One Central Park
The bronze man’s head was melting. It oozed fat splats of liquid metal and swirled down the front of his old-fashioned suit jacket to puddle at his feet. Some of it hit the bronze duck below him, adding layers of new metal that mutated it into a nightmarish goose. The molten metal cooled and hardened as it hit the sidewalk. Mayhem’s heat blasts were concentrated above the statue, and metal needs a constant heat source to stay liquid. I learned that in class.
Gage had told me the statue was of a once-famous man who wrote stories for kids. I don’t know for sure, but if Gage says so, it must be true. He’s in charge while the adults are fighting for all of our lives, and he kept us quiet and hidden. For a while.
Until Mayhem found our hiding place.
“We have to run for it,” Gage said.
I didn’t want to run. We’d been running for hours, from the southernmost point of Central Park to where we were now. I don’t know how many blocks, but a lot, and it was raining, too—light, chilly rain and heavy, splattering rain.
Sometimes it stopped and just blew cold wind; then Ethan would use his Tempest powers to try to redirect it so we didn’t freeze.
Hours of it, and I was exhausted. We all were. Each time the Banes gained ground and pushed the last of the grown-up Rangers north, we kids ran ahead and took cover. We were there to fight if we had to, but the grown-ups didn’t want us to—not until absolutely necessary. At fifteen, Gage was the oldest; I’m the youngest at ten-almost-eleven. He says we’re the last line of defense for the city of New York.
We’re the last line of defense for the rest of the country.
And we’re just a bunch of kids.
Mayhem kept blasting.
Ethan stepped out from the shelter of the stone wall, all wiry and red-haired and cocky thirteen. He raised his hands to the sky. A blast of wind shot away from him and swirled toward Mayhem. She was a good hundred yards away, across a cement hole that had once been a lake or something, near a statue of a bronze girl on a mushroom. The statue was losing shape, turning into goo from her being so close to it.
Ethan’s air blast slammed Mayhem’s heat back at her. She was wearing street clothes, just jeans and a black shirt, and they were nothing like our special uniforms. No armor to protect Mayhem from her own powers or ours, so she flew backward with a piercing shriek. Her braided black hair flipped around like snakes, and she landed out of sight on the other side of the mushroom.
“Go!” Gage shouted.
Mellie ran first, as fast as she could across the cement
ground, toward the nearest clutch of unburned trees. Renee went next, a streak of blue skin and honey-blond hair, with William behind her. He carried Janel, who was unconscious from power overload; William had superstrength so he could run and carry her at the same time, while I could barely run and carry myself.
I followed the big kids, including Marco, who was still in panther form, and fifteen of us streaked across the way, rounding the edge of the cement pit, seeking our next place to hide. Just like we’d done all day. My lungs were burning, aching with smoke and cold and overuse and unshed tears. I just wanted to curl up in a ball and cry myself to sleep. I was sick of being cold. I didn’t want to be afraid anymore. I didn’t want to have to think about tomorrow—if we had a tomorrow.
I was only ten. Almost eleven. I wasn’t ready to die.
None of us was.
Mellie sure wasn’t when one of Mayhem’s heat blasts caught her full in the face and melted her skin down to her bones. Mellie didn’t even get to scream. I screamed plenty. So did Renee and Nate and William. Only panther-Marco paused long enough to sniff her, then loped past.
Ethan cried out, and then he wasn’t running with the group anymore. I didn’t stop to see what happened, but a few seconds later, Mayhem shouted again. This time, the roar of wind was louder. I hoped he tossed her into a tree or something.
We left poor Mellie on the ground and kept going, like we’d left three others behind already. My jelly legs didn’t want
to keep running, and one by one the older kids moved ahead of me. Toward the trees and the promise of safety somewhere else. I’d get left behind and it wouldn’t matter. My powers were stupid; I couldn’t help in a fight. My ability to hypnotize people and alter their thoughts worked only if I looked them in the eye. That was hard to do in the middle of a war zone. I hadn’t done anything today but cry and scream and get in the way.
Not like my dad, Hinder, one of the greatest heroes in the Ranger Corps. He was fighting south of us with the last half dozen grown-up Rangers, keeping the horde of Banes (sixty-something of them, Gage had said) from overrunning us. We were kids training to be heroes. If our parents and mentors died, how did anyone expect us
to stop them?
We could barely save ourselves from one Bane with a superheat blast. Once the line fell and the Banes got through, sixty-something of them would crush us in seconds.
No, the line couldn’t fall. Not with my dad in charge. He’d save us.
A hand grabbed my arm and yanked me forward. I nearly tripped. Gage didn’t let go as we ran; he was practically pulling me along. It was as close as we’d ever come—or ever would—to holding hands. I’m still a baby and he’s a teenager. He’s just helping me because he’s in charge. He can’t let me lag behind.
We found a wide path. It took us under a stone archway and we emerged onto an open lawn. If it was ever green, it was now brown and rutted and overrun here and there with clumps of dried weeds. A lot of Central Park looked like that now. After New York City’s first major battle in the War, most of the city had been evacuated and a lot of the buildings destroyed.
I’d seen it from the helicopter that brought us here this morning—burning, crumbling skyscrapers, gutted old theaters, debris in the empty streets. William had pointed at a tall, skinny building called the Empire or something, and said it used to be twice as tall. I didn’t believe him.
Manhattan was a good place to fight, we were told. Early evacuation meant fewer civilian injuries. One of the major rules of the Ranger Corps code is protect civilians at all costs. Even the dumb ones who stand there and scream, instead of getting out of the way.
I once overheard Gage’s mentor, Delphi, say that any civilian who didn’t get out of the way of battling Metas was too stupid to save. It had made the other adults laugh. I didn’t know why it was funny, and I couldn’t ask her to explain it. I shouldn’t have been listening in the first place. But Delphi was smart, so it had to be important. She’d mentored a lot of kids who didn’t have anyone to teach them about their powers and how to be a Ranger. If I’d been an orphan like Gage, I’d have liked Delphi to be my mentor, too.
No one else attacked us on the lawn, but it was too open. Gage changed our direction, sideways instead of across the lawn. It felt like forever before we hit the cover of trees again. In the distance, peeking through the crisping, late summer leaves, was the turret of a big stone building.
“Head toward the castle,” Gage yelled toward the front of the line. William and Renee altered their path just a little. We passed what had once been a pond of some kind, and soon we were all going up.
“Can we hide there?” I gasped. The cold and wet made my lungs burn.
“I think so.”
Somewhere south of us, something exploded. It sounded like a truck got dropped from the sky and hit another one on the ground. I felt the rattle of it in my bones. Gage looked over his shoulder. I couldn’t. Every ounce of my attention was on not falling over my own tired feet.
We went up a set of stone steps. The paths intersected at the top and seemed to go off in four different directions. To our left was the castle—a stone building that had so far avoided complete destruction and shone like a hopeful beacon. Thick, round stones made a sort of patio that led to the castle itself, and it had two fancy pavilions on the left and right of the steps we came up. Except for a few blown-out windows, the castle was intact. Past it, farther to the north, was something that looked like an outdoor theater surrounded by bony winter trees.
A figure emerged from the castle, and everyone ahead of us came to a clumsy, jumbled halt. Gage let me go and jogged to the front to see. I sidled closer to Renee, who stretched one blue arm out to grasp me around the shoulders. She was twelve, almost a teenager, and my best friend. I loved her Flex power that let her bend and twist into funny lengths and shapes. It was a useful power, too. When we first got here, she’d used it to yank me out of the way of Mayhem’s heat blast.
“You gotta keep up, T,” Renee said. Her teeth chattered and, instead of red, the cold made her cheeks look purple. “Can’t lose you, too.”
“I’m trying,” I replied.
“Who are you?” Gage asked the stranger. His voice was still changing, going unpredictably from high-pitched to deep in timbre, so it squeaked a little when he tried to be bossy. Like now.
I peeked around William’s bulk—twelve and almost six feet tall—to get a better look.
A dirty man in ragged clothes was leaning hard against the stone wall. His face was sunken and filthy, and he probably stank, if the look on Gage’s face said anything. All five of Gage’s senses were hypersensitive and picked up on all sorts of things. Something about the stranger, other than being homeless and in our hiding place—was bothering Gage.
“Sir, you shouldn’t be here,” Gage said. “It isn’t safe.”
“Nowhere’s safe from your kind nowadays,” the man said. His voice was slurred, thick, like he was both drunk and half asleep. He wouldn’t look up from some interesting spot on the stone. Loose, torn clothing hung limply, covering his hands and feet, as if he’d shrunk inside them.
“There’s a battle moving this way. You can’t stay here.”
The man shrugged.
Another explosion, similar to the first, rocked the ground. It was closer this time, louder. One of the younger boys whimpered. Panther-Marco stalked around the group to stand sentry next to Gage and hissed at the man. The two boys with the best noses knew something was wrong.
Nate’s voice rang through all of our heads as his telepathic warning blared like a neon sign: Back up and get out of—
The stranger raised his right hand as he looked up. His
sunken eyes glowed with yellow-orange power as he fired the little revolver in his hand, creating chaos.
Her arm still around me, Renee practically dragged me toward the larger pavilion. We all fled there while three more shots were fired. I couldn’t see for the flurry of moving bodies. I didn’t know where Gage was. Someone was screaming about Nate.
At the back of the pavilion, more stone steps led down to a rocky surface that overlooked the dried-up pond. We crouched there, using what little cover our hiding place provided. Fear clutched me colder than the January freeze, but I still glanced up and around a stone column, heart kicking against my ribs, a bitter taste in my mouth.
Nate was dead on the ground, a hole in his chest. The homeless man looked on, his eyes glowing death, smug like a Bane. He threw back his head and laughed—it might have been scarier if he weren’t so hoarse.
Nearby, under the pavilion and behind a stone wall, William was bleeding at the hip. Down on the rock floor with us, Ethan was shot in the left shoulder. Both were panting, trying to be brave and to not cry. I looked away before I started crying, too.
“We’re ending this tonight!” the man shouted. “Your pathetic Rangers are falling as we speak. You’ll see your parents in hell soon enough.”
“Specter,” Gage said, and I jumped at the sound of his voice right beside me.
It couldn’t be Specter, the leader of the Banes. My dad said
he was the one who’d rallied them together and initiated the War that had raged and ruined the country, killed hundreds on both sides, and left Metas nearly extinct. The last surviving Metas in the world had descended on Central Park to fight each other today. Dad said Specter could possess anyone who was unconscious or had a weak mind—take them over like a puppeteer, and make them do whatever he wanted.
Specter had found a man with a gun who could cut us kids down as surely as superpowers had taken five of us since the morning.
He strode out to the middle of the stone patio, gun raised but pointed nowhere. We didn’t have a lot of cover, crowding low on the cold stone steps and behind two columns and two bits of waist-high stone wall. The wounded were now in the rear, the most powerful in the front. I was somewhere in the middle beside Gage, whose hands were shaking. His lips were pressed together so tight I couldn’t see them. He looked like he wanted to barf all over the ground.
He was terrified.
Gage couldn’t be terrified. He had to lead us, tell us what to do so we survived this.
“Gage?” I said.
He didn’t look at me. He scrubbed a hand through his spiky blond hair, down over his face, then clenched it in front of his blue jumpsuit. Tugged and pulled at the material.
I tried again. Maybe my powers couldn’t save us, but I could help him save us. “Gage?”
He just wasn’t paying attention to me, like usual, so I grabbed his hand and gave it a solid yank. He looked at me
then, his dark eyes flecked with little bits of silver that made them look like a starry night sky. As soon as I caught his gaze, I locked in and let my Trance powers do the rest. You’re a brave man, Gage. You wouldn’t be our leader if you weren’t brave. We need you to lead us. We need you to save us. You can do this.
Tears glistened in his eyes. I felt him fighting it, fighting the Trance, the urge to do anything I told him. Being scared was easier—I knew it and so did he. I forced a little more at him, as much as I could muster through my own terror. Trust me.
His hands stopped shaking. He was calming down, bucking up, accepting my influence. My own fear lessened a little, but not enough. I wished I could Trance myself. Trust me, Gage, and lead us. Save us.
The Specter-host took three more potshots. Someone screamed—I couldn’t look, didn’t want to know. Didn’t want to see any more of my classmates hurt or dying or dead. A third explosion, horrifyingly close, sent a blast of hot air scorching across the pavilion, layered with the stink of smoke and ash. And something burning sweet.
Death was coming closer.
“Angela, I need a distraction,” Gage said, breaking our lock. He moved away, toward a blond girl who could leave up to twelve copies of herself behind as she walked, like holographic bread crumbs. “Marco, raven form.”
Nearby I heard the funny, wet-Velcro sound Marco made when he shifted. The large black bird hopped over to Gage and waited for orders.
“I can still help,” Ethan said. He was sweating, so pale his freckles looked like pimples, his uniform front soaked with blood.
Gage whispered a plan I couldn’t hear while our attacker shot at us twice more, exploding stone and cement, in no hurry to kill us all. Or he was waiting for something.
“Ready?” Gage asked. The other big kids nodded. They all turned, prepared with their plan.
An energy orb slammed into the Specter-host and spun him around—but it wasn’t from any of us. He squeezed off a wild shot that shattered the stone near Gage’s head, and then the dirty man fell facedown on the cobblestones. The cold rain started falling harder.
A hunched, bleeding figure shambled toward us from around the stairs. Her white hair was stained red, plastered to her skull, and she looked a hundred years old. Gage and Angela ran out to help her, and they practically carried the old woman into the pavilion. She was bleeding from a dozen wounds, her hands and knees scraped from multiple falls. I saw her face and started to cry.
“Granny Dell,” I said, shouldering my way through the older kids. I dropped to my knees next to my maternal grandmother, confused and horrified. She shouldn’t be here. She’d retired forty years ago, long before I was born, and had lived my entire lifetime in Europe. We’d only met once, but had chatted on the phone dozens of times. She told me stories about my mom, who I didn’t remember much.
And now Granny Dell was in Central Park. I’d heard the
grown-ups say that everyone was being called to duty, but I had never imagined they meant my grandmother.
She turned weepy eyes toward me, like someone so desperately tired she wanted to burst out crying. I couldn’t stop my own tears from falling, or the desperate sobs that hurt my chest.
“You kids need to go,” she gasped. She was trying so hard. “They’re coming. He’s coming.”
“We have wounded,” Gage said behind me. “We can’t leave them.”
“Have to, son. You kids … you’re the last. Have to live.”
“We’re not,” I said. “Dad’s still fighting. He’ll save us.” Her sad, sad face told me something about my dad I didn’t want to know. My lungs hitched. I ignored her face. If I ignored her, it simply wasn’t true.
“They’ll be here soon, Teresa,” Granny Dell said. “You have to run. Hide.”
“Rangers don’t hide.” Dad taught me that. All I wanted to do was hide until the bad guys went away, but we couldn’t. If we hid from the Banes now, we’d never live it down later. Unless we died after all.
Was it better to die a hero or live a coward?
I didn’t know. All I knew was that I wanted to live.
Granny Dell choked up blood and stopped breathing. I kept holding her hand, afraid that if I let go, I’d run and hide just like she wanted me to, find a tree to climb or a hole to burrow into and stay there until the battle was over.
“We stand here,” Gage said, rising up and addressing us like a general. Still brave, still saving us. Not giving up. “The
man out there was right. It comes down to what we do tonight. We have to make our parents and mentors proud.”
They were all talking at once, a buzz of voices and sounds and movements, and situating those who were too hurt to fight in the back of the pavilion, down in that rock-bottom hiding place. Forming a defensive line based on powers. Someone dashed outside to retrieve the gun. No one would use it; they just couldn’t leave it lying around for a Bane to pick up. I stayed in the rear with the wounded and the dead, too cold and scared to help. I was useless.
An agony-filled shriek rose up from the trees surrounding the south side of the castle, carried on a wind that brought more of that awful roasted-sweet odor. Female scream, I thought, unable to think of the other adult Rangers who’d been left. I couldn’t think of anyone except my dad, hurt, maybe … No. Just hurt. Or still battling his way toward us, leading his Rangers as only he could. Hinder would save us.
Renee and William stood together. I was surprised that William could be shot and still standing. He was strong. I thought he had a good power, just like Renee. But he didn’t like her ability to stretch her blue body out like taffy. He said it was creepy, and she loved to torment him. Seeing them together was weird.
Marco was back in panther form. He paced the length of the pavilion, thick tail swishing, a predator. He told me once he’d rather be a big cat than a person. I didn’t understand, but I was always jealous of his being a shapeshifter.
Even hurt, Ethan was waiting to help. He had one of the
strongest powers among us, and he knew it. He was being brave. Everyone was being brave, except me. Might as well only be eleven of us left, instead of twelve.
Stupid, useless Trance.
The castle’s spire exploded. Fire and rock blasted outward and rained down on the cobblestones in front of the pavilion. Some of us shrieked. I know I did. A second blast took out the rest of the turret. Smoke choked me and stung my eyes. Gage was shouting orders.
The first Bane crested the stairs at the far end of the stone patio. I didn’t know her. Just saw her stop, locate us, then let out an excited war whoop. Terror hit me like a blast of fire all over my body as more Banes joined her.
The heat of the fire increased to all-over agony. This wasn’t fear. Something was happening. Marco screamed, a too human sound. Everything went gray, and then the agony swallowed me whole.