It must have taken us almost an hour to pull ourselves together. Will told me that Ethan had managed to stun Bruin and Bloodtalon while he managed to get through to Skybolt. Just as that was happening, they heard what was going on inside the gym and ran to our rescue. Bad luck and worse timing let Cutter have one free moment, long enough to grab Painbreaker and teleport out, along with the rest of her crew.
“So we lost them,” I concluded, hanging my head.
“But Penny, Lash, and Speed are fine. And you and Zack saved Magenta. Layla saved me. No one died; we’re all in one piece,” Will said reassuringly.
“What happened with Bloodtalon?” Ethan asked. He looked a little worse for the wear, pale and exhausted.
“I don’t even know really. She dived me, and just barely touched me… and I got so angry with her. All I could think about was trying to k- get her,” Will said hesitantly.
“That sounds like rage inducement,” Ethan nodded authoritatively. Will was obviously feeling terrible about it, and I had a real moment of empathy with him. He hadn’t known that he could feel capable of ripping someone else apart. I really needed to get him to see my mom, or he was going to end up worse off than I was after the cafeteria fight.
“Layla talked me out of it,” Will said quietly, “Otherwise I think I’d still be up there.”
“And you stunned two people on your own? So much for you not being much of a shot,” Layla said with a smile at Ethan, carefully changing the subject. Will was uncomfortable enough as it was. Ethan shrugged and blushed.
“I was close. And Bruin was a big target,” he waved it off. “And besides, Zack was the one that punched Viper out all on his own. I saw him; it was something else.”
“My hero,” Magenta said, smiling a little. At least, I think she was smiling, because she was shifted, sitting on Zack’s shoulder.
“Yeah, but guinea pig versus bear and the bear goes down!” Zack said, slamming one fist into his palm, then reaching up to scratch Magenta on the head.
“Should we be watching this?” I asked, exaggeratingly averting my eyes from them both.
“Lighten up Warren,” Magenta said, shifting back and rolling her eyes.
“I still can’t believe they got away,” Will said dejectedly. “I mean, we were right there…”
“Cutter was fast. And desperate,” I pointed out.
“Principal Powers is going to kill us,” Speed said. “I bet she’ll have us scrubbing toilets. We managed to screw this up so badly…”
“Uh… how, dudes? I think the numero uno thing was to keep you alive. And you are. Unless you’re not. Which I don’t think you are. Dead that is-“
“Zack, shut up. You’re babbling,” Magenta said gently, putting a hand over his mouth. Zack shut up and then curled up at Magenta’s feet, closing his eyes.
“We didn’t capture anyone!” Speed pointed out. He looked pretty pissed, and I was surprised by his reaction. What, is this some kind of latent sense of responsibility that just awoke? Nah, he’s probably just annoyed he didn’t get to kick Viper’s ass.
“So what? We have the stuff from the cameras. That’s almost as good as having one of them. Maybe we can’t question them, but now we know their tactics, and that’ll tell us how they’re taught! And we have their car too, maybe that’ll give us some clues!” Ethan said, perking up a bit.
“How about we do that in the morning? I think I need to sleep for a week,” I protested.
“They’re sending the bus for us… We better go meet it; the road is still pretty torn up,” Layla said, getting to her feet. Will had called Principal Powers as soon as we were in the clear. Once we were certain that Cutter and her crew weren’t going to come back, Powers had said she was going to send a bus to the detention center for us, and bring us back to Sky High to be checked out by Nurse Spex. Of course, since there was no further threat, and they had apparently had to deal with two other attacks tonight, the bus was slow in getting there.
Someone else was going to deal with the unholy mess we had made of the detention center, but we took all our gear with us anyway. Humping it out over the broken ground and foliage wasn’t terribly fun, and even Will was dragging his feet, so to speak. There was only so much even a super-strong guy could carry before it started spilling out of his arms.
Ethan was carrying a lot of the communications gear and I ended up walking beside him to help steady a box full of camera mountings. He looked pretty tired-- we all were, but he was looking as bad as Speed, Lash, and Penny did that day we saw them in the principal’s office. That same nervous jumpiness, the feeling that he was at the end of his rope. When we crawled over the place where Magenta had stunned Bruin, he actually turned a bit green. Small alarms were going off in my head at his reactions, but I didn’t want to talk to him about it in front of the whole gang.
The bus was right there when we cleared the last of the rubble, and gratefully we all climbed on, gear clanking. Our bus driver was Will’s buddy Ron Wilson, who had kept his job despite his new power of super-sizing himself, calling it his “cover identity.” Then again, what cover identity would allow you the fun of driving a rocket-powered school bus on a regular basis? We were just glad to see a familiar face.
“Tough night?” he asked sympathetically, and Will nodded. He grimaced in sympathy, and politely kept quiet for the rest of the trip back to school. Zack and Magenta actually fell asleep on the way back, and Will and Layla could do little more than just stare blankly at the seat in front of them. I must have dozed off, because the next thing I knew Ethan was tapping me on the shoulder, telling me we had arrived. Principal Powers was waiting for us the minute we touched down, a troubled smile on her face.
“Well done, heroes,” she said warmly as we departed, helping us with our bags of gear. We hadn’t even bothered to change out of our armor, and we all squeaked and clicked as we trooped to the nurse’s office. We were all too tired to say much, and submitted to Nurse Spex’s questions and monitoring without a protest. Whatever Viper had done to Magenta was apparently all gone, but it had been hard on her body to have it healed in that short a period of time.
I was exhausted, as apparently using my new power in a crisis situation was a lot more draining on me than I had anticipated. Having Zack around to leech energy from had helped, but even he was getting tired, which for a guy that’s a living battery is pretty impressive. Layla’s power exhaustion actually had her seeing double, and she was absolutely starving. I think I saw her go through three salads without even coming up for air.
Ethan wasn’t too bad off: more nauseated than anything, and Will’s tiredness stemmed more from emotional drain than physical weakness. Speed, Penny, and Lash were fine: better off than the rest of us put together. Nurse Spex made us all spend the night anyway for observation, and any protests we might have had were put aside in favor of sleeping.
The next time I woke up, it was closer to noon than morning. The bright light from the unshaded windows woke me up, and I squirmed upright in bed to see where it was coming from. It took another minute of blinking at the window for my brain to catch on that I was in the infirmary rather than my own bedroom, and then I shook my head and reached for my clothes.
I was the first one up, and the rest of my friends were still fast asleep. I felt a little guilty watching them while they rested, but I figured they must need it. Will and Layla had beds right next to each other, and were holding hands between them. I had remembered worrying about Will and what Bloodtalon had done to him last night, but it seems that whatever Layla had told him to snap him out of his rage had done him a world of good. I’d keep my eye on him, but maybe he wouldn’t need my mom’s intervention. I felt kind of proprietary about those two, considering that I had basically led them to get together. Good Lord, Warren Peace the matchmaker… There’s a scary thought.
For a second I thought Magenta was already up, because the bed next to Zack’s was empty, until I realized he was holding something in his arms. Zack was cuddling a shifted Magenta like a teddy bear. The cute, it burns! Man, I need to borrow Ethan’s camera and get a picture of that. I don’t know if I’d ever use it, because they’d probably kill me, but that would be great blackmail. For what, I don’t know…
Lash, Speed, and Penny were in the next room, and for a moment I thought Ethan was with them. Then I realized the last bed in the row was rumpled, but empty, and Ethan’s shoes were under it. Huh, where’d he go? He was here a second ago… I paused and listened, then heard a faint noise from the bathroom. It sounded like someone being sick… I walked up to the door and tapped on it faintly. There was a long pause, a flush, and then the tap running. Finally Ethan opened the door and tried to slip out.
“Sorry I took so long, it’s yours now,” he whispered, and I caught him by the arm as he tried to squeeze past.
“What’s going on? Are you ok?” I asked quietly.
“Uh… sure, yeah, I think,” he said lamely. I sighed and pushed him back into the bathroom, closing the door behind us. There wasn’t another place with any privacy around here unless we went back into the examination rooms, and then Nurse Spex would know we were up.
“Uh, Warren? I was just feeling a little sick, I had some nightmares,” Ethan protested quietly, ducking his head a bit. I looked at him sternly. Ethan was a genius; if he had wanted to he could have skipped several grades, and he routinely did better than all of us in all of our classes. He was unfailingly polite and kind, and endlessly creative about finding solutions to any problem. But I didn’t think he could find a solution to this one.
“Tell me about last night,” I said casually, leaning against the door. That wouldn’t stop him if he wanted to melt and slip out, but that would have been rude. And Ethan was never rude.
“What about it? We’re going to go over all the tapes with Principal Powers today-.” he started.
“About what happened with Viper,” I corrected. Ethan paled again. His strategy with Magenta was fairly well developed after our Gauntlet runs, and it absolutely depended on them striking their enemies nearly at the same time. Magenta might be able to move a little faster than Ethan in her shifted form, but with the rough terrain last night, they would have been about the same. How had Ethan not been able to tag Viper the same time Magenta had gotten Bruin? She had been depending on him to do it, that’s why she relaxed her guard after she stunned the bear.
“I… I screwed up. It’s my fault Magenta got hurt. It’s my fault they all got away,” he said miserably, hugging his arms to his chest and staring at the floor. He was nearly shaking with fear, and suddenly his actions made sense.
“Hell Ethan, you froze. You got scared when you saw Viper and Bruin. You know damn well what Viper could have done to you because you read the files on King Cobra, and you froze,” I said, trying to sound understanding, not accusatory. No wonder he hadn’t been able to tag Viper; Ethan had been huddled under the foliage frozen in fear.
“I’m not- a very good hero,” he got out, sniffling, holding back sobs.
“I froze too,” I told him, and he snapped his gaze to mine, looking incredulous. “Cutter and Painbreaker had captured Zack and Magenta and marched them into the gym. Cutter told me to drop the firewall or she’d cut Zack’s throat. All I could see going on outside was Will being hemmed in by Skybolt, Layla too exhausted to help, and I had no idea where you were. I honestly thought I was going to die, and I froze and let my flames die out. If Speed, Lash, and Penny hadn’t acted… I think we’d all be dead.
“And you stunned Bruin and Bloodtalon, even after you had just seen Magenta fall. You kept them from coming to Cutter and Painbreaker’s aid. You actually helped. I might have crippled Cutter with what I did to her,” I explained, and then told him what I hadn’t told Will or the others, that I had actually laid my burning hands on Cutter. I knew they would see it eventually, but Ethan would understand how much that would revolt me. He knew what Baron Battle had done to get himself into the Metroplex Detention Center.
Ethan was quiet for a minute, and then took a few deep breaths.
“I don’t know how to tell Magenta how sorry I am,” he said finally.
“Just say that,” I urged. “Look, no one in that fight didn’t screw up at some point. I know all of us are going to be beating ourselves up for days. Magenta should have been watching her own back, Will shouldn’t have let Bloodtalon touch him, Layla should have paid closer attention to her own powers, Zack should have been listening that Cutter and Painbreaker were coming out of the gym… And you know what? We survived. It was our first real fight, and no one died or got seriously hurt. We’ll learn from it and move on.”
“We can always learn something from everything,” Ethan whispered.
“Isn’t that like your personal motto or something?” I asked, giving him a small smile. Ethan gave me a ghost of a grin back.
“Yeah, that sounds good,” he said. “Warren… thanks. Umm… I’m going to go back to bed until the nurse comes to wake us up. I didn’t sleep very well last night.”
I let him out the door and let out a huge sigh of relief. One down, four more to go. Ok Peacemaker’s son, let’s make sure the rest of your team doesn’t go off the deep end like he was about to. Right… This hero stuff was going to be a lot harder than I thought.
“We have all the footage, and we managed to put together a profile of those that attacked you. I figured you would want to know all that you could, as I expect you’ve opened yourself up to your first professional rivalry,” Principal Powers was saying later that afternoon.
Nurse Spex had finally booted us all out of bed around noon, giving us another round of tests before shooing us off to the cafeteria to eat. Speed, Penny, and Lash were already there, deep in conversation with someone I recognized as one of the guidance counselors. I wondered why he was there on a Saturday, and then ignored it in favor of food. Most of us were hungry enough to eat our trays without salt, and spent nearly an hour stuffing our faces. Not even sessions in the Gauntlet had taken this much out of us. Then again, Gauntlet sessions lack the possibility of real, painful nasty death. Adrenaline does funny things to you. Principal Powers had called us into her office as soon as we were done, gesturing to follow her explanations on the screen.
“Cutter: you were right Ethan, she is the daughter of the Vanisher. The reason we didn’t have a lot of files on him is because he’s a thief and a kind of getaway driver, or getaway teleporter, rather than the kind of supervillian that gets into direct battle with us. The Vanisher’s cover is that he’s a magician in a traveling circus. We don’t know his daughter’s real name, but Kristina Cutter has been her stage name since she was five. She also works in the circus, as a trick knife thrower. She wasn’t teleporting those knives to her hands; she’s just an exceptionally fast draw. Also, one of her tricks is that she’s learned how to throw blindfolded.”
Principal Powers showed us some very slowed-down footage of Cutter as she drew her knives, and we could finally see she was drawing them from concealed sheaths on her belt. That was bad enough, but when Powers explained about her being able to throw blindfolded… We all groaned.
“No wonder she tagged Zack,” I said, shaking my head.
“You were right about Viper too; he’s King Cobra’s son. He’s been in and out of trouble for quite a while. He just seems to be exceptionally good at having those that cross him come down with a terrible case of near-death before they can put him away permanently. He constantly moves around the country, but has kept dropping out of sight for anywhere from a few days to a few months at a time.
“Bloodtalon is the daughter of the Berserker and Condor-woman. There were rumors about her for several years… but no one really believed them because a rage-inducing shapeshifter is-“
“Really weird?” Magenta interrupted.
“Well yes. A highly unusual combination to say the least. The Berserker patterns himself after the Vikings, complete with using a big axe, and he can induce rage in himself as well as his enemies. I don’t know if Bloodtalon can do that, but at the very least we know she only seems to be able to work by touch. The Berserker can use his powers from a range and affect several people at a time.”
“Thank God for small favors,” I muttered. If she had gotten to me… I had gone off the deep end of rage more than once without external prompting, and might have gone completely off my rocker if she had managed to tag me. Anger fed my powers, and I could have crisped my charges and Zack as well if she had gotten me in a killing rage.
“Skybolt looks to be the son of Stormwitch. He has a very specialized form of weather control combined with electricity immunity. There aren’t very many records of him either, specifically, though we have some reports that he’s been helping his mother with her attacks for a few years.
“Now, it seems either Royal Pain’s academy is either teaching older students or sending out their teachers, because both Bruin and Painbreaker seem to be in their late twenties,” she said, and gave us close-up pictures from the cameras. Now that we weren’t running around for our lives, it was much easier to judge ages. Painbreaker and Bruin were both definitely older than the other four, who were only around my age.
“We don’t have any records at all on Painbreaker, but judging from the tapes and Mr. Cramer’s descriptions of her power, she has pain-enhancement powers. That’s fairly rare actually; the last recorded supervillain to have them was the Grim Reaper, and he was defeated almost forty years ago. She might be kin to him, but all records of him cease after his defeat, unfortunately.
“Bruin is also an anomaly, a clear-cut case of shapeshifting powers, but he fits no known shapeshifter families or prior incidents of shapeshifter attacks. It may be that he and Painbreaker are from entirely new super-families, and Royal Pain’s academy managed to recruit them before we found them,” Principal Powers explained.
“That’s… great. Do we know when they’re going to attack again? Are Speed, Lash, and Penny still in danger?” Will asked. Principal Powers shook her head.
“No we don’t think so. From the tapes, we believe they’re going to be some time in recovering from this fight. They weren’t expecting this kind of resistance, and it showed. They came in expecting it to be six against three and got a nasty surprise to find themselves outnumbered,” she explained.
“So… now what happens?” Magenta asked.
“Speed, Lash, and Penny will be staying at Sky High for now, until we can properly secure the detention hall again. As for you six… I’ll give you a choice. You’ve gone above and beyond what I could have hoped for; you’ve taken on a difficult task without complaint or hope of reward. We’ve driven you very hard these last few weeks… how would you like a vacation?”
“Seriously?” Zack asked, perking up.
“Seriously. A nice camping trip far away from Maxville, on your own,” she said, smiling.
“What about our schoolwork?” Ethan asked anxiously. Zack punched him in the shoulder to try to get him to shut up.
“We’ll send some assignments with you so you won’t be behind when you come back,” Powers said with a nod, and Zack and Magenta rolled their eyes simultaneously.
“Oh wait….” I said, laughing as a thought struck me. “You’re going to have to tell our parents what we were really doing last night.”
“Yes,” Powers said with a sigh. “And I’d like you all to be out of the crossfire until they calm down. Even superhero parents can get overly protective of their kids, no matter how strong or tough they are. You’ll probably be able to hear the arguments all the way over in Yellowstone.”
“Yellowstone? That’s great! I’ve always wanted to go there!” Layla said enthusiastically.
“So… you want us to leave a message at home or anything? My mom would fly all the way over there to haul me back home and ground me for life if I left after something like this and didn’t say anything,” Will pointed out. Principal Powers laughed.
“We’ll have you make video messages for your parents, and you can call them after five o’clock tomorrow. After that I’ll have had a chance to talk to them and perhaps they’ll be in a more receptive mood.”
“So… is this also to get us out of the way of a retaliatory strike from some of Royal Pain’s other students?” I asked, raising an eyebrow at Powers. She was still trying to protect us from the harsh realities of the superhero business, and I didn’t want the others to be unprepared. I could tell I had struck a nerve again, as Principal Powers’ smile faded.
“You ask very uncomfortable questions Mr. Peace,” she said, scowling. “But yes, that’s the other reason.”
“Just so we’re all clear on this,” I added with a smirk.
“Yes Mr. Peace, I know. I’m trying to protect both you and all your families. I also think you’ve also been working far too hard these last few months and I am ordering you to take a vacation before you all have nervous breakdowns. Is that clear?” she demanded, looking at Will. Will’s eyes were very wide with surprise, but he nodded quickly.
Within a few hours we found ourselves gearing up for a very different kind of mission, packing up tents instead of Kevlar vests, food instead of surveillance cameras, and hiking clothes instead of body armor. Within another hour, we were being flown down to Yellowstone, only a few hours away by a rocket-powered bus. Powers obviously had been planning this for a while, because a car was waiting for us to use on the outskirts of the park. I still didn’t have my license, but Will and Layla did, so they drove us to one of the back entrances.
Ethan was pouring over some maps in the back seat, as we talked about hiking trails. Most of us had been camping at one point or another, though only Layla was really in love with it.
“Couldn’t she have sent us to Miami Beach or something?” Zack had been complaining.
“Yeah, but think how many people are at Miami Beach. We’re supposed to be anonymous here, remember?” Magenta had pointed out.
“Dropping us in the middle of the woods seems kinda harsh though. I just wanna lay around, not hike!” Zack protested, fairly reasonably.
“So we’ll find a good place, out of the way, hike there and then stay there,” Ethan suggested. “Best of both worlds.”
“Yeah yeah… let’s just hope we don’t get eaten by a bear or something…” Zack muttered.
“Not funny,” Magenta warned, and Zack winced and apologized in almost the same instant.
Will was driving, allowing Layla the freedom to look around and commune with nature as we went. In a couple of hours we finally reached the entrance we were looking for, and Will stopped the car so we could get our safety talk from the ranger. I was half-dozing in the sun in the backseat, but came alert again after Ethan poked me in the ribs.
“Wha-?” I asked intelligently. Ethan was subtly pointing at the park ranger walking towards our car, a big guy with a bushy beard and messy brown hair poking out from under his hat.
“Guys, that’s Bruin!”