full of remorse and sadness and, oddly enough, faint hope. She didn’t look triumphant, or crazed, or pleased, which was what I had been dreading.
She asked me if I trusted her.
“Is this part of your plan?” I asked sharply.
Monica bowed her head for a second.
“Is it a good plan?”
“Yes. It’ll destroy the academy as we know it, if it works.”
Supervillain plans rarely acknowledged the possibility of defeat. Well, superhero plans didn’t either, but they were generally a little more on the sane side.
“And having me chained up is part of this?” I pressed.
“He had to think it was real. They all have to think this is real. We’ll give them exactly what they think they want, and then turn the bait sour. We’re going to turn that iron fortress into a house of cards,” she said, her voice low but intense.
She totally believes that. And she said “we” not “I.” I was starting to get the drift of where this was going, but I really, really didn’t like it.
“We’re going to infiltrate the academy.”
“What?!” I demanded.
I had thought about that a few years ago, when Veronica Powers had first mentioned that Royal Pain had wanted me for her school. But how the hell would I have made that convincing? I used to think if anyone could have faked a dark side shift, I could have, but not now. Not after having talked to Monica. I couldn’t brutalize the other students, or keep up the unending façade of cruelty. It’d kill my Mom if she didn’t know I was faking, my friends would be devastated, I’d be betraying all of the superhero community and all of my fans, and my dad’s family would probably go nuclear.
Not to mention: how would I get in? Surely they’d read my mind; we knew they had psychics. What was to keep them from just knowing I was a spy and decapitating me on the spot to spare themselves the trouble? Or setting someone like Monica after me to break me so I’d work for them “willingly?” It wasn’t a practical plan, for all it had elements of poetic justice in it.
“Infiltrate,” she repeated, and leaned forward to put her hand in mine. Since I was still on fire, I quickly doused myself, sending the room into blackness.
“What the hell are you doing?”
“Please, hear me out,” she begged.
She gripped my hand hard and I finally squeezed back.
“This better be good.”
“We infiltrate, they think you’ve come willingly, at least to a point. Once we’re inside, we can do what your own spies couldn’t. I can get access to nearly any person in there and take them from their room or class without having to give a reason, just because of my position within the academy. If you can help them, break them out from thinking they have to use their powers for the academy, they’ll turn, and they can disable the defenses.”
Now I knew what she meant when she had talked about risking my reputation. Jesus…
“What would your friends and family do if they thought we had kidnapped you?”
“They’d come after me,” I said. “They couldn’t leave me with you if they thought-.”
“They’d come, all of them would come. Together, all of them against the academy.”
“That’s what they want!” Exactly what we had been planning not to do for three years-.
“Exactly. The academy thinks they’ll have the superheroes right where they want them. They’ll bring everything they have to bear, thinking to use the academy defenses to overwhelm the superheroes. But they won’t know they’re gone until it’s too late.”
I stared into the darkness, thinking, only knowing where she was by her faint breath on my cheek, she had gone so still.
Fundamentally, it wasn’t a bad plan. Dangerous, of course, with a lot of variables, but it wasn’t a totally bad plan. Disabling all the rays and beams and traps the academy had would negate the biggest reason to avoid a head-on confrontation. Though the villains would be more ruthless, the heroes would have a better reason to fight, and also every person we could turn against the academy could aid the heroes, at the very least by not being in the fight.
“How the hell are we supposed to convince these people to turn? We won’t have much time, maybe a week tops, before someone tries to get me out of there. It took you years; we won’t have that much time,” I asked. I felt a little thread of uncertainty as I spoke. I wasn’t saying yes yet, though I probably didn’t have much of a choice now, but still knew it was almost a foregone conclusion. I was still uncertain about being rescued. Would the Bureau try to convince my friends it was too dangerous? They wouldn’t know this was a trick; they needed to know. My mom had to know. It would kill her to think both her husband and son had turned.
“I wasn’t the only reluctant person at the academy. Every single reluctant person ended up in my workroom at one point or another, and even after… they’re helping the academy for the same reasons I did, fear and necessity for survival. If we can give them any kind of hope, they’ll just be happy to go back to some kind of normal life. Trust me, I spent a lot of time trying to convince them otherwise…” She stopped, and I could hear her ragged breathing as she tried to hold back sobs.
“You can give them hope; you can snap whatever physical ties the psychics psyched them into, like me. And… they’ll trust you. They have no reason to trust me. I can’t do this alone,” she continued. “Scream again.”
I had had several very strange conversations in my life, but this one was so far taking the cake. I screamed again for the Judge’s ears as I digested Monica’s last comment.
This whole thing gave her a second chance, a way to try to redeem every person she had ever tortured. But it was absolutely impossible without me.
Is this just for her? Was she being selfish? No, don’t be stupid; whatever they might do to me if I got caught would be nothing on her. She was risking both of our lives for a greater good. It was the hallmark of a superhero plan if I had ever seen one. Of course, usually I would have consented before hand but…
She did ask you at Glitterdust, even if she had to be discrete. Still, there were one or two other considerations.
“What about the psychics? Won’t they just read our minds?”
She paused for a second, and laced her fingers with mine.
“I had a lot of time to think about this. There are three very strong psychics at the academy, and maybe a half-dozen less powerful ones. And they’re constantly at work; we’d see them in trance all the time, even during the classes they taught. But if they were really reading everyone’s minds and forcing them to work for the academy more or less willingly, why would they need me?”
I blinked twice in the darkness. Why would they need a physical torturer if they could mentally coerce their students?
“Insurance? In case someone was shielded?” I hazarded. Some people had really good natural shields or even had powers that made them immune to psychic powers. It was rare, but wasn’t unheard of.
“A little. But more for another reason. Look, you had some powerful psychics at Sky High, right? How many people could they affect at a time?”
The only really powerful psychics I had had contact with had been Elise, the president of Psychic Club, and Ms. Olsen, one of my teachers. While Ms. Olsen could talk to most of us telepathically simultaneously, that wasn’t really a powerful aspect of her abilities. And when Elise had tried to take over one of our minds during Gauntlet runs, it was always only one at a time.
“One,” I said.
“One person absolutely, a few people strongly, or a lot more just a little. A constant low-level influence. Like a slow mental acid,” she clarified.
“So that’s why you didn’t-.”
“-Realize what they were doing to me for so long, exactly. They have all their psychics concentrating on keeping everyone at the academy on a low boil, and they had to be constant, or it doesn’t work. I used to wonder why the psychic teachers worked in shifts, but now I know. They won’t try too hard to read your mind, because I should have broken you before I take you to them. If you act the right way, they won’t look at you as closely.”
“Look, why now? And how am I going to convince them I suddenly wanted to come to academy? You found me and decided to deliver me all tied up in a bow?”
“You have no idea how angry they were the other day when you were caught on tape using your healing powers. They expected someone in the Bureau to make Egret’s offer. They have… a very distorted view of the Bureau. They think you have to do anything they tell you. So they thought you were going to go into seclusion and they’d never be able to get their hands on you. Judge Libra decided to take action and recalled me to help. When he puts you on trial you’ll have to make a choice between going willingly or something really bad.”
“Bad. It’s Judge Libra, trust me, it’ll be bad. He didn’t tell me the specifics, but I know he’s going to send a message to the Mayor to let the Champions of Justice know where you are.”
“Fuck, they’re going to be my jury,” I said, fear returning redoubled. Powerful psychics could only affect one person at a time, but this was something entirely different. There were psychics, powerful psychics, and then there was Judge Libra. The fact that he was over seventy and still on the Top Ten most wanted list was both unheard of and very impressive. He regularly controlled over a dozen people easily.
He didn’t necessarily want me dead, unlike most people he put on trial, but since the point was to make me go to the academy “willingly…”
“I know. And if I hadn’t been willing, he would have found someone else to capture you. Look, when they asked you why you accepted his offer, say you did it for real reasons; tell them the truth. Tell them you wanted to spare your friends pain, tell them you didn’t want to be a healer for the Bureau, even tell them you hate the academy and hope to see them all rot in hell. You wouldn’t be the only reluctant person to join up.”
“That’ll go over really well.”
“They don’t care if you’re a gibbering wreck or slightly belligerent as long as you fix up the students,” she pointed out.
I stared down in the blackness, gripping her hand hard.
“No more, I don’t think either of could keep things up longer than that. And your friends won’t wait any longer either.”
A week to stop our greatest foes. One week. And possibly killing everything I had worked for for the past almost four years.
“This’ll kill my mom,” I said finally. I didn’t want to voice more than that.
“I don’t want to hurt Joy either, I don’t. But it all depends on them thinking this is real, at least initially. I left things for your friends, some maps and stuff to help them when the time comes-.”
“How the hell did you do that, leave it in their mailbox?”
“No, I broke into Zack’s house and left it in his bedroom. He’s the only one who knows about us, and it’ll give your friends places to strike when they come to break you out. And trust me, considering his room, he won’t find it for a week.”
“You broke into his house?”
“Hey, I got decent grades in Breaking and Entering.”
I laughed silently, my shoulders shaking.
“What if something goes wrong?” I asked.
“God, don’t even think about that,” she whispers. “I can’t do this without you. Please.”
She didn’t say it, but I knew she wanted to.
“Scream again,” she whispered, and I gave a howl of agony for the benefit of Judge Libra.
“We do this together,” I said, and I heard her give a choked sob of relief. “The trial tomorrow, what’s going to happen?”
“Judge Libra will do his thing, bring in your friends to judge you and to use against you. When you pick to go with me, I’ll provide a distraction so they can escape. You’re going to have to act broken for most of the trial, like I’ve worked you over, so showing initiative would look out of place.”
I clenched my jaw belligerently at the thought of having to play the victim.
“The Judge never worked with me or the Grim Reaper during a trial, so he’s forgotten the most fundamental interaction of our two powers,” she added with savage enjoyment.
“’Physical pain overrides mental compulsion,’” I quoted from class.
“Exactly. If I can even tag one of your teammates, they can take care of themselves. Or I’ll ‘accidentally’ hit the Judge,” she said.
“I’m not used to this,” I groused a little, rattling the chains. I wasn’t used to at least having a little control over what I was doing, and tomorrow my friends and I would be in the control of a current and former supervillain.
“I thought the chains would help your mindset,” she said, her voice repressing laughter. She sounded relieved, terribly relieved that she had managed to get Phase One of her plan into action, and was almost giddy at being able to do something. She, far more than me, had been unable to do much to help herself during these past couple of years. She needed that measure of control back.
“I didn’t know you were into bondage,” I quipped, and Monica had to bury her face in my shoulder to keep from laughing out loud.
“You’re horrible,” she hissed in my ear, still snickering.
“Hey, I’m going to be walking into the lion’s den and asking it to bite. I at least get to score a few points,” I said.
Monica was near-silently laughing as she put my helmet back on by touch, and I could hear her replacing her mask.
“I’ll see you in the morning,” she growled in her distorted voice as she left, slamming the door behind her.
After that I could only kneel in my bonds and wait for the coming dawn.
I couldn’t exactly sleep very well, tied up like I was, but I managed to fitfully doze throughout the night. I had no way to tell what time it was, but it seemed forever before the door finally clanked open, bringing painfully bright light with it. After hours of total darkness even the faint light from the hallway was nearly intolerable, even with photosensitive lenses. I couldn’t even tell who was in the doorway for a very long moment.
“The Judge is already in his chambers,” Monica greeted me, her voice distorted by her mask. “It’s about eight a.m. And he just sent the message to the Mayor.”
“Won’t be long,” I said quietly. I had had a lot of time to think about what we had discussed last night, and to say I had second thoughts would have been a gross understatement. But there was no going back now.
“Look, here’s how you have to act. As far as the Judge knows, I broke you pretty badly last night. A little defiance is expected, but you should be cringing every time I come near you or touch you. Don’t look straight at me unless I force you to, and if I gouge you, scream. Don’t talk to me unless I order it. It’s ok to look at the Judge, but be a little deferential. He expects you to fight almost reflexively, but I’m supposed to keep you in line. He’ll have most of his attention on the jury. He can’t afford to lose control of them,” she explained as she unshackled me enough to walk, her voice confident, matter-of-fact, but also oddly flat.
That suddenly drove home exactly what she was and what she had been. She wasn’t just guessing at how I should behave, she knew exactly how I would act, because she had seen it dozens if not hundreds of times. And now she’s trying to make up for it. Holy fuck I hope this works.
She marched me up the stairs of what seemed to be a basement, through a heavy door, down a dusty, wood-paneled corridor, and into what seemed to be an old, dusty, but perfectly normal courtroom. I wondered exactly where we were. This wasn’t something cobbled together for the purpose. It looked just like an old abandoned civil building, a real courtroom expressly built for that purpose.
Wasn’t there more than one small town that Maxville had absorbed over the years? Yeah, sometimes kids from Maxville’s high schools came out to some of the abandoned buildings on the edges of town for keg parties. We weren’t more than an hour away from the middle of Maxville. The Champions would be here soon.
There were high windows on one side, facing north, and I watched them like a hawk until I caught a glimpse of movement high in the sky. Part of me was hoping for a glimpse of my friends. The rest of me wanted them to stay away. We had gone up against a lot of supervillains, but none of them had been this bad. And we hadn’t faced a powerful psychic since graduation.
Even though I knew this was going to happen, that I knew it had to happen, I was still silently willing the Champions to turn around.
Guardian’s red, white, and blue became visible against the cloudy sky, rocketing in high and fast, probably hoping to drop Viscosity and Violet Cavey somewhere hidden, or ready to have Rose Queen storm the building with plants. I swallowed and turned to stare at the door to the judge’s chambers. Were there windows in there too? Did Judge Libra need to have line of sight? Or was he powerful enough that he could just sense them? Ms. Olsen hadn’t needed line of sight to talk to us telepathically, but Elise had. I couldn’t quite remember the Judge’s range from class, but-.
My thoughts cut off as I could actually see Judge Libra take control of Guardian. He went from his high and fast arc to a leisurely descent below the windows, as casual as if he were just going for a stroll.
Dammit Will, speed couldn’t have saved you, not from him! Why didn’t you have Ethan and Magenta try to sneak in?
Maybe because you got captured and they got a little frantic?
That little voice in my brain was, as usual, probably right.
“Heroic, if not practical,” Painbreaker growled in her distorted voice. She couldn’t offer me any words of comfort, but it sounded like her and I was thinking along the same lines.
“Heroes don’t have to be practical. It works better if we’re not,” I said softly. Her hand tightened on my shoulder, and I flinched like I was supposed to, but I knew she meant it as agreement.
Within a few moments the Champions of Justice came walking into the courtroom, filing neatly into the jury box as if everything was fine. It wasn’t; I could see by their slightly stiff movements, their terrified, defiant, or angry eyes that the moment they got their control back, there was going to be a reckoning. It was a frightening display of power on Judge Libra’s part, and he wasn’t even in the damn room! When Elise had attempted to read someone’s mind, the best she could do was hold someone motionless. When her friend Tracy, the astral projector, had possessed someone, she could only get him or her to do small motions; she certainly couldn’t make them walk normally. This… this was big time.
The Champions kept stealing glances as me when they were allowed. I had been chained up again in front of the judge’s bench, and I had to keep my head down. Everything depended on my ability to act now. The Judge got very annoyed when people didn’t follow the scripts for his little dramas. If I couldn’t pull this off, he’d crush my mind like a grape right before he turned on Monica and my friends.
The gang sat down in the jury box, all of them staring stonily ahead, until Painbreaker stepped out of the shadows. They had never seen her in costume before, but it wasn’t too hard to figure out who she might be.
“All rise! Court is now in session, the honorable Judge Libra presiding,” she called out clearly, her growling voice echoing oddly in the large room.
My friends rose right on cue, turning as the Judge entered and climbed to his seat, a superior smile on his face.
“You may sit,” he said grandly, waving, and they complied with robotic precision.
“Today we have a very important trial ahead of us, and I have promised the accused a jury of his peers. Do they meet with your approval?”
Curiously, I felt no mental pressure to force a response, but I nodded my assent anyway, carefully not looking at the Judge.
“Good, good. Now, the jury. Do you feel you can give an impartial verdict to the accused, once you are aware of all of the facts?”
He must have loosened his control a bit because everyone started yelling at once.
“You can’t do this!” Magenta snarled.
“This is totally not fair,” Zack yelled.
“He’s our friend, we won’t do it,” Layla cried.
“You’re not even a real judge. This isn’t legal; he hasn’t broken any laws!” Ethan exclaimed.
“You won’t get away with this!”
The last was Will, spoken with enough passion and even venom to make Judge Libra raise an eyebrow. With a wave of his hand, everyone fell into obedient silence.
“Hush children. I know this is a little irregular, but I am as much a judge as any other, quite legally and correctly. If you know anything about me, you should know that. And I will get away with this, because, you’ll see, it’s all very fair. You all, as his ‘friends,’ are uniquely qualified to be here. And you should count yourselves lucky that you aren’t on the other side of judgment.”
The Judge’s voice held more than a bit of acerbity, and I saw my friends flinch. Whether it was from his control or their own reactions, I wasn’t sure.
“Now, the trial will begin. It has come to the attention of this court that the accused, known as Phoenix, has a secondary aspect to his pyrokinetic power, that of healing. Yet, for as long as he has known of it, he has kept it hidden. Using it sparingly if at all, he has passed up countless opportunities to put his power to greater use in the wider world. Selfishly he has chosen to save his strength to fight, to cause further destruction and pain, when he could have been healing others of their misery. It is a shameful act,” he pronounced, glaring at me. “What do you have to say for yourself? How do you plead?”
Overwhelming guilt flooded me as I realized my mistake. I should have gone to the Bureau when I first figured out what I could do. I should have never put on a costume, never should have fought. I should have taken Egret’s offer. I was a selfish, greedy fool, wanting to redeem someone else’s mistakes over doing what was truly right-.
Something within me rebelled as I felt scalding tears starting to run down my cheeks, coupled with a bolt of agony from my neck as Monica dug her finger knives into my flesh. The flash of intense pain cut through the guilt, which vanished like a popped soap bubble. I found myself staring up at Judge Libra as Monica kept a death grip on my shoulder.
“Answer the judge,” she growled.
He did that to me, I realized. He had made me feel so guilty. I hadn’t even felt the mental pressure that remembered from Ms. Olsen and Elise before he was already through my barriers. Monica had helped with the pain to override his compulsions, but it galled me that I still had to play the fool for him.
“Guilty. I’m sorry,” I said, looking down again. I could practically feel the Judge grinning in triumph over my head and felt heat flash along my hands. I wonder if he’d be so damn smug if his robes were on fire? Monica shook me slightly again, rattling my chains, and I flinched away. She could probably tell what I was thinking; considering she was right behind me and could feel the heat even through that tent she called a costume.
“Phoenix, it’s not his decision-,” Will started, and then was cut off abruptly.
The Judge wouldn’t mind a little hint of defiance; it gave him openings for his big courtroom speeches, so I stiffened my back a little, as if Will’s comment had given me heart. Well, it wasn’t exactly acting at all.
My friends cared enough for me not only to risk themselves to save me (which, as superheroes, was at least a weekly occurrence) but to let me make my own decisions. They could have weighed in, cajoling me to use my powers more or less, but they hadn’t. It wasn’t because they didn’t have opinions about it, but because they respected me.
And I really, really, hated the academy for forcing me to this kind of action.
“No, it’s not his decision Guardian. It’s the decision of the people he serves. Superheroes don’t own themselves; they are here for the service of the people. Yet Phoenix hasn’t done all of his duty. It would be a great shame to see him die for his selfishness when he has so much to make up for. So, Phoenix, there are two sentences available to me,” he proclaimed, looking down at me from his lofty bench.
“One, you spend you time helping the less fortunate, using your powers as you should, aiding those who lack the kind of medical care you take for granted. There is an academy of dedicated younglings that could use your help, and that will serve as your place of penance. If you come willingly, that will work well, for a term of no less than four years.”
He paused deliberately, and I asked the expected question.
“Or instead your sentence will be to experience the pain of those you’ve refused to help.”
Will’s hand suddenly shot out and took Layla by the throat.
“He will tear each of their heads off and then rip out his own heart,” Judge Libra said calmly. “That will be your penance for your refusal to aid your fellow man.” His expression dared me to try him, to force a demonstration, to protest.
I could feel blood draining from my face as that ultimatum, and saw panicked shock on my friends’ faces as Judge Libra loosened his control a hair, just to see their expressions. Will looked even worse than he had the other day when he had me in the upper atmosphere, and I could tell he was mentally fighting with everything he had. And he was making just about as much headway as if Ethan would if they had been arm-wrestling.
Damn you, I thought, staring up at the Judge. For the next twenty seconds I was mentally leveling every single curse I could think of in every language I knew and I few I didn’t. If he was listening in, I hoped he was getting an earful. The Judge had a triumphant smile on his face, knowing my answer was a foregone conclusion, but wanting to see me squirm.
“I’ll go with you. Just leave them alone,” I said finally, slumping in my bonds.
“Phoenix, no!” Will cried as Painbreaker pulled out the keys to my chains.
“As for you all,” the Judge said, spearing the Champions of Justice with a glance that shoved them all back into their seats. “Do not think to extract him from his sentence. I know you think you have eyes and ears within the academy, but no more. The spies the Bureau so cowardly sent within have been discovered… and executed.”
Panicked expressions of denial and disbelief erupted from the jury box as I heard Monica gasp behind me. She hadn’t known either. The Judge must have been saving this terrible piece of news for the dramatically perfect moment. Hell, no wonder the Bureau hadn’t been passing on any information from the insiders in a while. They’ve been compromised for who knows how long…
Those people were dead.
My thoughts weren’t exactly on an even keel as Monica unshackled me enough to stand, but I abruptly remembered the second part of the plan. She meant to distract the Judge somehow so my friends could escape.
And here I was feeling like I had just been through a wringer when I had to be ready to move at a moment’s notice. Get it together Peace, come on!
“Your presence here today was not to judge Phoenix, but to show him the possible consequences of his actions,” the Judge was saying as I stood. “We thank the jury for their service to the community.”
I tensed, waiting for Monica to move, as the Judge waved his hand again. As one, all my friends slumped over in sleep. I privately thanked anything that was listening for the Judge’s personal code of conduct as I heard Monica sigh quietly in relief. At least we wouldn’t have to blow our cover already. Trying to free my friends from the Judge’s clutches had been my biggest worry. If the Judge had been feeling vindictive, he could have had them all dead before Monica could have acted. Or if my friends had gotten free too soon, all of Monica’s planning would have been for naught.
It was a damn scary mess to be in when trusting a supervillain became the lynchpin of our plan.
The three of us strolled out of the old courthouse, strolled as casually as if we were taking a walk in the park. Except for the fact that I still had my hands chained behind my back, and everyone was in costume, and I was in danger of my life, it might have been a pleasant walk.
Behind the courthouse was a pair of cars, one with a waiting driver that stepped out to take the Judge’s robes. Underneath had been wearing a normal suit, and he looked distressingly sane as he straightened his tie.
“Now, we’re going to take those chains off of you, and Painbreaker will drive you to the academy to begin your sentence. You will do as she bids, or suffer her consequences.” He stepped closer, until he was right in my space. Gesturing at Painbreaker, she lifted off my helmet so he could meet my eyes. He stared for a minute, and then took my jaw in his hand. For an old guy, he had a pretty strong grip.
“Having a chained up man in costume along the interstate would be something of a problem, so you will be unbound for your journey. If you think to take advantage of this situation by harming Painbreaker, or me, or simply by attempting to escape, I want you to remember this. Until you step into the academy, I hold your friends’ minds with my own. They will not wake until you are behind the academy’s locked doors. And if you don’t show up, they will not wake, perhaps ever. I’m a good friend with Nightmare, so perhaps you can imagine how terrifying I can make their last moments if you do not submit to your sentence,” he said sternly.
I nodded shortly in assent, and he released his grip.
“Very good. Painbreaker, find this man some clothes and get going.” The Judge went to his car and looked over his shoulder one last time. “And get him a haircut! Kids these days…”
The door slammed shut and the Judge’s driver had them out of sight within minutes. Monica waited a full ten minutes before finally moving to unlock me. She breathed slowly as she took off her mask, and I could see she had been sweating in fear underneath her costume.
“Ok,” I said finally, rubbing my wrists a little to restore full circulation. I looked back over to the courthouse, took a deep breath, and met her eyes. “What’s next?”
She stared back solemnly.