Author's Note: Can Jeune Chat write angst? You be the judge. This was written as a one-shot stand-alone, though those reading War and Peace in Mind could put this at the beginning of chapter 4. This was written in response to Seducing Reason's not-quite-a-challenge to produce something focusing on a supporting character.
I got the idea about the Book of the Dead from the movie "The Others." Excellent creepy ghost story. Check it out some time.
The Book of the Dead
What time is it?
Veronica Powers lifted her head from her hands and stared fixedly at the clock on her desk for several minutes, not being able to make heads or tails of what it meant. She had been given that clock after her tenth year of being principal of Sky High, and it was a handsome desk piece, all polished wood and shiny brass. She blinked at it, and then lifted her head to look at the clock in the wall, the one identical to every other in the school's hallways and classrooms. Now the hands suddenly made sense.
Two a.m. I'm still sitting here and it's two a.m.
Total disaster didn't begin to cover how this night had gone. It was supposed to have been a coup for the school, having the Commander and Jetstream back for Homecoming. Instead an incognito supervillain, furious at her power placement from over twenty years ago, had nearly succeeded at making off with a huge chunk of the school's population and teachers. And for what purpose? To raise them as supervillains, to make an exact opposite of Sky High. The irony was staggering.
I could not protect the children. They couldn't even protect themselves.
How many students had been at that dance? Three hundred maybe? Yet no one had fought back, not after having seen the world's greatest heroes turned into babies before their eyes. What could they have done that the Commander and Jetstream hadn't already tried? And then the fact that Royal Pain had used three of Veronica's own students as her minions to block off the escape routes was the crowning obscenity. Intolerable.
And who saved us? Only those we discounted. Those that we shoved aside, just like Sue all those years ago.
A handful of brave and resourceful Sidekicks, a hero student everyone had written off as a villain, a powerless bus driver, and the son of the first two victims to fall, who hadn't even been at the dance in the first place, those had been the only ones standing between Royal Pain and her scheme. It had been brilliant, and if those few hadn't escaped… Veronica might be right now getting her diaper changed by a supervillain while she was fed hatred and violence along with her milk.
This can never happen again. There's no way we can just sweep this under the rug and go on as we have been.
It hadn't been the first time that the children of superheroes had been targets. That's why the school was Sky High in the first place. But it was one of the most daring acts in the last twenty years, and also the one that had come the closest to succeeding. No, this was not the time to simply keep on as things had been, because it had worked well enough in the past.
We have to change. We can't keep up our illusions anymore; they're just too costly.
With a pained sigh, Veronica reached over to the phone on her desk and hit the speed dial for the local Bureau director. The Bureau of Superpowered Affairs handled everything having to do with superheroes, and director Kane Adams was probably busy handling fall-out from tonight even as she had been. At the very least, neither of them was going to see their beds for the next two days.
"It's late, Veronica," he answered, his gravelly voice sounding even worse than usual.
"You're still up Kane," she pointed out. He snorted once, and she heard a faint creaking, like he was settling back in a chair.
"We're all going to be up until this is resolved," he said with a sigh.
"I need to talk to you about Sky High."
"Veronica… Right now I'm in the middle of rushing through Royal Pain's trial before getting her into prison. I have a stack of paperwork as tall as I am, and I haven't had two seconds to breathe before now. I'd be delighted to hear what plans you have, but not right now," he said forcefully. Veronica took a deep breath and forced herself not to snap.
"I'll be in the Bureau office when you're done dealing with her," she said shortly, and slammed down the phone.
Out of the bottom drawer she withdrew two black-covered scrapbooks, something she rarely looked at unless she had to. They had been given to her by her predecessor, and she had faithfully kept them up-to-date. One was a slimmer volume, and this was the one she opened now. Here were the faces of infamous supervillains, Mastermind, Coldshock, Dr. Destructor, all once alumni of Sky High. Here was Baron Battle, on a more recent page. On a new page Veronica took out a marker and carefully wrote a name at the top. Royal Pain. Their latest failure, twice over. She'd add the old report cards and new Bureau reports later.
The thicker volume had warped pages, stained liberally with the remnants of tears. In it were school photos, report cards, old essays, superhero portraits, and the final newspaper articles detailing the death of yet another hero. This contained the name of every Hero or Sidekick that had died in the line of duty before they had spent a year as superheroes. These were also their failures, more tragic than even turning to villainy. This was a book of blighted promise, of lessons not fully learned, of people that maybe were more idealistic than prepared.
The true heartbreak was in the essays, most of them their final projects, "Why I Want To Be A Hero." Full of barely articulated yearning to help, to be good, to be famous and respected, to protect innocent people… The reasons went on and on, a litany of hope dashed in the ashes of ultimate failure. Irony abounded in all of them. One who had spoken of the importance of being good had been mind-controlled into performing acts of evil, and ultimately couldn't handle the consequences. One who had wanted to protect innocents had died in attempting to do so. The list went on and on, enough to make the stomach churn with the injustice of it all.
Veronica knew the sad truth of those two books. She had only had to put one of her students in the supervillains' book, two now with Royal Pain, again. But she had added pages to this book every single year she had been here, sometimes more than one each year. The survival rate for young heroes wasn't that great, and those that figured out they weren't cut out for hero work generally went inactive after at least a year. Those weren't statistics that most heroes knew about.
Those also weren't the statistics that you were told until you had already been hired to be the principal of a superhero high school. Sky High had been her own alma mater, and after ten years as Comet Girl, Veronica Powers had thought she was ready to share her wealth of experience with the young heroes of the world. She had trained nearly six sidekicks of her own (the sidekick turnover rate was always high); she was even a teacher as her cover job. Surely handling a few day-to-day problems and setting policy couldn't be beyond her abilities.
For ten years, she thought she had handled it very well. Most of her students stayed as heroes for several years, most of them survived, thrived even. Yet each year some didn't make it. It was normal, she had been told. Death in the superhero world was normal.
"Then why do we only put the young ones in this book?"
She had asked that of her predecessor, Winston Gable. He had only given her a sad and ironic smile. It was then she understood why he kept it. It had taken her almost ten years to understood why she did.
Kane Adams finally found Veronica Powers in one of the bottom floors of the Bureau, almost thirty-six hours after Royal Pain had been defeated, sentenced, and finally jailed. This was a large, bare room lit only by a few spotlights, dominated by a single large pillar in the center, surrounded by stone benches. Kane strode from light pool to light pool, his shoes snapping loudly on the inlaid granite floor. The hush in here was almost reverent, and the reason for it became closer as one approached the pillar.
From a distance it appeared to be textured, or perhaps carved abstractly. Close up, it was apparent that it was carved with hundreds of names. Darklight, Jadite, Vineweaver, The Topaz Conjuress, Firewolf, Crystal Wave, The Iron Fist… Row upon row of names, stretching to the ceiling twenty feet above. A litany of the dead. The hush of this room was the quiet of the grave. This was the monument to the fallen superheroes of the world, all those that had died in the line of duty.
"I didn't know you had access to this room, Veronica," he said as softly as he could, his voice more gravelly that normal from the endless hours awake.
"Being the principal of a superhero school is nearly the equivalent of a directorship in the Bureau," she said calmly, not rising from her bench, or turning from her contemplation of the pillar. "People like you and me are the only ones that have free passage here."
"That's for a reason. Can you imagine the kind of misunderstanding that might happen if people were to see all of this at once?" Kane asked.
"And the war monuments around the world don't inspire the same misunderstanding? No, I don't think The Wall is a good comparison here. People expect superheroes to fall dramatically. They don't think that they may have left family behind," Veronica said flatly.
"No, they don't, but that's been true as long as there have been superheroes. We don't exist as people for citizens. We're icons, we're superhuman, we're perfect, and they don't like to think of us as having the same kinds of flaws their own heroes might. It makes us safe to admire, because they know that if we fall, we fall clean, like a star from heaven."
"You stole that line from my first graduation speech as principal ten years ago," Veronica said softly.
"I thought you might need to hear it again," Kane said with a tired smile.
"The Iron Fist," Veronica said clearly, still facing the pillar. Hidden projectors in the ceiling suddenly flashed into action, putting up pictures on all four of the blank white walls. There were newspaper articles, photographs, fan mail, and drawings, all of them about the hero in question. Right across from the elevator doors was the article about the Iron Fist's final battle, where he had taken down Lord Gothic by plunging them both in a volcano vent, nearly ten years ago.
Kane simply stood, staring around at the long and heroic career of the Commander's father while he waited for Veronica to make her point.
"It's a magnificent display, don't you think?" she said softly, waving her hand at the walls.
"Of course. I was here when we dedicated it," he replied.
"Zephyr Blade," she called. The walls went blank.
"Who's that?" Kane asked.
"One of my first seniors to graduate. She lasted exactly a year," Veronica said.
"Why isn't she here then?"
"She didn't die. She's been institutionalized," she explained. "Her sidekick was killed, and she couldn't stand the guilt."
"Who… was her Sidekick?" Kane asked.
"She went by the name of Bloom. Her power was to grow flowers. Zephyr Blade controlled winds. Together… they would make these blizzards of wildflowers and blind their villains long enough to wrestle them down. Or a couple of times the villains had allergies to pollen, and Bloom would grow ragweed so Zephyr Blade could give the villains hayfever… People sometimes laughed at them, but they were really quite good as a team," Veronica told him.
"Bloom," Kane commanded the memorial program. The projectors remained silent.
"I already tried that Kane. I tried that with every name in this book," Veronica said, placing her hand on a large, black-covered book on the bench beside her. "Bloom isn't there. But I know she was killed by The Son of Silver in her tenth month after graduation. He just got a lucky shot with his silver bullets. Shot her in the heart, while she was trying to grow roses to protect herself. Zephyr Blade was off chasing after one of Silver's decoys… Bloom died in her arms, and Zephyr Blade never forgave herself. She hasn't spoken in almost ten years."
"Why isn't Bloom in the memorial program?" Kane asked, looking troubled.
"She didn't last a year. And she was a sidekick," Veronica said, standing up, taking the book in her hands and holding it out to Kane. Kane stepped forward to accept it, and began to idly flip through it. Page after page of fresh-faced young heroes and sidekicks, lost to the superpowered conflict that had raged across the face of the world for almost as long as wars had been fought. It had only been in the last two centuries that it had been codified with costumes and catchphrases, but to see them all laid out here with pitiless clarity…
"What is this?" he asked, troubled.
"The Book of the Dead. Everyone one of Sky High's graduates that didn't last a year before dying. I've put at least one and as many as five into this book every single year I've been here," she said, almost snarling the last. "I almost had to add the Commander's son, you realize. Royal Pain backhanded him out of a window, and if by some genetic miracle he hadn't inherited his mother's flight, I doubt even his father's super-strength would have saved him from a fall that high."
Kane looked a little nauseous as he flipped through the book, eventually finding Bloom's page. The fresh-faced rotund blonde girl in her brilliantly patterned fuchsia and green costume, festooned with dozens of flowers, was grinning non-stop into the camera, her arms around the tall, pale girl next to her, dressed in diaphanous blue and white.
"Why are you telling me about Bloom? I mean no disrespect, but she's been dead over ten years," he said after a long moment, handing the book back to her. "Do you want me to put their names on the pillar?"
Veronica didn't answer him for an uncomfortably long time, and then finally sat back down.
"Did you know that during World War I, the British Royal Air Force had two training fields to train their pilots? At least one person died each day in training at each field, and there might be maybe two dozen crashes each day. The other soldiers called the pilots 'sixty-minute men,' because sixty minutes was the average time of a pilot in the air before he crashed or was shot down. All because people were trying to fight a modern war using last century's tactics," she said.
"We're not in a war here, Veronica. Not like that."
"No, but we are using the same old thing over and over again, because we assume nothing about fighting supervillains has changed. And it's going to cost us. We can't afford to be just a regular high school with an unusual gym program anymore," she said, turning around.
"What do you know?" Kane demanded. Something in her tone warned him this was more than just feelings of guilt.
"You obviously haven't had the chance to read Speed, Lash, or Penny's statements yet, have you?"
"No, or I'd probably understand what you're getting at. I've been a little busy-."
"Getting Royal Pain into Metroplex Maximum Security, amongst other things, I know. You haven't had a chance to breathe yet, or I'm sure you would have known by now. But I was there while they were being interviewed. Royal Pain and Stitches didn't give up anything, but her minions spilled what they knew to avoid hard jail time. Her supervillain academy is already active. They're going to graduate their first class next school year."
Kane's face drained of blood. Supervillains could be easily defeated for two reasons, one, most had some kind of issue or weakness that could be exploited, and two, they were self-taught. Enormous egos combined with various levels of skills kept the well-trained superheroes easily on top of the supervillain problem. The two worst villains of the last twenty years had been Royal Pain and Baron Battle, both of them trained at Sky High. The very idea of dozens of supervillains with the kind of solid training regular heroes got made his blood run cold.
"Pacifying Sky High was icing on the cake," Veronica continued relentlessly. "And she's spent the last twenty-three years getting the place built, staffed, and funded so it was self-sufficient."
"So despite the fact that she's been captured…" Kane started, knowing he was not going to like what she was going to tell him.
"She has the place set up to run with or without her. She had family, friends, and a lot of money to hire people."
"God," Kane said, taking a huge breath to steady himself.
"We have to make sure all of the students can handle themselves… and we have to tap the greatest power we have, teamwork," Veronica said flatly. "You know why I brought up Bloom? Because she wasn't taught how to fight, because she was a sidekick. She might have been able to run away, or fight back, but all she learned was how to use her powers, her utility belt, and provide a distraction. But Sky High was saved yesterday by four sidekicks and a near-citizen, as well as two of our hero students. What could they have done if they had all been trained to fight, and fight together?"
Kane's mind whirled furiously as Veronica's plan snapped into place.
"Everyone learns everything? And fights as teams?" he asked, making sure he understood, as Veronica nodded solemnly.
"The school board-."
"The Commander and Jetstream will stand up for this, if I ask. So will their son. The board will listen."
"And I'll give you all the resources from the Bureau you need," he agreed. "Though I think it would be better if they thought I had nothing to do with this."
"If they decide to fight me and want someone's head on a platter, let it be mine, not yours. You're one of the best directors we've had here in a long time," she said with a short nod of agreement.
"You don't have to flatter me, Veronica."
"Yes I do. I sat there for ten years pasting pictures of dead seniors in this book because I thought that was the cost of doing business!"
Kane suddenly felt the need to sit down, and stumbled a few steps over to collapse on a bench.
"Right now I feel like a supervillain myself," she continued relentlessly. Kane didn't have the heart to contradict her. How could he? She was right. About her, about him, the Bureau, and the system.
"I used to have a cover job at a regular high school. And I know the parents of super-kids don't want them to have to feel too strange, too abnormal, not any more than normal parents do. But you know what? We're not normal! And I think it's high time we admitted the fact! A normal high school isn't going to give our students the skills they need, not with a supervillain academy on the horizon. If we don't prepare them, all of them, then we might as just admit that we're sending them out to be butchered, just like Bloom," she finished, pounding one fist on the Book of the Dead.
Kane was silent for several minutes, looking first at Veronica, then back at the pillar.
"Send me a list of whoever and whatever you need to make this happen," he said finally. "I'll get you the funding one way or another, if the school board stalls." He put his hands out for the Book, and Veronica handed it to him. "I'll put all of them in the memorial program, I promise." She finally stood up and began to walk towards the elevator without saying a word, leaving Kane in the middle of the memorial.
"Veronica," he called, and she stopped, facing away from him.
"Royal Pain has had twenty-three years to prepare her academy. You have less than two to completely change Sky High. Can we even do this?" he asked in a small voice. Kane Adams was not a man who was often afraid. Physical strength, good tactics, and clever use of his powers had kept him safe through dozens, possibly even hundreds of dire villainous threats. Yet the idea of this academy shook him to the core.
Veronica Powers didn't answer him right away, but after several long minutes looked at him over her shoulder.
"Six of my students and one of my staff already did. We just have to follow their example. We can do this. We're heroes," she said simply, her eyes suspiciously bright. Then she left, the elevator doors swishing shut behind her.
Kane stared down at the book in his hands, considering Veronica's last words and look. It was a look that belonged on the face of the mad, the damned, or the desperate.
It was the look he had last seen on Iron Fist's face before he had cast himself and his archenemy into that volcano.
It was the look of someone knowing they were entering into a life-or-death fight they didn't expect to win.