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Stepsiblings Fall Finals

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A Second Generation Whateley Academy Adventure

Stepsibling Fall Finals

by

MaLAguA

 

Saturday, December 10th, 2016 - early morning
Whateley Campus

That morning, the elements seemed to have decided to throw the cold at Vic. Starting off with a chill that tried to sway him into staying in bed for longer, only to be followed by the sight of the school’s campus covered in snow that seemed to spell out ‘It’s cold, go back’. It appeared to have succeeded in dissuading the usual joggers Vic had grown accustomed to watching go by.

And the threat of slipping on the iced surfaces might’ve been a bit too real.

Vic imagined it wouldn’t problem, though, as there was something he’d been wanting to try out since he got his powers. It was in the same vein as the water umbrella he could conjure out.

Reaching down into the snow, he closed his eyes. He could sense the H20 in its frozen state but had some trouble dealing with it… but it wasn’t impossible. All that was needed was for one of the snowflakes to melt into water so it would come into contact with the next, grinding it into liquid, over to the next and to the next.

After about three minutes, Vic had managed to create a glove of water that was… admittedly, painfully cold… but it was still something he could control and manipulate. Hopefully, as more time passed, he would manage to warm himself… that was if he didn’t get frostbite first. 

“When the environment is cold, first focus inwardly, make sure blood circulation prevails.”

Vic froze at the thought. They weren’t actual words, but more like sentiments or notions of knowledge that struck all in at once. Knowledge that he never learned but made all the more sense… even if he had no idea how to ensure blood circulation.

“That spirit…” Vic wanted to growl, clench his teeth and throw a fist… but he knew that there wasn’t anything there. No one there to respond.

It’s been over a week since he was given the news by Doctor Gutierrez. That his power set actually included an avatar trait and, without knowing, he appeared to have picked up a spirit that matched perfectly his skill set, hence why he didn’t pick up on the matter until discrepancies appeared.

First, were his powers. His original rating left him with only a lifting capability of seventy or eighty kilos with effort… However, without actually picking up on it, he'd gone over that limit… multiple times, with the most recent memory being the water spire he used to cover Morgana as she melted the ring.

The other thing was healing. When he got his fingers broken by Gwen, he found them fully healed in a matter of days instead of the usual couple of weeks. This was the incident that got the doctor in Doyle on his case.

There also appeared to be the potential to do magic, judging by some of the metrics reported, but when tested by the magical arts department, he was still unable to ‘gather essence’ properly… yet.

And it was the yet that bothered him. As, indications were that, the more times he crossed that threshold where he would start to borrow powers from the spirit, that connection would grow stronger and… as it did, he would find himself undergoing some physical changes. Which was something that he didn’t want.

Truth be told, living in Twain, he had the feeling that he shouldn’t be bothered by it. He knew, having grown up with Aunt Lily, that appearances shouldn’t matter… that what mattered was the character and the person… and yet now he was starting to realize how he didn’t want to be in this situation. He wanted a normal life… how easy would that be if he looked like a monster?

Many of those with a form of GSD tended to fall into the jobs of hero or villain lest he wanted to move on somewhere else. Where? He didn’t know.

How good would I be as a villain? He entertained the idea, just for the sake of asking the question, despite knowing that would put him and Tanya, his girlfriend, on different paths.

It was all because of that spirit within him. The entity that was giving him the needed lift in exchange for something he didn’t want. He guessed there was the possibility that he might end up becoming of the same race as the entity within him… but it was hard to tell .

In no small part because the spirit appeared to be unreachable… It was there. In him. But it’s consciousness wasn’t completely formed. Just silence.

Professor Cody, who aided in the attempts of contacting it, painted the picture of a bowl of sentient jello that got splatted against the wall, with its pieces scattered everywhere. The hypothetical (hopefully) thing would still be alive and working towards reforming itself… but until at least enough pieces had gathered, concrete sentience wouldn’t arrive just yet.

And being aware of it just didn’t make it easier as, just like earlier, he would get sort of lessons or thoughts that might or might not be related to the situation at hand. Dreams might slip into his own without him knowing until it was too late. Words appeared to pop up in one language or another, either his or it’s… but there was no conversation… Just change as it went on.

Vic looked down at his exposed fingers only to find out they still looked normal… albeit somewhat greener if looked under the sun… It was a sight that bothered him and sent a chill down his spine that just made him feel empty and about to fall onto himself.

It’d been over a week since he’d been given the news and he was still trying to figure out what to make of it as… whenever he caught a glimpse of his skin, it was to confirm if he was actually seeing the color or not… that is until one of the later encounters in BMA where, after taking a punch from Groundpounder, he got sent skidding on ground, having the skin of his arm scraped by the tatami mat, to the point some bleeding occurred. The next day, the hint of change could be clearly seen under the skin. Colors both green and white split alongside.

WA Break Small_Solid

That day, he went straight to Doctor Gutierrez to show her. If she was surprised by it, she didn’t show it, but she still did the battery of tests and exams to monitor the more recent development. The usual scan, tissue sample and blood analysis… which put Vic in an uneasy mindset given how his body seemed to react to any sort of injury. Would they accelerate the transformation? He wondered…

In the end, it was a fleeting concern that was pushed aside as he tried to reassure himself that nothing major would happen from it. That things couldn’t get worse just because of a needle prick or exposure to radiation, or the scanner’s laser, could it?

“Well, Vic,” Doctor Gutierrez noted as she read the preliminary results. “I’ll have the data compiled and keep an eye open for any news… How are you doing so far?”

“It’s upsetting. I keep on worrying.” Vic admitted, his hand rubbing the side of his arm.

“It’s natural…” the doctor said, which sounded entirely ironic. “Try to take a break and rest, alright?”

He wanted to ask if there was a solution. If there was a way to stop this and undo the damage… but it was the doctor who moved onto the next topic, reaching into the drawer of her desk and producing a wristwatch-like device. Somewhat on the bulkier side and clearly not displaying the time.

“I know you’re worried,” the doctor carried on as she slid the piece on the table towards Vic. “I had this prepared to monitor your energy outputs. Energy, psychokinetic, magical, it should let me know at least what’s your normal output.”

“Measuring my energy?” Vic asked.

“Just until you depart for the winter break.”

“Right… the winter break,” Vic noted, realizing that he would soon be out of Whateley for, for two or so weeks. A part of him still considered himself a runaway living off the streets, so the idea of not having a place to stay again and, this time, being alone was terrifying.

But, in reality, he did have options. Caroline Kythe, a.k.a. Lifeward, was his legal guardian and as such had offered to let Vic stay at her place for the winter break. Thing that he was reluctant about as he already felt that she had gone out of her way to help him: Giving him the Syndicate scholarship, rescuing him in the mission and even lying about his power limits… But he had no other choice he was willing to undertake.

While lost in his thoughts, he’d already strapped and secured the monitoring device around his wrist, feeling a zap on his skin as the screen went on showing some numbers. The thing was loose enough that Vic felt he could slide it up under his jacket’s sleeves if he wanted.

“That thing’s resistant, but just in case don’t push its luck,” Doctor Gutierrez noted. “I also set it up so that an alarm will beep if you surpass perceived limits of your rating.”

“Really?” He couldn’t make out much of the numbers display without any point of reference, but he could certainly understand the idea of a warning beep. “That’s one less thing to worry about, I guess.”

“Oh, one more thing…” the doctor said as she fished something else into her drawer, this time, it was a card. An MID. “It just arrived this morning, your new MID.”

Vic blinked and picked up the card. So far, he’d been running around with a fake but functional copy issued by the Syndicate just to keep him from troubles from the MCO… as long as they didn’t look to deep into the thing and check the database. With the plan being to get a replacement through Whateley. And now with an official MID here, there were some things he noted.

The doctor already knew he was going to ask about it. “Your legal guardian, representing the syndicate, asked us to tamper with your stats, at least with the report we would present to the MCO. We barely made it in time. Your hydrokinesis is conditional on the spirit which, so far, is still too early to change the rate. While your telepathy was left on the side since, well, the MCO is a bit on edge on that rating, regardless of the level.”

“Thus, your rating lists you as TK -2 Av - 1 to 3. That’s to be defined.”

Vic only nodded. At least, he now had a real MID he could use and appreciated that the values were skewed.

“These should show just in time for your combat finals.”

“The Combat Finals… right,” Vic muttered, taking a deep breath as there was still something he needed to ask. “I was wondering if I could drop out of BMA. I just don’t want to risk injury.” The words appeared to leave him as he said it. It was like he was cowering… no, he was cowering. Yet his mouth kept on going. “I was told I needed a justification to move on with it. At least until a solution can be found… right?”

“A solution?” There were some words stuck in her lips… but still she continued. “We’re looking into it. This is all preliminary…” And then her tone became more serious. “However… you have to know by now, right? We wouldn’t have cottages like Twain, Whitman and Hawthorne if we had any control on matters of form. There is always the chance that, even if you don’t use your powers, the nature of the spirit will still surface.”

Vic said nothing, just rubbing the strap of the new device as he was trying to process it.

The doctor sighed. “No hay manera de estar seguro… Lo que sera sera,” she said. There was no way to be certain. No way to control it. What would be, would be. And he would have to face it.

“I know,” Vic said, diminished. He felt as if he’d been scolded. But the worst part was she was right, and this wasn’t something he hadn’t considered before. “I understand.”

“We’ll try… but only as far as we can,” The doctor noted. “For now, try to take it easy.”

Those words ruined Vic’s day and the one after. But she had a point.

WA Break Small_Solid

He shook his head to refocus, staring down at the glove of water, which now felt less cold, and at the small monitor around his wrist, which he fortunately confirmed was waterproof just now.

It displayed numbers that were seemingly sticking around in, what he guessed, low values, with not so much variance, with the exception of the telekinetic value that jumped by tens as he made the water move. With no frame or range to work with, he had no idea what was normal or not… Of course, that was up to Doctor Gutierrez to define, but he still wished to at least know about it. Although with the possibility that he was changing whether he liked it or not… What was the point of all this?

“But I guess that’s just obsessing over it, right?” he told himself, though was barely able to push the concerns away. Is that how it’s going to be? Vic grimaced as he checked at the device ten strides later. At least, so far, there hadn’t been an alarm to get him to worry about…

He wanted to believe things could be done about it… That the school would find a way to deal with it, to revert the change as… he didn’t have a BIT (a Body Image Template). That meant he could be reverted, right?

Even if the staff of Doyle and the research parts were only going to focus on it as far as it was safe while also looking after the more visible, relevant cases, he was willing to hope. Even if it meant lying to himself.

“Damn…” Vic cursed as he pushed the thoughts away, along with the water glove. Since the news, these self-introspections happened every now and then. The paranoia came up asking if things would really be fine. Even after what Iggy told him… that he was strong enough to survive any sort of situation, he felt like he was breaking in any moment. 

“Just before the combat finals,” he thought to himself, opted for a fast walk, albeit carefully so as to not injure himself. 

Walking was usually the time to clear his thoughts… but now it was to mull over unwanted things. Making him imagine what would happen if he became like the monster of the black lagoon or if he was going to get bigger or smaller because of it… He even considered the possibility that it might even activate if he were to fall sick from a cold or something like it… 

Unfortunately, by the time his train of thought stopped in that last one, he was already halfway through his usual route. So he decided to walk the rest of his way back.

By then, other students had woken up and were on their way to the crystal hall or to any weekend activity they might have planned… Although it was a much lower number than usual because of the day’s weather. 

The presence of others got him mindful of his own arm, clutching it underneath his coat. But, of course, none of them exactly cared what was happening to him that much… well, with one exception.

“Vic!” A voice called out, rising up as if it had just found some peppiness in his presence. It was Tanya, and she came over to make herself present to catch up with him, wrapping an arm around his, coincidentally, his left, the one that was starting to exhibit the changes.

“Oh, hey,” Vic answered, finding it within himself to smile and focus on something. His girlfriend.

She stood up on her tiptoes to plant a kiss on his cheek, the warmth against the cold air gives him some reassurance. He would’ve answered but she was already as red as a tomato as she lowered herself. 

“H-how are you doing? I saw you walking instead of running. Everything alright?”

“Yeah, just got a bit tired. What about you?” Vic asked… though he immediately regretted it right after the words left his mouth.

“I’m off to Doyle. Going there to check on Sterling. My roo-”

“Your roommate. I know. I remember her,” Vic noted, sadly. It’d been weeks since the Thanksgiving incident and there had been no progress on Sterling’s condition…odds were that nothing would come to happen. And yet, Tanya still clung onto hope that she would one day open her eyes. Would she? 

He had no idea. “Do you want me to tag along?”

“Don’t mean to drag you into it, Vic. Don’t worry, I’ll be fine,” Tanya said with a polite smile that hid a bit of sorrow. “I’ll catch you later?”

“Yeah… yeah, sure,” Vic said, as his thoughts shifted to the device strapped to his wrist, wondering if she would notice.

“Tell her… Tell her,” His mind kept on poking him, like a tide that never seemed to ease up.

“Is everything okay?” Tanya beat him to the point.

“Uh?” was Vic’s automatic answer.

“Well… I just… It feels like there’s something bothering you. And, I haven’t gotten an answer from the checkups you had with the doctors… so I wonder if it’s related to it. You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want.”

“I…” Vic tittered for a moment… But in the end, opted to take the exit Tanya just given to him. “Yeah… Sorry I hid this from you but…” He took a long pause before he pulled back the sleeve of his coat to reveal the patch in the back of his arm where his skin had turned of a green coloration, like something hidden under thin skin, with the point where it met with the normal skin appeared to have been peeled off.

“Oh Vic…” Tanya muttered. “How? Why?”

“Well, the how is BMA. I got thrown back by Groundpounder, my arm scraped against the tatami mat. A couple of days later, it was like that.” Vic said, trying to sound casual, though Tanya stared concerned. “As to the why…”

From there, Vic explained everything that he’d kept quiet for the past couple of weeks. From the revelation of how he’d been tapping past the upper limit of his TK control to unknowingly using a sort of magic to heal himself. The news of how he appeared to have a spirit within him were upsetting to him, but Tanya took it all with the most reassuring of faces prompting him to keep on going, and even further as he told her that he had been having dreams and feelings of another entity dwelling within him… but no conversation from it.

“So… every time you get injured, seriously injured, I mean,  or push yourself past that point. The spirit flares out and you change a little more,” Tanya summarized.

Vic nodded. “Doctor Gutierrez says that… there’s a chance that it might still be working its way through, just far slower, in comparison,” his hand moved down to the wristwatch device as he spied the values. Again, not knowing what to actually watch out for. “I hope that there’s something that can be done about it…” 

“I don’t…” Tanya started, her eyes must’ve seen a look on Vic’s face as the next thing she did was lean in closer and put her hand on his, with a look about her that seemed to concentrate her concerns. “Vic… that’s not how this usually goes. Once a change starts, it’s usually a one way ticket. I think there are still some girls in Whitman that hope that their changes will revert or that there is a fix.”

Vic felt a twist within him, a nerve that rang all the way through his spine as if his bones disappeared. By now he accepted that this was what everyone would tell him. “This… this isn’t the same… I already manifested, right?”

“I-I don’t consider myself an expert… So, I can’t really say,” Tanya sighed in defeat. “But I guess we have to hold on to hope for what happens. We won’t know until the picture is complete.”

She was being kind, indulging in his hopes and he knew it… Tanya was a bit of a terrible liar, at least when he was around. And that just made him feel worse. He sighed. “I… I’m just upset. I wanted to go to college, get a good job, just be normal, you know?”

“You can still have… that,” Tanya said, hesitation dripping in her voice, aware of the reality and how the populace attached themselves to the thought of normal and rejected the other. “I know mutants who get along despite being clearly different. Nemean, basically my uncle is about the nicest ones I know. He has a good life.”

Yeah, as a superhero, Vic thought. With how things were going for him, being in Whateley thanks to a Syndicate scholarship, he feared it would put him in the other side of the law. That was also another thing he felt Tanya might probably need to know.

“I’m… Sorry. I’m still processing things.”

“It’s going to be alright. Your life doesn’t have to end just because you’re a little different…” Tanya reassured, leaning in to kiss his cheek.

“I suppose. Others have dealt with it,” Vic shook his head. His words tried to sound peaceful, but he still wasn’t processing, clinging to the idea that there was a solution. “I forgot about it. Did I ever tell you a friend of my mom’s was turned into an animan?”

“She was?” Tanya asked.

“Yeah… She was experimented on by some mad scientist and turned. She was rescued by my mother and together they arrested the people that did that to her. Fell in love with my godfather… She somehow managed to put her life together…” Vic trailed off knowing how his aunt’s fate ended years ago. In more than one way, he felt like he was lying.

“That’s good. On the last part, sorry she got experimented… but that means there’s always options, Vic.” 

There was a bit of silence in between… until he spoke up. “If I change, will you…?”

“I wouldn’t mind at all,” she reassured.

In that moment, Vic felt bold enough to lean in and plant his lips against hers as they carried on their way, until they split up back into their own paths.

WA Break Small_Solid

???
???

Vic closed his eyes. The moment felt so lively, so urgent… so real. His powers slipped through the stainless steel and brass through the keyhole and gaps, filling every crevice, even if forcefully until there was no more room. With that his mind drew up the inner workings of the mechanism, finding the sweet spot for the pins. A mental twist and slide and the inner mechanism clicked.

And with that, the padlock’s thick bar was popped open. He raised his accomplishment only to be met by rousing cheers and claps from the people in the room. Men that were older than him, rugged in appearance and, at first glance, dangerous. Not exactly the same type that Vic would’ve been around months ago… but as things had changed, becoming more desperate, they were the only ones who’d offered to provide him with options. That made them allies. Even if, by trade, they weren’t good people at all.

“Good job, Vic,” one of them said.

“That should be… two minutes and forty seconds. You’re getting better.”

“Almost three minutes? Was I that slow?” Vic muttered to himself, thinking of the times he’s played with the lock in his room in Twain. He could crack the thing open under five seconds… but that was because it was the same lock he practiced with when idle for months now.

Still, none of the men in the vicinity seemed to respond to the anachronistic comment. They just cheered off as if he hadn’t said anything, only to quiet down as a man entered the scene. Antauro Urresti, a man of brown skin that denoted its origin from South America. Visibly fit, he liked showing off his muscles through the sleeveless attires he wore. A couple of scars adorned his face, just completing that stern appearance he wanted to reflect. Even when he looked down at Vic with an approving “smile”, there was still a bit of a selfishness about it.

And he knew it. There was no illusion that the head of a criminal gang would care about his wellbeing were he not useful to him. So he had to make sure that would remain the case.

“Buen trabajo,” he said, tossing a couple of locks on the table: a combination one and a huge heavy padlock. Being fluent in spanish was the thing that put their metaphorical foot in the door, allowing him and Josh to join in the crew, and now the man tended to use it every now and then to talk to Vic. “Ahora, quiero que desarmes cada uno en menos de un minuto. Less than one minute.” That last part was for the crowd, who were already pooling bills to bet if I would succeed or fail.

Vic picked up the combination lock, one of those with a dial that could be spun around. Those were tricky and as he would find out later then, required some finesse to crack open.

Still, the latch popped open after twenty seconds

“I failed that time… but I was told to keep on practicing,” Vic muttered as he became fully aware of the truth… that this wasn’t real… but a dream.

And that shattered the illusion as the sounds ceased and everyone froze in mid motion. Dollar bills were left frozen in the air as a fight erupted between two of the gang members. Urresti was stuck in mid step, and, in the distance, he could see Josh hunched over, with sparks flying as he worked on what, at the time, was supposed to be a laser glasscutter.

But then, Vic’s eyes found something. Something he was looking for but didn’t expect to find. A rift in the space. Where the enclosed space of the drab warehouse gave way to an open space somewhere else. He had no idea how long he had, but if the previous dream was any indication, things would start to collapse as soon as he became aware of them. So he got himself up and began to run towards it, with the world bending itself around him so as to unimpede his path.

The gray concrete walls faded off, instead melding themselves with strange architecture: sharp and flowing… Elegantly ornate but archaic. With a sheen of colors that ran through the surface under lights frozen in midair. The floor, also gray and stained, became suddenly clean with a marble or steel-like sheen to it with a pattern that Vic couldn’t discern. The room turned circular and, off the center, a child figure, judging by the size, sat with its gaze looking down at her work as magic flowed in the air around…

He couldn’t describe the stranger, at least in a way that would reveal anything. The best he could do was call it a mist in the shape of a human: two arms, two legs, a torso and a head. It sat down with the legs crossed with the ‘gaze’ focused on the magical circle on the ground, not even noticing Vic’s clear presence as he stepped closer past the round space.

And then words flowed through. Garbled sounds as if lost in water and yet, even there Vic could hear pieces in English.

The figure exhaled, sounding exhausted… or annoyed. “Do this… do… that… Brother has it so… easy.” It was a feminine voice, one that appeared to be ranting to herself. “Being… ice beloved…  water… freezing… For her… simple.”

“… But no… I… abyss beloved… I have to train harder. Want... go... home...” And as if to prove it, she reached down to the bowl of oily thick ink and, as she raised her finger, the substance followed. It traced lines across the space, with the liquid stretching itself into thinner lines until the image of a spell circle was clear. As she released the trail and held her open hand, the lines of the ink ignited themselves in a bright blue light that sparked in electricity that reached out everywhere before it faded off in ever present crackles.

“No… wait… my spell was of ice… I tried to copy my brother…” The voice said, suddenly holding the same self-awareness Vic carried when he snapped out. This one sounded older, no longer that of a child, but mature enough to be an adult.

When Vic opened his eyes, he was greeted by the same misty outline from the memory, that of the intruder, standing just before him, matching height and size.

“Who are you?” Vic asked, hearing the other voice echo at the same time.

Neither knew who did it first… and with how the world around had faded off into a deep blue void, it wouldn’t matter soon as the dream would start to collapse, but Vic felt the hands pushing up against his face and stomach, only to find he was also doing the same to the intruder, the spirit. He felt the illusion of contact, watching her arch and twist her body just as he did when she applied pressure back.

“Leave me! I’m not… taken… Ingrate vessel…,” the voice said, her words coming as faded or mixing themselves with her old language. “Where… what…”

“Leave me!? That’s what I want too!” Vic snarled.

And yet it was all for naught. The moment they both looked down, they saw that they were joined by the stomach. And the next moment they tried it, all they felt was pain, as if they were trying to rip each other off.

Vic woke up soon after, covered in sweat. He felt as if he’d been trying to tear his skin apart.

“Who are you?” he asked no one, as he turned around to check his phone. It was three thirty-three in the morning on Monday.

He sighed in frustration as he rested his head on the pillow wiping the sweat off rather as the dream was still fresh in his head. Questions swirled about in his mind as he formulated them on aspects of the dream his mind could latch on before forgetting. Who was that spirit? What magic was she doing? Where did she come from? What… was she?

Obviously, he got no answers. Just the debate on whether writing them down… or wish that this was just a recurring bad dream he was experiencing.

“Are you there?” he asked as he laid back again, closing his eyes.

And as he dozed off, a quiet voice answered with a begrudging ‘yes’.

WA Break Small_Solid

Tuesday, December 13th - late morning
Whateley Arena Outside.

The arena. The place where the Combat Finals would be held. Apparently, it was a Whateley thing to have two students enter an arena, being told to accomplish a goal and get graded for their efforts. It was like a super BMA/survival exam, at least that’s how Vic saw it. And it was something he wasn’t looking forward to.

Even if the teachers said everything was safe, everyone knew there was a sort of ‘wink and a nod’ hidden in the subtext. After all, Vic had heard Gwen’s own stories of how some of the finals went the year before and, more importantly, he’d seen the rather messy encounter Morgana had just the day before, where, were it not for the multiple layers of protection she’d gotten for herself, she would probably have been crippled by probably the most over the top thing he’d seen.

And, he just realized how he should’ve relied more on Laura for that matter… but then again, other things had laid claim to his attention.

Today, after taking a trip through the woods in the fringe of the campus to clear his mind, his return took him by the arena’s entrance where the next final was about to take place. And there, he came across none other than Gwen Silver, also known as StarSentry. His former stepbrother who manifested last year, earning herself the Supergirl package (although Captain Marvel would be a more apt descriptor, given her ability to shoot concussive beams). From there, their story became topsy turvy as he ran away from home to spare his father the troubles of raising the child of a previous romance, got into a fight with Gwen when she tried to take him back resulting in him breaking her arm and, more recently, in the ring incident, she broke his fingers… which in turn led to the uncovering of his condition.

He couldn’t blame her for that, since he understood that the spirit had been within him all this time… but understandably, her presence put Vic in an unsettled mood… even if she did it with the best of intentions, just as she did now that she was running over to meet him.

“Vic!” Gwen said as she approached, her expression appearing somewhat concerned, or uneasy. “Um…How are you doing?”

This was probably the first time they’d actually talked since the Tangle. Up until now it’d only been cursory glances and distant waves as they each moved about in their cliques or were on their way to their classes. She did send him an apology for the whole incident, which he responded with a reassuring ‘it’s fine’ since then.

“I’m…” in that split second, Vic considered telling Gwen about it… but then held his words. It’d been awkward enough when she underwent her own transformation, he wasn’t sure if he wanted to be on the other end of that experience. But if this was going to happen eventually, as everyone tried to tell him, he doubted there was merit in telling others if it was going to become apparent… right? “I’m fine. Is it your combat Final?”

“Yep,” Gwen nodded, flexing her arm, letting her energy burn and manifest as a golden glow. “I’m fully charged and ready for whatever they throw at me. The question is… are you ready? It’ll be your first one.”

“I just hope I don’t get injured much,” Vic said, thinking about his condition, though Gwen, naturally, assumed something else.

“Yeah… I saw Morgana’s test yesterday. It was… chaotic,” Gwen said, shaking her head. “Don’t worry, usually the whole betrayal thing isn’t the norm. Either one of you has to be a real asshole to do it… grading based on betrayal is just asking for people to play the role of villain.”

“I guess… who are you paired with?” Vic asked just as he felt someone approach behind, calling out.

“Well… if it isn’t my mother’s rescue case.”

The voice wasn’t that ingrained in his mind, but the figure of speech and the words narrowed the options. So when Vic turned around, he was hardly surprised to see Dereck Seaver, Megaton. He was a member of the Capes and the son of the superhero Gigaton, as the name hinted. The surprise came that he was also Caroline Kythe’s son, the woman who moonlighted as an agent of the Syndicate, the organization of supervillains. Not exactly the most stable of relationships, so he assumed it was the secret of a separated family. She was the one who scouted Vic in Massachusetts and took the role of legal guardian to allow him to come into school.

“Ah, there’s my teammate,” Gwen said with a shy smile.

But there was something that made things more awkward.

“Are you planning to crash us?” Dereck mocked, with a bit of a confident smirk that did little to hide the frustration and, maybe even, hatred he seemed to have towards Vic, as he moved around Gwen, putting his arm around her shoulder, planting a casual kiss on her cheek. “We can take you.”

That certainly didn’t sit well with Vic. Not because he was jealous or anything, but because it was a reminder that his stepbrother, Ollie, his best friend during middle school, was no longer there… or rather had changed so much that they were a different person. And what sealed the deal was seeing Gwen lean in against Dereck’s arms. Of course, he’d known that a while, having heard about her boyfriend as far as back home… but seeing it was different. And while he was happy to see the girl before him smile, overlapping the person before him with the memory of Oliver, the lanky dorky kid with glasses gave him a feeling of melancholy.

Of course, the sting was brief as Gwen retook the conversation. “You’re a joker. But… What was that you called Vic?”

“My mother’s rescue case,” Dereck scoffed. Vic could guess he was putting up a more pleasant personality because of Gwen’s presence. “I didn’t tell you this… but apparently my mother has taken him into her home as part of some charity work she does.”

“Oh, that’s sweet,” Gwen said, giving Vic a look ‘I’ll remember this for later’.

“Yeah. My mom is the best. I just hope this guy here will be on his best behavior and won’t teach my little sister any bad manners. Who knows how those picked off the street may act when given comfort,” he said, mostly as a joke, though he was the only one who found it as such. “ If only she knew that he almost tried to drown me and broke my girlfriend’s arm.”

And that was the incident… over two months ago, in the first meeting. Megaton approached him to just vent out his frustration and distrust towards him being taken in by Lifeward. He came across as a bit too aggressive for that… and Vic himself was no saint either… Maybe he was still feeling bitter about the situation he’d been thrust in, maybe he was still following Urresti’s style of dirty fighting… or maybe between dealing with the first weeks, the mind control and the whole Cally incident, his patience was somewhat thin that day… But he proceeded to use his powers to try to drown him with a bottle of water. It was just to scare him, like that old prison saying: Find the biggest guy in the yard, beat him up and everyone will leave you alone. But it worked too well as both Gwen and Tanya were quite terrified.

Not his proudest moment… plus afterward, he pieced together his involvement in breaking Gwen’s arm.

And now that they happened to run into each other again, all three parties, he felt this was about the best time to do it. “Listen, Dereck… about what I did back then. The water mask thing. I’m sorry.”

The gesture put a smile on Gwen. “Right… re-starting introductions. Vic is my stepbrother. I told you about him before.”

“Yeah,” Dereck said. “The coolest friend you had before coming to Whateley.”

Gwen nodded with a proud smile. “Things might’ve gotten a bit rocky between us, but he’s still a friend I care for.”

“And how did he end up becoming a junior vagrant?” Dereck asked.

“He ran away from home a couple of weeks before the end of the last school year. I’m just glad he somehow made it to Whateley…” Gwen admitted deliberately omitting the part where he broke her arm… although judging by Dereck’s narrowing eyes, he was well aware of it. “It took a concern off my shoulders. Although I can’t say I appreciate you calling him that…”

“Oh, I guess we started on the wrong foot.” Dereck said with a polite smile that felt quite fake before offering a hand out for a handshake. “Vic, I’m Dereck Seaver, your stepsister’s boyfriend.”

“Sure,” Vic answered as he accepted the handshake. And yet, despite everything, the hatchet didn’t appear to have been entirely buried as he put so much strength into the grip, he feared it would break his bones. He clearly still resented him for something, be it staying with Caroline, or the small glare he got from his girlfriend for the things he said.

Still, Gwen wasn’t privy to the hand crush, so she carried on as their hands separated. “We should all hang together, one of these days. Wouldn’t that be fun? I’m sure you two could find some common ground.”

“Absolutely. We should do that, someday,” Dereck mused as he turned around to look at the open entrance to the arena and the huge timer that hung on the wall announcing less than ten minutes were left before the next combat. “We should probably get going just to get the instructions.”

“I already got them,” Gwen mused as she separated from her boyfriend. “Why don’t you go ahead?”

“You sure?” Dereck asked, but a look from Gwen got him to concede and carry on into the gates of the arena.

“He is… a jerk,” Vic noted once he left.

Gwen sighed. “I know… But I do think he’s getting better. You know? One of my first fight in this school, outside of BMA, was against him. I happened to get onto his bad side by standing up for my friends and I ended up taking his challenge.”

“I hope you won.”

“I did. Took him down a peg that day.” Gwen giggled at the memory. “So you’re staying at his mother’s place, then?”

“Miss Kythe is a nice lady,” Vic noted.

“Ah… I heard his parents were separated,” Gwen sighed. “Something about his mother being unable to put up with the world of superheroes.”

“I see,” Vic nodded. With all that’s happened, he really never got to ask Caroline as to why she’s separated or her relationship with Dereck…

“So, anyway.” Gwen joined her hands to refocus the conversation. “I wanted to ask if you had any plans for Christmas.”

“I… I haven’t thought of it yet.” Vic half lied. “Maybe I’ll actually be staying with Miss Kythe for the holidays.”

“Thought of coming back to Rhode Island?”

Vic sighed. He had the feeling that she was going to bring it up. Bringing up his father and step-mom who were, in essence, the family he opted to abandon… Although could someone blame him? He’d heard the way his presence and the incidents he and Josh got into were putting a strain in their life… specially since he was the only one left of the children in the household.

“Can’t you just tell him that I’m alright? Without actually telling him that I’m in Whateley.”

Gwen rolled her eyes. “It’s really hard to just go about telling him that without actually providing anything else… But in the end, he already figured out you’re at Whateley.”

“What?” Vic gasped. “You told him?”

“I didn’t,” Gwen frowned back. “Have you forgotten that he’s in the police? That he was once a detective? It didn’t take long for him to suspect that I was in constant contact with you or that you were somehow in the school… In fact, during parent’s day, he looked for you.”

“Did you give him my number?”

“No. I won’t do that. But I also won’t be the messenger bird between the two of you,” Gwen noted. “Have you considered calling him?”

“I did…” Vic sighed

“I think he would like to know you’re alright. Doesn’t have to be a huge greeting or even a long conversation,” Gwen reasoned. 

“We both know that it wouldn’t be a short conversation… As long as he’s happy and he’s no longer wasting money and resources searching for me, I’m alright.” For a moment, he completely forgot he now had a condition.

“How can you say that?”

“No.” Vic cut in. “How can you say that he wants me? You weren’t there when it was just Meredith, Dad and I. It was just me ending up getting into trouble with the bullies at school and put in upsetting situations… and that was before Josh developed his powers… having me bail him out when he nearly exploded the school’s gym. I could tell when I was putting a strain on them, even from the moment I got there. I was the intruder in your life, I just never noticed until it was just me.”

“Vic…”

“I lived with my mother for the most part of my life without ever knowing my dad. And I’m sure he didn’t worry about me until that was the case. Think going back to that would be better for everyone, wouldn’t it?”

Gwen opened her mouth but wasn’t sure what to say in this situation… Instead, the bell of the arena did it for her. It rang out in a warning as the timer now showed the numbers in red, showing that Gwen had less than a minute to show up.

“Alright… I get it. We’ll talk about this, alright?” She said as she coated herself with energy and flew into the arena doors.

Vic nodded and took a relieved breath. Gwen had told him the same thing in the last encounter before he decided to leave home. Hopefully, she would forget about it just the same. “I can take care of myself,” He muttered as he moved over onto the side benches, looking up the screen as the timer gave way to the announcement for the MIDs as a preamble to the show.

“Maybe I should actually consider sending him an e-mail… just to let him know personally…” Vic noted as he pulled out his phone, though was easily sidetracked upon spotting his chat with Caroline. One of the more recent messages being her asking if he was planning to stay with them during the winter break.

<Hey, Caroline>

<Sorry for taking so long to answer. Can I still come to stay at your place for the holidays?>

After that, he put the phone down and sat back to watch the spectacle, only to feel it buzz in about five minutes later.

<Glad to hear from you, Vic. Don’t worry, having you spend the holidays at our place was always the plan from the start, unless you had another.>

A relieved sigh escaped him as he typed his answer. <I’m glad to have a place to stay. Thank you so much.> It felt like a tad extreme… but it was a heartfelt sentiment since he didn’t want the alternative.

Although that wasn’t the end of it as, a couple of minutes later, before he’d reach crystal hall to watch the rest of the encounter with the M3 team, she added in another text.

<That being said… I’m afraid there’s something I need to tell you about the 23rd and the days after…>

WA Break Small_Solid

Tuesday, December 13th - late morning
Whateley Arena

“So… what did Vic want?” Megaton asked. Having taken off his jacket, he was now in his hero costume. It was a blue and white suit, with hints of orange spread about in the pattern. It clearly drew some inspiration from his father, but also held a couple of modifications meant to fit with his powers. For instance, armored sections around his shoulders and waist, along with gauntlets on his hands that would serve to protect his fists further.

“What did he want? Personal matter,” StarSentry said dryly as she flew a couple of feet off the ground, taking advantage of the vantage point to gaze down the hallway just to make sure the coast was clear. “Is it important?”

“I’m just curious. I don’t really care,” Megaton muttered. “I imagine he’ll be staying at my mother’s place, I just hope he gets to appreciate charity.”

“Vic is a good person…” She said as some doubt slipped into her mind. “I’m sure he won’t bring any trouble to your mom… or your sister.”

“Eh… My mom's strong. You know she used to be a super heroine?”

“I heard… Are you spending Christmas or New Year’s with her?” Gwen said, wondering if she should tell him the circumstances Vic was in when she ran into him back in Massachusetts. She suspected Megaton was in the dark.

“Actually, yeah. Going to be with my mom and sister till after Christmas,” Megaton noted. “After that, I’m staying at my dad’s manor while he and my uncle are out.”

“Hopefully you’re not spending the holidays alone, right?”

“The week before and after New Year’s he’s moving about for hero conventions and doing PR work for the Heroic Alliance. He’s going to be all over the west coast from what I heard.”

“I guess being a superhero isn’t all action and celebration as they make it seem.”

“I do get to hang out in my dad’s mansion. Say, how about-”

And without even saying anything, StarSentry immediately darted forth towards the nearest intersection of the tunnel, coming in crashing with a couple of patrolling robots. The poor things didn’t see her until it was too late, and they had their heads knocked off.

The game they got out of the event roulette was a retrieval scenario. The context was, they were a couple of superheroes that made it into the villain’s base. Their goal was to acquire a gem that was to be used to power the villain’s super weapon before it was fired onto New Jersey and then make it to the exit. Same as last year, the school went overboard when building this scenario, using magic and tech to create the space they were in, a large set of hallways that tried to mimic the look of a supervillain’s lair, and their robots or ANTs, as they were called, to pose as the villain’s robotic minions.

It always felt like the realest of simulations, which just gave StarSentry all the more reason to have fun with it.

“You could leave some for me,” Megaton frowned, having used his powers to create metallic greaves around him that he lifted off the ground, just to give himself some limited flight.

“Sorry,” StarSentry said, coyly. “Remember what they said. If one of them rings the alarm, then all of them will go on the offensive.

To that point, she held up the robot head, which had a large ‘X’ along the visor area. “Think this means we’re safe, I guess?”

They waited for a moment, to see if anything would happen, if more robots would come to greet them or if an alarm would blare out… fortunately, none of that happened.

Megaton sighed relieved and guided himself down the corridor until they reached another intersection, there, he held out his hand to tell StarSentry to stop.

“What?” She asked.

“Think that should be our stop,” he muttered as he invited her to watch, albeit stealthily.

Indeed, just around the corner was a huge door with windows as part of their design. Peering through them revealed a large hallway stuffed with dozens of the same robots, which fortunately happened to have their backs turned on them.

“Good job, Dereck… I mean, Megaton,” StarSentry muttered, looking at her surroundings, just to notice what appeared to be the outline of a couple of robots walking from another intersection. Before they could turn around and spot them, she grabbed Megaton by the uniform and pulled him away.

“Hey,” Megaton muttered as he flew along once he recovered his footing. 

“Sorry, I think there’s a patrol incoming…”

“And we need to get to the other side…” Both of them seemed to be thinking the same thing as their gazes drifted upward towards the ceiling, towards a grate that would lead them towards the air vents.

By the time the patrol robots reached their corridor, the two heroes were already gone. Missing the detail that the grate was gone or that a pair of legs were just sliding into the gap.

“Well, this is narrow…” was all StarSentry could say, burning some of her energy in her hand to let out a small glow that allowed them to see into the narrow space.

“It is… my suit isn’t exactly ideal for sneaking around,” Megaton muttered. Moving just a little, got his gauntlets and greaves to scrape through on the surface, even after he de-manifested the other metal pieces.

“We’re not really the kind of heroes that do subtle stealth,” StarSentry noted.

“I mean, I could get used to this,” Megaton mused. Since StarSentry slipped into the air vent first and he followed in a rush, he was caught with a clear look into her chest outline.

StarSentry rolled her eyes while trying not to blush. “Focus.” With some squirming, she slipped ahead in the vent and began to crawl on their way. “And don’t look.”

“I should’ve gone first, don’t you think?” Megaton muttered.

“You said ‘ladies first’. This was your plan, wasn’t it?” she scoffed.

“I want to say I really didn’t think it through.” Megaton muttered as he followed StarSentry’s light along the dark vent, being careful with his steps so as to keep himself from hitting his face against her butt. “Do you think they can see us right now?”

“ The examiners? I don’t know. They designed this scenario so… maybe? Why do you ask?” StarSentry asked.

“Wonder if my dad and uncle are watching,” Megaton noted. “I don’t get many chances to show off my powers and this feels like as good of a spectacle as anything.”

“Oh,” StarSentry noted. Much like Celerity, Megaton liked to show off. Only in his case, it was more directed towards his father and the superhero community he represented. “Well, first, let’s secure the gem, alright?” Gwen muttered as she scooched to the side, now that they had enough space to peer down below.

The room appeared to be like a sort of hangar, a space as wide as a half a football field, with entrances on each of the sides, except for one that held the large laser that would be supposedly fired at New Jersey. At the center was a large table with their objective atop: a large red gem, resting in a padded box. 

The place was stuffed with hostiles. Robots of the same type they’ve been seeing throughout the test. Knowing that they were ANTs, they knew that they were made fragile and easy to break just so they could be put back together for the same test… but that didn’t mean they were inoffensive as almost all of them were packing energy rifles. And at the front, was a robot that was twice the standard size, seemingly made for brawling, standing guard around the gem, seemingly waiting for the villain to come and install the crystal.

And just as they mulled as to their plan, the doors to the side of the room opened as another group of robots stepped in, circling a man dressed in tech. No doubt, the villain of the scenario on his way to pick up the laser and install it. The robots marched onto the sides, making a whole ceremony of the moment for the villain.

Both StarSentry and Megaton checked  the time on their phones, the test had a about twelve minutes to spare.

“So…” StarSentry noted as she squatted, at the ready to jump down through the vent. “I go down first, wreck the crowd as a distraction. You then jump later, going straight for the villain, secure the gem and then we escape through the door. I see the console there with a pair of buttons for opening and closing.”

“They really didn’t focus on complexity for our scenario, didn’t they?”

“Better for us.” StarSentry said, her body glowing in light as she prepared to jump down when Megaton held out his hand.

“Wait!”

“What?” StarSentry asked as she eased off on her charge.

“Can we switch? I jump down to fight the army, you get the crystal.”

“A-are you sure?” StarSentry muttered.

“Yeah… definitely. You come in right after.” 

And before StarSentry could agree, which she was going to, he’d already gotten up and kicked the grate down before jumping into the air.

Megaton’s powers went to work in the air, holding out as pieces of metal formed in the middle of the air, wrapped around his arms and legs, creating boots that could remain in the air and large gauntlets that could do a lot of damage. Paired with his exemplar trait, he was one of the brawlers of the superhero club.

He came crashing down, his feet crushing two of the robots as the others raised their rifles to open fire. But by then, he’d already propelled himself forward into the group, with a wild spin. His gauntlets extending as more pieces were added, turning into blades that sliced them off at the joints, watching them fall like castles made of cardboard. 

“Yes! Who’s the action star now?” He laughed only to immediately join his hands and raise them together. The sheets of manifested metal melting themselves together and reshaping into a large shield just in time to catch a bunch of beams. 

“Urg…” Holding the shape of his constructs was easy, the hard part was keeping everything together and not let himself get carried away as he was still in the middle of the air. “This might’ve been a mistake,” He muttered as he moved all the metal onto one arm before creating a bundle of blades that were thrown into one of the bots that tried to flank him.

Fortunately, he didn’t have to resist for long as a flash of golden light came from the vent he came from as meteor or a falling star came in crashing towards the back of the army, drawing the attention of the all bots in the area… specially as they could all see the large robot falling down as it’s arm was explosively cleaved off.

Megaton would’ve stopped to admire the scene had the robots in his surroundings not gotten back to work and labeled him as the main threat. They raised their guns and Megaton acted by throwing the large body-size shield that covered him around, using his control over the manifested construct to have it spin around cleaving the threats.

Still, before being taken down, one of the bots managed to fire a shot that connected on the side of his stomach. Fortunately, the beams fired weren’t lethal, and the protection of his suit helped him recover just in time to bring the shield back in to catch the beam of a lone robot in the distance before sending it crashing against the source.

All in all, Megaton had managed to get closer towards the door’s console, and not a moment too late as he saw StarSentry rise up in the back of the room, with the red glint of the gem under her arm.

“Alright!” he said as he turned around, slamming the button for the door to open with a smooth slide.

Megaton took off into the hallway with StarSentry flying in shortly after, firing a concussive beam against the door controllers only to have them, by some miracle or fortunate design, close up behind her.

After driving his metallic fist against the lone patrolling pair of robots, they appeared to be in the clear as no other robot was patrolling the area.

“You were right! This was the better plan!” StarSentry congratulated as she flew just alongside him.

“I didn’t expect you to take them out in an instant!” Megaton snorted.

“Well, I figured I needed to do this fast. So I didn’t hold back. I just came in crashing, broke the robot’s arm and poured energy into the socket so it would explode away. Then jumped to the ground, shoved the villain out and then snatched the gem while dodging lasers.” She held out the red gem, about the size of a head. It would be quite a sight, if this wasn’t all a simulation.

“Yeah…” Megaton scoffed as he rubbed his side. “Those things hurt.”

“Something wrong?” StarSentry asked as they made it into the hangar they arrived in. She quickly touched the ground and moved around onto the door controllers and smashed the close button before destroying the console to make sure it would lock. 

Fortunately, in their absence, no robots had occupied the place. Ships stood there on the sides, but the one that mattered was right in front of them. The ship that ‘brought them there’ facing the exit, with the back door wide open. All they needed to do was take the crystal into the ship and the scenario would be over…

“I just wished that I could’ve put on more of a show.” Megaton said as he had his metal ‘hover boots disappear as he touched the ground and walked towards the exit. The scenario had been done so fast that they didn’t even need to be urgent about closing it.

“Come on, we did well. We put on a show… Even if it was a… what, twenty second show?” StarSentry muttered as she looked at her cell phone, they just got to the ten minute mark on the remaining timer.

“Yeah, well. I guess that’s better than nothing.” Megaton scoffed. Having a hard time hiding his disappointment.

“Hm…” StarSentry muttered as she followed behind.

And not before they were half the way there, she suddenly took off, flying ahead onto the side of the hangar to carefully place the gem, the thing the whole test hinged on, on the ground rather than loading it into the ship 

“Gwen?” Megaton asked as she walked to stand in between him and the ship.

“Ahem…” She cleared her throat before pointing. “I’m betraying you!”

There was silence about it. Not just from Megaton, but StarSentry could already feel the heat on her cheeks as the blush built up.

“What?” Megaton blurted out.

“You heard me! I’m betraying you. If I take you down and leave you here, I’ll probably get a higher score. And prove myself as the better hero!”

“Gwen, we don’t really have the time…” Megaton muttered, though his expression spelled out ‘oh wait! We do!”

“What was that? Are you going to give up? And not put up a show for me?” StarSentry said the hint appearing too heavy about her as she assumed a fighting stance.

“Well…” Megaton sighed as he loosened his arm and summoned forth his power, manifesting the sheets of metal around his fists and legs, not as extreme as when he jumped in to fight the robots, but more akin to sparring gear. “If I must.”

“Yeah,” Gwen smirked as she called forth the energy around her. “Yeah, you’re going to have to beat some sense into me.”

WA Break Small_Solid

The sudden plot twist in the combat had a mixed pack of reactions from the audiences. Most of them ranged between confusion to amusement at the staged act. 

Those that knew the pair were adding the word cringe to the list of feelings.

Vic, for instance, had facepalmed the moment his stepsister declared her betrayal in such a hammy way. Reminding himself that Ollie was always a terrible liar.

While Tanya bought into the performance, wondering what got Gwen to fight her ally and boyfriend.

At least they delivered the promise of a flashy encounter, with StarSentry pressing on the attack, putting herself within range just to let Megaton showcase some hand to hand combat. And yet it was obvious that neither was taking it seriously… which probably annoyed some of the members of the staff.

Eventually, the people in charge of the simulation had to order the ANTs to take the back-doors in the layout just to get into the hangar. Not that it would take the two kids by surprise. Neither StarSentry nor Megaton stopped treating the situation seriously, even during their little sparring match. It only took a couple of bots to attempt to open fire at them to get them to refocus on what was important. She swept around the field, clearing the nearby attackers while Megaton picked the crystal off the ground and the two made their way to the exit. All with four minutes left in the timer. 

WA Break Small_Solid

Thursday, December 15th - late morning
Whateley Arena Outside

Now it was Vic’s turn to step into the arena for his own Combat Final for the fall term. He wasn’t looking forward to it but it was something that he didn’t really have an option on. When it came to the physical aspect of the Whateley school life, he’d kinda resigned himself to the idea that he wouldn’t be scoring among the higher, or even passing grades, when compared to the academic matters (Fortunately, all the change concerns happened to emerge just after he was done reading most of the needed theoretical material, thus only needing him a refresher read before the upcoming tests).

“And, well, what’s the point of this? It’s not like colleges recruit based on how well you fight a crowd,” Vic told himself. Neither Gwen nor Megaton were very upset about the low passing grades they got after their little stunt. “I guess I should get ready.”

Vic squatted and stretched, preparing himself for what might come.

His gear was the standard. 

For today, he dressed in the non-descript black suit the Syndicate gave him in Plymouth. It wasn’t anything ostentatious, just a simple two piece uniform that fastened together around the belt line. The material was both soft and stretchy, although it didn’t provide that much protection as some of the other students taking on their combat finals. But it was all he had.

Given that the sleeves only reached halfway down the arm, not enough to cover the full length of it, he also threw on the simple cotton hoodie he used to work out, just to hide the change of color on his arm. He had no illusions that it wouldn’t be damaged.

Unfortunately, Laura was too busy to provide him with a personal forcefield, much to his dismay, so the only piece of gear with him was the belt he received from Ms. Plimsoll (Dickinson’s dorm mother), designed to store water. It wasn’t that much, about a kilo or so of water, but it was much better than having to carry water bottles.

Not exactly the most prepared of students for their Finals. His only hope now was that the school would go easy on him and that he didn’t get paired up with an asshole who would betray him…

Wisp… that was a codename Vic heard before… maybe related to the Ring incident… although he didn’t exactly have any interaction with the girls. There was something Morgana mentioned about her, but he couldn’t quite place it.

WA Break Small_Solid

“Come on, Pearl! You got this,” Corrine Leigh, also known as Firestep said, her hands massaging her friend’s shoulder as their other friend Gayle, Thumper, had the other, squeezing much firmer than she realized with her stronger hands.

“Yeah, baby, you can got this,” 

Usually that kind of attitude would make Pearl Varnes, Wisp, melt in her arms. The Ammys often knew how to make their members want to stay. Love and affection went a long way… but like everything, there was a time and a moment for it. 

“Later, we can celebrate this in the hideout. You know like the other girls do after their finals, regardless of the results.” Thumper’s words carried a lot of sensual allure in the invitation.

Pearl gave out a weak smile, as she adjusted her fingerless gloves and pulled the coat over her that concealed her suit, a nice mixture of gold and blue that reflected some of the colors used for her power. “Thanks, girls.”

“Who did you get as your test partner?” Thumper asked.

“Oh, it was that Vic guy. Tidestriker, I think he’s called?” Firestep noted.

“Ah! That’s the guy that hangs out with that tranny loving group of the… Mess for Malfunctioning Males.” Thumper scoffed.

Firestep smirked. “How long did it take you to come up with that name?”

“An afternoon and a couple of dictionary searches,” Thumper frowned. Of course, she let that comment slide because it was a member of her threesome.

“Is he any good?” Wisp asked. “I kinda want to do fine. My BMA kinda sucks.”

“Hm… Not that I know of,” Firestep muttered. “He tends to blend in the background… but I think his powers revolve around controlling water. Fairly weak, I think.”

“And is he a nice guy?”

“There are no nice guys,” Thumper scoffed, reciting one of the dogmas of their club, which Wisp inadvertently tuned out as Firestep answered.

“Well… I don’t know.” Firestep shrugged.

“Because I really feel like I need to get a good grade… you know?” Wisp sighed.

“That’s fair… So are you going to team up with him?” Firestep asked.

“Oh, like you teamed up with that creep of Stark to goo up your clothes?” Thumper scoffed accusingly. Clearly having just found out about that.

“And I appreciate being able to wear long pants and not having them charred, at best, if I use my powers. Especially in this weather,” Firestep scoffed as she shook her legs, letting everyone see the sheen of the nonflammable chemical treatment applied to the fabric.

Thumper frowned and turned to Wisp. “You know that you have to betray this boy, right? You have to humiliate him and make sure he fails the Finals, or us three might end up in trouble with Brita and the other Ammys.

“I just want a passing grade.” Wisp frowned.

“If that’s so, then you better be the only person making the delivery,” Thumper mused before whispering. “Heard you get a better grade if you do.”

Wisp gulped.

WA Break Small_Solid

“Alright, you two… are you ready?” The examiner announced as, with a gesture, the doors closed behind the two students that had just arrived at the scene.

Both Vic and Pearl exchanged glances, and that was it. No word had been traded between the two since they arrived before the examiner. Looks were clearly reeking with distrust already.

Still, when the examiner cleared his throat, they both answered with an agreeing mumble.

“Alright, let’s get this on with.” He pressed a button as a screen behind him got turned on, showing both Pearl and Vic’s MID’s. From there, Vic learned that Pearl could create up to three orbs of energy she could control at will while she probably became aware of the contact restriction he had.

He took a moment to check the briefing on his tablet and then proceeded to sigh and roll his eyes. “Alright, you two are going to be going through… The fantasy inspired royal scenario.”

Pearl joined her hands, with a big happy smile about her

“You’ll enter into the castle’s courtyard where one of the ANTs dressed as Gandalf or something… will ask you to retrieve an item from the other side of the maze.” The examiner wasn’t that excited by the setup and was barely hiding it. Still, he carried on with the briefing and tapped on the tablet so the screen would reveal the squared layout of an inner courtyard, bordered castle walls, with the highlighted point south marked as “Start/drop off” while the one up in the straight north of the map was the spot marked as “target”. And, in between, there was a huge mass of green.

“Now… As a courtesy, you’ll be shown an overhead view of the map for ten seconds starting… now.”

And with another button press, the green mass was cleared off revealing the pathways, spaces and even potential dangers. Giving the two a clear idea of the paths that could lead towards the end. Some of the spaces had the images of knights, dogs and even a dragon, which one could hope was just something functionally akin to a giant sock puppet. At the center of the place, Vic noted that there was a large fountain he could make use of.

The ten seconds came and went, and the green blur reappeared over the maze, much to Vic and Pearl’s disappointment. It wasn’t enough to memorize a full path.

The examiner smirked. “Alright, final rules. You are supposed to grab the target and bring it back to the drop off point in working conditions. If it breaks, you’ll be penalized.” The examiner said. “To play on with the theme, you have until the clock tower strikes at midnight to drop the item. Are there any questions?”

“Is it safe? Are the knights on the map dangerous?”

“Does it matter? Don’t get ‘killed’,” he said in a jokish tone.

“Can we, like, circle around the maze?”

“You can try,” the examiner said with an ‘I dare you’ look.

“Can we see the map again?” 

“No.”

He then looked at Vic, wondering if he had any other questions. To which he shook his head. Pearl had already covered the same questions he had. 

“Alright,” the examiner said, stepping aside as the screen turned off. “Stand there at the starting point, once the door is open and you hear the starting bell, you can begin.”

WA Break Small_Solid

The bell rang and the doors opened to reveal the world of the simulation they’d just been thrown into. 

Even though they expected it, it was indeed jarring to find themselves thrown into the scenario. Entering the advanced but still somewhat ‘unimpressive’ looking coliseum from the outside before noon and then emerge just a couple of minutes later into a castle’s courtyard in the middle of the night. The structures loomed tall and decorated almost real like.

Of course, it wasn’t perfect, Vic felt he could spot where the hologram met with the solid object… but even then, he felt somewhat special for getting this sort of scenario.

Just ahead was the hedge maze they were to cross. Walls of greenery stood about three to four meters of height, looking so well trimmed that climbing wasn’t even an option. All of that was barred by a gilded gate illuminated by a couple of lanterns.

The two approached the quest giver, who wasn’t actually a wizard but a sort of steampunk clockmaker that rested behind the stall filled to the brim of his works, with an empty spot on the table where the drop off would be.

As they arrived at the NPC desk, the disguised ANT made a small nod and gestured towards the gates at the side, which opened with an ominous creaking, granting them access into the maze. 

“Wisp, right?” Tidestriker asked as they approached the entrance of the maze, by the stone pillars that held the lamps, lining the trail of options they could take.

“Yeah?” the girl asked, sounding somewhat nervous of his presence.

“We’re working together, right?” Tidestriker asked.

“Why?” she asked as she reached into the pockets of utility belt and produced a piece of rope. About less than half a meter long. “I have a better option that will help me ace this.”

Holding both ends of the rope on her hands, she conjured two orbs of light. Glowing energy with a sheen like a crystal ball, but also shimmering and pulsating with a life of their own as they floated about. They were created  with the ends of the rope stuck in each, allowing her to effectively lift it into the air… And from that, she held onto the rope and willed her orbs up into the air, lifting herself up onto the wall of the maze.

WA Break Small_Solid

Easy, Wisp thought to herself, already claiming victory as she felt her feet touch the top of a brick column in between the walls of trimmed shrubbery. She felt as if she’d already succeeded. All she needed to do was keep on leaping from pillar to pillar, while searching for the long northward passageways. She would eventually make it to the target.

“I just need to be wary. Gayle told me not to trust this Vic guy…” she thought to herself, stealing a side glance behind just to make sure that the guy was still staring up her way. It didn’t appear like he was going to attack her, or maybe she just happened to be out of his reach.

“It doesn’t matter, I just need to continue till…” she trailed off as she heard the soft rustling and clinking of metal as two figures appeared from different parts of the maze. They were knights, tall with uncannily thin limbs that appeared straight out of a Burton-esque animated movie. She would’ve admired them a bit more, but then realized that they had bows in their hands. They were already nocking arrows and pulling the bowstring back before aiming at her.

Wisp’s eyes widened as she had the pair of orbs pull her to the side, narrowly missing the first shot, and have her go down under the hedge wall before the other opened the fire.

Her feet touched the ground, giving her a shock that loosened her fingers around the rope, having her stumble until she hit the wall of green, fortunately cushioning her fall. 

“Ow…” she groaned.

“So… the knights shoot arrows,” Tidestriker summarized looking up as he approached her with an arm outstretched to help her out.

She refused, swatting it away as she pushed herself up. “They were a close call.”

“Do you want to team up or go on our separate ways?” Tidestriker noted. “Considering there are knights that shoot arrows, we would have a better chance together.”

“I would do better on my own, given that I can attack at range,” Wisp thought but, held her tongue.

Tidestriker saw her hesitation and thought for a moment. Then he added. “Do you know the full path?”

Wisp dusted herself off as she pulled closer the two orbs she created and dissipated them just to recover the rope. “No. Who could remember all that? I only know the first half to the fountain at the center.

“And I happened to memorize the back half of the maze from the fountain. I kinda imagined that someone would normally memorize the start.”

“So, we both have half of the map?”

“That’s about right…” Tidestriker nodded.

Wisp thought for a moment, or at least pretended to, given that this was an easy choice. “Alright, fine. We’ll team up.”

Tidestriker sighed relieved. “Good. So where do we go?” he asked as their gazes went up to the tower that rested high over the entrance, marking 11:11. “We have time… I think. Either the clock is accelerated, or this is going to be a long test.”

“Better hurry,” Wisp muttered as she snapped one of her orbs into existence and moving it ahead so it’s glow would shed some light on the path. This way,” she pointed to a pathway to the right.”

“Did you see anything?”

“Maybe,” Wisp noted. “It mostly confirmed what I knew of the maze. And the enemies are dangerous. We better look out for them.”

“Noted,” Tidestriker said as they turned around the first of many corners, venturing deeper into the maze.

WA Break Small_Solid

Clocktower: 11:18

“Wisp!?” Vic called out urgently as he looked back over the shoulder just to confirm the two creatures were catching up on him.

As luck would have it, it wasn’t just the knights with bows they had to watch out for. Three turns in the path (ignoring the mistaken turns) down what felt like the right path, they happened to pass by an open space that housed two dark figures on the ground that made a sound akin to a growl. Their curiosity got the better of them as Wisp’s lights approached just enough to reveal them.

Guard dogs… but they might as well be wolves, which rose up from their apparent sleep with growls and barks that almost spelled out a warning before they gave chase. To that, the only thing they could do was run.

“They’re catching up!” Vic gasped as he reached down into his belt’s open compartment and drew out part of the water around his arm, letting it soak up into his coat as he tried to figure how to deal with a charging wolf.

“I know!”

“Where then!?”

“We turn left! Here!” Wisp snapped as she led the way only to let out a startled scream followed by a mass clutter of tin.

Vic already had an idea of what happened, but he couldn’t stop in his tracks. So he powered through, making his way around the corner to find exactly what he expected: Wisp, having just ran into and crashed against one of the armors. These were about two meters tall and cartoonishly thin… but they were also armed as this one was trying to reach for the knife that hung from his waist.

Knowing what was to come, he lost no time in running past Wisp, driving his water covered fist down against the head of the knight, repeatedly. Cushioned blows, yet still enough accumulated damage to pop the heads off. Fortunately, these things weren’t meant to be sturdy, Vic figured relieved.

And as he turned around, he saw the flashes of light as Wisp’s energy orbs came in crashing against the two wolves in mid-run squashing them against the ground. Then they pulled up and came down again, and again, and again.

“Think… think they’re done…” she said at the umpteenth strike as her panic subsided.

“Alright,” Vic sighed as he reached down to try to take the knife out of the knight’s hand only to find that the thing had a death grip on it. Figures, he thought, realizing that he couldn’t arm himself with their weapons. So, he just grabbed the nearest best thing: the lid of a barrel that rested on a corner. He had no idea what he would do with it, but it would certainly spare him from wasting water if he used it as a bludgeoning object.

“You alright?” Vic asked.

“Yeah… I am. I just don’t like getting hunted by dogs.” She said as she tried to follow the path. “We’re getting there… I hope.”

WA Break Small_Solid

Clocktower: 11:24

“Alright! We made it,” Tidestriker said, relieved as the maze corridor opened up into a new area, one that only contained the stone fountain, with fresh water flowing through. Once again, he didn’t like to indulge the cliche, but he was more than happy to see it. Now, he could now refill his container-belt, especially after he lost the barrel lid at the last turn, where he used it to deflect an arrow shot by one of the knights, which Wisp took out using her ranged attack.

“Yeah… we’re halfway there, and the time keeps on running. It’s like things here run at half the time,” Wisp muttered as Tidestriker was done. “Alright. Carry on. Now it’s your turn to guide me.”

Tidestriker slipped the belt back on and grabbed some more water to hold at hand, just in case. “Let’s see if I remember it, better hurry”.

WA Break Small_Solid

Clocktower: 11:32

The extra water he picked up didn’t last long as a couple of turns later, they got jumped by another wolf and a knight. The former caught Tidestriker off guard, trying to sink its fangs into his water-coated arm. His control of the liquid quickly peered past the holographic illusion, letting them make out the rather dull clamps they had for teeth.

It still would’ve hurt, but fortunately, by focusing as much of his strength on the control, ‘hardening’ the water just enough to keep it from touching the skin. And yet every shake the thing did had him lose a little bit of the buffer in between.

“Help me!” Tidestriker called as he wrestled with the wolf.

“One moment!” Wisp said as she ordered her orbs to fly all the way to the end of the hallway, hitting the knight before exploding in a shockwave blast that broke its limbs off, sending them into the hedge and making a hole that hit the castle wall. “There!” She blurted out as she moved over, throwing her body against the creature that had Tidestriker pinned, giving him just enough berth to slam the remaining water against the wolf’s head. Once again, a move that consumed most of his focus and sent the water splashing about… but it was enough to take the attacker down.

“Thanks.” Tidestriker muttered as he tried to grab whatever of his weapon remained splattered about.

“Are we close?”

“Yeah, we are… We should be just a couple of turns away,” Tidestriker answered as he looked at the amount of water remaining. It wasn’t as much as he would’ve wanted, so he threw it out into the plants, so as to not strain himself, and carried on leading them.

A couple of turns around the hedge maze and soon, Tidestriker and Wisp made it to their destination, the end of the maze, with just a twenty-five minutes on the clock tower to spare. The green hedge walls parted open revealing a small diamond of stone bricks that rested in between the garden of flowers under the light of lanterns.

“Well… even if it’s a simulation, it is lovely,” Wisp smiled as they moved in closer towards the centerpiece. On a pedestal was what they assumed was the item in question…

It certainly didn’t surprise Tidestriker that it happened to be a clock. An old timey table clock made of brass and wood, with a glass window that stretched from the lower half of the face down until it met with the base, letting them see the gears ticking and moving. The hands were stylized, with the short hour one being made out of gold and the smaller minute hand of silver, and they all marked the same time as the clock tower.

Noticing that, Tidestriker reached for the thing. “We should get this back,” Tidestriker said as he grabbed the thing only to realize that a couple of energy orbs floated around the air, aimed straight at him.

“Sorry,” Wisp said, moving the orbs around like guard dogs every time Tidestriker tried to move. “But I think I’ve already gotten myself penalized by a couple of the things I did… and I’ve been told that I’d get more points if I turn this in alone.”

“Wait? Is that true?” Tidestriker blinked. That didn’t seem to make sense… But then again, rules could change, right?

“I don’t know, and I don’t want to risk it… Thank you for confirming there wasn’t a trap there. Now, can you please hand it over? I don’t want to hurt you.”

Tidestriker looked at the clock on his arms and at the orbs that pulsated as if ready to go on the offensive on him. He had no idea how strong those things were, but he had to assume they could still pack a punch… Enough to trigger his changes? Probably not. Wisp didn’t appear like the type to overdo it, but even then, he didn’t want to test it.

“Fine… Fine. I give up. I surrender,” Tidestriker said as he held out the clock.

“Again… Sorry,” Wisp said as she snatched it and ran into the maze, creating a new orb to serve as guiding light while the two that kept Tidestriker at bay burst in shockwaves that almost had him fall into the garden.

“Hey! Don’t do it! Wait!” Tidestriker said as he quickly recovered.

WA Break Small_Solid

Clocktower: 11:37

“I did it! I did the thing!” Wisp thought to herself. Her heart was pounding against her chest. Not just because she was running but because she was trying to reverse the path while also being aware she might run into a threat… and to that was also Tidestriker. Her classmate was hot on her tail, trying to catch up to her, only a turn or two just behind her.

She turned around the corner into the room where Tidestriker had gotten attacked and found two knights standing in the space, searching their quivers for arrows to notch to their bows… And the two of them stood just before a hedge wall that appeared thin enough to let some of the light pierce through. 

That just gave Wisp an idea. Stopping for a moment, she created a second energy orb and sent the two flying against the knights with as much strength as she could muster. They both angled inwardly and came crashing in a pincer strike, practically crushing the two armors together and sending them up against the hedge wall. An impact strong enough that it peeled the vegetation, letting her see the fountain at the other side. 

“Halfway!” Wisp exclaimed. She was about to count is as a victory only to realize Tidestriker had caught up with her. As she took the second step on her stride, she felt something wet latch around her outstretched ankle, encumbering her next step, even after she managed to break the tether, she was about to fall. The clock slipped out of her hands and was about to touch the ground first.

No! Wisp panicked as she summoned another one of her orbs around the clock and sent it flying. Just like the ropes she used, everything caught within them as she created them would be contained and frozen, so hopefully that wouldn’t damage the thing as it flew off into the air.

The problem was that, when Wisp hit the ground, that just disrupted the focus and the half formed energy bubble she created dissipated, letting the clock fall into the air, just in time for Tidestriker to swoop in and catch it in his arms.  

“Hey! Give it back!” Wisp called out as she pushed herself up and chased after, just as Tidestriker slipped through the hole she just created, stepping on the knight’s breastplates.

WA Break Small_Solid

Clocktower: 11:40

“Shoot, shoot!” Tidestriker called out desperately as he made it through the bush, ducking under the pair of orbs Wisp sent flying his way. One of them managed to connect but, lacking the killing intent, it only had him stumble in his steps, just enough for the other one to make him trip.

Still, he held onto the clock as hard as he could as he fell on his side. It hurt like hell but, hopefully, still under the spirit’s healing threshold. Still, concerns needed to be pushed aside as he saw Wisp crossing the hedge wall, conjuring another one of her energy orbs and sending it flying after him.

A desperate gamble… maybe a stupid plan… but he held out the clock as a shield.

It worked. Wisp wanted the grade and destroying the object would’ve meant an instant fail, so she halted her attack in the air, trying to have the ball arc around for a different angle only to find the item in its path again.

“Come on!” Wisp growled. But as Tidestriker reached the fountain hand-first and forced the water to rise up from the container, like an all-consuming blob, her tone changed at the realization. “Oh crap.”

“Yeah! That’s right!” Tidestriker snapped as he held up the impressive volume of water with just his free hand submerged in it. She was just a couple of steps away, he could throw the wave at her to wash her away and run away… He knew the path back from there but…

Beep… beep… beep.

Tidestriker froze as he checked down at his wrist, at Doctor Gutierrez’s monitor just to see the numbers on it flashing red with each beep. He was crossing the threshold, pulling far more power than he was originally estimated to have. Panic began to settle within him as he realized it, even if he’d been doing it before without knowledge. Now the warning made it real.

He immediately eased off his powers and allowed the bulk of the mass to fall back into the fountain with a sordid splash and slush that almost had it spill over, although still keeping a bundle of water for self-defense, floating around his fist. That quickly got the monitor’s alarm to quiet down.

In the faint light of the lanterns around the fountain, gauging Wisp’s expressions was hard… but seeing she was already producing another pair of light orbs, he could only fear another attack. So he did the next thing he could think off: throw the item in the bubble of water.

“Wait! What are you doing!?” Wisp gasped.

“Why did you try to steal the clock?”

“They told me I would get more points if I dropped off the item alone.” Wisp argued.

Tidestriker wasn’t exactly certain that was indeed an actual rule… or even if she even would believe him if he challenged it. Plus his focus was already elsewhere before he could try to figure out an angle to convince her.

“I don’t know if that’s true or not… but I still know we both get points if we both turn it in it, right?” Tidestriker muttered as he held the water bubble before him, where the lights of both the lanterns and her powers would reveal what he was doing.

Wisp’s eyes widened.

“You’re breaking it!” She gasped. “We’ll both fail!”

From afar, one might assume the clock was fine, however, Wisp had a first seat to see how the pieces of it were slowly starting to grow ajar. The tiny screw slipped out and allowed for the crystal cover to the face to be pulled away. While the wooden panel at the back was being pulled away, revealing the clockwork pieces and mainspring, still ticking.

“I don’t want to fight…” Tidestriker continued, just to not give his hand out. “I’m not… I’m not a good fighter. I lost nearly all of my BMA matches and all the things I’ve done so far have been out of luck or a setup. So, I don’t hope to beat you in combat. So I don’t want to fail either. Given the scenario hasn’t ended despite what I just did, I assume we’re still in it for our grade. So I give you two options: Either we work together, or we fail. Right here, right now!”

Wisp frowned, her orbs of light moving about like angry bees trying to find the angle she could attack… and there were plenty of them, leaving Tidestriker with an uneasy feeling.

If the grade is what you care about you won’t, Tidestriker thought, nervous as they moved about.

It wasn’t long before she conceded, taking a deep breath as she had her summoned orbs disappear, glancing back at the clock tower, it marked 11:46. “Fine. Fine. We’ll work together, alright?”

“Good.” Vic sighed. They were pressed for time… but there was still something they needed to sort out. “Promise to me you won’t betray me, alright?”

“Right, right! Cross my heart. I promise.” She said, crossing the ‘X’ at the height of her collarbone.

“That’ll have to do,” Tidestriker said as he pulled back the water bubble close to his chest. Pouring as much focus as he could back into putting the pieces together, out of the tactile feeling where things went. Fortunately, he was very organized with the disarming, barely putting the pieces far from where they needed to be. So when it came to rearming, it was just a matter of pushing the screws and bolts back into place with hastened spins.

“There,” Tidestriker sighed relieved, only to find that the process took him about two, almost three, minutes, judging by the clock tower. But in the end, the thing was back to its original self, even dried as he pulled all the water from the inside.

“Is it working?” Wisp asked as she tried to reach over to check, only for Tidestriker to hold out his hand. “That’ll be enough. I’ll carry this.”

Wisp was offended but understood. “Alright. I’ll take point.” She said manifesting her orbs yet again. And with ten minutes left on the clock, the two made haste as fast as they could. 

WA Break Small_Solid

Clocktower: 11:55

According to the map, the fountain was the midway point of the maze. That path felt like it would take about ten minutes to cross, even knowing the path they needed to take. They would be cutting it really close. 

And all the ANTs within the scenario seemed to know that as, no sooner were they halfway when, in the distance, both Wisp and Tidestriker could hear the rustling in the hedges at the surroundings starting to go, followed by sounds of steps and the clanking of the knights in the vicinity. To make matters worse, the ‘wind’ had blown through all the lanterns, extinguishing them.

Fortunately, Wisp took her role seriously, using her power to both cast light on the path ahead and to attack whatever knight they would run into. They happened to wind back to the place where she pummeled the wolf and Tidestriker beheaded the knight with a punch and rushed their way past.

They knew… the entrance and drop off point was just a couple of turns. They were so close…

And yet, from the length of a corridor, Tidestriker heard a wild rustling coming through the side, vicious and aggressive as branches of the hedge were being torn and snapped… And then it came, a large dog emerged from the greenery to latch its fang’s around Vic’s arm, trying to pin him down.

He refused to let go of the clock until the last moment when his back touched the ground, then he just had to let it tumble on the ground as he needed both of his hands to wrestle the guard dog.

Wisp, seemingly took the chance, getting close enough to grab the clock and taking several steps away.

“Crap. I knew it,” Tidestriker thought to himself as he struggled to push the guard dog’s maw away from, well, anything. He was glad that these things weren’t real because he knew he would’ve already been mauled if that wasn’t the case. Still, he had no angle to deal with this, and the only water he had was in his belt, out of contact with him.

But then, an orb of light came crashing on the side of the dog’s face, followed by another and a third one, enough to disable the ANT’s neck. 

Tidestriker had no time to breathe in relief as Wisp appeared again before him, with the clock under her arm while extending the other for him to use. “Hurry!” she urged.

He didn’t need to be told twice as they carried on with their path until they made it back to the entrance where the clockmaker was waiting, with the spot on the table prepared for the drop off.

“We made it!” Wisp exclaimed happily, about to put the item down on the table. It had a couple of scratches from the fall, but it still appeared to be in shape and working order. Although appearing and being were two different things.

“Wait! Wisp! Don’t put it down!” Tidestriker called out.

“What? Why?” Wisp urged. The Clock tower was marking 11:58, time was short.

“The clock is missing a part,” Tidestriker didn’t elaborate, grabbing the item as soon as it was within reach. To his surprise, Wisp allowed him to.

From there he reached into the strap of his monitor and produced an ornate silver needle. Wisp gasped as she recognized it as the silver minute hand. It’d been missing all along.

Pulling the water out of his belt, he got to work on re-installing it as fast as he could, unscrewing the crystal lid on the face, sliding the silver hand into its rightful place and fastening it as good as he remembered before he took it out.

“Hurry!” Wisp ushered.

“I’m almost done!” Vic said

All the while, clockmaker watched them with a lost stare and a fake smile as the two teens tinkered with the requested item. And when it was placed on the table. He reacted, springing to life to follow his script. “Thank you for the delivery. You two pass the test,” he said… not a second too soon as they heard the clock tower chime for midnight as fireworks rose up to the sky.

The two students stared at the show, giving each other a congratulatory hug before realization kicked in, hoping that all of this crap they went through was worth it.

WA Break Small_Solid

Friday, December 23rd - afternoon
School gates

Vic shuddered as he adjusted his coat, shuffling back and forth to keep his warmth about him. At this time of the year, past four in the afternoon, the sun had retreated past the treetops and mountains, it might as well be late in the night, especially with the lights that rested by the wall of the building to give him comfort.

About three hours have passed since the students began getting picked up or ferried to the airports. About three hours since he bid a good “till next year” to his friends.

He bid goodbye to the rest of the Mutant Mayhem Machine as each of them took off in their own way, picked up by relatives or friends of their families to each have their very special Christmas and New Years celebrations. 

Tanya brought her lips to his for a moment as she was getting picked up by an unfamiliar gentleman with metal goggles on his head, apparently a family friend who had offered to escort her home for the holidays along with her guest, Shisa. She then gave him a hug so strong that it warded off the cold of the night for a good couple of hours. She told him that, no matter what happened, she would be there for him, while also asking if he wanted to visit her home city someday, to meet the rest of her mom's old superhero team that she grew up around.

There was also Gwen, he made sure to catch her on her way from Poe just to wish her a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, giving her the message she wanted to send their dad, just to shunt the concerns off. She agreed and wished him a happy holidays back. Still, there were still a myriad of problems that were in the way, such as his own change and his connection with the Syndicate… and he wasn’t sure what would come to happen next… No one could really tell. But that farewell gave him some strength to keep on going.

He bid farewell to Toby, his roommate, and other of his buddies from Twain, already making some plans for fun things they would do when they came back from the holiday. The exams had certainly put a dampen on their fun and they were already looking forward to making up and continuing as they had before. And this time Vic would be there, that is provided he still applied himself

Aside from them, he also happened to get an unexpected wave and a ‘thank you’ nod from Pearl (Wisp). Their Combat Finals turned out to have gone better than the two expected, with Vic attaining an A while she got a B. Only after the test he found out that she was part of the Amazons, the group of men hating women that, for some reason, seemed to have a sort of animosity or interaction with the M3 group… not the kind of people that he’d expected to be paired up with.

Still, things turned out well on that front, at least.

While waiting, he also happened to run into Caroline Kythe, the former super heroine known as Lifeward, Syndicate operative and Vic’s current legal guardian. Their meeting was brief while she waited for her son to show up. She exchanged some words, wishing him the best and looking forward to having him over after Christmas. She then picked up the bulk of his luggage and loaded it into her rented car, just as Dereck showed up, fortunately not noticing Vic. He climbed into the passenger’s seat and the two cars drove off, leaving him waiting.

By now, almost everyone had left the main gates of the school, with the exception of the guard that manned the gate, distracted in his warm office reading a newspaper, seemingly pretending to ignore him.

“How much longer?” Vic muttered as he adjusted his backpack. Bought for the occasion from the school’s store, it was loaded with a sleeping bag, food, extra pairs of clothes, his suit and his water-belt. The basics he was recommended to pack. Considering he just watched most of his belongings depart in Caroline’s car, he felt woefully lacking.

Fortunately, he didn’t for long as a pair of headlights could be seen traveling down the road. It was a black sedan that parked itself in the drive way. The windows were polarized but Vic had the feeling that this was his ride.

The driver’s door opened, and a dark skinned man emerged from there. This was Cole, one of the Syndicate operatives, enforcers and trainers. Probably one of the better fighters he’d ever seen… Though today, he dressed in a civilian’s outfit. 

“Vic,” He greeted moving over to him with a friendly warmth that one probably wouldn’t expect from someone who could take on an army without any powers.

“Cole.” Vic said as he offered his hand just to have Cole catch it with swing of his arm. Either he didn’t measure his strength, or he must’ve been out in the cold for quite some time because it really hurt.

“How are you doing? Are you ready?”

“I don’t know. Can I be ready?” Vic half laughed as he rubbed the warmth back into his hand.

“You always pull through.” Cole said, noticing it. “Come, get in the car. Today is a cold one.”

“Thanks,” Vic said as he jumped into the backseat of the car the moment Cole opened it, feeling the temperature difference as a huge relief. Though the door remained open with the Syndicate representative standing there watching the gates.

“How was your first few months at Whateley? Take it you made unique friends.”

“Oh, I have no doubts,” Vic muttered, thinking of all the things he’d gotten to do so far. Got into trouble with a gang in Berlin, participated in a grudge match, somewhat re-connected with Gwen, faced a killer, got lost in the tunnels… and in between all those hardships he found friends, had fun and learned quite a bit about himself, good or bad. “I made quite a few.”

“Good, good. Friendships are always valuable,” Cole said. “Also, I believe congratulations are in order for your Combat Final.”

“You saw?” Vic asked as he adjusted himself in the car, just to rest against the cushion.

“Caroline and I always watch the school’s Combat Finals. One never stops learning and there is a wealth of inspiration to be had in the way some students tackle some problems,” Cole smirked. “In fact, being honest, your combat final was one of the more interesting ones.”

“You think?” Vic smirked.

“I mean, people might take more notice of the girl that destroyed some boy’s groin with her tail after she stabbed him. Or the cavalcade of explosions and zombies… but yours was noteworthy nonetheless for the opposite reasons. Even after that girl turned against you, you barely even touched her. I think that’s something most can appreciate.”

Vic smiled, blushing at the praise he didn’t know he’d been needing.

“Although, I wouldn’t have opposed to seeing you throw hands.” Cole said with a cocky smirk. “When you lifted the water from the fountain, I thought you would get serious.”

“I wouldn’t have. But even if I did, I had to be mindful,” Vic muttered as he prodded the side of his arm. “Caroline told you about it, right?”

Cole nodded. “She mentioned it… Undergoing a second mutation or something like that. One that carries a sort of body alteration… How’s it coming along?”

“I don’t know,” Vic said as he pulled back the sleeve of his jacket to reveal the alteration of the skin color in the back of the arm where green gave way to a black spot over a white base, before becoming skin again. “I think it’s brighter or even bigger… I hope I’m being paranoid… but I fear I’m not.”

“Don’t worry about it, Vic. What happens happens.”

“Everybody tells me that. But that’s not what I want. It’s the only thing I feel like I have left,” Vic said as he pulled the sleeve back down.

“Sometimes we don’t get the chance to decide… But there’s always a way.” Cole muttered as he looked back at the entrance. “If it helps, there are avenues around… having a non-human form doesn’t have to be the end of all things… Both Lifeward and I are very good friends with some of the Syndicate enchanters and tinkerers. Glamours and holograms are within our repertoire… But for now, try not to worry about it. Really, don’t think about it.”

Vic Puzzled over that until he saw something. Another figure had made it to the school gates. This one was a girl of rather plain appearance. Short and mousy with long sandy blond hair that reached almost as far as her waist. She appeared uncertain as she took the first couple of steps out wheeling her luggage behind her, and even more so when she spotted the black sedan parked before the campus.

“Here, Miss Walker,” Cole greeted, waving to beckon her.

All Vic could do was watch confused. Of course, he knew that there were other students with Syndicate scholarships… People like Groundpounder who wanted to be hired as muscle, or some of the members of the Masterminds could have some prospects and clear interests on the matter… but there was certain assertiveness around them that made someone think that’s what they were gunning for. This girl didn’t appear like that.

Cole helped her load her luggage in the trunk and guided her to take a seat. The girl froze when she saw Vic sitting inside already.

Wonder what’s her deal? She doesn’t seem like the kind that would be dealing with the Syndicate, Vic thought.

The girl’s eyes flashed red for a moment and her expression became briefly one of queasiness. “They promised to help me… This is really the Syndicate,” she said in a sweet mousey voice.

“Um…” was all Vic could say. It was a weird way to introduce oneself.

“Oh… Um, sorry, I’m doing it again I…” the girl stammered as if she’d just been caught in the spotlight. 

Fortunately, by then, Cole was closing the trunk and moving back to the open door to provide an explanation. The girl looked his way as if she was hearing something Vic wasn’t… which was starting to track with what he was starting to suspect. 

“Vic, this is Leslie Walker, also known as Day Dreamer. She’s a high rating Telepath who seems to have a bit too much of an easy time reading other people’s thoughts. The organization has deemed her as valuable and has extended an offer to her, the same as you. The two of you, plus another pair of junior initiates, will be undertaking the same trial.”

“It is safe, right?” Leslie asked as she climbed into the passenger’s seat, next to Vic. Only to immediately blush as she tried not to look his way.

Vic sighed, already knowing that she knew he judged her looks. And a giggle that followed after told him that she heard him chastise himself.

“This is going to be a long trip,” Vic didn’t bother containing his thoughts. He knew he should’ve been more adept at this considering he was also a telepath of his own. 

“You’re a telepath?” Leslie gasped, as Cole climbed into the driver seat and got the car running, driving off.

Fudge. “Yeah. I am… though I don’t use it as often.” Basically, everyone I touch allows me to create a mental channel with them, Vic thought, knowing that Leslie could hear him.

And she did as the next thing she did was raise her hand for him to touch.

He humored her and did so, feeling the link established between the two. Although… on this occasion, there was something different. on this occasion, there was something differenttherewas somethingdifferentddifferentfferentffeeeeeeeEEE.

Vic felt a horrible migraine wishing to start in his head and it was the same for Leslie as she hunched forth holding her head. All he could do was cut it to get the repeating screech to stop. 

“Everything alright?” Cole asked, noticing the outburst.

“Think so…” Leslie muttered.

“I felt my thoughts reflected back at me… going up higher and more frequent until it was just a deafening sound,” Vic explained.

“Ah… I should’ve expected it.” Cole said with a slight chuckle. “You see. You create a mental channel but since Leslie has little control in what she takes in, she just picks up your own thoughts, which she probably reproduces and presents back at you… which you read, she picks up again and again and again into a feedback loop. Much like putting a microphone in front of a speaker.”

“We should be arriving to the drop off location in about fifteen minutes. It would be a good time to practice tuning out thoughts for both of you,” Cole said in an encouraging… albeit joking.

Neither was willing to try it again. They both just wanted to relax in the ride.

“Just don’t think personal thoughts while at it, how hard could it be? It’s not like I just found out I’m mutating more” Vic thought to himself, making an effort of shutting down his thoughts before looking at Leslie to see if she reacted to it. She didn’t… or maybe she was pretending…

She apparently caught that last part as she smiled in the corner of her lips. 

He sighed as he leaned back on the seat. As it always happened, he wondered what he’d gotten himself into. Wherever they were being taken or what they would be asked to do… he had no idea. Hopefully it would just be a quiet camping trip. Lifeward hadn’t told him much… just that he should pack in preparation for a hike through the wilderness.

How bad could it be?

 

Stay tuned for “Silent Mountain”
Read 1793 times Last modified on Monday, 17 June 2024 19:10

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