Our plan sounded so simple until the man in a Hawaiian shirt dismantled it before our eyes.
“You guys ready yet? Villains aren’t going to give you time to make up a plan you know?”
Erin gave John a sidelong glance before looking back at us. “Everyone know what to do?”
I nodded in sync with the others and our huddle broke apart. I let my energy dance on my fingers for a second before letting it slide up my arms to cover the rest of me. Summoning it was almost effortless now, but that wasn’t the power I was worried about working well. John could take a bullet to the brain, but what about my energy blasts? Saint’s little monsters turned to dust in the Forest, and even Butcher seemed to have problems with them. I hoped Hollands knew what he was talking about.
Out of the corner of my eye, I watched Erin, getting ready for her signal. We were standing in a loose circle with Erin to my left and Adam slightly behind me to the right. John stared at us with idle amusement plastered on his face. Our arena was empty and silent except for the quiet hum on my energy and the faint sizzling as Whitney used her powers to charge something with explosive potential.
Suddenly, Erin gave the signal. She lit up with a blue aura and charged John head-on while Adam and I broke right. Corey launched himself up and to the left while Whitney and Ian stayed where they were. I had to trust that my team knew what they were doing because I needed to focus on my pace. Adam was fast for a normal person, but not all that impressive compared to what my powers gave me. On top of that, I was running on the inside, so I had to stay slowed back. That way, Adam could fire his rifle at will, the bullets passing inches to feet in front of me while I served as a makeshift human shield.
John didn’t seem to care. He was too focused on the charging Finnish woman to notice the bullets tearing through him. It was the Blonde bombshell behind Erin that he should have been more concerned with. Erin suddenly leapt to the left, letting Whitney throw both of her charged explosives like an ambidextrous major league pitcher.
I wondered how many times she’d practiced her throws to get the kind of distance she managed to pull off. The first one struck The Eternal unawares in the face, but he managed to catch the second one a split second before they both detonated. The shockwave caused my energy to ripple as thick smoke obscured our target.
“Hold,” Adam called out. We slowed to a stop, and Adam leveled his aim just to my right.
“He’s still standing!” Ian warned from behind Whitney.
Sure enough, the smoke cleared, revealing John without so much as a singed hair. His shirt didn’t fare quite as well, though. A good portion of the chest and collar were turned to ash, revealing some kind of black body suit underneath.
“Fucking seriously?” Whitney groaned, sticking her hands into her pouches to pull out more things to charge.
“So much for that!” Erin yelled, her aura flaring as she launched forward faster than I could run even with my powers. John seemed to launch into action, dropping into a crouch like he was trying to tackle Erin’s legs. Norn was ready, though. Her aura shifted into its red shade as she drove her fist down into John’s shoulder with superhuman strength.
His spine audibly snapped as his upper body twisted under the blow. I felt sick as I watched Johns torso bend completely backwards under the torque. Suddenly, he grabbed Erin and his lower body seemed to snap back in place faster than my eye could make out. Next thing I knew, Erin was cartwheeling through the air and John was picking himself up off the ground.
“What happened?” I asked Adam.
“His lower body snapped into place and he used the momentum to kick Erin across the room.”
Shit, this guy had skills.
If Erin’s attack didn’t work, that meant it was getting close to my turn. I settled into the mindset of controlling my energy, getting ready to sprint. Meanwhile, Corey wasted no time launching his attack. He swooped down just like he had with The Butcher, intending to use his wings to gut John down to size.
Corey sliced through the air next to John, cutting a large gash in John’s shirt and undershirt, but didn’t seem to cut him at all. Serath flared his wings, returning them to normal as he came to a stop next to us.
“Why didn’t you slice him in half?” I asked.
“I did…I thought I did?” Corey said, sounding confused. “I…felt the resistance in my wing…”
“Did he manage to heal faster than you cut?” Adam thought aloud.
“We’ll see,” Corey said, flying low along the ground. At the last second, he curved upward, driving one of his wing-blade-things straight through John and out his back.
“Nice try,” John said with a grin. Instead of trying to pull himself free of Corey’s wing, he pushed himself further up the blade, widening the cut.
“What the-” Corey almost asked before John got close enough and cut him off with a sucker punch that knocked him out cold. His wings might be tough, but Corey himself? Not so much.
“Guess you’re up,” Adam said dryly.
Right, it was my turn. I broke into a sprint, trying to remember all the combat training that’d been crammed into my head. John looked to see me charging towards him, but he didn’t seem concerned in the slightest. Corey was sprawled out on the ground, so I put on a burst of speed and tried to jump over him.
John must have been waiting for me to do something like that, though. His hand shot out and grabbed my arm. Taking advantage of my lack of leverage to slam me to the ground. It was annoying but didn’t really hurt. John didn’t seem to have super strength in the slightest despite being so durable. Though he did manage to launch Erin somehow…
No time to focus on that; I needed to stay focused on the fight. I fired a blast of energy from my hand that, thanks to the odd angle he was holding my arm, only managed to glance off his shoulder. Still, the force of impact was enough to tear his grip free.
I picked myself up while John was trying to catch his balance. There was a glint of surprise and interest in his eyes, something I hadn’t noticed until now. Another bolt of energy welled up before being launched from my hand. John dodged to the side, the blue streak missing him by inches.
“Gotta work on that aim, kid,” John quipped as he scrambled back to his feet.
He was staying in motion now, trying to make it harder for me to hit him. I charged up my powers again but this time I opted for unleashing a continuous beam. John tried to jump out of the way again only for my blast to catch him in the gut.
John tumbled a few feet like a ragdoll before getting up like nothing happened. His shirt was nothing but flowery tatters barely clinging to his frame. In contrast, John seemed completely uninjured. I’d managed to hurt the Butcher with that attack; how was this guy unphased?
“Watch those sweeping attacks; don’t want to accidentally let your opponent lure you into firing at your teammates.”
“Yeah—” Whitney shouted before an explosion rocked the room “—If you blast me—” She flew over my head, landing gracefully a few feet from me and John “—This’ll happen to you…” She shouted, slamming her hands on the ground. Glowing lines raced towards John who didn’t seem to know what he should do.
Running would be what most people might have done. John, though, just looked at the spreading lines, confused. I jumped back and pulled on my energy to carry me as far from the coming explosion as possible.
A literal wave of destruction tore across the room. It felt like the World was shaking apart at the seams; I would be amazed if anything could survive the brunt of Whitney’s attack. She seemed confident in it herself, but when the smoke started to clear, John remained standing.
“Seriously? What’s your fucking deal?” Whitney sighed.
“It was a good effort, but—” Before John could finish, another person emerged from the smokescreen behind The Eternal. Erin was completely enveloped in her red glow, determination etched into her face. A bruise on her chin showed the force of John’s impact from earlier, and she didn’t seem happy about it.
Erin landed a punch squarely in John’s back that sent him flying. He managed to somewhat control his flight and righted himself by the time he landed. Erin was already next to him. Her blue glow rapidly shifting back to red so she could continue her assault.
John didn’t have a moment’s rest. Erin’s blows slapped him around like he was weightless. And as soon as he landed, Erin was there to launch him again. She was putting up a hell of a fight, but the longer the fight wen on the clearer it became that Erin was getting tired.
After a few more minutes of whack-a-meta, Erin seemed to ease off.
“Had enough?” She asked. It may have just been the exertion, but her accent seemed thicker.
“No, I’m still good to go,” John said, sounding chipper. “You all are impressive, but your skills and abilities won’t cut it against the upper echelon of metahumans. If I were an opponent, I’d still be as free and capable to do whatever I wanted as before.”
“I think I’ve got it,” Ian said, mostly to himself. We looked over at him, and I noticed he hadn’t moved since the fight began.
Way to support the team, buddy, I thought dryly.
It looked like he was concentrating, but for a few seconds, nothing happened.
And then the floor shifted under my feet. The large white tile John was standing on suddenly rose into the air. I’d barely noticed them before, but it seemed like the tiles covered the entire area of the gym; floor and ceiling. I figured they were just for show, but apparently not. As John was forced higher into the air by the rising pillar, an identical one descended from the ceiling.
John jumped off the pillar seconds before being crushed, but Ian seemed to be counting on that. The tile John was going to land on started retracting into the floor.
“Impressive!” John shouted as he plummeted more than twenty feet to the bottom of the pit. We all—sans the unconscious Corey—walked over to look down at John’s impromptu prison.
“Do we win?” Ian asked, peering down with a smug look on his face.
“This was a training exercise; not really something you can ‘win’, but I guess so…Clyffe was it?” John asked, looking up at him. “What did you do, take control of the reconfigurable systems?”
Ian nodded, visibly proud of himself. “Took me a while to figure out how to interface with it remotely.”
“It was an innovative solution, but it probably wouldn’t work against most people. I just happen to only be good at not dying. Other people might not be so easily dissuaded by a hole in the ground.”
“We’re not fighting other people, though,” Ian said. The tile John was standing on started to rise as Ian returned the gym to its normal state.
“That goes against the spirit of the training Mr. Moore. Nevertheless, well done,” Hollands piped up, walking over towards us. “This was a step closer to having you all function as a competent team. Mr. Dixon, will you check on Mr. Harrington and make sure he’s alright?”
“Sure,” Adam said, walking over to wake Corey up.
“And Mr. Smith. I appreciate you taking time to help the Argonauts train,” Hollands said, handing John a briefcase.
“Ah, no need to thank me, Grey. I needed an excuse to get out of the ol’ pithos,” John said, opening the case and pulling out a fresh Hawaiian shirt to replace ruined one.
“Pithos?” Erin asked quietly, looking at Whitney and me.
We both just shrugged. He was a weird dude.
“You guys have potential, but you still need to be careful and keep training. I heard about what happened with the Kreigspiel and Gold Diggers. You had trouble with them, and while that’s understandable, there are lots of metas stronger than they are. Not to mention groups like the Pantheon.”
“You’ve fought the Pantheon?” Ian asked.
John shrugged, “I’ve helped others fight them. They wanted to ‘recruit’ me at one point. Took a while to convince them I wouldn’t be a good fit.”
“What are your powers, exactly?” Whitney asked, apparently still a bit pissed her explosions hadn’t done much besides wreck the place.
“I am…immortal and invulnerable,” John answered. He didn’t seem all that thrilled about it, though.
“That sounds awesome,” I said, finally remembering to let my energy fade.
“It has it’s fair share of shortcomings.”
“But you got hurt. Like, Corey stabbed you with his wings,” Whitey said, sounding as confused as I felt.
“Do I seem hurt to you? There’s not a single atom of me out of place.”
“That still doesn’t really sound like invulnerability,” Erin said, rubbing her bruised chin.
“As opposed to what? Your green glow? Once you rest up let’s test and see whose power breaks first,” John challenged, grinning like he’d heard the best joke of his life.
“Watching you manage to crawl away from whatever suicidal endeavor strikes your fancy is about as boring as watching paint dry,” Hollands said.
“Maybe,” John said, closing his case. “But it’s never hurt to try before.”
“Isn’t that the issue?”
“Do you guys have any idea what they’re talking about?” I asked as Adam led Corey over. John and Hollands started walking off, talking between themselves like we weren’t there.
“Nope,” Whitney said. “You alright?” she asked, looking over at Corey.
“Yeah, I’ll be fine, just a little unsteady.”
“Good,” Erin said before turning to Ian. “Do you have anything about John stored away in that head of yours?”
“Not really. I remember I saw a picture of him with Paladin’s old team, the Vanguard, from the late Sixties. He didn’t look any different than he does now.”
“He was around in the Sixties?” I asked.
“I mean, he did say he was immortal,” Erin said.
Was that why he looked like he hadn’t aged from my memory-vision-thing? I wondered.
“Something about him is off, that’s for sure,” Whitney said.
Everyone broke off to do their own things after Erin dismissed us from training, but after we had showered and raided the cafeteria, most of us ended up in the common room. Adam had already gone to bed and Ian had not so subtly pushed an armchair away from me before burying his nose in a book.
Corey and Erin were holding ice packs to their faces which made me thankful again for my barrier. Whitney was casually flipping through TV channels, but most of them were in German and my Deutsch was rusty. Of course, by that I meant it was nonexistent.
“Ugh, how do I get this back to English?” Whitney asked.
“I changed it yesterday,” Corey said.
“Well, it’s broken again!” Whitney complained.
“Give me the remote.”
Whitney chucked the plastic device at Corey who raised a metallic wing to defend himself. I had wondered how he managed to fit his wings inside his shirts, but I had realized he mostly just opted for tank tops.
“Easy, Babe Ruth. I can’t fix it if you break the remote,” Corey teased.
“Sorry, I guess ‘The Eternal’ still has me a bit worked up.”
“You know Ruth was mostly known for batting, right?” I asked. Paul was an avid baseball fan, and part of that interest had rubbed off on me. It was one of the few things we bonded over. “I mean, he was great pitcher, but there are others who are better.”
“Oh, you’re a baseball fan?” Corey asked, sounding interested.
“Yeah. Paul and I watched a lot of games together when I was younger. And of course, he made sure I knew about all the greats.”
“Did you play?”
“I did for a little bit, but it didn’t take me long to figure out sports weren’t really my thing. How about you?”
“Nah. Wings don’t really make running easy.”
“You couldn’t just pull them against your back like you do now?” Erin asked.
Corey looked a bit uneasy, “Well, even if I did, having giant signs that screamed ‘meta’ didn’t exactly make people thrilled about having me around.”
“Oh,” Erin said.
That put a bit of a damper on the conversation. “I know what you mean,” I said.
“I think we all do,” Erin said. Then she cracked a bit of a smile. “One time in what I think you guys call middle school, my gym class was having a track and field day. I was a bit slow and towards the middle of the pack, but then the next thing anyone knew, I was going over a hundred miles and hour and glowing blue. They ended up sending me to the nurses office and made my parents come and pick me up.”
“Are we all telling stories now; because I have a good one,” Whitney said. “I had a chemistry class in high school, and we were going over the alkaline metals. We were dropping pieces in water to watch them burn, but someone thought it would be a good idea to drop in a big chunk when I wasn’t watching, and it really blew up—no pun intended. Anyway, I jumped back, and accidentally blew up most of my desk. Then the smoke set off the sprinklers…and yeah, instant social pariah.”
“Mine were mostly me having visions and scaring most of my classmates with flames coming out of my eyes,” I said.
“I guess the time I found out I could steel my wings was kind of funny in retrospect. I had a cold, but I tried to muddle through it. So, I was sniffling and sneezing all day, but during a math test, I had a really strong one. My wings turned to metal, which normally wouldn’t be a problem, but I wasn’t ready for it and they cut through my shirt, my jacket, and knocked over the desks on either side of me.”
“That’s got to suck,” I said.
“No, wait it gets better! I went to the principal’s office for ‘disrupting class’, but then She ended up writing me up for breaking dress code.”
“Seriously? They dress coded you for accidentally cutting your clothes off?” Erin asked as we all started snickering. Then we all broke out in full-blown laughter. Even Ian let a smile slip.