War and Peace In Mind, Chapter 6: Discovery
After the New Year’s Eve party, things eased up considerably. With no more parties to go to, and all of us feeling extremely tired out after Christmas, we spent the rest of our winter break mostly lying very still, occasionally playing with our new Christmas gifts. We stayed in contact by phone for the last few days before school started again, after catching up on copious amounts of sleep, sleep, and more sleep.
I would sometimes wake up in the morning and marvel at the feeling of quiet in my mind. I felt like I had climbed over some great obstacle, or gotten out from under a weight that had been hanging over me all my life. I had talked to my mom about my conversation with the Commander and Jetstream, and I had both of us reduced to tears by the end of it. It turns out that Mom had been under no less pressure than I was these last seventeen years, and hearing remorse and sorrow from the lips of her friends was as much of a relief to her as it was to me. Mom took it to heart, and started hanging out with some of her old school pals shortly afterward, starting with Layla’s mother, and eventually even Josie Stronghold.
However, I knew that a single conversation wasn’t going to fix people’s opinions of our family entirely. My friends’ families had been nice enough to me, but people still thought of me as “Baron Battle’s son.” So perhaps I had some answers to my past, but there was nothing I could do to change what had been. The only way that Mom and I could regain the respect that the Peace family used to have before I was born was to be the best damn superheroes we could.
Mom started the New Year with her own resolution in that direction; her most ambitious project yet, taking on some of the European work she used to do when she was married to Baron Battle. I only knew about some of this peripherally, because when school started again, we hit the ground running. There were rumors in the works that they were planning even bigger changes to the curriculum next September, and they wanted everyone caught up on the current batch of classes before then. So my resolution was only to get through my classes without dying from exhaustion.
We managed to get through them without turning our brains into mush, though I’m still not sure how. People were so tired that by the graduation ceremony not a single senior prank had been played. I’m sure somehow the teachers didn’t mind a bit. They finally let us out for summer vacation, but with perhaps the strangest “homework assignment” yet. They wanted us to use our powers over the summer. That was such a huge reversal from their previous stance that anyone caught using their powers outside of school faced the risk of expulsion that most of us didn’t believe it at first.
Principal Powers herself explained it at our final school assembly.
“Beginning next year we will be embarking on a whole new type of teaching, including classes in small groups of people that you will eventually be working with when you graduate. You will be learning in your own super-teams. As such,” here she had to wait for silence, because her comment had stirred up a lot of whispers, “we want you to start working out how your powers mesh with other individuals, and to get as much practice as possible. The penalty for public display of your powers hasn’t changed, but I know most of you have access to private places where you can practice. If you don’t, you can contact the school for assistance. Your summer homework will consist of a journal of your practice sessions-” Groans echoed around the auditorium at that. “-Of at least three times a week from this week until the beginning of school! School is dismissed!”
On the bus, the rest of the gang had rather mixed reactions.
“This is awesome! I totally bet Mom and Dad would let me practice with them, and Mom promised to show me some flying tricks someday. If it’s actually for school, I bet I can get her to do it this summer!” Will was saying, practically floating out of his seat. Layla put a hand on his shoulder and gave him a look, and Will abruptly grounded himself.
“Yeah, working on that control would be a good thing too Will,” she said with a smile. Will looked sheepish as Layla took up the conversation. “I think Mom will let me come along on her trips around the state when she checks the national parks, so that’ll be plenty of practice for me.” Will gave her a sad puppy-dog look, and Layla hasted to add, “I’m not going to be gone all summer Will!”
“Well mine’s going to be a really boring report. ‘Today I turned into a guinea pig.’ ‘Today I turned into a guinea pig and ran around.’ ‘Today I turned into a guinea pig and the cat chased me,’” Magenta complained.
“I know you could find a lot of ways to practice,” Ethan protested, and Magenta shrugged.
“I probably could, but I don’t have to like it. It’s a stupid power,” she said, glaring at the seat in front of her.
“Magenta’s just modest. She’s going to be the Super Guinea Pig of Doom, just you all watch!” Zack said with a grin, giving Magenta a hug. She only stabbed him with a look of reproach, but finally relented and rested her head on his shoulder.
The summer went really fast, whether in spite of or because of our homework I wasn’t sure. I worked full shifts at the Paper Lantern, and everyone else went on some kind of vacation at some point with their families. Mom and I didn’t go anywhere, but superheroes generally don’t get to take long vacations. It wasn’t that every else’s parents didn’t get calls and have crises to solve too, but The Peacemaker didn’t just swoop in, save the day in ten minutes and swoop out again. Her power took time to work, and she worked long hours to make sure everything turned out ok.
Sure, Will’s dad might have saved California from a giant radioactive monster, but my mom kept his dad from having to interrupt his Fourth of July celebration by solving the next disaster before it got to the giant radioactive monster stage. Scientists, I learned, can be very touchy when their work gets stolen. Particularly mad scientists.
Despite Magenta’s insistence that nothing would come of her power, Ethan had taken that as a personal challenge to find a way to make a useful training program for her. And for Zack. And for the rest of us too. We would hang out a little in between vacations and work and Ethan would keep pestering us to keep up our journals. I really had no idea what kinds of improvements I could make to my powers, other than trying to get a little more accurate with my throwing. I was seventeen, and I wasn’t going to develop any new quirks. Of course, Ethan had plenty of ideas on that score, some which didn’t work, but some which actually were useful.
One of Ethan’s suggestions to me was a near power-up, letting my temperature rise on my skin without actually bursting into flame. He thought it might make me a bit faster on the draw, particularly after I had been talking to everyone about the last game of Save the Citizen with Speed and Lash. It actually worked in principle, and I could actually keep it up longer than real flames. Of course I couldn’t do any damage with that unless I walked right up to them and put my hand on them, but at least it gave me an edge. And it was something to put in the journal that didn’t sound like every other day.
Will actually did pry some flying tricks out of his Mom, and Layla had actually admitted to strategically rearranging plants to block off some paths in the national parks that went too close to rare species. Zack had found out, mostly by accident, that he could fuzz out any TV, cell phone, computer, or other electronic stuff by getting close to them without actually frying them, which was an improvement over the last time he fried Ethan’s calculator. Magenta said she had learned something interesting about her guinea pig form from some of Ethan’s suggestions, but refused to elaborate.
When September rolled around again, I won’t say we were all ready and raring to go to school, but at least we were prepared. Instead of handing us our usual schedule of classes however, they demanded our summer journals and then crammed us all into the auditorium for an assembly. Principal Powers and near every other teacher I saw looked positively frazzled, as if they had been working very late last night. It was also fairly obvious that the principal had no temper left at all, and had Boomer shout us into silence before people could even get rowdy.
“Students, welcome back! We hope you’ve had a restful summer, because the staff has been working very hard since we last met to your education memorable. We hope to make this year your finest at Sky High!”
Faint whispers echoed around the auditorium, most of them echoing my own thoughts. What the hell was Principal Powers getting at?
“As I had mentioned at the year-end assembly, this year you will be forming your own super teams. Half of your classes will be conducted as normal, but half of your classes, including all gym time, will be done with your group. We hope to graduate not just excellent superheroes, but super-teams. Today we will be forming into these groups and meeting with your guidance counselors to determine your new class schedules. This will take some time, but we will appreciate your patience as we work through this new system. Thank you,” she concluded, and stepped down from the podium with a brittle smile.
Pandemonium erupted as nearly all the students began talking at once.
Layla was enthusiastic, practically as hyper as Zack because she saw this as the end of “fascist Hero/Sidekick dichotomy” and the start of an era of equality for all super-people. Will thought it was going to be the coolest thing since sliced bread because he got to spend more time with his friends. It was Magenta, though, that brought them back to reality.
“You don’t really think they’re going to put us in a group together, do you?” she cut in sarcastically, and her words created a little bubble of silence in the chaos.
“What? Why wouldn’t they? They know we all saved the school together!” Ethan protested.
“So? They’re probably going to put us in ‘power appropriate’ groups. Warren and Will are so far above us power-wise that it’d be stupid to have us running the Gauntlet with them. Anything that’d be difficult for them would probably kill the rest of us,” she pointed out, looking sullen. Zack leaned down to put an arm around her, and Layla turned further around in her seat to look Magenta in the face. I was a little concerned over her outburst; she had been acting fairly depressed all summer, even when talking about having some success practicing with her powers.
“Magenta, what’s up?” Zack asked quietly. She was quiet for a minute and then sighed explosively.
“I just don’t want to be humiliated, is that all right with you?” she snapped. Something clicked in my head as I watched her. She was watching other groups of kids being called out by Coach Boomer with a twisted and bitter expression. I know I had worn that expression more than once myself… and what she had just said was an important clue.
More and more often during the summer I had found myself acting as the confidant and counselor to my little band of friends. Apparently Will and Layla had mentioned that I given them both advice back before Homecoming, and now I was the go-to guy for everyone’s problems. All right, so I could read people really well, I had my Mom’s lessons to lean back on, and I was a couple years older than all of them, but it still sometimes felt a little strange.
It’s the Peace bloodline, you know it, it’s your curse to be the peacemaker no matter what you want, my brain insisted. I signed internally, my brain was right, as usual.
“So, you think we won’t fight them tooth and nail if they try to take you out of our group, Violet?” I asked her seriously. “So what if your power isn’t in the same line as Stronghold’s? Be thankful it’s not, you’d get a swelled head just like him.”
“Hey!” Will protested, but he was laughing a little too.
“If you don’t want to use your power, fine. You’re smart, so figure out something else you can do. Be our team pilot so Stronghold doesn’t have to fly us all around or something. But we won’t leave you behind,” I said with conviction, fixing her with a dark scowl that brooked no argument.
“My name’s Magenta, not Violet, Warren,” she pointed out, but she was struggling to hide a smile.
“Yeah, sure, whatever. Zack, you try to convince her or something,” I said in an off-handed manner, tossing the verbal ball back into Zack’s court. I wasn’t going to try to start taking over his duties as a boyfriend, and she’d believe Zack more than me if he said the right things. Occasionally he could take a hint, and now that I had pointed him in the right direction, I thought he’d handle it pretty well.
Magenta had been starting to feel left out, or rather, left behind. Will was going to be the most powerful superhero in three generations, Layla and I had powers strong enough to take on any number of supervillains in head-to-head combat if we needed to, Ethan had gotten a lot more clever in using his own powers, and Zack was so endlessly enthusiastic about his own glowing that somebody would think, by the way he carried on, that he was more powerful than Will. Magenta hated her power with a passion, particularly because everyone in her family had the same power, but with different forms, all of them stronger than hers.
Being shoved into Hero classes last year and being made to run the Gauntlet had been really hard on her, and I was pretty sure Layla and her had spent more than one cry-fest in the locker room. God, here I am obsessing over the relationships between sophomore girls. This is ridiculous, I thought to myself. No it’s not; it’s being responsible. They’re your friends and you feel responsible for them.
I sat down again as Zack and Layla started murmuring to Magenta, and Ethan wisely read a book and pretended ignorance. I gave Magenta a little smile when she looked over at me once, and she finally smiled back and started listening to Zack. I couldn’t hear all they were saying over the commotion in the gym, but that was probably for the best. Will caught my eyes as I went back to crowd-watching and nodded a bit at Magenta. I shrugged a bit, and he nodded again. She was going to be ok.
It took us until nearly lunch to get our group called in to Mrs. Peterson’s office. That would be Irene Peterson, a.k.a. the Stormrider. She was gray-haired and elderly, but Ethan had told us she used to be a very powerful superhero back in the day, able to use wind and rain as her weapons. She was the one that kept the worst of the weather away from Sky High, or otherwise the school would be in serious trouble from students blowing off the edge half the time.
“Ah yes…” she said, adjusting her glasses and looking over a pile of folders. We were all crammed into a bunch of little desks behind her massive desk, and Zack and I were already getting cramps from trying to fit our legs under the desktops. “The kids that saved the school at Homecoming. Excellent work that, really good work. Most kids don’t get to save anything until they graduate, good timing in doing that… yes…” She seemed as weird as one of Ethan’s elderly aunts, the kind that liked to pinch your cheek and ask you how your first grade class was going… when you were fourteen.
“I see no reason why having all you as a team shouldn’t be a problem… all except Mr. Peace,” she went on, tapping her folders even. I started and sat upright while everyone else looked alarmed. “You’re a senior, and all your friends here won’t be ready for proper graduate work for another two years. Did you want to join a different group? We do have some smaller senior groups that we’re probably going to have to combine-“
“No,” I interrupted forcefully, stopping her in mid-plan. “These are my friends, and I’ll be sticking with them. If I have to wait until they graduate, fine, I’ll figure out something to do in the interim.” Mrs. Peterson paused, closed her mouth, adjusted her glasses, and gave a small polite cough.
“Well then… that’s all settled. Here’s your class schedules,” she said calmly. “Mr. Peace, we’ll discuss those specifics at a later date.”
The new set of classes was definitely interesting, but easy they were not. While half the day we did our normal routine of classes both super and not, after lunch each group reported to a room together. Apparently they had tapped some retired teachers or other inactive superheroes to help with the extra class load, because I didn’t recognize our teacher at all. She was a tiny Asian woman of about fifty that reminded me strongly of Mrs. Lee, with glossy black hair tied up on a knot on her head.
“Welcome, welcome, come on in… Let me see… Zack Cramer, Layla Evans, Ethan Howard, Magenta Patterson, Warren Peace, and William Stronghold, all here? Excellent!” she chirped cheerfully as we all filed into the room. “Does anyone here go by a nickname?”
“Will,” Stronghold answered quickly.
“Right, right… well, all settled then. I’m Yoroko Richards, also known as The Pixie.” She closed her eyes for a second in concentration, and a pair of colorful, diaphanous butterfly wings nearly as tall as she was popped out of her back with a burst of glittering dust. Layla predictably found this very cute, but then she was definitely the girlier girl of the two in our group.
“I doubt you would have heard of me. I was a sidekick to Sparrowhawk for about two years before I went to work for the Bureau full-time instead. I’m a researcher into super-power trends, and coincidentally I’m going to be doing as much learning from you as you are from me.
“I won’t be your only teacher; you’re going to have others over the course of the year as we cover different subjects. I’m going to be covering Basic Super Hero Genetics, essentially power families and heredity. It should help you understand your own powers, those of your teammates, and also help you if you’re facing an unfamiliar villain.
“I’ll say I’m rather thrilled that you’re such an eclectic group, truth to tell. We have living examples of all the major power families in one room.”
The power families, we soon learned, were Energy Producers, Shapeshifting, Mental Abilities, and Permanent Transformation, with a whole lot of smaller subdivisions within and between them to further quantify various powers. Zack and I were in the first group, Ethan and Magenta in the second, Layla in the third, and Will in the fourth. Though the idea of Zack and I being related in any way was enough to send all of us laughing.
It became clear why these classes were taught only in our small groups. They were, to be brutally frank, intimate. Some of the things we learned or revealed I wouldn’t have wanted anyone to know but my friends. We talked a lot about what had happened when we first got our powers, which for me was not very easy. I was the only one to have first powered up in anger. For Will, obviously, both times he had been in fear for his life or the life of his friends. Layla had desperately wanted to see her mother’s roses bloom in winter. Ethan had actually been really warm one summer’s day and just melted (which ended up scaring the whey out of his parents when they found him). Magenta’s first power-up had happened at one of her family Christmas gift-exchanges, and she had nearly been trampled. And Zack had just woken up one morning to his powers.
We ended up demonstrating our powers so Mrs. Richards could point out how we were doing it, something that was a bit embarrassing for everyone. I mean, we all had been warned against just casually powering up for so long that the idea of just doing it on cue was rather strange. We did learn some interesting things though, like Magenta completely violates the laws of conservation of matter when she shapeshifts. She only weighs a few pounds in guinea-pig form… so where is the rest of her mass? Even Mrs. Richards didn’t know, but she pointed out that Magenta could probably be holding a small amount of something when she shifted and keep it entirely safe, just like her clothes.
“It’s hard for the supervillain to take his secret weapon back if you have it when you shapeshift. If they can’t even find it, then they’re going to find it impossible to steal,” she had mentioned, and Magenta had seemed rather encouraged by that.
One of the harder things we did, for me at least, was our family tree. I had done a more typical one in freshman biology; the kind where you tracked which of your relatives was left handed, or had attached earlobes, or brown eyes. I remember thinking it was odd that they didn’t have us put super-powers on the family tree as well, but at the time I was relieved. I ended up only tracking my mother’s family for my freshman project, and that was done mostly through pictures and my mom’s memories. I’ve never actually met Mom’s family, as they were angry that Mom brought so much shame on the Peace family because of Baron Battle. Mom’s been trying to mend fences there for years, but even in a family full of telepaths and empaths these things take time.
But this project was specifically a power family tree, tracking which relatives had which powers. It was something I wasn’t looking forward to at all, because I would have to go look up not just Mom’s family, but all my Battle relatives as well. I had spent so much time being forcibly incurious about them that I didn’t know even where to start. Luckily Mrs. Richards had both some ideas… and some surprising revelations.
“Now, most of you don’t realize, but we’ve only been keeping close records on super-powers for only the last century or so. You’re only going to find official records back to perhaps your great-grandparents, at best. However, I know for a fact that nearly all of your family trees go back much farther than that.
“When you look at the collective lore of the world, there are thousands of stories about supernatural happenings, strange phenomena, even magic. Some of this is pure fiction, some of it might actually be real magic, and some of it, is people with super-powers. When you read stories about powerful sorcerers that could destroy mountains, read minds, or shift form, or warriors that could wrestle giants, or nature spirits, some of these were your ancestors.
“Unfortunately, there was a period of time between when people stopped believing in magic and started accepting our powers as scientifically possible that was extremely hard for people like us. It started around the Inquisition, when people started seeing every odd thing as signs of evil. Plenty of innocent people went to their deaths, but so did several super-people, because their powers set them apart.
“A lot of the records were lost, and what survived was not always credible. We also have to remember that someone -say with a good knowledge of alchemy and chemistry, could have easily faked having powers, and gotten put into the records that way. Also, a great many families simply began to hide having powers at all, and never kept records to avoid persecution. The few we do have records of are either those that were protected, or kept a very low profile.
“Mr. Peace, would it be all right if I discussed your father’s family?”
I clenched my jaw in an almost automatic reaction to anything having to do with my dad, and then nodded reluctantly.
“The Battle family records are one of the more complete sets that we do have, primarily because they were the court ‘magicians’ and ‘sorcerers’ to nobility in what is now Germany for several centuries. They had the resources to hide during the Inquisition and resulting aftermath, and then were able to continue working for various persons of importance afterwards.”
It was strange to think of Baron Battle’s family that way, but I guess that made sense. Mrs. Richards had given us access to the Bureau records for our research, and I ended up learning a few things about my dad’s relatives that I never would have guessed. They had apparently been superheroes-for-hire in Europe for years, with a reputation for great loyalty to their employer no matter what. God, having my dad put in jail must have been humiliating.
As the official records went, pyrokinesis was the most common power in the Battle family, with the occasional electrokinetic or cryokinetic. Apparently all the men in the direct Battle bloodline were pyros, so only the women ended up with the odder powers. I was the only male Battle in this generation, and apparently I was also the most powerful of all my erstwhile cousins. Only half of them had shown any signs of Hero-class talent.
My mom’s family had some strange ones in it though. Her sister was The Dreamer, her brother was The Fearmaster, her mother was Heartsinger, and so on. The Peace family was all over the map with their power manifestations, though they were all in the same power family of Mental Abilities. And my mother was apparently the most powerful Peace on record.
It was concluded, to no one’s surprise, I had the strangest family tree in our group. Every else’s was much more direct; you could practically tell what they were going to have just by following the tree. Mrs. Richards had thought it was odd that I didn’t have any of my mother’s powers, considering that every Peace on record had some kind of mental ability. I had just shrugged when she mentioned that; it was just my bad luck to get stuck with the Battle family powers, and I said as much. Luck had never played much of a part in my life.
The physical part of our training, however, didn’t go so well. Boomer had us all running hard, lifting weights, and doing agility training until we were all ready to drop. Between this and our classes, it wasn’t like we had time to wonder at the sudden increase in workload, or had the energy to protest. Almost against our will we were getting stronger and faster, but I don’t think any amount of preparation could have helped us the day Zack and I ran the Gauntlet.
“You’ll be running the Gauntlet in pairs so you can get used to watching some else’s back. Once I’m sure you’re ready for something more advanced, then I’ll start running you through in groups,” Boomer had told us at the beginning of the year. I had snorted at that, but quietly. It wasn’t because we needed the practice of running the Gauntlet together, it was because Boomer did. He hadn’t had to set up the challenges to account for more than one person before, and he didn’t want people getting through the Gauntlet too easily.
I didn’t totally agree with Boomer’s reasoning, but he was still the coach. If he thought that it would be better (for him) for two people to run the Gauntlet, then unfortunately we really had no grounds to protest about it. Truth to tell, having anyone in the Gauntlet with you to watch your back would be useful, and if that person can take care of themselves, all the better. He ended up pairing me with Zack, because we were both in the same power family, and set us a time slot the next day.
The Gauntlet is set up in a chamber below the gym, and is designed to look something like a real park. There’s an actual dirt path to follow, and several obstacles are real trees or bushes. If nothing else, it usually made landing a lot softer than in Save the Citizen. For most of the Gauntlet you have to climb walls and duck under brush, and the only enemy is the terrain. However, the more obvious and open you were about getting through the obstacles, the more the villains at the end of the Gauntlet would be warned, and the more difficult the rescue became.
After the walls and other “outdoor” obstacles, you had to span a moat, and then get into the “fortress.” You had to thread (or blast your way through) a maze inside to get to a guarded citizen dummy. Boomer usually had two students armed with a couple of Mr. Medulla’s stun rays as the only “active” opposition, to represent villainous minions. For seniors he sometimes had himself or another teacher you had to defeat instead. I had heard rumors that a couple times Principal Powers herself had been the final challenge for some particularly powerful students.
If you can complete the objectives of the Gauntlet, which is to penetrate to the center, grab the citizen, and escape again, you win. But the faster you do it, the better your score, because like in real life the citizen could be hurt or killed by the villains at any time. You also got points for creativity in finding your way in or out, effective use of your powers, for defeating the “villains” at the center of the maze, and for how “healthy” your citizen was when she reached the finish line.
Over three quarters of the students fail their first run at the Gauntlet, and rarely does a person finish more than three times in a row. The record for consecutive wins is twelve, set by the Commander himself when he attending Sky High. Despite its difficulty and more realistic setting, Boomer refuses to make running the Gauntlet a spectator sport. It’s often brutal, and despite the fact that nearly everyone hates it, it’s perhaps is the best way to get us super-kids ready for real rescue missions. If people were cheering for you along the way… well that would be nice, but it wouldn’t be realistic.
Zack didn’t have as much experience as I did at the Gauntlet, obviously, but he wasn’t such a bad partner to have. I was stronger than him, and more agile, but Zack was both taller and faster. He had even gone out for the track team last spring, and had a fistful of medals in the hurdles and hundred-yard dash to show for it. He topped me by nearly four inches, and the kid wasn’t even done growing yet. Also, dimming the lighting was usually Boomer’s favorite tactic on making things more difficult, and Zack’s glowing was a much steadier light source than my own fire, and far less draining on him too. As a matter of fact, when Zack was powered up he was nearly tireless, though it wasn’t going to help him defeat our “guards” or get up those walls any easier. Mostly it just meant that he was bouncing off the walls during our study sessions when we were all ready to take a nap.
We both got stretched out and ready at the starting line of the Gauntlet, dressed in light body armor like in Save the Citizen. The lighting was already somewhat dim, and the temperature lowered, like it was near dusk on a late fall day. It wasn’t enough to drain me, but enough to making climbing more difficult and getting across the moat a real challenge. I flared a little heat along my skin, going into the near power-up I had learned over the summer. The extra heat I was putting out nearly negated Boomer’s little temperature drop, and I smirked a bit. Didn’t think about that, did you Boomer?
A bell rang somewhere and we were off like a shot. Zack was already glowing brightly, and any attention we might be attracting further into the Gauntlet I was willing to suck up because being able to see where we were going meant that we could make excellent time. Zack was leaping over some of the lower bushes without even breaking stride while I dodged around them. We clambered over some of the lower walls, ducked under low tree branches, and kept up a fast jog as long as we could. We were going to have to make as much time as we could here, because neither Zack nor I had subtle attack forms.
Almost before we were ready, the big wall next to the moat loomed up in front of us. Twenty-five feet high, this was where most people had their first failure. It had plenty of handholds, but still it was near-vertical climb. On the other side it came down on the lip of the moat, with only a sharp embankment at its foot to land on.
I hated that damn moat with a passion. It wasn’t that I couldn’t swim, because I could, and very well at that. It was because my body tried to warm up everything around me to its own temperature. My own body temperature would be lethally high to almost anyone else, well over two hundred degrees, and I was always surrounded by a little shell of warm air. But if I immersed myself cold water, I would be trying to warm up everything around me to near by own temperature, burning my own energy in the process. Basically, if I plunged into the moat I could forget about powering up for the next ten minutes or so.
There were ropes on the opposite side of the wall that you could use to swing over, or if you were strong enough you could try to jump. But if you missed the rope or had a bad jump, you had to swim anyway. The first three times I ran the Gauntlet I ended up swimming and had to rescue the citizen without my powers. I had to resort to bare-knuckle boxing to defeat my two “villain’s minions,” which at least surprised them so much the first time that it was easy.
Zack leapt for the wall fearlessly, and I climbed right next to him, not wanting to have to climb in the dim light. The paint scorched a little from the heat glowing on my skin, but I ignored it. We both cleared the flat top with some effort, and I started to power down a little so I could swing across on the rope…
I’m not sure what happened next, if one of Zack’s shoelaces were untied or he just tripped, but I heard a yell as Zack suddenly lost his balance and fell off the wall. I watched in horror as he hit his head on the wall on the way down, and then his body slammed into the embankment and rolled into the moat. I didn’t even hesitate, I knew the moat was pretty deep, so I took a dive from the top of the wall. I hoped Zack would just keep glowing so I could find him under there. As I dove I heard a blare from the safety siren, and knew Boomer had just seen what had happened on his monitors.
The cold water closed around me with a shock, and I felt myself bleeding heat into the area around me as I opened my eyes. Zack was still glowing, but faintly, and I swam down for him. I desperately tried to remember what I could about lifeguarding class; hell of a thing to save him from drowning only to break his neck in the process. Hoping to God I had it right, I got a grip on him and kicked for the surface. Coach Boomer was standing right at the edge, and carefully helped me ease Zack onto some level ground. The lights were back on and the temperature was already rising, but now I didn’t even care.
Zack was as pale as cracked ice, and had a terrible gash in the side of his head that wouldn’t stop bleeding. Coach Boomer was checking his breathing when Zack suddenly coughed weakly and stirred a bit. Boomer heaved a sigh of relief, but I was still shaking with reaction.
“Warren, stay here and keep him breathing, I’m going to get the first aid kit. Nurse Spex is on her way,” Boomer commanded, the seriousness of the situation showing in that he didn’t even indulge in my usual nickname of Hothead.
I was kneeling by Zack’s side, so drained from the effects of the cold water and the rescue itself I wasn’t sure if I could have even stood up. Zack kept coughing occasionally and thrashing a bit, and I put a hand on his shoulder to encourage him and let him know someone was there. If he was coughing, then he was breathing, and that’s all I needed to do until someone better trained got here.
“Come on Zack, keep going, you can’t be late for the bus man, Magenta would kill you if Larry tried to sit next to her again,” I was saying, trying to think of anything to keep his attention on breathing. I was terrified that Zack would die and there was nothing I could do to help. I couldn’t even warm him up… Then I noticed something weird. Zack had still been glowing, but when I put my hand on him, his glow dimmed a bit. Suddenly I felt fire flare into my hands again, just as if I had never even touched the water. It wasn’t my usual yellow-orange flames, but a softer red, like embers. I don’t know what possessed me, but I found myself putting my hand on Zack’s bleeding head.
I could feel the renewed heat tracing its way through my own body, and then streaming to my hand and out. I could see a faint reddish glow, like fire, pulsing around Zack’s head wound and somewhere on his side. More and more heat poured out of me, and I suddenly felt freezing cold. I couldn’t seem to pull my hand away until the heat was done with me, whatever it was doing, and by then I felt like I had just taken a plunge into the Arctic Ocean. I managed to wrench my hand away before blacking out, only to see at astonished Coach Boomer and flabbergasted Nurse Spex running towards me.
My last conscious thought was something along the lines of, What the fuck was that?