WE WERE ALL VILLAINS in the beginning.
For hundreds of years, prodigies were feared by the rest of the world. We became hunted. Tormented. Feared and oppressed. We were believed to be witches and demons, freaks and abominations. We were stoned and hanged and set afire while crowds gathered to watch with cruel eyes, proud to be ridding the world of one more pariah.
They were right to be afraid.
Hundreds of years. Who would have stood for it?
Ace Anarchy changed everything. He united the most powerful prodigies he could find and together they rebelled.
He started with the infrastructure. Government buildings torn from their foundations. Banks and stock exchanges turned to rubble. Bridges ripped from the sky. Entire freeways reduced to rocky wastelands. When the military sent jets, he plucked them from the air like moths. When they sent tanks, he crushed them like aluminum cans.
Then he went after the people who had failed him. Failed all of them.
Whole governments, gone. Law enforcement, disbanded. Those fancy bureaucrats who had bought their way into power and influence … all dead, and all in a matter of weeks.
The Anarchists cared little for what would come next once the old world crumbled. They cared only for change, and they got it. Soon, a number of villain gangs began to crawl out from society’s ashes, each hungry for their own slice of power, and it wasn’t long before Ace Anarchy’s influence spread across the globe. Prodigies banded together for the first time in history, some full of wrath and resentment, others desperate for acceptance that never came. They demanded fair treatment and human rights and protection under the law, and in some countries, the panicking governments hastened to cater to them.
But in other countries, the rebellions turned violent, and the violence dissolved into anarchy.
Chaos rose up to fill the void that civilized society had left behind. Trade and manufacturing ground to a halt. Civil wars erupted on every continent. Gatlon City was largely cut off from the world, and the fear and distrust that prevailed would go on to rule for twenty years.
They call it the Age of Anarchy.
Looking back now, people talk about the Anarchists and the other gangs like they were the worst part of those twenty years, but they weren’t. Sure, everyone was terrified of them, but they mostly left you alone as long as you paid up when it was your due and didn’t cause them any trouble.
But the people. The normal people. They were far worse. With no rule and no law, it became every man, woman, and child for themselves. There were no repercussions for crimes or violence—no one to run to if you were beaten or robbed. No police. No prisons. Not legitimate ones, anyway. Neighbors stole from neighbors. Stores were looted and supplies were hoarded, leaving children to starve in the gutters. It became the strong against the weak, and, as it turns out, the strong were usually jerks.
Humanity loses faith in times like that. With no one to look up to, no one to believe in, we all became rats scrounging in the sewers.
Maybe Ace really was a villain. Or maybe he was a visionary.
Maybe there’s not much of a difference.
Either way, the gangs ruled Gatlon City for twenty years, while crime and vice spread like sewage around a backed-up pipe. And the Age of Anarchy might have gone on for another twenty years. Fifty years. An eternity.
But then, seemingly overnight … hope.
Bright and sparkling hope, dressed up in capes and masks.
Beautiful and joyous hope, promising to solve all your problems, rain justice down upon your foes, and probably give a stern talking to a few jaywalkers along the way.
Warm and promising hope, encouraging the normal folks to stay inside where it was safe while they fixed everything. Don’t worry about helping yourselves. You’ve got enough on your plate, what with all the hiding and moping you’ve been doing lately. You take a day off. We’re superheroes. We’ve got this.
Hope called themselves the Renegades.
NOVA HAD BEEN COLLECTING SYRINGES from the alleyway behind the apartment for weeks. She knew her parents would take them away if they found out, so she’d been hiding them in an old shoe box, along with an assortment of screws, zip ties, copper wires, cotton balls, and anything else she thought might come in handy for her inventions. At six-going-on-seven years old, she’d already become aware of how important it was to be resourceful and thrifty. She couldn’t exactly make a list and send her dad to the store for supplies, after all.
The syringes would come in handy. She’d known it from the start.
She attached a thin plastic tube to the end of one and stuck the opposite end of the tube into a glass of water she’d filled up in the bathroom sink. She pulled up the plunger, drawing water into the tube. Tongue sticking out through the gap where she’d recently lost her first tooth, she grabbed a second syringe and affixed it to the opposite end of the tube, then dug through her toolbox for a strip of wire long enough to secure it to the pulley system she’d built at the top of her dollhouse.
It had taken all day, but finally she was ready to test it.
She tucked some of the dollhouse furniture onto the elevator’s platform, picked up the syringe, and pressed in the plunger. Water moved through the tube, extending the second plunger upward, and setting the complicated series of pulleys into action.
The elevator rose.
Nova sat back with a grin. “Hydraulic-powered elevator. Success.”
A cry from the next room intruded on the moment, followed by her mother’s cooing voice. Nova looked up at her closed bedroom door. Evie was sick again. It seemed she was always running a fever these days and they’d run out of medicine for her days ago. Uncle Alec was supposed to be bringing more, but it might be hours still.
When Nova had overheard her father asking Uncle Alec if he might be able to find a children’s ibuprofen for the baby’s fever, she’d considered asking for more of the fruit-flavored gummies he’d given her on her birthday last year, too, or maybe a pack of rechargeable batteries.
She could do a lot with rechargeable batteries.
But Papà must have seen the request brewing in her eyes, and had given her a look that silenced her. Nova wasn’t sure what it meant. Uncle Alec had always been good to them—bringing food and clothes and sometimes even toys from his weekly spoils—but her parents never wanted to ask for anything special, no matter how much they needed it. When there was something specific, they had to go into the markets and offer up trades, usually the things her father made.
The last time her dad had gone to the markets he’d come back with a bag of reusable diapers for Evie and a jagged cut above his eyebrow. Her mom stitched it up herself. Nova watched, fascinated to see that it was exactly like how her mother sewed up Dolly Bear when her seams came open.
Nova turned back to the hydraulic system. The lift was just shy of being level with the dollhouse’s second floor. If she could increase the capacity of the syringe, or make some adjustments to the lever system …
Beyond her door, the crying went on and on. The floorboards were squeaking now as her parents took turns trying to comfort Evie, pacing back and forth through the apartment.
The neighbors would start to complain soon.
Sighing, Nova set down the syringe and stood.
Papà was holding Evie in the front room, bouncing her up and down and trying to press a cool washcloth against her flushed brow, but it only made her wail louder as she tried to shove it away. Through the doorway into their tiny kitchen, Nova saw her mom digging through cabinets, muttering about misplaced apple juice, though they all knew there wasn’t any.
“Want me to help?” said Nova.
Papà turned to her, distress shadowing his eyes. Evie screamed louder as he forgot to bounce her for two whole seconds.
“I’m sorry, Nova,” he said, bouncing again. “It’s not fair to ask you to do it … but if she could just sleep for another hour or two … rest would be good for her, and Alec might be here by then.”
“I don’t mind,” said Nova, reaching for the baby. “It’s easy.”
Papà frowned. Sometimes Nova thought he didn’t like her gift, though she didn’t know why. All it had ever done was make the apartment more peaceful.
He crouched down and settled Evie into Nova’s arms, making sure her hold was secure. Evie was getting so heavy, nothing like the tiny infant she’d been not quite a year ago. Now she was all chubby thighs and flailing arms. She’d be walking any day now, her parents kept saying.
Nova sat down on the mattress in the corner of the room and stroked her fingers through Evie’s baby-soft curls. Evie had worked herself into a tizzy, big tears rolling down her plump cheeks. She was so feverish that holding her felt like holding a miniature furnace.
Nova sank into the tossed blankets and pillows and placed her thumb against her sister’s cheek, scooping away one of the warm tears. She let her power roll through her. An easy, gentle pulse.
The crying stopped.
Evie’s eyes fluttered, her eyelids growing heavy. Her mouth fell open in a shuddering O.
Just like that, she was asleep.
Nova looked up to see her dad’s shoulders sink in relief. Mom appeared in the doorway, surprised and curious, until she spotted Nova with the baby tucked against her.
“This is my favorite,” Nova whispered to them. “When she’s all soft and cuddly and … quiet.”
Mom’s face softened. “Thank you, Nova. Maybe she’ll feel better when she wakes up.”
“And we won’t have to start looking for another place to live,” Papà muttered. “Charlie’s kicked people out for less than a crying baby.”
Mom shook her head. “He wouldn’t risk angering your brother like that.”
“I don’t know.” Papà frowned. “I don’t know what anyone would or wouldn’t do anymore. Besides … I don’t want to be in Alec’s debt any more than we already are.”
Mom retreated into the kitchen to start putting away the cans and boxes she’d scattered across the linoleum, while Papà sank into a chair at the apartment’s only table. Nova watched him massage his temple for a moment, before he squared his shoulders and started to work on some new project. Nova wasn’t sure what he was making, but she loved to watch him work. His gift was so much more interesting than hers—the way he could pull threads of energy out of the air, bending and sculpting them like golden filigree.
It was beautiful to watch. Mesmerizing, even, as the glowing strips emerged from nothing, making the air in the apartment hum, then quieting and darkening as her father let them harden into something tangible and real.
“What are you making, Papà?”
He glanced over at her, and a shadow passed over his face, even as he smiled at her. “I’m not sure yet,” he said, his fingers tracing the delicate metalwork. “Something … something I hope will put to right some of the great injuries I’ve caused this world.”
He sighed then, a weighted sound that brought a frown to Nova’s face. She knew there were things her parents didn’t talk to her about, things they tried to shelter her from, and she hated it. Sometimes she would overhear conversations between them, words passed through the long hours of night when they thought she was asleep. They whispered about falling buildings and entire neighborhoods being burned to the ground. They murmured about power struggles and how there didn’t seem to be any safe place left and how they might flee the city, but that the violence seemed to have consumed the whole world now, and besides, where would they go?
Only a week ago Nova had heard her mother say—“They’ll destroy us all if no one stops them…”
Nova had wanted to ask about it, but she knew she would get only vague answers and sad smiles and be told that it wasn’t for her to worry about.
“Papà?” she started again, after watching him work for a while. “Are we going to be okay?”
A figment of copper energy spluttered and disintegrated in the air. Her father fixed her with a devastated look. “Of course, sweetheart. We’re going to be fine.”
“Then why do you always look so worried?”
He set down his work and leaned back in his chair. For a moment she thought he might be on the verge of crying, but then he blinked and the look was gone.
“Listen to me, Nova,” he said, slipping off the chair and crouching in front of her. “There are many dangerous people in this world. But there are also many good people. Brave people. No matter how bad things get, we have to remember that. So long as there are heroes in this world, there’s hope that tomorrow might be better.”
“The Renegades,” she whispered, her voice tinged with a hint of awe.
A wisp of a smile crossed her father’s features. “The Renegades,” he confirmed.
Nova pressed her cheek against Evie’s soft curls. The Renegades did seem to be helping everyone these days. One had chased down a mugger who tried to take Mrs. Ogilvie’s purse, and she’d heard that a group of Renegades had broken into one of the gangs’ storehouses and taken all the food to a private children’s home.
“And they’re going to help us?” she said. “Maybe we can ask them for medicine next time.”
Her father shook his head. “We don’t need that sort of help as much as some other people in this city do.”
Nova’s brow furrowed. She couldn’t imagine anyone needing that sort of help more than they did.
“But,” her father said, “when we need them … when we really need them, they’ll be here, all right?” He swallowed, and sounded more hopeful than convincing when he added, “They’ll protect us.”
Nova didn’t question it. They were superheroes. They were the good guys. Everyone knew that.
She found Evie’s pudgy fingers and started to count off each knuckle, while running through all the stories she’d heard. Renegades pulling a driver from an overturned delivery truck. Renegades breaking up a gun fight in a nearby shopping district. Renegades rescuing a child who had fallen into Harrow Bay.
Maybe, she thought—as her father turned back to his work—maybe they were just waiting for the right moment to swoop in and help them too.
Her gaze lingered on her father’s hands. Watching them mold, sculpt, tug more threads of energy from the air.
Nova’s own eyelids started to droop.
Even in her dreams she could see her father’s hands, only now he was pulling falling stars out of the sky, stringing them together like glowing golden beads …
* * *
A DOOR SLAMMED.
Nova awoke with a start. Evie huffed and rolled away from her.
Groggy and disoriented, Nova sat up and shook out her arm, which had fallen asleep beneath Evie’s head. The shadows in the room had shifted. There were low voices in the hallway. Papà, sounding tense. Her mom, murmuring, please, please …
She pushed off the blanket that had been draped over her and tucked it around Evie, then crept past the table where a delicate copper-colored bracelet sat abandoned, an empty space in the filigree waiting to be filled with a precious stone.
When she reached the front door, she turned the knob as slowly as she could, prying the door open just enough that she could peer out into the dim hall.
A man stood on the landing—stubble on his chin and light hair pulled into a sleek tail. He wore a heavy jacket, though it wasn’t cold outside.
He was holding a gun.
His indifferent gaze darted to Nova and she shrank back, but his attention slid back to her father as if he hadn’t even seen her.
“It’s a misunderstanding,” said Papà. He had put himself between the man and Nova’s mom. “Let me talk to him. I’m sure I can explain—”
“There’s been no misunderstanding,” the man said. His voice was low and cold. “You have betrayed his trust, Mr. Artino. He does not like that.”
“Please,” said her mom. “The children are here. Please, have mercy.”
He cocked his head, his eyes shifting between them.
Fear tightened in Nova’s stomach.
“Let me talk to him,” Papà repeated. “We haven’t done anything. I’m loyal, I swear. I always have been. And my family … please, don’t hurt my family.”
There was a moment in which it looked like the man might smile, but then it passed. “My orders were quite clear. It is not my job to ask questions … or to have mercy.”
Her father took a step back. “Tala, get the girls. Go.”
“David…,” her mother whimpered, moving toward the door.
She had barely gone a step when the stranger lifted his arm.
Nova gasped. Blood arced across the door, a few drops scattering across her brow. She stared, unable to move. Papà screamed and grabbed his wife. He turned her over in his arms. He was trembling while her mom wheezed and choked.
“No survivors,” the man said in his even, quiet voice. “Those were my orders, Mr. Artino. You only have yourself to blame for this.”
Nova’s father caught sight of her on the other side of the door. His eyes widened, full of panic. “Nova. Ru—”
This time Nova screamed. Her father collapsed over her mom’s body, so close she could have reached out and touched them both.
She turned and stumbled into the apartment. Past the kitchen, into her bedroom. She slammed the door shut and thrust open her closet. Climbed over the books and tools and boxes that littered the floor. She yanked the door shut and crouched down in the corner, gasping for breath, the vision of her parents burned into her thoughts every time she shut her eyes. Too late she thought that she should have gone for the fire escape. Too late.
Too late she remembered—
She’d left Evie out there.
She’d left Evie.
A shuddering gasp was met with a horrified cry, though she tried to swallow both of them back. Her hand fell on the closet door and she tried to gauge how fast she could get out to the living room and back, if there was any chance of snatching the baby up without being seen …
The front door creaked, paralyzing her.
She pulled her hand back against her mouth.
Maybe he wouldn’t notice Evie. Maybe she would go on sleeping.
She listened to slow, heavy footsteps. Squealing floorboards.
Nova was shaking so hard she worried the noise of her clattering bones would give her away. She also knew it wouldn’t matter.
It was a small apartment, and there was nowhere for her to run.
“The Renegades will come,” she whispered, her voice little more than a breath in the darkness. The words came unbidden into her head, but they were there all the same. Something solid. Something to cling to.
She whimpered. “The Renegades will come…”
A truth, inspired by countless news stories heard on the radio. A certainty, patched together from the words of gossiping neighbors.
They always came.
Her father’s body crumpling in the hall.
Nova squeezed her eyes shut as hot tears spilled down her cheeks. “The Renegades … the Renegades will come.”
Evie’s shrill cry started up in the main room.
Nova’s eyes snapped open. A sob scratched at the inside of her throat, and she could no longer say the words out loud.
Please, please let them come …
A third gunshot.
The air caught in Nova’s lungs.
Her world stilled. Her mind went blank.
She sank into the mess at the bottom of the closet.
Evie had stopped crying.
Evie had stopped.
Distantly, she heard the man moving through the apartment, checking the cabinets and behind the doors. Slow. Methodical.
By the time he found her, Nova had stopped shaking. She couldn’t feel anything anymore. Couldn’t think. The words still echoed in her head, having lost all meaning.
The Renegades … the Renegades will come …
Doused in the stark lights from her bedroom, Nova lifted her eyes. The man stood over her. There was blood on his shirt. Later, she would remember how there had been no regret, no apology, no remorse.
Nothing at all as he lifted the gun.
Nova reached up and grabbed his wrist, unleashing her power with more force than she ever had.
The man’s jaw slackened. His eyes dulled and rolled up into his head. He fell backward, landing with a resounding thud on her bedroom floor, crushing her dollhouse beneath his weight. The whole building seemed to shake from his fall.
Seconds later, deep, peaceful breathing filled the apartment.
Nova’s lungs contracted again. Air moved through her throat, shuddering. In. And out.
She forced herself to stand and rub the tears and snot from her face.
She picked up the gun, though it felt awkward and heavy in her hand, and slipped her finger over the trigger.
She took a step closer, one hand gripping the doorframe as she left the sanctuary of the closet. She wasn’t sure where she should aim. His head. His chest. His stomach.
She settled on his heart. Got so close to him she could feel his shirt brushing against her bare toes.
Bang. Her mother was dead.
Bang. Her father.
Bang. Evie …
The Renegades had not come.
They weren’t going to come.
“Pull the trigger,” she whispered into the empty room. “Pull the trigger, Nova.”
But she didn’t.
“Pull the trigger.”
Minutes, maybe hours later, her uncle found her. She was still standing over the stranger’s sleeping form, ordering herself to pull the trigger. Hearing those gunshots over and over every time she dared to close her eyes.
“Nova?” A plastic bag dropped to the floor, taking a plastic medicine bottle with it. Nova startled and turned the gun on him.
Uncle Alec didn’t even flinch as he crouched before her. He was dressed as he always was—the black-and-gold uniform, his dark eyes barely visible through the copper-toned helmet that disguised most of his face. “Nova.… Your parents.… Your sister.…” He looked down and reached for the gun. Nova didn’t resist as he took it from her. His attention turned to the man. “I’d always thought you might be one of us, but your father wouldn’t tell me what it was you could do.…”
He met Nova’s eyes again. Pity and, perhaps, admiration.
With that look, Nova fell apart, throwing herself into his arms. “Uncle Alec,” she wailed, sobbing into his chest. “He shot them … he … he killed…”
He picked her up, cradling her against his chest. “I know,” he murmured into her hair. “I know, sweet, dangerous child. But you’re safe now. I’ll protect you.”
She barely heard him over the noise in her head. The tumult pressing against the inside of her skull. Bang-bang-bang.
“But you can’t call me Alec anymore, not out there. All right, my little nightmare?” He smoothed her hair. The handle of the gun bumped against her ear. “To the rest of the world, I’m Ace. You understand? Uncle Ace.”
But she wasn’t listening. And maybe he knew that.
In the midst of her cries, he squeezed her tight, aimed the gun at the sleeping man, and fired.
TEN YEARS LATER
THE STREETS OF DOWNTOWN GATLON were overflowing with fake superheroes.
Kids ran amok in orange capes, screeching and waving Blacklight-branded sparklers over their heads, or shooting one another with Tsunami-themed squirt guns. Grown men had squeezed themselves into blue leggings and painted shoulder pads to look like the Captain’s armor, and now sat clinking glasses together inside the roped-off beer gardens that dotted the main street. Gender-swapping was a big thing this year, too, with countless women having shown up in risqué versions of the Dread Warden’s signature bodysuit, and plenty of men having strapped cheap replicas of Thunderbird’s black-feathered wings to their backs.
Oh, how Nova despised the Renegade Parade.
The street vendors weren’t any better, hawking everything from cheesy light-up wands to tiny plush versions of the famous Renegade quintet. Even the food trucks were celebrating the day’s theme, with Captain Chromium funnel cakes and Tsunami fish’n’chips baskets and one sign advertising DREAD WARDEN’S FAVORITE POPCORN CHICKEN—GET SOME NOW BEFORE IT DISAPPEARS!
A great cheer rose up through the crowd and the noise of a marching band broke through the din. Trumpets and drums and the steady thumping of hundreds of synchronized musicians moved through the street. The music grew louder, bearing down on them now. Cannons blasted overhead, dousing the crowd with confetti. The children went nuts. The adults weren’t much better.
Nova shook her head, mildly disappointed in humanity. She stood at the back of the crowd, unable to see much of the actual parade, which was fine by her. Arms crossed defensively over her chest. Fingers drumming an impatient rhythm against her elbow. Already it felt like she’d been standing there for an eternity.
The cheering turned suddenly to loud, exuberant boos, which could only mean one thing. The first floats had come into view.
It was tradition for the villain floats to go first, to really get the crowd riled up, and to remind everyone what it was they were celebrating. Today was the ninth anniversary of the Battle for Gatlon, when the Renegades had taken on the Anarchists and the other villain gangs in a bloody fight that had ended with dozens of deaths on both sides.
The Renegades had won, of course. Ace’s revolutionaries were defeated and the few villains who didn’t perish that day either crawled away into hiding or left the city entirely.
And Ace …
Ace Anarchy was dead. Destroyed in the explosion that leveled half of the cathedral he had made his home.
That day officially marked the end of the Age of Anarchy, and the start of the Council’s rule.
They called it the Day of Triumph.
Nova looked up to see an enormous balloon, spanning nearly the width of the street as it floated between the high-rises. It was a cartoon-like replica of the Atomic Brain, who had been one of Ace’s closest allies before the Renegades had killed him nearly fifteen years ago. Nova hadn’t known him personally, but she still felt a spark of resentment to see the balloon’s treatment of him—the bloated head and grotesquely disfigured face.
The crowd laughed and laughed.
The tiny transmitter crackled inside her ear.
“And so it begins,” came Ingrid’s voice, wry and unamused.
“Let them laugh,” Phobia responded. “They won’t be laughing for much longer. Nightmare, are you in position?”
“Roger,” Nova said, careful to move her lips as little as possible, though she doubted anyone in the crowd was paying attention to her. “Just need to know which rooftop you want me on.”
“The Council hasn’t left the warehouse yet,” said Phobia. “I will alert you once they do.”
Nova glanced across the street, to the second-level window of an office building, where she could barely see Ingrid—or the Detonator, as the public knew her—peering out through the blinds.
The booing of the crowd started up again, more enthusiastic than before. Over the heads of the spectators, Nova caught glimpses of an elaborate parade float. On it was a miniature-scale version of the Gatlon skyline and standing among the buildings were actors wearing over-stylized costumes meant to resemble some of the most well-known members of Ace’s gang. Nova recognized Rat and Brimstone, both killed at the hands of Renegades, but before she could be offended on their behalf, she spotted a dark figure near the top of the float. A surprised laugh escaped her, easing some of the anxiety that had been building all morning.
A hiss came back to her through the ear piece. “We are not here to admire the parade, Nightmare.”
“Don’t worry. You look good up there,” she said, eyeing the actor. He had donned a long black cloak and was carrying an enormous plastic scythe with a bunch of rubber snakes glued to the handle. But when he opened his cloak, rather than being consumed by shadows, the actor revealed a pale, skinny physique wearing nothing but lime green swimming briefs.
The crowd went berserk. Even Nova’s cheek twitched. “They may have taken a few liberties.”
“I think I like it better,” said Ingrid with a snort, watching the parade from the window.
“It certainly inspires terror,” agreed Nova.
Phobia said nothing.
“Is that…?” started Ingrid. “Oh my holy bomb squad, they have a Queen Bee this year.”
Nova looked again. At first the actress was concealed on the other side of the cityscape, but then she moved into view and Nova’s eyebrows shot upward. The woman’s blonde wig was twice the size of her head and her sequined black-and-yellow dress could not have been any gaudier as it sparkled in the afternoon sunlight. She had black mascara running down her cheeks and was embracing a large stuffed bumblebee to her bosom, wailing about the unfair treatment of her little honey makers.
“Wow,” said Nova. “That’s actually not a bad impersonation.”
“I can’t wait to tell Honey,” said Ingrid. “We should be recording this.”
Nova’s eyes darted around the crowd for what might have been the thousandth time. Standing still made her edgy. She was wired for movement. “Are you offended they don’t have a Detonator?” she asked.
There was a long pause before Ingrid said, “Well, I am now.”
Nova turned back to the parade. She stood on her tiptoes, trying to make out if any of their other comrades were among the costumes, when a loud crash startled the crowd. The top of the tallest building on the float—a replica of Merchant Tower—had just blown upward, and a new figure was emerging, laughing madly as he raised his hands toward the sky.
Nova clamped her jaw shut, the moment’s amusement doused beneath a rush of fury.
The Ace Anarchy costume was the closest to reality—the familiar black-and-gold suit, the bold, iconic helmet.
The audience’s surprise passed quickly. For many, this was the highlight of the parade, even more of a draw than seeing their beloved Council.
Within seconds, people had started to reach for the rotten fruits and wilted cabbages they’d brought with them for just this purpose. They started pummeling the villain float, shouting obscenities and mocking the villains on board. The actors took it with remarkable resilience, ducking down behind the buildings and screeching in feigned horror. The Ace Anarchy impersonator took the brunt of the attack, but he never dropped character—shaking his fist and calling the children at the front of the crowd stinking rascals and little nightmares, before he finally ducked down into the hollow building and pulled the top back over himself, setting up the surprise for the next street of onlookers.
Nova swallowed, feeling the knot in her stomach loosen only once the villain float had passed.
He had called her that, too, all those years ago.
The floats were followed by a band of acrobats and a Thunderbird balloon gliding overhead. Nova spotted a banner being propped up on tall poles, advertising the upcoming Renegade trials.
BOLD. VALIANT. JUST. DO YOU HAVE WHAT IT TAKES TO BE A HERO?
She faked a loud gagging sound, and an elderly woman nearby gave her a sour look.
A body crashed into her and Nova stumbled backward, her hands instinctively landing on the kid’s shoulders and righting her before she fell onto the pavement.
“Watch it,” said Nova.
The girl looked up—a domino mask over her eyes making her look like a smaller, scrawnier, girlier version of the Dread Warden.
“What was that, Nightmare?” Ingrid said into her ear. Nova ignored her.
The girl pulled away with a muttered sorry, then turned and wove her way back into the teeming crowd.
Nova adjusted her shirt and was just about to turn back to the parade when she saw the kid crash into someone else. Only, rather than set her right as Nova had done, the stranger stooped low, grabbed the girl’s ankle, and turned her upside down in one swift motion.
Nova gaped as the stranger hauled the girl, screaming and swatting his chest, back in Nova’s direction. He was roughly her age, but much taller, with dark skin, close-cut hair, and thick-framed eyeglasses. The way he strolled through the crowd made it seem more like he was carrying one of those cheesy Captain Chromium plush dolls rather than a ferocious, flailing child.
He stopped in front of Nova, a patient smile on his face.
“Give it back,” he said.
Nova looked from the boy to the child, then took a quick scan of the nearby crowd. Far too many people were watching them. Watching her.
That wasn’t good.
“What are you doing?” she said, turning back to the boy. “Put her down.”
His smile became even more serene and Nova’s heart stammered. Not just because he had one of those easy smiles that made other girls swoon, but because there was something unsettlingly familiar about him, and Nova immediately began racking her brain to figure out where she knew him from, and whether or not he was a threat.
“All right, Mini-Magpie,” he said, somewhat patronizing, “you’ve got three seconds before I send in a request to put you on probation. Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure the janitorial crew has been needing some help lately…”
The girl huffed and stopped struggling. Her mask had begun to slip and was close to sliding off her brow. “I hate you,” she growled, then reached into a pocket. She pulled out her hand and held it toward Nova, who uncertainly extended her own.
A bracelet—her bracelet—dropped into her palm.
Nova looked at her wrist, where a faint tan line showed where the bracelet had been worn every day for years.
Ingrid’s voice rattled in her head. “What’s happening down there, Nightmare?”
Nova didn’t respond. Tightening her fist around the bracelet, she fixed a glare on the child, who only glared back.
The boy dropped her with little ceremony, but the girl rolled easily when she hit the pavement and had sprung back to her feet before Nova could blink.
“I’m not going to report this,” said the boy, “because I believe you are going to make better choices after this. Right, Magpie?”
The girl shot him a disgusted look. “You’re not my dad, Sketch,” she yelled, then turned and stomped off around the nearest corner.
Nova squinted at the boy. “She’s just going to rob someone else, you know.”
Ingrid’s voice buzzed in her ear. “Nightmare, who are you talking to? Who’s getting robbed?”
“—can hope it will make her rethink her options,” the boy was saying. His eyes met hers briefly, then dropped down to her closed fist. “Do you want help with that?”
Her fingers clenched tighter. “With what? The bracelet?”
He nodded and, before Nova realized what was happening, he had taken her hand and started peeling open her fingers. She was so stunned by the action that he had freed the bracelet from her grip before she thought to stop him. “When I was a kid,” he said, taking the copper-colored filigree into his fingers, “my mom used to always ask me to help with her brace—” He paused. “Oh. The clasp is broken.”
Nova, who had been scrutinizing his face with wary bewilderment, looked down at the bracelet. Her pulse skipped. “That little brat!”
“Nova?” crackled Ingrid’s voice. “Have you been compromised?”
Nova ignored her.
“It’s okay,” said the boy. “I can fix it.”
“Fix it?” She tried to snatch the bracelet away from him, but he pulled back. “You don’t understand. That bracelet, it isn’t … it’s…”
“No, trust me,” he said, reaching into his back pocket and pulling out a fine-tip black marker. “This wrist, right?” He wrapped the bracelet around Nova’s wrist, and again, the sensation of such a rare, unexpected touch made her freeze.
Holding the bracelet with one hand, he uncapped the marker with his teeth and bent over her wrist. He began to draw onto her skin, in the space between the two ends of the broken bracelet. Nova stared at the drawing—two small links connecting the filigree and, between them, a delicate clasp, surprisingly ornate for a drawing made in marker, and perfectly matched to the style of the bracelet.
When he had finished, the boy capped the pen using his teeth again, then brought her wrist up closer to his face. He blew—a soft, barely there breath across the inside of her wrist that sent goose bumps racing up her arm.
The drawing came to life, rising up out of her skin and taking physical shape. The links merged with the ends of the bracelet, until Nova could not tell where the real bracelet ended and the forged clasp began.
No—that wasn’t entirely true. On closer inspection, she could see that the clasp he’d made was not quite the same coppery-gold color, but had a hint of rosiness to it, and even a faint line of blue where the drawing had crossed over one of the veins beneath her skin.
“What about the stone?” the boy said, turning her hand over and tapping his marker against the empty spot once intended for a precious gem.
“That was already missing,” stammered Nova.
“Want me to draw one anyway?”
“No,” she said, yanking her hand away. Her eyes lifted just in time to catch a flash of surprise, and she hastily added, “No, thank you.”
The boy looked about ready to insist, but then he stopped himself and smiled. “Okay,” he said, tucking his marker into his back pocket again.
Nova twisted her hand back and forth. The clasp held.
The boy’s smile took on a subtle edge of pride.
Obviously a prodigy. But was he also …
“Renegade?” she asked, making little effort to keep the suspicion from her tone.
The crowd burst into a new frenzy of hollers and applause, drowning out Ingrid’s voice. A series of fireworks shot upward from the parade float that had just emerged, exploding and shimmering to furious cheers from the people below.
“Looks like the headliners have arrived,” said the boy, somewhat disinterested as he glanced over his shoulder toward the float.
Phobia’s voice crackled. “West station, Nightmare. West station.”
Purpose jolted down Nova’s spine. “Roger.”
The boy turned back to her, a small wrinkle forming over the bridge of his glasses. “Adrian, actually.”
She took a step back. “I have to go.” She turned on her heel and pushed her way through a group of costumed Renegade supporters.
“Renegade trials, next week!” one of them said, shoving a piece of paper at her. “Open to the public! Come one, come all!”
Nova crumpled the flyer in her hand without looking at it and crammed it into her pocket. Behind her, she heard the boy yelling, “You’re welcome!”
She didn’t look back.
“Target now passing Altcorp,” said Phobia as Nova ducked into the shadows of an alleyway. “What’s your status, Nightmare?”
Nova checked that the alley was empty before lifting the lid of a dumpster and hauling herself up onto its edge. Her duffel bag greeted her, resting at the top of the heap.
“Just grabbing my things,” she said, snatching up the bag. She dropped back to the ground. The dumpster lid crashed shut. “I’ll be on the roof in two minutes.”
“Make it one,” said Phobia. “You have a superhero to kill.”