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War and Peace In Mind, Chapter 45: Blood and Bones
Sky High
Drama/Sci-Fi

Author's Note: The "rules" for Blood and Bones I borrowed from the book Madatora by Steve Perry (which is about midway through the excellent Matador series, though all books are at least R rated sci-fi, just to employ all necessary disclaimers).


Blood and Bones

 

“Everyone’s expected to be there unless you’re laid up in the infirmary or out on assignment. We have to go,” she repeated more urgently.

“Blood and Bones?” I asked.

“Yes,” she answered shortly, tossing me the bag that held my helmet and gauntlets and shouldering her own bundled costume. “The matches go to blood and bones. Until blood flows or somebody breaks something,” she explained. “Not everyone fights every day, but if you keep avoiding volunteering, someone will call you out, and it’s never pretty.”

We threaded our way back through the halls, more crowded as we got closer and closer to the gym, everyone either garbed in their costumes or carrying them close at hand. The costumes were either extremely garish or terribly dark, pushing the edges of decency in all directions.

This was completely different from going to the gym this morning. Then the halls had been empty and fights echoed around us. Now the halls thronged with people, and everyone’s attention was focused on getting to their destination. As we broke through the crowd into the enormous gym, I could see the cage floor lit up brightly and the tiers of seats filling fast.

The crowd was rowdy, a big switch from everything I had seen so far. People were talking loudly over some kind of thumping music, so distorted by the echoes and noise I couldn’t even make out the melody, let alone the lyrics. No one had painted their chests or made signs, but the whole set-up reminded me more of a professional wrestling match than the Save the Citizen floor at school. Or maybe more like ultimate cage fighting, more chance for serious injuries.

The tiers were packed, though Monica, now in her black, tent-like Painbreaker costume, easily found seats for us. I spied Dallas, Bruin, Cutter, and Viper, along with some of the others I had healed last night, scattered through the crowd. Little cliques were fairly obvious; people banding together from different villain-teams and pairs for sole purpose of intimidating anyone that might be “playing” today.

The cage floor was quite a bit different than the one at Sky High. Most obviously, it lacked the grinder in the middle of the floor. All the usual obstacles were there, dumpster, park bench, mailbox, street lamp, and all the others, but no grinder, no citizen dummy, no mannequins of any kind.

It made me realize that the citizen didn’t matter. The villains were just practicing beating up the heroes by beating up each other. Other people didn’t matter. Citizens didn’t matter. Only winning mattered.

I kept my jaw clamped shut as I slowly surveyed the crowd. The fights in the halls were supposed to hurt any potential opponent, and there were plenty of people who were guarding sore arms or legs, bruised or broken ribs, or who had their costumes tugged to one side to hide bruising or bandages. Flickers of wrongness from the people nearest me swam through my consciousness; it was like a cloud of gnats around my head. Combined with the loud music and constant chatter, it was wearing me down.

Monica only stared stonily ahead, still as a statue, not reacting to any of the antics of the students and villains. The raucousness of the crowd was a big switch from the fear-filled mostly-silent faces of the majority of the people I’d seen here so far. But it wasn’t the kind of anticipation that usually came before a good match or even a good fight; what I was seeing on these kid’s faces was a lot darker than that.

A few minutes later the ref appeared on the floor, dressed in a tough-looking mechanical suit; he was incongruously swinging a whistle round and round. Idly I wondered how he was supposed to blow it through his visor.

He turned his head to stare all around the cage, his blank visor seeming to glare at one person after another.

“Who is that?” I murmured.

“It’s one of the teachers. They change it each time. That’s why they wear the suit. It’s for anonymity.”

The ref finally pointed into the crowd, at whom I couldn’t exactly tell, and the crowd began to scream.

“First up, Flamewing versus Saurian Lord!” he shouted, his voice booming through hidden speakers. The crowd took up chants of their names, dividing up into factions to cheer on their chosen combatants. It didn’t surprise me when some people started to circulate through the crowd around me, taking money for bets.

From opposite ends of the cage, the two chosen fighters entered. Flamewing proved to be Ash, his garish orange costume now repaired, and looking none the worse for his crushed arm last night. Probably picked him to see if I actually did my job or not, I thought cynically.

Saurian strolled out in his ridiculous barbarian getup, flanked by two mechanical velociraptors, their claws gleaming with razor-edged metal.

Ash clasped his hands in front of him, took a deep breath, and quickly struck his wrists together several times, like striking a match, sparks flying high each time. Finally his arms caught on fire, and he flung them wide with a yell of triumph. Fiery wings with a nearly thirty-foot span now engulfed his arms, the heat palpable even to me.

That’s a fucking cool power… I thought with a hint of envy.

The two robots by Saurian Lord crouched, chattering their teeth and grinding their claws on the floor. Saurian Lord drew a huge machete from his belt, and screamed back at Ash in a wordless howl of challenge.

“Blood and Bones!” the ref thundered, and sounded the whistle.

“Blood and Booooooooooooooones!” the crowd howled back. Everyone, down to the most timid henchman, even Dallas, even Monica, started screaming for carnage.

Ash leapt for the top of the cage, his wings sweeping waves of heat and sparks over the crowd. Saurian Lord’s velociraptors began to leap to incredible heights, snapping at Ash’s feet from different angles. The game became clear; Ash’s wings could easily melt vital components in the robots, or could badly hurt Saurian Lord, but Ash had to guard himself from three opponents at once every time he tried to close to combat distance.

Ash flew in between all three with incredible agility, dodging the sharp claws or machete blows with barely a hair’s width to spare, even managing to get the two robots to smash into each other one time. But Saurian Lord wasn’t going to accept that kind of humiliation lying down, and while one robot kept Ash flying backward while leaping and biting at his face, the second was climbing up the cage behind him. Everyone was screaming at him, the dinosaurs, the ref, and each other in a frenzy, and the sound was deafening.

I could see the end of the fight coming, and it wasn’t going to be pretty. The second robot would smash down on Ash’s back, bear him to the ground and rip into him… Somehow Ash managed to hear a warning through all the incredible noise, and twisted just as the robot above him jumped. He swept his wings upward, and then down together in a hammering blow, slamming the leaping robot into the one on the floor and sending both of them crashing into Saurian Lord.

He couldn’t even react in time, and hundreds of pounds of metal slammed right on top of him. There was a sickening crunch, and I actually saw his thigh bend in a way nature hadn’t intended.

“Boooooooooooooones!” the crowd screamed and Ash landed in triumph, arcing his fiery wings in a victory cheer as other students hauled Saurian Lord away.

“Damn… I need to get to him,” I said, right at Monica’s ear. Villain or no, a break like that could sever arteries, and he could be bleeding out right now. I wasn’t going to let anyone die on my watch, not if I could help it. The academy would probably be mega pissed if he died while I was here.

“Stay. You move now and you won’t get far. No one leaves Blood and Bones until dismissed,” she hissed. I tried to strain to see where Saurian Lord had been hauled, but outside the range of the lights, everything was lost in shadow.

“He could be dying,” I protested. Wasn’t that the whole reason they had wanted me in the first place?

“It’s not as bad as it looks,” Monica insisted. I hesitated; Monica’s ability to sense pain had a much longer range than my ability to detect injury. However, some injuries that didn’t hurt that much could still have deadly consequences if left untreated. Monica seemed to sense my restlessness, and grabbed onto my arm to keep me there.

“Stay and watch. Do not leave,” she said, in a tone that brooked no argument. Under the eyes of hundreds of academy members, I couldn’t disobey, and turned back to the cage floor with ill grace.

Most of the other fights weren’t so nearly well matched. Most of them were over in seconds, when one punch would split someone’s lip or bloody someone’s nose, and it’d be off to the next one. Sometimes they were clearly cathartic for one of the fighters, fists or powers flying in fierce rage to pummel their opponent nearly senseless. No one called for me, even thought I could feel eyes on me from every angle. I knew some of those people were in intense pain, because Monica was running a color commentary next to me, but I was suddenly glad I wasn’t being asked to perform in public. With the noise and distractions, I didn’t think I’d be able to do it right.

“Broke his nose there, jaw will be sore, definitely going to lose some teeth, ah, he’s going to lose that thumbnail, no doubt there,” she would say. Nothing life threatening, possibly other than Saurian Lord’s leg, but some of those people were so scared, even if they were hiding it, that they couldn’t even strike back properly. Some people found this cathartic, but others were finding it pure hell.

Others who fought were clearly of those “reject” variety Monica had talked about. Some people’s powers fizzled when they tried to use them, shifting only halfway or even less, energy powers that hurt their user when activated, unusual strength or resiliency that seemed to ebb and flow unpredictably. The crowd jeered at them, rattling the cage and screaming insults when they had to resort to normal fisticuffs. Some of those fights were the most brutal, as people tried to take out their frustrations on their sparring partners.

The fights must have gone on for almost an hour, and the ref, his mechanical suit now slightly spattered in blood, was scanning the crowd again, looking for his next pair of fighters. Seemingly by accident, his visor locked on me.

“Phoenix!” he called, and the incredible sound suddenly went silent as everyone turned to look at me. “And… Cowboy Jack!”

The screams resumed as Monica gave me a discrete nudge and I numbly made my way to the floor, alone. Being called out for Save the Citizen in school hadn’t made me feel this way. People rarely did it; Lash had only done it that one time out of a sense of mischief, and people rarely called me out after Will and I started working as a team, because we were hard to beat.

I entered my side of the cage, wanting to get this over with as soon as possible. It bugged me beyond all measure that no one had come to get me for Saurian Lord during all of this time; he could be seriously damaged, and the sooner I got to him the better. No one else had been hurt that bad; bruised faces or limbs, cracked ribs, but nothing like a broken femur. I had to be fast, I had to trick Jack into closing so I could finish this quickly…

Cowboy Jack, Quint’s supervillain, was strolling down through the crowd on the opposite side to enthusiastic cheers. He was wearing what looked like a full-on cowboy outfit made from biker leather, with a silver wire lasso coiled around his shoulder and chest.

“Where’s mah hoss?” he demanded loudly as he entered the floor. A subdued Quint entered a minute later, looking miserable and awkward in his similar costume, cut almost to look more like bondage gear than working cowboy clothes.

“Phoenix, go easy on mah hoss, I got doings later tonight,” he drawled, uncoiling his lasso and whirling it around his head in a show for the crowd. I could see arcs of electricity snapping from it as he spun it, and then coiled it back over his chest, keeping it right at hand. That costume of his, over the top as it was, would insulate him from his own weapon. And even if he couldn’t zap me with it, all he’d have to do was rope me and have Quint trample me… Not necessarily easy to avoid that.

If I’d been fighting them on the street in a normal hero/villain situation, I would have gone after Quint, or rather Nightsteed, first. One of the first things I’d learned once in the real world was that someone who was cut off from his transportation was twice as easy to defeat. I’d just never had to think about a horse as transportation before. And right now, I couldn’t. It wasn’t fair that this fight was two against one, but I didn’t have a choice.

Don’t hit Quint, don’t give him any reason to doubt you, don’t hit Quint, I repeated mentally, and let the fire flare along my hands and arms in my own display. Jack frowned just a little bit, and turned to snap his fingers at Quint.

Quint’s whole body rippled and then shifted, rearing up as a huge, nightmare-black stallion, his hide striped with old scars. Jack gestured imperiously and a couple of younger students ran in with a saddle and bridle, strapping them on with the speed and ease of long practice.

God, that must be humiliating, I realized. Magenta flatly hated anyone treating her like an animal when she was shifted; though she let Zack, and only Zack, pet her. For Quint, to have someone strap all that stuff like he was just a normal, unintelligent animal… No wonder he had seemed so eager at the possibility of getting back at Jack.

Jack swung up on the saddle and hauled on the reins, and Nightsteed reared, screaming. The crowd answered back with the ref, “Blood and Boooooooones!”

I didn’t give Jack any more time for theatrics, and opened up with fireball after fireball, scorching the air and illuminating the place in hellish red light. All of my hits were high, and Jack’s eyes went wide as he spurred Nightsteed out of the way of the barrage, deflecting the ones that connected by way of his protected arms. He kept Nightsteed going, jumping over the obstacles as he went, giving me no more easy shots.

I deliberately stopped the fire and crouched, ducking behind a mailbox. The academy way was to attack, attack, and attack, until your opponent got hurt in some way. Even if you used cover or deception, people still attacked, they had to in order to end the game. But I wasn’t here to hurt anyone; everyone knew that, and Jack probably wanted to take advantage of it. He wanted the chance to beat up on a superhero without consequences.

My first volley of fire was to make Jack be wary of me. I wanted him to respect what I could do. And I wanted Quint to know I wasn’t going to go after him, no matter what. He had to trust me, and no amount of words was going to convince him like actions would.

Jack took the opening, loosing his lasso and powering it up as he turned Nightsteed to run me down. The lasso crackled as Jack tossed it for me, the crowd screaming as I rolled to avoid it, the crackling wire just sparking along my back as I ducked behind a dumpster.

Damn he’s fast, I realized, avoiding getting roped at the last second. I’d never been to a rodeo, never seen anyone use a lasso outside of a movie, and hadn’t realized how quick someone could be with one. Nightsteed leapt over me, neighing, missing me by inches. He kicked as I was trying to somersault back, and caught me full in the chest, slamming me into the cage.

People were clutching onto the cage walls from the outside, and some of them tried to reach through to pin me to give Jack an easier shot. I powered up and slammed my hands back, scorching several hands and forcing them to let go. Jack had spurred Nightsteed around while I was getting free, and cast the lasso again. This time I had no chance to dodge, and it snapped around my ankle and jerked me to the ground.

I did the only obvious thing; I grabbed the lasso and yanked, not on the loop around me, but on the rope Jack was holding. With a startled yell, Jack was half out of the saddle, and a discrete buck from Nightsteed helped put him flat on the ground.

Furious, I hauled Jack to me like a fish on a line, and he didn’t seem to have the wit to let go of the damned rope! In a panic, he tried to brace himself on the obstacles, but I ruthlessly tore him free. The silver rope was in my hands as Jack tumbled at my feet, and Nightsteed pranced away from me. I could see his coat was wet with sweat, and his flanks were cut. Jack’s spurs had blood on them.

“Kill, kill, kill!” I heard people chant, the sound pounding on my ears relentlessly. Anger started to swell, unstoppable and volcanic. I could give them blood and bones, for everything they’d done, for everything he had done. The rope was in my hands; Jack wasn’t even wearing neck protection. I wouldn’t even need my powers.

“Kill, kill, kill!” The screams were nearly drilling themselves into my brain. A pounding like my own heart thudded in my ears, an insidious whisper hissing in my mind.

“Phoenix, kill, Phoenix, kill!”

Kill… So easy…

Nightsteed screamed, the sound cutting across the chanting, and the pounding stopped. It took an uncomfortable amount of self-control to avoid powering up, but instead I punched down as Jack tried to rise, catching him in the mouth and splitting his lip. Blood dripped as Jack slammed back to the floor.

“Blood!” the crowd howled. “Blood, blood, blood. Phoenix, Phoenix, blood, blood, blood!” My name and the screams for violence crashed together like waves in a surf, powerful and disorienting. It was so strange; it reminded me a little of my phans back in Maxville, calling my name. Like they were welcoming me…

Quint, shifted back to human, crossed over to Jack to help him up, looking up at me with veiled gratitude. I finally managed to look up at the crowd, and noticed some of the other faces of people I’d helped today. They were cheering with wild enthusiasm, mostly swallowed up by their neighbors, but a lot more sincere than the others.

“Class dismissed,” the ref said loudly, and the crowd quickly began to disperse. I saw Monica at the exit to the floor and crossed to her like I was sleepwalking. She pulled me away from the milling crowd, overhearing conversations about people going out for “work” or other mayhem. She shoved me into a storage closet, pushed me down on a box and shut the door.

The noise abruptly cut off, and I sat very still, taking off my helmet and letting my heart rate return to something approximating normal. Monica was silent, and I was grateful for the quiet and the chance to think. I hadn’t seen anything like that ever before. The pounding music, the shouts of the crowd, the vicious bloodsport with no consequences; it was easy to get lost in it, go along with the crowd, give into it. With all the pressure the academy students were under, Blood and Bones was a huge emotional release, if only vicariously. It was both a reason for them to stay and reason for them to want to run. And it was a release for their unpredictable powers too. No wonder they had been chanting for me; if I had killed Jack (something that had been closer than I wanted to admit), the academy would have had it on video as proof that I had turned.

But now those people in the crowd, the ones I had helped and was going to, they now knew I wasn’t bullshitting when I said I wasn’t going to hurt them, even under extreme provocation. Quint was the only one who had actually done me any damage, and the only one that had hurt him was Jack. I’d proved I was still a hero, at least to them. They hadn’t known what was going on in my head.

They believed me now, and with all the other people I’d be talking to, I was going to practically have my own little army. It felt like playing with fire, because eventually they’d all be ready to go on my command. All of them, dozens, possibly even a hundred people or more.

I could actually help change them for the better, instead of just rescue them. Hell, if I wanted to, I could help them all escape every vestige of academy retribution and Bureau suspicion. I could even lead them, and bring my friends along to help. I could make a totally new kind of super organization, without the crazy cruelty of the academy or the insistence on perfection and total dedication of the Bureau.

There were a lot of imperfect superbeings, like Meduka and others like him, which the Bureau overlooked on principle. If the Bureau heroes couldn’t win, they really didn’t want them, and didn’t make an effort to look for them. The Bureau was concerned about image; they wouldn’t want it known they had someone like Monica in their ranks, with powers commonly associated with villainy. The Bureau wouldn’t care to rehabilitate academy rejects; they’d dismiss them, cast them aside at worst, or make them prove themselves over and over at best. Why would they put the kind of effort I had into helping Monica into other such long shots?

It’d be easy to convince the gang to help. Hadn’t Layla said more than once that she’d like the leeway to do things more her own way? The Bureau had improved a lot since Royal Pain’s attack on Sky High, but Layla still found a lot of “archaic attitudes” that she resented. Hadn’t Will sometimes complained he was tired of getting yanked away from the group to tend to things half a planet away?

I could convince them. Layla would fall all over herself to show the Bureau that people they had rejected could be as useful as any “normal” hero. Zack, Ethan, and Magenta would be happy to score some points for the sidekicks of the world. Hell, we could even take people on preemptive missions against known villains. The former minions would know all the expected safe houses and lairs. We could run things our way, the way they should be run. It’d be easy. Once I’d gotten to the technopaths, they probably wouldn’t mind helping out during the inevitable confrontation. They could target some of the mega rays on the worst villains-.

What the fuck am I thinking? I snapped myself out of my twisted little daydream with a start, reviewing it under more critical mental eyes and not liking what I saw. Where the hell had those ideas come from? Plots to make my own group, agitating against the Bureau, magnifying its faults all out of proportion, thinking about casually mowing people down without warning… Wanting to take things over so I could do things my way. That had been my dad’s plan, what had driven him to villainy in the first place.

Someone was messing with my head.

“Warren, you just went as white as a sheet,” Monica said, dropping down on her heels in front of me to look me in the face, tugging off her own mask. “What’s wrong? I thought you did beautifully in the game, those guys won’t doubt you now-.”

“Which psychic is on duty now?” I asked urgently.

“Let me think… Brainshock just got off shift, so Mindmelt is on right now. What happened?”

Slowly, haltingly, I began to lay out what had been going on in my head, both on the cage floor and just a few minutes ago. I had been so very, very close to strangling Jack to death I didn’t want to think about it. And right now I had almost talked myself into a whole different plan that could have been a total disaster for everyone involved, something that would have destroyed everything.

“That isn’t you Warren,” she said softly, reaching up to trace her hand through my hair. “I think you’re right, the psychics are trying to get to you. They don’t like to leave things to chance. But you know that now.”

“And knowing is half the battle,” I muttered. Monica smiled, and pulled me into a soft kiss.

“Thanks for telling me,” she whispered. “And if you have any more urges for world domination, just let me know and I’ll help snap you out of them.”

I cracked a smile at that and kissed her back, lingering for a long minute before reluctantly pulling away. Ok, so I might be going crazy. But I had help. Help was good. And I now knew I had to watch what I was thinking.

Yes, that should be marvelously easy… my brain commented brightly. I ignored it.

“I’ll do that,” I told her, and stood up. “Hey, I need to check on Saurian Lord. He didn’t look good at all,” I said, my thought kicking back into gear as my adrenaline ebbed.

“Well, he really should be fine,” Monica commented, opening the door for me and beginning to lead the way to the infirmary.

“A broken femur isn’t ‘fine,’” I pointed out. Monica was an EMT, she knew what I was talking about as well as I did. “You know that. Who’s been taking care of him for the last hour?”

“Nobody. No one’s in the infirmary this time of day-.”

“He’s been alone all this time? Dammit, he could have been bleeding to death!” I snarled, sprinting the last few corridors to the infirmary.

“Phoenix it’s not really that bad-,” Monica said behind me, her words cut off by the door when I slammed through it. Looking around, only one of the rooms was occupied, and I bulled open the door.

“Where’s the fire?” Saurian Lord demanded, his cheerful voice bright with a very fake Australian accent.

He was sitting on the bed, propped up into place with one leg… while the other was detached from his hip and lying across his lap. The empty hip socket gleamed with metal and plastic, and the broken femur, actually a bent metal rod, was visible through the open panel with which he was tinkering.

“Phoenix!” Monica said a bit sharply, walking through the door at a more sedate pace. “There was no need to rush. I told you it wasn’t that bad.”

“Heh, had no idea, did ‘e?” Saurian Lord said with a snicker, taking out a few tools to poke around inside the metal compartment.

“None. And since he does know what’s good for him, he won’t say anything to anyone else about it,” Monica agreed, giving me a sharp look. I grimaced, but nodded.

“Brady here is a technopath,” she explained.

“Lemme ‘splain it, iffen you don’t mind,” he said, still with good cheer. “Hand me that toolbox, would ya? I gotta put a whole new connector rod in ‘ere.”

Bemused to the extreme, I found the aforementioned toolbox and handed it over.

“Yeah, I’m a technopath. Not a very strong one mind you, not like our Fair Leader.” He snickered a bit when he said it, and pulled out a hammer and what looked like a chisel. “Best with connections, specifically mechanical-biological connections. I’m the best cyborg expert you’ll find, even amongst your precious Bureau.”

I had no answer to that, and he banged loudly on the leg for a few minutes, finally coming up with the bent rod. Examining it closely, he shook his head and dropped it in the toolbox, picking up the new rod before continuing with his story.

“Lost my legs in a car wreck several years back, up to the hips, and shattered my pelvis too. Docs said it was a bloody miracle I wasn’t dead, and I’d never leave a wheelchair as long as I lived. Matter of fact, some said I’d never leave a bed. I didn’t much care for that, clever lad like me, and so I sets my sights on doing something about it and sent out a few feelers.”

He carefully inserted the new rod, and took up several odd-looking tools to start tinkering with it.

“I was an engineer, a good one, and I knew someone at my company was making experimental nanites. Nanobots, cell-sized machines,” he clarified. “Royal Pain, bless her pointy little heart, somehow managed to get her hands on some. She brought them to me, and promised me I’d walk again, if I’d work for her. I says yes, I get injected…”

He trailed off for a moment as he finished fiddling with the tools and shut the cover on his leg. With an effort, he shoved it back into place. There was a faint hiss, and then I couldn’t even see where the seam was between his skin and the cyborged leg. Taking up his tools again, he popped open another panel on his opposite shin and stared at it fixedly.

“Made myself a new batch of legs, and then started making a whole lot else. I don’t have a lot of ranged control, not unless the nanobots are in my machines. And even then they can’t be beyond a certain size. Works with the ‘raptors, but not with the big ‘uns. You figured that out though.”

“Didn’t save you from Guardian,” I pointed out. Brady only smiled.

“Didn’t expect it to. That was just for show.” He looked at me expectantly, and I asked the necessary questions.

“So why did you let yourself get captured? Why didn’t you free Royal Pain?”

“Good questions. Ya see, the Headmaster, he’s a bit put out with her. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a mite grateful that she helped me out, but she dropped the ball, big time. She recruits some kids for the first few classes, me, Painbreaker, Cutter, Jack, and yeah, that’s fine. But she promises the Headmaster a bunch of little babies to raise. A big job, yeah, but once you get the kids learning, they’ll do what they’re told. Instead, she botches the whole damn thing, and instead of a bunch of easy infants, the Headmaster’s left with a school full of half-crazy intractable teens. He had to do a lot of work just to keep things moving along sweetly.

“So Pain’s got herself in the joint, totally bollixed this whole thing up, and the Headmaster’s about to let her know just out put out he really is. He got to talking, and thought up a plan. Let me and Skybolt get captured. With the right kind of mental implants, we could safely keep us knocked out for weeks, or at least until the prison took the worst of the guard dogs off us.

“After a big of a set time, we’d set off some little devices I had. These legs of mine are X-ray proof, and I can store a thing or two. One to stop the neutralizer field, another to wake us up, and a vial of something fun for Skybolt. Like PCP, but without the hallucinations, makes you stronger than an ox, enough to break through walls. ‘Course, you’d have to be crazy to use it; most people it’d burst their hearts. Only Skybolt’s nuts enough to take it, and damn if he didn’t survive it! I wish I could’a seen people’s faces,” he said, laughing.

“So… you got captured and broke out without her just to prove you could?” I asked incredulously.

“Yeah, I was neatly delivered hate mail. Right on her doorstep and didn’t do a thing to save her. Let her know who’s really in charge, and let the Bureau know they put us in jail at their own peril. For all they knew, I could’a smuggled a more powerful anti-neutralizer into Metroplex and freed everyone. Even your Pop.”

“Brady, don’t play with fire. That didn’t go so well for you this afternoon,” Monica cut in quickly. I was alternately flushing with rage and blanching with fear, and wasn’t sure if I even could talk. “Oh, that was a pretty decent monologue by the way,” she added.

Brady laughed and slapped the cover shut on his shin.

“Thank you, thank you, I’ve been working on that for weeks. Not often I get a captive hero to practice on. It’ll be better, of course, when I’m not doing it from a bed,” he said, leaping up from the table and grabbing his toolbox as he headed out the door. “Cheers!”

“That sure as hell explains a lot,” she muttered, once she heard Brady leave the infirmary.

“This place is unbelievable,” I muttered. The academy had sent Son of Silver as a timing test, and had been willing to let two of their own captured for the sole purpose of dissing Royal Pain in Metroplex.

“That’s putting it mildly. Come on, we’d better get you some food and sleep before you fall on your nose.”

Monica guided me back to our room, her arm around me as if supporting me. That wasn’t too far from the case. The emotional upheavals, the constant use of my powers, and the fight this evening had nearly wiped me out, and after Brady left, all my energy just evaporated. If anyone was watching us or had contemplated attacking us, I didn’t even notice. Monica had me in the room between one fuzzy period and the next, and the next thing I knew I was lying down. Coherence and energy trickled back slowly, and I eventually recovered enough to at least start taking my costume off. The sound of running water from the other room told me Monica had the shower.

I blinked once when I realized I was about to fall asleep in half of my costume, and then must have jumped half a foot when I felt Monica kneel on the bed behind me. Her arms slipped around my bare shoulder and waist, her skin cool and smooth. I wasn’t wearing a whole lot right now, and she definitely wasn’t wearing much more than me. I quickly grabbed both of her hands in one of mine and settled the rest of my discarded costume firmly in my lap.

“Warren…” she whispered, and I squeezed her hands gently.

“I want to,” I said, lifting her hands to my lips and kissing them, turning them over to kiss on the inside of her wrists too, softly as I could, before holding them tight again. She felt fantastic with all of her curves pressed against my naked back, her cool dark hair trailing over my shoulder, the dark walnut of her skin making me look pale. But I definitely wasn’t going to move my bunched up costume. No way in hell.

“I want to,” I repeated, and then added reluctantly, “But we shouldn’t.”

Monica relaxed against my back, putting her chin between the crook of my neck and shoulder.

“Are you trying to be chivalrous or practical?” she asked in a demanding tone.

“Yes,” I said, and sighed in frustration. She echoed me. “Look, someone is trying to mess with my head, and maybe yours too, just for the hell of it. I love you,” I said, turning to look her in the eyes.

“I love you and I want this, but I want to make sure that…” I groped for words. “That it’s me and you and not anything else. Does that make sense?”

Monica’s eyes searched my own, dark and shadowed, but her expression finally softened.

“If you weren’t so damned honest I think I’d be forced to hurt you,” she said finally. “And I hate it, but you’re right.”

“Once we’re out of here though…” I trailed off suggestively with a raised eyebrow, and she smirked.

“I’m going to find a very nice hotel room and lock you in with me for a day or a week,” she threatened.

“I’m going to sleep on the couch now,” I said quickly, before my imagination could run away with me. Monica trailed her hands off of my body, reluctantly, and let me up.

“I love you,” she said quietly as I started to bury myself under blankets on the couch. “And I can wait, I promise.”

I smiled at her, but couldn’t do much more than that. Any more and I’d end up breaking the promise I just made. I turned myself firmly towards the wall, burrowed down in the cushions, and tried to will myself into unconsciousness.


When I finally fell asleep, the gray lady was waiting for me. This time we were seemingly in a world of gray fog; no floors, no walls, just endless solid gray.

“It’s about time,” she said with a hint of impatience.

“Who or what are you?” I demanded fiercely. I didn’t know what this lady was. She could be a harmless dream or figment, an aspect of my subconscious, or a manifestation of Psion or one of the other psychics.

“Don’t you know me?” she asked, sounding oddly hurt. “I’d hoped you’d recognize me. I know you don’t know my costume, but surely you know about my dream powers.”

“Dream powers,” I stated, and my mind suddenly kick-started itself. I hadn’t recognized the gray lady last night, but I couldn’t help but realize what was going on now. Elise had inadvertently given me the clue. “You’re The Dreamer?”

“Very good Warren,” she said, nodding. “Yes, I’m your aunt.”

“How did… how do I know it’s really you?” I asked. It wouldn’t have been impossible to find out that The Dreamer was related to the Peacemaker, and by extension, to me. If this was some kind of elaborate mind-game, I wanted proof of who she was.

“Your real name is Warren Nathaniel Peace. You were born on Halloween night, twenty-one years ago, and I wasn’t there to see it. No one was. Your mother gave birth alone because we all felt she had betrayed us. Your healing power you discovered for the first time about five years ago, after your friend Zack Cramer fell from a wall into the moat in the Gauntlet at Sky High. You befriended and then fell in love with Monica Keller after meeting her at Medic-Co. And you have a cat named Trixie that you got at an animal shelter that Layla Evans volunteers at,” she said evenly.

It was Trixie that finally convinced me. No one knew I had that silly cat but my closest friends and family. Trixie never went outside the house, and I sure hadn’t ever entered her in any computer database that could have been hacked.

“It’s you,” I said. “How are you doing this?”

“My power has a very long reach. I can reach anyone anywhere in the world, but I must know who I’m looking for and approximately where they are. And they and I must be asleep when I use my abilities. It rather limits its usefulness for typical superhero work. But dream travel is one of the very rare powers. So rare that-.”

“It can’t be blocked by the academy shields,” I finished, remembering Elise’s comment.

“Exactly. And you’re related by blood to me, not to mention I’ve met you personally before. It makes finding you very easy.”

“When the hell did we meet?” I asked. “I don’t remember ever seeing you before!”

The Dreamer reached up and swept her veil aside. Underneath was the face of the female nurse that had been my advocate against Dr. Egret, the woman with the kind brown eyes.

“You!” I exclaimed, and then laughed weakly. “No wonder Egret didn’t think you could be objective about me.”

“Well, we’ve never met before, so I could hardly be trading on old family history, now could I? Coincidentally, the other man in the room was my brother, the Fearmaster. We’re worried about you Warren, that’s why I’ve come to meet you here.”

“Does my mom know? Can you tell her I’m ok?” I asked. Having Elise and Tracy here was one thing; they were allies, but couldn’t act openly. I had never dreamed of possibly having an open line to the outside while I was in here!

The Dreamer shook her head.

“Warren, I haven’t told anyone that I’m in contact with you. Things are moving now, and all actions have multiple repercussions at this point. I have something to show you,” she said, and reached forward to grab my hand.

The scene around us swirled, and we were suddenly planted solidly on clear air. We hovered above a room I recognized mostly from descriptions; the Bureau Council Chamber. Tiers of chairs and long desks ringed the room on three sides, while the fourth had a large floor and a long bench and table. The Bureau seal was set into the floor, and flags from many different nations hung on the wall behind the table.

The most important thing about it though was the fact that it was full. The Council was only called with decisions of dire import had to be made. Superheroes had a lot of latitude to do what they felt was right, but if there was a strong difference of opinion on something earth-shaking, the Council would be assembled so the heroes could present a united face to the world.

The Council had only met three times in my lifetime. One had technically happened just before, because it had been the occasion of my father’s trial, when they had stripped him of his superhero name and jailed him for the remainder of his natural life. Another had been the initial decision on how the handle the academy, which had forbidden heroes to take the fight to them, the thing I was trying to make them break right now. And this would make the third time.

At the long table sat all the regional directors, including Crimson Tempus, with Halo Star, the director of the entire Bureau, in the center. The tiers of seats around the floor were filled with superheroes, sidekicks, and super teams from all over, murmuring to each other. But it was the people on the floor that really drew my attention. On one side was the entire Battle family, Fire Court in front, with Emberkeeper, Tobias, in the middle.

On the other side were four other people, a motley crew in comparison to the harmonizing robes of state the Battle family sported. In the back was an older woman, over eighty, her long gray hair unbound to her knees. She was wearing a very hippyish outfit of a long skirt and peasant blouse, but she wore it like one would wear armor. The only man was wearing a ragged patchwork outfit, like a scarecrow, with a wide-brimmed hat that threw his face into hard-edged shadow. The third was The Dreamer, somehow down there on the floor and next to me in the air at the same time.

Dream logic, I thought to myself.

The fourth person was the Peacemaker, in full costume. The other two had to be The Fearmaster and the Heartsinger, my mom’s brother and mother. The relatives I’d never known.

“Holy shit,” I muttered.

“Warren, listen,” The Dreamer admonished, and suddenly I could hear Tobias speaking. “They’re talking about you. This Council was called because of you.”

“…Will not stand for this! This wishy-washy ambiguity about resolving this situation is just plain cowardice!” Tobias was saying forcefully to the directors. “Phoenix’s group, even your golden team of the Commander and Jetstream have been advocating for action instead of sitting on their hands.”

“I disagree,” Mom cut in smoothly. “The last time this Council assembled it was to agree that no frontal assault on the academy was to take place. The reports of their armaments, even fragmented as they are, indicate how formidable a task this would be. Two mega death rays, heat and freeze rays with enough wattage to even take you out, not to mention the equipment we didn’t get a chance to examine. The reason the Council decided against direct action five years ago is because it would be suicide! This atrocity is only the latest in a long line of such things meant to draw us into a conflict we cannot win.”

“This is your son,” Tobias interrupted sharply.

“I am very well aware of that Emberkeeper. And the fact that he’s your grandson as well has substantial bearing your emotional state and harsh words. I’ll overlook that for now. Phoenix would not thank us for throwing our lives away in an ill-conceived rescue attempt.”

“We can’t just leave him there!” Will said loudly, standing up from his seat in the first row. I could see all of the Champions of Justice now, sitting right behind him, while his parents were right next to him. His dad clamped a hand down on Will’s arm and tried to drag him back into his seat. Will tried to shrug him off, and the Commander exerted his strength to bring his son back under control.

Will resisted implacably, and then shrugged his dad off with no real effort. Muted gasps sounded around the room at that casual display of power, and I winced internally.

That was not a real good time to assert your dominance Guardian. You’re going to need your dad’s help, I thought. Council decisions were held by vote, and whatever Will wanted to do, he couldn’t be ignoring his own father.

Mom didn’t betray any reaction to the comment other than a calm and patient expression, but she couldn’t have liked that any more than I did, and probably for the same reasons.

“We’re not going to ‘leave him there’ Guardian,” Mom said calmly. “But this will have to be done delicately and with tact. Not just by charging blindly in.” She was looking at Tobias as she said it, and he bristled viciously, and opened his mouth for another verbal assault.

A pure note, like a songbird’s, pierced the atmosphere of growing hostility and tension, and everyone visibly relaxed.

“Let us think with clear heads and open hearts,” the Heartsinger said mellifluously. “Everyone is angry at the academy. This is one act of barbarism too far. Action will be taken; we simply need to determine how and when to keep casualties to a minimum.”

“Thank you Heartsinger,” Halo Star boomed into the quiet. “I think you speak for all of us.” The Director’s whitefire body (that way from an encounter with an alien meteor) glowed with approval.

Mom closed her eyes for five second, and all of the tension seemed to drain from her body.

“The academy has kidnapped my grandson,” Tobias began again, his tone more even. “It’s clear they are no longer content to snap up all the first generation children they can find and all the second or further they think they can get away with. Now they think they can take and subvert others at need. They are no longer content to kill us, maim us, injure or even slander us, no, now they want to corrupt us as well! This is a wholly new and unprecedented level of attack. We should not give them the time to break Phoenix further.

“From what we know of both Painbreaker and Judge Libra, the academy could have hardly chosen a better set of individuals to break his will.”

“Judge Libra had never show interest in the long-term effects of his powers on his victims. That leaves only Painbreaker. My son is strong; he will not break,” Mom said firmly.

“Anyone can break, you damn well know that Peacemaker. If you are too cowardly to want to stop this disgusting, taunting display of the academy’s supposed superiority, then my family is not bound by the dictates of this Council. We are independent, and we will take independent action if necessary. There are many here that would agree with me,” Tobias said, gesturing at the assembled heroes. A hundred muted conversations broke out at his speech.

“You came here just to stir up support because you know you’ll never be able to pull this off on your own. You know what kind of casualties this could inflict and you’re ready to go dive into deadly conflict just to salve you precious family pride!” Mom shot back, her back stiff with anger.

“And you refuse to fight for your own family for once, when this time the danger is obvious enough even for you to see. You’re just going to stick your head in the sand and hope everything works out for the best,” Tobias sneered.

“Warmonger!” the Peacemaker thundered.

“Pacifist!” Tobias roared back, and the floor and chamber erupted in chaos.

The gray fog swept in again, hiding everything from view, and I turned to the Dreamer frantically.

“What the hell? What happened next?” I asked frantically.

“Warren, I just wanted to show you what’s at stake here. They won’t be able to hold out for long. Emberkeeper is heading up a faction that is gaining strength. Most people are tired of waiting, and they’ll admit they want some kind of justice for the people hurt and things destroyed by the academy.

“Others follow the Peacemaker, and they believe her when she warns there will be heavy consequences for attacking now. She insists you have a plan. Do you?” the Dreamer asked.

“I… have a plan. Give me five more days. But then I’ll need everyone, every superhero we can spare, to dismantle this place,” I said with reluctance. Monica and I would need at least that much time to talk to as many people as we could. If I could survive five more days. That was problematic at this point, but I wasn’t going to tell the Dreamer that.

“And what about the lethal defenses?” she asked.

“We’ll take care of it,” I said sincerely.

“I’ll see what I can do,” she said, and began to fade out.

“Wait!” I cried. “Can you tell my mom I’m ok? Can you let my friends know what’s going on?”

“Warren,” she said, with a sad shake of her head. “It’s only a dream.”

“Wait!” I yelled as she faded faster and faster. “Wait!”


 

“Warren,” Monica said, shaking my shoulder hard as I opened my eyes. “It’s only a dream. Wake up.”

“Hell,” I said, blinking to get the sandpaper feel out of my eyes. “What?”

“You were having a pretty interesting dream. I felt like I was listening to one half of a telephone conversation. Are you all right?” she asked with concern.

“In almost no way,” I said groggily.

“That’s about normal for here,” she said, brushing her hand along my cheek. “Wake up Honeybear, there’s no rest for the wicked.”

My head screaming protest, I moved, my throat dry and head pounding from that whacked out dream/non-dream I’d had last night.

“Don’t call me honeybear,” I muttered. Monica only smiled.

It was time to start another day in the academy.


 

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