Blades & Barriers: Chapter 1

                The Port Valins Metro Bus rattled as it crossed over a semi-broken section of street. Already crews could be seen, fixing the road as fast as possible but still not finished yet. If any of the citizens on the bus were bothered by the rough terrain, they said nothing. These were the scars of Super fights, and anyone living in a major city was well-accustomed to such inconveniences.

                For Brett, one more bump in the road was nothing. His plans, his carefully laid and well-constructed plans, had already been chopped apart far worse than the street below him. He was supposed to have graduated from West Private University’s Hero Certification Program undefeated, riding the accolades of a nigh-impossible reputation as he began his internship. Instead, he’d lost the last match of Intramurals to Angela DeSoto of Lander, and now her victory was the one on people’s lips.

                As if that weren’t enough, of course she’d taken an internship in the same town as Brett, meaning he wouldn’t be able to avoid seeing the lone student to defeat him. Or rather, avoid her until he was sure he could win a rematch. Still, even that wouldn’t have been so bad in the long run. Port Valins might not be a massive metropolitan area on par with New York, but it was still quite a large city. With the city’s size and the high crime rate, there was usually a swinging door through which Heroes constantly poured. Brett would have been able to see her infrequently, she on her new team and he learning from his teacher.

                That had been the plan, anyway. A plan that came crashing down after Rabble, the Hero who Brett had thoroughly researched and courted to train him, lost his life a week prior. It had come as a hard blow, personally even more than professionally. Rabble was a respected Hero and a good man, one who’d been a friend to the Rhodes family over the years. Brett and his father, Hank, had been invited to the private ceremony, the one thrown by friends and family to mourn the man while the public mourned the mask. It was an awful loss, and Brett hated himself every time his selfish had mind wandered afterward, always pushing the same question to the front of his consciousness: What did this mean for Rabble’s would-be intern?

                Mercifully, the limbo state had been short-lived. Rabble was not the first Hero to die with interns to watch over; The Department of Variant Human Affairs had long since worked out a process to ensure intern-Heroes were taken care of. In Brett’s case, it had been especially easy. Since Brett was already set-up to move to Port Valins, the DVA had simply reached out to other Heroes in the area to see who could take on an unexpected apprentice.

                Which was why Brett was sitting on the PV Metro as it lumbered across town. His new mentor was supposed to pick him up at the airport, but there had been an incident. An app on Brett’s smartphone was feeding the information to his earbuds as he listened to the news reporter’s frantic account of the situation. Once upon a time, he’d been concerned downloading an app on Hero activity would put a giant giveaway about his secret right there on his phone. His father, however, had wisely pointed out that nearly everyone had that app. It was vital to getting through a day in any big city, as one never knew when their destination might be the site of a Super battle. Just from looking around, Brett estimated that at least a quarter of the bus was wearing headphones as well, and at least a few of them were probably listening to the same report he was.

                The fight was going well for the Heroes, not that Brett was terribly surprised. It had been a bank-heist by a few Supers who’d thought they could get away clean. The idea wasn’t totally absurd, there were only so many Heroes out there, and on a busy day small fries could slip through the cracks, especially in a place like Port Valins. The crooks’ timing hadn’t worked so well though, and Brett’s future team had responded with the characteristic level of force and efficiency that they were known for.

                From what Brett could piece together as the bus thudded down the streets, Panic had incapacitated most of them right off the bat, terrifying the robbers so they couldn’t think straight or function. As soon as that happened, Bayou sprang into action. His vines wrapped around their arms and legs, securing all of the weaker crooks in place. Some, however, had managed to shake off Panic’s effect, or at least fight through it, and they’d made a break for civilians. Their goal had almost certainly been to take hostages, but before they even got close Hammerspace had unleashed a barrage of projectiles. It had been enough to put a few of them down in a somewhat bloody fashion. Two had made it through, however.

                Those unlucky souls were greeted by Bloodfyre, Brett’s replacement mentor. His destructive red energy had succeeded where the others failed, and it certainly sounded as though the threats were thoroughly neutralized by the time he was done. Already the reporter was praising them for their careful escalation, keeping the people safe and taking as few lives as possible. Brett agreed, it was a textbook escalation strategy, but the robbers hadn’t been especially potent enemies. From what the Heroes he’d met told Brett, in the dire fights it was a battle just to keep yourself alive.

                Amidst the praise, there was some curiosity from the news crew at the absence of the team’s leader, along with their newest high-profile member. Brett didn’t get the chance to hear most of it, though, as the bus shuddered to a stop and he had to put his phone away. Even before the announcement played on the crackling speaker system, he knew this was where he got off. It was an industrial section of town, filled mostly with warehouses and factories. Brett was joined by the majority of the bus, as they made their exit alongside him. At least it made blending in on the commute easier.

                For them, their journey was almost over, nothing but a quick walk to their destinations. Brett still had around two miles left, not that it was an issue for someone coming off of HCP training. If he’d wanted to, he could have easily run the whole way there. That was the thing though, he didn’t want to. Brett was in no particular hurry to begin this next chapter of his life.

                It wasn’t an issue with Bloodfyre, the man was a Hero worthy of respect and would no doubt make an excellent mentor. Deep down, Brett suspected his father had pulled a few strings to get him such an incredible replacement for Rabble. Hank Rhodes was never a Hero himself, but his useful power and talent for training meant he’d racked up plenty of favors from the Hero community. No, Bloodfyre wasn’t the issue. None of the official team was, honestly. In any other context, Brett would have been sprinting, racing across the distance that kept them carefully tucked away from civilian society in case of attack.

                Despite his hesitance, HCP-trained legs could only move so slowly, and it was no time at all before he’d arrived at their base. The building was five stories tall, with a brick exterior that seemed surprisingly homey. Probably once it had been some sort of factory, but now it housed a team of Heroes. Not just any team, either. The Wayward Wraiths, considered one of the most efficient, powerful, teams in Port Valins.

                Each member had a useful ability and the training to make it work in a variety of situations, but it was universally agreed that their leader was far and away the strongest of the lot. Unseelie, the glistening warrior whose skill with ice manipulation was said to be unparalleled. It was so good there were some who suspected the ability to be a ruse, concealing something else. No one had ever seen ice do the things she accomplished. Unseelie was a living legend already, in ten more years she might be among the most renowned of Heroes. Brett would have been excited just to meet her, normally, let alone train under someone on her team. But fate had taken even that joy from him, because it was Unseelie’s presence that made him so hesitant to step foot inside the building.

                Well, not her presence, so much as her apprentice. Unseelie, powerhouse that she was, had taken on the only undefeated graduate from last year’s HCP classes. Though the woman in golden armor now went by Charon, Brett had met her when she used another name.

                Angela DeSoto, the one person who’d bested him, who’d made him experience genuine terror on the battlefield, was Unseelie’s apprentice. Which meant for the next two years, she was also going to be his teammate.