Blades & Barriers: Chapter 33

                Having spent a large portion of his childhood in rural Alabama thanks to his father’s outreach work, Gunk was quite familiar with the sight of guns. It was just part of life in the country, people had them in their trucks, homes, and sometimes outhouses in case a particularly impressive buck wandered into view while one was midway through their morning constitutional. Initially, the sight of such frequent firearms had scared him, but over time he’d adjusted to them as just another normal facet of life. The people who had them tended to be well-practiced in how to use their weapons, and in all the years he’d lived there Justin has never seen so much as a close call happen due to a gun.

                However, he was beginning to re-discover his discomfort with firearms as he looked around the room he and Bayou were in. There were dozens of guns out on display, some shoved hastily into the waistlines of pants, others lying out in the open, almost as if they were trying to taunt the Heroes into calling them out on clearly unlicensed weapons. Honestly, Gunk was more worried for the criminals around him than he or Bayou though. There was no way they had any firearms with a high enough caliber to punch through Bayou’s flora-defense, and shooting into a pile of sentient goo had as much effect as kicking it: none. But the overall lack of basic gun-safety being practiced made him wonder how many people in this room had already been taken to the ER for accidentally shooting themselves in the leg, and how many more were destined for that journey before they ended up dead or in prison.

                “I still don’t like that you brought someone new.” This voice came from a man with a shaven, tattooed head and a scowl that looked so perfectly stern Gunk was positive the guy practiced it in the mirror daily.

                “You can feel free to not like it all you want, Tony. But in case you haven’t noticed, I’m in a career where retirement can come swiftly and unexpectedly, so sometimes it pays to have a backup contact you can work with. Reina already knows he’s tagging along, so if you’ve got an issue take it up with her.” Bayou managed to still sound friendly, despite the fact that he was verbally dressing down a man stacked with muscle and holding a lot of guns.

                From what Gunk had gathered, Reina was the boss of this particular outfit, and the woman they were currently waiting for. Bayou hadn’t said much about her, only that Gunk should be polite at all times. Most of the morning had been spent passing messages along through seemingly innocuous and random people on the streets, only to eventually be directed to this worn-out old building that Gunk was almost certain used to be a big-box store, one of the brands that didn’t manage to stay afloat. He was curious about who this woman was, and why Bayou hadn’t bothered covering himself in plants before the meeting. They were both in costume, identities well-concealed, yet neither looked like they were planning on battle. Gunk understood the need to appear peaceful in these sorts of situations; he just would have preferred knowing at exactly what point diplomacy was going to end. For that, he’d just have to watch Bayou and take his cues. Such was the learning method of Subtlety students.

                A loud bang echoed through the building, causing a lot of hands to dip precariously close to those guns before realizing it was just a door slamming. Seconds later, a tall woman whose heels only made her look larger strode into the room. She took one look at Bayou and clapped her hands together, striding over gracefully and giving him a kiss on the cheek.

                “Bayou! So good to hear from you out of the blue. And you brought a new friend along too.” The woman, whom Gunk easily deduced was Reina, was friendlier than he’d expected. She practically radiated warmth, and when she looked over and smiled it was hard not to instantly be charmed. Gunk immediately distrusted her, although he grinned right back and shook her hand. Reina wasn’t the only one who knew how to put on an amiable front.

                “This one is a bit lean I think, next time we meet I’ll have Tony whip up some of his famous cupcakes to put a little meat on those bones. Tell me, new Hero, what do you go by?” Reina had given over her full attention now, and as her eyes moved so did those of every crook in the room.

                “Gunk, ma’am. They call me Gunk.”

                Her nose wrinkled slightly, and for a second Gunk thought she was going to show disgust. Instead, her whole face pinched as she let out a series of short, sputtering laughs. They were incredibly undignified, which only made them feel more sincere, and even finished with a snort at the end. “Sorry, sorry, I know I shouldn’t laugh. But I’ve been around Heroes for a long time now, so I’ve figured out that when they look like a pushover and have a name that silly; it means they’ve got nothing to prove. You’ve marked yourself as ridiculous to the masses and dangerous to those with any sense, and I do love the humor in such theatrics. This is an interesting one, Bayou. He’s got honest eyes and a liar’s smile. I approve, for now.”

                At her words, the tension in the room eased considerably. Gunk trusted his mentor, but it was hard not to wonder what would have happened if Reina hadn’t given her approval. There was probably a plan in place for that, right?

                “Everyone, go find some work to do. I’ve got guests, and it would be rude to have you all eavesdropping.” Reina clapped her hands together once more, and without a moment’s hesitation every flunkie in the room headed quickly for an exit. Whatever her demeanor might be, she obviously had complete control of her people.

                Once the room was empty, save for the pair of Heroes and Reina, she rummaged around behind a few boxes and pulled out a small rolling chair. Taking a seat, Reina looked at the both of them once more. “Alright, the kids are gone so we can ease off on the showmanship a little. How have you been, Bayou? I saw the news a few weeks back, it looked like you were still favoring your knee. Want me to take a look at it?”

                “I’ve seen a few healers since then, it’s back in tip-top shape. I’m just getting older, things break down in the field more easily,” Bayou replied.

                “Pfft. DVA healers no doubt. A quick patch-job here and there, no serious attention to the underlying issues. I bet I could rework the base composition to give you at least another couple of good years out of that knee, instead of you needing a heal after every fight.” Reina seemed genuinely annoyed by Bayou’s issues, a transition in attitude Gunk found curious.

                Bayou took notice of his trainee’s confusion. “Aside from her less-than legal operations, Reina is also a Super, and a former doctor. You’ve no doubt met Supers who can manipulate certain elements before, like my own control over plants. She is in a similar vein, only her medium is flesh. Reina isn’t just some a healer who forces injuries to fix themselves, she actually controls every aspect of a body she’s touching. She can knit bone, regrow nerves, even change the very way certain parts of a body work together.”

                “It’s harder to use than standard healing, but the flip side is that once I learned how anatomy worked, I was able to be far more precise than nearly any healer out there,” Reina added. “If you need a boo-boo patched, the DVA can cover you. If you need to negate long-term damage and scarring to a spine that’s seen countless battles, I’m one of the few options out there.”

                “And you run a criminal organization?” It was a risky move, and Gunk knew that going in, but he took it anyway. If he was to be seen as an equal to Bayou in her eyes, it wasn’t enough to take what he was given. Asking the uncomfortable questions now would establish a precedent for further down the line.

                Reina’s buoyant smile didn’t waver, though she did toss a brief glance to Bayou. “He’s a bold one, isn’t he? Yes, Gunk, I work on the wrong side of the law. I don’t expect a Hero to grasp this, but sometimes the law is too slow to keep up with what’s right. And that’s all we’ll say on the matter for now, because interesting as you are, I don’t trust you yet. Bayou, if you’re not going to take me up on the offer for help with your knee, maybe it’s better we cut to the chase. Do you need something, or was this meeting just to show off your new rookie?”

                “I need something,” Bayou replied, a little more upfront than Gunk might have been given the situation. “Specifically, I need to know about anyone who might have a grudge against diplomats from United Avalon.”

                A long whistle came from Reina’s pursed lips. “I hope you brought a lot of paper, because that’s going to be a long list to take down.”

Blades & Barriers: Chapter 32

                Barrier was surprised how quickly the DVA agents managed to get every defeated criminal secured and transported out of the wharf. Clearly, it was an art that the Department of Variant Humans had honed and refined to near-perfect precision, and that effort showed in their efficiency. Within fifteen minutes of the fight ending everyone who wasn’t wearing a mask had been slapped into some manner of restraint device, with the more dangerous ones being teleported out while the lower-risk threats were piled into vans.

                Stranger than the reaction speed, however, was the overall demeanor of everyone present. Barrier’s whole body was tingling with adrenaline, yet most everyone else seemed stoic, even a little bored at times, by the prospect of taking down an entire gang of Supers. He marveled at that as he watched the criminals being loaded and processed, taking note of the way Bloodfyre relayed who had and hadn’t surrendered to a DVA agent who scribbled the notes onto a clipboard.

                “They’re getting a lot of these.”

                The voice didn’t make him jump, he was too well-trained for that, but Barrier did glance over his shoulder to find Charon standing there. She gleamed in the early afternoon sunlight, shining bright for all to see. He wasn’t even sure he’d seen her costume outside the armor; it was definitely her favorite look, and for good reason. Just like Unseelie had commanded him to keep a shield up at all times, she was almost certainly under similar orders.

                “A lot of what?” Barrier asked. He still watched the proceedings carefully, but his curiosity was too strong to ignore Charon entirely. Plus, they were teammates, so there was no good reason to give her the cold shoulder.

                “A lot of gangs.” Charon stepped closer, coming right to Barrier’s side. “You were wondering why everyone seems so chill about a big gang fight breaking out in public like this, right?”

                Barrier nodded. “How’d you know?”

                “Because it’s the obvious question to ask, and you’ve never struck me as stupid,” Charon replied. “I wondered the same thing when I first started, so I talked to Unseelie about it. Turns out there’s a power vacuum in Port Valins these days. There were a few big bosses centralizing everything under their control, but an organized effort of the DVA, FBI, and local Heroes managed to get enough evidence to put them away. So now every upstart and Super with half a scrap of ambition is marshalling their forces to try and take the vacant territory.”

                That did explain a lot. Barrier had seen that the people they’d fought had some power, but few of them used any sort of teamwork or coordination. It had been a brawl, a mad scramble, the sort of fight one expected from strangers hurled together, not people who were used to working alongside one another. “How often do these things happen?”

                Charon shrugged, her armor rattling lightly as she did. “That we catch? I think one every two weeks was the last average Bayou had. But this is a big city, with tons of empty marshes and land outside the urban areas. They’ve found evidence of bloody fights that happened far enough away that nobody noticed. If there isn’t anyone to call the cops, then the cops can’t call the Heroes, and so on.”

                “I’m surprised I haven’t heard about this on the news.” Barrier had been reading a lot about Port Valins before heading over, and nothing like what she was describing had popped up. He’d have damn sure remembered something like that.

                “You’ve probably seen the fights get reported, but most of them are quick blurbs because they play out like this one. Crooks start some dumb shit, Heroes shut it down immediately. Not much out of the ordinary there, it’s only when you’ve got your boots on the ground and take into account the fights we don’t see that the pattern becomes obvious.” Charon stretched out her armored hand, and a circle of golden metal appeared in it. “There’s a void in this city, and right now it’s a tug-of-war. Criminals trying to fill it, Heroes and cops trying to keep it empty.”

                “If all the fights go like this, then it seems like we’re doing well.” Barrier paused, looking at the large metal ring she was holding out. “But these aren’t the real threat, are they? We have to worry about the ones smart enough to actually make plans and work in the shadows, the idiots fighting in the streets are just something to clean up.”

                “See, what did I say? Not stupid at all.” She opened her hand and the metal ring dissolved into a brief, unexpectedly lovely, glow of light.

                Barrier glanced over to watch the advanced mind being helped into one of the vans. True to his word, the man in the green coat wasn’t resisting, not that he could have managed much of a fight with the finger-sized holes in his ankles. It would have taken incredible mental fortitude to fight through that pain, and the addition of the bulky collar the DVA had slapped on him was probably some sort of deterrent as well. Boss. The bald guy had called him Boss, but really he was just someone with a little power, a lot of ambition, and enough charisma to pull together other like-minded Supers. That made for a dangerous combination, sure, however it was the sort of danger that was obvious, like a truck speeding down a road toward you. Barrier had been through more than enough fights to know that it was the threats that took you by surprise that were often the most dangerous.

                “Do we have any sort of information on the people making moves covertly?” Barrier asked.

                “Here and there. Bayou has been cultivating contacts with some of the weaker elements of the criminal community. People, mostly humans, who don’t want to be caught up in the fights of beings stronger than them. From what he says, it’s been slow-going, but hey, maybe they’ll have pick up a few juicy tidbits while doing the United Avalon prep work and come back with good news tonight.”

                In all the commotion and chaos of the fight, Barrier had nearly forgotten that Bayou and Gunk weren’t with them. Well, Unseelie had said upfront that she wasn’t going to pull them off their assignment unless it was necessary, and that fight had been well-handled from start to finish. “Poor Gunk, he’s going to be sad he missed all the action.”

                Charon’s armored head turned more directly toward Barrier, and he realized she was staring at him from under it. “You didn’t have any friends in the Subtlety discipline, did you?”

                “Not especially,” Barrier admitted. “Why?”

                “It’s okay,” Charon said. “I didn’t either. But after talking with Bayou these past few weeks, I’ve learned one thing for sure: Subtlety Heroes very rarely have boring tasks. I imagine Gunk is having quite the first day on the job.”

Blades & Barriers: Chapter 31

                Barrier darted around a cement wall, nearly colliding with Charon as she came bolting out from the inside of the warehouse. They fell into pace next to one another, several steps behind Bloodfyre, as they turned another corner to where Unseelie was fighting. The sight of what awaited them nearly caused Barrier to stop in surprise, only training and the moving forms of his teammates keeping his feet working properly.

                At least a dozen people were on the ground, some with cuts, others who looked to be knocked clean-out. The conscious ones were in the grips of Panic’s power, which made the smell of the area almost intolerable. Barrier was going to have to invest in nose-plugs pretty soon, especially if he was going to be dealing with this in close-quarters combat at some point. Still, striking as the stink was, it had nothing on Unseelie.

                Her skin was sparkling in the early afternoon light, as was the twinkling blade in her hand, as she wove her way around the final three criminals trying to attack her. Barrier had seen a lot of fights, both in his HCP days and when learning from his father, but there was something almost mystical about the way Unseelie moved. So much grace, so much certainty, like she knew every step the attackers would make and for her this was all some choreographed dance. Had she been holding back that much against Bloodfyre and Bayou, or were her teammates really that much stronger than the common crooks they were fighting today? Whatever the case, it was clear at a glance that she had this battle sewn up, even if two of her three opponents hadn’t been losing their last meals from both ends.

                A quick slice of the blade took out the hamstring of a vomiting man with spikes growing from his skin, and another swing of the sword took down a woman who was desperately trying to run at an accelerated speed while soiling herself. That just left one more opponent, a shifter whose snake-like form was apparently immune to Panic’s influence.

                “Be ready,” Bloodfyre cautioned, stepping back to be closer to Barrier and Charon. “One on one, against an opponent like that, we’re more likely to get in the way than help. But if things go south, we need to be ready to jump in. As much as Unseelie is strong and skilled, in the field you can never take victory for granted. One surprise is all that’s needed for a safe situation to turn deadly.”

                Barrier glanced over at Charon, who’d materialized a pair of axes in her hands. It was impossible to see her face through the golden helm covering her head, so he had no idea how she felt watching this fight. Probably excited, knowing Angela, although she sure looked ready to spring into action the moment she was needed. With all the smiles and casual attitude she showed out of costume, it was easy to forget that she never would have made it so far if she didn’t at least take combat seriously.

                A streak of movement drew Barrier’s attention back to the fight. The snake-shifter was a lot faster than he looked; he closed the gap between he and Unseelie with impressive speed, jaws opened and fangs extended as he prepared to take a chunk out of her. Before they could snap down, however, the sharp tip of her blade pressed against his mouth. She’d seen the attack coming and been ready for it, turning her sword into a trap. Before the shifter could backpedal, Unseelie grabbed the back of his thick scaly neck, drawing blood with the edges of her diamond nails.

                “Unshift and surrender now. If you try to bite, you’ll impale your brain on this sword, and if you try to run I’ll dig in deep and tear out a piece of your spine. All your friends and enemies are finished; you’re the last one standing. Reward yourself for that feat by skipping a trip to the hospital.” Her voice was calm, almost reassuring, really. It sounded more like she was trying to talk someone off a ledge than get them to give up. The way she said it, it was like she’d done him a favor by beating him. Now he didn’t have to feel compelled to fight anymore.

                “Swooor.” The noise that came out of the shifter’s mouth was a half-choked gurgle. It sounded like gibberish to Barrier, but as Unseelie pulled her blade a few inches back the pieces fell into place. He was saying “sword” as best he could with one jammed in his mouth, because if he shifted as things were he’d end up with the blade halfway down his throat.

                As soon as Unseelie moved the weapon, the snake-man began to shift. In seconds there was no sign of scales or fangs, just a bald guy around Barrier’s age, staring at the Heroes around him with unmasked fear in his eyes. “You really beat both crews?”

                “Kid, this was nothing to us.” Bloodfyre took a step forward; his own gruff voice a stark contrast to Unseelie’s warm one. It was interesting to Barrier the way his teacher shifted to fill various roles depending on what the situation demanded. Before, he’d been a cautious voice of reason, but now he was acting as the bad cop to counter Unseelie’s gentle approach. “Unseelie or I could have stopped you all by ourselves. The only reason we bothered calling the rest of the team in is because nothing good was on TV. Think about that when your time in prison is over and people start calling on you to use that power of yours for crime again. Remember that we wiped out all of you without even breaking a sweat.”

                Except that there absolutely had been sweating. Bloodfyre was acting like they’d rolled through flippantly, when in fact every inch of the operation had been carefully communicated and safety was considered at all times. But that, Barrier was starting to understand, wasn’t what the world needed to see. Heroes had to appear unbeatable, like forces of nature governed only by the DVA and their duty to the people. Because if no one thought they could beat the Heroes, then maybe they wouldn’t try. Or even better, maybe they’d avoid getting into crime at all since they didn’t think they could get away with it.

                It was beginning to occur to Barrier that maybe he should have taken a few theatre classes during his time in college. They might have been good preparation for this job. Then again, Bloodfyre was doing the heavy lifting in terms of acting, so maybe each team just deferred to whoever had the most talent for it. It was something to hope for, at least.

                The sound of sirens caught Barrier’s attention, as a half-dozen black and white DVA vans began pulling onto the scene. From inside came men and women wearing coveralls while hefting around sizable briefcases. One stopped at the nearest cluster of injured, but conscious, crooks and started pulling various cuffs and headbands from within the briefcase.

                “DVA is here for cleanup,” Unseelie announced. “Panic and Hammerspace, you two are dismissed back to your normal schedules. Bloodfyre and I will stick around with our interns until everyone is secured, that’s more than enough Heroes for the job. Barrier, our task now is to make sure no one gets any crazy ideas about attacking DVA agents or bolting for freedom. Keep your eyes peeled. Generally by this point they’re too hurt or tired to fight, but we’ve always got to be alert.”

                “And after that, you get to enjoy your first DVA debriefing,” Charon said, slapping Barrier on the back of his shield. “Word to the wise: bring snacks. Sometimes those things can really drag on.”

Blades & Barriers: Chapter 30

                A huge shifter that looked like a bear-raccoon hybrid came bolting out from behind a stack of knocked over shipping containers, clearly intent on catching Bloodfyre from the rear. Instead, it nearly ran right into Barrier, who was trailing behind his teacher as instructed. For a moment, the beast seemed uncertain which target to go after, but after the initial hesitation passed it decided that the nearest Hero would make for the best prey. Rearing back, it slammed a heavy paw directly into Barrier’s torso… where it stopped cold as it made contact with his shield.

                “Be grateful,” Barrier said as he stepped in, expanding his shield-hand and getting a firm grip on the shifter’s left leg. “If you’d tried that with Bloodfyre your arm would have been disintegrated.” A quick squeeze, a series of pops from the leg, and suddenly the bear-raccoon creature was collapsed onto the ground, whimpering in pain. “Stay down. If you try and move, the only thing you’ll accomplish is to get both of your legs broken, or worse.”

                Barrier darted away from the shifter, hurrying to catch up with Bloodfyre, who’d dropped two assailants in the time Barrier had been dealing with his. It took a hard run to close the gap, which made it nice to know that all the cardio drilling they’d done in the HCP wasn’t just to drum people out. On a battlefield, being able to move quickly and frequently was a necessary skill. Linger too long in any one place, and you became a sitting target.

                Chatter ran through his ear as Barrier darted across an open section of the wharf, keeping a steady distance from Bloodfyre. Most of it was about the fight inside, so he listened as closely as he could in case anything impacted the outer battle, but for the most part focused on his portion of the fight. Important as coordination was, it was still vital that he not get so blinded by the big picture that he missed the small warning signs.

                Warning signs like the shadows that appeared on the ground to his right, seconds before three barrels came slamming down into his back. They bounced harmlessly off the shield, of course, but Barrier still stopped in his tracks, spinning around to scout the area. If the advanced mind was throwing shots that precise, they had to be making visual contact. Sure enough, Barrier caught sight of a man in a green coat ducking behind a large pile of rope near more containers.

                “Hey team, I think I’ve got eyes on the advanced mind.”

                “As I recall, your shield keeps you from being lifted or moved by telekinesis, correct?” Unseelie sounded calm, despite the fact that there were explosions and gunshots coming from her direction.

                “Yes ma’am,” Barrier replied.

                “Then you’re the one best suited to take them out. Can you handle that, Barrier?”

                “I’ll sure do my best.” Barrier turned and began racing toward the pile of rope where the advanced mind had ducked. It was a trap; obviously, the crook couldn’t really have been more blatant about it. That was fine though. Barrier was a brute force Hero, his role had always been taking the dangerous positions and springing the traps. Dashing around the corner, he was unsurprised to find that not only was the advanced mind waiting there with a cluster of barrels, but there were two more people flanking him. A short woman with orange hair and matching eyes, as well as a large guy whose head was either bald or shaved.

                “Classic combo, right?” The advanced mind was grinning; he clearly thought he had Barrier dead-to-rights. “Strongman, blaster, and advanced mind. And you Heroes don’t think we learn anything from watching you. Now just back down and let us get away. Nobody needs to get hurt.”

                “You’re kind of stealing my lines here,” Barrier replied. “Surrender now and you can go to prison, not a hospital.”

                “Feeling pretty good with that energy of yours I take it. It did a nice job of stopping physical objects, but I wonder if it can really take the heat?” The advanced mind had barely gotten the word “heat” out before the woman with orange hair struck, firing a pair of flaming beams from her eyes directly into Barrier’s chest. It was an impressive display, which made it all more satisfying to see the surprise on their faces as Barrier stepped forward, unaffected.

                He let the shock linger for just a moment, then attacked, racing forward and expanding his shield. The right hand he wrapped around the woman’s face, stopping her beams before they could do any more damage, and the left he used to grab both of her legs. With an ability that destructive he couldn’t afford to take chances, so he squeezed them both until he heard the telltale pops, then set her down onto the concrete softly.

                “As a matter of fact, my shield can take quite a bit.”

                Barrier turned to face the advanced mind, but the big guy had leapt between them. He grabbed ahold of Barrier’s shoulders and yelled back to the advanced mind. “Run boss!”

                Boss, huh? Well, that made it all the more important that they not let this criminal escape. Using his already giant shield-hand, Barrier brushed aside the strongman’s grip and took hold of his shoulder. Rather than try and snap his limbs, however, Barrier just lifted him up and carried him along as he chased after the already fleeing form of the advanced mind. The large Super smashed his fists against the glowing hand holding him aloft, but he wasn’t able to so much as budge it. Short of someone like Titan, it would take more than raw strength to beat Barrier’s power.

                As he ran, the advanced mind began to fling things into Barrier’s path, most of which he simply plowed through. This guy was pretty skilled, and he was quick, but a little bit of talent was no match for the training Barrier had been through. He closed the gap in seconds, grabbing the advanced mind by the legs and lifting him upside down into the air along with his strongman friend.

                “Shit, looks like you got me.” The crook raised his hands, which actually made them point at the ground, and put on a wide smile. “I surrender, Hero. I will go without objection or resistance. You have bested me, and I accept my defeat.”

                For the first time since the fight had started, Barrier hesitated. What should he do now? When one of the HCP’s robot enemies, a Sim, gave up then that was that. But this guy could claim to quit, then go running again the moment Barrier let him go to help the others. So should he break the man’s legs? That felt like excessive force for someone who was surrendering.

                Thankfully, he was saved by the wisdom of someone more experienced. Bloodfyre stepped into view, having apparently raced over, and thrust two fingers coated in red energy through the advanced mind’s left ankle. “Your surrender has been noted, and once incarcerated you’ll be entitled to healing for your injuries.” The glowing red hand moved over and jammed through the other ankle, eliciting a small squeal of pain from the advanced mind, who was otherwise remaining stoic. He turned to the strongman, who had paled visibly at the display.

                “How about you? Surrender and healing, or resistance and a hospital?”

                “I’ll take the surrender.” There wasn’t even a moment of hesitation in the large crook’s reply.

                “Good call,” Bloodfyre said. “If you’d given up without fighting, this wouldn’t be necessary, but since you attacked a Hero we can’t exactly trust you to play nice. Surrender means this is a temporary measure, although it is a painful one.”

                Despite the fact that Bloodfyre was speaking to the criminals, Barrier knew the words were really for him. This was how to deal with Supers who attacked and then surrendered, they were incapacitated but not left on their own for recovery. The technique seemed a bit brutal as Barrier watched his teacher burn through another set of ankles, however it wasn’t as if they could just take people who’d attacked them at their word. Maybe when he was more experienced, he’d be able to think of a better way. For right now, however, they still had a fight to finish.

Blades & Barriers: Chapter 29

                Shifters were a common type of Super; some speculated them to be the most-common type of all, although it was hard to get an accurate census with so many other countries refusing to share data about their variant-humans. When she was in college, Angela had two in her HCP class, four if one counted all those present during freshman year, which she didn’t. Since graduating and becoming Charon, she’d dealt with at least a dozen or so. Gangs were a big issue in Port Valins, and most shifters tended to be good muscle. Most were animalistic, replicating the look and abilities from some section of nature. Others were a little more peculiar, though. She’d considered the shifter who took the form of what looked like a concrete scarecrow to be the oddest of the bunch, up until today. Now there was a new contender for that crown, and it was the scuttling creature whose body seemed to be entirely composed of clawed hands.

                “I wish you all could see this, it looks like Lovecraft designed a Super. Damn thing is freaky as hell,” Charon said, nimbly avoiding a blow from the rolling mass of hands. It was as strong as it was unsettling, which meant every blow left chunks in the concrete floor knocked away.

                “Freaky and with no stomach, which means Panic can’t slow it down.” Hammerspace opened a portal overhead as she spoke, letting a torrent of rubber bullets rain down on the hand monster. As she did, Charon threw a few blades into the mix, mentally weaving them around to chop away some of those arms, hoping to reveal a gooey punchable center. Unfortunately, the limbs had barely hit the ground before new ones were growing in their place. Fucking thing had an impressive regenerative capacity.

                Charon took a few steps back, surveying the inside of the warehouse. Every other member of the gang who’d been inside was either knocked out, seriously injured, or full-on trampled. The hand-shifter wasn’t particularly careful as it thrashed about, smashing down on allies as it tried to crush the Hero in golden armor. Right now, the thing was contained, but if it broke out then it could cause serious trouble in a populated area. And that regenerative capacity was making non-lethal neutralization look less and less viable. While no one had said it out loud yet, the truth of what needed to be done was growing clearer by the second. Still, she didn’t want to resort to killing just yet. Not when there was another option yet to be tested.

                “Dispatch, I’m requesting permission to escalate against my target. Regeneration like we’re seeing is bound to sap the Super’s stamina. I’d like to start lopping off limbs at a high rate, forcing it to heal and hopefully tiring the thing out. There is a risk I’ll do too much too fast and kill it, though.”

                “Do you need any help in there?” Unseelie asked. As her mentor, she was privy to every conversation Charon had with Dispatch, even when the comms weren’t set on team communication mode.

                “I’m fine, just getting proper clearance before I let loose. This thing is annoying, not difficult. I’ll clean up here and come help you all outside.”

                “Don’t worry about it too much,” Panic’s voice said. “Since the interior is done I’m getting in position to hit the outer forces.”

                Good, if Panic was there too then they’d have an easy go of it. With a new Hero on the team, they needed to stack the odds in their favor. Teamwork and synergy were going to be off with this new element, and every layer of safety they added minimized the chances of someone getting hurt.

                “Charon, your request for escalation has been authorized.” Dispatch sounded calm, as always, which was a nice influence to have when staring at a creature composed entirely of limbs. “With the strength and regeneration your team has reported, it is conditionally assumed to be Demolition Class. Given your proximity to population, you are to stop it with non-lethal means if possible; however, it cannot be permitted to escape.”

                “Got it. Play nice if I can, but if push comes to shove I do the job,” Charon replied. She then looked over at the hand-shifter, who was tilting toward her, preparing for another charge. Part of her wondered how the thing could even see, but that was a question for when the work was done. “Hey you! I don’t know if you can hear me without ears, but we’re done screwing around. Shift back and surrender right now, or I have to get rough with you. The kind of rough that doesn’t heal back.”

                The hands started to… wave? No, they were shaking. Was this thing laughing at her? It was impossible to tell, not that it mattered anyway. Her enemy hadn’t shifted back to human form, and that was the only gesture that would have changed how Charon had to proceed. All around her blades began to form. She brought it up to a dozen, then began to spin them rapidly as they floated in mid-air. Charon could call and control more, but it was smart to leave herself with options if things went south. No sense in over-committing to an attack and leaving herself vulnerable.

                “Well, can’t say I didn’t warn you.” Charon made a quick motion with her hand and the whirling blades shot forward, just as the hand-shifter began charging toward her once more. Her blades met its flesh in a series of wet, squishing sounds as arm after arm tumbled to the ground. It was tough, getting through those arms took more effort than it should have. Too bad for the shifter, a big part of Charon’s training under Unseelie was learning to hone every weapon she created, making them as sharp and deadly as possible.

                The first round of limbs were on the ground before Charon had finished getting out of the hand-shifter’s path, and while a new batch was already growing from the stumps she didn’t slow down her assault in the slightest. Arm after arm slapped to the concrete as the blades continued making passes. A couple of the blades were knocked aside by some of the clawed fists bashing into them, but the efforts only delayed the inevitable.

                By the time she was on her fourth pass, Charon noticed that the rate of new arms growing back had begun to slow down. Thank goodness, this thing did have a limit. She continued to press her attack, no longer worrying about having to dodge as all of the shifter’s attention had gone to trying to swat away the spinning blades hacking away at it. Charon’s focus was rapt, never wavering from her enemy. If one of the other crooks woke up, she had to trust Hammerspace to cover her. This was going to take every ounce of concentration to time correctly.

                Finally, the moment came. The hand-shifter seemed to shudder, a brief spasm that ran through all the remaining limbs, of which there were significantly fewer. As soon as she saw that tremor, Charon dismissed the weapons in a shower of glowing light. It was a good thing she did, since seconds later the hands all collapsed in on themselves, reforming into a human woman who fell onto the rough concrete.

                Charon raced over to check her condition. The woman had a plethora of cuts all over her body, but none of them looked more than skin-deep. Without pausing, Charon created a new golden object, this one a collar around the unconscious woman’s neck with a sharp edge inside.

                “Dispatch, shifter has been rendered unconscious. I also dropped a blade-collar on her, so if she tries to shift again she’ll decapitate herself the minute she starts to grow. We probably need something a little less lethal for long-term incarceration.”

                “DVA agents will arrive momentarily for transportation, they’ve been briefed to bring necessary equipment,” Dispatch said.

                A small sigh of relief left Charon’s lips before she turned and began running toward the nearest door. The fight wasn’t over yet; her team would be counting on her to enter the fray. Rest would come when the job was done, and not a moment before.

Blades & Barriers: Chapter 28

                Barrier was halfway through his hot dog, which was nearly tolerable when drowned out by enough ketchup and mustard, when Dispatch’s voice suddenly rang in his ear.

                “Barrier and Bloodfyre, we have confirmed Super conflict taking place in Port Valins. Most of your team is already there, and your DVA rep will be appearing in several seconds to transport you. Please prepare for teleportation.”

                Bloodfyre never missed a moment, dropping the rest of his food into a nearby trash can and dismissing the red energy around his left arm. “Barrier, can you do a partial removal of your shield?”

                “Sorry, but no, it’s all or nothing.”

                “Danny needs physical contact to transport someone, so I want you to drop it as soon as he appears and then bring it back the moment we’re back on solid ground. He knows not to drop us into a hot zone before we’re ready, but the landscape of a battlefield is always shifting.”

                “Barrier, Unseelie has requested a team connection through the comms, do you accept?” Dispatch asked.

                For a second, Barrier started to nod, then realized she couldn’t see him. “Yes Dispatch, I accept.”

                A slight click echoed through his ear, and then the next sound Barrier heard was Unseelie’s voice. “Alright, looks like we’ve got the other two on the comms. Barrier and Bloodfyre, this is going to be suppression work. We’ve got two start-up gangs vying for control, and they let themselves end up in a full-blown brawl. Most of the Supers have records, so Dispatch has confirmed that all known Supers are in the Standard class. So far confirmed we have a low-end advanced mind, a strongman, some people throwing energy, and a few shifters. That said, there are a couple of gang members we don’t know the full abilities of, so be ready to adapt as needed. Barrier, stay with your teacher and do as he says. If I need to pull you off of him, then I’ll tell you, otherwise you two work as a unit.”

                The air nearby rippled as Danny suddenly appeared. He looked tired, sweat dripping down his face and staining the collar of his shirt. That said, the man never hesitated, reaching for Bloodfyre and Barrier, who remembered just in time to drop his shield. Without a word, Danny leapt them through space, dropping the bottom out of Barrier’s stomach. A new scene snapped into reality around them and for the second time in two days Barrier vomited, although this instance had nothing to do with Panic. He still remembered to put his shield back up, however. The last thing he wanted was to be caught vulnerable in such a position. It was a quick release, and when it was done he felt better. Barrier turned back to find that Danny was already gone, and Bloodfyre was checking their position.

                While they could hear the sounds of battle from nearby, Danny had dropped them off behind a stack of shipping containers. It allowed them a few precious moments to assess the current layout of the battlefield before they were fully in the fray. Bloodfyre peeked around the corner for several seconds, then turned back to Barrier.

                “Looks like mostly Standard class out here. I can see two of the shifters and it sounds like someone is throwing energy. Remember: on Standard class we only kill if absolutely necessary. They were smart at least, they picked an isolated area so we won’t have to kill them if they risk endangering civilians. Your best bet is to go for the legs, take out their mobility and their concentration in one go. I’m leading the charge, you’re watching my back, making sure no one tries to flank me or plays possum and then goes for a shot from behind. I’m going to be working quick, so keep up. Are you okay?”

                “I’m good.” And that was, surprisingly, the truth. Everything they’d been doing since arrival had been new for Barrier, which made it imposing and scary, but battle was a different beast. He knew how to fight. It was what he’d worked at, excelled at, and even if Angela had shaken his confidence he still had faith in his training. With no civilians around to worry about, this was like the simulated combat scenarios he’d drilled countless times. Mistakes might be made, he wasn’t so arrogant as to think he was perfect, but Barrier was back on familiar ground.

                “Glad to hear it. Stay on-”

                The crunch of metal was the only warning they had before one of the higher up shipping containers came tumbling forward on a crash course for where they were standing. Barrier snapped into movement on pure reflex, lifting his shield’s arms while expanding his hands as wide as he could in the limited time. It wasn’t enough for him to be unharmed, he had to catch a wide enough section to protect Bloodfyre as well. The metal came slamming down onto the two translucent blue palms of his expanded shield, halting the container before it could hit either them or the concrete. Barrier glanced over at Bloodfyre, only to discover that his teacher was burning brightly with red energy, so intense that the concrete beneath his feet was eroding and the part of the shipping container overhead was beginning to disintegrate.

                “Nice reflexes,” Bloodfyre said. “Can you set that thing down?”

                “Sure.” Barrier tilted his hands slightly, sending the container sliding off to the other side of them where it crashed heavily to the ground. “What was that?”

                “Advanced mind. Probably heard us planning to enter the fight and tried to stop us before we even got a shot. Partly our fault for standing still so long in the first place. Come on, let’s move. The plan doesn’t change, although if you see anybody using telekinesis let me know. I always feel a lot better when an enemy with the power to read minds is off the battlefield.”

                “Won’t the advanced mind know we’re looking for them?”

                “Probably, but that doesn’t change anything for us. We have to stop all the criminal Supers, which means deep down they all know we’re coming for them.” Bloodfyre dashed forward, out of the containers, and Barrier hurried to keep up. “Unseelie, we are on the field. Where do you need us?”

                “Panic has most of the ones inside the warehouse affected; Hammerspace and Charon are picking them off. I could use a little help thinning the herd out by the docks though.”

                Bloodfyre adjusted his position slightly, and Barrier followed the lead. “We’re on our way, Unseelie. Make sure to leave enough of them so we can properly train the rookie.”  

Blades & Barriers: Chapter 27

                It wasn’t until the police statements were taken and both drivers had left the scene, one heading to work and the other off to a hospital, that Barrier felt his nerves slacken a touch. He’d been braced for something to go wrong through all of the follow-up, the discussion with police, the EMTs checking over the big man’s broken hand, and the crowd gathering to watch. With every new element, he’d shifted himself slightly, making sure he could protect the greatest number of people at a moment’s notice if things spiraled out of control. Although, he’d never moved himself to a place where he wouldn’t be able to shield the children. There was minimizing overall damage, and then there was basic human decency.

                Bloodfyre finished speaking with the last of the police officers, shaking hands and posing for a picture with one of the younger cops before jogging over to Barrier. “Okay, the situation is recorded and diffused, so we’re free to get back on patrol.” He paused, looking up at a nearby lamppost with a hanging clock. “Or maybe we should go ahead and grab lunch, then head back out. No sense in starting a new route only to break halfway through.”

                Now that his nerves were finally beginning to settle, Barrier could feel the emptiness in his stomach that his meager offering of breakfast had failed to quell. Lunch sounded like a good idea, and there were a few spots he’d been dying to try out. Before he could toss out suggestions, Bloodfyre had pulled out his phone and opened an app that looked like a gameshow wheel with the names of local restaurants on it.

                “Cross your fingers for a good one,” Bloodfyre advised. He pressed a button on the side and the wheel began to spin, turning and turning until it slowed, and then halted with the arrow at the top resting on a name Barrier couldn’t quite make out. Bloodfyre, however, could see it clearly, and his mouth turned downward in an unmistakable frown. “Well crap. Looks like we’re doing hot dogs. And not even nice ones, either.”

                Barrier watched as Bloodfyre put the phone away, putting together what had just happened. “You pick your lunch spots at random?”

                “Sadly, yes.” Bloodfyre checked the nearby street signs, then began to lead Barrier south. “If even we don’t know where we’re going to be eating, it makes it impossible for someone else to predict. That minimizes the chances of someone ambushing or poisoning us when we stop in to grab food.”

                “Poison?” Barrier’s eyes went a bit wide in his mask. He’d always known such a thing was possible, but Bloodfyre made it sound like he dodged cyanide in his dishes daily.

                They reached a crossroads, and Bloodfyre turned left. “Oh yeah, that was popular for a while. Doesn’t work on every Hero, but you can kill a lot of us by attacking the stomach. The DVA and the Heroes cracked down on establishments that enabled it though, so now we generally only have to worry about a crook or Hero hater sneaking into the kitchen to poison our dishes. Hence the randomizing food choice app. And we don’t tend to eat out a whole lot.”

                Bloodfyre paused their trip, looking Barrier over carefully. “How are you holding up so far? It’s been a peaceful morning for the most part, but that last situation had the potential to get hairy. You made the right call setting yourself up to be a shield, by the way. I’m fairly confident I could have brought that Super down, but knowing you were there to stop collateral damage would have made the whole process a lot easier.”

                “Thank you,” Barrier said. “And I feel like I’m doing okay. Way less nervous than this morning, at any rate. But the car wreck was… odd. I’ve been thinking over it, and I’m still not sure who was really in the wrong. I mean technically, the Super didn’t break any laws, but somehow the whole thing felt unsettling.”

                “Hang on now, we don’t know that.” Bloodfyre halted, checking the nearby addresses before continuing. “The Super said that the big fellow caused the wreck. Neither you or I have seen the tape. For all we know, it was the Super’s fault and he was baiting the other guy into taking a swing. Once you assault someone, people tend to take your word a little less credibly. At the end of the day, all we can do is trust the cops to gather the evidence and the judges to dole out appropriate sentences. Always remember, we’re one cog in a large machine with lots of checks and balances. When Heroes forget that, when they start thinking of themselves as the whole machine, things rarely end well.”

                “But don’t we…” Barrier’s words puttered off, as he swung his head around to make sure there were no civilians nearby to overhear this part. It wasn’t a secret by any means, just as it also wasn’t the sort of thing he wanted to be overheard discussing. “Don’t we kill people, when we have too?”

                Bloodfyre’s steps came to a slow halt as he nodded, doing an area sweep of his own. “Yes, we do. Not easily or freely, however that is part of the job. Even then, though, we are not the judge and jury. The DVA assesses the threat, feeds us the information through Dispatch, and makes the call on whether permanent neutralization is necessary. There are exceptions, sometimes in battle saving your own life or the lives of others means making a snap call with lethal consequences, but you’d better believe we’re held accountable for that kind of thing. Heroes have lost their titles and their freedom over playing the ‘self-defense’ card a little too loosely. The Hero system is just that: a system. While it’s not a perfect one, it does try and balance the sanctity of life with the good of the many. Heroes are at our best when we’re doing our part within that system.”

                In a way, the concept was reassuring. HCP training, aside from the team events, was a lonely endeavor. Everyone he knew and cared about was his competition, leaving a division between even the closest of friendships. The idea of all Heroes being part of one big team, which served as part of a greater crime-fighting community at large, made the whole career feel a little bit less solitary.

                “I think I get it,” Barrier said. “It’ll probably take a while before I really grasp all of this, but I’m starting to wrap my head around it.”

                “Don’t rush it. There are people who’ve been doing this job for a decade and are still trying to figure out their role or make peace with what it demands of you. Today, for example, the job is demanding that we eat some genuinely subpar hot dogs from that street vendor over there.” Bloodfyre pointed to an old, beaten-up cart with a faded sign atop it’s tattered umbrella.

                Hungry as he was, Barrier began the seriously consider skipping lunch.

Blades & Barriers: Chapter 26

                When he first saw it, Barrier barely registered the accident. A pair of sedans were pulled off to the side on a busy street, in an area with lots of businesses and traffic. At most, Barrier took it to be a small fender bender. One person had gunned it a little too hard and smacked the other’s bumper. His eyes skimmed past the people standing outside their cars, until Bloodfyre abruptly changed course and started heading that way.

                It was only once they got closer that Barrier picked up on the details that had been so easy to miss from far off. The way one driver was visibly more aggravated than the other, the pedestrian crowd purposefully parting to give them both wide breadth, the pair of small children’s heads in the back seat of the front car. How had Bloodfyre caught all that with a single look from so far away? Barrier’s HCP training had taught him to look for details on a battlefield, sure, but this was just a bunch of people powering through a daily commute. Yet Bloodfyre had caught the warning signs quickly, and put himself on an immediate route to help. It was easy to let one’s focus slip during patrol, without the tension and risk of battle all around. Barrier made a note that he needed to work on that as well. Already he’d compiled a sizable list of areas to improve, and they hadn’t even made it to lunch time yet.

                No one was yelling as they drew close. The man driving the green sedan who’d been hit was leaning forward, nearly dwarfing the smaller driver of a gray car with a now dented front bumper. The lack of screams should have been a good sign, but Barrier realized it wasn’t the moment he got a good look at the larger man’s face. It was red and pinched, veins in his thick neck bulging. This wasn’t a case of anger that would flash quickly and then pass away with equal speed. He was pissed, and from the way he was glaring down at the smaller driver, this whole situation was going to end in violence if they didn’t intervene.

                “Gentlemen, how’s everyone’s day going?” Bloodfyre brightened his energy somehow, making it more ostentatious and drawing in the few eyes that weren’t already on him. “Looks like somebody was riding the bumper a little too closely. First things first, is anyone hurt or in need of medical attention?”

                Despite the fact that he was clearly talking to the men, Bloodfyre actually faced the back of the green car and gave a wide smile to the children’s heads that had swiveled around to get a good look at him. He knew how to dial back the scary when he wanted, and given the way he looked that was pretty impressive. Both kids dropped out of sight, only for the tops of their heads and eyes to pop back into view a few seconds later.

                “I’m fine, but my children were in the backseat when this son of a bitch slammed into us.” The driver of the green car, a man who looked like he’d rather chop off a leg than skip a day at the gym, spat the words out toward the gray sedan’s pilot. Something told Barrier that he wouldn’t be quite so aggressive in speaking to Bloodfyre directly.

                “Well, I can certainly understand your concern. Would you like me to call in some medical personnel to check them over?”

                Giggles were coming from the backseat as the kids shuffled around, looking at Bloodfyre and occasionally glancing to the blue shield surrounding Barrier. If they were hurt, it sure didn’t seem like it, but there was total sincerity on Bloodfyre’s face as he asked about calling for medical aid.

                “No… I think they’re okay,” the bigger man said. “We got lucky this time. But I’m not letting this asshole off the hook so easily; he could have done some real damage.”

                “Look, you swerved into my lane, cut me off, and then slammed on your brakes. Get pissed and yell all you want, there are traffic cameras and witnesses all over who are going to back up my story as soon as the real cops arrive. Drop the fake outrage and just take the hit to your insurance.”

                It was the first time they’d heard the smaller man talk, and immediately Barrier knew something was wrong. A guy with his frame shouldn’t be that calm with a slab of muscle looming over him. There should have been some semblance of nerves or worry in the tone, but it was absent. He seemed completely cool and collected, more bored than anything else. Bloodfyre noticed it too, nodding for Barrier to step closer to the two men.

                “Oh what? Now that there are Heroes around you’ve suddenly got a pair?” The bigger man whirled in place, hunching over to cast a literal shadow over his opponent.

                “No, now I’ve got real witnesses if you try anything stupid. I wasn’t going to rely on these others to back my story, true or not. You people always stick together.”

                There was something venomous about the way the smaller man said “you people.” It came with a pall of hatred and dislike that Barrier had usually only heard when he and his family had traveled to a handful of small, backward, towns as a child. Given that both of the drivers were Caucasian though, it didn’t seem to be meant racially. Barrier wasn’t really sure what the intent was, but whatever it had been the big man didn’t care for the tone. Despite his kids and two Heroes both bearing witness, he reared back and slammed his fist into the smaller man’s face.

                Barrier knew the sound of bones breaking too well to mistake the noise for anything else. The hand was shattered, small bits of white sticking out amidst the sea of red. As the large man tried to pull his broken hand back, the small one snagged him by the forearm.

                “Hold on, that was assault. You think I’m letting you just walk away from this?” He squeezed, and Barrier heard another pop from within the muscular forearm. “You’re staying right here and I’m pressing charges.”

                “Assault? You’re a fucking Super! You should have told me, you have to tell people that sort of shit.” Broken hand or no, the big man wasn’t crying or tearing up, but he was staring at the small, seemingly weak hand that had his arm in an iron grip.

                “I don’t have to tell you dick. Maybe don’t go around hitting people who look weaker than you.”

                “Enough.” Barrier had barely looked away, and Bloodfyre had shifted position. He was behind the smaller man, a hand momentarily absent of burning red energy resting on the driver’s shoulder. The voice he was using was nothing like the cheerful and friendly tones he’d employed so far. He sounded cold and hard, wielding the voice of a man who knew violence like an old bedfellow and wasn’t afraid to roll in the sheets with her right now if the mood struck. “He hit you, we all saw it, but if you keep gripping that hard you’re going to do lasting damage. Let him go, now.”

                “I have the right to defend myself.”

                “Which you exercised by not getting out of the way,” Bloodfyre shot back. “I watched your eyes; we both know you could have dodged that punch. At this moment, you’re still in the clear. Push the situation in anyway, escalate things the slightest bit, and the law ceases to be on your side. That means I have to stop you.”

                The words hung there for a long moment as Barrier shifted his own position slightly. Given the durability and strength this Super had shown, he wasn’t sure he could move fast enough to save the muscular man. His children, on the other hand, were another story. Barrier would widen his shield at the slightest movement, making sure they weren’t caught in any ensuing battles. Thankfully, it didn’t come to that.

                With a grunt of annoyance, the small man released his grip, and the large one darted backward quickly. Bloodfyre didn’t exactly sigh in relief, but his eyes did seem a bit less tense. “Barrier, put the man in his car and take the keys to make sure he doesn’t try to flee a crime scene. We’re all staying put until the police arrive to take an official report. Dispatch will route an ambulance to our location as quickly as possible to get him some treatment. As for you, sir, you’re going to stay right here with me until this situation is wrapped up.”

                The Super shook his head, looking at Bloodfyre with unconcealed disgust. “He pulls in front of me, causes an accident, and hits me in the face, but you’re acting like I’m the criminal. I expect it from his kind by now, however I’d hoped one of my own people would be different.”

                “I’m not putting you under arrest,” Bloodfyre said, voice still calm and careful. “Just stay quiet, and don’t give anyone a reason to fear you. You’ve got the law on your side. Be smart, shut up, and keep it that way until the cops get here.”

                Barrier was helping the man into the green sedan, the children’s giggling suddenly gone as they stared in terror at their father’s mangled hand. The big guy had been in the wrong; there was no question about it. He’d attacked someone who looked smaller and weaker because he could. But as Barrier yanked the keys from the ignition and took a quick scan of the crowd’s fearful faces, he had a feeling no one would really remember it that way.

Blades & Barriers: Chapter 25

                Patrol work was a strange experience. Long sections of time where it was tempting to allow boredom to creep in, followed by swiftly arriving instants where things seemed like they were teetering on a knife’s edge, ready to fall into trouble at the slightest wrong word. Bloodfyre led Barrier through their area bit by bit, often sticking to a methodical route, other times skipping past whole blocks. Steadfast, but unpredictable, so even those tracking them on social media wouldn’t be exactly sure where they were going or when they might arrive.

                Most of their walk went just like the start had, with people taking pictures and Bloodfyre waving cheerfully. Barrier even started to get the hang of it, although he wasn’t as good at spotting the covert photographers yet. There were two occasions, however, where the light-heartedness evaporated. The first was when they’d skipped around a few blocks into a neighborhood with less foot traffic. Two men, probably no older than Barrier, were standing in front of a storefront arguing. The words alone weren’t that bad, but at a glance Barrier could see that things were moments away from escalation. After all the fighting he’d done in the HCP, it was impossible to miss the telltale signs of two people readying themselves to get physical. The moment Bloodfyre saw them, he started whistling. Not at them, or being excessively loud. Just a soft melody that he let float forth freely. Oddly, it caught their attention in no time, faster than more shouting would have.

                As they turned toward them, Barrier felt his whole body tense slightly. This wasn’t the nerves of earlier in the day though; this was adrenaline and alertness kicking in to high gear. Barrier studied them, waiting for the slightest move or hint at what powers they might possess. Both had unnaturally colored hair, but that could as easily be dye as Super genes. Barrier followed his mentor as he drew closer to the two men, his pace and whistling steady with every step. Saying nothing, Bloodfyre led Barrier past them, into the store, where he picked up two bottles of water, paying in cash and handing one to Barrier as they stepped outside. Whatever argument had been going on, it had either passed or migrated, because the two men were nowhere in sight.

                 “Where’d they go?” Barrier craned his neck, trying to catch any sight of the potential assailants.

                “Probably got spooked and ran off, maybe just went somewhere else to sort things out. As long as they got out of public, that’s good enough. Lots of families live on this block, we don’t need anyone else getting drawn into their squabble.” Bloodfyre had dimmed the flickering energy in his hand and around his mouth so he could take a swig from his bottle. “Stay hydrated, Barrier. This is a hot town and we’re out in the sun.”

                “Shouldn’t we have done something?”

                “Like what? They were disturbing the peace, true, but no one complained about the yelling as far as I know. And while they were probably going to fight, we can’t prove that until it happens. If one of them had been showing off abilities, that might have been a different story, but it’s prudent not to intervene in the matters of humans unless expressly necessary.”

                That felt like an odd sentiment, although Barrier wasn’t entirely sure why. He’d just never really thought of there being that big of a line between humans and Supers. Sure, he could do something special, but otherwise he was just like everyone else. Rather than speculate needlessly, he decided to take advantage of having an experienced mentor on hand and do the smartest thing he could: learn. “Why not? Crime is crime, right?”

                “On a fundamental level, yes,” Bloodfyre agreed. “That said, we don’t really have the infrastructure to handle low-level stuff like this. Think of us like a SWAT team: we’re trained for and used in very specific high stakes situations. But the regular beat cops are the ones who keep the streets safe day to day, they have the manpower, training, and experience to know when to use a light touch versus a heavy one. Using us on low-level crime would be like dropping a bomb on a building to destroy a couch. It would work, but the level of overkill would create a lot more problems than it fixed.”

                “I actually meant the other part. About not meddling in the affairs of humans.” Barrier dropped his shield for a split-second, reforming it more widely spaced around himself so that the bottle of water was inside. He’d never found a way to drink or eat through the thing, but being able to control the size meant he was able to bring his food inside it.

                Bloodfyre didn’t reply immediately this time. Instead, he finished his water, eroded it with his energy, and started walking down the street once more. “I don’t want to talk about personal history too deeply out here in the open, but did you manifest your powers early in life?”

                Barrier nodded. While some Supers didn’t get their abilities until they were nearing puberty, he’d been an early bloomer, manifesting his shield at age five.

                “I didn’t. I was eleven before the first time I called out my abilities. First and only one in my family to do so,” Bloodfyre said. “And let me tell you something: the world looks very differently through the eyes of human than through those of a Super. What we are, what we can do, it’s terrifying when you’re just a regular person watching. It’s very easy to feel small, helpless, and, above all else, scared. Scared for your family, your friends, yourself. Scared knowing there are people who can do things that go beyond the human spectrum, who have risen above nature’s laws. Supers create fear by their very existence, but having Heroes ameliorates that. It lets people know that there are still rules in place that those with abilities have to play by, and people around to enforce them. But because of that, Heroes themselves are also terrifying in their own right. If we go after a human, we represent someone with the blessings of nature and society on our side. That makes people feel backed into a corner, and those are the sort of situations where the really bad ideas start seeming like people’s only recourse.”

                “You’re talking about groups like the Humanity First movement.” Barrier had seen them on the news for nearly all his life, though he’d never actually dealt with someone who openly hated Supers. Those kinds of folks tended not to go to HCP colleges in the first place.

                “Among many others,” Bloodfyre confirmed. “I’m not saying we don’t step in if the law is being broken, mind you. Our job is to protect this world and keep its people safe, which means we do that no matter what. But whenever possible, we let human police deal with human crimes. We’re guardians, not oppressors, and if we seem overly aggressive it’s very easy for that line to get blurred in people’s heads. It’s rarely needed in the first place anyway. Most of the time, anyone with crime on the mind gets extremely cold feet once a Hero steps into view. Which is great. A crime prevented is a crime stopped, and all the better if no one gets hurt in the process.”

                “So what would you have done if one of them was showing signs of abilities?”

                Bloodfyre paused again, giving the question careful consideration. “It would have depended on exactly the ability and what they were doing with it. Probably would have stopped and talked, called it in to Dispatch to see if we were hunting anyone matching that type of power, and ideally diffused the situation peacefully. Or, things could have gone badly. Can’t really say on a hypothetical, too many variables unaccounted for.”

                It was an honest, if not altogether satisfying answer, but Barrier could see his point. That was too broad of a situation to give a specific answer to. If he wanted to see how Bloodfyre handled someone with powers, he’d have to wait until they encountered another Super.

                That took less than an hour, when they encountered the second, far more memorable, break in the boredom of their patrol.

Blades & Barriers: Chapter 24

                “You ready?”

                His costume felt tighter than it had yesterday, in the safety of a training room. More claustrophobic. The mask practically seemed to be squeezing his head so hard it might make him pass out. Every single time his heart beat, Brett could feel it in his ears. He’d gone into dozens of matches during his HCP career, faced off against strong opponents who he knew could hurt him if things went awry, so why was the idea of taking a single step forward causing him so much stress? Deep down, he already knew the answer: because this was the end of training and the start of something real. Once he walked out there, it wasn’t just his body on the line. If he messed up, innocent lives could be lost. But if he stayed here, if he did nothing, then he wouldn’t even have the opportunity to help them, and that was much scarier than the anxiety filling his brain at the moment.

                “Yeah,” Barrier replied. “I’m ready.” He started forward, toward the sunlight at the end of the alley where Danny had dropped them off. It was a bold, determined stride that would have been quite impressive and hidden his nerves, if only Bloodfyre hadn’t grabbed his shoulder to halt him after two steps.

                “Not quite.” Bloodfyre gave his shoulder a squeeze and the point immediately hit home. “Boss’s orders, remember? Shield up at all times.”

                With a small bit of effort, Barrier willed the blue glow into being around his body. It felt familiar, this was the way he always went into battle, and the knot in his stomach unwound slightly. Bloodfyre gave him the thumbs-up, and then moments later red energy began to swirl around his mentor’s body. His wasn’t a stable shield, more like the rolling flames of a well-kindled fire. It flickered, expanding and contracting constantly, making Bloodfyre far more eye-catching.

                “Mine won’t stop things the way yours does, but like this it will partially disintegrate most ranged surprise attacks. If I get any sort of warning, I can dial up the intensity so even a high-powered bullet wouldn’t reach me, though I don’t like walking on patrol like that. The look is a little too intense for civilians, plus I cause damage to the sidewalk and any buildings I get too close to.”

                Both men now covered in glowing energy, they walked forward together, stepping out of the alley and onto a sidewalk in a business district of Port Valins. Barrier tensed the moment they appeared, waiting for something to leap out and strike. Instead, he saw people in suits and slacks staring at them, whispering a few words and then walking a little faster. Some paused to snap a photo, and to his surprise Barrier realized that Bloodfyre was smiling and posing for the shots.

                “I thought you were the kind of Hero who went for fear and intimidation,” Barrier said. There was little chance of being overheard, even the people on their side of the street were giving them a wide berth.

                “That’s when dealing with criminals.” Bloodfyre gave one last thumbs up as the pictures ended before turning to his student. “Remember, we can make the bad guys afraid, but not the regular folks. Even if they don’t love us, they shouldn’t fear us. We’re more than their protectors; we’re the representatives for all Supers.  Our existence is a huge part of what makes peace between humans and Supers possible.”

                Barrier had gotten the speech from Dean Silva in his senior year classes, he knew that part of the reason Heroes existed was to put a friendly, palatable face on the sudden emergence of people who had powers that humans could never match. It had seemed more like philosophy than anything practical at the time, though. Apparently it factored into a Hero’s daily life more than he’d expected.

                “You’re still really scary in videos and stuff,” Barrier said. The two of them began walking carefully down the sidewalk, never coming up too fast on the normal pedestrians and keeping to the side so no one had to get close enough to brush against their respective energies. “Doesn’t that put people off?”

                “Not as much as you’d think. Turns out people are okay with their Heroes seeming like monsters, as long as we’re their monsters. Besides, with all the charity work Panic has pulled the team into over the last few years, even my image is getting softer. Hard to look like a heartless beast when you’re posing alongside sick kids.” Bloodfyre gave another wave to someone who’d pulled out a cell phone and was trying to covertly take a picture. “Barrier, start giving people waves and smiles. You’re new, so they’re going to be curious about you. This is a chance to make a good first impression, and it’s solid training.”

                Barrier did as he was told and gave a stiff grin, suddenly thankful for the mask covering so much of his face, tight fit and all. “I get the image part, but how is this training?”

                “Remember what Unseelie said: you don’t have practice watching for advanced signs of an attack,” Bloodfyre told him. “Keeping an eye out for people taking pictures is a good way to work on being constantly aware of your environment, which is a big necessity during patrols, as well as battle. And to be frank, when people dip their hands in their pockets, I never know for sure if they’re going for a phone or a gun. So I’m ready to react to either. The ones with phones get a smiling wave to remind them that no matter how sly they might try to be, a Hero sees it all, and the ones who pull a weapon… well that response varies depending on the exact situation and how many bystanders there are. Suffice it for now to say they don’t get the friendly version of Bloodfyre.”

                The idea of someone pulling a weapon on a Hero seemed ludicrous, but Barrier did as he was told and began paying more attention to the normal people they were passing. Were any of them hiding some weapon? Laboring under the delusion that anything as simple as a handgun was enough to stop a trained Hero? Didn’t they have any idea the sort of training and power-development it took to earn this title? No… actually, they probably didn’t. After all, the HCP was secretive by nature and necessity. Plus, if he were honest with himself, a gun could stop Barrier in the right circumstances. When he and Bloodfyre were in the alley, if there had been some crook lying low, one shot before his shield was raised could have ended his career before it began. Same with Angela and Justin, or even Bloodfyre. Catch them off-guard, with their defenses down and powers not in use, and they’d be just as vulnerable as any human.

                Barrier’s eyes scanned every person more carefully now, watching not just their movements, but also their overall expression when they noticed two Heroes walking down the street. This wasn’t a skill he’d previously trained, however that stopped now. He had a lot to learn about being a Hero, there was room to improve on something as simple as taking a stroll down the sidewalk, and he was determined to give everything he had to even the simplest of tasks.

                Hopefully, that meant he wouldn’t come up lacking when the big moments arrived.

Blades & Barriers: Chapter 23

                The upside of continual healing was that it made sleep impossible to resist, no matter how bad a case of nerves one might have. Despite all the anxiety and excitement Brett felt about the idea of his first day in the field as a Hero, he still passed clean out the moment his head hit the pillow. The downside was that those emotions were waiting for him when he woke up, agitated and increased by being temporarily put off.

                Morning exercise, showering, and breakfast all happened on auto-pilot. It took nearly everything Brett had to put one foot in front of another. He’d been working toward this for so long, training so hard, and now that the moment was nearly at hand all he could think about was what if he messed up? What if he’d gotten through on luck and circumstance more than skill, and he cost someone their life the first time he stepped foot outside in costume? Silly as it was, and he knew that on a rational level, the fear wouldn’t dissipate. His only consolation was that Justin, despite being more practiced at hiding his emotions, also looked a bit worried over breakfast. Everyone probably got the first day jitters, and that was fine. All that mattered was that he didn’t let them affect him in the field.

                “Listen up team, time for today’s assignments,” Unseelie announced. She’d waited until everyone around the kitchen was nearly done with breakfast before standing up, her own plate picked clean. Brett didn’t know how people could eat full meals before going out to fight crime; his own stomach was dancing so hard it was easy to suspect Panic was messing with him. But he already knew the real answer to the question: to them, this was just another day on the job.

                “Bayou is going to be digging in to local gang activity, seeing if any of them have grudges against United Avalon or allegiances to the deposed former government. A lot of money and Supers came over here before the revolution, and if there’s someone who might not want UA diplomats poking around town we need to be prepared for them. Gunk, you’re with Bayou. Take your orders and keep your ears open, this is a chance to learn about the city while making some street-level contacts. Bayou, do you need any backup?”

                “I’d like to keep Panic nearby, just in case,” Bayou replied. “Some of the places I’m going to have to hit are a little risky, and with a trainee in the mix it’s prudent to have a rapid exit strategy ready to go if we need it.”

                “Any conflicts with that, Panic?” Unseelie turned to Panic, who was wearing a tasteful outfit that seemed out of place amidst everyone else’s workout clothes.

                She finished eating a bite of eggs, chewing them slowly as she mulled the question over. “Can you do those in the afternoon? As you can guess from the ensemble, I’m doing a DVA meeting first thing and then I have to change into costume for a local charity appearance. Both of those can be pushed, but I’d rather not if we don’t have to.”

                “Afternoon is perfect,” Bayou said. “Gives me the morning to do the less-dangerous work and get Gunk settled in.”

                Unseelie nodded. “That’s settled then. Everyone else, we’re going to do patrol. Charon and I will take the south-eastern part of town, Bloodfyre and Barrier, I want both of you walking the western area. Hammerspace, stay in the same general area in case they need backup, but stroll down a different beat than them. We’ve been out of sight for a few days; I’d like to maximize overall exposure without putting the interns in too much danger. On that note, Barrier, shields up at all times. You’re going to be in public view and aren’t used to watching for warning signs of an impending attack. Plus, that blue glow is eye-catching, and we want to be noticed. That’s half of why we do these patrols. Understood?”

                Brett dearly wished he hadn’t chosen that moment to take a bite of bacon, as it felt stuck in his throat the moment she said his Hero name. He tried to respond, but it refused to move, and for a second he genuinely feared he might choke. Instead, he gave up on verbal responses and flopped his head up and down to signal that he’d heard. There were a few muted chuckles from around the table, but Brett was too focused on getting the food down to pinpoint their sources.

                “One more thing before we head out,” Unseelie continued, mercifully not calling attention to Brett’s sudden silence. “If we get any summons from Dispatch, I’m going to try and not bring in Bayou and Gunk unless strictly necessary. They need the time and freedom to work with, plus Barrier will make up the difference in manpower. I will take Panic off of them, though. We need to get used to fighting alongside Barrier and letting him learn the team dynamics firsthand. Gunk, we’ll be bringing you along when not pre-occupied with Bayou, but since you’re not combat-focused it’s a secondary priority in your training. Some leaders would still force you onto the battlefield, and if that’s what you want we can shift things around, however I assumed you’d prefer more time spent working with your Subtlety skills.”

                “You hit the nail right on the head.” Justin seemed unafflicted by the bout of dry mouth that had struck Brett. “I’ll always be glad to do my part, but I think I’m generally more useful gathering information than fighting.”

                “It will depend on the threat in question, if one even pops up. Planning for the unknown is impossible, so it’s usually best to make loose, easily changeable plans until we actually know what we’re up against. Anyway, that concludes the day’s assignments.” Unseelie paused, her eyes glancing at Brett and Justin. “As always, Dispatch’s orders trump my own, so be ready to throw it all out the window if something serious comes up.”

                That last part had clearly been added for the new interns’ benefit, since everyone else would be keenly aware of their chain of command. It was strange to think that a whole day’s plans could be tossed away at a moment’s notice, in the HCP everything had been scheduled and coordinated carefully. Even when Brett was about the plunge headfirst into unknown chaos, he at least knew when it would begin and end. There were other classes to consider, so schedules were firmly adhered to. Out here, in the real world, there would be no week’s warning he could use to prepare. They might be needed at any time. Hell, it was possible the team wouldn’t even be able to finish breakfast before being called out to stop a Super trying to level half the city.

                Surprisingly, the thought made Brett feel a little less nervous. He’d been stressing out badly about what was waiting for him out in the field, but the truth was nothing was actually going to wait on him to appear. The chaos could come at any time, which meant he’d either have to spend every moment in dread or just accept the unpredictability of his chosen job and find peace with it. Granted, this didn’t ameliorate his worries completely, not by a long shot. However, it did settle his stomach enough to get a few more bites of breakfast down.

                Whatever was waiting for them in the field, there was no sense facing it on an empty stomach.

Blades & Barriers: Chapter 22

                Angela loved being on the Wayward Wraiths. She respected Unseelie, genuinely liked the other Heroes, and believed in the methods they employed for team dynamics and strategy. There was only one real complaint she had, and it wasn’t even with the team itself, it was with DVA regulations. Interns, being considered still “in-training” as Heroes, weren’t allowed to work without their mentor either directly overseeing them or coordinating their activities. The rule did make sense, she could imagine more than a few overly confident gung-ho candidates bolting off into danger during their first year in the field. All the same, she still disliked it, because it meant that on days like this one she was stuck on the bench.

                The upside was that the rest of the gym, outside the combat cells, was wide open for her to use. Sometimes it was nice to squeeze in a workout day here and there, however two in a row felt excessive. Training had been well and good when she was young, or in the HCP, but now that she’d tasted real Hero work training seemed a poor substitution. None of that changed the fact that Brett and Justin needed to go through proper assessments, which was why she hadn’t voiced any complaints when Unseelie had given her the rundown for the day that morning. It was the smart call, and Angela understood that. She was just annoyed by it.

                Reaching over, Angela turned up the treadmill’s incline by a few more degrees. During the longer days in the field she’d felt weariness in her legs more than anywhere else, so that’s the set of muscles she was spending the most energy strengthening for now. After the cardio there would be more target practice and dexterity exercises. Plus, if the timetables worked out and she was lucky, some evening sparring with Unseelie. Now there was a Hero who could fight. Angela would have plunked down every dime she had, pitiful an amount as that actually was, to watch Unseelie take on Professor Cole, the Weapons specialist at Lander who’d once gone by the name Seamstress. Given that Unseelie was in her prime she would probably emerge victorious, but it would still be a hell of a battle all the same.

                Part of Angela had been tempted to sit in and watch Brett and Justin go through their assessments, until she’d heard they were getting tested by Panic as well. Her relationship with Brett was already strained due to their fight at Intramurals; he didn’t need her with a ringside seat to the pants-shitting show. Having voluntarily been through that herself, both her armor and the giant dome she put around herself failing to stop Panic’s ability, Angela knew all too well what it felt like. Having teachers in the room would be bad enough; if someone he thought of as a rival was present too it could make things truly awkward, and that would be bad for teamwork. And anything bad for teamwork was bad for their safety.

                It was strange, being on this side of the equation. Growing up as the granddaughter of the first Hero, Captain Starlight, Angela had been immersed in the world of capes and battle from the moment she drew her first breath. By the time she hit her teens, she’d already lost count of the number of Hero funerals she’d been too. After a certain amount, the exact number failed to matter, really. Too much. Too many. That was what they’d lost. She didn’t want to be one of them, not for as long as she could possibly help it. So every time her grandfather took she and her younger brother, Shane, out for training, Angela absorbed every word and lesson. When he demanded three hours of work, she put in five. When she was told to analyze a hypothetical power and think of four ways to beat it, she wrung her mind to come up with eight. When she was told to try, she fought to win. Because even if no one had said it out loud, Angela had seen too much not to internalize a hard truth of the Hero world: strength was the one thing that would keep her alive to see the next day. Hers, and her team’s.

                That had been a big factor in why she was so gung-ho to join the Wayward Wraiths. In terms of both combat skill and battle efficiency, they were incredible. Not as flashy as some of the teams with heavy hitters or showy abilities, it was hard to match the spectacle that Elemental Fury put on when Gale hit a whole block with buffeting winds, but they worked smart and precise. That was far more important to Angela than prestige, although she didn’t hate the fact that they had a solid reputation nationally and a lot of respect in Port Valins. All in all, it was a good fit for her, and she’d been excited to meet Justin since she first heard about his arrival.

                Brett had been a surprise, though. A surprise… and a complication. His power was strong, she’d seen that firsthand, and he took the job seriously. He was a little anxious, but that was to be expected of someone who was still shaking off their first serious loss, especially with the prospect of real field work looming over him. She’d much rather someone with a case of nerves than a dumbass too foolhardy to know they should be scared. No, Brett as a Super was fine. The issue was with their history.

                If only that damn match hadn’t come with so much pressure and expectation built in. Had it been just another pair of students from different schools squaring off, they could have shaken hands and walked away without issue. Even if it were still the final bout, things wouldn’t have been so bad. But no, they’d both walked in undefeated among their peers, and she’d been the one to hang on to that title. Having to work alongside the person who’d ruined his perfect record and shaken his confidence only a handful of weeks after it had happened was going to be tough for him. Angela had tried to play the role of the wise and affable fellow intern to put him at ease, but she wasn’t sure that was really working. And she needed to find a way to dispel the tension between them.

                It didn’t matter if Brett liked her on a personal level, or if he hated her with a passion that would outlast the sun. What did matter was that he trusted her in the field. Angela and Unseelie were of a like mind in that regard. Being raised around Heroes, she’d listened to their tales, the ones meant for children and the ones she’d snuck around to overhear, and she understood in a way few her age did, or even could, how much the team would be relying on one another when shit hit the fan. If there was too much space between them, if he hesitated in the wrong moment, it could be a mistake whose toll was paid in blood.

                The treadmill was squeaking, so Angela slowed the pace down and lowered the incline. It was about time to switch up training. As for Brett, she still hadn’t quite figured out the right way to handle him. For the time being, she’d stick with her current approach and see if she could make headway. The real test would be once they were out there together in costume, doing the real Hero work. That was when she’d see just how much of an issue their history was going to be, and hopefully find a path to get through it.

                Thankfully, she wouldn’t have to wait for long. Once the assessments were done, they’d probably be out in the field by the next day. They couldn’t afford to spend too much time away. Port Valins was a rough city, and it needed its Heroes.

                So she would be there, golden and gleaming and prepared to do whatever was necessary to see the job handled and her team kept safe. Even if it meant washing more crimson stains from her costume.

Blades & Barriers: Chapter 21

                “The first thing you should know is that I’m sorry. Normally, we wouldn’t put you through something like this, but in terms of testing how your shield holds up against attacks that aren’t physical or energy-based, I’m the best option we have.” Panic looked a lot more abashed than she had on the night prior, even exchanging nervous glances with Unseelie. That alone wasn’t so concerning, however the outfit Brett had been provided with would have been enough to put him on edge by itself.

                It felt like the whole outfit had been fashioned from the paper-thin material that made up hospital gowns, not that there was a lot of outfit to begin with. Just a pair of pants and matching shirt, both of which were clearly disposable. Even more disconcerting was the fact that he was standing on a plastic tarp, one that had certainly not been there for his earlier tests. Despite having seen the team put safety first at every turn during this assessment, it was hard to shake the nagging fear that they expected him to explode and wanted to make clean-up as easy as possible.

                “It’s okay, Panic.” Brett didn’t feel particularly okay, but he wanted to put on a brave face. Yes, her power for making people lose their nerve was well-regarded, however it was just temporary. Whatever was coming, it wouldn’t kill him, which meant things would be fine eventually. He just had to keep reminding himself of that as everyone else in the room moved even further away.

                “Barrier, raise your shield,” Unseelie said. Bloodfyre leaned over and whispered something in her ear, to which she nodded and then added, “But make it a little larger than you usually do. Half a foot all around should be fine. That doesn’t impede it, correct?”

                “It makes it harder to sustain against normal attacks, but I don’t know that it would change anything about the way Panic’s technique will work,” Brett admitted.

                “Go with the half-foot distance, just to be safe.” Unseelie turned to Panic and motioned for her to step forward.

                As Panic got into position, Brett raised his shield once more. Truthfully, he was as curious as he was scared for this demonstration. Mental attacks usually worked against him, at least they had when he was competing with other students, as did sound or visual based abilities. That wasn’t always true, however, as every power was different, and he wondered if Panic might fall into the group that his shield kept out. Beyond that, he really just wanted to see what exactly she did. Hammerspace had lit a fire of curiosity under him that morning, one which smoldered more and more as the day had worn on.

                “Do I need to look at you?” Brett asked as Panic took one last step forward, stopping a good thirty feet away.

                “No, I can hit an entire area, or choose my targets if I can see them. Usually I do the area strike before we directly engage, and then get more selective once the team has moved in. We don’t want them getting caught up in… well, it’s probably better to show than tell. At least this way, you don’t need to dread it. Are you ready?”

                With more determination than he really felt, Brett nodded to signal that he was. For a moment, nothing happened. Panic just stood there, staring at him, and he wondered if perhaps his shield was indeed blocking her ability. Then he felt something, something powerful. It wasn’t fear, though, no wave of terror washing over him like he’d heard described dozens of times in articles and interviews. No, instead it was like his stomach was trying to claw its way up through his throat, and the instant Brett recognized what it was he immediately realized there would be no way to stop it.

                Vomit burst from his mouth, passing mercifully through the shield instead of bouncing back into his face. No wonder they’d told him not to keep the blue barrier skintight, just in case. Five seconds into vomiting, Brett noticed that his stomach was mounting an attack on a new front, and suddenly he understood just how effective Panic’s ability really was. People with a lot of willpower and determination could fight past intangible concepts like fear. Projectile vomiting while shitting one’s pants, on the other hand, now that was going to slow even the most seasoned of combatants down.

                It didn’t last long, and as the last chunks slid from Brett’s mouth Bloodfyre appeared at his side, wrapping a robe around him. Granted, the garment wasn’t going to do anything about the smell, but it covered the worst of the staining. At least the tarp and disposable clothing made sense now.

                “Looks like non-physical attacks still present a tangible threat,” Unseelie said. “Sorry you had to go through that, Barrier, but better we know here and now than out on the battlefield.”

                “Ho-” Brett paused, unsure he trusted his settling stomach not to jump on the opportunity an open mouth presented. When nothing surged upward, he decided it was safe to continue. “Holy shit, that was awesome! I mean, not the fact that I just crapped myself, obviously, but the effect as a whole. I could barely think straight, forget about fighting, and I knew something was coming. If I’d been caught off-guard… no wonder this team is so good at shutting down groups of enemies. Panic, your power is incredible.”

                The room fell curiously silent for a moment, before Bloodfyre chuckled under his breath. “Well, he’s taking it better than I did the first time she made me shit myself.”

                “Ditto,” Unseelie agreed.

                “Wait, she used it on you two?” Brett asked.

                “Sooner or later most people on the team want to test a tactic to see if they can stop it,” Panic explained. “Bloodfyre tried blocking me with a wall of his energy, Unseelie shifted to full diamond mode to see if it still affected her, and Bayou wrapped himself so densely in vines that I had no idea where his actual body was. No luck for any of them. Gunk was our first team member to resist it completely a little while ago, and that’s probably because his shifted form doesn’t even have a stomach. It also doesn’t work on some Supers who fall into the strongman type, I think their stomachs are literally too strong, as well as ones who have ways to fight disease and some shifters. It might be a sort of hyper-stomach bug I can will into existence, no one is totally sure. Hell, my first idea for a Hero name was actually going to be Flu, but that seemed a little on the nose. Plus, with my name and fake reputation we’re able to trick people into thinking that they’re so scared they void their bowels, instead of them catching on that the bowel-voiding itself is the power.”

                Bloodfyre patted Brett carefully on the back. “Come on; let’s get you to the showers so you can clean up. Unseelie, are we good for the day?”

                The leader of the Wayward Wraiths stared at Bloodfyre and his apprentice for a moment, before a small smile appeared on her face. “Given the amount of force he withstood from Titan and the inability to be injured by any of the team’s attacks, I’d say Barrier has demonstrated more than enough damage tolerance for us to safely employ him in the field. Like all of us, you’ll still be getting more assessments done as new Heroes with new abilities become available, but for now we’ve got a good sense of what you can handle. Congratulations, Barrier. After a shower and a long rest to recover from all the healing, I think we’ll be taking you and Gunk out into the field.”

                Brett was grinning from ear-to-ear at the news. Part of him had been nervous ever since he arrived that something would go wrong and he wouldn’t be cleared to work with the team. Hearing the declaration from Unseelie, he knew this was a moment he’d hold onto for a long time to come. He just would have preferred if the memory wasn’t accompanied by the godawful stink that came from the aftereffects of Panic’s power.

Blades & Barriers: Chapter 20

                “So I know I said my shield was strong and all, but this feels like it might be a bit riskier than I was expecting.” Brett didn’t go so far as to actively back away from Titan, however he made little effort to hide the worry on his face.

                “Relax, we’re not going to have Titan try to pulp you off the bat,” Hammerspace assured him. “This is going to be just like everything else, a series of gradual increases.”

                “Same thing I did with your father,” Titan added.

                Brett felt like his heart had suddenly forgotten how to do its job, as several beats in a row were unexpectedly skipped. “I’m sorry; did you say you did this to my father?”

                Titan nodded, making his way across the room until he was only a few feet away from Brett. “Sure. This was a long time ago, mind you, but Hank needed to have his shield tested before he could be cleared to help train a particularly powerful Super, so I was brought in to see how much he could withstand. Credit where it’s due, the man took one of my punches at full strength without his shield breaking, although I have gotten considerably stronger since then.”

                Bloodfyre clapped a hand onto Brett’s shoulder just as he was taking a deep breath to steel his nerves. “Don’t worry; he’s not starting at full power. We just want to see how much physical force you can really withstand. As soon as a crack in the shield appears, he’ll dial it back.”

                “And it’s not like I have to punch you in the torso,” Titan pointed out. “Just hold out your arm, that’s how Hank and I did it. Safety first, you know.”

                “Right, safety first.” Now that the initial shock was dying down, Brett had regained some sense of control over himself. Carefully, he extended his left arm, the one he’d miss slightly less if anything went wrong. As he did, Bloodfyre retreated to the edge of the room with Unseelie, Hammerspace, and the DVA agents. Safe or not, it seemed no one wanted to be too nearby in case of collateral damage.

                For his part, Titan moved slowly, putting himself into position and carefully lining up his shot. The blow was aimed for Brett’s forearm, and with a sudden jab that was exactly where Titan connected, slamming his fist into Brett’s shield where it was completely stopped.

                Brett let out a small sigh of relief, while Titan reeled back his sizable arm. “How you feeling, Barrier? Stamina good? Need any healing?”

                “I’m fine,” Brett assured him. It was strange to hear his Hero name come out of someone else’s mouth, especially someone as famous as Titan. He’d almost forgotten that he was even in costume, the simple gray and blue ensemble that allowed for easy movement over durability. After all, he didn’t really need his clothes for protection, that was what his entire power was for.

                The next few minutes played out almost identically to the first punch. Titan would take his time, line up a shot, and then jab Brett’s shield. After that, he’d make sure there was no need for healing, and then continue. The one break in the action was that every five punches, even though Brett didn’t ask for it, they would pause so Dwight could come over and do a quick healing session to keep Brett in peak form. Brett couldn’t even tell most of the strikes apart, they all felt just like everything else that had ever hit his shield. It all sort of blended together until one punch stood very much out.

                Brett had lost count of what number they were on, truthfully he was getting a little bored with just standing in place. All he knew was that Titan’s fist connected, and suddenly sweat was covering his body and it was hard to breathe. He felt like he’d just finished the run with Hammerspace all over again, muscles aching as he hunched slightly over.

                “Looks like we finally got a reaction,” Bloodfyre said. He was already halfway over, followed only a few steps behind by Dwight and Unseelie. “Barrier, you okay?”

                “Fine.” The word came out as more of a gasp than a declaration, but Brett still managed to grab enough air to form it which was a victory in itself. He’d never felt anything like that before. Sure, over time he’d experienced his body growing taxed from the effort of maintaining his shield, however having it all hit him at once was a wholly new, and unenjoyable, experience.

                “Like hell. How much did you increase the power from the last punch?” Unseelie asked Titan. She didn’t seem angry, exactly, but she was using a far sterner voice than most would have with a Super who towered above everyone else in the room.

                “I was aiming for just a little bit stronger, but I may have slightly overshot. This isn’t an exact science, you know.” Titan leaned down to look Brett in the eye as he slowly recovered his air. “I’m really sorry, Barrier. I may have put too much into that last one.”

                Brett waved him off as Dwight arrived. Dropping his shield, he allowed the DVA healer to make contact with his skin, and slowly the exhaustion faded away. By the time Dwight released him, Brett felt great, like he could take another dozen or so punches from Titan. That was hubris, however. He’d seen just how quickly Titan’s real power could drain him.

                “It is worth noting that the shield never gave an inch or wavered, it just demanded a lot of energy from Barrier to maintain,” Bloodfyre said. “I’m guessing Titan was slinging some serious power around, so that’s pretty impressive.”

                “No question about it. Barrier was withstanding real hits there. Especially that last one,” Titan agreed. “I think short of a Manhattan Class Super or someone with a huge capacity for small-scale damage, there won’t be much out there that can make a dent in him.”

                “Alright, with that we’ll mark the physical evaluation complete,” Unseelie declared. “Barrier, head to the locker room and change into the outfit we’ve prepared for you, next up we’re going to see how well you keep out non-physical attacks, and that means you’re dealing with Panic. Titan, thank you for your time. Tell Deadlift I appreciate the loan.”

                “It’s no problem. Always glad to help out when I can.”

                Brett said nothing as he hurried to the locker rooms, anxious to get on to the next part of the exam. Feeling his power’s limits was tough, although this time hadn’t been nearly as bad as the instance with Angela. He was getting accustomed to it, at least. This next part probably would end the same way, and that was okay. Finding his limits was how he got stronger. No one made it out of the HCP without learning that lesson. Granted, back then it was usually Brett’s tactics or planning that failed rather than his abilities, but he was still used to working past shortcomings.

                All the same, he did wish he’d been able to take one of Titan’s punches at full power. Especially knowing that his father had already pulled off such a feat.

Blades & Barriers: Chapter 19

                “Okay Bloodfyre, that’s enough.” Moments after Unseelie’s voice rang out through the training room, the red energy swirling all around Brett vanished. For the first time in several minutes, he could see clearly, and the first sight he caught was Bloodfyre standing a few feet away, sweat glistening on his forehead. Evidently sustaining his power for that long took a serious toll. It was either that, or Brett hadn’t realized how much energy his mentor had been using.

                “Barrier, you can drop your shield as well. Take a breather before the next bout. Dwight, do a heal on Barrier and Bloodfyre please.” Unseelie nodded to the man wearing an almost identical suit to Danny’s, although without the constant smile on his face, who immediately walked over to Bloodfyre and put a hand on his shoulder.

                At first, Brett had tried to resist the healing between tests. He’d worked hard on his stamina and was perhaps a bit prideful about it; Brett could sustain his shield for hours if needed. But as time wore on and they threw more and more at him, he’d seen the wisdom in taking the restoration when it was offered. The point of today was to test how much his shield could withstand at its best, not how long he could keep it working for, and testing that thoroughly meant he needed to be in tip-top shape. Dwight was a slight fellow with droopy eyes, but the man’s ability to heal was top-notch. Not only did he take away physical damage, he also left everyone he touched feeling like they’d just taken a long, relaxing nap and awoke feeling refreshed. Evidently the caveat was that Brett would sleep like the dead when he finally passed out, but for the moment the healing left him energized. While these DVA assets might not be as strong as Heroes, Brett was beginning to realize they were plenty capable.

                “So it looks like you can’t break through either,” Unseelie told Bloodfyre. Her tone was surprisingly detached, almost annoyed, really. Brett wondered if perhaps she wasn’t too fond of seeing her team fail to put even a dent in some lowly intern. “That makes a full torrent of bullets from Hammerspace, every poison and thorn Bayou could conjure, some slices from me and my sharpest blades, and one laser cannon we borrowed from Gearbox. None of it managed to get through or even move him back.”

                “My shield is hard to move against my will.” Brett wasn’t entirely sure what the etiquette for speaking out of turn was, however given that this was ostensibly about gathering information on his ability, it seemed prudent to offer up whatever he knew. “I don’t think it bonds with the ground or anything, I can still plant myself on rough terrain and rubble. It just stays put.”

                Unseelie and Bloodfyre exchanged a brief look, then Bloodfyre glanced to Brett. “That’s something we’ll look into later on, because it might be pretty damn useful. I have to say, Barrier, your shield is really living up to its reputation. By the end of that match, I was putting everything I had into breaking through and you didn’t seem bothered at all.”

                “My gift isn’t especially versatile, but it is strong,” Brett replied.

                “No question about that.” Unseelie picked up a small clipboard from the ground and ran her finger along its surface. “With Bloodfyre done, the next one up is supposed to be Panic, but she’s working with Gunk in the other room right now. Plus we’ll want to give Barrier a chance to change after that. Danny, any word from our guest?”

                “Last update came during Bloodfyre’s attack. Looks like he’s been dropped off and Hammerspace is showing him inside. Should be here in a couple of minutes, at the most.”

                “Alright then, everyone take a brief break. I’m going to check in on Bayou and Gunk to see how their assessment is going.” With that, Unseelie took her clipboard and walked out of the room. Danny and Dwight both fell into polite conversation, so Brett took the opportunity to approach Bloodfyre.

                “Am I doing well? Unseelie doesn’t seem especially happy about all the attacks I’ve been able to stop.”

                Bloodfyre’s forehead crinkled, and moments later a small, sharp laugh escaped his lips. “Sorry, I’ve been working with her for so long sometimes I forget how she comes off to new people. Don’t worry, Barrier, you’re putting on a great showing. So far you’ve proven immune to every physical attack we can throw at you, and that’s saying a lot. We’re not a team known for our gentle touch. Unseelie is just worried because she likes to know everything, including the breaking points of her team members. Not knowing how much your shield can take scares her, because she’s afraid she’ll ask too much of you. If that happens, you could get seriously hurt, or even killed, so Unseelie isn’t going to be content until she knows your limits or is convinced they’re so high it’s a moot point.”

                That made sense, and it certainly lined up with the speech Unseelie had given the day prior. Trust and knowledge appeared to be the cornerstones of her leadership philosophy. In spite of the seemingly chaotic way she charged into battle, at least from the videos Brett had seen, Unseelie appeared to be far more analytical than Brett would have expected.

                “I’m happy to cooperate as much as I can, but what I said yesterday was the truth: my shield has never been broken. My dad’s either. I don’t know what can crack them, if anything even can,” Brett said.

                “It’s fine. Your power is what it is, and what it is seems damn amazing to me.” Bloodfyre clapped Brett roughly on the back. “Unseelie probably won’t let it go, she’ll keep bringing in other Heroes to see how your ability interacts with theirs, but I have a hunch that after this next test, she’ll at least be comfortable using you in a physical capacity.”

                The door opened once more, and Unseelie stepped through, followed closely by Hammerspace. Behind them was another figure who had to stoop slightly to fit through the door. At the sight of him, Brett felt his stomach tense. It was a silhouette and costume that were impossible not to recognize, not for a boy who’d grown up immersed in the lore of Heroes and certainly not for anyone who’d seen the news since last year. Were they serious? Did Unseelie really want to find his limits that badly?

                “Barrier, Bloodfyre, Danny, Dwight, allow me to introduce you to our guest.” Unseelie gestured to the massive slab of walking muscle, as though there were any way they hadn’t noticed him already. “This is Titan, currently a team member of the Gentle Hammers, and he has graciously agreed to come and assist us with Barrier’s training.”

                Titan lifted a massive hand and gave a brief wave to everyone in the room. “Nice to meet you all.”

Blades & Barriers: Chapter 18

                As it turned out, Brett wouldn’t be challenging Unseelie or Panic in a footrace anytime soon. He gasped for air as Hammerspace finally slowed to a brisk walk, also panting but not quite as worn out. She waited for him to catch up before they began heading toward base, the early morning air drying the sweat from their skin. The race hadn’t been a total slaughter; however, there was a very clear winner between the two.

                “You’re quick,” Brett managed to choke out between gasps.

                “I have to stay mobile on the battlefield, so I spend more time on cardio and agility than Cecil or Elmer. You’ll probably be a little more stationary, but it’s never bad to get the heart pumping.” Hammerspace reached into her small backpack and Brett caught the barest of brief glows from within. Then she was handing him a bottle of water, which stole away all of Brett’s attention until he’d sated the worst of his thirst.

                By the time he stopped taking sips, he noticed that she was drinking a bottle as well, despite the backpack being visibly empty. What was more surprising, though, was that he realized the bottle was ice cold, like it had just been pulled from a refrigerator.

                “Is it…” Brett stopped, turning his head around to make sure they were alone. The streets were still thin with people, and none were remotely close, but he lowered his voice to a whisper all the same. “Is it cold? You know, in there.”

                “In there? Oh!” Hammerspace took a sip from her own bottle and shook her head. “No, nothing like that. But the bottles were cold when I put them away, so they remained cold until they came back out. Didn’t Unseelie give you the run down on our abilities?”

                “Just Blo-… Cecil and Elmer’s. And hers,” Brett said.

                “She probably meant to and ran out of time. Still, this could be a good learning opportunity. Alright, rookie, tell me what you know about Panic and Hammerspace’s abilities. Let’s see how well you researched.” Hammerspace began moving a touch faster, keeping Brett’s pulse up even as he racked his brain for every pertinent detail.

                “Panic induces a terrified state in almost anyone she looks at, when she wants to. Some are more bothered by it than others, but historically almost no one has been able to shrug it off entirely. She wipes out the lesser criminals in a fight while weakening the more dangerous ones. While it’s been speculated that she’d be subpar on her own, in a team dynamic she’s an invaluable resource.”

                Hammerspace flashed Brett a brief smile. “Very good. The only thing you got wrong was how her power works, but you can hardly be blamed for that. Almost no one outside the team knows that secret. One down, now let’s hear what you know about me.”

                Much as Brett would have liked an explanation for the secret about Panic, he’d been trained well enough to understand that questions came after a task was completed, not mid-way through.

                “Hammerspace, as the name implies, has the ability to store objects in an extra-dimensional space via circular portals. She’s been known to use veritable storms of bullets, or drop heavy objects like cars from great heights. Her power also lends itself well to defense, intercepting attacks from other Supers when they target her team. Generally, she works as a ranged combatant, which means she can manifest her ability from a respectable distance.”

                “Not bad,” Hammerspace told him. “Not as thorough as Panic, though. A few things you left out: I can’t store anything living, or without substantial mass. Basically if I can’t press my hand against it, I can’t store it, which takes out pure energy attacks. However, when I store something, I store it exactly as it is. Temperature, velocity, everything is exactly the same when it comes out. That’s why I can fire a few hundred bullets into a portal and have them come out three weeks later with just as much kick.”

                “I didn’t know that part,” Brett admitted.

                “Nor should you have, that’s why I told you.” Hammerspace finished off her water and placed the empty bottle into the backpack, not bothering with a glow this time. “Panic and I work predominantly as the controllers on the battlefield. She weakens the enemy physically, often driving them into running through one of my portals where they get stripped of everything from their guns to their pants.”

                Brett stopped in place without meaning to, and Hammerspace paused a few steps later to wait for him. “I’m sorry, did you just say pants?”

                “The media never shows that part on TV, obviously, and we don’t bother using that method if someone is clearly a physically-based Super, but it’s a great way to neutralize any cronies they might have with them. While I may not be able to store living creatures, their belongings are fair game. Plus, it’s hard to fight naked. Between Panic and I, we take a lot of the will to fight out of people before the first punches are even thrown. And for those who remain, that’s where I shift to offense so I can support the others.”

                His feet began working again, although his mind was still grappling with the idea of having to fight a bunch of unintentional streakers, and Brett caught up with Hammerspace. “The way the news writes up the battles, they really undersell you two.”

                “Support roles aren’t as flashy as the Heroes who punch through rock, but we are key parts of the team. You’ll learn pretty early on that being valued by people who trust you with their lives is a lot more important than people wearing pictures of your mask on a t-shirt. Although I was working on a deal with a cooler company last ye-”

                Hammerspace’s words died instantly and her whole body stiffened. She grabbed Brett by the shoulder and roughly shoved him back a few steps, placing herself between him and whatever threat had appeared. He was about to object when she relaxed, staring into a nearby set of trees.

                “Jesus Fucking Christ, Danny we’ve told you about that. Send a message through Dispatch or something.”

                From the foliage stepped their DVA rep, bright eyed and visibly chipper despite the early hour. “Sorry, I got word to bring you both back to base right away. Looks like Brett and Justin are getting their full run-through.”

                “Right now? We just did a few miles and I pushed him pretty well, can’t he at least rest?”

                Danny gave them both an enthusiastic thumbs-up. “Don’t sweat it; we already have a healer on hand for exactly that purpose. This day might run long, so we needed to make sure everyone could stay in top shape. He’ll bring Brett back to peak form before we get started. And yes, I know we’re working early, but there were some assets Unseelie could only borrow now.”

                Although the curiosity that flashed across Hammerspace’s face was brief, it still lasted long enough for Brett to notice. The flicker of uncertainty was gone as she turned toward him, however. In its place was gentle reassurance.

                “Well Brett, looks like the boss is calling us home. Take it from me, that’s not a summons you want to ignore. Let’s get you back and suited up; time for the real workout to begin.”

Blades & Barriers: Chapter 17

                Despite the excitement of the day prior and the newness of his environment, habit proved to be more powerful than Brett’s desire for rest. Much as he tried to toss about and steal a few more minutes of sleep, eventually he gave up and accepted that a lifetime of training under his father, not to mention four years at the HCP, wouldn’t be so easily bucked. Giving in, he rose from his bed, threw on some sweats, and spared a single glance at his watch to see the time. It was just after five in the morning, the sun wasn’t even up yet.

                For a moment, Brett lingered in the hallway. Normally he would start his workout with a run, but unfortunately, in all the hustle and bustle of the day prior, no one had bothered telling Brett how to slip in and out of the building without getting seen. Leaving a known Hero base before sunrise seemed like a great way to out his secret identity before his Hero name was even officially known, so instead he headed to the gym. Knowing there would probably be a power assessment that day, it was likely for the best if he took it easy anyway.

                To Brett’s surprise, although he quickly realized it shouldn’t have been, he wasn’t the only one squeezing in a morning exercise. Bayou was already there, sweating hard on the bench press while Hammerspace stood over him, arms extended if he needed help getting the bar up. It turned out to be unnecessary, as the loud clang of a heavy bar being set down rang through the gym. The weights were normal, nothing like the huge amounts that Supers with enhanced strength tossed about, but there were still plenty of them racked along the bar. As a man who was proud of his own physical abilities, Brett had to mentally remind himself that he was among Heroes, people who constantly pushed themselves to be better and stronger. He wasn’t going to be the top at anything around here, not without a lot of work and a fair bit of time.

                “Morning!” Bayou called, waving Brett over to the bench press. “We’ve got a few more sets left, but you’re welcome to squeeze in between them if you like.” As he rose from the bench, flecks of perspiration fell from his face, dripping onto the ground. Seemingly only just then realizing how much he’d been sweating, Bayou looked a touch bashful. “I’ll wipe it down for you first.”

                “Thanks, but I was going to do some work on the free weights,” Brett said. “I’m keeping it light, just in case we do power assessments.”

                “You will.” Hammerspace didn’t seem bothered by the moisture on the bench, giving it only a quick swipe with her towel before settling down where Bayou had been moments prior. “Unseelie doesn’t let anyone into the field untested. And now that the DVA stuff is done, there’s time to give you a proper rundown. You should still do your usual routine, though. After all, we’re seeing how you would normally function, and on any other day you’d have hit the gym.”

                “How do you know I work out every day?” Brett asked.

                Hammerspace snorted lightly and shook her head. “Well for one thing, you just graduated from the HCP, so I know you’re in the habit. And for another, you’re up at five in the morning and you came to the gym. That speaks to a pretty well-ingrained exercise ethic.”

                Conversation paused after that as Hammerspace lay back and wrapped her hands around the bar. Neither she nor Bayou had removed a single plate from his last set, and she let out a small grunt of effort as she moved the bar off its rest. That was just about the only noise Hammerspace made as she worked, aside from careful rhythmic breathing. Bayou stood over her silently, his posture a mirror of hers from moments prior, waiting for the instant he was needed. It never came, as Hammerspace finished her reps and dropped the bar loudly back into a resting position.

                “Damn, we both made it. Okay, that’s another five on each side,” Bayou said. He grabbed a pair of small plates from the floor and slipped them onto the bar as Hammerspace ran her towel down the bench again.

                “Are you two competing?” Brett had watched this same dance play out in many a gym over the years, yet somehow he hadn’t quite been expecting to see it among Heroes.

                “Almost always, if not with each other, then with someone else on the team,” Hammerspace told him. “If you didn’t notice when you were in it, the HCP tends to appeal most to people with competitive natures. Those of us who managed to get one of the ten graduation spots had to fight damn hard for them, and that’s not something you do if you aren’t a fan of competition. Besides, having someone nipping at your heels is a good motivator to push yourself that little extra bit harder.”

                Brett stepped closer, momentarily forgetting his plans to hit the free weights. “So who’s the strongest?”

                “On bench? Bloodfyre,” Bayou replied. “For deadlifts the champion is Unseelie, and squats belong to Hammerspace. Panic isn’t much on weights, but she’s got several of the records for speed and dexterity in the obstacle course, with Unseelie holding the rest.”

                It didn’t escape Brett’s notice that none of the titles belonged to Bayou. Now that he was getting used to everyone, Brett was beginning to pick up on certain details, like the way Bayou had gray along his temples, and how he seemed to take quite a while stretching between sets. It had even been said out loud last night: Bayou was the oldest one on the team. That clearly wasn’t enough to slow down his abilities or usefulness as a Hero, however at the same time it was easy to see that Elmer was behind his teammates in terms of pure physical power.

                For the first time, Brett really thought about the interns that had been assembled under this roof. Three new Heroes, two of which had very potent physical abilities and one that presumably held a mind keen enough to handle a focus on Subtlety. While no Hero was required to join a team they served on as interns, invitations were almost always extended. Did Bayou realize that Unseelie was actively scouting Supers to take over his role in the team? He must, there was no way such an obvious conclusion could slip his grasp. Hell, for all Brett knew Bayou was the one pushing for it. Still, it seemed a subject to be careful around, at least until he fully understood the situation.

                “Who has the record for best Five-K run?” Brett asked. “Because if someone could show me a safe way out of this place, I’d like to take a crack at beating it.”

                “Panic has that record, although I’ve been training up a fair bit recently,” Hammerspace replied. “If you can wait until we finish the bench, I’ll take you out for a run. Should be a good gauge for you. After all, if you can’t keep up with me, you’ve got no hope of beating Unseelie or Panic.”

                “Guess we’ll see where I stand.” As much as Brett wanted to feel confident in the results, watching Bayou and Hammerspace settle in for another round at the bench was reminding him to stay humble. For so long in the HCP, he’d thought of being a Hero as the end goal, the finish line.

                Only now was he starting to truly understand that his college education was nothing more than a warm-up lap. Out here, in the real world, the competition was much stiffer. Because as a Hero, being too slow, or too weak, often came with permanent, deadly consequences.

Blades & Barriers: Chapter 16

                Stepping out of the shower, Brett pulled on some sweatpants and a t-shirt, relieved to finally wash away the last of his long day. Dinner had been a nice cap on the experience, reminding him what the new job was really about, but all those hours with Danny learning DVA protocol were something else. While he’d known about the DVA, and their oversight with Heroes,  Brett had always imagined their role to be more in the background, only popping up when a Hero really screwed up or needed support. Finding out there was so much red tape for the job… well, maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise given how rigorous the process just to become Hero-certified was.

                Brett was sitting on his bed, wondering if he should surf the web to do a little more research before turning in, when the knock on his door came. Walking barefoot across the cold floor, a brisk reminder that he might need to invest in a cheap rug, Brett pulled open the door to reveal Angela holding a small cooler. Behind her was Justin, looking a bit confused but still keeping close.

                “With all the team stuff finally done, I thought maybe we could use a drink. Just us interns.” Angela jiggled the cooler to drive the point home, a thoroughly unnecessary gesture. Without waiting for approval, she stepped into the room, followed by Justin who at least had the decency to look embarrassed. Grabbing Brett’s computer chair, she took a seat and then wheeled it over near the bed. “You boys going to stand there all night or join me?”

                “I’m not sure we should be drinking,” Brett said. “We’re on call, remember?”

                “We’re almost always on call, that doesn’t mean we put our lives on hold,” Angela replied. “And besides, we’re about to go non-active for sleep. So long as we stick to a beer each, we’re fine. Now come on, this cooler is a piece of shit and it won’t keep these cold for long.”

                Reaching in to the shoddily made cooler, she produced three bottles. In her free hand, she materialized a golden bottle opener and proceeded to pop the caps off each one. By the time Brett and Justin took their seats on Brett’s bed, the beers were open and being thrust into their hands.

                “Anybody got a toast?” She looked around, waiting to see if either would speak up.

                “You brought the beers,” Justin pointed out. “Don’t you have a toast to pair with them?”

                “Geez, do I have to do everything?” Angela tilted her head back for a moment, then raised her glass. “Fine: to the newest generation of interns. May we all live long enough to become true Heroes.”

                Everyone clicked their bottles together and took a sip of the beer which was, Brett had to admit, a welcome taste after a long day. “I don’t disagree with the sentiment, but wasn’t that kind of a bleak toast?”

                “Think so? Ask me that again this time next year.” Angela took a longer draw from her bottle than either of the other two, draining nearly a quarter of it in a single pull.

                “So, what should we expect next?” Justin asked, clearly changing the subject before the night took a morose turn. “And if you say more meetings with Danny, one of us is going to need to run to the liquor store because beer won’t cut it.”

                “Yes and no, you’re never really past the point of having meetings with Danny, he has a room here for a reason, but today was far and away the worst of it. Starting tomorrow, you’ll be costumed up and put out in the streets to do some good. The Wayward Wraiths do a lot of local patrols and general neighborhood PR to minimalize normal crime in the city. Usually no one is dumb enough to start something with us around, so it’s fairly relaxing work, but you never know when some idiots will get a head full of steam and make some bad choices. Always be ready.” Angela paused to take another long sip from her bottle. “Depending on if everything is put together or not yet, you might also start doing some drills with the team. But that depends on if they can get your power assessment knocked out first.”

                “Damn. Part of me was hoping today would count,” Justin said.

                “That little song and dance?” Brett shook his head. “No way. They’re going to put us both through the ringer before our abilities are considered to be fully mapped. I honestly expected that part to take up all of today.”

                “It was on the docket, until the bank robbery happened,” Angela told them. “That bastard threw a hell of a wrench into the day. Sort of thing you have to get used to, working this gig. If you make any plans, write them in pencil. Chances are good you’re going to have to change them.”

                “Curses, and here I’ve already joined three book clubs and made a half dozen dates,” Justin said. “Kidding, obviously. We all know dating is off the table working this sort of job.”

                “I wouldn’t say that, you just need to find someone who understands what you’re going through.” Angela tilted back her bottle and drained it all the way down to empty. “Speaking of, I’m due to video-chat with the boyfriend pretty soon.”

                Brett and Justin both stared at her, mouths perhaps slightly agape, until Angela’s eyes narrowed. “You boys trying to imply I can’t get a gentleman?”

                “Nothing like that, I think we were both just surprised that you’d want one,” Brett said quickly. “Everything I’ve heard about you and seen for myself made me picture you as someone who would be married to the job.”

                Angela got up from her chair and tossed the empty bottle in Brett’s trash can. “The job is my first and last love, I won’t fight you there, but you can’t let it be what all of your life is about. If you go too far in, if you forget that life is worth living in its own right, then you start losing focus and making mistakes. Gotta have something to fight for if you want to be at your absolute best. Family, friends, lovers, or just the taste of finely crafted beer. Whatever gets you through, hold onto it tightly. This job will take a lot out of you, you’re going to need other things to help build yourself back up.”

                “You sure don’t sound like someone who just started her internship.” Despite the seemingly casual nature of the words, Brett still caught sight of the curious gleam in Justin’s eyes as he spoke.

                “Let’s just say I’ve seen a lot and leave it there for tonight,” Angela replied. “I don’t mind explaining, but it’s a long story and I wasn’t kidding about the video-date. Make sure to turn in after the beers, you do not want to be tired if they set up the power assessment tomorrow.”

                Scooping up her cooler, Angela headed out, leaving the two newest interns on their own. Only once she was far gone did Brett speak again, hoping not to be somehow overheard.

                “For her boyfriend, are you picturing someone like Bloodfyre, only with more tattoos and maybe blood always inexplicably on his hands?”

                “In my head, I also gave him a giant axe and Viking helmet,” Justin agreed.

Blades & Barriers: Chapter 15

                The good cheer around the table didn’t evaporate at Milly’s words; however everyone’s hands slowed as they halted dumping food from takeout containers onto their plates. Even Brett, who was admittedly not the greatest study of international politics, knew about United Avalon. It was the sort of event that tended to make headlines, especially among the Super community.

                United Avalon was a small cluster of islands located Northwest of Cuba, just at the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico.  Ten years ago, when it was the Republic of Krezic, the place was unremarkable save for its tourism and tropical locales. At least, that was what the international community had believed. Then the rebellion came. It was swift, precise, and incredibly successful. In a single night, the Republic of Krezic fell and United Avalon rose in its place. Only then did the real story begin to trickle out.

                Like most nations, Krezic had reacted to the existence of Supers by trying to implement a governmental program for their monitoring and regulation. As it turned out, however, their leadership wasn’t content with merely working with Supers. No, they wanted to control every aspect of those with abilities, and that included pushing how far their powers could be taken. In the ensuing international investigation by the UN, it all came to light: enslavement, experimentation, torture and blackmail to force cooperation. It was no wonder the Supers had risen up, and no one was able to fault them for overthrowing their oppressors. In ordinary circumstances, that would more or less have been the end of it.

                But United Avalon wasn’t like most countries. By fighting back and taking control, it’s Supers had also created the first nation to be ruled over by people with powers. They hadn’t shied away from that either. United Avalon had immediately begun passing new legislation to make the islands a safe place for Supers. Brett didn’t know much about the specifics, that part had been too boring to research, however he was aware that their leadership and policies had led to hundreds of Supers deserting their home nations to seek a fresh start in United Avalon. Given how rare and precious people with abilities were, that fact alone placed them in a precarious place on the international stage.

                “Why Port Valins?” Justin asked. “Why wouldn’t they go to DC? That seems like the place where diplomats would need to be for business.”

                “They’ve been to DC many a time,” Milly said. “That’s not what this is about. Back when Krezic was still a country, a lot of Supers’ families fled to Port Valins so they couldn’t be used as leverage or killed as collateral damage. They went deep into hiding, so much so that a lot of them remain unfindable to this day. The diplomats have formally requested the right to come in and set up an outreach program, designed to find and relocate those people, assuming they want to return. Even after all these years, a lot of them are still afraid Krezic will rise back up, so the diplomats want to send the message that United Avalon is here to stay and willing to welcome them home with open arms.”

                “That… doesn’t actually sound so bad.” Brett chose his words carefully. It was obvious that this development wasn’t ideal, but he couldn’t quite fathom how that kind of outreach was such a problem.

                “The program in itself isn’t an issue,” Milly told him. “But United Avalon has a lot of people who don’t like their existence. Bringing them anywhere courts trouble. Last year, some Humanity Purist assholes tried to bomb a building where United Avalon was in talks with the government to expedite visas for their human citizens. Thankfully, they were caught and stopped, but the delegation in Britain wasn’t so lucky. Port Valins is already something of a powder keg in its own right; this is like importing a bunch of already lit matches.”

                “We’ve dealt with worse,” Unseelie said. “All we can do is prepare, be ready, and react when the need arises. The rest will be in the DVA’s hands.”

                “Yeah, about that. The DVA has actually requested that some Heroes take on bodyguard shifts during the diplomats’ visit. They aren’t assigning the posts yet, but we both know they will if there isn’t enough coverage.” Milly’s own appetite had evidently grown larger than her concern, as she grabbed a nearby foil container and began scooping pasta onto her plate in large piles.

                Unseelie considered the issue for several moments, taking a few bites of food and draining her water halfway down, before finally giving Milly a nod. “Sign us up for a couple of days’ worth of shifts. You know everyone’s schedule better than I do, so find where we’ve got the space to make it work. If these people are going to be in our town, I’d rather we be the ones watching over them. Just in case.”

                “No problem,” Milly said. “Should I plan for the whole team, or do we need to peel a few off to keep watch over the interns?”

                Brett froze, his fork halfway to his mouth, as he realized they were talking about him. Well, him, Justin, and Angela. Truth be told, he wasn’t entirely sure if he wanted to go do this job or not, protecting diplomats wasn’t exactly the reason he’d worked so hard to become a Hero in the first place. But if it helped Port Valins and made things safer, then he’d do all he could. Besides, he was an intern, it wasn’t like he really had a choice in the matter.

                “Get me the planned schedule for the diplomats’ visit and then I’ll decide,” Unseelie replied. “I want to make sure these two get enough time in the field to properly mesh with the team before we throw them into something that delicate.”

                “With all the details and negotiations still left to handle, I think we’ve got at least a few weeks until they show up, at the earliest. But I’ll put something together by the end of the night for you to look over anyway.”

                Unseelie seemed satisfied by that, and after a few more bites she nodded to Bayou. “Elmer, what about you? Any luck on the new breed of vine?”

                From next to Justin, Elmer began excitedly talking about a new species he was trying to engineer, using words that went past Brett’s understanding of the subject right out of the gate. Brett considered himself a pretty smart guy, he’d managed to keep a high GPA even with his HCP activities, but it was evident that Elmer was working on a whole other level. Then again, the guy lived, breathed, and literally surrounded himself with plants. Elmer should know the subject better than anyone else in the room, if not the entire state.

                For his part, Brett tried to listen politely while shoveling his dinner down. Though not as action-filled as he’d expected, it was a nice evening, all things considered. Intern or not, Brett had listened to his professors and guest speakers in the HCP enough to know that moments of peace were meant to be savored, because they only came along so often. So Brett kept his mind on the food and conversation, trying very hard to quiet the eager part of him that yearned to step out into the field as Barrier for the first time.

                That would come soon. And once it did, there would be no going back to what his life had been before.

Blades & Barriers: Chapter 14

                Brett had come in to his first day as a Hero intern expecting it to be long, arduous, and tiring. All of those expectations were met too, just not in any of the ways he’d expected. Instead of a hectic day out in the field, fighting tooth and nail to keep the city safe, Brett had barely used his power at all. Most of the day was spent in meetings and filling out forms. He understood the necessity of it, but that didn’t make the process any more enjoyable. By the time Danny’s final slideshow was wrapped up, Brett felt like he’d gone through ten rounds of aggressive sparring without being able to use his shield. He and Justin exited the conference room, bundles of packets in their hands, expecting to grab a quick bite and then sleep away the fugue that had descended upon them.

                Angela’s presence in the hallway was the first tip that they probably weren’t going straight to bed. In spite of himself, Brett perked up a little. Maybe they’d be seeing some action on their first day after all. Everyone knew criminals were more active at night and the sun had certainly set over Port Valins.

                “Something up? Are we needed?” Brett failed to keep the excitement from his voice and he didn’t care. After hours of being in meetings with Danny, Brett would have leapt out the window for a chance to stop a jaywalker.

                “If by ‘something’ you mean dinner then yes, something is definitely up.” Angela motioned for them to follow, and both fell in line behind her. “You guys noticed Unseelie’s whole emphasis on trust and communication today I assume. Well, she takes that stuff beyond just the battlefield. As teammates, we’re all expected to have a high-level of constant interaction to make sure everyone is always connected and talking. Thus, dinner is a team event, save for those with special circumstances. Unless you’ve got work or something personal, expect to eat with the rest of us every night.”

                “In my family, we generally just ate off TV trays in the living room,” Justin said. “This should make for an interesting new experience.”

                Brett was going to reply, but before he had a chance they rounded a corner back into the kitchen area. Only now, a large table that definitely hadn’t been there before was stacked high with takeout food containers, and around the table sat the entire team of the Wayward Wraiths. Bloodfyre and Bayou were both seated with empty chairs next to them, an obvious cue made unmissable when Angela took her own place next to Unseelie. There were two more women present at the table as well: one wearing sweats and a tank top with her short chocolate-colored hair pulled into a small ponytail and another whose styled blonde locks and tasteful blouse/skirt pairing made her look like she’d just come from a PR event.

                “Brett, Justin, you already know your mentors,” Unseelie greeted. “Allow me to introduce the last two members of the Wayward Wraiths: Juliet and Millicent. Of course, you’d know them both better as Hammerspace and Panic.”

                Both women rose from their chairs, walking over and giving the new interns handshakes. “Pleasure to meet you,” Juliet said. Since she was wearing a tank-top, it was easy to see the well-defined muscles running along her arm as she squeezed Brett’s hand. No real surprise, everyone who graduated from the HCP did so in top-shape, although she looked rather impressive even by those standards. Millicent wasn’t quite so overtly imposing, but anyone who had seen what happened when Panic used her ability knew better than to dismiss her for lack of a hulking form.

                “Glad to meet you both,” Millicent said as she made her rounds. “And please, call me Milly. I’ve never understood why my parents gave me such a formal first name.”

                “Yes ma’am,” Brett agreed, and to his surprise Milly seemed to stifle a laugh.

                “Save the ma’ams for Unseelie. I’m still a little young for them.”

                “You trying to imply that I’m old?” Unseelie called from across the table.

                “Old is such a negative term. Let’s say you have a great deal more wisdom and experience than the rest of us and leave it at that.” Milly released Brett’s hand, which he was extremely grateful for as getting clear of the woman taunting Unseelie seemed a wise strategic move.

                “Y’all do remember that I’m the oldest one here, right?” Bayou asked. “So whatever you say for her goes double for me.”

                “Then you must truly have wisdom for the ages.” Milly paused, read the room, and apparently decided it was wise to cut herself off there rather than really push things as she headed back to her chair.

                Brett followed, taking the open seat next to Bloodfyre, or rather, Cecil (Brett was not getting used to that anytime soon) and gave his mentor a quick nod. Cecil flashed him a smile and thumbs up, as if to say he’d made the right choice by not getting drawn into Milly’s shenanigans. Unseelie didn’t appear bothered by them, instead she was rising from her chair, glass of water in hand. It was only then, seeing everyone seated together as a team, that Brett realized he’d learned the civilian name of everyone except Unseelie. There was the chance it was a coincidence or oversight, but that felt unlikely. She didn’t seem the type to do anything by accident.

                “Welcome everyone, and a special hello to our two newest team members,” Unseelie said. “I know the first day dealing with Danny and the DVA forms is a tough one, and we commend you both for making it all the way through. That’s no small feat, Elmer fell asleep during his DVA orientation meeting, although the speaker he dealt with wasn’t nearly as engaging as Danny.”

                Elmer shook his head while the rest of the table laughed gently, and Brett got the feeling this wasn’t the first time he’d been teased for taking an impromptu nap during orientation. It felt curiously good-natured though, he was surprised by how much warmth radiated from all around the table. Seeing Hero teams on the news, Brett had always imagined them as grim and stalwart, only speaking to deal with impending threats or talk tactics. But this one acted like a group of friends hanging out, which made a certain amount of sense when Brett imagined how much they must have all been through.

                “Now, and interns listen closely because this is for your benefit, while we eat I like to have everyone go through their independent activities for the day and report anything the team needs to know about. Can anyone guess why we do that?”

                While Brett had a hunch it was about sharing in a communal setting, Justin beat him to the punch by speaking up immediately.

                “Because from what Danny outlined on the section regarding expenses, if we talk business then you can charge the cost of the meal back to the DVA.”

                There was a slight pause around the table, before Juliet muttered, “Holy shit, that’s the first time anyone has guessed right.”

                “I think that’s the first time anyone actually listened well enough during orientation to catch those details.” There was a trace of pride in Elmer’s voice, and he patted his apprentice on the back several times.

                “Well-reasoned, Justin. That’s right; we rarely have the time to cook, so by treating this as our nightly group meeting we get to order in without racking up huge bills. It’s also a useful way to keep up with what everyone is doing. People may skip meetings, but not even Heroes tend to turn down free food.” Unseelie sat back down, then motioned to Milly. “On that note, Millicent, would you like to start things off while we fill our plates?”

                “I’ll be glad to, but you might not have such great appetites by the time I’m done,” Milly warned. “Today’s meeting was a bust. Like it or not, the diplomats from United Avalon are coming to visit Port Valins.”