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Authors: Jeramey Kraatz

The Cloak Society

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Dedication

For Mom, who taught me the importance of being myself.

1
A Birthday Heist

You don't just fall into supervillainy. It's not like theater or baseball or the after-school club you join because all your friends are members. Supervillainy is a way of life. It's something you must want with every fiber of your being. You have to wake up every morning thinking, “Hey, this world is mine for the taking,” and mean it. Most people don't comprehend the passion needed to be successful in such a thankless field, one that boasts such a low rate of success. It's not all doomsday devices and dramatic entrances. Your days are spent plotting, strategizing, inventing, training—trying to prove to your city or your nemesis or yourself that you're not just some delusional screwup who read one too many comic books. Every day you face humiliation, rejection, and failure. It's a life that requires bravery. If you call yourself Captain Terror or Madam Fear, you'd better be able to live up to the name. When you're backed into a corner, you can't hesitate to use your death ray.

Supervillainy also takes patience. You have to lie in wait, lurking beneath the surface and watching for the perfect time to strike. Countless would-be criminals have met their demise because they threw on a domino mask and headed to the nearest bank without proper forethought. You see it on the news all the time. Just last month a man in Chicago accidentally turned himself into a human Popsicle during what should have been a routine jewelry heist, because he failed to properly test his homemade freeze beam. It took two days of defrosting before police were able to fingerprint him. A week later, in Phoenix, a man decked out head-to-toe in black leather passed out from heat exhaustion while running from authorities, completely unprepared for physical exertion in such an unforgiving material. And that same day, a caped woman managed to infiltrate the Los Angeles mayor's home and abduct his five-year-old son. Unfortunately, her escape route led into a linen closet. By the time she found her way out of the mansion, she walked straight into the arms of a SWAT team. Had she visited the local library to research the house's floor plan, she might be lying on a beach somewhere counting her ransom money instead of sitting in a dank maximum-security cell. In a way, such incompetence is a blessing for the
real
villains. It lulls the world into a false sense of security.

“Supervillain” is a title that's earned from the fearful public, not one that's self-ascribed. The good ones have already won by the time their identities are revealed. The best are those you've never heard of.

Of course, some of the most successful supervillains are those who were born into the life. You could decide today to devote your existence to some nefarious plot and spend the rest of your years training exhaustively, but your skills would never be on a par with those of someone who was learning to escape from handcuffs at the age of four. These kids are brought up to value domination and conquest, fueled by a sense of superiority. It is this small group—reared to devote themselves completely to the aims of their parents or guardians—who grow to be truly feared, for they believe their actions to be unquestionably right. That the world really would be a better place were they in charge.

Supervillainy is not for everyone. It can be a lonesome life. Victories, for the most part, are personal. Heroes are the ones who get the glory. For them, it's all press conferences and guest appearances on talk shows and monuments dedicated to their achievements. And they work so well together in teams, parading around the city in their matching capes and uniforms. For them it's easy. A hero's goal is well defined—stop the bad guys, save the city, maintain the status quo. It's not so simple for a team of people who romanticize revenge and thievery. In the end, the individual members of supervillain teams are usually just looking out for themselves. Their camaraderie is a sham, and this almost always leads to defeat.

One team is an exception. Its founders were scientists tasked with researching new forms of weaponry during the Second World War. When their experimentation became unorthodox and dangerous, the world turned on them. The scientific community called them mad. The government threatened to imprison them if they continued their work, so the scientists took their research underground. There, they uncovered a powerful energy that existed outside the known electromagnetic spectrum, a radiation like science had never before seen. They called it Umbra. The scientists tried to harness it, but it was too powerful, too volatile for domestication. They were dismayed, but soon learned that their work had not been without benefits. Their exposure to Umbra had unique side effects: The team of scientists had developed uncanny abilities. They were now something more than human.

When the government officials and the scientific community heard tales of these developments, they were all quick to heap praise on the rogue scientists they had once spurned. After all, this scientific breakthrough could be the first step in a new age of human prosperity. But by this time, the scientists had grown as bitter as they were powerful. They destroyed all their research and vowed revenge on the world that had turned its back on them. They promised to one day rule over the weak-minded. It was this common bond and feeling of having been betrayed that helped form the most successful supervillain alliance in history. They were a team first, criminals second. They called themselves the Cloak Society.

 

Sterling City, Texas, gleamed in the blistering mid-September sun. The sprawling metropolis had been called the birthplace of the twenty-first century, a trophy of humankind's progress and achievements. Its reputation as a thriving city rivaled that of New York and London and Tokyo. People all over the world flocked to it, and construction never seemed to cease as it expanded in every direction like a growing puddle of business and industry. It was a place of cement and steel and limestone and glass, of video billboards and corporate headquarters. Victory Park was at the center of it all, over five hundred acres of well-manicured lawns and tall trees and monuments all contained in a perfect circle. Ringed around the park were the arts district to the north—cavernous museums, theaters, recital halls, the Sterling City library—and the sky-scraping financial district to the south. From the street, the park and surrounding architecture were stunning. From the air, Sterling City looked like a bull's-eye.

Across the street from the southernmost point of Victory Park sat Silver Bank, a gray stone building that looked more like a small castle than a financial center. It had huge windows and skylights and the sort of peaked Gothic roof that was generally reserved for cathedrals. The glass front doors stood twice the height of an average man, as if the bank were home to an eccentric giant. Normally, it was a bustling building, but on this sunny day, no one dared go near it. Encircling the bank, two streams of purple electricity popped and crackled. Every few moments a tendril of energy arced out and bounced off of a trash can or lamppost, causing refuse to burst into flames and lightbulbs to shatter in a shower of sparks.

Since the electricity had appeared, no one had entered or exited the building. Bystanders who were courageous, or perhaps just foolish, watched from across the street, standing huddled together by the normally cozy benches and planters that marked an entrance to Victory Park. The police, guns drawn, had only just arrived. After an overeager officer ventured too close to the twisting electricity and was propelled backward, stunned and smoking, they were at a loss as to how to handle the disturbance. It wasn't the sort of thing that was covered in training, and, unaware of the situation inside the bank, they were left pacing and sweating under the midday sun, waiting for reinforcements.

On the roof, a tall man stood watchful, keeping an eye out for the inevitable approach of interlopers and police backup. His hands were at his sides, palms wide, maintaining the electric perimeter, ready to raise the streams of energy high into the sky should anyone approach by air. His name was Volt, producer and conductor of electricity. Like every other member of the High Council, the leaders of the modern Cloak Society, he had dropped his given name once he was in his teens as a way of showing his allegiance. His identity belonged to Cloak now.

Volt's trench coat—black, hooded, and reinforced with lightweight bulletproof plates—blew in the breeze, flapping behind him. On each shoulder were three silver bands glinting in the sunlight, marking him as a member of Cloak's High Council. Beneath it he wore black pants and a long-sleeved shirt made of a special material woven of stretchy fabric and ballistic yarn that was both comfortable and protective.

He squinted as the breeze picked up, parting his coat and tousling his short brown hair. Sunglasses were doing little to shield his eyes from the glaring sun, but the slight wind was a welcome comfort. As he brought his hand to the radio in his ear, one of the energy streams below him rose, igniting a low-hanging tree branch in the process. The sound of gasping bystanders caused one side of his mouth to curl up in amusement.

“Perimeter is secure, Shade,” he said. “Cameras all fried. What's the situation inside?”

“Beta Team is at the vault,” a woman replied. Her voice softened a little as she continued. “Our son is doing well. He took out both guards before they could so much as think about reaching for their guns.”

Inside the bank, Shade stood in a uniform that matched her husband's. Dark, bobbed hair came to sharp-looking points at either side of her chin. In front of her stood a cluster of thirty bank employees and customers, who stared straight forward with slack jaws and wide, dazed eyes. They looked like a choir about to burst into song, standing against the western wall of the bank. Shade focused on them, telepathically broadcasting feelings of tranquility to her prisoners. In the past, she had taken delight in listening to hostages panic and beg to be released, but this mission was special: This was her son's debut, and she wanted to be able to observe it without having to deal with any nervous bank tellers trying to play hero. Her brow furrowed in concentration. Her pupils flashed for a moment, turning a bright silver that bled into her irises and beyond, until her eyes resembled polished metal orbs. The sides of her mouth drew together in a loose O as she tapped into the minds of the men and women.

“Sleep,” she whispered, a command that would have been barely audible to the hostages, even if they hadn't been under her control. “Forget.”

Simultaneously, the group drew in deep breaths. Shade's eyes returned to normal as she pivoted and walked toward her son. Behind her, the bodies fell and crumpled together on the floor with a collection of thumps. A few people began to snore, and the sound resonated through the bank, bouncing off the marble floor and high ceilings.

Alex Knight—fourth-generation direct descendant of one of the Cloak Society's founding scientists—heard none of this. Nor did he hear his mother's boots clack against the marble floor as she neared him. The hostages were the least of his worries. He stood at the south end of the bank—past the rows of mahogany desks at the entrance, and behind the long counter where tellers and customer service agents normally stood. Beside him were his three Beta Team teammates, the superpowered children of Cloak. They wore black pants and long-sleeve shirts similar to those of the High Council but with two distinct differences. The Betas had only two bands on each shoulder, and the front of their shirts featured the Cloak Society's emblem in radiant silver: a skull shrouded in a hood, the bottom of which flared up and around the top of the figure, like wings. Alex barely registered his peers, either. The only thing that mattered to him was the giant metal door of the vault. It was his twelfth birthday, he and his teammates were on the first mission of their careers—Cloak's first public appearance in almost a decade—and things were not going well.

One morning when he was nine years old, Alex awoke to find that everything he saw was colored blue, as if he wore tinted glasses he couldn't take off. Anything he focused on began to glow and pop with a light invisible to everyone else around him. After the initial shock of this phenomenon wore off, he discovered that by concentrating, he could manipulate this blue energy and move things with his mind. His parents called his gift telekinesis and, thrilled by their son's newfound ability, began to train him right away. Now Alex pulled at the door with his mind, arms out in front of him, physically mimicking the action. Sweat trickled down from beneath his wavy brown hair. The door burned a brilliant blue in his mind, but made no hint of movement.

Somewhere inside the vault, nestled deep within the confines of steel and concrete, was the Beta Team's target: a traveling collection of rare gems and metals stored for safekeeping while one of the city's museums prepared for its exhibition. The High Council had taken particular interest in a diamond called the Excelsior, and the Betas were not to return to base without it. The mission was simple enough, but now the vault door towering in front of Alex seemed like an impenetrable obstacle. As soon as he'd laid his piercing blue eyes on it, his heart had sunk. There was no way he could pull it from its dense steel hinges. He was going to disappoint his parents and embarrass himself in front of his teammates.

“Too . . . heavy . . . ,” he muttered through clenched teeth.

To his left stood Mallory, who watched her failing teammate with concern. She spoke quietly, but firmly.

“You've got this,” she said. “Remember your training. Keep breathing.”

Mallory was only a year older than Alex, but he considered her far more mature than that. She was quiet, poised, and above all, focused. Even her hair—shoulder length, chestnut brown—was always perfectly straight, without a single stray lock. This sort of composure was necessary with her powers. With the slightest thought, she could cause the temperature around her to rise or fall instantly, and if she lacked focus, the consequences could be catastrophic.

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