“You know, last year at this time I was trying to decide how to do my hair and which dress I wanted to wear,” Layla commented nervously.
“Well now you get to decide which Kevlar vest you want to wear and how you’re going to get the com-set on your head without messing up your hair,” Magenta quipped back.
We were in the gym at the Maxville Youth Detention Center, newly cleared out for our pending battle. I don’t know how Principal Powers got the administration convinced to move all the juvie kids, nor where she put them, but the place was empty now. We had decided not to overlook the blindingly obvious when asked for our lists of gear from the school, and now had a small mountain of stuff spread out for us to use. Kevlar vests and as much body armor as we wore on the Gauntlet were the first to go on. It would be just our luck if one of Royal Pain’s kids brought something as simple as a plain old gun to this fight.
Communications sets were our next thing. With a total of nine of us that were going to be spread out all over the center, we couldn’t communicate just by yelling. Speed, Penny, Lash, Zack, and I would be confined by the ring of fire, but everyone else was going to be a lot more mobile, Will in particular. Zack had his light-bombs, of course and Magenta had her stun-caps. Ethan was on the roof setting up some cameras, while Will was flying up near the ceiling to set up a large screen. The “ring of fire” group was going to be pinned down in the gym, but we still needed to see what was going on outside.
Maybe a smaller room might have been more defensible for the fire-ring, but the heat alone would have killed anyone but me. Maybe outside there would be less danger of that, but it gave us less control over where someone could attack us. Setting it up in the gym was our best compromise.
“Ethan, I have the screen set up,” I heard Will say. Then Ethan’s voice came back, telling Will how to turn the projector on. After a few minutes, we finally had some clear pictures of the front of the center and the road leading up to it.
“We’re good Ethan,” I called, “I can see everything.”
“Ok, I’ll be back in in a minute.”
Zack had finally gotten his silver coat, and was wearing it very proudly as he finished gearing up. Mr. Medulla had apparently approved our specs for our final science projects, and delivered them with the rest of the gear as a gift. I had to bite my lip to keep from laughing every time I looked at him. He looked like he was wearing aluminum foil, like he was a giant, foil-wrapped string bean. With a cotton ball on top.
“So… you and the hippie chick were making drugs in science class?” Speed asked me casually. He was leaning back against the wall, having geared up in approximately one second flat. Since Layla and I had taken small bottles of something that rattled out of Mr. Medulla’s box, it was understandable, but Layla just gave him a withering look.
“They’re plants, little miniature seedlings in capsules,” she explained, exasperated.
“What about you Peace? Hair dye?” I counted mentally to ten before I could answer without snarling. Twice. In Mandarin.
“No, oxygen caplets,” I said in a perfectly level tone of voice.
“Remember that little vortex trick you pulled the last time we played Save the Citizen? I wanted to avoid a repeat,” I explained, my teeth gritted.
“Oh yeah. That was pretty sweet, wasn’t it?” he said, and Lash stretched his arm over for a high five.
“I think I remember you losing that fight, don’t you Stronghold?” I asked in a louder tone of voice. Will flew down from the ceiling and landed, casually crossing his arms as he pretended to think about it.
“Yeah, I think I remember tying you to a pole and then crashing you both into the barrier,” Will said thoughtfully to Lash.
Lash and Speed both looked sullen, and Penny gave an exasperated sigh.
“You know, you two could find some other way to pass the time instead of macho posturing,” she pointed out, finishing strapping on her greaves.
I tried to ignore them both and went back to putting on the last of my armor. Those three were nervous… ok, terrified, and they were refusing to show it. If it was easier on them to make quips and jokes… I couldn’t blame them.
“It was a pretty good trick,” I said as I finished tightening the last of the buckles. Speed looked at me oddly, as if trying to figure out if I was pulling his leg. “Hurt like hell though.”
“I uh… it always works pretty well. Worked really well on you,” Speed said casually.
“It’s because I have fire-powers. I need more air than other people. Hence the oxygen caplets,” I told him. “If anyone that comes after us tonight is like that, do the same thing; that’ll down ‘em for sure.”
Speed raised an eyebrow at that. “Yeah, fine, I can do that.”
“But only if I say so. I’m serious,” I added as Speed looked about ready to protest. “You know the second you break that barrier you’re in trouble, because no one here can catch you. They might have someone who can. I need you feeding the barrier-flames unless I say otherwise.”
He nodded and started to look depressed. All three of them had to be scared out of their minds. They all had stronger powers than three of the people that were supposed to be protecting them, but they weren’t allowed directly help in their own defense. Speed’s job was to keep fueling the flame-barrier, while Lash and Penny were supposed to help keep people away from Zack and I if they got too close. I was going to be the closest to the edge, and if I had to stop fueling the flames to start throwing fireballs, I had to count on those three to keep the circle going and watch our backs.
Zack was our living light-bomb, his ridiculous silver coat multiplying his own power several times over, and giving us enough bright light to fight by even if they cut the power. Unfortunately, if he was under stress, he could get a little too bright for anyone except himself to see clearly. That could put us in the same boat as our enemies after we triggered the real light-bombs. Well, at least we had practiced that situation a little; our enemies wouldn’t have.
Besides, we had had another trick up our sleeves, literally. One of Magenta’s requests from Mr. Medulla had been stun-rays, and now Zack and the rest of us were packing heat. None of us were very good shots, and we really didn’t even anticipate using them if we didn’t have to. All it would take would be for one person to use them, and then our enemies might try to take them from us. Or, God help us, if there was a technopath in the group they could make the things fall apart, reverse, or blow up. But if everyone else got blinded, at least Zack could do something other than stand there.
Traditionally stun-rays were the domain of the intelligent but weak superheroes and supervillains like Mr. Medulla. Strong ones like Will or I would never be seen with them, because it wasn’t considered “fair.” For years the superpowered world had played by an unwritten set of rules that governed how you fought, what weapons which people used, who got taken hostage, and dozens of other things. Now we were entering uncharted territory. Royal Pain had broken from tradition and shattered the old rules last year, and had her own brand of “fair” taught to her students, a kind of fair that thought nothing of sneaky, underhanded, and vicious attacks.
I hadn’t agreed with the old superhero rules even when I had been learning them my first few years at Sky High. I didn’t even like the idea of these unknown enemies coming to us. If we had known where they were, I would have suggested ambushing them! They did not deserve a fair warning; they didn’t deserve a fair anything. Poison and gut-stabbings hadn’t earned them any sympathy from me, even if their victims were bullies.
“It’s starting to get dark. We better get outside,” Will commented a few minutes later. Everyone else was geared up and ready to go, and we all kind of stared awkwardly at each other for a minute. We were scared, I knew it; terrified that we wouldn’t be able to make it through tonight. No one wanted to leave this room; no one even wanted to move…
“Group hug!” Layla said suddenly, startling a laugh out of all of us. Us guys groaned a bit, but Layla practically shoved us all together, Kevlar-to-Kevlar, for a brief embrace. Ethan and I pretended not to notice when the two couples exchanged kisses.
“Ok, ok, let’s get in position,” Will said finally. All of our information and best guesses had the attack coming after nightfall, and we had to be ready by then.
“Be careful,” I added, stepping back into my circle. Magenta, Ethan, Layla, and Will left the gym, and now we were only connected by our voices on the com sets. I lifted my head to the screen, seeing Will take to the sky, while Magenta, Ethan, and Layla hid on the roof. The easiest way for them to not be hit was to simply not be in the line of fire at all. Layla could direct her plants quite easily from the roof, and Ethan and Magenta could drop down fairly safely in their shifted forms if they had to. It was their job to make getting into the detention center as difficult as possible. If we were very lucky, Layla might be able to wrap up our enemies in vines before they got within a hundred yards. We couldn’t count on that, but that was our best-case scenario.
I turned to look back at Speed, Lash, and Penny, only to find them staring at Zack and I.
“What?” I asked.
“Why are you doing this?” Penny asked finally. “Why help us?”
“Dude, haven’t you been listening? These guys, whoever they are, they’re punks. We’re not going to let them win. ‘Cause that would suck,” Zack said absently, most of his attention on Magenta.
“Isn’t it a little late to be asking that anyway? If you want to talk us out of it, you should have done it a week ago. Besides, I think Will pretty much covered all the reasons on our last Gauntlet run,” I replied.
“I don’t get you,” Lash said out of the blue. “I don’t. We stuffed him,” he pointed at Zack, “In a locker, and now we’re supposed to watch his back? And you’re trusting us to do that?” He stood with his armed crossed.
“Principal Powers said something to us the day we met in her office. She said, ‘you don’t get to choose who to save. It’s one of the hardest things about being a hero,’” I commented.
“Bullshit. You don’t really believe that crap, do you?” Speed asked sharply. A light bulb went off in my head.
“You don’t, that’s it right? You don’t believe you can make a difference. You don’t think that your powers are really good for anything other than a few party tricks or getting yourself out of a bad situation,” I said quietly, looking each of them in the eye. They squirmed a bit and looked away.
“Dudes, I should be the one thinking that. Seriously. What do I do? I just glow, that’s it. But it’s cool, because I got my boys around. And even if I don’t, I got tricks my sleeve. I got nets, I got rays; I got all kinds of toys. And if I can’t get the bad guy, then I can sure light ‘em up for someone who can. I know what I’m good for,” Zack said cheerfully. Well, as cheerful as you can be when facing possible death.
Zack might occasionally be a bit cowardly, and he wasn’t the greatest academic in the world, but that was more than madeup for by his attitude. Zack was never really depressed; occasionally down, but never in the kinds of deep blue funks that I had gotten myself into. He was upbeat, funny, incredibly laid-back, and helped keep the rest of us sane more often than we could say. If he could handle this situation… well then any of us could.
Speed, Penny, and Lash looked back at Zack, then at me, and they looked ashamed. That might have been the first time, ever, I had seen genuine shame on their faces, and I was surprised.
“I never thought…” Penny started, then stopped, uncertain.
“Then start thinking now,” I said forcefully.
“We just never really wanted to go out and save people we didn’t know,” Speed said.
“I guess that’d make me kinda pissed off if I didn’t want to save the world,” Zack said idly. “I always thought it’d be cool though. I mean the costumes, the newspaper stories, the babes who dig guys in Spandex…” I suppressed a laugh at that, it was a good thing he’d never used that “babes” line in front of Layla though, or he’d find his celery sticks chasing him around the house.
What Speed had said made a ridiculous amount of sense though. All the kids that went to Sky High were going to end up devoting their lives to saving strangers from harm. Most of us grew up with superhero parents, and dreamed of becoming heroes ourselves. But what if you didn’t want to be a hero? What if you just wanted to be, say, a doctor or a firefighter or something? I had no idea if there were any people that had ever graduated from Sky High that hadn’t gone into the hero business. It sounds like no one ever asked those three if they wanted to save the world. I guess that would make anyone angry. And when Royal Pain had come along and asked them to tear down the institution that represented everything they hated in the world… It must have been irresistible.
“So… what do you want to do?” I asked. Lash shrugged.
“I’d like to play bass in a band or something.”
“I like to make videos, thought I’d like to work for MTV,” Speed put in.
“I want to be a model,” Penny added.
“And why didn’t you say something about this like say… four years ago?” I asked sarcastically.
“Yeah, like my dad would listen,” Lash said sullenly. Speed and Penny body nodded in agreement. Ok, well that doesn’t excuse their behavior, but that sure explains lot…
“You seriously need to talk to Principle Powers about this-” A crackle on the com set interrupted me.
“There’s a car coming down the road.” It was Will’s voice, a faint hissing of wind in the background from his flying.
“See anything yet Magenta? Ethan?” Ethan and Magenta had the binoculars, and I could see them fixing them on the car.
“Yeah… looks like… I think four, no five people,” Magenta said after a minute.
“There’s a girl in the driver’s seat… I don’t think it’s Kristina. Penny, you said she had short blonde hair, right?” Ethan asked.
“That’s right, pale skin, short blonde hair, blue eyes. She was wearing white the last time I saw her,” Penny called back.
“Ok, not her then. This one looks kind of Indian, long dark hair, dark skin… I don’t recognize her at all. She doesn’t look like anyone in my books,” Ethan reported.
“Well they told us she was trying to recruit people that didn’t even have superhero parents, remember? She might be new,” Will said.
“Yeah… ok, three men, two women… the second woman is Kristina I think,” Ethan reported, and I heard Penny curse behind me.
“Hey guys… there’s a bird up here. An eagle,” Will said, sounding uncertain.
I actually saw Magenta freeze on the screen.
“Will, eagles don’t fly at night; that’s a shapeshifter!” she cried.
“It’s not- holy cow!” I heard Will exclaim. He was out of the range of the cameras, so I couldn’t see what was happening to him, and it was maddening. “It just dived at me! Hey!” Then something odd happened; I heard Will’s voice drop a half-octave, and it took on a tone of black rage. “You fucking bird, come back here!”
I saw Ethan, Magenta, and Layla looking up at the sky, and all three were looking alarmed.
“Layla. Layla!” I yelled to her, trying to get her attention back to the here and now.
“Ye-yeah?” she responded, and I could hear the fear in her voice.
“Does Will swear? Ever?” I asked urgently. I hadn’t heard him swear in our one year of friendship, but Layla had known him since they were children.
“No, not ever,” she whispered, her eyes fixed on the sky.
“Rage inducement!” Ethan said suddenly. “There’s a supervillain called the Berserker, he can make people angry. I bet that’s what happened to Will.”
I swore mentally. Just like Boomer had predicted, they had found a way to get Will out of the fight. And that meant now I was in charge. Crap.
“Layla, stop that car!” I called out; glancing back to the lower screen to see it was halfway up the driveway already. Layla wrenched her attention off the sky and stretched out her hand to the ground below. The ground buckled a bit, and then erupted in roots and vines, lashing around the car and wrapping it up. The driver tried to swerve, but Layla was having none of it, and soon had it trussed up like a present for Christmas.
“Yeah Layla!” Zack yelled, clapping in the echoing gymnasium.
I watched the car closely, and I saw Ethan and Magenta both start with surprise.
“No joy, something’s happening…” Magenta started to say.
There was a faint flash of bluish light, and then there were five people sitting in the middle of the road about ten feet from the car. All five were holding hands, and from Penny’s faint curse behind me, the short, buzz-cut blonde in the white t-shirt and jeans must have been the infamous Kristina.
“Damnit, that’s Viper!” I heard Lash say behind me, and stretched his arm to point out a slender, dark-haired kid in green. Aside from the dark-haired girl Ethan had pointed out earlier, there was a massive guy with a mess of bushy brown hair, and a tall, thin guy with thick streaks of white in his hair.
The five of them scattered in all directions as soon as they had appeared on the road, and Layla frantically tried to send her vines to catch them all. She managed to catch the big guy, only to see him shift into a bear, ripping through the vines like they were tissue paper. Kristina seemed to be dodging them adroitly, teleporting every few feet, hauling along the dark-haired girl with her. Layla couldn’t get the vines to follow her fast enough. Viper kept getting tripped up, but then he would get his hands on the vines, and I would see them start to wither and fall away. She got vines securely around the white-haired guy, and for a minute it looked like we had our first victory. Then he got one hand somewhat free, and stretched it to the sky. A massive lightning bolt flashed down from the heavens and struck him, incinerating the vines on the spot, leaving him untouched.
“Holy shit!” Speed yelled behind me. Took the words right out of my mouth Speed, I thought.
“Ethan, Magenta, get ready to tag the first two you can,” I called, feeling the heat gathering along my arms involuntarily. “Get Kristina!” Her short-range teleportation power was potentially deadly to our plan, because if she could get past the fire-ring… we could all be in big trouble. This was going to take some really good timing…
I watched our two shapeshifters edge a little closer to the edge of the roof, and saw Magenta hand Ethan a stun-cap.
“Layla, bury Lightning-boy, if he gets a shot off at Will-“ I didn’t even get a chance to finish my sentence.
“I’m on it!” she cried, and every plant in the electrokinetic’s vicinity went mad. Vines, bushes, even entire trees started lashing out at him, and lightning began to fall thick and fast around him. But as fast as he could burn the plants, Layla was bringing more in.
Almost at the same time, Ethan and Magenta shapechanged and leapt off the roof. Kristina and the other girl were nearly to the door, their progress unpredictable by Kristina’s random short teleports. I watched, heart in my throat, as they angled for her next most likely position… and missed, as Kristina teleported to the left. The guinea pig and blob hit the ground lightly, and then quickly ran (and oozed) for the cover of Layla’s foliage. Their attacks needed the element of surprise, so they needed to regroup before going after them again. The dark-haired girl seemingly ignored them as she took out a set of keys from her pocket.
Oh damn! I thought. We had done the obvious and locked all the exterior doors, but apparently they had a key to the place. In two seconds she had the door open, and the two were now in the school. They’d be here any second.
“Ethan, Magenta, there’re in! Get Viper and the bear!” I yelled, and ignited the firewall. The less people we had in the gym, the better. We didn’t need Kristina calling in the cavalry.
I had barely powered up when I heard Penny make a scared-sounding squeak. I looked down to the gym doors to see Kristina and her shadow standing there. They slowly began to walk forward, Kristina teleporting them every few feet, giving the whole thing the surreal air of a horror movie.
“Zack!” I cried, and flung my arm up in front of my face. White light erupted around me, and I heard an unfamiliar voice cursing loudly. Score one for the good guys, I thought, and took my arm down. Zack had powered up and was flooding the gym with bright yellow-green light, clearly illuminating the stumbling figures of our two enemies. Gotcha.
“Cutter, Cutter where are you?” the dark-haired girl asked. “I can’t see!”
“Here, here! Focus on me, follow the sounds, Painbreaker!” Kristina called back. Codename is Cutter? That can’t be good… I was about to get Lash to knock those two down, when Cutter turned and threw something. I couldn’t even see it clearly, just a flash of something silver going past my head and into the wall behind me. I turned, and saw it was a small knife.
“Ow,” Zack said softly, and I saw he had a very small cut on his cheek from the blade. Blinded and she still managed to hit him? Impressive.
Then Painbreaker stretched out her hand towards us, and a dark flash honed in on Zack. He fell to the floor, clutching his face and screaming in mortal agony.
“Bastards!” I snarled. “Lash!”
Lash’s long, striped arm zipped out through a small chink in the firewall and tripped Cutter and Painbreaker, abruptly bringing an end to Zack’s screams and our light source.
“Zack! Zack!” I yelled.
“I think he passed out,” Penny said, kneeling next to him. I was far too angry to even try to heal whatever had been done to him, so I had to leave him for now. And that made me even angrier. Absently I noticed Speed feeding the flames, and I tried to make them even higher, to block any line of sight Cutter and Painbreaker had on us. I wrenched my gaze back to the screen.
The bear had gotten himself loose from the rest of Layla’s entangling vines and was lumbering towards the door, while Viper was right on his heels. I couldn’t see Ethan and Magenta at all, but I hoped that was just because they were well hidden. The bear galumphed past another bush, and I saw a little dark furry bullet ram into his side. I cut off a protest as the bear stiffened and fell. Magenta shifted back and scrambled out of the way, grinning and panting at the same time.
“I think he’s coming around…” I heard Penny say behind me, and the light level in the room began to rise. I breathed a sigh of relief.
“Zack, your girlfriend just stunned the bear,” I said to him, keeping my eyes on the screen.
“Dude… I knew she could,” he said faintly.
On screen I saw Magenta back up from the bear and begin to turn… that’s when Viper struck. Viper managed to get a hand on Magenta’s arm, smiling cruelly when she stiffened in pain. Magenta turned dead pale and collapsed, shifting reflexively into her guinea pig form.
“Magenta!” Zack screamed, and the gym erupted in light. It was as if a second light-bomb had gone off, and I couldn’t even cover my face in time. Renewed cries from Cutter and Painbreaker told us that our enemies had been caught off guard too. “You’d be surprised at what super-kids can pull off under stress,” I heard the voice of Nurse Spex in my mind. No crap, my brain replied. I can’t see, they can’t see, the only one who can see is Zack… where the hell was Ethan? He should have been taking care of Viper… we have to get Magenta back to me… My brain was running at light speed in a hundred directions at once, but I could only come to one decision.
“Zack, get Magenta and bring her back,” I said in a low voice, hoping Zack would only hear me over the com. There was a rush of air by my head, and I realized Zack had just hurdled me on his way over the firewall. Fuck, that was stupid. I should have sent Speed. No, I can’t have him leave the circle… Zack will know right where Magenta is… Cutter and Painbreaker can’t see, they can’t tag Zack, not with that glare… Damnit, I never wanted to make these kinds of decisions… Where the hell is Ethan?
“Ethan! Ethan answer me!” I yelled into the com. “Layla, what’s going on out there? Where’s Viper?” I was still half-blinded, and I couldn’t see the screen for shit. I heard a faint sob come over the com channel, and my heart sank.
“It’s… I have Lightning-boy all wrapped up, I don’t think he can move… Warren I’m tired, I can’t, I can’t….” she said, sobbing. Oh fuck, she just ran herself into power exhaustion. Damnit, we need her. Layla’s powers were a lynchpin of this plan of ours, but her overreaction to Lightning-boy must have burned up all her energy. Will, we need Will.
“Layla, try to talk Will down, get him out of that rage, say whatever you have to,” I said forcefully. I wasn’t even sure it was possible to talk someone out of an induced rage, but it was worth a shot. I heard Layla begin talking; nearly babbling into the com, but my attention was focused elsewhere. My vision was finally starting to clear, and without Zack’s bright glow in the gym, all we had were the gym lights themselves. I spied Cutter’s pale silhouette far too close to me, and Painbreaker’s dark, shadowy form on the far side of the gym.
“You can’t win. With Bloodtalon up there with Flyboy, he’ll be chasing her from now until next year and never even notice. Stunning Bruin won’t slow him down for long; he’s too damn big. And once he’s free, he’ll free Skybolt and then Flyboy will be nothing but a roasted chicken,” she said cruelly, taking a step or two closer to me. I blinked furiously to try to clear my vision faster, feeding the flames as high as I dared.
Cutter blinked out in a flash of bluish light, and for a terrified second I though she was going to breech the firewall. Then she was back in front of me, screaming with outrage, smoke rising from her hair and clothes. She needs line of sight, she can’t cross the firewall! It looked like she had just found that out the very hard way.
“Bastard! Give them to me!” she snarled, drawing a knife in each hand. I couldn’t even see where she was getting them, and the idea that she was teleporting them to her hands made me very uneasy.
“Come and get them yourself,” I taunted loudly, and then murmured into the com, “Penny, Lash, get ready to set her on her ass.” Let her talk, if it keeps her from throwing more knives. If she’s talking, then she can’t do anything else. Villains always talked too much, it was some kind of unwritten law of the universe…
“Why protect them? You know what they wanted to do to you? They wanted to steal your life. Royal Pain would have raised you as another Baron Battle, as a psychotic flame-throwing monster under her own control. They aren’t worth saving,” she said, taking one more step so she was practically in my space. She might have been considered pretty, but there were lines of cruelty in her face that made her look like a demon in the firelight.
I could practically hear Speed, Lash, and Penny wincing behind me at her words. Anger surged through me, not at what she said, but at her own attempts to bring me down to her level. Was loyalty supposed to be so cheap?
I wasn’t sure what she was going to do next, but I couldn’t have anticipated it. She suddenly leaned in and kissed me… while stabbing both knives in my stomach at the same time. I was shocked for about a half-second, then revulsion and anger roared through me. The Kevlar vest turned the blades, and I unthinkingly reached down and grabbed her wrists… with both my flaming hands. There was a sizzling sound, and then she screamed shrilly, like Zack had when Painbreaker had tagged him. I let go, shocked at what I had done, and Cutter clutched her burned wrists to her chest. My gorge rose when I saw the blacked skin on her arms, and I couldn’t even formulate a thought as she staggered backwards, and then began teleporting out of the gym with Painbreaker.I cannot believe I just did that…
“Warren!” Ethan’s voice rang out over the com, “I couldn’t get Viper, and the bear is up again!”
“Damn!” Everything was falling apart. “Ethan, Cutter and Painbreaker are coming out, we have to get Magenta inside! Zack’s coming out to you.”
I heard some faint cursing coming from the com set, and the scream of an eagle echoed through the yelling. I could see faint forms on the screen now, but only one of them was lit up like a Christmas tree.
“Get off of her!” I heard Zack yell over the com, and the glow brightened on the screen a bit.
“Wow,” Ethan said softly.
“I can’t see Ethan, what’s going on?” I yelled, about on the edge of hysteria.
“Viper was standing over Magenta, and Zack just decked him!” Ethan reported breathlessly.
“Where are you?” I snarled.
“I’m hidden, the bear woke up and started freeing Lightning-boy, and I had to get out of the way. I’m working my way over to them now… I think I can get one or the other, but I don’t know if I can get both…” he said quietly.
“Use the stun-rays, Cutter and Painbreaker will be out there any minute,” I said, trying to scrub my eyes with a forearm. The screen finally snapped into focus, and the scene was chaos. Zack was running back towards the front door, something small and dark cradled in his hands, the lumbering Bruin was bulling his way through the mound of leaves that marked Skybolt, and a prone Viper was sprawled in some shredded foliage. Layla was still on the roof, but her eyes were focused above her.
“Will!” Layla yelled suddenly, and I saw a red, white, and blue streak go sailing past her, followed immediately by a mad-looking eagle with red talons. Bloodtalon, I remembered from Cutter’s speech. Where are Cutter and Painbreaker? Damnit, Zack is going to run right into them!
Will flattened out his dive and went straight for Skybolt’s mound of leaves, as lightning flashed down right in front of him. He pulled up so abruptly he must have gotten whiplash, and Bloodtalon ran right into him from behind. The eagle fell from the sky, and Bruin ran to intercept her, catching Bloodtalon on his broad, furry back. More lightning crashed around Will, and I had to look away from the screen. There was enough light just from the high windows to catch most of the show.
There was a strangled noise from the com, and a bright yellow-green light began to fill the gym. Cutter and Painbreaker re-entered the gym, Cutter with a knife at Zack’s throat, Painbreaker holding Magenta’s limp shifted form.
“Say a word, and I slice his throat and the rat dies in agony,” Cutter said with deadly quiet menace. “Now, drop the fire and let those three decide how they’re going to die.”
I froze, fear flooding my body and my flames dying on my hands. Seeing Cutter’s burned wrists, the desperation in Zack’s eyes, Magenta lying so still in Painbreaker’s grasp, seeing the lightning show outside… I’m going to fail them; I’m going to die. It wasn’t just a guess, it was a fact. I knew I was going to die horribly, and all my friends were going to die with me…
“Fuck this,” I heard Lash say behind me, and before I could even be surprised, all three had hopped the firewall. Penny, all eight of her, surrounded Cutter in a show of cartwheels and kicking, striking her in a half-dozen places at once. Zack stumbled forward, out of Penny’s circle, and Lash and Speed went into action on Painbreaker. Lash plucked Magenta’s limp body from her grasp, and Speed went into a vortex on her. Within a few seconds she was gasping for air.
The icy fear broke when Lash dropped Magenta in my hands. The ember flames sprang to my hands without even conscious thought, the feeling of wrongness in Magenta was so strong. I could see her life’s fire in my minds eye, shadowed as if by tar by Viper’s poison. I slowed my breathing and began to pour the red fire into her tiny body, the world narrowing to the flame I was trying to save within her. Faint noises penetrated my concentration, a cry, a thud, a curse, and a louder crash… I ignored them all, not able to care about them even if I wanted too. I began to feel cold… then there was a faint touch on my shoulder and Zack joined his power to mine.
“Come on Warren, you can do it. Hang on Magenta, I love you…” I heard faintly above the roaring in my ears. Finally the feeling of wrongness stopped, and I dropped to my knees. My eyelids seemed to weigh a hundred pounds each as I struggled to open them again. A dusty and battered Will was kneeling next to me, Layla standing next to him.
“Hey Warren? I think we won…” he said, sounding surprised.