Chapter 201

                The screech of impending sirens sliced through the hushed muttering of the crowd as they milled about outside of Six Shooter. With the eminent danger passed, most people’s bodies were experiencing the slow crash that came after a rush of adrenaline. As for the HCP students, it took a bit more than a few scattered flames to truly elevate their heartbeats. Roger stood out in the front of the parking lot, waving off any cars that tried to enter so that there would be room for the fire trucks.

                “Everyone seems to be out,” Alex said. He’d been combing the building for a solid minute with his mind, and this far had failed to turn up a single remaining student.

                “That’s what I’m getting too,” Mary confirmed. “Looks like Roger was able to evacuate everyone pretty thoroughly.”

                “I’m glad,” Vince said. “This could have gone really badly with that many people in one place. We should all be thankful-”

                They felt the explosion before they heard it, a wave of force that blew against them like a hot wind from a passing eighteen wheeler. When the noise did hit, it was with a roar that drove many of the normal students to their knees. The HCP group was sent to their knees as well, though in their case it was due to tackling others for their safety. Just as quickly as it had appeared, the noise and force faded away, leaving only a ringing in everyone’s ears.

                A ringing… and a blown out hole in a club that was now almost entirely engulfed in flames. The students stared wide-eyed at the deathtrap that they’d all been partying in only minutes before. Many of them would go home that night to call their parents and loved ones. Some would change majors and life directions. Others would spend the next several days in a steady intake of alcohol.

                Nick Campbell would do none of those things. As he looked as the remains of what had so recently been a place full of fun and happiness, he truly understood for the first time how far Nathaniel was willing to go. This had only been his warning shot, a gambit to get Nick overly worried and off his game. When the true attack came, it would be swift and merciless. Nick was damned sure going to be ready.

                And it was time the others were too.

*             *             *

              “His name is Nathaniel Evers. We both grew up in Las Vegas, though we were connected to very different families. His power first manifested when he was five years old, and that pretty much marked the beginning of the end for him. Nathaniel can see other people’s fears, induce hallucinations of them, and feed off their terror like a psychic vampire. It ups his physical abilities considerably, though neither they nor his illusions are what most of us would consider especially powerful. The HCP has given us a somewhat distorted scale of a Super’s abilities.”

                “I broke out of the illusion he threw me in within seconds,” Alice added. “True, he used something I’m not afraid of anymore, but compared to Rich’s mind-fu or Selena’s songs, it seemed pretty paltry.”

                “Nathaniel’s abilities have never been what made him dangerous,” Nick agreed. “If anything, they’ve been a detriment to him. The amount of discomfort he inherently stirs in people means that, while there is certainly always a place for him in illicit organizations, he’ll never have the necessary charisma and people skills to be a leader. This, by the way, is what I attribute to his hatred of me. Despite being a Powered, I do have enough of a way with words to rise through my family’s ranks. Since Supers are supposed to be better than Powereds, this no doubt stirs endless ire in him.”

                “Wait, so he bombed Six-Shooter because he’s mad about you being good with people?” Vince asked. He, along with Mary, Roy, Chad, and Alice, were all gathered at Nick’s dining room table. Once things had finally settled down enough for basic communication, Nick had gathered up all of the Melbrook residents and convened an emergency meeting. It was clear he could no longer protect his friends without their knowledge, and it was time that they knew what was lurking out there. Though it went against his better judgment, Chad was invited with the others since he was likely lumped in with them in Nathaniel’s eyes. After all, they did all live together in one dorm.

                “What I alluded to was only the impetus of his grudge against me,” Nick said. “It has been exacerbated by years of failing to prove his perceived superiority, as well as a bit of instigation on my own part. I’ve never been particularly fond of him either, to say the least. None of that is really relevant though. What matters is that I believe he’s trying to take our dispute out on all of you, by trying to either harm you or force you to publicly reveal your powers.”

                “If he wanted to do that, he should have detonated his bomb before the club was vacated,” Chad pointed out. He was talking the news with his usual resolve, which the others had finally learned told nothing of the true emotional storm brewing inside his head.

                “That’s because it wasn’t a real attempt,” Nick replied. “He’s trying to rattle me; to split my focus. The whole point of tonight was showing me what he could do. If he’d had more of people setting fires, or detonated the bomb a little earlier, or bothered to bar the exits, or a million other things in that avenue, one of you might have had to use your abilities.”

                “He blew up a fucking building, which right now the cops are sure as shit investigating. Maybe he won’t get it traced back to him, but that seems like a hell of a risk,” Roy said.

                “For reasons I’d prefer to not get into, let’s just say I’m certain Nathaniel knows how to make a relatively untraceable bomb. The risk of getting caught was relatively low, while there were many ways for things to go his way even without making a true effort. That said, he must have been confident we’d all make it out. Nathaniel is like me in that he loathes taking unnecessary gambles. However, instead of trying to come up with a plan for any potential outcome, he prefers to try and steer a situation to the ending he wants it to arrive at. That makes him less flexible, but more cautious. Nathaniel won’t make his big move until he’s sure he can win, and he’s been doing this long enough to have a good estimate of how likely a victory is.”

                “It really bothers me that blowing up a club on its biggest night of the year is not his ‘big move’,” Alice said.

                “So this guy might try and attack us, or use other people to attack us, at any time or place, and the only thing we can do is not use our abilities?” Vince asked.

                “More or less, which is why I’ve tried to keep you in dark up until now,” Nick said. “Since you all have no recourse, I thought it was best you not lose yourself to worrying about it. Unfortunately, Nathaniel’s resources only seem to be somehow increasing, and that means I can’t protect you all from the background anymore. You need to know what’s coming at you, so you have at least a chance of reacting appropriately.”

                “Why not just kill him?” Every eye in the room turned to Chad, who seemed to realize his words hadn’t quite made sense to the people listening. “Forgive my phrasing; I’m not saying he should die or that we should kill him. It is merely that you’ve dropped multiple context clues hinting at the fact that both of you are connected to at least semi-illegal enterprises. I’m wondering why he hasn’t been killed for such endeavors before, since this seems to be a running feud.”

                “The short answer is politics,” Nick replied. “Nathaniel may not be well liked in his family, but he is useful. Add in that he’s the son of a few of the more well-connected higher ups, and just bumping him off would have been a serious act of aggression. These things do happen, but only if the person in question is a major pain for the family as a whole, not one member of it. Nathaniel has never been a big enough nuisance for my family to be willing to deal with. Plus, Ms. Pips thinks it’s good to have someone always trying to kill me. Says it builds caution and forethought.”

                “Holy shit,” Alice muttered. Now wasn’t the time to discuss Nick’s family life, but in one sentence she felt like she’d just gotten more insight to his world than in the last two years of knowing him.

                “Anyway, what I can do is cut his legs out from under him,” Nick continued. “He lost Vegas’s support on this vendetta mission months ago. He’s being too costly and overt for them to justify backing him. What I don’t yet know is who he got to pick up the tab. It’s got to be somebody well-connected; he’s throwing around man-power like it’s nothing. Sooner or later I’ll get the right person to crack, and then it’s just a matter of making sure the people involved realize that Nathaniel is more trouble to have as a friend than he’s worth, especially when I can make a lovely amigo myself.”

                “What are we supposed to do until then?” Vince asked. “Shouldn’t we call the cops or something?”

                “Not enough evidence,” Chad said. “Aside from their fight several months back, which from Alice’s telling would compromise her secret identity to report, it sounds like Nathaniel has done nothing that can be tied directly to him.”

                “Look who watches enough crime shows to keep up.” Nick’s heart wasn’t really in the snark, but he tried to make it out of obligation if nothing else. “Chad’s spot on, though. For now, all we can do is go about our lives as we normally would. If we hole up, Nathaniel will try and draw us out, and trust me when I say that situation will be a far more dangerous one.”

                “Life as normal,” Mary echoed. “Just going about our business, only with the knowledge that a deranged Super with a grudge could try and come after us at any time.”

                “Oh great, it’s my freshman year all over again.” Vince didn’t mean it as a joke, but as Nick began to snicker, then Alice, and finally Mary and Roy joined in, he realized he’d inadvertently hit right on the spot of dark humor that eased their tension, so he began to chuckle as well. Only Chad didn’t get the humor, and by the time they explained to him about Michael’s antics it ceased to be particularly funny, though some amount of levity remained in the air.

                Serious as their situation was, they’d faced dangerous things before, and all of them were still standing. Nathaniel might be set on taking them down, but they would make damn sure he had to earn it.