Author’s Note: I couldn't make this a songfic chapter, because it would have ruined the flow, my mental soundtrack for this included "Mad World," by Michael Andrews and Gary Jules, "The Pretender" by The Foo Fighters, and "What I've Done," by Linkin Park.
M is for Massacre
“Execute action M, battle positions! Execute action M, battle positions!” a harsh voice shouted over the alarms.
Monica and I turned as one, running from the infirmary and toward her rooms. We needed our costumes and hopefully had to attend to two last minute details. Around us the hallways were thick with people, but everyone was so focused on getting where they needed to be that no one had the time or inclination to do anything more than yell. By the time we fought our way clear to our corridor, nearly everyone was already gone.
“Action M?” I asked, as we rounded the last corner.
“M is for massacre,” Monica said flatly as we simultaneously skidded to a halt in front of our door. Through some miracle, the two people we needed to see were lurking nearby. One was Dallas, and the other was Allie, the reluctant spokesperson for “our” technopaths.
“What do you need?” Dallas demanded. Poor Allie just clutched her laptop and looked like she wanted to vanish. My mind had started running at hyperspeed, regardless of the stress and interrupted sleep, and I didn’t need any time to organize my thoughts.
“Stash him somewhere safe and then get out of here. Relay whatever you can as fast as you can; they’re going to need everything you can tell them,” I said rapidly. Dallas didn’t waste any more time than me.
“Workroom, that should be safe enough,” he said, and took off running. Elise and Tracy would park Dallas’ body in Monica’s “workroom,” and finally be able to get back to their own bodies and relay the information they’d been sent here to get. With any luck they’d be able to give the heroes some kind of edge… I hoped. They didn’t have much time.
Monica turned to Allie, talking right over me.
“Get the others, bring your gear and some cover and get near the front. We’re going to be up there, and we need you close if we’re going to be able to protect you,” she said.
Allie gulped, nodded, and vanished down the corridor. Less than a minute later, fully costumed and ready, Painbreaker and I left the academy.
The daylight was the first I’d seen in a week, and it seemed intolerably bright even through the lenses of my helmet. Pure morning light was spilling down over the mountain peaks, revealing the ranks of heroes set against the academy. The place was eerily silent, everyone waiting for people to get into position before a single word was exchanged. The sky was dotted with fliers, and the field glowed with the color of everyone’s costumes.
And right in the front rank of the heroes were the unified ranks of the Battle clan. Next to them was the Peacemaker, and I felt my heart clench when I saw her. Right behind her were the Champions of Justice, then classmates from Sky High, my old teachers, other heroes from around Maxville, people I had met in the Bureau… hundreds of them, arranged, at least to my eyes, in order of how well they knew me, and what claim they had to me. The ones with the best chance of killing me, if it came to that.
Monica and I were expected to spearhead the academy side, with Cutter’s Crew behind us. The other villains spread out on either side, ranged up the side of the mountains seemingly at random. They looked rather haphazard, but I knew it was because they’d left spaces in their ranks for the mega rays and deadly beam weapons to wreak havoc on the heroes. The villains were, I fervently hoped, going to be bitterly disappointed.
Cutter, pale and angry, glared at me as we passed, but it lacked heat. Son of Silver was unobtrusively propping her up, and Skybolt, Viper, and the already-shifted Bloodtalon and Bruin posed nearby.
“Remember what side you’re fighting on, both of you,” she said, eyes flashing death threats at us. “Rile them up, get them pissed off and coming straight at us.”
Monica nodded shortly and turned to leave, but Cutter wasn’t done yet.
“Bruin, you stay with them. If they try anything, kill them,” she added sharply. The grizzly bear snorted in agreement and lumbered toward the front with us. Cutter had one last word for him though. She leaned down and spoke quietly in his ear. I couldn’t hear what she said, but if a bear could go pale, that’s what Bruin did just then. Without another word, Bruin followed after us, practically nipping at our heels.
I had to keep from looking at the figure in white at the center of the superheroes’ line, and forced my attention back to Bruin to distract myself.
“Remember what I said?” I asked quietly. Bruin snorted at me, and I suddenly hoped I hadn’t made a fundamental mistake with him.
“Phoenix, you’re expected to strike the first blow, and to strike where it will hurt the most. If you don’t, things will go very badly for you,” Painbreaker’s distorted voice was conversational, but the words were more for the benefit of Cutter, or anyone else who was trying to eavesdrop.
“I’ve heard of a knife at my throat, but a bear?” I asked in return.
Bruin made another snorting sound that sounded suspiciously like a laugh. I felt a little of my stress ease.
“We’re here, ten feet in front of you. Don’t step on us,” Allie’s voice crackled over my com. Bruin paused briefly at the faint noise, but kept walking ever-so-casually around the apparently bare spot where the technopaths were seated. He ignored them, though he had to have smelled them. There were faint, almost imperceptible squeaks of anxiety and fear coming from my com, but no one broke cover… whatever cover they were under.
“Holographic camouflage blanket,” Monica whispered, in both explanation for me and understanding for them. “Nice work. You all ready?”
“Yes,” “Yeah,” “Affirmative,” came in a ragged chorus through the com channel.
“Once we jack into the system, we can’t move,” Allie warned me.
“We’ll keep you safe,” I promised. “We’ll do everything we can.”
“Thank you,” someone else whispered.
They had to be terrified, but they were drawing courage from the fact that today, they were going to be the most important people on the battlefield, just by using their laptops and powers. The technopaths didn’t need a wireless hotspot to connect with the network, or a cable, or a hub, or anything like that. They didn’t have to type in half their commands, they could think them, and they could network together by their powers alone. And if there were any glitches or problems, they’d know it immediately without having to bother with diagnostic programs.
Though the system was supposed to be set up so they couldn’t modify it without being at specific terminals… well, just try to tell a bunch of former hackers that there was an “unbreakable” system. It had been like waving a red flag at a bull, and all of them had found backdoors into the academy computers. They were more than ready to do their part.
The morning was silent, deathly quiet, as both sides went still in anticipation of the coming battle. You could have heard a pin drop as Mom stepped forward, her white dress glowing in the morning light.
“Phoenix, you have to come back now,” she said softly, though I’m sure everyone could hear her.
“I can’t. I won’t,” I called back more loudly, mentally adding “…Until this is done.” Could she tell what I was going to do? What would she say? No amount of mental visits was any kind of substitute for a face-to-face confrontation, and I knew she had to doubt everything she knew right now.
Painbreaker stood right at my elbow as I talked, one hand on my arm possessively. There were a few growls from the ranks of the heroes when they saw that, and I could feel Monica trembling.
“Peacemaker, we’ve agreed, if he won’t return voluntarily, then it’s our responsibility to stop him in any way necessary. Tell me now,” Emberkeeper said in a voice of doom. Tobias was taking my apparent defection very personally. If he got his hands on me before I’d had a chance to show my true colors, I was going to regret it.
Mom regarded me across the field, her face very still. I needed the academy to believe I was on their side until the last possible moment. Cutter had wanted me to get the heroes to charge their ranks, and not-so-coincidentally that’s what I needed too. To cause the maximum amount of chaos amongst the academy that would give the heroes the best chance to win, I couldn’t let Mom tell them that I was still on the side of right.
She’d kept my secrets so far, but in the face of my own death at the hands of my friends and fellow heroes, could she keep silent?
My head was crystal clear for the first time in a long time. Mom couldn’t read thoughts, but I was straining to tell her without words that I needed more time.
Just give me one more minute… I need one last trick. Help me pull the wool over their eyes. I can save them. We can do this together, I know it.
There was another moment of deadly silence, and then Mom did something I’d never heard her do before.
“Not you too,” she said in a carrying voice tinged with despair, a voice that could be heard easily in every corner of the battlefield. “Not my son too.”
There was a sudden spattering of hyena-like laughter from the academy villains when they saw the heroes’ faces drop into expressions of betrayal and fury. But they weren’t quite angry enough, not yet. And I had to find some way to get them really mad… I’d been playing with fire for over half my life, but this was the first time I thought I might get burned.
“Phoenix!” Will shouted, flying up over the lines and calling down to me from a lofty height. “You told me you never wanted to be like your dad. You don’t have to do this, please! ”
The pain in his voice sounded raw and agonizing, and the bottom dropped out of my stomach. Will had never been so good an actor that he could pull something like that off unless he thought I’d really turned… Could he? Was everything about to go wrong?
I couldn’t stop now though.
“Yes I do,” I snarled, and let fire engulf my arms.
“Please, you really didn’t think you could win, did you?” Cutter laughed at the heroes. “He’d helped more of us in a week than he has for you in three years. And he’s enjoyed it. You came here for nothing, you overbearing do-gooder fools. And now you’re going to DIE!”
Cutter’s scream, from the tense faces of the academy students, was supposed to signal all of the defenses and traps to deploy. Over the quiet of the battlefield there was a great grinding of gears, some ominous clunks, and black smoke began to pour from various places in the ground. With great unplanned timing, someone in the heroes’ ranks snickered.
Cutter went white, then red, and I chose to push it just the last little bit. Stay perfectly still, I prayed, and let my fire fly right at Mom’s feet. There was a simultaneous roar of triumph and outrage from the two sides, and everyone suddenly surged forward, gaining behind us and towards us. Time slowed for me as everything we’d been working for boiled down to a few crucial seconds.
Guardian was swooping down out of the sky at punishing speeds, with three other academy fliers on an intercept course. I let a few fireballs fly his way for good measure, and had the dubious satisfaction of hearing the shouts from the heroes get even louder. In the chaos no one would realize they hadn’t connected for a few seconds.
The Battle family had run past the Peacemaker even as Guardian flew closer and closer, and the supervillains were just behind me. Mom’s face was absolutely expressionless as the crowd swept past her, but Tobias was both furious and, I realized with a pang, nearly crying. Faster heroes began to pour around him, reacting to the tidal wave of villains at my back. Monica tightened her hands on my shoulders as the noise and tension built to a breaking point, and then finally let go.
Deliberately I turned my back on the heroes, to gasps of outrage, and opened fire on the supervillains that were nearly on top of us. Painbreaker’s power screamed alongside my fire, and what looked like black-edged flame washed over the Crew, stopping them dead in their tracks with searing, burning pain. That was the only way we’d figured to keep ourselves in one piece until we had the chaos of battle as our shield. And Son of Silver, mostly immune to my flame, wouldn’t leave Cutter’s side while she was in pain. It was a damn dirty trick, but we had to keep ourselves alive.
“Run!” we screamed, as other villains began to stream around the Crew.
All through the ranks of the villains, people began to peel off from the main group, causing holes in the ranks, leaving people open and gaping in shock, slowing their charge, and causing as much confusion as possible. Nightsteed bucked Cowboy Jack off his back, Voidhammer, the gravity manipulator, arced up into the sky, Waterborn splashed right into the ground…
It’s working, thank God, it’s actually working!
I was fully expecting them to disappear over the mountains, which would have been plenty of confusion right there, and all I dared hope for. Instead a good half of the rescued former villains suddenly turned back, and began tearing into the villains’ ranks! The heroes barely hesitated when that happened, and the two lines met with a deafening crash. I lost sight of Battle clan and the Champions of Justice almost immediately as the battle swirled around us, coming between the Crew and us. The heroes in the front ranks had pulled their attacks on Painbreaker and me, and I nearly felt faint with relief as they dodged around us to go after the villains bearing down on them.
Then the villains were on top of us, and I didn’t have any more time to think.
Next to us, Bruin let out an ear-shattering roar and swiped at the first villain to try to breach our circle. I’d been concentrating so hard on the battlefield as a whole that I hadn’t even realized he had stayed. I definitely noticed him now as someone in electric blue went flying backwards into two others, blood flying from claw slashes.
Christ, he’s going to slaughter somebody…
“Bruin!” I yelled, “Try not to fucking kill anyone!”
I only got a frantic snort in reply as others pressed in, determined to see us dead. And just as determinedly, other heroes weren’t going to just let them go past without some trouble.
It was all Monica, Bruin, and I could do to just keep the fighting from overwhelming our little patch of ground that sheltered the technopaths. They’d already done a fantastic job of taking out the weapons, but the other technopaths and the Headmaster would be frantically trying to bring them back on-line. This was where the technopaths’ powers, even as subtle as they were, were beyond price, even more so than the titanic powers surging all around them.
The noise and chaos around us were incredible, and while we had been on the front line, now we were more in the middle, as groups of heroes and villains were being driven back and forth all over the battlefield. The supervillains had begun to realize that not only had they been betrayed by their own, but that they weren’t going to win this one. The heroes were no longer isolated by clever academy planning, and without the academy’s home court advantage of their weapons, for once the villains were having to fight straight-up, with no possibility of being able to run back “home.”
I saw some people try though, dashing for the hidden academy doors, only to find them locked, from the inside, and too strongly for nine-tenths of the academy to force open. Coldly, the Headmaster was forcing them to fight, pawns in his own personal plot of revenge. Royal Pain’s revenge. I had a sudden inkling of an idea, but couldn’t stop to ponder it now. Villains that found the doors locked were now fighting with the tenacity of cornered rats: vicious, brutal, and chaotic.
The heroes were not going to be gentle with the academy either; there were too many people with personal grudges, and just as many with scores to settle on the behalf of others. And the supervillains had little to lose now. They had two choices now, kick free of the battle and run for their lives, hoping no one would follow, or try to take as many people down with them when they fell. With most of the academy villains primed for hyper-violence, we just had to make sure that didn’t happen.
Oh yes, just have to make sure to keep the whole academy from going Grade-A psycho. That ought to be a cinch! my brain snarked.
The battle raged all around us; I saw the unending volley of flame from Fire Court hammering tougher villains ahead of us, swirls of colds from Winter Court icing down those with speed or fire powers, and Tesla was spearing whatever hostile flyers she could with electricity. Two villains in high-tech suits were dodging her attacks with skill and returning fire with bullets and bombs. Sonic Boom’s voice was thundering from somewhere, and I saw Comet arcing above everyone before striking to earth somewhere in the back.
I saw The Commander taking on five super-strong villains at once, while Jetstream was harrying another flyer glowing with red energy. Guardian was everywhere, hammering flyers, aiding belabored superheroes, and rescuing others. The academy was taking its toll, though. Waves of energy, poisonous green and purple, rippled across the battlefield, sending people to their knees. Explosions sent people flying, hero and villain alike, and smaller rays and beams were criss-crossing the battlefield with little regard for anyone in their path. Screams and cries of pain were as thick as taunts and quips, and spikes of wrongness kept distracting me.
The battle was chaotic enough that I didn’t see a hurling ball of fangs and claws leaping toward me until it was nearly on top of me. I recognized a villainous shapeshifter called Talon about a half second before he was going to rip my head off. I ducked futilely as a scream of defiance sounded behind me. Something huge and black leapt over my head and slammed into Talon, forcing him back with a half-ton of muscle and sharp hooves.
Nightsteed reared, lashing out again as Talon ducked, and I saw Monica’s power arc over the stallion to hit the shapeshifter. I didn’t have time to be surprised at Nightsteed’s rescue as Talon screamed, and I could see him gathering himself for another leap. Time slowed again as I hurled fire at him, only to see him plucked from the ground by an invisible force and go flying over the battlefield.
“Bad cat!” I heard someone yell above me. I twisted upward to see Voidhammer hovering above our heads, her hands pointing at Talon.
“Nice save- Behind you!” I shouted, seeing Flamewing come diving out of the sky nearly on top of her. Voidhammer hurled herself toward the ground as he missed her by inches… deliberately shielding her from Hail’s ice lances. Flamewing turned and slashed his fiery wings at Hail, forcing her to ground- where Meduka (Meduka?!) was waiting to punch her out. Hail was lost in the chaos as Meduka closed in our little circle, while Flamewing and Voidhammer were hovering above.
“What the hell are you doing here?” I demanded. I hadn’t even talked to him or Flamewing about going against the academy…
“I like to be on the winning side!” he yelled over the din, and ducked a flying rock.
He and Flamewing defected… they didn’t turn, they motherfucking defected! Holy-, I thought.
“You know what you’ve gotten yourself into?” I asked. Meduka only shook his head.
“Not really, but we really don’t want to die.”
Fuck… There wasn’t enough time to do this right, not enough time to ask them the questions I needed to. But Meduka seemed sincere, even amidst all the chaos, and we needed help defending the technopaths.
“Look, try not to kill or maim anyone unless you have to. Defend them,” I said quickly, nodding to the concealed technopaths, before turning to hurl more fire at an incoming attacker. Cursing, the villain broke off his attack as I heard a distinct hissing from Meduka. Looking back, I saw he had taken the bands off of his “hair,” and his head was now wreathed with over a dozen deadly-looking snakes.
“Defend who?” he was asking.
“No one touches that part of the ground. It’s the technopaths, they’re keeping the weapons’ systems down,” I said quickly. Meduka nodded once.
“Nobody get within arm’s reach of me,” he warned, and turned to cover another part of the circle.
For long minutes there was nothing but noise, violence, and blood as five former supervillains and I tried to fight off the press of academy villains. I had desperately hoped, when I had played this scenario over in my head, that we’d end up behind the heroes’ lines or at least with the Champions. But instead we were in the thick of academy villains and grudge-minded heroes, and we couldn’t spare even a second to get somewhere less dangerous.
“There’s a ball of vines coming this way!” Flamewing called, and relief washed over me even as I heard a roar and crunch from Bruin’s section of the circle.
“Let it through!” I yelled back. No one at the academy had plant powers, so it had to be Rose Queen. Had to be…
A massive sphere of greenery nearly rolled over Meduka, unspooling to reveal Rose Queen, Brilliance, Violet Cavey, and Viscosity. All three of the latter had various rays out and were pointing them threateningly at Painbreaker, Bruin, and Meduka.
“No! Hang on, they’re on our side,” I said quickly.
“Phoenix, what’s going on?” Rose Queen demanded.
“They defected, they’re helping- Don’t step there!” I said, stopping Layla before she could step on the technopaths.
Rose Queen gave a quiet “eep” when one of the technopaths lifted up their cover blanket just enough to let her know who was under there.
“They’re keeping the weapon systems down,” I finished. Something exploded above our heads, and Voidhammer screamed. We looked up just in time to see something large and dark go hurling sideways at a high rate of speed.
“Sorry!” Voidhammer called.
“Eyes up, we still have incoming!” Painbreaker barked at the others. “Nightsteed, eleven o’clock!”
The black stallion reared and lashed out at someone, and I could see the Champions staring at me, incredulous looks on their faces.
“Warren, what the hell have you been doing?” Violet Cavey said, so surprised she forgot to use my codename.
“We’re losing it! He’s trying multiple individual overrides at once,” Allie said sharply, and all the other technopaths started yelling right on top of each other.
“That’s supposed to be impossible! Compensating-.”
“We’re not fast enough, I have activation-.”
“Duck, duck!” someone shrieked.
Everyone in my immediate vicinity flattened themselves to the ground as a painfully bright light flashed above our heads.
“Shit, shit, that was heat ray!” one of the technopaths said, his voice on the edge of panic. Screams erupted from the far side of the battlefield, and I felt my stomach plunge in sick fear.
“The Headmaster is in the system, he has the override codes,” I explained through nausea. “How long do we have?”
“We can shut them down as he brings them up, but he’s going for the master override… Less than fifteen minutes. You have to get to him!” Allie said.
“Screw this, I didn’t sign up to die!” another one of the technopaths said, his courage cracking under the strain, and started to surge to his feet under the camouflage blanket. Painbreaker reacted instantly, hauling back down to a sitting position and getting right in his face.
“Listen Eric, you have your choice between certain death on the battlefield, because you do not have the strength to run through his holocaust on your own, or only possible death right here. Hack the damn system, keep these weapons down, and you just might live through this. You’ll finally get free. Do you understand me?” she demanded.
There was a single moment of deathly silence as Eric thought it over. And then he abruptly hauled the camouflage blanket back down over his head. I didn’t have time to add any word of encouragement; every second we wasted was another the Headmaster could use to activate more of those weapons.
“Where the hell is the Headmaster?” I demanded.
“Central Control Room!” Allie shouted frantically, too focused to let fear affect her.
I’d passed that room literally hundreds of times this week; it was right on the way to Monica’s workroom, and she’d pointed it out the first day. Not that I’d been able to do anything about it until now.
“He’s got partial defenses up. We have the other half jammed; he’s got more important things to think about now,” Allie added.
“Where is he?” Rose Queen asked. When I realized exactly where we had to go to get to the Headmaster, I started to smile. Nastily.
“The Headmaster,” I explained quickly, eyes peeled for further trouble, “is in a heavily shielded control room in the middle of a maze of trapped corridors on the other side of the battlefield.”
“He’s in the middle of the Gauntlet,” Viscosity breathed, getting it immediately.
“Hoo-rah!” Brilliance yelled in triumph, and then yelped when a stray blast of fire nearly toasted his shoes. I saw Flamewing strafe someone just off to my right, and heard a loud neigh from Nightsteed as he kicked someone else back from our protected circle. Black pain energy followed, and a scream faded as someone retreated rather than dare that again.
“Go!” Painbreaker thundered. “You’re better at this than us. We’ll hold here.”
She’d be exposed to the weapons if we made any more mistakes… but I didn’t have time to argue. She knew what the other ex-villains could do better than me, and they’d obey her out of torture-trained habit, at the very least. And she’d never forgive me if I tried to save her and lost everybody else to the academy. I trusted her to be the hero.
“Move!” I roared to the Champions, seeing the thick of the battle swing back toward us. We started threading our way through the battle, Voidhammer clearing us a corridor for as long as we were in her range.
“Guardian, Guardian,” Rose Queen called into her com. “The Headmaster is in the Gauntlet, we have to get to him. Please help us thread the maze!”
“Threading the maze” Guardian-style involved a lot of broken walls, but it would be the fastest way in.
“Busy!” Guardian panted, his voice crackling over the rest of our communicators. “Lots of- yeow! flyers, lightning, fire up here. Jetstream took out Bloodtalon, still a lot of traffic, lots of lasers up here, be with you later! Cutter is-.” There was a loud crunch over the com. “-all over the place, people hurt, lots of them. Son of Silver is on the field, and he’s out for blood! I’ll be there soon as I can!”
Will was up there, doing the job of a dozen heroes all at once, trying to prevent anyone else from going down. He could take abuse no other hero could, and be there faster than anyone to help people out of tight spots. He could see the battlefield more clearly than anyone but another flyer, and he probably had a much better idea of how things were going, as a whole, than I did. And he knew he couldn’t leave, even to help us out, because he’d leave too many people in deadly danger. That was a hard choice, a hero’s choice, and something all of us understood.
But I’d do everything I could to make things either for him.
“Send Boomer after Son of Silver,” I said suddenly.
“What?” Guardian said incredulously. Sonic Boom wasn’t exactly the guy you’d think of to take down a superhero assassin.
“He’ll never hear him coming,” I insisted. If Silver got hurt, then at least Cutter would finally quit the field to get him out of trouble. With Cutter gone, the Crew would lose its remaining cohesion, and with them out of the way, the academy became less a team than a group of individuals. And those were a hell of a lot easier to defeat.
“Done,” Guardian said after a second. He had a secondary com to all the other heroes, because he was a leader. I didn’t, because I’d cannibalized my secondary channel to connect with Painbreaker and the technopaths.
“Incoming!” Violet Cavey yelled, and we all ducked and scattered as someone just missed us with green laser beams.
“Go!” I said as they passed, and we all started pelting hell-for-leather across the field. Rose Queen grew us a shield of heavy vines and bark to protect us from any more surprises. It kept pace with us through columns of grass she grew and shrank before and after our passing.
The greenery, even moving oddly as it was, gave us a little camouflage from air attacks, and seemed to sincerely weird out those on the ground. Going as fast as we were, and with Rose Queen keeping us covered from above, it was my job to ward off attacks from the side. Brilliance’s light attacks would attract more attention than we could afford, and neither him, Violet, nor Viscosity was very good shooting on the run. I was the best shot of the group, even if I was starting to feel a faint hint of inner cold that even anger and adrenaline couldn’t touch.
Screams and howls were blasting from both sides, and we had to veer as the all-too-familiar towering form of a metal t-rex began running towards us. We were out of Voidhammer’s range by now, but I heard a loud crunch of tortured metal as someone stepped up to tangle with the robotic dinosaur. Saurian Lord must be having a field day with this. We had to go faster…
“V, Vi, shift and stow!” I called. Immediately Rose Queen grew a small pitcher plant for Viscosity to ride it, and Violet Cavey shifted, holding on to Brilliance’s collar. Since Ethan and Magenta were the shortest and the slowest, we’d worked this trick out last year for times like this, when speed was key. And they’d actually done it. I’d been afraid that my friends might have told me to go to hell for what I’d done, but they were still talking to me, still listening to me…
The craggy terrain was in our favor, but even with camouflage and speed, we weren’t invisible. Over halfway to the door, there was the sharp, staccato thunder of gunfire behind us. And not of Son of Silver either, this was someone with a damn machine gun!
I risked a glance behind, spying someone in a jet-powered, weapons-laden mechanical suit. Jet Scream, I realized, an academy flyer that had been setting himself up to be Jetstream’s nemesis… apparently just for kicks. And we just happened to catch his eye.
“Rose, behind us!” I yelled. Rose Queen automatically strengthened the plant shield behind us, but I deliberately lagged, putting myself between the others and gunfire. Brilliance and I had the heaviest armor in the group, because we were the most likely to be hit, if it came to that.
Another hail of bullets erupted around us, and Rose Queen muffled a scream as sap and bark went flying along with shrapnel. I could feel a half-dozen hits on my armor, and two ripped right through the weaker plates near the shoulder, burning like hell. Brilliance muffled a yell when two more ricocheted off his back, and a third dug a shallow furrow across his upper arm. Nothing struck the others, and Scream had to circle around for another pass. He wouldn’t miss again, and Rose Queen couldn’t keep up the plant shield too much longer. I could tell she was already breathing hard; after all it had only been a week since Cutter’s attack on her. Christ, it felt like months.
We hauled ass to the nearest entrance, steel doors embedded in reinforced concrete, a tough barrier even for Guardian. Rose Queen didn’t even hesitate though; she let tree roots do the talking, and crumbled the rock around the entrance, ripping the doors open completely. Stronghold couldn’t have done any better, and I resolved to never piss off Layla early in the morning.
Rose Queen stumbled on the threshold, but Ethan resolidified almost immediately to help her. I couldn’t see if she was pale under her mask, but her eyes were glassy. What she’d done right now had been the most I’d ever seen her do, and we could count ourselves lucky she hadn’t flat-out fainted. Luckily it didn’t matter now, the dim lightning and twisted corridors of the academy meant we had to go slower than we had outside.
I took the lead now, darkened hallways flashing by as we threaded our way towards a goal etched into my memory by both triumph and helpless rage.
“Jesus, how do you find your way around?” Brilliance asked as I unhesitatingly lead them down the second left of a five-way intersection.
“Memory and repetition, Glowstick. Just be glad it’s not you leading us,” I quipped, and Brilliance actually barked out a short laugh, remembering the L’arc de Triomph debacle a couple years back.
“Where is everyone else?” Violet asked, her squeaky voice echoing oddly in the stone hallways.
“Outside, trying not to die and willing take everyone else with them if they do,” I said shortly. Despite my words, I was still afraid there might be people inside. Some of the teachers, or the Tenneys, or even the psychics might not have entirely abandoned the building. But would they honestly be looking for someone to make a semi-suicidal straight-on assault on the main control room? There weren’t any cameras in the hallways; there wasn’t any way to track our path, one way or the other. Either way, both our enemies and we would be equally surprised.
As we reached the darkest corridors near the weapons’ rooms, an unexpected blast of heat hit me as we rounded the last turn. I skidded to stop as the last corridor came into sight. I’d wondered why we hadn’t run into any of the Headmaster’s defenses yet; the technopaths said he’d gotten them partially up. But now we had only a few minutes to get to him before he finished overriding the systems. Here, right on time, was our delay.
Instead of the corridor being a blank concrete box, the floor, walls, and ceiling were now red hot, and ranks of massive stone blocks were pistoning up and down, filling the hallways with a stone-grinding, red-hot death trap.
“Why can’t supervillains ever just have a door?” Violet yelled in frustration.
There was no time to find a way around the trap, even if there was one, and Guardian was still tied up.
“There’s got to be a fail-safe,” Viscosity said, staring at the red-hot blocks.
“I can go-,” I started, but Rose Queen interrupted me sharply.
“Phoenix, you’re tough, but if one of those things crushes your head, you’re dead anyway.”
“I can do it,” Viscosity said softly.
“The heat-,” Violet protested.
“Doesn’t matter. Remember Yellowstone?” he asked.
“I’ve been trying to repress that for years,” I muttered.
“Less quipping, more moving! We have maybe five minutes,” Violet snapped.
“I can handle the heat if I go slow, and being squashed won’t hurt me,” Viscosity insisted.
“Dudes, no time!” Brilliance said.
“Guardian’s not here, so we have to get creative. Viscosity, go!” I said. These were the kinds of scenarios we’d dreaded in school. Will’s powers were our high card, and though we’d trained knowing sometimes we wouldn’t be there, there were some times where he’d make things so much simpler…
Ethan melted and oozed up next to the hot floor for several agonizingly long moments. Then he calmly began to flow through the pounding blocks, blithely ignoring the crushing weight.
“Guys, what’s going on? The weapons are starting to move!” Guardian’s voice crackled over the coms.
“The corridor is trapped; we’re trying something now. Guardian, where are you?” Rose Queen asked.
“Watching Boomer kicking Son of Silver all over the battlefield,” he replied. I grinned at that; Boomer would be impossible to live with for months after this, but it was worth it to take out a killer like Silver. “And I’m keeping three flying death stars away from Phoenix’s new buddies,” Guardian added a little breathlessly.
“They aren’t-,” I began, but just at that moment the blocks retracted and the floor cooled down.
“Move!” I shouted to the others. “Guardian, get down here soon as you can. We have no idea how strong the Headmaster is.”
“On my way-,” he said. There were sounds of explosions coming over the com, and I had a sinking feeling that we might be on our own.
We all pelted down the corridor, the door of the Central Control Room in sight. Violet Cavey hopped down from Brilliance’s shoulder, and tentatively put her nose to the door.
“Nothing,” she whispered. No scent, no sound, no indication if there was anyone there.
“Mechanical suit,” I whispered back, and she nodded. That would help kill any smell, and if he were doing technopathic stuff, there wouldn’t necessarily be any noise.
“Brilliance, the door,” Rose Queen said softly, hovering off to one side. I saw Viscosity press a spare ray into her hands, readying his own weapon as he stood slightly in front of her. Cut off from deep soil, and at the end of her strength and endurance, Rose Queen was going to have to fall back on basic training. Layla, who’d always been the worst at hand-to-hand combat, target practice, and nearly everything physical but using her powers, was down to an electrical stunner ray and Ethan’s protection.
Stronghold is going to kill me if I let them get hurt again, I thought briefly.
I didn’t hold my breath as Brilliance pressed himself to the keypad of the heavy metal door. It was probably shielded and surge-protected; this was Royal Pain’s new Secret Sanctum, even if she’d rarely had the chance to use it. Surely the Headmaster would have protected it from simple stuff like that. We were going to have to break out the heat rays or something, waste more time trying to slag the door…
Then the lock popped open at the touch of Brilliance’s excess static electricity.
And then charged the door.
Brilliance and I kicked it open, his light bombs crashing on the floor, filling the air with intense white light, hopefully giving us back an edge that our delays in the corridor had cost us. We’d automatically shielded ourselves from the blast, a nearly reflexive reaction to our oldest attack plan. Viscosity covered Rose Queen to the left, Violet stayed shifted and hidden on the floor behind Brilliance’s boot, and the rest of us standing pointed rays (or in my case, fire) at our target.
“Impaired visual sensors, rerouting. Bypass, seventy-six percent complete,” a calm synthesized voice announced overhead.
The last of the glare fading, I was momentarily distracted by my first sight of our enemy. Clad anonymously in a black-and-silver super-suit that bore a shocking resemblance to Royal Pain’s, the Headmaster was half turned away from us, one hand in the bank of computers along the wall. Literally in the computers, his hand flowed smoothly into the machinery as if were made of circuitry itself.
What the hell?
“Surrender now!” I bellowed. Three different rays, all of them more than enough to disable mechanical suits, were pointed right at him, not to mention my own fire. I might not be able to melt steel, but I could definitely scorch silicon. I hated to give this guy any kind of chance against us, but I owed it to myself, to the heroes, to give him one chance to give it up. I’d done enough things I’d regret this week; this would not be one of them. I was in front, so if the Headmaster wanted to attack, it’d be me first. I’d take the consequences for my own actions…
“Bypass, eighty percent complete,” the computer voice chimed.
“Now!” I demanded.
The Headmaster turned his masked face toward us as if he’d just noticed us.
“No,” he said calmly.
That was the second when everyone fired at once, all shooting to disable, all trying to disconnect him from the computers. That was also the exact second a force field flashed into existence between him and us, the rays splashing on it in psychedelic patterns, but doing no harm.
No, God damn it, not now, no!
“You’re all going to fail, you realize. I won’t be defeated by a pack of kids again,” the Headmaster said, his calm voice slowly transmuting into a gravelly, electronic growl we were all pretty familiar with.
“Royal Pain?!” Rose Queen exclaimed incredulously.
“In the circuits, Sidekick. You really don’t think I would leave my academy, my perfect revenge, in the hands of my incompetent relatives and self-serving mercenary supervillains, do you?”
I kept myself from jumping as a quiet, squeaky voice sounded over my com. “Keep her talking, I’m going in. I did this before, and I sure as hell am going to do it again.”
Violet Cavey, the person actually responsible for saving Sky High by disabling Royal Pain’s anti-gravity sabotage device, was back on the case. Royal Pain was somewhat of a traditionalist when it came to sidekicks, if the academy was anything to go by, and she’d always discounted the abilities, intelligence, and will of every sidekick she’d ever come across. She’d never even known that Magenta had been directly responsible for her grand plan’s failure.
I risked a sideways glance down without moving my head; Violet was gone from behind Brilliance. She’d managed to get herself on the opposite side of the force field while we’d all been grandstanding.
Violet needed time; we had little to spare, and we had to use what we had wisely. Guardian was hopefully on his way, so we just had to stall until either Magenta or Will were ready. Brute force wouldn’t get us out of here right now.
Well, Royal Pain had been a sucker for a monologue. Here goes nothing…
“How did you get out of Metroplex?” I demanded.
“Oh, I’m still there. But I left one of my finest creations watching over the academy: the most advanced AI supercomputer on the planet. All I needed was the occasional new input, which Saurian Lord was happy to provide for me. He even made me this lovely new body to use. Amazing things, nanobots. Nowhere they can’t go, including the brain. They wouldn’t let me draw diagrams and plans in prison, but they couldn’t stop me thinking about them. And no psychic could read my thoughts once I put them into binary!”
“Wow, that’s kind of cool, in a creepy sort of way,” Viscosity muttered, sotto voce.
“Eyes on task,” Violet squeaked back over the com.
I was also privately impressed, and extremely disturbed. I remember Monica telling me that keeping Skybolt, a specialized weather-controller, underground for so long had driven him insane. From what Royal Pain had just said, apparently the same thing had happened to a technopath cut off from technology for too long. She was stark raving bonkers.
What Saurian Lord had told me, about his foray into Metroplex being a big “fuck you” to Royal Pain on behalf of the Headmaster, was just one more lie. Most of the really dangerous villains were also the best liars, and it was clear that despite Saurian Lord’s deceptively cheerful manner, he was just as dangerous as Royal Pain. And she’d been the one to plan this caper, which made her very dangerous indeed..
Instead of just lying there in his induced coma, Saurian Lord had sent out nanobots to Royal Pain, little machines that had scanned her mind for all the latest plans and upgrades, then returned to him for transport back to the academy. Maybe it hadn’t even been the first time; constantly updated plans might explain why the academy had acted so erratically and brutally for the years leading up to this. Royal Pain had been clever, but not a psychopath before she’d gone to Metroplex. Somehow she’d figured out how to get her plans back to her special project, and the academy ended up marching to the beat of an insane, genius drummer.
“So who cares about your plans? You’re still in prison, and this place is going down. You’re already lost. Give it up!”
“You only think that this is over! You’re so clever, pretending to be under control… and then you managed to subvert my technopaths, damn if I know how you managed that. But even with their interference, it’s only a matter of time before I break their precious little counter-overrides.”
“Bypass, ninety percent complete,” the computer chimed.
We do not have time for this shit. Come on Magenta!
“You won’t escape. Don’t you know how many superheroes are up there?” Viscosity said sharply.
“Of course I know! And I don’t care if you capture me or even kill me. Once this bypass is complete, the weapons will activate and kill everyone up there. I want you to live with your failure, just like I am!” she snarled.
God… She wanted blood on our hands, not just of the superheroes, but also every single villain up there. She wanted us to fail, she wanted to hand us a Pyrrhic victory, a hollow win. The doomsday weapon of the academy was in its final countdown, and we were in the eye of the storm.
“What if we stop you before the bypass is complete?” Rose Queen asked, raising her ray a little higher.
“Got it. I’m getting the force field wire now!” Violet’s squeaky voice piped over our coms.
“Guardian, where are you?” Brilliance demanded nearly silently, not moving his lips.
“Above you, I have you on GPS.”
“Come down straight, four feet north of me. It’s a robot,” I said as quietly as I could.
“I’m tired of robots!” Guardian complained, his voice sounded ragged.
“How can you stop me when the force field is up and you’re all the way over there?” Royal Pain asked us, her voice superior.
“Because you didn’t seal us all out,” Brilliance said, smiling.
Royal Pain froze in shock at the same time the computer chimed for the last time.
“Bypass one hundred percent complete, initiating weapons.”
The force field went down in a crackle of energy, and three rays and my own fire lashed out to destroy, not Royal Pain, but the computer. Screams erupted through the com as the ceiling caved in, Guardian coming down with both fists extended, crushing the Royal Pain AI into metallic powder. With a flash of sparks, all of the lights in the room went out at once.
Daylight poured in from the hole above, incongruously beautiful contrasted with the pain-filled screams echoing from above.
Oh God, the weapons went off before we slagged the computer…
“Get me up there,” I said to Guardian. He was streaked with dirt, smoke, and blood, his eyes were red, his costume was torn, and there was a sluggishly bleeding wound in his side. He looked like he had just fought his way though hell, but I couldn’t ask him to stop any more than I could.
“Phoenix…” he started softly, looking sad.
“Please! I’m not going to let her win, not after everything we’ve gone through to stop this,” I pleaded.
“Rose Queen?” Guardian asked. With what seemed like terrible slowness, she crafted a vine harness for us, as Brilliance plucked Violet Cavey from the rubble. Eyes dull with fatigue, Guardian pulled us up through the hole he’d made. When we reached the top, the wrongness hit me strong enough to stagger.
Though the horrible array of weapons had been active for only a second, they’d cut a huge swath of destruction across the battlefield. Splashes of color and darkness showed where heroes and villains alike had fallen. They were bleeding out even as I stared, and I finally understood, at a gut level, what Royal Pain had meant about making the cost too high. This was why the Bureau had never wanted to take the academy on its home ground. People were dying and it was all my fault. All my fault…
I had to save them; I couldn’t let her win, not after everything that had happened. When Guardian set us down, I took only a half-dozen steps before he grabbed me and held me back. He’d seen the look on my face.
“Don’t Phoenix, you’ll burn yourself out!” he said.
“I have to, I got everyone into this, and I can’t-.”
“It will kill you!” Will roared, shaking me to get me to see sense. “We just got you out of there.”
“How can I be a hero if I don’t-.”
Will’s eyes were full of tears, as were everyone else’s. “We all knew coming into this that we might not survive. We had to stop the academy anyway.”
“I won’t let you throw your life away, not when we just got you back!”
“I have to!” I shouted, and tried to shove away from him. Tried, and failed. Not just because he was stronger, but also because I had no strength left. A week of little sleep and high emotional stress, healing Cutter earlier, plus the whole battle… Adrenaline and anger had sustained me so far, but with the Headmaster’s “death,” it was all catching up with a vengeance. The cold feeling in my gut was back with interest, a warning sign that I was dangerously overextended.
“I have to try,” I said again, pleading.
“Perhaps we can help Phoenix.”
Out of pall of smoke and steam left by the weapons came Fire Court, their scarlet and vermilion robes barely dirtied by the carnage around them.
“’Together we melt steel,’” I whispered in understanding, and Emberkeeper, Tobias, nodded gravely. What we’d done to the bank vault in Berlin, channeling all our power to Fire King, they could do to me for healing. Wild hope bloomed in my chest, and was abruptly crushed.
“I have to touch them to heal,” I pointed out. The injured were scattered over a quarter of a mile or more, some half up steep hillsides. By the time I’d reach one or two, a dozen might die.
“We can bring them to you!” Will started.
“That might kill some of them…” I said reluctantly.
“Channel through me.” The Peacemaker appeared behind Fire Court as if by magic. “My powers work at a distance; you can channel through me.”
“Mom, your range-.”
“It isn’t great, but it’s better than touch. We can at least get the conscious ones, the ones I can sense. We have to try.”
“Use me.” A third voice broke into our desperate, frantic brainstorming, a harsh, distorted growl. Painbreaker, looking like death, had pushed her way to my side. The fact that Mom, Will, and Zack let her made quite an impression on Tobias, who had looked nearly ready to attack when she appeared.
“My range is the longest, and anywhere there’s pain, conscious or unconscious, I can find it.”
No one had time to wonder if this unholy melding of powers was going to work. The conversation had barely taken ten seconds, but that was already ten seconds too long for me. Tobias grabbed my right hand and Mom took my left, Fire Court in a chain behind him, Monica on Mom’s other side.
A river, a torrent, a flood of fire poured into me, banishing all exhaustion and cold. In my mind’s eye, the battlefield appeared as a field of burning stars, most shadowed, rimed by black pain energy, and illuminated by silver threads connecting them to me. I let the fire roar down the silver threads, burning up the shadows, banishing the darkness. It was amazing, no matter what I did, I didn’t get tired; fire kept pouring in, and the heat kept rising in my mind and heart. I would save them all, every single one of them.
Healing had always been an effort for me, but right now I had more power at my command than I had ever dreamed of. All the shadows were nearly gone, and the fires began to gleam like novas in the night sky. Caught up in the euphoria of triumph, knowing that everyone would live, that it hadn’t all been for nothing, that we were going to win, I didn’t even think about trying to pull back. The play of flame in my mind was mesmerizing, beautiful, a thousand fiery suns in a web of light…
A huge jolt shook me out of the plain of fiery stars, and pain exploded along my jaw. It faded after a second as I looked up to see Guardian standing over me.
“That’s enough!” he roared, sounding like he’d been repeating that for a while. I stared at him for another long second, as he caught me up in a fierce hug.
“It’s ok, they’re ok, just stop,” Will said in a more normal tone of voice, letting go of me. “They’re ok. We won. We won Warren.”
I gasped in sudden pain as my head felt like it was cracking in half.
“Hurts,” I whispered, breathing hard as alternating waves of weakness and a sick fever heat washed over me, my skin feeling like it was cracking and shrinking, pulled tight enough over my bones to rip. “Hurts!”
My vision went dark and I began to lose my hold on consciousness, an eerie keening coming from my throat in a half-conscious reaction to the incredible pain. Voices pooled and rippled around me, not seeming to come from any one person.
“What’s happening to him?” “Don’t know!” “We’ve never concentrated that much force in one person before.” “He’s convulsing-.” “How many?” “Three dozen at least, the burns are extensive, they’ll never look the same.” “It’s a small price to pay…”
“Small price to pay…”
“But we won.”
“What about him?”
“If it ends here, he’d be happy.”
“They’re coming, just hold on!”
“I can’t believe it. We won.”
Then everything went dark and silent. But that was all right. We were heroes. And we’d won.