Corey plopped his bag down on the table and sank into his chair. He slumped over the wooden surface and let out an overly-exaggerated sigh of exasperation.
"Rough day?" Skye asked without looking up from her newspaper. She sat across the table from Corey in the little shed they'd made into a clubhouse when they were kids. Even though they'd long since outgrown the tiny space, they still met there every day after school.
"Mr. Voltner's trying to kill me," he mumbled into the tabletop. He looked up at her, his blue eyes forlorn.
"It wouldn't seem so bad if you studied a little more," Skye told him. She wore a troubled expression, her forehead crinkled with concern.
"What's bugging you?"
"This article; take a look." She folded the paper over and slid it across the table.
Corey sat up as he reached for the paper, that day's issue of The Advocate, and looked over the headline, one eyebrow rising incredulously.
RITUALISTIC MURDER-SUICIDE LEAVES COUPLE DEAD
He skimmed the article once, reading about a young man and woman found dead in an apartment that had blood and writing ink splashed all over the walls. The article depicted the young man as the culprit, stating that he's restrained his girlfriend and written on her in Greek letters before raping her and finally murdering her, though no cause of death was given. It said the young man then killed himself by cutting his own throat, but not before scribing the message NOT A MUSE on his wall.
"What kind of sick world is this?" Corey sighed, tossing the paper aside. He looked over at Skye and saw that her arms were wrapped around herself, even though it was quite warm out. "You okay?"
Skye looked up at him, her aqua eyes blinking, and shook her head. "I'm fine. I just feel bad is all; for the girl and her family. I can't imagine what it must feel like, being betrayed by someone you love. It must be heart-wrenching."
Corey nodded in agreement. He got up from his chair and walked around the table, standing behind her chair and resting his chin atop her head. "Don't worry, I would never betray you like that," he promised, wrapping his own arms around her. Corey knew that Skye's greatest fear was being abandoned by the people she trusted, and that the article had touched her deeply.
Corey was Skye's cousin, older by only two months. They had grown up together, practically siblings, and trusted each other more than anyone else. Corey had always been laid back and easy-going, so he got along with just about everyone. Skye, on the other hand, was shy and timid. She'd been made fun of a lot growing up; mostly because of the way she acted and dressed. It made people uneasy. Even her own parents had had a hard time accepting her for who she was. Corey was the only one that had always stood beside her without judging. They were cousins, and they were also best friends.
"Don't worry about stuff like that," he told her, kissing the top of her sandy brown hair. It was the same color as his, though she wore hers long and wavy, while Corey's was kept short and spiked.
Skye leaned back into her cousin, thankful to have such a wonderful person in her life. "Thanks. By the way, we had a job request come in."
"Oh really? From who?"
"Joseph Tweedle; he wants protection." Skye removed herself from Corey's embrace, missing it instantly, and got up from her chair. She walked across the tiny space to a shoebox next to a cracked window and pulled out a folded piece of paper.
'Protection from what?' Corey wondered, recognizing the name of the nerdy freshman from their school. Corey and Skye were sophomores, just months away from being juniors.
"From Tommy Hicks," Skye answered before Corey could ask aloud, handing him the slip of paper.
'I don't know why I bother opening my mouth around you,' Corey thought, grinning as he unfolded the slip.
There was another reason the two cousins were so close. When they were twelve, both had discovered that they possessed abilities other people didn't. At first it was simple stuff, like being stronger and faster than they had before, or having far too much stamina. Within a year of that awakening, each had gone on to develop a unique ability of their own though. In Skye's case, it was the ability to read the minds of people around her.
At first it had weirded Corey out, having questions and thoughts he'd never spoken get answered. It had almost driven a wedge between the two. Only when Corey saw how hurt Skye had been over potentially losing the one person she could truly trust did he get over his apprehension. Shortly after that he'd developed his own ability too, and spent the following months waiting on Skye hand and foot to make up for his behavior.
After finally making up, the two swore to never tell anyone about their special powers, afraid of what would become of them if people knew. Once they'd made up, they decided to put their powers to use, and turned Skye's father's shed into a clubhouse/business. They referred to it as a "Do It All" business, because they would take on any job offered. From fixing ceilings, to babysitting, to relationship counseling, the cousins used their special powers to do things other people couldn't. Now, it seemed their next job would be bodyguard duty.
"So he just wants us to walk him to and from school for the rest of the year?"
"Well, he didn't say it out loud, but I read in his mind that he's hoping we'll put Tommy Hicks in his place. I subtly told him that we wouldn't be challenging anyone to duels or anything like that, but he held onto the hope that it would come to that."
Corey ran his hand through his hair and sighed.
"I know, I don't want to get mixed up with Tommy again either," Skye said before Corey could even think the words. "He's still got it out for us; especially you."
"Yeah; he really holds a grudge. What happened back then was an accident. That was before I knew I could do this." He took a wrench down from the pegboard on the wall and clenched his fist. A metallic groaning filled the shed as he bent the metal tool with ease.
"That's my dad's!" Skye scolded him, snatching the tool and trying to bend it back into shape. "You need to learn some self-control."
Corey just laughed. "Sorry. So, should we take the job?"
Giving up on removing the indents of her cousin's fingers from the sides of the wrench with a sigh, Skye crumpled it into a metal wad and dropped it to the floor. "I figured we could escort him for a while, see what happens," she answered, kicking the ruined tool under the workbench. "Maybe we can convince to Tommy to back off peacefully."
Corey scoffed at the idea.
"Thanks for doing this," said the timid boy with glasses. He walked a pace behind the cousins, who flanked him on either side.
"It's our pleasure, Joseph," Skye said, smiling down at him. She had her hair pulled back into a ponytail, and wore a long navy skirt with a teal tank top under an open white blouse.
'Skye Rayle is so pretty. I'm so lucky to get to walk with her,' she heard Joseph think, giggling when he blushed and averted his gaze.
"So what exactly has Tommy been doing to you?" Corey asked, business-like. He wore simple jeans and a black shirt worn open over a red tee.
Joseph's head snapped up. "N-nothing particular. He just follows me around and makes fun of me mostly. But there were a few time he extorted money from me; and he threatened that he and his friends would beat me up if went to any adults. That's why I thought going to you guys would be all right."
That caught Corey's attention, a thought flashing across his mind. He furrowed his brow and looked at Skye, who looked back in the same instant, having read his mind.
'He's doing this to get to us.'
Skye only nodded, maintaining a friendly expression for their client's sake. "You don't need to worry Joseph. We used to be friends with Tommy when we were kids. I'm sure we can talk some sense into him."
Corey barked a mirthless laugh. "Yeah right. His head's gotten way too big ever since he made JV."
'That's why I need you to beat the crap out of him,' Joseph thought snidely.
Skye frowned down at him. Though he was only a year younger than them, Joseph was small for his age, with thick glasses and unkempt black hair. He was an atypical nerd-type, easily targeted by the jocks like Tommy. Skye supposed she couldn't blame him for being vindictive; he'd probably been bullied a lot in his life and he'd probably become cynical.
"Remember Joseph, we'll only talk to Tommy," she said as they approached the school. "We won't let him hurt you, but we're not about to get into an all-out brawl over this. He might've warned you about going to an adult, but he didn't say we couldn't."
Joseph didn't seem to like that response. His thoughts toward her turned sour, so she tuned them out. She'd been greatly relieved six months ago when she finally learned to shut out people's "voices" completely. She couldn't do it for everyone at once; there was always a background hum in her head, like being in a crowded room. It had always been a distraction, and her grades had suffered for it. By focusing on just one person or a few people at a time though, she could block their thoughts. Once she shut someone out she never heard their voice again, unless she tried equally hard to start listening. Having learned that, she often spent her school time shutting out people she had no interest in hearing, trying to dull the background hum as much as possible. Her grades had improved significantly since then.
The three rounded the street corner and came to a halt. Up ahead, leaning against the side of the school building, was Tommy Hicks and two of his football friends, Eric and Phil. They'd recognize the long black hair he'd had since they were all kids anywhere, and the premature goatee he sported. He wore a pair of jean shorts and simple white tank top, and even though it was a fair day, he seemed to be sweating.
'There they are,' Eric said as soon as they came into view.
'Just like Tommy said,' replied Phil.
The three bullies stood and started approaching, the Phil and Eric already having malevolent thoughts. Tommy's "voice" had been one of the first Skye had blocked out, not wanting to hear any more of the hurtful things he thought about her. Like Corey, Tommy knew Skye's most guarded secret, and he was mean about it.
"You were right Corey," Skye whispered as the bullies drew near. "Tommy wanted an excuse to start something with us."
"Tch, as if there was a doubt," Corey replied. His grip on his backpack tightened, his knuckles turning white. Nice as he was, Corey was hotheadedly protective of Skye. All it would take was one wrong word from Tommy to make him lose it.
"Look at this guys," Tommy announced grandly as he approached. "The little nerd went and got himself a couple of bodyguards. What a shock."
The other two laughed as they came to a stop.
"I'm only gonna say this once Tommy," Corey said in a stern tone. "Leave Joseph alone. Find someone your own size to pick on."
Tommy smirked, walking forward so that he and Corey were face to face. He looked Corey up and down once, grinning, his icy silver eyes glinting eagerly. "You're my size, Ayers."
Corey gritted his teeth.
"Just stop it Tommy," Skye reprimanded him, wedging herself between the two. "Aren't you a little old to be playing schoolyard bully?"
Tommy's smirk never faltered. "Aren't you a little old to be playing dress-up?"
His friend's laughed, no doubt in on the secret. It was the last straw to make Corey snap.
"Bastard!" He reached back with his fist and lunged forward, ready to unleash all the might of his superhuman strength, but Skye caught his arm.
"Corey, no!" she cried, using her own enhanced ability to hold him back. She wasn't quite as strong as Corey, but if she tried she could restrain him. She'd heard the determination in her cousin's mind, the intent to cause real harm. "He wants a fight; don't give in."
Corey sneered at Tommy, who stood with his arms open in invitation. He looked down at Skye, saw the pleading in her eyes, and took a deep breath before letting out a long sigh. "Sorry."
Skye smiled at him. "It's all right."
Tommy's friends made retching sounds. "You know, incest is illegal in this state," Phil called.
The cousins glowered at the three of them, each trying to restrain their tempers. A crowd had gathered around the six students, many of them mentally egging for a fight. Seeing the tense opportunity, Joseph slipped into the growing sea of students and disappeared into the school building.
"Your target got away. Just leave the kid alone," Corey finally said, wanting to end things before any faculty showed up.
"Who said that little runt was my target?" Tommy challenged, still wearing a confidently smug grin.
"I'm not going to fight you. If this is about when we were kids then I'm sorry. It was an accident; you need to let it go."
Tommy howled with laughter. "You're right, I should let it go." He spread his arms wide and spun around, gesturing to the crowd. "I should let it go to everyone here just what happened that day. Let go just what you two really are."
Corey and Skye both tensed. There was no way he could mean what they thought he meant. They had to be sure though, for their own good.
Corey looked down at Skye imploringly. 'Read his mind.'
Skye hesitated, not wanting to relive the hatred.
'I know. Just really quick, and then block him again.'
Biting her lip, Skye closed her eyes and nodded. She turned to face Tommy, focusing all of her attention on him. The way she'd learned to block people out was to visualize that she'd built a wall in front of them, blocking their thoughts from getting through. Likewise, to remove the block, the easiest way was to visualize that wall being knocked down. So, in her mind, she conjured the image of wrecking ball aimed at the brick wall she visualized in front of Tommy.
'Mind Haxor.' She thought the name she'd given her ability, sending the mental wrecking ball to smash into the brick wall. It shattered, releasing a rapid torrent of words from Tommy's mind.
'C'mon, accept you freak. Do it, or I'll tell everyone what you did to me back then. I finally have proof, and I won't stop until everyone knows about your power. You, and you're little freak of cousin. That little f-'
Skye trembled as she rebuilt the wall, wishing she'd done so a second sooner so as to not have heard that word. A single tear escaped her tightly closed eyes as Tommy's voice in her mind went dead.
"Well?" Corey asked. He felt her shutter, and when she looked up he hissed at seeing the tear on her cheek. He reached out to wipe it away, seething with rage.
"He knows," she whisper, her voice sounding ragged. "I don't know how, but he knows."
Corey's eyes went wide as he looked from his cousin to the bully.
The crowd around them all murmured, wondering what was going on and whether or not the fight they anticipated would really break out.
Before it could, the first bell echoed shrilly from the school, and many of them started dispersing. Only Corey, Skye, and Tommy remained perfectly still, his friends even trying to get him to move on.
"Think on it," the bully finally said before turning and heading to class.
The cousins remained rooted to the spot, until they were the only ones left. When they were alone, Corey raised one foot and stomped down on the concrete of the sidewalk, cracking the square.
Corey burst through the door of their clubhouse and slammed his backpack on the table. "Damn it, damn it, damn it!" he swore, gripping the edge.
Skye came in behind him, shutting the door after her. She set her own bag down in her chair and then moved to place one hand on top of his.
Corey looked up at her, their eyes meeting in a moment of indecision. 'I have to fight him,' he finally realized, not able to form the words.
Skye's expression remained blank, uncertain what to say. She wanted to tell him that he shouldn't fight, that he couldn't. She couldn't tell him that though. Something Tommy had thought had stuck with her all day. She'd kept it to herself, waiting until they were alone to say anything. She had to tell him now.
"What should I do Skye?" Corey finally asked.
She opened her mouth to respond, but the words caught in her throat. She didn't want to say them. She hated to say them. She would've rather died than say them. She had no choice though; she had to say them. "You have to fight Corey."
Corey was taken aback. He'd expected his cousin to reject the idea completely, no matter what. Her response had taken him completely off guard.
"I heard something in his mind Corey," she told him, not meeting his gaze. "He said that he has proof about us; that he won't stop until everyone knows."
Even more surprised now, Corey took a step back. "Impossible. What proof could he possibly have?"
Skye shook her head. "I don't know; he didn't think it before I blocked him back out."
Corey groaned and ran his hands through his hair. "Damn it. Fine, I'll give him what he wants. I'll just have to make it quick; using a little of my strength should let me end things fast without hurting him too badly." He smirked then. "It worked three years ago."
Skye couldn't return his expression. She was too wrapped up in her own thoughts.
Corey closed in on her, putting his hands on her shoulders. "Don't worry; I won't let anything happen to y-"
The sudden shatter of glass cut his words short. Horrified, Skye watched as the brick that had just broken the shed window smashed into the side of Corey's head. Blood splattered across the floor from the new wound as Corey went down, Skye letting out a scarp scream.
"Corey!" she cried, dropping to his side and pulling him into her arms. "Corey! Are you all right? Say something!"
Corey's eyes twitched, his hand going to the side of his head. "What hit me?" he moaned groggily, examining the blood on his hand.
"A brick," Skye told him, finding the offending object on the floor. She noticed the sheet of paper tied to it and, ignoring the cliché, snatched it up to read. "Corey, look at this."
Still holding his head, the boy took the sheet of paper and read the rough handwriting:
I know something like this won't kill you freak. Come to the abandoned warehouse in the industrial district at midnight and we'll finish this. If you don't show, I go straight to the press first thing in the morning. You won't be able to hide what we are anymore.
The last line sent a chill down Corey's spine. "'What we are…' Proof…" He looked at Skye, whose eyes showed that she'd arrived at the same conclusion he had.
"He has powers too," they said together.
The abandoned warehouse wasn't unfamiliar to the cousins. It was a pretty common hangout for the kids in town, primarily delinquents. People often threw secret parties or raves there once in a while, a few of which Corey and Skye had attended.
The concrete floor was littered with a plethora of evidence to youth occupation. Broken and empty beers bottles, cigarette butts, used condoms and their wrappers. Pieces of old furniture, scoured from roadside trash collection and dumpsters, were arranged in groups in one section. There were a few rooms near the back that the two knew had been outfitted with old mattresses or mounds of blankets.
The fact that the place was empty unnerved the two. Normally there'd be someone there at such a late hour; twenty-somethings without curfews slumming around. The whole place was deathly quiet though, disturbingly so.
"All right Tommy, we're here," Corey called as they reached the center of the vast space, his voice echoing off the cavernous space. He was surprised when the named bully emerged from one of the back rooms alone. They'd both expected him to be flanked by at least Phil and Eric, if not more from the football team. Then again, if the conclusion he and Skye had arrived at was true, he had just as much to hide as them.
"I'm surprised you showed," Tommy announced, clapping his hands slowly. He was dressed in just a pair of jean shorts, no shirt. This was odd. Despite being May, the temperature had dropped unseasonably that night. Corey and Skye were both wearing hoodies to keep warm.
"Did my message scare you?"
"I'm not fighting you," Corey cut right to the chase.
Tommy just laughed. "And why is that? Afraid now that you know you don't have the upper hand?" He stopped next to a pillar and thrust his fist into it with a loud crack, punctuating his point. The whole warehouse seemed to tremble from the impact, and when Tommy pulled his hand away they could clearly see the cracks and indent in the concrete.
"Three years ago, we were all at summer camp, and you and I got into a little scuffle…" Tommy began walking toward them again, his hands casually in his pockets. "All because I said the wrong thing about your precious cousin. It shouldn't have been a big deal though, kids just being kids, until you broke my arm!"
He came to a stop a few feet away from the cousins, his smile fading. "I told my dad that something wasn't right. There's no way a kid like us could've been that strong, or moved that fast. I smashed your head into the concrete and you didn't so much as flinch. But did anyone listen to me? Did anyone believe me? You know they wanted to put me away for all the rambling I did? But I know what I saw. I know what I felt."
He spat on the floor. "I knew then that you were freaks, and I swore I wouldn't stop until I proved it."
"If our powers make us freaks, then what does that make you?" Corey challenged.
Tommy sneered. "Isn't it obvious? I'm a freak, just like both of you. But hey, being a freak has its advantages. You shoulda seen me at football camp last summer. The coaches couldn't stop praising me. I bet I make captain no problem next year!"
"You can't use your powers recklessly," Skye tried to tell him. "Football's dangerous enough without powers like ours."
"Shut up bitch," Tommy barked. "You're lucky I don't rat your other secret out, so keep out of this. This is between me and Corey."
Skye's face scrunched into a scowl while Corey's fists clenched in rage.
"Watch your mouth," he fumed
Tommy threw back his head and laughed. "Try and make me." He lowered into a fighting stance, his fists at the ready.
Still growling, Corey unzipped his hoodie.
"I know," he said, handing his sweater to her and giving what he hoped was a reassuring smile. "Don't worry, I'll make this quick." He turned back to Tommy, standing perfectly upright. "Just remember, you asked for this. Since I know you're like us, I don't have to hold back."
He extended his right hand and closed his eyes, focusing on his palm. Corey's unique ability wasn't like Skye's. Rather than involving the mind, his took form in the real world. He and Skye had been playing baseball when he discovered it, three years ago. He hadn't been hitting any of her pitches, and he blamed it on his bat. Frustrated, he'd wished that he had a different bat and that wish had been granted.
Tiny spots of gray light sparkled in Corey's palm, growing and spreading outward. They quivered and flickered as they gathered and took form, shaping into the form of a pixelated baseball bat with a red grip. The object was only two dimensional, looking like nothing but a straight line the top and sides.
"8-Bit Bat," Corey announced, pointing the flat object at his rival. "Don't regret when I beat the crap out of you Tommy!"
He charged at his former friend, his footsteps echoed off the walls. Each footfall came more rapidly than possible for a normal human. He crossed the space between them in a flash and swung his bat, aiming low. He didn't want to seriously hurt Tommy, and if he took out the legs he could end it quickly.
Tommy smirked and leaped back when he was attacked, jumping easily seven feet in the air, and landed several yards away. "Too slow."
Corey and Skye were astounded. So concerned with secrecy, neither had ever tested their physical abilities to the fullest extent. Not only that, but neither of them were real athletes like Tommy. For all they knew, he was stronger and faster than either of them.
"Skye, I need support. Unblock him," Corey called. He hated himself for doing so, but if Tommy really was stronger then there was no choice.
Biting her lip, Skye nodded and focused on Tommy, knocking down the mental wall that blocked out his mind. Luckily for her, his thoughts were only on the fight.
'C'mon, get close you prick,' she heard.
"He wants you to get close to him. Stay back and use your bat's reach."
Tommy blinked and looked at Skye in outrage. 'Can that bitch read my mind?'
"I can," she called, wincing at the string of profanities and slurs that followed. She did her best to hold back her tears, not wanting them to distract Corey. "He's going to charge you; take evasive action!"
"Keep your mouth shut bitch!" Tommy shouted as he ran forward. For as fast as Corey had moved before, Tommy was even faster, confirming their fear. Not only was he in better condition, he had no reservations about using his enhanced strength to its limit.
Corey leapt back when Tommy drew near and reached out. He noticed, surprised, that it was an open palm that came at him, rather than a fist.
Skye gasped. "Don't let him touch you. He has a unique power too, and it involves his palms."
"I said mind your own business!" Tommy yelled, reaching out for Corey again.
Corey stepped back again, this time swinging out with his bat. Tommy threw up his left arm to block the blow, though he thought he heard the sound of bone cracking. He shrugged off the pain and the bat, turning to his left and swinging his leg up. It caught Corey in the chest, sending the other boy spinning through the air and into a concrete pillar.
"Corey!" Skye called.
Corey coughed and wheezed as he got to his hands and knees, chunks of concrete falling around him. He could tell he'd broken a few ribs, but a warning from Skye distracted him. He looked in time to see Tommy charging, but couldn't find the strength to get up. His threw up his bat instead, bracing the end with his other hand just as Tommy's palm came down.
"Gotcha!" the bully shouted, wrapping his fingers around the weapon and pushing down. 'Freeze, you piece of shit.'
Skye paled at Tommy's thoughts. "His power has to do with freezing!"
Even as she said the words, Corey could already feel his bat getting colder. Within seconds it was like ice, the low temperature biting into his bare palms. He managed to get his foot up and onto Tommy's abdomen before kicking him back with all his might. At the same time he kicked he let go of his bat, which burst into pixels and vanished.
He scrambled to his feet just in time to see Tommy attacking again and quickly re-summoned his bat, jabbing forward with it. Tommy reached out and caught the bat's end with his left hand though, again lowering the temperature rapidly.
"Cut that out," he yelled, trying to fling Tommy away. He held tightly, instead pulling Corey forward with his right hand reaching for Corey's face.
"Duck!" Skye yelled.
He released his hold on his bat again, the weapon vanishing instantly, and used his lowered position to sweep Tommy's legs out from under him.
The bully fell back, his head bouncing off the concrete. He rolled back quickly, using his arms to spring to his feet. Panting, he glared across the warehouse, his hands still raised at the ready. He growled and sneered as Corey rose, summoning his bat yet again. "Is that all you can do? Make a shitty bat?"
Corey scoffed. "Yeah, it's pretty useless, but I think it's cool. What about you? You can just make things cold?"
"I don't just make them cold. That's how it started; I wanted a can of root beer colder; and suddenly it just was. It took a few times to figure out I could do it whenever I wanted. Now, I can freeze stuff right down to its very core. I've tried it out on all kinds of things, including animals. Only small ones like squirrels and cats, but I've always wondered what I could do to a person."
Corey and Skye gasped. They were coming to realize that there was more at stake here than just the secrecy of their powers. Tommy was ready to kill, if that's what it took to make him feel vindicated.
"This has to stop," Skye pleaded. "This is dangerous, even for us. What do you want Tommy? What will end this?"
"You two coming clean!" he answered instantly. "Admit to everyone that I wasn't lying; that I wasn't crazy. Tell everyone that ever looked down on me what you really are and maybe I'll forgive you."
"We can't do that," Corey tried reasoning. "Who knows what'll happen to us. We could be hauled off by government agents and made into lab rats or something. I know that sounds crazy, like something out of a movie, but then what do you call this?" He held up his bat.
"I don't give a shit! You deserve to be treated like the freaks you are, just like I was." He broke into a run again, moving in a serpentine path. He knew he was faster, and if Corey didn't know where he was going to attack from he could gain the advantage.
"Retreat; you can't block him," Skye advised.
Realizing that he couldn't do anything strategic while Skye was giving advice, Tommy skidded to a stop and changed direction.
"Stay away!" Skye screamed as she read his thoughts. She turned to run, but wasn't even as fast as Corey. Tommy caught her by the hair and yanked her back, eliciting a cry of pain and terror.
"God, you even scream like a girl!" Tommy taunted as he pulled Skye to the ground and then swung around to pin her down. His skin was scalding to the touch when his palm locked around her wrist, as if he were running a high fever.
"Get off her!" Corey had no choice but to run back at Tommy with his bat raised. Restraint be damned, he needed to take his old friend out before Skye got hurt. He swung with all his might, aiming at the side of Tommy's head.
Seeing Corey coming, Tommy grabbed a fistful of sand, pebbles, and glass shards from the ground and threw it into Corey's eyes, blinding him and throwing off his swing. He rolled off of Skye while Corey groped hopelessly at his face. He placed his hand to the floor and quickly froze the concrete surface, creating a thin layer of ice that made Corey slip and fall, still brushing desperately at his eyes.
"Corey, he's coming!" Skye called, but it was no use.
Tommy drew upon his downed foe and landed a kick squarely in his broken ribs. Corey yelped in pain, the air driving out of him. His bat fell from his slackened grip, vanishing again.
"Got you now!" Tommy declared, grabbing Corey by the neck and using the fullest of his superhuman strength to lift him into the air, his feet dangling off the ground
Corey gasped and groped at Tommy's grip. The bully's hand was scorching hot.
'Too bad I can't make things hot instead…' Skye heard him thinking. 'I'd rather burn you to ashes than make you a popsicle.'
"Put him down Tommy!" Skye pleaded. She knew it was no good; Tommy's malicious thoughts practically screamed in her head.
With a sneer he unleashed his power on his old friend, letting the cold wash over him.
"I said let go!" Skye found a broken piece of concrete and launched it with all her might at Tommy. She began picking up whatever she could find and lobbed it at the bully.
Tommy winced and grunted whenever something hit him, finding it more annoying than anything. "Fine, take him!" He swung Corey around as if the boy were weightless and threw him at Skye.
The cousins crashed together and sprawled out on the ground. Corey gasped and clutched his offended throat and ribs, hacking and wheezing.
"Corey, are you okay?" Skye was frantic with worry. She tried to clear the debris from her cousin's eyes, knowing she couldn't take on Tommy alone. She glared up at him, her own eyes glistening with tears. "Isn't this enough Tommy? We all used to be friends; doesn't that mean anything?"
"If we were friends then why didn't you stand up for me? Where was our friendship when everyone was making fun of me?"
"When you wouldn't even talk to us then?"
"You let that stop you? Is that was friends do?"
"Don't try reasoning with him Skye," Corey said, finally getting his eyes open. His breathing was a little more even, though he winced with every breath. He summoned his bat and used it to get back to his feet. Skye reached out when he almost fell, but he caught himself. He was still wincing. One hand held his offended ribs while the other raised his bat at his former friend.
"You were so mad that you refused to talk to us. You were already falling in with a different crowd; our friendship then was tenuous at best. When you stopped talking to us, we figured you didn't want to be friends with us anymore. If you had just spoken to us, we would've done anything to help you!"
"Shut up!" Tommy roared, throwing his hand out in frustration. There was a flash of heat and a burst of flames from his palm.
All three of them gawked at the sight.
Everything was deathly silent. Then, ever so slowly, a sinister grin spread on Tommy's lips. "Interesting."
"Corey, he was wishing for that before," Skye told him. "He wished he could burn you instead of freezing. Just like you wanted a bat when you got your power, and I wanted to know what secret you were keeping from me when I first read your mind. Maybe we can do more with our powers than we think."
Corey's disbelieving eyes looked to his cousin and then back, a smirk of his own appearing. "One way to find out." He closed his eyes and concentrated hard, Skye listening.
Tommy watched them and waited. If Corey could prove they could use more than one kind of power, he'd have to act quickly. He knew that Skye would hear any power he wished for and tell Corey, so that he could counter.
Corey focused. 'I need fire. I need the power to protect Skye. C'mon fire. Give me fire!' He thought with all of his might, concentrating harder than he ever had on his empty left hand.
Skye gasped. Flickers of red and orange light glittered in Corey's palm. "You doing it! Keep going."
Tommy clicked his tongue, annoyed at being copied. He lowered into a crouch, his mind flickering through every superpower he could think of faster than he hoped Skye could follow. He didn't focus on one for more than a second, visualizing them spinning on a giant wheel. He'd have to make a snap decision on where to stop.
Corey kept up his concentration. He could feel his hand getting hot. He thought he felt sweat beading on his skin from how hard he was focusing, but he didn't let up until he heard the faint whoosh of igniting flames and his eyes snap open.
"I did it! I–" His words caught off as he looked at his left hand. What he held was definitely a flame, though not what he'd expected. He could tell it was hot, though it didn't burn him. But, rather than the dancing light of burning gas, it looked solid and, like his bat, was two-dimensional and pixelated.
Tommy sputtered and laughed. "What the hell is that? Can you only make weird 8-bit shit? Is that your power?"
"It would appear so," Corey replied, staring at the flame incredulously. "But wait, if we can't just have any power we want, then how'd he go from ice to fire?"
"Who care?" Staying where he was, Tommy reached back with his fist and lashed out with a straight jab, releasing a burning stream of fire at the cousins.
"Watch out!" Not knowing what else to do, Corey threw up his own flame to block Tommy's. Even the stream of fire he released was pixelated. The two attacks clashed and exploded, sending fire flying all over the warehouse. Some of it landed on the pieces of old furniture, quickly growing and spreading.
"This is too dangerous!" Skye yelled. "We have to get out of here!"
"We can't leave; he'll turn us in!"
"If we stay here, we'll die!"
"Yeah, by me!" Tommy interrupted their yelling. He thrust out with his fist again, focusing on firing another stream of flames, but nothing happened. "Why won't it work?" Panicking, he knelt and touched the ground, wondering if his former ability was still intact. Sure enough, the ground under him froze. "What's going on?"
"See Tommy, we don't even know how these powers work!" Skye called, reading the confusion in his mind. "Now let's get out of here, the whole building's going to burn down!"
"You're not going anywhere!" Tommy shouted with a wave of his hand. Once again, a line of flames followed the movement, making him raise a curious brow. "Do I have to freeze something first?"
"Give it a rest already!" Corey yelled. He'd already summoned another 8-bit fireball in his hand and he used it now to attack.
Tommy stared at the approaching flames. 'I wonder…' He raised his palm to the attack, focusing on his power to freeze.
"Is he crazy?" Corey asked.
Skye read his thought process and gasped. "I get it; I know his power. Heat control! Corey, stop!" She forced Corey to lower his arms, cutting off his attack, but it was too late.
His fire collided with Tommy's palm and, rather than burning him, was absorbed. He was focusing on freezing the flames in the same way he did other things, only now he understood. He was able to freeze things by stealing heat from them and storing it in his body. And now that he knew what he could use that heat for, he was ecstatic.
"All right!" he yelled as he absorbed the rest of Corey's attack. "Get ready to burn!" He could feel the heat flowing inside of him and he captured it with his mind, forcing it where he wanted it to go. Not only that heat, either. The growing fire around them was making the air of the warehouse hot, and he reached out to drawing all of that available heat toward himself too. The lower temperature created a frosty haze around him, water in the air freezing. The sudden change in temperature also created a downdraft that blew through the warehouse, feeding the raging flames behind them further. They rage all around them now, the entire warehouse consumed.
"Get behind me!" Corey stepped in front of Skye and focused on his bat. He needed to protect her, and he channeled that single thought. His bat's form began to twitch and glitch, the pixels rearranging and growing until he instead held a large medieval-style shield, sporting the same 8-bit appearance.
"You think that will stop me?" Tommy's heated breath came out as puffs in the cold air around him. "Get ready to burn freaks!" He threw both of his fists out this time, releasing two massive streams extreme heat. They ignited the air into dual jets of fire that rocket across the warehouse and crashed into the face of Corey's shield.
"AH! HOT!" Corey gritted his teeth as the flames beat against his defense. The shield he'd visualized was metal, and it was heating up quick. His hands burned as he held it, but he couldn't let go. If he did, both he and sky would be finished.
"Corey, move," Skye whispered to him.
"Are you crazy?"
"Just trust me!"
Corey had no idea what she was thinking, but he trusted his cousin. "I'll drop on three. Be careful, whatever you do. One… two… three!" He dropped to his knees and rolled aside, keeping his shield up the whole time. As soon as he was clear he looked back at his cousin, fear and worry churning his stomach painfully. But when his eyes landed on Skye he found there was nothing to fear.
The flames were still pounding against the space where Corey had stood, but they didn't touch her. Rather they seemed to stop right in front of her, as if they were crashing against an unseen wall.
"Is that a force field?"
Skye nodded minutely. She was concentrating as hard as she could to not only create a wall like the ones she used to block peoples' thoughts, but to create one in the physical world. It had been a long shot, and if she'd been wrong it would've all been over. But, after seeing the ways Corey and Tommy had found they could use their powers, she knew instinctively that it would work.
"Finish him Corey!"
Shaking off his stupor, her cousin nodded and got to his feet. His hands were screaming in pain. Even without looking he knew he had second degree burns from gripping the heated shield. But he couldn't stop until it was over.
He focused on his shield again, trying once more to change its shape. He needed something offensive, and a bat wasn't going to cut it. He instead drew upon his collection of manga back home for inspiration, rearranging the pixels this time into the form of an 8-bit long sword with a golden hilt.
"You can't kill him!" Skye shrieked. Focused as she was on her force field, she couldn't hear Corey's thoughts very well, but the sight of the sword frightened her.
"I won't," he replied, grasping the hilt with blistered hands. "I'm just going to knock him out." Similar to his flames, he focused on the blade of his sword, visualizing that he could attack his old friend from where he stood.
"No! I'm not losing to you again!" Tommy roared. He tried drawing more heat from around him, but it was no use. He couldn't absorb and expel at the same time, and the heat he'd taken in was almost used up. He was feeling fatigued too, like he'd been working out for hours. Using his power was extremely draining; he didn't have much left.
"Come off it already!" Corey raised his sword, the blade glowing faintly blue, and then swung it down. From the digital tip burst forth a crescent wave of pixelated energy that cut through the air with a high whistling sound, giving off a faint light as it traveled before crashing into Tommy. It knocked the bully off his feet, sending him flying back and through the warehouse wall.
Abruptly his flame attack ended, and Skye lowered her shield.
"We… did it…" she panted, dropping to her knees. She was exhausted.
"Skye!" Corey tried running to her but collapsed. His legs felt like lead, his energy was so drained. A wave of fatigue washed over him as he fell to the ground. "Skye…" he looked from his cousin to the conflagration raging around them and back. "I have to… save Skye…"
Things were getting dark around him. The last thing Corey heard before he was consumed by the black was the faint sounds of sirens in the distance.
After several tries, Corey managed to force his heavy eyelids open. Everything around him was white, and far too bright. He heard a faint beep, beep in the background, and then smelled the unmistakable scent of disinfectant and cleaner. He was in a hospital, and his eyes were suddenly wide.
"Skye?" he called out, his voice rasping. It felt like there was a fire raging in his throat, and his abdomen kept spiking in pain.
He looked to his right and breathed a sigh of relief to see his cousin in the bed next to him. She looked like she was alright, with no signs of physical harm. He started to get up, wanting to go to her, but something caught his wrist. Looking down, he was shocked to find that he was handcuffed to his hospital bed.
Confusion flashed across his face. "What's going on?"
Skye smiled at him sheepishly. "We got arrested. Trespassing, arson, destruction of private property. Tommy's here too, but his burns were worse than yours. Our dads are here too. They left to talk to the police."
It took a moment for Corey to understand what she meant. He looked at his hands and realized they were both heavily bandaged. For a moment he just stared at the silver cuff around his wrist, letting the knowledge sink in. When it did he huffed.
"Guess that's it for us then." He looked up at his cousin. "We really messed up now. Who would've thought superpowers could be such a hassle?"
Skye tried to laugh, though it lacked mirth.
Sighing in resignation, Corey plopped back on his uncomfortable bed. "Good bye freedom, hello juvie."
"That's not necessarily true."
The cousins jumped at the sound of the deep new voice. They looked toward their room's door and found the source in the form of a dark-skinned man dressed in a black suit. Even though they were inside, he wore a pair of black sunglasses, and Corey thought he saw an earpiece in his ear.
"Oh!" Skye gasped. "You're not… human?"
Corey looked at her with wide eyes. "What do you mean? Is he like us?"
Skye looked at Corey deliberately and shook her head. "No Corey; he's not human at all. He's… something else."
They both looked back at the man in black, who shut the door behind him.
"Your power is very impressive," he complimented smoothly as he moved into the room. "I suppose there's no need to introduce myself." He stopped between their beds and looked from one to the other. "Or why I'm here."
"Explain it to me," Corey rasped, coughing.
"It's okay Corey," Skye assured him in a pacifying voice. "He's here to help."
Corey gave her a look of trepidation, but acquiesced to listen.
"Your cousin is right. I am Agent Charleston; Chief of Talent Acquisition for the Black Sun Group – Children's Division. I was called here a few days ago after an anonymous tip reached our branch in Hale, Georgia about a number of animals in the area that appeared to have been frozen."
"Tommy…" Corey seethed.
Agent Charleston nodded. "I apologize; this is partially my fault." He waved his hand at their restraints. "I would've been here yesterday, but I got held up on an emergency call in Baton Rouge. Had I thought this would happen, I would've made getting here the top priority."
Skye gasped again, reading the Agent's mind. "The murdered girl from the paper."
Again, the agent nodded.
"So why are you here?" Corey asked. "What kind of talent acquisition? And what is the Black Sun Group?"
"The simplest explanation is we're a paranormal agency," the agent replied. "We monitor on-goings concerning the Mythical World – the worldwide society of mythical and paranormal creatures that exists separately from the Human World. Our jurisdiction covers most of the southern states from the East Coast into parts of Texas. With regards to the term 'Talent Acquisition,' I use the word talent in reference to people like the two of you. In the Mythical World, human beings with abilities like yours are called talents.
"I came here find the cause of the frozen animals. Had a talent been involved, I was prepared offer them to come to a place better suited for someone you two. However, after assessing your friend Thomas's mental state, I believe him to be somewhat of a danger. I've already considered a different offer for him. You two, on the other hand, might benefit from the former. Tell me, have either of you ever heard of the Lionheart Institute?"
Corey shook his head and looked to Skye.
"I have," she replied. "I did a little reading online. It's a school for gifted kids, with things like accelerated classes, as well as special needs kids."
"That's only the face of the organization, the part the Human World's allowed to see," the agent told them. "In reality, we're a school for talented children, such as yourself. It offers a relatively normal school setting while providing a safe environment for young talents. We offer specialized courses and training so that children like you can learn to develop and control your powers safely, and we educate them on the existence and workings of the Mythical World. Upon graduation, you're free to return to the Human World and live a normal life, provided you maintain the secrecy of the Mythical World. Or you can remain in the Mythical World, a whole new realm of possibilities."
Corey and Skye were both silent, looking from one another to the agent and back. It was so much to take in so suddenly, neither knew what to think.
Corey was the first to speak. "How could we possibly attend this school like this?" He rattled his handcuff against the bed.
Agent Charleston smirked behind his sunglasses. "That's not a problem for BSG. With our authority, the police report could say that you were never at the warehouse last night, and it would be official. The decision is purely yours."
Again, the cousins shared a look.
'What do you think?' Corey asked mentally.
Skye didn't even hesitate, nodding right away. "This is what we need. We've had fun using our powers to play around and make some money, but we saw last night how dangerous they – we – really are. It's our responsibility to learn everything we can about them. Besides, it would be nice to be surrounded by other like us; to not have to hide so much."
Corey couldn't agree more. "Besides, the choices appear to be that school or prison."
Skye shook her head, smiling at the dark-skinned man. "No, Agent Charleston would get us off regardless of our choice."
The agent didn't reply to that. "Looks like we're all in agreement. It'll still have to be worked out with your parents, of course."
At this the cousins paled.
"Does this mean they'll know what we are?" Corey asked.
Agent Charleston shook his head. "They don't need to know. The fire last night has already gone down in the records as an electrical fire caused by old, faulty wiring, and the trespassing charges have been dropped. As far as your parents will know, your psychological evaluation proved you unfit to attend normal school at this time, due to trauma. This is a situation where your particular condition comes in handy, young lady."
Skye blushed and looked away. She saw instantly in his mind that he too was in on her secret.
"Very well. You'll be hearing from us soon." The agent gave them a parting nod before turning and leaving the room.
Alone, Skye and Corey looked at one another and let out long sighs, laying back in their beds.
"Think they'll uncuff us soon?" Corey asked, earning a responding laugh. It quickly choked off into a fit of coughing, and he felt bad. He'd heard in her voice that her throat was in just as bad of shape as his. "Guess playtime is over."
Skye closed her eyes and nodded. "What do you think it'll be like? Being surrounded by other… talents?" It seemed so strange, suddenly having a title to place to their condition.
Corey shrugged, staring intently up at the unfamiliar white ceiling. "I just hope someone has a lamer power than making 8-bit stuff."
Skye laughed at her cousin's infallible sense of humor. "I don't think there could be a power lamer than yours."
The idea of going to a new place, being surrounded by new people, terrified her. But, as long as Corey was by her side, she would be all right. She knew that Corey would protect her and give her the strength she needed, no matter what lay ahead.