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War and Peace In Mind, Chapter 9: Gauntlet

War and Peace In Mind, Chapter 9: Gauntlet
Sky High
Drama/Sci-Fi

Gauntlet

 

Boomer said he’d go get the Gauntlet set up for us, and everyone trooped out to go get ready. I grabbed Will by the shoulder before he left and pulled him aside.

“I have a thing or two I need to discuss with Principal Powers,” I murmured. Will flicked his eyes back at her and nodded.

“Ok, meet you at the Gauntlet. Oh, and Warren,” he added, “If I’m going to be the leader, you’re going to be my second in command, got it?” With that he turned and breezed out, but I could just tell he was smirking at that little verbal riposte. I thought about going after him and demanding an explanation, but that wouldn’t have looked very professional. I waited until the room was clear, and then turned back to Principal Powers.

“You put me in a very hard position back there, Mr. Peace,” she said. She was sitting behind her desk, her arms crossed, looking particularly stern. I know I had pissed her off when I pointed out why she was asking us, specifically, to protect Speed, Lash, and Penny.

“You’re preparing the entire population of the school for attacks by well-trained supervillains, but not telling them about it. You want a group of sophomores to protect three of their enemies against assassins. And you don’t want us to tell our parents before we go into a potentially deadly assault,” I countered. That Speed, Lash, and Penny needed protection, I didn’t doubt in the least. But everything else left a bad taste in my mouth. Sky High was founded so young superheroes wouldn’t have to be shoved into these kinds of situations before they had gotten control of their powers. This went counter to everything I had learned about the school.

Principal Powers looked angry for a minute, and then her face abruptly crumpled.

“You’re very right, Mr. Peace. What I’m doing is inexcusable. I could be sending children to their deaths,” she said very quietly. I looked at her with astonishment, trying to figure out what she was getting at. There was more to this than meets the eye, and I just needed to read between the lines. She kept us in ignorance until the last minute, she tried to sound so cheerful at the school assemblies, and she had us practice using our powers, but only in private… Only in private…

“Spies,” I said succinctly. “You’re worried about spies at Sky High.” Principal Powers nodded, sighing.

“Speed, Penny, and Lash pointed it out themselves; if she had those three as spies, she might have had more. She might even have spies that don’t know they’re spies, people in the right positions that just gossip a lot. I’m in a terrible bind here Mr. Peace. If I tip my hand and reveal what we’re doing and the reason behind it, then her spies will know for certain that we’re on to her. The less people that know about it, the less people can have it pried out of them. Very few of the teachers even know about it; Coach Boomer is one of the few.

“I’m afraid that if we told your parents, they would do the logical parent thing of trying to protect their children. If they did that, that would also tip our hand. If I just keep these missions looking like training exercises, I may be able to keep this secret long enough to get the rest of the teams more than halfway trained. Once they’re anywhere near ready… then Royal Pain can learn about it. But if she learns before then… then she can drop her students on us like a ton of bricks and a whole lot more people will be hurt. I may already be letting her know by putting your group in the field… But there is literally no one else left, not even me.

“Royal Pain is a genius, and I wouldn’t put it past her to do a massive misdirection either. She could have done this whole sickening mess of assassination attempts as merely a feint in order to go after another target. Our old coach, Tom Wallace, is one of those we’re worried about. He’s the one that placed her in Sidekick class. Or the former principle, Robert Tanner, or any number of other teachers and former students that angered her. Another possibility is the simplest but perhaps the most disturbing; that she might try to go after everyone at once.

“Also there’s the possibility that some of these attacks could be by other supervillains, entirely unrelated to Royal Pain’s schemes,” she explained, outlining her points with her hands.

“Damn… and you think she’s actually directing this from prison? Or that this is just the people she hired?” I asked. The implications were chilling in either case, and the fact that Principal Powers couldn’t act openly to save the school had my gut in a knot.

“Honestly, I can’t even imagine how she could be getting any information out of Metroplex. She’s not even allowed any letters in or out, once we figured out what she could be up to. Unless she’s doing something particularly subtle, we don’t believe she’s involved directly. But Royal Pain has family, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, and cousins. She also worked with several other supervillains during her stint after her first time at Sky High. She had a great deal of time to do a lot of contingency planning, and enough resentment to detail our downfall in excruciating detail,” Principal Powers pointed out.

“So you don’t want me to tell the others, fine, I can see why. But I won’t lie to my mom,” I told her after a moment.

“Now see here Mr. Peace, you understand more about this situation than nearly everyone else, but I can’t having you-.” I cut her off.

“I can’t lie to my mom,” I corrected. “It’s impossible to lie to the Peacemaker. I thought you would have known that. So unless you’re going to keep me from going home or contacting her, she’s going to find out. And I’d want her to. What if these psychos decide to do something particularly cruel and go after our families instead? Or if not our families, what about Speed, Lash, or Penny’s families?”

Principal Powers blanched in shock. Had she really not considered that, or was she just too tired from the other eight million things she was trying to juggle to think of it? Maybe it was just because I could easily imagine the worst in any situation; maybe it was just because I was younger than Principal Powers. The old superhero rules were fairly rigid, with classical solutions to classical problems. Poisoning someone’s food or knifing them in the gut was not part of the situations she had to face when she was an active hero. But if there were villains being graduated that were our age… They grew up with violent movies and TV shows, horror books and video games. Like that film said, “Movies don’t make psychos, movies make psychos more creative.”

“I… should have considered that, Mr. Peace,” she said finally. “Their ruthlessness isn’t going to stop. But if you stop to consider everything that could go wrong, you’re going to either wear yourself to a thread with worry or go insane. Those are my jobs. I just need you to help prepare your team to protect Speed, Lash, and Penny. I will try to cover the rest of the contingencies.”

I nodded at her and left, my mind whirling. I didn’t want to keep secrets from my friends, but if they thought for a second that their families would be in danger, they would lose all coherence and go bouncing off all over the place in an attempt to help them. It was the same thing, on a smaller scale, that happened last Homecoming. Will had been poised to punch out Royal Pain, and then Layla and I had run into the room. Layla called out Will’s name, and Will had taken his eyes off of Royal Pain to see if Layla needed help. That had given Royal Pain enough of a breather to power up her suit and knock Will off the school. I could easily see something like that happening to the rest of my friends if they got distracted at a critical moment. So I would keep this discussion a secret. I didn’t have to like it, though.


I slipped into the locker room and began to get armored up with the rest of them.

 

“What did you have to talk about with Principal Powers?” Will asked me as he finished buckling on his chest plate.

“Nothing much, just trying to clarify her motivation a little,” I said casually.

“’Clarify her motivation?’ Ok, I’m not even sure what that means,” Will said, laughing a little.

“Ask Ethan to explain it to you. And what did you mean right before I left?” I demanded.

“Well, I need a second in command. And you’re going to be it,” Will said matter-of-factly.

“Why me? Why not Layla? Or Ethan?” I asked.

“Because you’re good at strategy-.”

“Ethan’s better at it!” I protested.

“You’re good at reading and handling people-.”

“I scare most people on sight!” I pointed out.

“And you’re my best friend.”

I had no response to that.

“Call me biased, but the second-in-command is the person who would lead half the team if we had to split up. I want Layla with me… and not just because she’s my girlfriend. I’m super-strong, and you’re indestructible. If there’s one of us in each group, then there’s one person who can always shield the others from something really bad. Ethan and Magenta can make themselves too small to hit, Layla can make armor from plants, and Zack could make himself too bright for anyone to get a lock on him, but if a wall drops on them… you and I would just say ‘ow’ and dig ourselves out. They might die,” Will explained.

I bowed my head for a moment, thinking that over. He’s right, he must have been thinking about this for a long time too.

“Ok Stronghold, I’ll do it. But I’m not calling you ‘boss,’” I warned with a faint grin.

“Wouldn’t dream of it. Come on, Coach Boomer wants us upstairs in the monitoring tower.”


It turned out that for a “warm-up exercise,” Boomer was going to have us hit the Gauntlet in pairs, with two of us as the defenders. Once we “had the kinks worked out,” he would set all of us as the defenders and bring in the second-best team in the school to try to get through to Speed, Penny, and Lash.

 

“I expect this’ll take several days, but your normal classes are suspended for now,” Boomer told us, pacing back and forth at the front of the room. “This takes top priority. Patterson, Howard, you’re up first, Stronghold, Evans, you’re defending.”

“That’s not fair!” Layla protested, and then clapped a hand over her mouth as she realized the stupidity of her own comment. Nothing about this situation was fair. It wasn’t fair that assassins were targeting Speed, Penny, and Lash; it wasn’t fair that we had to protect them, and it wasn’t fair to pit Ethan and Magenta against Stronghold. But life wasn’t fair.

“No, of course it’s not fair. But no one is stronger than Stronghold, and if they make a normally disabling strike against him, it counts, even if it doesn’t actually do anything. Got that?” Boomer asked, and Will nodded. “Go position yourselves. Howard, Patterson, get your gear.”

For these runs Boomer let Magenta take some tools onto the course. We wouldn’t have all our requested items from Mr. Medulla for a day or two, but there were a few they were able to get a hold of. It was a weird bunch of stuff though, a thin oval of wood the size of a postcard, a roll of reflective tape, and three mock stun-caps.

“Take notes you guys, whatever they can use to get in, so Royal Pain’s kids can, too. Whatever Stronghold and Evans do that works, mark that. Whatever they do that doesn’t work, mark that twice and figure out a way to make it work,” Boomer told the rest of us.

We got out our notebooks and glued our eyes on the monitors. From this high up our view wasn’t so great, but the monitors had every angle of the Gauntlet covered.

“Have they ever even made it through this before?” Speed asked, pointing down to the distant figures of Ethan and Magenta.

“Yeah! Magenta’s made it through twice and Ethan’s gotten through three times,” Zack said proudly. I gritted my teeth and saw Speed, Lash, and Penny exchange troubled glances. I’d run the Gauntlet nearly three dozen times, and completed it a little over eighteen times. Speed, Penny, and Lash had similar records, all of them pretty good, and hearing that they were supposed to be protected by someone with so little experience… Well, I’d be troubled too.

The buzzers rang and both Ethan and Magenta were off. Magenta had never actually permitted the rest of us to see any of her Gauntlet runs, and we were all curious to see how she ran it. And since Ethan had been running her training program this summer, this was bound to be interesting.

They both kept up a steady pace, Ethan melting under low obstacles while Magenta hurdled them. Huh… it looks like she had been running some of Zack’s courses with those moves. Both of them were keeping to the thickest part of the cover, going for more stealth than speed. I didn’t blame them; if they were going to have any chance of defeating Will, then they were going to need the element of surprise.

So far Magenta hadn’t even shifted, and I was starting to wonder if she was even going to bother, or if her grand plan was to simply get through on brainpower. Wouldn’t that be one in Boomer’s eye if she did? The moat-wall loomed above them, and then we got the real show. Magenta was up first, and shifted as Ethan cleared the top right after her, leaving her wood chip out of her shift. Ethan grabbed it and tossed it like a Frisbee into the moat. Then he grabbed Magenta and hurled her after it!

Zack made some inarticulate sound of protest as we watched the little guinea pig go sailing towards the cold water. But to our astonishment she managed a landing right on top of it and clung for all she was worth. Ethan dove in after her, melting as he hit the water. He surfaced his form beneath Magenta’s “raft,” and undulated them both to shore. When they reached land, we expected them to shift back, but apparently they had other ideas. Ethan kept oozing along, keeping Magenta cresting along on top of him, “surfing” on his melted body.

Everyone was staring at the monitors with some expression of disbelief or astonishment, though it was Lash that found his voice first.

“You’ve got to be shitting me,” he said finally. Everyone else burst out laughing, and Zack starting whooping and cheering loud enough to deafen even Boomer.

“Knock it off Cramer or you’re running next,” he warned, and Zack tried to contain his enthusiasm.

Ethan and Magenta quickly surfed over to the fortress door and squeezed underneath. Then they began threading the maze very cleverly, using Magenta’s sensitive nose to locate the right path. Ethan was managing to rip off a piece of the reflective tape and using it to mark every turning they took so they could find their way back easier if they needed to run. The rest of us were fairly impressed by their creativity, but our three charges were just looking more and more sullen by the minute.

Now would come the hard part: trying to enter the sanctum at the center of the maze and disabling their villains. Boomer wasn’t having them rescue a citizen-dummy today, because the point was to try to simply get past Will and Layla. We watched Magenta unshift briefly to hand Ethan one of her stun caps, then shift down again. The two had been quiet and subtle enough that the defenders weren’t going to get any kind of warning, which was what they had been hoping for.

They squeezed under the door, startling Will and Layla. Stronghold began to fly for Ethan while Layla was growing an ivy-bracelet she was wearing into a vine-whip… Then Ethan leapt for the ceiling, tossing Magenta up in the opposite direction, right above their “villains.” Both unshifted simultaneously and came down like a ton of bricks, stun-caps leading. Ethan tagged Will right on the head, and Boomer yelled out, “Disable!” to show he had seen him make the hit. Layla took hers on the back, and Boomer called that one too.

The lights came back up, and Will and Layla started laughing when they realized they had been had. We saw them talking on the monitors, laughing when Ethan had described their unorthodox mode of transportation, but Boomer broke up the party by yelling at them to get back up into the tower for debriefing.

“Stronghold, Evans, your charges are dead. How did Howard and Paterson get past you?” he demanded as they came into the room. Layla and Will’s expressions dropped a mile, and Ethan and Magenta looked stricken. Damnit Boomer, did you have to put it that way? I thought angrily.

“We uh… didn’t have any advance warning,” Will put in.

“We didn’t protect ourselves from above, because we knew neither of them could fly,” Layla pointed out.

“Exactly. You’ll have equipment to try to catch people at range, but what if they’re small, or too fast to catch, or able to fuzz out or trick the system? Warning is nice, but you have to count on not getting it. Stronghold here isn’t the only person who can fly, there are at least two other seniors we graduated last year that were flyers, and there could be others out there that Royal Pain recruited. And while you’re thinking about flying, what about coming up from below? These two could have easily chosen a ground-based attack…”

Boomer went on and on, until we had picked apart nearly every aspect of what went wrong, what could have gone wrong, what might have gone wrong if the moon was full, and what we were having for lunch today. Or at least that was how it seemed. Fear had been subsumed by boredom, and we were all wondering if it would be easier to still be in class today.

Will and Layla went down next to brave the Gauntlet while Zack and I defended. Boomer had given Will explicit instructions that we had to be captured alive, but only Layla was allowed to touch us.

“When this goes down, Stronghold, you’re probably going to be in an uneven battle with their strongest champions. Even if they can’t kill you, they’re going to distract you from helping the rest of your team. The best you can do is keep as many villains occupied and out of the fight with the others as possible, so I want people to get used to the idea that you’re not going to be around to do everything for them,” Boomer had explained without pity. He was right, of course, but it was still a bitter pill to swallow. Will might be the one of the most powerful super-people on the planet, but he could only be in one place at one time.

With Will flying, Zack and I would have little time to prepare, so it didn’t matter if they approached openly or not. Will was more than fast enough to zip Layla over all the obstacles, crash directly through the maze and into the inner sanctum in less than a minute. Even if Layla was going to be the one who had to capture us, she could pull in the plants from the outer Gauntlet course pretty quickly.

Zack had a plan through.

“Hey man, I totally got an idea. Magenta made me this thing, it’s awesome. Light bomb, just throw it down and BAM! Nobody’s seeing nothing, except me and you, ‘cause you know I’m throwing it,” he was saying as we made our way to the inner sanctum. He was holding a small ball the size of a cherry bomb with a red button on top.

“Uh huh…” I said, not convinced. “And what if you end up blinding both of us? I kind of need to see what I’m hitting.”

“No problem man, I can’t be blinded. Figured it out this summer, I can even look at the sun, no issues,” Zack said confidently. Huh… that’s a useful power quirk… now how am I going to work this in around my own… wait, I’m thinking I’m going to be lobbing fireballs at them, but Will flies too fast. And if he can’t touch us… the big problem is going to be Layla’s plants. I need to stop them before they can get to us.

“Ok, that’ll work… and I have an idea,” I told him as we started to get set up. I ran back to get one more thing before we started. Going offensive against Will and Layla wasn’t going to work, but if we went defensive instead…

When the buzzer sounded, Zack and I could hear a deep rumbling sound outside, and the floor began to shake.

“What the hell is that?” he yelled, as the pavement began to crack a little.

“No freaking clue, just get ready!” I called back, and closed our circle. My only “tool” from Boomer was a large bottle of oil. Layla would have to use her vine-whips to capture us, but if I were standing in a fire and Zack in a ring of fire, that would be substantially harder. The rumbling got louder, and there were several loud bangs as we heard walls collapse. With a roar, the inner sanctum door was ripped open by vines, and I could see straight through to the outer Gauntlet. Layla had apparently called up every single plant on the course, and all of them had converged on the fortress. Stronghold was flying straight for us, Layla in his arms, writhing vines all around them, obedient to her will. It was an unexpectedly awe-inspiring sight, and I was frozen for a second.

“Now!” Zack yelled, and brought me back to my senses. I threw my arm over my face as he triggered the light-bomb. Intense white light beat against my eyes, and I powered up, putting one hand on the oil-slick ground. I heard the whoosh of flames dance all around me, and some sizzling sounds as something dared the ring of fire and was burned for its trouble. I blinked away the glare, struggling to find Will and Layla in the wreckage.

Stronghold had grounded himself right inside the doors and was rubbing his eyes, as Layla groped blindly, her vines trying the circle of flame and getting crisped again and again. I suppressed a triumphant yell, not wanting to give them anything to target. A bright light was coming from behind me, and Zack was glowing for all he was worth. He still didn’t have his Liberace-coat, but he was wearing the brightest neon shirt he could find, and both Layla and Will were wincing away from his glow.

I didn’t want my friends to be in this kind of pain, but a light-bomb wouldn’t last that long, and the blindness only for a few minutes. We can’t be caught, we have to pretend it’s Speed, Lash, and Penny in the circle, we can’t let Layla’s vines in… If we could keep Will out, we could keep anyone out.

“Where… are you? I can’t see!” Layla cried, scrabbling on the ground. I throttled back an impulse to break out of the flames and help her and Will, who was slowly trying to crawl in Layla’s direction. Damn… that was really effective. If they really were villains, we could get our three charges out while they were blinded.

I squinted back at Zack, who had his jaw clenched, his expression hard and closed. I hadn’t seen him like this before, but then again I don’t think he had ever been able to use his powers really effectively in battle before. He cheerfully talked about using his powers as a night-light, but he hadn’t realized how much they could really turn the tide. His bright glowing, combined with the after-affects of the light bomb, was making Will and Layla’s eyes smart something awful, and he could see the tears on their faces as their eyes tried to ineffectually wash away whatever was blinding them.

I saw him mouth I’m sorry to me, and I raised my finger to my lips in a gesture for silence. I didn’t like it any better than he did, and poured my frustration into my fire, burning another few randomly questing vines. The flames licked my shoes and legs as I stood within them, waiting for Will and Layla to regroup. Several minutes passed as they tried desperately to see, calling to each other, and finally managing to get together again.

“I can feel the heat over there on the right, I know the plants are getting burned. I think Warren’s in the fire…” Layla said, and I bit my lip to keep from saying anything. I really didn’t like this game anymore, I hated seeing Will and Layla in pain, and they were so lost without being able to see…

“There’s just a big glow… Wait, can your plants come up from underneath?” Will asked her, staring fixedly in our direction.

“I’m trying, the floor’s too thick, and the vines are just getting burned when I go in towards that light,” Layla said desperately.

They even tried to stand and walk over to us, but the floor was so hot that they couldn’t get close. Damn, this isn’t an exercise anymore, and we’re not learning anything other than blindness is bad. This is pointless, why is Boomer letting it go on so long?

“Stop the run Boomer!” I heard Zack call out behind me, “We’re done!”

“Boomer!” I called, “We need some help down here!”

I doused my own flames as Zack stopped glowing. The remaining oil on the floor would be out in a few minutes without me feeding it. We stepped over to Will and Layla as the safety siren blared, both of us feeling pretty rotten. We had “won,” we had accomplished our goal of keeping Will and Layla from getting a hand on us, and maybe had even learned something we could use in real life. Right now though, I was only feeling like I had just kicked a helpless puppy. A helpless puppy that could rip through buildings, but still a helpless puppy.

Zack was helping Layla up as I picked Stronghold out of the rubble.

“What can you see? Anything?” I asked him, brushing him off a bit.

“A little light where the fire was… what did you guys do to us?” Will said, rubbing his eyes.

“Light-bomb. It was my idea. I didn’t know it would work that way! I’m sorry man, I shouldn’t have done that,” Zack spoke up, sounding a little frantic.

“No, no, it’s all right. If it worked on us, it’ll work on those other guys. That was a good trick,” Layla said kindly, trying to reassure Zack. I think she was actually looking at a wall when she said that, but her sincerity couldn’t be denied.

Boomer was down in a few minutes, a grumpy expression on his face. “There was no reason to stop the run,” he groused, after checking Will and Layla’s eyes. “They’ll be fine in about fifteen minutes. Now, why did you call for a stop?”

“Because in fifteen minutes we could have been half-way across the city, if we were really trying to guard someone. A moving target is harder to hit. But since we can’t exactly move in the Gauntlet, it’s pointless to watch these two bump into walls!” I snapped. Boomer looked like he had just sat on a tack.

“Oh really? And why would you run? Do you want to take the fight off of your known and fortified grounds? Do you want to expose countless unknown citizens to danger from your unknown villains? It might be harder to hit a moving target, but it would also be harder for you to find cover. Get back upstairs,” he snapped. I was angry and getting angrier. Boomer might be right about this, but it left a bad taste in my mouth.

“Now listen up,” he said, after repeating what he had said below to everyone else. “You might not like what you have to do to these villains. You’re asked for a lot of non-lethal weapons, light bombs, smoke bombs, stun rays… and you’re not always going to like the results. It’s hard to see someone crawling around on the floor blind and not want to help; that’s what makes us heroes. But in this case you might have to. Leaving the detention center grounds might not be an option. If you leave, you don’t know whom else they’re going to bring to bear against you. You don’t know if they’ve set up an ambush they want to drive you into. As much as you might hate it, you’re going to have to hold the center, not run from it. Always remember, you’re stronger on your home ground.”

Zack had his head down on his desk, and was clutching the tabletop with both hands. Magenta had her hand on the small of his back, offering some small comfort. Zack had never seen his own powers used offensively and aggressively before, and I could tell it was seriously weirding him out. And Boomer’s talk about having to not just capture our villains but hurt them was pretty harsh. Maybe it was because my own powers were so destructive, or that I had a vivid imagination, but I could see how that could happen very easily. The others hadn’t really been put in a situation where they might have to seriously hurt someone before, except for Will.


Boomer gave us a short break, reset the Gauntlet, and then set Speed and Lash to go through. Over the next few days we practiced in pairs, trios, and quads, attacking or defending, in all possible combinations of partners. We worked out plans, hashed out ideas, and set up strategies. We also argued, shared stories, and nearly killed each other in frustration on more than one occasion.

 

Lash and Speed’s “pinball move” was a natural for breaking up a close-set group of people, but it put them at terrible risk. Speed insisted he was too fast for anyone to catch, right up until Penny mentioned about Kristina being able to bring things out of thin air.

“How would you like to run into a knife at full throttle?” she had asked sarcastically.

Will was firmly against them taking an aggressive stance at all, something that didn’t sit well with our three charges.

“If you go out after them, they’re going to have you right where they want you. We’re supposed to protect you, and it’s hard to do that when you’re in the middle of a fight!” he had pointed out.

“We don’t need to be babysat, little Stronghold,” Lash snapped back. “I can take care of myself.”

“And here I recall you guys puking your guts out for two weeks after ‘taking care’ of somebody,” I couldn’t resist adding.

“Shut it Peace!”

“Screw you!”

“Guys! Please calm down. This isn’t getting us anywhere,” Layla insisted, coming between Lash and me before we could start exchanging blows. I scowled at him but backed off.

“And we’re not ‘babysitting’ you,” Will added. “We’re supposed to protect you. You don’t like it any more than we do, but that’s how it is. Look, we have plenty of power between us… and you guys can do a lot to protect yourselves without being in the middle of combat. What about that ring of fire idea we were talking about? What Warren did that first day on the Gauntlet? If we managed to blind as many people as we can, then Warren can keep you guys within the ring of fire while the rest of us try to capture everyone on the outside. Then you three can watch Warren and Zack’s backs. Speed can run through fire, Penny, you could put a few clones on the far side of the ring if you needed to, and Lash you could trip whatever enemies you could if there were a few cool spots for you to stretch through, right?”

Finally those three began to get the idea, which was good, because our “ring of fire” strategy was the best we had so far. The combination of blindness with Zack’s glowing was pretty painful, and even a pair of sunglasses didn’t help very much. Boomer even tried it himself, to mostly no avail. He boomed us pretty well, just by targeting what light he could see, but with Speed and Lash to run interference, and Penny to thump him if he got too close, we could keep him off balance enough for the rest of the team to wrestle him down.

Boomer had decided to not bring in another student team to fight us during our final Gauntlet runs, claiming Principal Powers had deemed it too risky. Boomer and Powers themselves, along with two other teachers, Hurricane and Pulsar, were our final challenge. Hurricane’s powers were wind control, which nearly grounded Will and made it harder for Layla to get her vine-barricades in place. Principal Powers’ comet-form was bright and nearly impossible to hit, and Pulsar’s heat-blasts and Boomer’s sonic booms were enough to blast through even my flame-circle.

However, the blindness trick kept working, and we had gotten the timing down pretty well. Four experienced teachers went from nearly kicking our asses to running into walls when Zack set it off. Layla had set up vine-barriers for them to force their way through, only to have it half blown, half burned, and half shredded before we were even ready. Will flew in to tackle Principal Powers herself, knowing she was both the most powerful and the most mobile, and was blown into one of the walls as Hurricane focused his power on him.

Note to self: Principal Powers is not affected by wind in her comet-form, my brain noted calmly. I used whatever wind came my way, trying to enhance the oil-fueled flames higher instead of letting them flatten out. Pulsar dodged Ethan, turning her heat-blasts on him and catching him in mid-jump. I actually heard a sizzling sound, like something frying, and clenched my teeth hard to remind myself to hold my position. I was the guardian at the gate, and if I ran off to try to help I was going to end up leaving Speed, Penny, and Lash without protection. But such considerations didn’t stop them as much.

Penny cloned beyond the ring briefly when Pulsar ran closer, giving her one high kick to the head before snapping back behind the firewall. Pulsar looked surprised, and shook her head as she gathered herself for a heat blast to collapse the wall. There was a loud boom off to our right, cut off suddenly, and I spared a glance to see a triumphant guinea pig on top of Boomer’s crumpled form. Our gym teacher was now experiencing the full glory of an active stun-cap, and I spared a half-grin.

“Now!” Zack yelled behind me, and there was a break in the tempo of battle as we all covered our eyes. The light exploded from behind me, and Pulsar’s heat-blast hit me in the side. It seemed warm even to me: not enough to hurt, but definitely enough for me to feel it. Half the firewall collapsed, and I started to move to cover my three charges. Damnit, she got a blast off before Zack got her… There was another soft whump off to my right, and I realized Pulsar had only hit me by luck. She was scrubbing at her eyes with one hand and had her other out before her to ward off danger. Zack’s bright glow was working its usual magic, and she winced away from us.

“Speed,” I called, and reignited the circle. A blur whirled by me, then by Pulsar, and back again, knocking her on her seat. A loud roaring sound caught our attention as vines rocketed skyward on our other side. Hurricane was caught in the wind-whipped foliage, struggling as Layla directed her plants from below. Boomer down, Hurricane caught, Pulsar disabled for the time being, where’s Powers?

A bright light from above caught my attention, and I watched with wide eyes as I saw Will, his hands clutching the bright center of Powers comet-form, hurling towards the unforgiving ground like a meteorite. Holy shit! I thought, my gaze locked on the pair.

“Warren, Pulsar!” Lash yelled in my ear. He slipped his arm through a chink in the firewall and knocked Pulsar’s feet out from under her again. There was an odd squishing sound as she fell… and then I saw her stiffen with a stun-reaction. A much-subdued Ethan oozed out from under her and resolidified, his skin peeling and cracked from Pulsar’s heat-blast.

I heard a yell from above me, “Incoming!” and barely had time to duck before Will and Principal Powers hit dead center in the flame circle. Speed, Lash, Penny, and Zack barely made it out of the way in time, and we were all blown to the ground by the force. Will eased up a little, but still kept a grip on Powers’ shirt.

“Jesus Will, did you kill her?” Lash asked, prying himself out of the ground with a rubbery snap.

“Uh… no?” Will said uncertainly. Principal Powers opened her eyes and rubbed at them a bit.

“I yield,” she said in an exhausted tone of voice. “Good work children.”

Will waited another few minutes for Pulsar, Boomer, and Hurricane to be gathered together, all bound or stunned, before letting her go. Boomer and Pulsar came out of their stunning five minutes later, with a bit of a headache but not much worse for the wear.

“Well, I’ll say I’m impressed. Good use of tactics, excellent teamwork, and you protected your charges quite effectively,” Powers was saying to us as we finished picking ourselves up.

“But a lot of that was luck,” Boomer added, brushing dust off of his sleeves.

“So how are we supposed to compensate for that?” Lash asked sarcastically. Principal Powers sighed and looked sideways at Boomer.

“He’s just stating the obvious. Just be prepared to be flexible. Your light trick is pretty clever, and not one that I’ve seen used very often, but you don’t know how effective it’s going to be in a less controllable environment. Make sure you have your backup plan is in place; that’s all you can do,” Powers said wearily.

Will was cracking his knuckles, trying to get his joints back in place after hitting the ground so hard, and the rest of the group was half-collapsed with exhaustion. We were bone-tired after this last run, and if we hadn’t been so keyed up with what this was really for, we might have protested.

“I think you’re ready as you’re going to get kids,” Boomer told us, catching each of our gazes as he spoke. “Just be careful.”

“We won’t let you down,” Will said, not to Boomer, but to Speed, Penny, and Lash. Those three looked at each other, and then back at Will with some surprise.

“Thanks,” Penny said finally, and the other two nodded. They might have been idiots, but they had stuck to their jobs of watching my back in the fire-circle. Somehow they had gotten it through their skulls that we were their only hope, and were acting accordingly. Please… just let us get them through this in one piece…


 

Four days ago…

I was waiting in my own living room, almost as nervous as the day last year when I had been in the cafeteria fight. Mom was coming home in a few minutes, and I was trying to figure out what to tell her, or how.

“Hi Mom, hey Principal Powers wants us to guard the lives of the three students helped sabotage the school last fall. Sounds like fun, right?”

I got my first assignment today. Me and all my friends are going to guard some of our enemies against deadly assassins, isn’t that great?”

So Speed, Lash, and Penny walked into a bar…”

Damn, this wasn’t going to go well.

I still wasn’t sure exactly what to say when my Mom came through the door, but she made a beeline right for me, her expression alarmed.

“Warren, what in the world is going on? I could feel your distress from outside!” she demanded, sitting down next to me.

“I…” I hesitated, “We got our first assignment today.”

“You mean, you did, your friends are still too young…” She had meant to make that a question, but she knew already from the tone of my voice that I had mean all of us.

“It’s Royal Pain; she had gotten her supervillain academy up and running before last Homecoming. Whoever she’s got running it is setting her students up with lethal graduation exercises. They’ve been trying to take out Speed, Lash, and Penny. We’ve been asked to guard them on Homecoming night,” I got out.

“But why you kids-? Spies,” she said suddenly, picking up on my distress.

“Yeah. If she puts superheroes in charge of guarding them, even if she had any to spare, she’d be letting them know she knows. She’s afraid the academy would bring on all their students at once, and no one else at the school is really ready,” I explained.

“My God Warren… I never thought I’d see the day where we couldn’t protect our own kids at school…” she whispered. “This is ludicrous. And you… you weren’t even supposed to tell me, were you?” I shook my head.

“No, but I told Principal Powers I couldn’t lie to you so I would have to tell you. I wouldn’t lie to you, not about this. The others… well, their parents would hear about this and-.”

“Try to keep their kids as far away as possible; it’s only logical,” Mom nodded, and looked down at the floor for a minute. “They’d be acting selfishly if they did that, you know. It must be ripping Veronica apart to have to send you instead of going herself. But what would she have been doing next graduation? Most superkids get into life-and-death situations when they’re eighteen… but I don’t know how an arbitrary age is any way to measure heroism.”

“I don’t know… It’s not like they can’t handle this, but they’re only sixteen!” I pointed out, feeling sick to my stomach.

“Back before Sky High a lot of kids had to leap right into the hero business the minute they powered up, without the benefit of your kind of training and education. I’m not saying it was the best way to do things, but somehow they managed to survive long enough to have kids of their own.

“It’s not the best way to do this. I can scarcely believe that Veronica Powers is tapping sophomores to help, but if she truly feels she has no choice…” Mom explained, still looking miserable, but also resigned. I reached over and gave her a hard hug, not wanting to let go.

“I’m scared,” I said finally, “Will wants me to be the second-in-command, the other protector in the group. I… just…”

“You’re afraid you might fail you friends,” Mom whispered gently.

“Yeah.”

“If you weren’t afraid for them in this situation, you wouldn’t be human. Warren, I understand why you told me, and why you don’t want me to tell anyone else. And I promise, I won’t go charging around like a fool if things get tough. That’s just what a villain would want. Just be careful!” she said, holding me tightly.

I could only hope she was right.

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Timothy
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