“What happens now?”
Monica finished shedding her costume and carefully put it in the backseat before answering.
“We need to get going. The sooner we get to the academy, the sooner your friends go free,” she said, taking out the clothes I had been wearing at Glitterdust and tossing them at me.
“Where did you-?” I started, and then stopped figuring it out for myself.
“Honeybear, who do you think dressed you in your costume?” she asked reasonably, as I gathered my stuff and went to the far side of the car to change.
“Thanks, I got that,” I muttered. Then something else hit me.
“Honeybear?!” I asked incredulously
“Sweetie pie,” she said seriously. I stared at her in concern.
“Pookie?” I demanded.
She laughed a little, her shoulder shaking silently, barely keeping a straight face.
“Pookie?” I demanded again.
“Ok, ok, I’ll stop,” she said, getting more serious, though her lips were still quirking. I knew I had already told her about the incident when Layla had called me “cutie,” and she had always found that hilarious.
She wasn’t laughing about the situation, but from the sheer relief that she had managed to pull this off so far. It was release, pure and simple. Otherwise I might have been seriously concerned for her sanity.
I just shook my head and pulled on my clothes. I kept the super-suit on under my clothes, but threw the gauntlets and helmet into a bag. I had a suspicion I’d be needing the armor sooner rather than later. I was about to walk into a snake pit, and I was going to need every advantage I could get.
“I’m sorry,” she said, shaking her head as I walked back into view. “I’m standing here making jokes…”
“You can only be scared for so long,” I said with understanding, getting into the passenger’s side. People sometimes had weird reactions to stress; I had seen the gang do a lot of strange things after tough fights. Some of them might have even been stress-related.
You could only sustain terror for so long. Eventually it wore thin, and you had to do, or feel, anything else. It was probably a good thing she had chosen humor rather than one of my typical stress-relievers: those usually ended up with something being reduced to ashes.
“I think I’ve heard too many stories about your friends,” she said. I had often entertained her with some of Zack’s antics or Will’s gaffs, just to try to make her smile sometimes.
“You could do a lot worse. Come on, like you said, the sooner we get there…”
Nodding silently, Monica got us on the road. We drove in silence for several long minutes, and I kept looking over my shoulder as the ghost town disappeared behind us.
“They’re going to hate me,” I said finally, giving voice to one of my fears.
“I doubt it,” she responded. “They’re a hell of a lot better friends than I ever had.”
She was right, and I knew it, but I didn’t want to say anything else aloud about my fears right now.
Mom, I’m sorry. I hope you know why I’m doing this.
I could very easily destroy Mom’s reputation by doing this. Would she understand? Would she try to reach me? Would she just sink into despair? The thought of Mom weeping on the floor of her room, like she had when I was younger, almost made me ask Monica to stop the car. She had worked so damn hard to pull herself together, and I was risking all of that by doing this.
Zack probably wouldn’t spare me once he woke up. Even if my mom had taken care of him at one point, he didn’t always think things through. His anger at Monica could just be more fuel to the fire.
And Will… what would he be going through? Will had never had any reason to doubt me; and he’d probably be defending me before all the other superheroes with only half the facts. It’d make him look naïve and foolish, not to mention just plain moronic. I hated the thought of doing that to him.
He’d been plenty supportive, all of them had, but Will had done it without reservation or ulterior motive. Even that time we had fought in the cafeteria, one of the first things he had tried to do afterward was to make amends. Layla had been the first one to be nice to me, but Layla was nice to everyone and everything. I had just tried to kill Will when he had first extended his hand in friendship. I hadn’t taken it at the time, but he had at least tried.
Dammit. This isn’t fucking fair.
“Ok,” I said after a second, letting out a long sigh. “What’s going to happen? What’s the plan?”
“I’ll get you in, you’ll go and see the psychic on duty so she can look you over. If she says you’re ok, then they’ll get you down to the infirmary so you can heal up the latest crop of injured.”
“Who’s the psychic going to be, do you know?”
“We’ll probably get there after midnight, and Psion has night duty. I’m pretty sure she’ll try to lean on you as hard as she can, but she’s been doing the low-level stuff so long, I’m not even sure if she can do an individual mind scan anymore,” Monica said, glancing at me sideways.
“We can’t count on that,” I said, trying to ward off the thrill of fear that ran through me. We almost had to count on this Psion person to be borderline incompetent, and that was extremely dangerous.
“I know, so just concentrate very hard on the truth, the version of the truth you want her to know. Three quarters of what you want to accomplish they won’t care about, as long as they think you haven’t subverted me. I have to seem to be in control of you at all times. That’s the only way they’ll let you have free run around the academy. Everywhere you go, I have to go, and everywhere I go, you’ll have to come too. Otherwise they’ll ban you from my workroom.”
Since that was the crux of the plan, that I had to be in the room when Monica hauled people out of class, or wherever, I nodded in acquiescence.
“You want me to act like I was before?” I asked. The idea itself was sound, but I wasn’t sure how long I could keep up a “meek” façade before cracking. If someone as sadistic as Cutter tried something, sooner or later I’d snap, I knew I would. My self-control was a lot better now than it was in high school, but I still had a temper.
“To an extent. Look, they honestly don’t care if I tortured you into submission or seduced you, just as long as I seem to be in control. But inside the workroom, it has to be the other way around. Outside, if I say jump-.”
“I ask ‘how high?’ But inside, you do what I tell you?” This was going to be a very twisted trip.
“That’s the only way they’ll believe you’re for real. Being one of the school torturers put me in a position of power. And with… everything I put the students through, they might want to prove to themselves they don’t have to be scared of me anymore. I’m willing to take some hits if I have to,” she said, her tone very even and measured. It had the ring of a long-used argument, like something she had been convincing herself of for a long time.
It hit me, at a deeper level, what really was going on. For the first time since I had really known Monica, I was going to see her in her “home environment.” At the academy she was feared and obeyed; she had power. In the superhero world she had no respect and no power, and wasn’t likely to get either for a very long time, if ever. And now she was willing to take hits, probably literal ones, in order to make this work. I damn sure wasn’t going to let her get hit, but I was really proud of her right then for facing it squarely.
“You don’t have to,” I said quickly.
“Thanks.” She smiled slightly before a more businesslike expression dropped into place.
“You realize one of the people you’re going to heal is Bruin, right?”
That had occurred to me, and I didn’t really like it.
“Look, I really don’t like these people that much-.”
“Think of them like you do the car-wreck victims in Maxville. You don’t know them either, but you do ok there.”
“Because I know they haven’t ripped open people I care about!”
“This is the price of admission Warren! If you don’t heal, they’ll kill you to deny your resources to the opposition. And then they’ll kill me, just for wasting their time,” she said sharply.
I set my jaw while I thought that over, and nodded reluctantly. If I just thought of them as the innumerable victims of car wrecks, accidents, house fires, or other things I had healed as an EMT over the past few years, I thought I could handle it. I damn well knew some of those car wreck victims had been drinking or high, and some of those people who had had “accidents” were really nothing of the sort. But since I hadn’t exactly seen it happen, it hadn’t been hard to override my own reluctance in the face of their injuries.
Same stuff, but different setting, I told myself firmly. The threat of death helped too.
Monica spent the rest of the hours-long drive explaining everything she could about the academy, everything she had been reluctant to tell me for the past few years. Information that was only useful to those inside it, but with no way to disguise its origin in order to get it to the spies, knowing it would have just been a torment. I understood why she hadn’t told me, but the temperature spiked in the car a few times while she was talking.
“I didn’t know that the spies were dead until Judge Libra told you,” she said at one point. “I’ll find out where…” She trailed off, and I saw her knuckles tighten on the wheel. Where their bodies where, was what she meant to say, but she hated to say it out loud.
That, horrible as it was, was low on the list of priorities. Those people were safely dead, and nothing else could hurt them now. But there were people living inside the academy that needed help first. Monica had a mental list of people whom she thought we could turn to our side, or at least, away from the academy.
“I can’t tell you the list right now, I’m sorry. I don’t have any physical evidence of those people in my possession, and I don’t want to start now. What you don’t know, Psion can’t find out.”
“But it’s been what, three years since you were last here? Are you sure some of these people haven’t gone totally over the edge by now?” I asked with some trepidation. Monica shook her head.
“I was recalled a week before the Crew hit Maxville. I went back long enough to double-check my list. I had to change it; some people…” she trailed off and then nodded sadly. “There’re still plenty of people who really have no interest in being villains, but since they’ve been sucked in, they just go with it. None of them are angels, but at worst they might have been bullies or just your garden-variety jerks, not supervillains.”
Get them free of the ties the academy had on them, and they’d split. That’s all we needed really, for them to just run from the battlefield. I nodded as Monica elaborated on the real lynchpin of our plan, the technopaths that maintained the academy’s defense systems.
“There are ten of those technopaths, and none of them are particularly powerful,” she explained. I raised an eyebrow at that.
“I thought technopathy was kind of rare.”
“Royal Pain was scouring the world for people like them. She set up the major systems herself, but these guys do all the maintenance and updating. They’re IT professionals; that’s what most of them did before they came here anyway. They’re hackers and computer geeks, programmers and coders. But the systems here only work if you can manipulate some of them mentally. They have all the override codes, and they know the systems inside and out. As long as we can get at least six of them on our side, we’re good.”
“You’re sure we can get six?”
“Two grew up heavily influenced by their supervillain parents, so I know we shouldn’t even try for them. Two had supervillain parents, but they were never around, and four others had supervillain relatives, but they grew up more or less normal. The last two are first-generation powers. So there are eight people we can try for, at best.”
A slim margin, but better than none. The subtext of her comments I ignored completely; she wasn’t even talking about me at all. If my dad had been out of jail after I was born, I might have grown up a lot differently, and there was no getting around that. I gave myself a mental shake and asked a more pertinent question.
“Can anyone override their controls on the systems?” I asked.
“The Headmaster, that’s it. Otherwise it would take more than half of them working in concert to override another’s command.”
That brought up a whole other conversation. Headmaster? For years I had been assuming some members of Royal Pain’s family had been running the academy… or something. The Bureau’s reports on the academy’s power structure had been a little vague, now that I looked back on it.
“Who the hell is the Headmaster?”
“He runs the academy. Royal Pain couldn’t be bothered with administrative details; she had a Grand Plot to carry out,” Monica said with a raised eyebrow that capitalized the words perfectly. “He always did all the logistics that came with actually keeping the place going. Not too long after Royal Pain recruited Cutter, me, and the others in the first class, she went off to Sky High. We didn’t see her except for special occasions. The Headmaster has been running the academy since before I even got there.”
“Great, someone else to worry about,” I muttered. “Why didn’t you say anything about him before now?”
“Warren, we’re up against the students and physical plant of the academy, just for starters. I don’t think we should be thinking about taking down the Headmaster while we’re still inside! Let the superheroes deal with him when they get here; we’re going to have enough to do as it is.”
Unfortunately I couldn’t argue with that. Actually I could, and did, for several minutes, but Monica kept coming up with better arguments. The only things I learned, the only things that Monica knew, were that the Headmaster always went around in full costume, rarely appeared in public, and no one knew exactly what his powers were. Going against a complete unknown like that would have been really dumb. And honestly, if our plan got any more complicated, my brain was going to explode.
It was a long drive, and the sun had finally set by the time we arrived. The land had been getting more mountainous as we got closer and closer to the Rockies, and eventually Monica steered her car onto a seemingly little-used track, punched in a security code to get her through a locked gate, and parked in an underground parking garage. I knew the academy was underground, but this looked like it had been blasted into the side of a mountain.
“This looks like a military base,” I muttered as I got out.
“I’m pretty sure it was, at one point, but that’s just one of the questions you don’t ask around here.”
She led me through a heavy metal door, opening it with her palm print, retinal scan, voice identification, password, sixteen digit security code, face comparison, and DNA blood test, identifying me only by face and voice.Damn, the Bureau doesn’t have security that tight, I thought. Getting into this place quickly was not going to be easy. Not surprisingly, it reminded me strongly of Royal Pain's stuff the Bureau had removed from my mom’s house before we moved in.
That rigmarole done, she quickly guided me through the dim maze of corridors and staircases. The place was cool and damp, about what you’d expect from a place carved into solid rock, and atrociously lit. There were very few signs as to where things were, which Monica had told me was deliberate.
“Get lost, end up somewhere where you aren’t supposed to be, you won’t make the same mistake twice. You don’t get second chances in the field.” That, it seemed, was the academy’s prevailing philosophy: No Second Chances. Considering what had happened to Royal Pain, that wasn’t too surprising.
As she led me downward, deeper into the academy, I was hyper-vigilant. She had warned me that the halls were a no-man’s-land, and getting picked off by some punk looking for an easy mark just because I had let my guard down would have been especially ridiculous. I could hear occasional whispers and muffled conversations behind closed doors or down darkened corridors as we walked. People cracked the doors to look at us as we went by, and whispers picked up after we passed. I heard the occasional cry echo off the stone corridors, though if it was in pain or madness or something else, I couldn’t really tell.
Royal Pain couldn’t have chosen a more perfect and deliberate contrast to Sky High. Two minutes here and I was ready to leave.
We were getting deeper and deeper, and I was already tense enough to have a headache by the time Monica got us to a simple door inscribed with three eyes arranged in a triangle.
“Behave,” she said in a kind of growling undertone, and she assumed an impassive mien. I put the mental image of my firewalls firmly in place, gave her a short nod, and she opened the door.
Inside the room was small, dim, and cool, but contained nothing stranger than a large desk and three chairs. And Psion, sitting behind the desk, her palms flat on its surface. She was strange all on her own. She looked normal enough at first glance, a little pale, average height, her dark blonde hair tied back severely, and she was almost skeletally thin. It was her eyes that creeped me out though; they were huge, violet, and flickering rapidly in all directions. It made me dizzy just to look at her.
“I brought him, Psion,” Monica announced, her voice flat and businesslike.
“Good, good. You did well, something to show for all that work,” Psion whispered. Monica only shrugged, as if being on her own for three years was of no consequence.
Psion wasn’t looking directly at me, instead her lead lolled to the side as her eyes spun wildly in her sockets. I didn’t feel any mental pressure from her, yet, and just concentrated very hard on what I needed her to know.
“So you… Phoenix. You will stay. Will you work?”
“Do I have a choice?” I asked tightly. “It was either this or see my friends die in front of me.”
“You could have rescued them,” Psion said in her wispy voice. “You heroes are good at that.”
“Yeah, maybe I could have,” I said belligerently, crossing my arms. I hesitated a long moment before speaking again. “But I’d have been trading one cage for another.”
“Ah yes… we just got to you first. We heard Egret was going to offer you… but you already knew what you wanted. So, you’ll do it.”
“I hate this place. You’re all a bunch of psychos,” I said flatly. There was no heat in my accusations; I didn’t need it. She could have heard the same response from nearly any superhero. This was just a plain statement of fact.
“But…?” Psion trailed her question off, a raised brow over her dancing eyes asking for further explanation.
“The Bureau doesn’t want me to fight anymore, they just want me to heal. The Judge said I had to heal here, but he didn’t say I couldn’t fight.”
Psion threw her head back and laughed; it wasn’t a particularly sane sound.
“So you’ll fight us even as you heal us?”
“If that’s what it takes to make sure my friends are safe, then yeah,” I said.
“That’s rather sadistic… I like it. Maybe you’ll come around to our point of view after a while. We have quite a lot to offer,” she said pleasantly.
“Doubt that,” I muttered.
“We are exhausted by our efforts. You’ll find a lot of wounded here to tend to. Trust me, we’re worse off than you.”
Something tickled at the corner of my mind, seeking entrance. Psion’s left eye had fixed squarely on me even as her right continued to spin. I let the mental flames rage, putting twenty-one years’ worth of stubbornness behind them. Psion jerked slightly, and for a minute I thought I could see fire reflected in her eyes.
“We’re not so bad, once you get to know us. Besides, there are benefits to being here. Painbreaker has shown you some, I’m sure. Indestructibles don’t really feel a whole lot in the way of pain, so that must have been pretty interesting for you, eh?”
The leer she tossed both of us made me want to punch her in the face.
Monica only smiled lazily and put her arm around my waist in a possessive gesture.
“He got used to it pretty quickly,” she said, sounding satisfied, and then jammed her fingers into my hip. She had put her finger knives on the first two fingers of each hand as soon as we had got to the academy, so she stabbed right through the denim and into my skin, invoking her powers briefly as she went. The bolt of pain was brief, and I suppressed a yell with some effort.
Psion’s eyes suddenly both stilled, and the mental pressure became nearly unbearable. For some reason, I began to feel really confident, almost giddy, as if I could take on the world single-handedly, and I knew, right then, that Psion couldn’t do anything to me. The pain-bolt Monica had shot through me, combined with my own walls, definitely would have helped override her mind-reading attempts. I was the best of the Champions at keeping up my mental walls, and I would burn anyone who dared to try them.
I noticed Psion was smiling at us, and the mental pressure suddenly let up with an almost audible snap.
“That will do. Put him to work Painbreaker, and keep him out of trouble.”What the hell? That was weird…
Monica nodded again, and guided me out of the room, shutting the door firmly behind her. She only tossed me a brief apologetic look, and I nodded slightly in understanding. She began striding down stairs and through the maze of corridors at a rapid pace, head turning quickly to look for ambush. I saw occasional shadows lurking down the corridors, silhouettes of other academy supervillains, but they kept their distance.
“How many do you think you’re good for?” Monica asked quietly as we walked. “Injuries, I mean.”
“Healing? Um…” I tried to gauge myself carefully. I hadn’t gotten a good night’s sleep, but I hadn’t really had to use my powers in over a day either. All in all, other than being tired, I wasn’t too bad off.
“Depends how bad they’re hurt, but maybe half a dozen?” That was about the max I could handle, if they were badly hurt. I had accidentally proven that to myself when we had helped transport car-wreck victims to the hospitals during an ice storm that had nearly crippled Maxville about a year ago. I almost burned myself out entirely that day.
Monica nodded in comprehension and then drew herself up short at another intersection.
“Flame that wall,” she whispered abruptly. I raised an eyebrow at that. “It’s a permanent holographic projection. Favorite ambush site since day one.”
A look convinced me she wasn’t kidding.
“This place just gets better and better,” I muttered, powering up and strafing the wall. A muffled yell sounded from behind it, and then a startled red-haired guy stepped out of the solid-seeming hologram. He caught sight of us and raised a wire-wrapped baseball bat aggressively.
“Nice shot Matchstick. Wanna try again?” he asked mockingly.
Are you kidding me? I thought. Monica gave a little jerk with her chin, pointing at the guy and raising her eyebrows. He was all mine to deal with. The redhead shifted the bat on his shoulders slightly, and I scowled at him harshly. Jerkwad. Going to smash someone in the back with a damn baseball bat?
“One, that was a lame quip,” I said dangerously, taking a half step forward, letting the flames burn along my hands and forearms. “Two, you’re in my range, but I’m not in yours. Three, you’re outnumbered.”
The redhead was starting to look more and more uncertain
“Four, you’re annoying me. Go to bed, Bat Boy,” Monica added, stepping out from behind me. He went scarlet with anger, and then suddenly blanched.
“You!” he said, startled, and then looked closer at both of us. He quickly slinked away.
“I hope to hell he spreads the word that I’m back before tomorrow. I don’t want to have to reestablish my reputation,” she said quietly as we moved past the holographic wall. The corridors and doors got a little wider and farther apart, but no less maze-like. I was tempted to start leaving a trail of breadcrumbs.
“I wouldn’t want you to either,” I said softly, trying to memorize my way back to the exterior door. I lost myself somewhere around the eighth intersection.
“Most people know me well enough by the horror stories… it’s the new ones I’m worried about, but the older kids should straighten them out soon enough. We’re here,” she said abruptly, pushing open a large door painted a nauseatingly bright and cheery shade of green.
The antiseptic smell proclaimed it the infirmary before I had even gotten inside. It didn’t look too different from a hospital, save the doors had exterior locks, and the beds I saw all had restraints. That didn’t make me feel any better about this at all.
Monica abruptly pulled me into an empty room and shut the thick door before anyone could see us.
“Are you ok?” she asked seriously, holding my head in her hands so she could look me in the eyes.
“Yeah, so far, all things considered,” I quipped. I was in the bowels of a supervillain academy, had been mind-probed by a crazy psychic, had intimidated a violent bully into backing off, was about to try to heal some villains that would try to hurt people I knew, and my girlfriend had just implied I was the M to her S so my capture would seem more palatable to the teachers here. Other than that, I’m doing just peachy, thanks for asking.
“Was Psion trying something on you? She usually looks that way when she’s really concentrating hard.”
“I really don’t know,” I said honestly, shaking my head. The few times psychics at school had broken through my walls, there had been a definite sensation of “breaking” that at least let me know what had happened, even if I couldn’t do a whole lot by then. On the other hand, Judge Libra had gotten past my mental walls without even really trying.
Monica shook her head, seeming to dismiss the problem.
“If she knew what we were really up to, she would have fried your brain before you left the office. Whatever she got, she doesn’t think it can hurt the academy. I’m supposed to be making you willing to give over your allegiance, not just be holding your leash.”
I had a very unfortunate mental image right then, and quickly pummeled it into a pulp and put it in a corner. Now was not the time.
“Ok, so why are we in this room?”
“I needed to talk to you about Bruin.”
“No cameras here?” I had tried to keep everything I did in public looking like it was according to her plan, and kept everything I said very quiet under that exact assumption. A place like this, founded by a technopath, a former military base, surely would have them in spades...
Monica looked at me oddly, as if I had just missed something very obvious.
“Warren, the only rooms that have surveillance are the cafeteria and gymnasium. Believe me, I’ve checked.”
“Why the hell not? Royal Pain used surveillance all the time; Will told me how she got a camera into his dad’s Sanctum-.”
“Warren, why would the hallways be a no-man’s-land if students could use the cameras to prove other students were beating on them? What goes on the public areas is brutal, but if you can give real evidence to the teachers of someone jumping you in the halls, the punishments are even worse. Most people can’t get that evidence, so they learn to be clever or powerful or scary so they can get through the days. That’s the whole damn point. There’s no fucking consequences for what goes on in here, and no evidence of what happened!” she said, her voice low and intense.
I counted to ten slowly, enforcing the mental image of a raging fire slowly retracting behind a safe ring of stones, bringing my temper back under control. It wasn’t her fault, it wasn’t her fault I was angry. Every new thing I learned about the academy was like turning over a rock and finding all kinds of nasty creepy-crawlers.
“Ok,” I said finally, “What about Bruin? Is he on your list?”
“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about. Most people don’t come here unless someone orders them, or they’re just too messed up to fight. And I really don’t have a reason to haul Bruin down to my workroom; he pretty much does what he’s told, no matter what.”
“There’s a but.” I actually had multiple objections to helping the guy, no matter the plan, but I’d listen first.
“But,” she added, nodding, “he was terrified when he first came here. He’s first generation, and he honestly has no idea how he got his powers. He told me he was living the American dream, the first person in his family to go to college. He’s supporting his parents, and helping his little sister through school with his salary. And he’s absolutely terrified they’ll learn what he’s doing when he’s not at his job.”
“He’s a park ranger, right?”
Monica looked startled.
“How the hell did you know that?” she demanded. I almost laughed at the expression on her face, being this was the first time I had one-uped her on supervillain knowledge, but she looked so flatly astonished at my knowledge that I quickly clarified.
“The day after we fought you for the first time, Principle Powers sent us to Yellowstone to get us away from our parents while she was explaining things. Bruin was the ranger that checked us in and out. He was completely freaked out, and didn’t want to fight, and said he wouldn’t tell anyone.”
“He didn’t, he never said anything about that. Son of a bitch,” Monica said, admiration in her tone.
“When we left, he said, ‘We didn’t all want this.’ I really wasn’t buying it though. I didn’t think anyone could make him do anything he didn’t want to.”
“Royal Pain did. Bruin… before she even found him, he had killed four poachers in the park. He used his powers to find them, and then killed them because he couldn’t have brought them to justice. She made him a deal: work for her, or she told his family and the Bureau.”
The Bureau took an extremely dim view of those who used their powers to kill, even in extreme situations. I couldn’t say I sympathized with the guy, but I thought I understood him a little. Now, with everything else he had been doing, he was pretty much stuck as a villain.
It didn’t justify jack squat, but it explained why he might be on the list in the first place.
“I can’t believe he kept meeting you a secret all this time,” Monica muttered in amazement. She suddenly sighed. “What do you think? This place is almost as secure as my workroom and, considering how much he dislikes me, this could be the only time we’re going to get him alone in a room with you.”
“When was the last time he disobeyed orders?” I asked her in turn. Monica shook her head sadly, and I took that to mean “never.”
“The only reason he didn’t manage to rip Layla apart a few days ago was because Will and I got back just in time,” I said tightly. The majority of the other villains here I didn’t know well enough to hate. Bruin’s work I knew pretty damn well.
“Price of admission Warren. Right now he’s just a guy in pain.”
I snarled silently, knowing Monica had played just the right card. I knew I was going to have to do this, but I was doing it under protest.
“You think you can help him?”
“You fucking know I can,” I growled.
Monica’s chin came up in defiance of my attitude, and she made her final argument.
“He thinks he’s pretty much sunk to the bottom. You can show him he can still look up.”
My head was starting to hurt. I almost missed guys like Judge Libra and Hammerfist, straightforward evil villains out for loot or a power trip. All this ambiguity made me uncertain and nervous, as well as angry. It wouldn’t take much to screw up.
I nodded, and Monica prodded me back out into the hall.
“Come on, get to work,” she growled impatiently, for the benefit of anyone who was listening.
I set my jaw, preparing myself for the unpleasantness to come as Monica led me past the other rooms. She indicated briefly which ones were occupied, shaking her head slightly at the doors to show me none of these others were on the list.
The list itself, as Monica had told me during the car ride, was mostly of henchmen and low-level villains, along with a few others who had stronger ties outside the academy than inside.
“We’re going to be doing the Fight Club scenario,” she had explained. “Most of the really strong villains like the system, because it gives them power. We’re going after the downtrodden, those that really weren’t gung ho about this in the first place. If you took every janitor, cab driver, secretary, clerk, and cashier out of the real world, the whole place would collapse. Same thing here. We turn as many of the support personnel as we can-.”
“And the house of cards collapses,” I had finished.
I glanced in each of the rooms as we went by. There were only five people here, including Bruin, most of them with major injuries too severe to deal with on their own. Broken bones or major gashes: really, nothing I didn’t think I could handle. And most of them were thankfully not in their costumes. If they kept their damn mouths shut, I could just pretend they were some unfortunate citizens, caught in an accident.I’ve just got to keep telling myself that…
Bruin’s room was at the end of the hall, and barred from the outside. No one was around to ask questions, and I wondered how often the academy’s medical staff checked on them. With everything else they were concentrating on, clearly attention to the wounded had suffered. No wonder they wanted me!
That and it’s a lot simpler to use me instead of providing their students with good medical care. Bastards, I thought darkly.
Bruin was just lying in his bed in the tiny, barren room, the bandages around his head and face oozing blood. He was damn lucky he hadn’t managed to claw his own eye out, considering how frantic he had been to pry Ethan off of him.
His eyes flickered open weakly at the sound of the door, and abruptly widened when he saw who it was. He slammed himself backwards at the bed, yelling something virtually incomprehensible due to the ravaged state of his mouth and jaw.
“Bruin,” Monica said softly, and he fell instantly silent. “You remember Phoenix, don’t you?”
The dead tone of voice she was using was mildly disturbing. Bruin nodded a little, eyes still wide and terrified. This was not how I was used to healing people, the whole setting not withstanding. The few times I had used my powers on fellow superheroes, they were either unconscious or at least willing. The citizens I had healed were usually unconscious from the pain or the drugs we gave them, or in shock. I had never healed a reluctant person before, and I wasn’t sure if I could.
Right now Bruin looked more pathetic and even sympathetic than anything else. He definitely didn’t look cruel or psychotic, more like a whipped puppy expecting another beating. Suddenly it wasn’t too hard to think of him as just another car-wreck victim.
Bruin nodded his head reluctantly at Monica’s words, still deeply afraid.
“He’s here because I did my job and got the academy an asset. Now stop cringing and let him work, unless you want to try to explain to your superiors at the park how you got mauled by a bear.”
Bruin stopped cowering against the wall and let me approach, though he kept a wary eye on Monica. Remembering her words from earlier that day, I caught her eye.
“Wait outside,” I said firmly. Monica nodded once and left.
If Bruin had been capable of moving his jaw, I might have had to pick it up off the floor, he was so surprised.
“’ou can tell her ‘hat to do?” he asked incredulously, not moving his lips.
“Yeah,” I said simply, mentally relaxing myself. Just another car-wreck victim Peace, just another Saturday night accident, that’s all this is…
Images of the heroes he had maimed, of the claw marks on Layla suddenly flashed through my mind, and the fire ignited along my hands, lethally orange and gold.
Bruin stared at me, his face a blank mask of fear under the bandages, passively waiting for whatever was going to happen.
He always obeys orders, always, I reminded myself, and suddenly got an idea. I didn’t want to have a serious discussion with him in here; people coming out of Monica’s workroom were almost expected to be emotionally distraught, a hard fact we needed in order to cover up what we were going to ask some of these people to do, but I couldn’t have the infirmary patients walk out of here screaming. Actually, I didn’t want anyone to walk out of anywhere screaming, but particularly not here. They’d be keeping an eye on those I healed, so I had to be more careful with these guys.
“I put your face back together, you do me a favor,” I said. Bruin nodded warily, seeming to accept that without a qualm. Favors were excellent currency in the academy. “When I tell you to run, I need you to run away, no questions, no hesitation.”
Bruin blinked at me in confusion.
“Dat’s it?” he asked, his eyes pale in the reflection of the flames.
“Just as long as you do it, then yeah, that’s it.” Bruin thought that over for a minute, then nodded again.
“Deal.” It said volumes that he didn’t ask for clarification. Curiosity had been beaten out of him long ago. I honestly couldn’t hate him right now, even though I knew what he had done.
The fire slowly darkened to red and contracted down on my hands, and now I could actually tell something was wrong with him. He wasn’t in immediate danger of dying, not unless infection set in, but he wasn’t going to heal up very well either.
I took a few steps forward and brought my hands up to touch his temples. I knew very well that Bruin was a lot taller and bigger than me, even without his powers, but he was curled up so he looked no bigger than Ethan. He was broken, in a hell of a lot more ways than one.
“It’s going to feel hot,” I warned him. “When it gets painful, push me away, or I’ll burn you by accident.”
“’k,” Bruin muttered, not meeting my eyes.
He’s expecting pain; he’s honestly expecting me just to cauterize this or something.
Three breaths and I could see his life fire, not nearly as bad off as some people I had seen, but shot through with jagged shadows from his injuries. And even more prominent were the elaborate smooth black bands and knots of the power meddling the academy had done to him, which made him feel he had to use his powers. Something like this probably existed in his mind as well, but I could only handle the physical. For everything else him, and the rest of the academy students, needed someone like my mom, or a good shrink, or maybe just a few years away from this place. I could only hope that with the physical restrictions gone, they’d all be able to help themselves.
This is really fucked up.
The shadows slowly began to clear away as I let the fire flow, my mind fixed on the ugly black knot holding the constraints on Bruin’s powers. I’m sure my mom would carefully pick something like that apart and figure out what exactly had caused everything, but I neither had the time nor the patience. Like with Monica, I took Alexander’s solution and cut the Gordian knot. Switching my mental image to something like a sword, I slashed at the damn thing, and suddenly was slammed against a wall and jolted rudely out of my trance.
I blinked hard to bring my focus back into the real world, roaring echoing in my ears. Bruin, shifted and standing on his hind legs, was sidling from foot to foot in the opposite corner, paws the size of dinner plates and claws like knives slicing through the air.
I got myself back on my feet in a flash, letting the orange flames engulf my arms.Come on Bruin, don’t fucking do it…
I was not used to people I had healed coming after me with murderous intent, and it was seriously weirding me out.
Bruin snorted once, twice, and shifted back, pulling the bandages off his face. I took a pardonable amount of pride in the fact that he barely had a trace of a scar.
I’m definitely getting better at this.
“What the hell did you do?” he asked incredulously. “That wasn’t just my face, I know it. It felt like you lit a fire in my damn blood!”
“You remember what you promised?” I asked instead of answering. Bruin nodded. “Then consider that a free gift.”
“What was that?” he asked again.
Bruin always does what he’s ordered, I reminded myself, and shook my head at him. He was part of the Crew, too close to Cutter, and that made him too dangerous to trust with everything. The others on the list, though I didn’t know their names, weren’t nearly as prominent in the eyes of the academy. They wouldn’t be questioned; Bruin would be.
And so what if I told him to run away? That didn’t mean squat, it only meant I was trying to screw around with the academy, fighting them like I told them I was, even if it was only in a half-hearted way. That would be what they would expect with Painbreaker “controlling” me. Anything further would give us both away.
“Go,” I said firmly. Bruin kept his eyes on me as he sidled out of the room, and finally ran down the hall and out the door. I closed my eyes for a second and swallowed hard, trying to get myself calm again. I wasn’t used to people I had healed running away from me.
Monica stuck her head in the room when I didn’t come out, and looked at me with concern.
“There are four others in here, two broken legs, one crushed arm, and one with a half-dozen badly broken ribs. I already told them that they aren’t allowed to talk to you,” she said softly. That was wise; if they made any quips about superheroes, I would probably end up scorching someone badly.
Three more deep breaths and I was ready.
“Let’s do this.”
Three of them went fine, because they kept their mouths shut. Each of them was left overheated and a little sunburned because Monica was a bit slow pulling me away from them, but somehow I couldn’t bring myself to feel too bad about it. Each person I was healing was now leaving mission-capable, able to hurt people I knew. I had to very fiercely keep my mind on what we were going to do, not what was happening now. I had to establish my credentials, and Monica had to reaffirm hers. This was the price of admission.
The last guy, the one with the crushed arm, didn’t go well at all. I didn’t recognize him, but he definitely knew me.
“Fire birdy! You think you can make me fly again?” he asked cheerfully. The guy was short, with pale skin and dark hair, wearing the remnants of a red and orange costume.
“What did I tell you about speaking, Ash?” Monica asked darkly. Ash lost of a little of his cheer.
“Hey, just thought he’d like a nice welcome,” he muttered. “He could use a friend, considering all three of his little shapeshifted buddies bit it last week.”
Fire flared without conscious effort as my temper mounted. Joking about the dead? Fucking sicko! Monica stepped in between us and suddenly slapped Ash in the face, darkness dimming the room as she invoked her powers on him at the same time.
His face lost all color and he gave a strangled gasp when Monica finally powered down. He panted hard, color slowly returning to his face while I got control back. It hadn’t taken much, Monica’s brutal enforcement of her rules was like a bucket of cold water, but Ash’s throwaway comment was just as shocking.
He had said all three, all three shapeshifted buddies. Three spies. The Bureau had sent five, three shapeshifters and two with mental powers. That meant two other allies were still on the loose down here!
“I don’t appreciate people flaunting my rules. I said no one talks to Phoenix while he works, and you had to go and test that right away, didn’t you?” Monica continued, right over my own revelations. Ash tried to shrug casually with one shoulder, keeping his busted arm very still.
“You do not disobey me, particularly when I come bearing gifts for you. I think you know what that means,” she hissed. Ash’s eyes went wide and he tried to slide off the side of his bed. He didn’t get very far before Monica slammed her finger-knives into his stomach, right through the rips in his armor, and the air darkened with her powers.
Ash couldn’t even scream as the air popped and crackled around him. His body went rigid, and his mouth opened in silent agony. I took a half-step forward in instinctual protest, but Monica turned to look at me, and her eyes were black with hatred and self-loathing. I froze in place, clenching my fists in helplessness. It went on for a full ten agonizing seconds before she stopped.
“Phoenix, patch him up,” she said in a very calm tone of voice, stepping away from Ash. He was unconscious from the assault, and I had absolutely no problem helping him now. Burning away the shadows from his crushed arm was only a tiny way of compensating for his “punishment.” When Monica pulled me back from him, I almost jerked away from her touch. Almost. If I hadn’t seen her blinking away tears, I would have.
“You’re done for tonight, let’s go,” she said simply.
I cannot fucking believe that just happened.
Oh really? What did you think she was going to do? How did you think she was going to behave? He who walks amongst jackals dares show no weakness.
She doesn’t have to be a jackal herself!
She was the damn Jackal Queen and you know it. She needs to be Painbreaker here, and she can’t have you pulling her back from what she needs to do, or they will tear her apart.
This will tear her apart all on its own.
So? Do something about it Hotshot!
Monica led the way to her room in complete silence, the ever-present faint cries and whispers of the darkened corridors the only sounds around us. No one even passed us in the halls; it felt like we had some kind of disease, that anyone who got to close would risk catching something.
She unlocked her door and led me inside, locking it again immediately and flipping on the lights. Then she ran for the bathroom.
I hesitated a half-second before going after her, but no longer than that. Somehow her clutching the toilet bowl and puking her guts out put a lot of my fears to rest. That, perhaps, was the least messed-up part of this whole trip.
I knelt on the floor with her, holding her hair back while she tried to purge her conscience as much as she was purging her body, and then held her again when she collapsed against me, crying silently. She didn’t say anything for almost an hour, finally got up, cleaned herself off, and went back into the other room.
The room wasn’t much better than an average motel: attached bathroom to a single bedroom with a couch, table, chair, nightstand, TV, and bed. One bed. And a small one at that. I’d worry about that later.
“God,” Monica whispered finally, lifting her face from her hands. “I haven’t done that in years.”
I didn’t ask whether she meant the torture part or the puking part.
“And I’m going to do it tomorrow, and the next day, and the next, until we get done what we came here to do,” she said more firmly. “It’ll be easier tomorrow; there aren’t any smart-asses on my list. No one’s going to talk back to me, I promise you that.”
I didn’t say anything yet, just sat down next to her on the bed and put one arm around her. What was I supposed to say? We’d already discussed most of it to death in the car this morning. It was just a hell of a lot harder seeing it in person.
“You told me, when I graduated, that you didn’t want me to forget about us. I’m telling you the same thing now,” I said. “We’re going to get rid of this nightmare, and you’re never going to have to relive it again.”
It sounded a little cliché to my own ears, but clichés weren’t necessarily untrue. Monica seemed to relax a little, and nodded.
“I just… Warren, I enjoyed that,” she confessed suddenly. “I haven’t been able to use my powers like that in a long time, and I enjoyed it.”
That, I realized, more than just what she had done, had caused the puking fit. I wanted to let her know it was ok, but it wasn’t, and we both knew it. I didn’t have an answer for something like that right now.
“It’s been a long day for both of us,” I said after a long minute. “I’ll sleep on the couch, ok?”
“Stay with me? I just… just hold me until I fall asleep?” she asked, almost pleading.Damn it, I really shouldn’t…
But by now the exhaustion was catching up to me as well. I had been awake for nearly twenty-four hours.
“Ok, ok…” I said, and lay down on the bed, intending to prop my eyes open so I could move to the couch as soon as she was out. It really wouldn’t be a good idea to be in the same bed; even if we were both so tired we hadn’t undressed.
We were both unconscious the second our heads touched the pillow.
I was dreaming. And I knew I was dreaming, which was really strange. My eyes opened to fire raging around me like the heart of an inferno, words echoing in my head.
Fire cleanses. Fire purifies. It changes everything it touches. It burns out impurities.
Fire destroys. Fire sweeps everything away. It renders everything the same. It burns it all to ash.
I was suddenly standing in my own Sanctum, watching fire begin to race over everything, burning the fan letters, the pictures, the newspaper articles, and even my costume. I put out a hand in futile protest, knowing my costume was nearly as fireproof as I was, and knowing also that its destruction had little to do with physical reality.
“Why are you doing this? You’re destroying everything, sacrificing everything,” a voice whispered, and I turned to see a woman standing, untouched, in the flames. She wore a dress of opalescent gray and had a veil over her hair and face, obscuring her features almost like mist.
“I had to, it was the only way,” I said with a kind of stunned calm. “I’m going to stop them.”
“You are?” she sounded surprised, and I got the impression of a raised eyebrow behind the veil. “You’re turning your back on everyone who loves you.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Really?” I saw a flash of darkness out of the corner of my eye, and saw, with shocking clarity, Monica bent over the shaking form of Ash, her fingers shoved in his stomach, her powers invoked to bring him crippling pain.
“And she loves you?”
“I love her,” I said, knowing, as perhaps this gray woman didn’t, the tear-streaked recriminations Monica had gone through once she was alone with me.
“She loves you too, she really does,” the woman said, almost sounding surprised.
“Who are you?”
“Why come here? You’ve suddenly turned your back on everyone.”
The words caught in my throat, months of secrets stopping my tongue. I had no idea if I was actually dreaming, or if this was something else.
“It’s killing your mother.”
The fire around us flared, and I watched in horror as it raced to the Peacemaker’s half of the sanctum and began to greedily consume a lifetime’s collection of maps, reports, letters, and pictures, leaving her with nothing.
“No!” I yelled and whirled to the gray woman. She stood calmly, unconcerned about the flames.
“It’s killing your family.”
The flames parted to show my dad’s family, all of the Battle family superheroes, engaged in animated discussion in a rapid and loud mixture of German and English I could barely follow.
“I will not allow this to happen again!” Tobias finally roared, overpowering the rest of his children with sheer volume and power. Though old, he radiated authority in such a way that every single one of his children and grandchildren, powerful, successful, and even arrogant superheroes in their own right, gave ground to him.
“We went through this once with Baron, and it’s taken us twenty years to repair our family reputation. Whatever Phoenix thinks he’s doing, I won’t let him drag us down with him!”
The flames swept closed again as I saw all of them nodding solemnly.
“It’s killing your fans.”
Light flickered, like that of a TV screen, and dozens of images played across the ceiling, interlocking and overlapping crazily.
“-Haven’t seen him for days. We need him, where is he?”
“-Always knew he’d go bad, just like that psychotic father of his-.”
“Phoenix would never abandon us, would he?”
“Guardian knew he wasn’t right in the head after that tangle with Judge Libra, he must have driven him crazy…”
The images faded, and the flames behind me parted to show Will and the rest of the gang with his parents in their Secret Sanctum.
“It’s killing your friends.”
“He’s obviously gone over the edge. It’s happened to better heroes than Warren before-,” the Commander was trying to say gently.
“He’d never do this on his own! Judge Libra was controlling all of us, what if he did something to Warren?” Will shot back in defiance.
“The director told us, you know how pissed off he was when that chick from the Bureau was talking to him. You heard him man,” Zack was saying.
“They were trying to cage him, lock him up for the rest of his life,” Magenta chimed in.
“Warren’s our friend. How can you say that?” Will demanded, whirling on them.
“Will, everyone has a breaking point. That was Painbreaker with him for we don’t know how long,” Ethan said, shaking a little.
“He wouldn’t-,” Will said, and then stumbled to a halt.
“He’s our friend, Will,” Layla said. “He’s our friend, and no matter what… what happened to him, we’ll get him back.”
“Whatever it takes,” the Commander added more forcefully. “Every second Warren is in the academy is another second he can use to-.”
“Is being used,” Will corrected loudly.
“Is being used against us,” the Commander finished. “Do you understand?”
Will finally hung his head as the flames closed again.
Zack was still covering for me, because he knew a little of what I was doing, and Magenta was going along with him. Ethan was being brutally practical, Layla her usually compassionate self… But Will’s defense of me in the face of my actions nearly moved me to tears, and I swallowed a lump in my throat. I didn’t deserve that kind of loyalty, not with how I was basically using his good nature, manipulating him to get the result I wanted. Even if it was for a good cause.
“Why? Why are you doing this?” the gray woman demanded. The flames raged around us, touching neither.
“I’m freeing them,” I said, talking quietly, not meeting her shadowed eyes. “I’m stopping this place from making any more villains.”
“At least three people have died as a direct result of trying to infiltrate the academy. That’s not counting those that have died from those with academy training, or those that have washed out of the academy and needed to be silenced,” she said pitilessly.
“So someone needs to stop it now!” I yelled.
“Why you? Why this way?” she asked quietly.
“Why not me?” I demanded. “I’m a hero, and someone has to stop them. This way some of them actually get a chance to get free.”
“This doesn’t have to be your fight. You risk the most by being here.”
“She’s proving herself. I had to before, and she needs to now,” I said, staring right through her veil, trying to see into her eyes.
“What if she’s too damaged to save? What if all you’re doing is in vain?”
“It’s not! I can do this!” I nearly screamed at her.
“Warren!” I heard someone calling me, someone not in the dream.
“We’ll talk about this tomorrow,” the gray lady said firmly, and blackness closed in around me.
“Warren!” This time I opened my eyes, and I could see Monica shaking my shoulder. I was awake again, for real this time.
“…What?” I asked groggily.
“There’s someone at the door asking for you. By name,” she said pointedly. That cleared the cobwebs immediately. I had been walking around the academy without a mask, but I hadn’t given them my real name yet. I stumbled upright, running my hand through my hair.
“Let ‘em in,” I said. Best to keep this contained if we had to do something drastic…
My heart dropped when I considered exactly what that might be.
Monica waved in a burly young guy, pale-eyed and painfully blonde, his hair cut short, with trembling hands and dark circles under his eyes. He only wore a tank top and jeans, so it was easy to see the multitude of scars all over his arms.
“Warren, thank God it’s really you,” he said. “I didn’t think they’d actually send anyone, not after what happened to the others.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Monica demanded. The guy stared over at her frankly.
“Warren is a good superhero, and he wouldn’t be here without a plan. Right?” he asked plaintively.
“Who the hell are you?” I asked harshly.
“Warren it’s…” he paused. “Please tell me you have a plan.”
“…Yeah,” I said hesitantly.
A half-baked plan engineered by a reformed supervillain with more potential pitfalls than a poorly constructed computer game, but hey, beggars can’t be choosers. And I’m not going to tell you specifics, even if you do know my name and aren’t scared of Monica.
“It’s, I’m-.” The guy shuddered all over, his teeth chattering together.
“This is Dallas, he’s a medium. He traps other psychics when they use their powers, but his own abilities were so unreliable he’s been stuck on duty here as a teaching assistant and living punching bag for years,” Monica said flatly.
“That’s what made him perfect. We knew no one counted on him, and because of what he was, no one would notice anything strange about him,” Dallas said.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” Monica asked, raising her bladed hand slightly.
“Please! Don’t do that, please, we’re just trying to help, we thought we were stuck!” he insisted.We? Has this guy just gone bonkers?
“Start talking,” Monica insisted.
“Warren, I know you can’t really tell, but it’s Elise and Tracy from Sky High,” he said. “We’ve been stuck here for years. Please tell me you have a plan.”
Monica and I just looked at each other incredulously.What the fuck is going on?