Villainous, p.21

Villainous, page 21

 

Villainous
 


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  Why was it so stuffy in here?

  “Well,” continued Gram, “I remember when she was just a chubby little thing in pigtails and frilly dresses. The poor girl’s mother tried for years to dress her like one of those porcelain dolls, but it never looked right on Mollie. She dirtied up more beautiful dresses.… Eventually her parents must’ve just given up.”

  Daniel smiled at the thought of Mollie wearing a frilly anything. “Can’t say I blame them,” he said. “When Mollie gets her mind set on something, that’s the end of it.”

  “You don’t say? And what’s she got her mind set on these days?”

  Another stomach jump. Just what was Gram getting at?

  “Nothing. I mean, she’s always on about something or other, but it’s never a big deal. Girl stuff, you know?”

  Gram nodded and rested her chin on her hands as she twirled her cane between her fingers. Her bent shape was silhouetted against the attic window, and just over her shoulder, Daniel could see the sun drooping low through the trees. In the pink evening glow, she looked like she had before the cancer—rosy and full of health.

  “I’m glad that you’re making friends, Daniel. I know that coming here couldn’t have been easy on you—a new town, a new school. There’s a lot of grown-up stuff going on here with my being sick and all, but I don’t want you to forget to be a kid—at least for a little while longer.”

  Daniel nodded.

  She reached over and pinched Daniel on the arm. Her eyes looked a little moist, but Daniel couldn’t be sure in the fading light.

  “Don’t grow up too fast, Daniel. No matter what else happens, promise me that.”

  “I promise, Gram,” he said. “I promise.”

  “Give him room, Mol. Let him work.”

  “You’ve got to do more! You’ve got to try harder!”

  “Hey, look at that! Something’s happening.”

  The first thing Daniel saw when he opened his eyes was Mollie’s face. She was crying. Not some pretty, movie kind of crying—Mollie didn’t do that. This was ugly, heaving, sobbing crying with tears and snot bubbles. The real deal.

  She was also squeezing Daniel’s hand so hard his fingers had gone numb.

  “Mollie?”

  “I got your text,” she said, wiping her nose on her sleeve.

  “Where am I?” he asked, and as he tried to sit up, he gasped in pain. Every muscle in his body ached. He was lying amid a pile of rubble and he felt terrible.

  “You can thank him,” said Rohan, appearing next to him and pointing to Johnny, who was lying beside him. Johnny looked awful. Sweaty and pale, he was taking deep breaths, as if he couldn’t get quite enough air.

  “You …,” said Daniel. He was still having trouble focusing. He’d been talking to his gram, a conversation that they’d had years ago, and yet just then it had seemed like she was talking about the here and now.

  The now. Daniel remembered the wall collapsing. He remembered the struggle to breathe. There shouldn’t have been a now.

  “It was you?” asked Daniel, and Johnny gave a weak nod.

  “Look what happens when I play hero,” said Johnny. “I almost brought the whole ceiling down. I’m sorry.”

  “But you healed me,” said Daniel. “I thought you could do that only with small things.”

  “Me too,” whispered Johnny. “But … I had to try.”

  “It wiped him out,” said Rohan. “For a minute there, I thought we were going to lose both of you.”

  Daniel pushed himself up to sitting and looked around. They were still in the bunker, although most of it was now in ruins. There was no sign of Herman, or Lawrence and Hector, but there was a hole in the ceiling big enough to drop a car through.

  “We were up top trying to convince Johnny to evacuate the school when I heard shouting,” said Rohan. “It sounded like it came from below us, and then Gerald McNally—you remember that Peeping Tom kid with the X-ray vision? He started looking through the ground and said he saw people under there and that one of them looked like you.”

  “Then Johnny did that,” said Mollie, pointing at the massive hole in the ceiling.

  “Herman ran through there,” said Rohan, pointing to the door. “His thugs escaped through the tunnel.”

  “Help me up,” said Daniel, and Mollie put her arm around him for support.

  Rohan had helped Johnny to sit up, but the old hero, for once, looked his age. Daniel examined the hole Johnny had created. He’d broken through at least six feet of earth and another two of solid concrete. He’d torn this bunker open like it was a wrapped present. Now he was so weak he could barely sit up.

  From somewhere up top, through the jagged hole, came the sound of fighting.

  “What’s going on up there?” Daniel asked, worried.

  “It’s Eric and the rest of our friends,” said Mollie. “Fighting the Nobles.”

  “What?”

  “When I got your message, I contacted Michael and Louisa. I figured I might need help getting everyone out of here.”

  “It’s a good thing too,” said Rohan. “After Johnny crashed into Herman’s hideout, the Nobles tried to stop us from following him. I think they’re working for Herman!”

  “Yeah, I kind of figured that out already,” said Daniel. “So Eric and Michael and Louisa are alone against the Nobles?”

  “No,” said Mollie. “You won’t believe it but Bud and Simon are helping too.”

  “Simon?” That was twice now that Simon had been there when needed. Once a Super, always a Super. And Bud … Well, apparently people really could change.

  “But you came down here to be with me, Mol,” said Daniel.

  Mollie nodded.

  Daniel was afraid she might start to cry again. “You feel like hitting someone?”

  “It’s about time,” she sniffed.

  “Can you get me up top, first? I want to see what’s going on.”

  “Sure.”

  “Rohan,” said Daniel, “you keep an eye on Johnny until he gets his strength back.”

  “Be careful,” said Rohan.

  “I will.”

  Daniel looked at Johnny and found himself at a loss for words. Johnny Noble—the man who’d disappointed him, who’d frustrated and, at times, even frightened him—had just saved his life. A simple thanks wouldn’t begin to cover all of what needed to be said.

  “Go,” said Johnny. “I’ll be along in a … in a minute.”

  Daniel nodded, then put his arms around Mollie as she leaned into him. “Okay, let’s go.”

  Mollie flew them up through the hole and into the night air. And directly into the middle of a war zone.

  It was the Supers versus the Nobles all over again, only this time the odds were more even. Not only did the Supers have a few extra fighters on their side, but they knew what the Nobles could do. There would be no surprises this time.

  Nevertheless, the Nobles were putting up a brutal fight. Daniel couldn’t actually spot Drake in all the chaos, but the signs of his passing were everywhere. Large swaths of the lawn were aflame, and the immaculately trimmed hedges had gone up like kindling. Automatic building sprinklers were already spraying water and foam everywhere to combat the blaze.

  Simon was locked in a duel with Mutt, and he was barely keeping the savage kid at bay with his bolts of electricity as Mutt dodged his blasts with superhuman agility. But whenever he got close enough to try and swipe at Simon, Mutt would leap back with a yowl of pain—touching Simon when he was charged up like that was a bad idea.

  Daniel had been more worried about Hunter, however. The teleporter had taken Eric out of the fight last time with a touch, but this time he hadn’t been so lucky. Hunter was lying on the grass, clutching his stomach and getting violently sick all over himself. Apparently, Hunter needed to concentrate to teleport, and it was hard to concentrate when you were busy retching up everything you’d eaten in the last week. A cloud of greenish fog clung to him, and whenever he tried to crawl away, the noxious
vapor followed him. Bud was standing a few feet away, the boy’s round face twisted up in concentration. Bud had learned to control his power after all, and at exactly the right time.

  “We’re doing okay for once,” said Daniel, but the words had barely escaped his lips when Mollie yelled, “LOOK OUT!”

  She shoved him to the ground just as a fireball went soaring past, right where Daniel’s head had been.

  Skye was walking toward them. Her face was all twisted in anger as she used her telekinesis to tear up flaming bushes around her to serve as missiles. Daniel and Mollie barely had time to roll out of the way before a fiery stump slammed into the ground and tumbled past them.

  Skye had lifted three more burning branches into the air, and was preparing to launch them at Mollie and Daniel. Despite her expression of absolute malice, the girl was laughing as she stalked toward them. That cruel, heartless laugh of hers.

  “Get out of here!” Daniel yelled.

  “Not without you!” Mollie shouted back.

  But then, as Skye took another step, she tripped. She was practically cackling, then she fell face-first onto the concrete sidewalk. The burning shrubbery fell with her and rolled harmlessly away.

  Skye quickly scrambled up onto her hands and knees, obviously confused. She was holding her head where she’d smacked into the ground. She looked around, but there was nothing to trip over except empty air.

  Then her head jerked back as if she’d been bashed in the face, or perhaps kicked with a very small invisible shoe.

  Rose appeared just feet away and kicked at her again.

  Skye avoided this one, but as she did so, she backed right into a ghostly image rising out of the ground, holding what appeared to be Rohan’s overstuffed book bag. For a moment Louisa looked almost transparent as the smoke blew harmlessly through her, but then she solidified, the heavy bag in her hands solidifying with her just in time to be brought down onto Skye’s head.

  One good thing about the academy course load—a pile of books can sometimes make an excellent club.

  Skye sank to the ground, dazed.

  “Are you two okay?” asked Louisa.

  Mollie nodded, and Daniel said, “Thanks to you, yes.”

  Louisa smiled and looked like she was close to saying something else, but didn’t.

  Rose spoke up instead. “Where’s Eric?” she asked.

  “We don’t know,” said Daniel. “We haven’t seen him or Drake— Uh-oh! Incoming!”

  The four of them scattered in time to avoid being squashed by Eric, who, at that precise moment, came out of the sky like a falling star. He gouged a crater thirty feet long into the earth as he skidded to a halt.

  As the dust settled, he stood up on wobbly legs. His shirt was little more than charred scraps and his skin was still smoking. “Ouch,” he said.

  “What happened?” asked Mollie. “Did Drake do that to you?”

  Eric nodded. “With help from his new buddy, Clay. Think he finally got the invite to join their club.”

  Then Drake and Clay emerged from the flames. Drake’s eyes were glowing a bright red as wisps of flame trailed out of his mouth, and Clay was cracking his big knuckles together as they stalked forward.

  “Good!” snarled Clay. “More Supers to beat down!”

  “Wait!” said Daniel. “You two don’t know what you’re doing!”

  “Really?” asked Drake. “I know exactly what I’m doing.”

  “It’s the Witch Fire Comet!” shouted Daniel, pointing up at the sky. “It’s coming and this whole school’s going to be destroyed. He’s just using you, Drake!”

  “Nice try, kid,” said Drake. “But Herman said you’d try to fill our heads with garbage. His orders were clear: no one leaves the academy tonight. He’s got something special planned, and as long as he keeps paying, I don’t care what it is!”

  Drake began taking a deep breath, and whatever it was inside him that converted oxygen to flame was powering up.

  But Clay had dropped his fists to his sides, and he was looking at Drake with a new expression.

  “Wait a minute,” Clay said. “Did you say you’re working for Herman? Herman Plunkett?”

  “Huh?” said Drake, and a gout of fire escaped his lips. “I told you if you helped us tonight, you’d get to be one of us! Don’t you want to be a Noble, Clay?”

  From where he stood, Daniel could see the veins in Clay’s neck bulge. “Herman Plunkett is the Shroud, you moron!”

  “What’s a Shroud?” asked Drake, but the only answer he got was Clay’s fist.

  One punch, that’s all it took. And Daniel knew that Drake wouldn’t be getting up for a very long time.

  “That’s it!” Clay howled. “No more Nobles! No more Supers! No more Shroud or Bud or new kids—I’ve had it, you hear me? From now on, it’s just me on my own. I’m sick of you all.”

  Then Clay turned his back on the Supers, the Nobles, and the world and stalked off alone into the night.

  “He’s really mad,” said Rose.

  “Yeah, I’d almost feel sorry for him if he wasn’t, you know, Clay,” said Eric.

  “Maybe I should go after him,” said Bud. “I don’t think that Hunter kid is going to bother you all anymore.”

  True enough, Hunter was lying on the grass, sweaty and exhausted from his marathon puking session. He was in no shape to hurt anyone.

  “After the way Clay treated you?” said Daniel. “Shouldn’t you just let him go?”

  “Yeah, but …,” said Bud, searching for the words. “We’re friends. That’s it, ain’t it?”

  With that, Bud started jogging after Clay, huffing and puffing as he ran to catch up with the retreating bully.

  “Well, there’s no accounting for taste,” said Eric. “But, Daniel, what’s all that stuff you said about the Witch Fire Comet and Herman? You were bluffing, right?”

  Daniel shook his head. “I wish I was. It’s coming here, tonight.”

  “Oh my God,” whispered Louisa.

  “All of this—the academy, the attacks on the town—it was just part of Herman’s plan to get you here on this night. He’s trying to re-create the disaster at St. Alban’s. He thinks he’ll get the powers this time and you all will be—”

  “Powerless?” asked Eric.

  “I was going to say dead,” said Daniel. “He’s gone totally insane.”

  “Do you think he’s right?” asked Mollie.

  Daniel looked up at the spire near the center of the academy campus. It was dark against the night sky, and the only illumination came from the fires burning themselves out on the ground below. The effect was haunting. The flickering shadows that played along the spire’s base reminded Daniel of the Shroud-Cave, of shadows and Shades slithering in the dark.

  Was Herman right? Could they take the risk?

  “We have to assume that as crazy as he is, there’s a chance his plan will work,” said Daniel. “Which means you have to get everyone out of here. You all open the gate and start evacuating the students.”

  “You all?” said Mollie. “What do you mean? You’re coming with us, Daniel! You’re not running off after Herman this time, not when this whole place might become a crater!”

  Daniel held up his hands. “I’m coming, I’m coming. But we left Rohan and Johnny in the bunker, remember? Eric can help me get them out, and we’ll meet you all outside the gate. But in the meantime, start getting kids out of here, okay?”

  Daniel took Mollie’s hand in his. “I’ll catch up in a few minutes, okay?”

  She nodded, and giving his hand a squeeze, Mollie turned and flew off. Rose and Louisa waved and ran after her.

  Eric watched them go, and then said, “Man, are you a bad liar. I don’t know why she keeps believing you.”

  Daniel looked at his friend.

  “We’re going after Herman, right?” said Eric. “We can’t let him get away.”

  Daniel shook his head. “You’re going to save Rohan and Johnny. Just like I said.”

>   “Wait a minute,” said Eric. “I’m not letting you go after him by yourself!”

  Daniel started to argue, but then he saw the sky. In the distance was a bank of clouds. It looked like an approaching thunderstorm, only thunderstorms didn’t produce green lightning. And it was getting bigger. Eric followed his gaze.

  “Comets don’t move like that,” Eric whispered. “What is it?”

  “That settles it!” said Daniel. “I need you to get me to the top of that spire—that’s where Herman will be. Then you need to get Rohan and Johnny out of here.”

  “Daniel—”

  “I can’t carry them. You can. It’s that simple.”

  “All right,” Eric said. “But I’ll come back for you. Be on the lookout!”

  Chapter Twenty-Eight

  Witch Fire

  Daniel couldn’t get the specter of the academy in flames out of his mind; he couldn’t shake the picture of Herman rising up out of the ashes. The wisest thing to do would be to flee the school with the students. If Herman’s plan worked, the Shroud would return stronger than ever before. He’d have all the powers Johnny possessed, with none of that man’s restraint.

  That couldn’t be allowed to happen. The world couldn’t handle such a being. If Herman was right, and the Witch Fire Comet was some sort of stealth attack from another planet, then the Shroud would be its ultimate weapon. Herman would destroy the world while convincing himself he was saving it.

  Alone now atop the spire, Daniel could see all the academy laid out below him, and above, the sky was a blanket of roiling clouds aglow with ghostly green fire. Daniel had seen that color of light before, emanating from Herman’s old pendant—the Shroud’s light. Witch Fire. Tonight they were in for a storm unlike any other.

  Herman’s bunker was no longer safe now that the roof had been torn off, so where was the next best place to be when the meteorite hit? The spire looked solid enough to withstand an earthquake, but what about a meteorite strike?

  There had to be a door up here, a hidden way into the spire. As Daniel circled the walkway, he stayed well back from the edge, where a single guardrail stood between him and a six-story drop.

 
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