“Why does this always happen to me?”
Seth had no idea what Mason was talking about, but he had other things on his mind. Team Four, recently rechristened the Blue Barracudas, had to sprint to their door for the start of the first team trial. They made it with a little over thirty seconds to spare, but they had to take the rest of that time to actually get through the door.
The door itself was like any regular doorway Seth had ever seen. It was a little on the tight side, which was a problem for Mason, but everyone else was able to squeeze through just fine. That is, until the actually entered the room through the door. Calling it a room was factually incorrect. It was a dead-end hallway that barely fit the entire team. They were squished soup to nuts against each other. Lorelei Gilford had a few choice words to say about that, and Ashley Bates had her face set in a murderous scowl. The only girl who didn’t look pissed to be sandwich between two boys was Erin, but she was busy muttering to herself.
“Everyone calm down. The hallway is going to open up at some point for us to enter the arena.” Seth tried to keep a semblance of order.
“Shut up, Seth. DID YOU JUST GRAB MY ASS!” Gilford screamed.
“No, because I’m in front of you!” Seth roared back.
“Not you, dumbass. Simon, I swear to god if you’re grabbing my ass I’m going to blast your balls off.”
“That would mean you’d be looking at my junk, Gilford. I’ll take the chance.”
The bickering went back and forth between those two, and Seth could sense Mason shaking his head.
<Give it up for teamwork.> Seth was sure they were going to fail miserably at this. The team was already fighting, Erin wasn’t exactly a strong leader, and no one except Mason and maybe Rowan liked Seth. <We’re so screwed.>
Seth had no idea just how screwed until the floor opened up and the Blue Barracudas went tumbling down some shaft. That was when Mason had his woe-is-me moment. Seth was about to ask what the hell was going on when the shaft opened up and brilliant, hot light hit them all…right before they hit open air and the sensation of gravity getting them in a death grip took hold.
Seth did the first thing he could think of, he summoned two funnels of air and tried to slow his descent. It’s a lot harder to do than people might think. He succeeded in arresting his downward movement, but traded it for sideways momentum, which threw him off the trajectory the professors had aimed them on. The rest of the Barracudas fell head over ass into a small pond, while Seth came down hard on the sand.
He felt his ankle crack, and he screamed in pain. <Motherfucker!>
His vision blurred for a second as he spat the coarse sand out of his mouth and tried to get to his feet. That didn’t help things, and he plopped back down.
“Seth! You ok?” Mason appeared dripping wet from the pond.
“I think I broke my ankle,” Seth grimaced as the anger built in his gut. “Why can’t they have us walk through a god damn door into the arena like normal fucking people? Why do they have to drop us through the ceiling? It’s stupid and pointless shit, and doesn’t help us at all.” Seth looked and gave the middle finger to the open air above them. “Yeah you heard me. You guys are dipshits.”
“Feeling better.” Mason frowned, but didn’t wait for an answer. He scooped Seth up, and gave the broad spectrum elemental manipulator a shoulder to lean on as they waked back toward where the rest of the team was gathering.
Now that his anger was starting to fizzle, Seth was able to recognize how hot it was. A brilliant white ball in the sky had to be turned to the max. It must have been ninety-plus degrees in the arena. It had a tropical theme. There were lots of palm trees around the pond.
<Wait, not a pond.> Seth replayed the fall through his mind. <That’s just the corner filled with water around our island.>
Fittingly, the Barracudas arena for their first match was mostly water. Small islands were scattered throughout arena, and Seth was pretty sure they were in one corner of the playing field.
“Now what?” Gilford had her hands on her hips and he wet hair pulled behind her ears. “I’m not a good swimmer.”
“We need to figure out what we are going to do.”
“Welcome to our little slice of heaven.” Coach McMillian’s voice echoed throughout the space. “I hope you enjoyed the flight in.”
It was a rhetorical question, but Seth still muttered, “No.”
“Whatever you thought of your entry method, put it aside and focus on the game.”
“Capture the flag.” They could all hear the smile in the close combat coach’s voice. “You remember it from when you were kids don’t you? It’s one of my favorites.”
A section of the beach slid open and a sea-blue flag with a number 4 on it rose into the air.
“Team three has one just like it. You need to capture the enemy flag and return it to your stand. You have three hours to complete this challenge. If no one wins then it goes into both of your columns as a loss.”
“That doesn’t really seem fair,” Ashley spoke up.
“When you’re a Hero facing a criminal you either win or lose. There is no middle ground.” The coach’s voice was hard. “Any other questions?” There were none. “Good luck.” His voice vanished, and the team turned to look at Erin.
She looked thoughtful and determined, but still not totally with it.
“We’re sitting on an island,” Seth got the ball rolling. “There are a few more I remember seeing, but if I had to guess Team Three is probably at the far side of the arena. We just need to figure out how to get there
“We need to figure out how to get water.” Mason wiped his brow which was damp with sweat. “We’re all going to be hurting in three hours.”
“I’ve got that.” Seth smiled. He limped over toward one of the palm trees and flexed his power. There was a slight tremor and a coconut nearly brained him. “Big guy.” He picked it up off the ground and handed it to Mason.
Mason carefully drilled a finger into it until he felt no resistance, then he lifted it to his face and let the luke warm liquid drain into his mouth. It wasn’t the best tasting stuff in the world, but it would get them through a few hours. Seth and Mason repeated the process until everyone was rehydrated.
“That’s great.” Ashley wiped some of the liquid off her face. “But we still need a plan to island hop over the where team three is.”
“Simon?” Erin turned to the gravity manipulator. “How many people can you carry?”
“Well…” he looked at the group. “Four probably, but only two if I’m taking Mason.”
“We need a team to go get the flag and a team to guard ours.” Gilford stepped in. “I should be on the strike team. My ability will be a good counter to Kimberly’s.”
“HA!” Seth laughed. “Kimberly is way more powerful then you. You’d be a good distraction.”
“Fuck you, Seth.”
“Simon, Mason, and Lorelei will go and search for team three’s flag.” Erin finally spoke up. “Simon can transport, and in this situation Mason and Lorelei are our best offensive weapons.”
Gilford looked down her nose at Seth and smirked in victory.
“The rest of the team will stay here for defense. You are injured Seth,” she cut him off before he could say anything. “My ability is ill-suited to this terrain, as is Ashley’s.”
“Yeah, not a lot of bugs. And the one’s I brought aren’t really meant for this environment.” She shrugged.
“And me?” Rowan asked.
“You’re going to be a key point in the defense. You’ve one of the few people who aren’t injured and whose powers are unaffected by the terrain.”
“Gotcha.” Rowan nodded.
No one argued Erin’s reasoning. What she said made sense, so they got to work. They’d already wasted enough time. Seth was surprised he hadn’t seen Jacqueline Eton flying around or Becca running on water yet.
<Can she do that?> He wondered. <We’ll find out soon enough.>
Mason, Simon, and Lorelei lifted off and vanished over the trees which left Seth alone and nursing his ankle with a useless bug lady, a person who didn’t have an inanimate object to animate, and a dude whose power he still didn’t really get.
“I’ve got some bugs on them, so we’ll be able to track them and get a heads up if something happens. I’ve also got some spread out around our island. They won’t live long, but they should give us some advanced warning over the next hour.
“I’m trying to make us harder to find.” Rowan’s brow had more sweat on it that usual.
“Good thinking.” Erin was just standing in the middle of the group looking into the sky.
Seth limped over and plopped down next to the flag stand. There was barely any breeze so the sea-blue fabric hung limply beside him. <This should be fun.> They were basically hiding while Mason and company went out to do the heavy lifting.
Despite the circumstances, Seth didn’t really care. He wasn’t going to give a spectacular showing with his ankle, not that he cared about dancing like a trained monkey for the professor that dropped him through the ceiling. The nicest thing about this whole trial was that he was able to forget about Liz, Izzy, and every other shitstorm that had descended on his life in the last few months. Today, he just got to lounge on a beach while other people did the fighting.
He got to enjoy that peace and quiet for roughly half an hour. That’s when the sounds of fighting started to reverberate through the arena. Ashley confirmed it through the loss of her bugs, so they were forced to sit there on high alert. Every time one of Ashley’s perimeter bugs kicked the bucket they prepared for the worst, but nothing came. Time after time after time it was just nature snuffing out those bugs.
Seth was starting to think of her as the girl who cried wolf. Of course, all it would take was that one time it wasn’t a false alarm to screw them all royally. Lightening flashed in the distance, things sounded like they were exploding, and occasionally the ground shook. Since they were currently god only knew how far underground, the earth trembling was a bit worrisome.
Seth didn’t know how long it all lasted, but eventually everything fell still, which meant they had to play the waiting game. Either Mason would walk through those trees with Team Three’s flag in his hands, or Kimberly would show up to blast them back into the Stone Age. They were prepared for either one.
Seth tried putting some more weight on his ankle and had to bite the inside of his lip to stop from screaming. He plopped back down on the sand at the flag’s base and cursed under his breath.
“Just lost another one.” Ashley said as she felt one of her winged minions bite the dust.
No sooner were the words out of her mouth then a line of sand was thrown into the air. It made a perfectly straight-line right from the tree line to the flag base. Seth could even swear he saw a bit of the blue as the sand exploded upward.
“Gotch-AHHHHHHH!” Becca’s voice screamed as she dove for their flag…and passed right through it.
As far as flag-snatchers went, Becca was an obvious choice, she was too hard to hit when she was running, and she was the perfect person to get in and out before the other team knew what hit them. She was so blatantly obvious that Rowan put in countermeasures as soon as Mason and company set off.
That basic countermeasure was a bait and switch. He cloaked the actual flag while creating the illusion of another. Becca passed right through that illusion, was thrown off because she never hit what she thought she was going to, and ended up skipping across the water behind them like a stone being thrown across a river.
Seth took care of the rest. He reached out with his power and felt the water respond. Becca was about fifty feet away and trying to get the hair out of her eyes when the water rose up and smashed back down on top of her. He stirred the underwater current beneath her so she was sucked to the bottom and bashed against the metal floor a few times. When he thought she was unconscious, the artificial sea vomited her back up onto the sandy beach. Seth was thinking about other ways to keep her down when the sand exploded in front of him. Now it was his turn to go flying through the air into the water.
Unlike Becca, the water acted like a giant pillow for the elemental manipulator. It caught him and safely deposited him back on the beach. That wasn’t the safest place to be. Kimberly had just rushed through after Becca and was tossing exploding spheres at everyone. The Blue Barracudas were scattering to avoid the deadly blasts, which was giving Kimberly free reign of the beach.
<Can’t do that.> Seth switched things up, summoned a fireball and threw it at her.
Electricity lanced out of nowhere and hit his ball of fire. The combined energy caused an explosion of heat and light that caused Seth to backpedal.
“Nice try, Abney. But I’m gonna stomp on your nuts now and put you out of your misery.” Anna Fletcher walked onto the beach.
In his current condition, Seth didn’t really stand much of a chance against Anna, so he stalled for time. “Just you, Kimberly, and Becca. Did Mason kick the rest of your team’s ass?”
“It took a hot minute, but I gave the big guy a shock he’s never gonna forget.” She smiled back.
Seth returned the gesture with an added fireball. Anna dodged it and sent a wave of electricity toward him. He jumped, rolled out of the way, and nearly passed out from the pain in his ankle. Spots danced in his vision as he tried to focus. His limbs refused to work. He could barely cough the sand out of his mouth.
“That was a lot easier than I expected, Abney. Not on top of your game right now? We’ve all kind of noticed.” Anna walked toward him, but still kept a healthy distance. “I’ve seen you around. You’re moping and drinking and drinking some more. I’m surprised you can still run five miles in the time hack they set for us.”
“What can I say, I’m naturally gifted.” Seth groaned as he rolled onto his back.
“You’re a natural fuck up.” Sparks sprang between her fingers. “Why don’t you do the class a favor and get out while you’re ahead. No need to embarrass yourself or the HCP.”
“Hmm interesting.” Seth pretended to think about it. “Here’s my counteroffer.” He grinned just as a shadow fell over them.
The wave was at least twenty-five feet tall. The fake sea behind them wasn’t deep, but it would do the trick. Seth had always been better manipulating vast amounts of water than nuanced precision. A tsunami wave was doable even in his injured state.
The last thing he saw was the fear and outrage on Anna’s face before she pumped him full of fifty-thousand volts. Ten seconds earlier and it would have disrupted the wave, but he’d been able to buy time with a little friendly banter. Even though he was knocked out cold the wave still crested and collapsed right on top of Anna. She joined him a few seconds later.
It was a sacrificial move. The Barracudas were already screwed. There was no way Erin and Ashley were going to be able to take down Kimberly, so the least Seth could do was remove Anna from the equation. Then Rowan might be able to pull something out of his bag of tricks.
The first part of Seth’s plan worked. He took out Anna, and gave the rest of his team a fighting chance. In another way, he made the situation even worse. His little show of force had the unintended consequence of revealing their flag’s location, even though Rowan had masterfully cloaked the stand. It was hard to hide water parting around something or dripping off of thin air. At that point, all Kimberly had to do was grab the flag and engage in a fighting retreat back toward where a makeshift boat was waiting. She made it look like child’s play as she basically set fire to the island and blew stuff up all around the remaining members of the Barracudas.
Once she was in the boat and propelling herself away with micro-explosions there wasn’t really much they could do but watch her go. Twenty minutes later Coach McMillian declared the Dirty Half-Dozen the victors. No one from the Barracudas was willing to point out the fact that Team Three had seven instead of six members.
The one bright spot in all of this was that when Seth was returned to consciousness his team only blamed him for about forty percent for the loss. He didn’t help things, but they all conceded that they were outmatched and the situation didn’t help them out at all. They all promised to practice more and get better.
<It doesn’t matter how good you are. Sometimes you just can’t beat the guy who’s a lot stronger than you.> Seth kept that to himself though. People weren’t outright hating him right now, and he wanted to hang onto that for a minute.
“So what’s the plan guys?” Lilly twirled her pistol on her index finger. It wasn’t loaded, so it wasn’t a flagrant breach of weapon’s safety. The weapon on her hip was the one loaded and ready to ruin a person’s day.
“We wait. When time right we…” Stal made a cutting gesture with her thumb across her neck.
The Russian strongwoman was a woman of few words, and unless the occasion called for it, not a lot of action. She spent most of her time with a bottle of vodka and watching Seinfeld reruns. She was paid to be the brawn of the operation not the brains.
Lilly didn’t worry about Stal, it was Nightingale that scared the piss out of her. That was saying a lot since Lilly had been in prison next to a blood manipulator with a habit of draining people of their bodily fluids and bathing in them.
Without her black spandex-like armor on, Nightingale was a pleasant-looking woman in her late forties. She wore glasses and spent a lot of her free time in a little laboratory she’d set up in a corner of the warehouse. Lilly didn’t think anything of it until Stal went out on a food run, and came back with tacos and an unconscious man over her shoulder. She handed the tacos off to Wraith and dumped the man at Nightingale’s feet. Nightingale handed over a hundred bucks and dragged the man over to her little shop of horrors. That was what Lilly was calling it after she saw Nightingale disappear behind a plastic curtain with an interesting collection of serrated objects and several syringes full of something. Then the screaming started.
<It’s the normal-looking ones you’ve got to watch out for.> Lilly wouldn’t have known Nightingale from Eve if she passed her on the street, but after less than twenty-four hours in the woman’s presence it was clear she was someone who liked inflicting pain for pain’s sake. <She probably gets off on it too.>
Lilly’s phone rang as a Seinfeld episode went to commercial. Thankfully, no one was screaming right now.
“Yeah,” she answered in a voice deeper than usual.
“It’s Nano.” Mika replied from Armsman’s private island halfway across the globe. “Just thought you should know that I’ve been monitoring a massive expenditure of energy in the vicinity of the West Private University over the last couple of hours. I looked at the school’s online event calendar and there is nothing out of the ordinary happening, so I’m guessing they’re up to something in the HCP.”
“And this helps us because…?” Lilly asked.
“I don’t know, but it’s some good intel. I’ve written a short algorithm to send you a text whenever the power levels spike above a certain threshold. If the levels are up then the HCP folks might be busy, and you can do whatever it is you’re thinking about doing.”
<Killing a self-righteous bitch for my father.> Lilly’s could already imagine her hands around Reaper’s throat. <No.> She shook her head. <It’s got to be slow and agonizing.> She needed to make the bitch suffer.
Seif al-Din didn’t say that she couldn’t be a little fucked up when he got her. Only after he did whatever his sick twisted self wanted to do was she allowed to kill her.
“Anything else?” Lilly used a tone of voice so there was no mistaking what she was talking about.
“All I’m seeing are purchases for booze, food, and rent.” Mika replied.
“No more shopping for that little slut?”
“Good. Maybe it wasn’t anything after all.” She’d have to find out for certain at some point so she could get her man back.
“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you for weeks.” Mika sounded tired now.
“Yep, gotta go.” She cut the line. She’d been on a little too long, but was reasonably sure she’d be fine. She’d switched phones since she called Seth and brought the DVA down on him.
<The DVA!> Lilly had an idea. She might be able to kill two birds with one stone…literally.