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Ring-Maker

Chapter Text

Ash nazg durbatulúk,
Ash nazg gimbatul.
Ash nazg thrakatulúk
Agh burzum-ishi krimpatul.

-x-x-x-

The grey light of the early dawn filtered through my bedroom window as I looked over my newest—my first—creations. My teeth slowly worried my lower lip. Some Tinker I am, I thought ruefully. Can’t even use more than one of my inventions at a time.

I hadn’t tested that, of course. The knowledge was as instinctive as it was certain. To wield a single Ring of Power was a burden; to carry two at once would have been unconscionable, even to the Ring-Maker herself. It would have left me a burned-out husk—if that—both in body and in spirit.

Shaking those thoughts away, I took the first of the Three into my right hand and turned it around in my fingers, watching as the light caught on the golden band. “Narya,” I whispered—its name. This Ring would have the power to keep its wearer, and their allies and friends, safe from domination and despair—including master effects. It was probably a trump power, by the PRT’s classifications, since it would operate on other parahuman powers—but that was a woeful understatement.

In a slow, smooth motion, I slid the Ring of Power onto the index finger of my left hand. Its band was smooth and burnished and fit perfectly, seeming to pulse like a beating heart. In an instant, there was a rush of heat. Flame ignited and coursed through my veins, warming me from the tips of my toes to the peak of my scalp. Narya, the Ring of Fire.

A weight seemed to melt away from my shoulders. Winslow High suddenly seemed so far away. Emma, Sophia, and Madison seemed even farther.

I smiled, then glanced across my desk. The clock read 6:35 AM. Time to start my morning run. Staying up all night was usually a mistake, but with Narya on my finger I felt more invigorated than I would have after any mere night of sleep.

I was ready.

-x-x-x-

I tried to keep the smile off of my face as I walked through Winslow’s gates, and found I couldn’t do it. Narya was there, secure on my finger, as warm and nostalgic as the comforting embrace of a mother, and I just couldn’t help smiling at the absurdity of fear in the face of that fact. Fear fled before me like some nocturnal thing, scampering away to its hiding place before the light of the dawn.

“Look at that,” whispered one of Emma’s lackeys—Julia? Was that her name?—as I passed a gaggle of them in the hall. “Think she’s high?”

“She’s got no other reason to smile,” said another snidely. “Not like anyone here actually likes her.”

The malice slid off of me like cold water running against a steel blade. It meant nothing—less than nothing. Malice was without value unless it was backed by power, and not one of these sycophants had any.

And yet I couldn’t really be angry with them. It wasn’t as though they knew; they were just children playing out a role. I flashed them a faint smile as I passed them and entered the classroom.

-x-x-x-

My good mood didn’t quite last all day. I had to meet Sophia eventually.

She shoved me aside roughly with her shoulder as we made our way to our shared math class. “Watch where you’re walking, Hebert,” she hissed as she passed.

Had she been anyone else, I’d have given her the same treatment I’d given others that day—a smile, and no other acknowledgement. But as I looked at her, Narya tightened slightly around my finger in warning, and a faint chill wormed its way up my spine.

I wasn’t afraid of her. I knew what it was like to fear Sophia Hess, and this wasn’t it. But, for the first time that day, I was suddenly cautious. Her eyes, glimmering with the same unabashed malice I’d seen in so many others, spoke of something more.

Power.

Sophia Hess, I realized, was more dangerous than the rest of Winslow High’s population put together.

And I was her target.

Fuck.

-x-x-x-

Lunchtime came. Rather than cause myself trouble by trying to avoid notice in the cafeteria, I brought my food into the third floor girls’ bathroom and started to eat my packed pita wrap in one of the toilet stalls.

It wasn’t exactly what I’d call five-star ambiance, but then, neither was anywhere in the shithole that was Winslow High. Nor were many places, here in Brockton Bay.

Unfortunately, my peaceful lunch was not to be. I was about halfway through my wrap when I heard a gaggle of girls enter the room with a giggling and a chattering to wake the dead. I recognized the voices—these were girls who took an active part in my torment.

There were six stalls in the third-floor girls’ bathroom. There were six girls’ bathrooms throughout Winslow. So there was no doubt in my mind, when they knocked on the door of my stall, that they were looking for me.

I waited for the second knock before I sighed. “Occupied.”

“Oh my God, it’s Taylor!” one of them shrieked.

How many bathrooms had you already checked? I wondered, but didn’t bother to say aloud. Instead, I slipped my unfinished pita back into its bag, stood up, and undid the lock.

“Do it,” another girl said in response to a whisper.

There was a thump on the door just as I touched the handle. A gentle push failed to open it.

My lips twisted as I heard somebody squirm, as though stretching to reach a height. They were going to toss, or pour, something over the top of the door.

Well. Narya tightened gently over my finger. There was being non-confrontational, and then there was being weak. I was more than happy to do the former, but the latter did not sit well with me

Narya flared with power, augmenting my strength as I pushed the door open. I heard a startled cry as it bowled over both the girl who’d been holding it shut and the girl that had stood on her toes to pour—a can of cranberry juice, apparently—onto my head.

The red liquid spread across the floor as I appraised them, my lips twisted into what was probably a vaguely disapproving look. “Really?” I was less angry than annoyed. “You couldn’t think of a better use for cranberry juice?”

They blinked up at me, the juice spreading into one girl’s hair. I took pity on her and grabbed her hand, pulling her out of the puddle. “You’ll want to wash your hair,” I advised sagely, nodding at the mess. “That stuff sticks, you know?”

They stared at me, blinking, without reply. After a few moments, I shrugged. “Well, anyway. Unless you want to try that again, I’m off. Done with lunch anyway.”

I turned and walked out of the bathroom, waving nonchalantly behind me as the door shut. Vaguely I registered that this would seem out of character for me… but really, what could they do to me?

Sophia was dangerous, it was true, but the rest weren’t. Not any more. I had Narya. I wouldn’t be trapped in any lockers ever again.

Still, that girl hadn’t had a handbag with her. No soap. Juice in one’s hair was no joke—she’d be glad to get some help.

I made my way into the cafeteria and slipped through the crowd. They parted to allow me passage, often without even noticing they were doing it.

I flowed through them to the middle of the room, where Emma and Madison were sitting across from Sophia, talking merrily.

I came up behind the two. Sophia started as she saw me approaching.

“Hebert,” she said, and there was a wary edge to her voice. “You’re… here.”

There was an odd note in her words, I noticed, and Narya tightened around my finger, but I ignored it. “Emma, Madison,” I said, my voice low and casual. “A friend of yours got cranberry juice in her hair in the third floor bathroom. I told her to wash it, but that stuff sticks. Do you happen to have something to help her? You know, soap or shampoo?”

“What’s it to you, loser?” Madison asked, sneering.

“Nothing, but I’m sure she’d be grateful for a bit of help getting cleaned up before class.” I smiled at her before turning to leave.

“Wait a minute,” Emma hissed, standing up. “You think you can just walk up to us like that and tell us what to do?”

I frowned at her. Not an angry, thunderous frown, which would take more effort than it was worth, but just a blank frown of bemusement. “Well, since the cranberry juice in her hair was supposed to go in mine, I don’t really care whether you help her or not. I just thought I’d let you know.”

I turned and left. No one stopped me. It struck me, later, how strange that was.

Not that they could have stopped me, of course. But they’d usually have tried.

-x-x-x-

I considered the three Rings before me, arranged in a small triangle on my desk. Already I itched to put Narya back on. Without it my body felt weak; my spirit, even weaker.

But there were two more Rings to experiment with, and today was Friday. I could wait for Monday to give the other two a proper test run, but something in me rebelled at the delay.

No. I was a cape. I was a superhero. I’d damn well act like it.

With a thought, my silver—no, mithril—hammer appeared in my right hand, and I turned to find the mithril anvil behind my chair. My power allowed me to summon them at any time, although neither was visible to other people around me.

(Learning that had made for a long and slightly embarrassing story. I’d been forging the Three downstairs in the afternoon, thinking Dad would be home late, when he’d walked in just as I raised my hammer over the anvil. He’d seen neither and had, in fact, walked around the anvil without noticing on his way to the kitchen. Stranger powers were... strange.)

I passed my left hand over the anvil’s smooth surface, thinking. The Three had been the first designs to come into my head, but as I’d considered the need for a costume over the past weeks, more had risen in my mind: armor forged of mithril, platemail made to look like folded, silver leaves. It would be light as a feather, and harder than steel.

I crossed my bedroom, reached into the closet, and pulled out the beginnings of my armor. The breastplate and backplate were done, as were the boots and the leggings up to the knees. My thighs would be exposed if I went out in this, although my hips would be at least partly protected by the tassets.

That was good enough for a cape’s first night out, I figured. Especially a cape bearing one of the Three.

One thing, however, was missing.

I smiled and took some of the metal junk and scrap I’d been salvaging over the past months back to my desk. I grabbed the long lighter I always kept there, lit it, and set it on the anvil, with the flame facing into the pile of scrap. I took a deep breath, exhaled, and began to strike at the twisted fragments with slow, steady blows from my hammer.

Bit by bit, the rusted metal began to transform—the tarnished steel and iron transmuting itself into bright mithril, reshaping into the form I desired. It would have been much faster if I had access to a fire hotter than a damn lighter, but a proper forge wasn't exactly something I could order online for a hundred bucks.

I was at it for hours, although I only occasionally noted the passing time. I greeted my Dad when he got home, and even went downstairs for a quick hug before returning to work. I went down again for dinner about half an hour later.

I hammered away at the metal until the early hours of the morning, but when I was done, I knew it had been worth it.

The shining silver helmet in my hands seemed to cast a glow as soft and luminous as the moonlight streaming in through the window—but where the moon lit only a thin strip of my floor, the helm’s light seemed to spill over every surface in my bedroom. I turned it over in my hands and, after a moment, slipped it onto my head.

It fit perfectly, as I knew it would, but there was one more thing I wanted to try. I took it off, gathered up my long hair, and threaded it through the hole in the back as I put it on again, so that my hair ran down it like a plume.

The front of the helmet covered the skin around my eyes and nose like a store-bought domino mask, but infinitely higher in quality. I crept out of my room and slipped into the bathroom to study myself in the mirror.

I closed the door gently behind me, flicked on the lights, and was struck dumb, blinking at the unfamiliar visage in the mirror.

Nothing had changed besides the fact that I was wearing a mithril helmet. And yet, somehow, my too-wide mouth fit perfectly into the space between the side panels, and my large eyes seemed almost to shine from within behind the mithril plate. My pale skin, rather than being washed out by the glow of the metal, seemed instead to subsume its incandescence, it too glowing with starlight.

I never wanted to take this helmet off. I hadn’t felt this good about my appearance in… well, ever.

I smiled, and the radiant person in the mirror smiled back. Sure, she was a little blurry without my glasses, but any of the Three would work in place of those.

Well, that settled it. Tomorrow, on Saturday, I would take up the mantle of a superhero for the first time.

A glance at the clock cut my musings short. For now, however, it was almost four in the morning, and in just two and a half hours, I would need to be rested for my run.

Chapter Text

My eyes were still fluttering open as I groggily fumbled for my alarm, shaking myself out of slumber.

Run. Yes. Good.

I gracelessly fell out of bed and stumbled over to my desk. As I opened the drawer, I screwed my eyes closed and opened them again to clear away the fog. The Three Rings of Power glinted in the half-light, shining like stars before me. Narya I now knew—it was time to try one of the other two.

Nenya ,” I decided, running my fingertips along the the mithril-and-diamond band. This Ring would have the power to protect, preserve, and conceal, as well as defend its wearer from most Masters.

I slipped Nenya onto the index finger of my left hand and immediately felt refreshed, as if I had just bathed in and drank from a cool mountain stream. Clearest water ran through me, rushing through my bloodstream, cleansing, purifying, and fortifying. Nenya, the Ring of Water .

A smile spread across my face. I bounced on the balls of my feet, reveling in the smooth grace I felt in every muscle. Then I rolled my shoulders, turned, and dashed out of the room, my feet making barely a sound on the wooden floor.


 

Dad was awake when I got back. “I didn’t hear you leave,” he told me over the sound of frying eggs. “Have a good run?”

“Yeah,” I said. “It’s getting easier every day. Too easy, even. I should maybe start earlier, or go for another run in the afternoon.”

“Well, I’m glad you’re enjoying it, but don’t you think starting even earlier might be pushing it?” Dad’s brows were furrowed and the corners of his mouth were turned down in worry. “It’s already still dark out when you leave.”

“True,” I admitted. Of course, with a Ring of Power on my finger, I wasn’t exactly afraid of muggers or petty criminals. Even so, there’s no reason to worry Dad. “You’re probably right. Maybe I’ll go for a run after school instead.”

“How is school, by the way?” Dad asked hesitating slightly on the question as he brought the skillet of scrambled eggs over to the table and set them down. “Still the same?”

I shrugged and gave him a smile. “Depends on what you mean,” I said, serving myself a helping with the spatula. “They’re still doing it , if that’s what you’re asking. I just….” I glanced out the window for a moment.

Do I tell him?

Nenya curled comfortingly around my finger. Not advising me; simply promising support regardless.

“I… had a bit of an epiphany yesterday,” I said eventually.

“Oh, really?” Dad asked, a faint smile coming to his lips and clearing away the lines of care for a moment.

I nodded. “They really can’t hurt me,” I said, choosing my words carefully. “What do I care what a bunch of stupid kids say? They pulled off the locker”—I saw Dad wince as I turned back to him—“ once, but they won’t manage again. I won’t let them.”

Dad looked concerned again. “It’s good to hear you standing up for yourself, Taylor, but what if they gang up on you?”

I smiled at him. “I won’t let them.” With Nenya on my finger, it really was that simple.

As I finished my meal, I thought about my plans for that night, and considered what I still had to prepare. Nenya was a wonderful thing, and my costume/armor was great, but if I was going to be a superhero, I needed a complete image.

I needed a weapon.

As I returned to my room, already summoning my hammer and anvil, I found myself smiling at the thought. I was a Tinker, and I had ideas .

One such idea would see me going out later that day for a long piece of wood. Rather than buy an overpriced plank from a hardware store, I went out to the nearest park and grabbed an oaken branch which had fallen off of a tree. I brought it home to carve, and used the bladed back-end of my hammer to carve a long cylinder out of it, which I then sanded and varnished until it shone.

By the time I finished that, it was getting dark. I’d have to add the blade tomorrow.

I took the haft and hid it in the closet before dinner. I spent the rest of the evening rushing through as much homework as I could before I turned in early, around eight.

My alarm was set for midnight. When it rang, I’d pull out my armor and the half-finished weapon, and head out with Nenya.

It was time to be a superhero.


 

With Nenya, my footsteps passed like slow water passing silently over rocks. It seemed natural that I could leap from the top of one building to the next, or jump down a story without any difficulty. I crept above the rooftops at a crouch, drawing on Nenya’s power to conceal me from unfriendly eyes.

The night air was cool, and the faint wind coming down from the west kissed my exposed lips and nose. I smelled a faint hint of salt from the sea, as always, but mixed within it were the scents of the day, still lingering on the breeze—car exhaust, sweat, various foods, and sundry other smells. Nenya delivered these and other sensations to me with a clarity unmatched, save by the piercing light of the stars overhead.

There’s nothing quite like deliberately walking into the most dangerous parts of a nearly bankrupt city in the dead of night. My heart was beating just a little faster than usual, and I felt laser-focused. Excitement—and a shade of caution—thrummed across the fine membrane of my skin like goosebumps.

As I passed over an alley, the silence of the night broke around me. Voices rose up from below, and Nenya picked the sound out of the air and fed it into my ears. “—didn’t want to pay his dues, so we’re gonna take what he owes us. With interest.”

I was in ABB territory, so it was no real surprise when I looked over the edge of the building and saw four Asian guys huddled together. I glanced across the street. There was a small restaurant there, on the ground story, and the loft above it looked like the living quarters of the proprietor. No other businesses were present within sight.

I figured the owner had failed to pay the ABB protection money, and was now going to get robbed for it. Except, of course, that I was here.

Nenya curled about my finger. I agreed. I should at least wait until I was sure.

I stayed crouched on the roof of the one-story building as the gangbangers left the alley and stealthily crept over to the shop. One raised a crowbar as they approached the door.

That was when I acted. I vaulted over the low façade of the roof and fell the twelve or so feet to the ground. Nenya saw to it that my drop was feather-light. “You really shouldn’t,” I called.

They spun around, and oh my they had guns . Or two did, anyway; the others were carrying long combat knives.

Later, thinking back, I’d conclude that even then I hadn’t been scared—not really. I had Nenya, I had my armor, I had my haft. There was nothing to fear from four gangbangers, even if one of them had a pistol, and another had a shotgun.

But I did stop and think.

“Who’re you, bitch?” one asked.

“Cape, obviously,” said another. “But alone. You’re not a Ward, are ya, or Empire? Just a little girl playing superhero, picking a fight with the ABB.”

A third sneered. “Big mistake, that.”

I smiled. “We’ll see,” I said, shifting my grip on the incomplete weapon and beginning to stride forward.

The pistol fired, and that was a surprise—I expected them to at least try to negotiate before going for a kill. The boy who fired it looked younger than the others—perhaps he was new. He was grimacing in fear and nerves.

…Hell, I knew his face. He went to Winslow, didn’t he? Small world.

Casually, I slid through the air, the bullet missing my shoulder by almost a foot. “Like I said,” I told him, grinning slightly, “you really shouldn’t.”

“Shit,” muttered one guy with a knife. “Mover—dodges bullets.”

“Oh, I’m more than that,” I said quietly. “Drop the guns and no one has to get hurt.”

“Yeah, I don’t think so,” said the guy with the shotgun. “Like to see you dodge buckshot.” Then he fired.

Probably I couldn’t dodge buckshot. But Nenya was the Ring of Protection, so I just gestured with my left hand and a transparent barrier flared to life around me. The shot impacted it with a muted whoomph , setting it rippling in a hundred places, like raindrops on the surface of a pond.

I smiled at him.

“Fuck,” he said, sounding almost resigned.

“Drop the weapons,” I advised.

The looked at each other, hesitating, but after a moment they obeyed.

Suddenly, the world was swallowed up in darkness. A shadow seemed to pass over the night, deepening it to pitch. Even my sight, enhanced by Nenya to the point that I hadn’t bothered wearing my glasses, was muted to nothing. Sound, too, was obscured.

I acted. I threw myself backward and clambered back up the wall opposite the shop.

The darkness dissipated as I did so, and when I reached the rooftop I spun, my eyes darting from one place to another, looking for the cause.

There. Just outside the cloud of shadows, taking cover behind a dumpster, were three people—two girls and one guy, a little older than me, by their body shapes. The guy was clad in a white renaissance affair, richly embroidered, with a scepter in his hand and a pale jester’s mask. He was tall and thin, and his hair was brown. One of the girls was a blonde, wearing a purple bodysuit and domino mask. The other, with auburn hair… was wearing only a t-shirt and jeans, and a dog-shaped mask I recognized from the local Dollar Store.

Since she was astride one of three truly massive monstrosities, though, I somehow doubted she was harmless. What even are those things? I wondered. Projections?

I leapt from one rooftop to the next unnoticed, approaching them. I heard them as I got close.

“—new hero, I think ,” said the girl in purple. She sounded frustrated. “Couldn’t really get a read on her. My power just… slipped off of her. Hard to explain. It’s like she was… hiding in plain sight, or something.”

I considered that. This girl clearly had some kind of Thinker ability which should have given her information on me, but Nenya’s concealment had protected me.

Something to consider.

I quietly dropped into an alley near them and crept up behind them, hiding myself with Nenya. Soon, I was among them.

“So,” I drawled. “What’re you people up to?”

“Jesus fucking Christ!” The guy in white dove away, even as the girl on the… animal whistled.

Hurt, ” she ordered.

Oh, fuck.

The two other things— dogs? The girl wore a dog mask. Some kind of mutant hounds?—leapt at me. I ducked, rolled, and slid out of the way before diving back into the alley.

The dog-things followed me to the entrance and then blinked, glancing around, as though looking for me. I’d ducked behind a box, but without Nenya I’d have been easily visible and even more easily smellable.

“Stranger power,” said the voice of the girl in purple grimly. “We need to get out of here.”

I smiled and crept away a little distance before climbing back up the wall to the roof.

The darkness had dissipated, and the three had been joined by a fourth—a guy in all black, with a helmet like a skull on his head. “…did you manage to get into the shop?” the girl in purple was saying.

The guy in black shook his head. “I came as soon as I heard Bitch,” he said. “What happened?”

“The armored girl,” the girl in purple said. “She’s a stranger—snuck right up into the middle of us. We should get out of here. What happened to the gangbangers?”

“Knocked them out and left them there,” the guy in black said. “Sure we can’t make it into the shop?”

“Grue,” the girl in purple said darkly, “ I can’t get a read on this girl . All we know is that she took exception to their shoplifting. Do you want to get into a fight with an unknown cape, who—in case you missed it—is immune to my powers ?”

“No,” admitted the guy in black—Grue, apparently. “Okay, Tattletale, we’ll do it your way. Let’s go.”

Soon, all four were astride the dog-monsters and galloping away.

I let them go—I didn’t like my odds against four supervillains, even people small-time enough that my cursory research hadn’t turned them up—and returned to the gangbangers. As Grue had said, they were out cold in a head outside the shop door, their weapons in a pile beside them.

I quickly unloaded the ammunition from each weapon and then considered the four men.

I need a phone.

How was I supposed to call 9-1-1 without one, after all?

Oh, well. I had alternatives. I fished in the guys’ pockets until I found a phone and dialed.

“9-1-1, what is your emergency?” a businesslike woman’s voice said over the line.

“I’m…” I began, and paused. There was a word on the tip of my tongue, but I wasn’t sure why.

After a moment, I shrugged and went with it. “I’m Annatar,” I said, and the name felt right . “I’ve got four ABB gangbangers out in front of…” I glanced at the store’s hanging sign, “…Toshi’s Noodle House, on Westbrook Avenue. They’re unconscious, and I’ve removed the ammo from their guns. Can I get a pickup?”

There was silence. “Annatar, you said?” the responder asked. “Is that a cape name?”

I smiled. “Yeah,” I said. “You won’t have heard of me. I’m… new.”

“All right,” said the responder. “Procedure with a cape’s involvement is to send a Protectorate member with the PRT. I’ll send them your way.”

“Thank you.” I hung up, tossed the phone back onto its owner’s prone body, and settled down to wait.

Chapter Text

I glanced up when I heard the oncoming motors. I’d been reclining against the wall of the shop, not dozing, but resting.

It seemed the PRT had arrived.

Not just the PRT, at that. I blinked, and suddenly there was someone standing in front of me. His costume was red, and stripes intersected on his chest to form a “V”. Velocity, Brockton Bay’s very own speedster.

I smiled at him. “Hello,” I said.

He smiled back, his lower face visible under the mask. “Hey,” he responded. “Annatar, right?”

I nodded. “These four were about to rob this place,” I said, jerking my head back at the noodle shop. “I stopped them.”

“I can see that,” Velocity said, gesturing to the PRT troopers just now getting out of their patrol vans. The men came forward and began to load the unconscious bodies onto the vehicles. Then he turned back to me. “So, Annatar,” he said. “Is this your first night out?”

I nodded. “I only got my gear into working condition today,” I said. “I mean, my spear isn’t done, but I didn’t intend to be stabbing anyone today anyway.”

“That’s good,” Velocity said with a chuckle. “Killing someone is usually a bad way to start a heroic career. I assume you are going to be a hero?”

“I’d like to be,” I replied, watching as the PRT troopers gathered the ABB members’ guns. I handed one of them the magazine I’d been idly playing with while I waited.

“Well, I’d say you’re off to a good start,” he said. “What happened here, exactly?”

“I was on the rooftops,” I said, “and I saw these guys coming out of the alley. Heard them, too. They were saying that the shopkeeper—Toshi, I guess—hadn’t paid the ABB his protection money.”

“So they decided to take it from him.”

“Guess so. I dropped down behind them and told them to stop. They shot at me; that didn’t work. I told them to drop the guns, and they did, but then someone else got involved.”

“Someone else?” Velocity’s voice sharpened slightly.

I nodded. “Capes—four of them,” I said. “Tattletale, Grue, and… Bitch, I think? And one more.”

“The Undersiders,” the Protectorate cape said grimly. “Small-time villain team. I guess ‘Bitch’ is another name for Hellhound. The fourth guy: was he wearing a white costume with a jester’s mask?”

I nodded.

“His name’s Regent,” Velocity explained. “He’s a Master, can control a person’s body. It apparently takes him a while to get full control, though. Bitch is another Master—she can enhance and control dogs.”

“I saw them,” I said. “Those big mutant things. Those are dogs?”

He nodded. “She touches them and they grow. I think it wears off after a while. Grue creates big dark clouds which mute sounds and blind you. Apparently, he can sense people on the inside. Tattletale’s a Thinker. We don’t know the details, but she loves picking out people’s secrets and taunting them with them.”

I can’t get a read on this girl. It seemed Concealment was for more than just hiding from mutant hounds.

“Grue put one of his clouds over us,” I remembered. “I tried to get out of the way, and got out of the cloud, then snuck up on the others. I guess I spooked them; they called Grue back and ran without finishing the shoplift.”

“Impressive,” Velocity praised. “You’re not hurt?”

I shook my head. “Bitch—uh, Hellhound—tried to set her dogs on me, but I got away.”

“Nicely done,” he said. “Not many people could drive off four supervillains without a scratch. Uh, you’re… Wards-age, I’m guessing?”

“I am,” I said slowly, watching him.

“Then, have you considered joining up?” Velocity asked carefully. “It’s dangerous for an independent hero out here. You must know that.”

“I do,” I answered. “And I have. I still am, as a matter of fact. Considering, that is.”

“Well, I don’t want to rush you,” he told me. “Just… be careful while you’re deciding, all right? We don’t get new heroes often, Wards or not, and I’d hate for you to die because you were going it alone. The Undersiders are just the start—there’s far worse things out here.”

“I’ll be careful,” I promised. “Thank you, Velocity.”

He nodded. “Do you have a phone?” he asked. “I can give you a number for Protectorate consulting. We offer it to independent heroes. And, if you want, I can put your number into the system as an independent we can work with.”

“Sorry,” I said, grimacing. “No cell phone. Maybe I should get one.”

“Probably a good idea,” he agreed. “If only so you can call for help if you need it.”

The irony struck me: I’d been denied a cell phone because one had gotten my mother killed, and if I wasn’t careful, its absence might do the same to me.

“I’ll do that,” I said. “I’ll probably get in touch with the Protectorate pretty soon about joining the Wards, if only to let you know I’ve decided not to.”

“Fair enough,” Velocity said. “Door’s open, though. Good luck.”

I grinned at him. “Same to you,” I said.

With that, we parted ways.

-x-x-x-

I returned home unmolested. I took off my armor and deposited it in my closet, stored the haft I was working on, and crossed over to my desk, pulling off Nenya as I went.

I sighed at the feeling of loss that came with removing the Ring. I really didn’t enjoy being without one anymore. I pulled open my drawer, placed it in, and then stopped.

Why not?

I shrugged, took up the last ring—gold, and embedded with a sapphire. I turned it over in my fingers for a moment. “Vilya,” I murmured.

I slipped it onto my fingers, and suddenly felt light as a feather. A cool wind gusted across my skin, caressing me gently, cooling and tempering my aching muscles. My hair billowed slightly around me, and I found my eyes closing serenely. Vilya, the Ring of Air.

I smiled and, Vilya still firmly on my finger, went to bed.

-x-x-x-

Running was not especially fun on three hours of sleep. I’d done it twice now. But Vilya kept me aware and alert, and even soothed the soreness and the aches that came with the exertion.

Breakfast with Dad was much the same as it always was; simple, calm, and lacking in real conversation. For months, I’d been upset with him for how little he understood, how badly he knew me, and then I’d felt guilty about it because how could he hope to know me, when I told him nothing?

Now, I had distance, and strength. I could stand on my own two feet, and didn’t need to lean on him, so it didn’t hurt when he wasn’t there to catch me.

But I still wasn’t telling him.

I hammered away at the last parts of my leggings that day. The gauntlets, and the rest of my weapon, I’d finish over the course of the week. Then I did my homework—with Vilya keeping my thoughts clear and sharp, it was actually very fast—and by that time it was dinner.

Over dinner, I thought about whether I should go out that night. Vilya hadn’t really been tested yet; I could get that out of the way tonight and then go to school tomorrow with whichever Ring I thought most suitable.

On the other hand, I kind of wanted to stay cautious. My armor was mostly done—all I needed now was gauntlets—but my weapon still wasn’t, and I had no support. Independents had a bad habit of dying quickly in Brockton Bay, and dying didn’t sound good, not when I had so much more to build.

I’d had a close shave with the Undersiders last night. What if, next time, it was Kaiser? Or Lung?

Also, the scrap-metal I was transmuting into mithril really wasn’t cutting it. I could transmute any metal into mithril, but purer, stronger ones were easier to work and took less time. I had a feeling the mithril I’d make that way was stronger, too. If I had a steady supply of steel, I could build twice as much in the same span of time, and it’d all be much higher-quality.

But on the other hand, I didn’t really need to finish my spear to go out. The haft was enough for everything I’d be doing with it. I wasn’t about to skewer people, even villains. And the gauntlets, while I’d like to have them, weren’t actually that important a component to my armor.

I’d had a taste of heroism, last night. It had been good. The rush of adrenaline that came with combat, short-lived as it was, and the pride that came with knowing I’d prevented a theft… I wanted that. I wanted more of that.

“Hey, kiddo, you all right?” Dad asked, interrupting my thoughts. He was looking at me, concerned, over our chicken and rice. “You’ve been awfully quiet today. Thinking about school tomorrow?”

“No,” I said honestly, stabbing a piece of chicken with my fork and taking a bite, thinking.

Do I tell him?

“I was thinking about the Protectorate, actually,” I said. It wasn’t even a lie.

He blinked at that. “Oh? What about them?” he asked.

“I was just thinking,” I said. “The Triumvirate; they’re basically three of the most powerful people in the country, right?”

Dad shrugged and nodded. “Yeah, probably,” he agreed.

“No,” I said, shaking my head. “Not where it counts. Because they’re still Protectorate; they still answer to the PRT, and to the government through them. Alexandria could crush the president’s head like an egg, but she still has to listen to them.”

“That’s all about limiting people, isn’t it?” Dad asked, frowning at me. “If we just let people run things because they could beat up anyone who got in their way, it’d be anarchy.”

“No, I know that,” I said. “But… well, look. Capes have to go into the Protectorate if they want to be heroes. I mean, they don’t have to—they can try to go it as independents, but I’ve never heard of an independent lasting longer than a couple weeks without getting folded into another group.”

“There’s New Wave,” Dad argued. “An independent could join them.”

I snorted. “New Wave is a family team,” I said, “and everyone knows it.”

“I suppose someone could make a new hero team,” Dad said. “Build it from the ground up.”

“And how do you think the Protectorate would react?” I asked caustically. “They’d see it as an attack on their authority. No matter how good the new guys were, the Protectorate would find dirt on them, bury them in bad PR, bit by bit, until they had to either accept status as rogues or villains or join the fold.”

Dad sighed. “All right, so say the Protectorate has a monopoly,” he said. “What’s so bad about that? It’s not like they can charge more for being heroes.”

I sighed. “Say a cape wants to do something else,” I said. “Like politics. Problem is, they’re either Protectorate, which means they can’t be in the federal government because they’re answerable to it, or they’re villains, which means the Protectorate won’t let them run.”

Dad frowned. “I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the idea of capes running the country, anyway,” he said slowly. “What if they decided, I don’t know, that normal people were somehow less than them?”

I snorted. “Then they’d get shut down,” I said. “The other capes and the normal people wouldn’t stand for it.”

“Empire 88’s still around,” Dad reminded me.

I blinked. That was a good point. I shook my head. “Fair enough,” I said. “That wasn’t my point anyway. My point is, why does the Protectorate keep that system in place? Surely they could change things around if they wanted to. Why are the Triumvirate content to just run around in costumes rescuing kittens when they could easily be running the place?”

“Maybe they don’t want to?” Dad shrugged.

“Power,” I said, “always wants more power. Doesn’t it?”

“I don’t know,” Dad said with a huffed laugh. “I’ve never really had enough power to know, kiddo.”

After dinner, I considered my gear, running my thumb over Vilya on my left hand.

Power always wants more power, I thought. Right now, this city was in the grip of men for whom power was the end unto itself; people who would happily crush people like my dad under their feet if it meant even a tiny speck more power for them. And for years, they’d been running a campaign of aggression against the heroes and the innocent of this city.

Not one day more.

Look out, Brockton Bay. Annatar was coming. Maybe I’d run into Kaiser or Lung, but with Vilya I’d see them well before they saw me. I was done being afraid of bullies.

Tonight, I paid this city’s scum back a bit for the hell they’d put me through. I knew for a fact there were villains in this city who were well within my weight class. I’d focus on them, avoid their betters, and get to work.

Chapter Text

Avoiding the capes above my weight class’ was a really good plan. I was quite proud of it.

A shame, then, that plans seldom, if ever, survive contact with the enemy.

I watched from the dark of the rooftop as Lung addressed his ABB. “…the children, just shoot. Doesn’t matter your aim, just shoot. You see one lying on the ground? Shoot the little bitch twice more to be sure. We give them no chances to be clever or lucky, understand?”

I knew this was a bad idea. I knew I wasn’t strong enough to take on Lung, the Dragon of Kyushu, the man who’d held back the sea.

But I also knew that if I turned my back and let children die, I’d never forgive myself.

Vilya cooled my thoughts, aired out my brain, let me think. So I did. I could use a payphone, call the PRT hotline, but the payphones were all down on the street, and the closes one that I could get to without being heard was over a block away. By that time, it might already be too late to offer any assistance.

The guys would have cellphones. If I could separate one from the pack, I could get it off of him and call the PRT.

But I also couldn’t afford to wait until they engaged. At that point, it would be too late to cut Lung off before he started ramping up. I needed a distraction, and I needed to hope it either got Lung to back off or got him to split his group. And in case the hope was vain, I needed to make sure the distraction didn’t compromise my location.

I glanced at my left hand, where Vilya glittered. Well, I thought. Here goes nothing.

I raised my left hand high, drew on the power of the Ring, and cast my thoughts outward, toward a nearby alleyway.

Light flashed, bright and pure, with a crack like the strike of lightning. Nothing dangerous to anyone—just a sound and a sight to draw attention.

That much it did. The entire ABB group whirled towards the noise.

“You three,” Lung ordered, pointing at three of his guys. “Go see what that was. If you see anyone, come back at once. If you don’t see anyone, check the alley, and then come back. You have three minutes.”

He hadn’t even missed a beat. I wondered why he wasn’t going himself to investigate the probably parahuman phenomenon, but I wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth.

I leapt nimbly from one rooftop to another until I reached the one-story roof above the alley. The guys were just going into it. I swallowed.

Their guns were out and they were staying in a careful formation, going down the alley in a triangle. The guy in front had a shotgun; the other two had pistols.

I missed Nenya.

I tensed, ready to leap, and then, just as the guy in front passed behind a barrel—momentarily out of sight of the other two—I leapt down on them.

I fell on the shoulders of one of the guys in the back. He went down, but I came up rolling, and struck the guy with the shotgun with my haft. He bellowed as I hit him, and I knew Lung must have heard, and that was very bad.

But I wasn’t dead yet. I struck him again, across the temple, and he went down properly. The third guy fired his pistol, and the round glanced off of my chestplate as I turned.

“Mistake,” I said flatly, and pointed at him with the index finger of my left hand, Vilya shining like a blue star.

A bolt of lightning—far too weak to kill someone, as I intended—arced forth and struck him. He flew backwards out of the alley with a strangled yell. Without sparing him another thought I turned my attention to the last guy, who was clambering to his feet.

I gently put my Ring-bearing hand on his brow and allowed the Dominant Ring to do its work. “You’re mine,” I whispered.

For a moment, our wills strove against one another, my mind reaching out through Vilya and meeting his halfway. But he was a man accustomed to obedience, a man whose will had systematically been broken down by Lung, whereas I was the Ring-Maker.

He nodded dumbly, ceasing his attempts to rise, his eyes staring up into mine blankly.

“Follow me,” I murmured. I heard the approaching ABB, Lung barking orders at their head.

I led my thrall out the back way of the alley and we ran in a crouch down the next road for about thirty feet before ducking into another alley. We crouched together behind a dumpster, and then I turned to him. “Give me your phone,” I ordered.

He obeyed, and I punched in the PRT hotline.

“Parahuman response, what is your emergency?” the responder said.

“Lung,” I replied flatly. “I heard him ordering his ABB. They were going to kill kids. Intersection of Fifteenth and Chesterton.”

There was a beat. “Very well, I’ve flagged this; Protectorate support is on its way,” said the responder quickly. “Can you tell me your name?”

“Annatar. I’ll try to stay alive. Gotta run.” I hung up and handed the phone back.

For a moment, I studied my thrall’s blank face. Then I made my decision. “Try to get into PRT custody,” I said quietly. “They can protect you from Lung—he’ll hurt you for disobeying, master or no master. If the ABB catches you, surrender to them; don’t try to fight or escape. Once you’re in either of their care, you’ll be free from my power.”

He nodded dully.

“Get moving.”

He left, running down the alleyway opposite the way we’d come. I took a single deep breath and then left cover too, making for the nearest fire escape.

I clambered my way up it and onto the roof, then jumped across the alley and onto the next. I could hear voices in the street, Lung snarling at his ABB to keep searching.

I couldn’t fight them; not like this, not without a lot more training, better gear, and a proper weapon. I needed to just keep quiet and hope the Protectorate got here before Lung either found me, or went back to what he was doing before.

Where would the Protectorate come from?

West. The knowledge came to me like a whisper, Vilya shimmering as its power flared.

And where would Lung go to look for the kids?

East.

Then my path was clear. I had to draw him west.

I moved across the roof as stealthily as I could manage, towards the road where Lung was ordering his men. Apparently, however, I was insufficiently careful. He hissed and shouted once—“Quiet!”

I didn’t dare breath. Enhanced senses. I’d had them myself not twenty-four hours ago, for God’s sake! I bit my lip and reached out with Vilya. Another flash burst forth from inside an alleyway to Lung’s right and some distance ahead of him—west of his location.

He hissed. “A distraction,” he said darkly. “They’re too afraid to face us. Ignore it! Let’s get on with things.”

Shit.

I couldn’t move for fear Lung would hear me, I couldn’t attack because that was suicide, and I couldn’t distract him because he’d caught on.

What did that leave? Stay here and pray the Protectorate would get here before Lung could kill his targets, doing nothing?

Fuck that.

I stood. I saw Lung’s head whip around to face me, but I was already running—away, and to the west.

I heard him roar. I heard the whistling through the air as he leapt. I heard the crunch of his feet on the roof behind me. He was onto me now.

I dove off the roof and into the next street, landing in a roll, and kept running. He jumped down behind me and gave chase. I heard his guys yelling farther back.

Thing is, I had Vilya, and had been running three times every two days for months. Lung was a fucking dragon. They weren’t fast enough to keep up, and they fell behind.

The problem? Lung was faster than me. He was gaining.

I couldn’t afford to let him catch me mid-run. I had to face him at some point, because I couldn’t defend myself when my back was turned. I waited too long, though, and when he was a little more than fifteen feet behind me (I think—without Nenya, my senses were only a little above human average) I felt a blast of intense heat on my back, blasting me forward and sending me sprawling ten, twenty feet down the road.

I rolled over and picked myself up, facing him. He was advancing more slowly now, his brown-on-red eyes glaring balefully at me from under that metal mask of his.

“You picked a bad fight, little girl,” he said darkly. He was starting to change: his legs had shifted a little, tearing up his shoes as the ankle rose to form a digitigrade joint, and his spine had arches slightly so he was hunched a little as he approached, but he had grown, too, so he was still well over six feet tall.

I didn’t answer except by shifting my grip on my haft.

“Any last words?” he asked, but that wasn’t the only sound that came to my ears.

An engine.

I smiled. “Surrender,” I said.

“You surrender?” he laughed. “You fuck with my boys, in my territory, and you think it’s okay because you surrender?”

“No,” I said. “I’m offering you a chance to surrender.”

If anything he laughed harder. “What’s your name, little girl?” he asked.

“Annatar,” I said.

“Well, Annatar,” he said, fire licking around his clenching fists. “I’ll see your tombstone says ‘she ha’ ‘alls.’ ‘ow’s ‘at ‘ound?” He was still growing visibly, hunching further, metal scales growing across his body in a slow creep. His words were starting to become muddled as his face morphed into a snout, rabidly becoming incomprehensible.

“It sounds,” I said, “like you’re not surrendering.” I gestured with Vilya and lightning burst forth again, blowing him backwards.

I’d pushed a hell of a lot more into the attack this time, and it left me a little out of breath, but I was proud to see that I’d at least had an effect, knocking him stumbling back a couple of steps.

He roared as skidded, fire beginning to engulf his form, but I could see a light shining on him from behind me somewhere. I didn’t dare turn and look, instead bringing my left hand to bear again, Vilya glowing bright on my finger.

A blue motorcycle came to rest beside me and a man in power armor swung his legs off of it. “You must be Annatar,” he murmured.

“That’s my name,” I said. “Armsmaster?”

“That’s right.” The famous halberd was drawn and put forth at the ready. “Lung,” Armsmaster called with a voice like steel. “Surrender, and this doesn’t have to be hard.”

‘Uck ‘oo.” Lung’s voice was little more than a brutal, animal snarl now. Fire lanced forth from him, launching at us in a blast.

Vilya could control the elements—fire, water, lightning, earth, the air itself… nothing totally drastic, like cracking open the planet or creating a vacuum, but I should be able to redirect a short burst of flame.

This was not a short burst, it was a steady stream. Besides which, it was dragon-fire, and dragon-fire is immune to most pyrokinesis. So I did what I could do, which was to throw myself out of the way. Armsmaster did the same, diving in the opposite direction, and then charging.

His halberd launched a dart of some kind, which struck Lung in the gut. Then another struck his neck. Lung bellowed, but there was something off, a note of weakness in the sound.

Tranquilizers, I guessed.

Armsmaster slowed as he approached Lung, firing off another dart into the man’s leg. Lung fell to his knees, breathing heavily. I followed the Protectorate cape in, Vilya at the ready.

“Fuck you,” gasped Lung, his transformation fading rapidly. “This isn’t over.”

“I think it is,” said Armsmaster, and struck him hard across the temple. Lung went down.

I stared down at the Dragon of Kyushu’s fallen form, and then looked up at the hero. “Tinkertech tranquilizers?” I asked.

He nodded, turning to me. “You said he was going after kids?” he asked.

I nodded. “I heard him ordering his guys to shoot them,” he said. “Children, he said.”

Armsmaster nodded. “You’re telling the truth,” he said, and wasn’t there something odd about that phrasing? “Admirable of you, to try to prevent that. Bit stupid, trying to take him on, though.”

“I wasn’t taking him on,” I protested. “I had him running almost three blocks in this direction, headed for you. I only turned around when I heard your bike.”

“Oh,” Armsmaster said, glancing at the aforementioned bike. “How’d you know which direction I was coming from?”

I thumbed Vilya compulsively. “Minor precognition,” I said. “I don’t know exactly how it works. I just knew.”

“A precog?” Armsmaster sounded interested. “That’s a rare power.”

I nodded. There was a reason Vilya was the greatest of the Three, even if its powers did spook me a little bit. Possibly that was why its powers spooked me.

“Velocity approached you about joining the Wards yesterday, didn’t he?” Armsmaster asked.

“Yeah,” I sighed. “Independents don’t last long by themselves.”

“Do you see why, now?” Armsmaster nodded at Lung’s unconscious form. “I can only fight him because I’ve spent a long time coming up with a specific counter to him. You wouldn’t have stood a chance on your own.”

“I know.”

“Then you’ll join the Wards?”

I bit my lip. “I still need to think about it more.”

“Look.” Armsmaster sounded exasperated. “you seem like a good kid, but you’re out of your depth, here. We can help you.”

“That’s what the adults tend to say,” I said flatly. “Doesn’t stop us triggering. You understand, Armsmaster? I got my powers because of people in the same position of power as you, right now. Because of their negligence. Forgive me if I’m not eager to trust another one.”

There was silence.

“I understand,” said Armsmaster quietly. “You didn’t have a phone yesterday—I assume you’ve gotten one now, since you called the hotline?”

I shook my head. “I mastered an ABB guy and used his,” I said. “Hopefully he’ll find his way to PRT custody. I ordered him to turn himself in, and set my control to drop after that.”

“You’re a master, too?” Armsmaster asked.

I nodded. At least with Vilya, I privately added.

A slight frown spread over his face. “You’re keeping something from me,” he declared.

“Yes,” I said honestly. “Shouldn’t I?”

“We’re not enemies,” Armsmaster said. “We’re both heroes, aren’t we?”

As if it’s that simple.

“But not all heroes are created equal,” I said flatly. “Wouldn’t you agree? I’d rather not have my powers become public knowledge to everyone in the Protectorate and PRT, if I can avoid it.”

Armsmaster grunted. “Fine,” he said. “We’re going to have to get you tested when you join the Wards, though.”

If,” I corrected. “And I’ll be honest, that’s a big reason why it’s an if. My powers come with weaknesses.” A phantom pain skidded a line of fire across my index finger, just above the knuckle. “Publicizing them just sounds like a bad idea.”

Armsmaster grunted and picked Lung up, slinging him over his shoulder. He started walking back to his motorcycle, talking to me as he did so. “There’s nothing I can say to change your mind?”

“Like I said, I’m thinking about it.”

“Well, think fast,” said Armsmaster shortly. He strapped Lung to the back of the seat, zip-tied his legs and arms up so they wouldn’t drag on the ground, and looked back at me. “You may not get this lucky again.”

I smiled thinly. “I don’t intend to need to get this lucky again,” I said flatly.

Armsmaster sighed. “I hope to see you in the Wards, Annatar,” he said, and drove off. I watched him go.

Then I sighed, stretched, and smiled. I’d rescued children from a murderer, and said murderer was now in Protectorate custody. Despite my sudden nascent dislike for Armsmaster as a person, I had to respect his efficacy.

Tonight had been a good night.

Chapter Text

School was standard, for most of the next day. The girls were still trying to get at me with words, words, words, and I was still having none of it.

I’d brought Vilya—despite its impressive performance the night before, I still hadn’t tested it in school and I wanted to see how it worked out of combat. It became clear really quickly that Vilya wasn’t Narya. I wasn’t practically busting at the seams with confidence the way I had been on Friday. But I wasn’t weak, either. I was a buried boulder to Narya’s raised obelisk—more unassuming, but even less pliant.

But one thing was worrying me. Something had set Sophia off, and not in any way I wanted. If she’d just stepped up her campaign to physically harass me at every turn, that would’ve been fine. I could take that now, easily.

No, instead, she’d withdrawn a bit. She was still taking part in the teasing and the insults, but she never even came within arm’s length of me once, all day. Something I’d done, the previous Friday, had set her on edge.

Which of Narya’s powers had she observed? Obviously, I’d been behaving differently; was it simply my newfound confidence that had tipped her off? Or had she heard of my increased strength from the girls in the bathroom? Or had it been the way the lunchroom parted for me when I passed?

For now, I doubted it mattered, but something about the girl had set Narya off as well, and Vilya was responding to her, too. Malice, backed by power. I would have to be careful.

Not too careful, though. I’d just faced down Lung and survived. I could handle Sophia Hess.

I had computer class with Mrs. Knott that day. Once I’d done the assignment, which took all of three minutes, I started browsing the Web, looking for information on the local cape scene. Specifically, I tried to learn more about the Wards.

The local Wards were seven in number.

Their leader, Aegis, was a classic brute: flight and redundant biology, which he could abuse to become an absolute tank on the battlefield.

Clockblocker was a striker who could freeze objects, including other people, in time. Kid Win was a tinker—like me—who used lasers and a hoverboard.

Browbeat was another brute who didn’t have flight but who seemed to heal faster than Aegis did.

Gallant was possibly a tinker, although there was some speculation on PHO that his power armor was maintained by another tinker. Regardless, he could apparently sense and influence emotions.

Vista was younger than the other Wards, but had been a member for longer. She could apparently bend and stretch physical space.

Shadow Stalker was a former vigilante who carried a crossbow and could transform into a breaker state which made her look like a moving wisp of shadow.

The Wards program as a whole seemed to be a pretty good deal, but then, it had really good PR. Heroes were compensated both weekly and by way of a trust fund, accessible when they turned eighteen. In addition, tinkers—those whose inventions were replicable, at least, which wasn’t all of them—would sell their patents to the PRT and would receive compensation.

There was discussion on PHO about whether it was more that they had to sell their patents, but that was probably no big deal to me. My armor and weapons were nothing special except that they were made of mithril, which only I could summon, and I seriously doubted my Rings were replicable.

And even if they were, there was always—

I shook off that idea. I really didn’t want to go there with my powers. I leaned back in the library chair with a sigh and thought about it.

On the one hand, that was an inflow of money—money both my dad and I sorely needed. It was also support, and possibly even a way to find allies to whom I’d want to give more of the Rings of Power.

On the other hand, it was a bureaucracy, an authority, to which I would be willingly subjecting myself. If Principal Blackwell and the rest of Winslow’s staff had taught me anything, it was that authority was corruptible and, as a rule, untrustworthy.

Besides all that, I’d have to expose my weaknesses. I wasn’t stupid enough to think I was invulnerable. All it would take was one Ring stolen, one dagger in the back, one slash across the knuckles, and I’d be down. End of story. Having to publicize that my powers came from my Rings didn’t sit well at all.

I needed to think further. And I needed to finish my spear.

-x-x-x-

On my way home, I stopped at a supermarket and got myself a small, easily-concealed safe with a combination lock. It wasn’t a permanent solution, nor a perfect one, but I had a feeling something would present itself. Already I was having ideas for a mithril lockbox which couldn’t be opened by anyone but the owner.

I didn’t understand exactly how it would go about being permanently locked, but I’d learned not to question my powers. The Three worked fine, after all.

“Welcome home, Taylor,” my Dad called from the couch as I came in. “How was school?”

“Not bad,” I said honestly.

“Really?” he asked, a smile spreading across his face.

I chuckled. “Sophia didn’t try to push me around today,” I said, and then frowned. “I’m worried about it, actually. I’m hoping they’re not planning something big.”

My Dad winced. “’Big’ as in…”

I sighed. “It’s not out of the question,” I admitted. “If they think they’re not getting through to me, and they’re not, they might escalate.”

“What do you want to do, then?” Dad asked. “We could… I don’t know, I guess we could try to take it to the administration again?”

I shook my head. “No, you don’t get it,” I said. “I’m worried they’ll escalate, but not because I’m afraid of what might happen to me. I just don’t want to have to escalate back.” I grinned at him. “They pulled out all the stops a while back. I’ve got some ideas on how I can pay them back, if I need to.”

Dad still looked worried. “Just promise me you’ll be careful, Taylor,” he said. “When they called me, after…”

“I know,” I said gently. “I promise, Dad: I won’t be getting shoved into any lockers or put into the hospital by those bitches again anytime soon.”

-x-x-x-

I spent the rest of the evening molding mithril into the bladed head of that spear. In all honesty, it was less a traditional European spear and more a Japanese naginata, with a curved blade at the end.

On the flat of the blade, I carved a verse in a flowing script whose origins I didn’t know. As I carved, I whispered the words to myself.

Gil-galad ech vae vaegannen matha
Aith heleg nín I orch gostatha
Nin cíniel na nguruthos
Hon ess nín istatha:

Aeglos

I pulled away the summoned hammer and chisel and studied the Tengwar inscription. This is weird, I thought. A whole language, now? Do other Tinkers get things like this?

I sighed. It wasn’t as though it didn’t look fantastic. The engraved script seemed almost to shimmer blue against the silvery metal of the blade.

“Aeglos, huh?” I said softly, running my finger along the dull side of the blade. It was ice-cold to the touch. “You’ll do nicely.”

It was getting late, but I still had to bind the head to the haft I’d carved before. I did that with mithril bolts and some welding, and by then it was dark.

And now it was time to make decisions. Should I go out again tonight? Sleep deprivation didn’t seem to be affecting me too badly as long as I kept my Rings on. I could probably manage it.

Or should I contact Armsmaster and the Protectorate? Much as I didn’t really like the guy, he was right about one thing: I needed a team. Alone, I wasn’t a pushover. With a solid group of Ring-Bearers behind me? I’d be unstoppable.

What was I so afraid of? Betrayal? I could handle betrayal, I thought. The only worry I had was that it would kill me before I dealt with it.

Realistically, though, was that likely? Did I really think the Wards could have stayed as a prominent, heroic organization if they were the type of group to take advantage of their members to that extent? Sure, they might try to stick me in a lab and get me forging Rings for them permanently, but if that happened—

I bit my lip, but carried the thought through.

--If that happened, I could always forge the One and make them let me out.

I really didn’t want to, though. I didn’t want the One to be necessary. But they’d never done that to tinkers before. Kid Win, Gallant, and Armsmaster all went out into frontline combat just fine.

It’d be a good idea to downplay my Rings if I decided to join the Wards. Make them seem like ordinary, if powerful, tinkertech, instead of the fantastically broken artifacts they were.

Was it possible for me not to tell them about the Rings at all? Could I, say, claim to imbue my armor with powers, one powerset at a time?

I sighed. My train of thought was too far down the rabbit-hole. Crossed my room and stood before my window, opening the blinds and the glass pane.

The stars were dim overhead, and shone pale and stark in only a few places against the black. Brockton Bay didn’t offer much by way of stargazing, with the haze of city life and the light pollution washing out the sky.

I sighed, breathing in the cool spring air. Only one question mattered: Did I want to join the Wards? In the end, no matter what team I joined or formed, I’d have to open myself to betrayal from them, unless I wanted to go full Heartbreaker and make myself a force of Ring-thralls. And I didn’t.

I really, really didn’t.

The Wards were heroes, but I’d had a hero once. Her name was Annette Hebert.

I’d had two. The other was named Emma Barnes.

Vilya glimmered, and a single star, bright in the northern sky, seemed to twinkle brighter, as if in response.

I brought the Ring of Air to my lips, closing my eyes as I felt the cool metal against my skin.

Could I do this?

I smiled slightly.

Yes.

This world wasn’t good to heroes, and anyone who believed in them was slowly learning cynicism. Brockton Bay hadn’t had any hope for a long time.

I slipped Vilya off of my finger, crossed to my desk, dropped it into the lockbox, and slipped on Narya. The rush of fire, hot in my veins, invigorated and revived me, instilling a sense of purpose.

If the world wasn’t willing to provide heroes, well, I’d just have to be one. The Wards were a start, but only a start. I had no illusions: the Protectorate ladder, with its bureaucracy, its rules, its rigidity, and its sense of entitlement to the very idea of heroism was not going to be by career path for the rest of my life.

But it was a start. In the Wards, I was fairly sure I could find a few like-minded people, people who were tired of the bullshit and the status quo, people who were willing to strike out on their own in the name of making a change.

So that was the plan. Today, the Wards—tomorrow, independence. One day, perhaps, I could look out my window and not have to look at the stars to find beauty.

But the Wards were a government organization, and they’d never allow me to join without parental approval. I was sure they’d willingly employ some morally gray methods to get that approval, if I asked, but I doubted that would be necessary.

I slipped into my armor. Only one thing was necessary now.

I left my room and headed downstairs. “Dad?” I called. “We need to talk.”

Chapter Text

“Dad?” Taylor called, her approach making the stairs creak. “We need to talk.”

Danny glanced toward the hall from the coffee table where I’d been signing work authorizations. “I’m in the living room!” he called to her.

Taylor emerged from the hall, and Danny felt his jaw drop. His little girl, who’d only two hours ago gone up after dinner, was wearing some kind of armor which seemed to shimmer silver, as though reflecting moonlight. In her right hand was a long spear, its tip shimmering blue, which she carefully held low to avoid slicing into the ceiling.

She came to a halt just inside the room. Danny Hebert stared, trying to find his voice.

“Don’t worry,” she said, and there was a laugh in her voice. “I have time.”

“You’re a cape.” Danny felt the quaver in his voice even before it emerged.

Taylor nodded, her bushy hair bobbing where it emerged from the helmet like a plume. “Yes,” she said.

“How?” he asked weakly. “When?”

“The locker,” she said softly, and his heart froze.

“Oh, Christ, Taylor,” he murmured. “I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t be,” she said, and her voice was gentle. “It wasn’t your fault.”

Danny ignored that particular lie for the moment. “And you… made that?”

“Yes,” she said. “I’m a tinker, Dad. I made my armor, and my spear… and my Rings.” She knelt, carefully setting the long spear on the ground, before slipping her right hand over her left and pulling something off of her index finger. Suddenly he saw it—a small ring, made of gold, with a large ruby shining in it like a blood-red star.

“This is why you haven’t been afraid lately,” he realized. “This is why you’ve been so… confident, these past few days. You have powers. You can fight back.”

“Fighting back,” Taylor said, slipping the ring back on, “would be a very bad idea. At least if I did it directly. Before, the best they could do was punish me for fighting on school grounds. Now? I could get charged with assault with a parahuman ability. But that doesn’t mean I have to take everything, either.”

She fell silent, seemingly content to let her father take the affair in at his own pace. He tried to do so. His daughter, his sweet little girl, was a cape. A parahuman. A class of person who regularly threw themselves into life-threatening danger, whether for personal gain or for selfless reasons.

She’d been put under so much stress by those three monsters at her school that she’d come out changed. He’d known that already, but to have that change thrust before him in such a direct and concrete way was startling. Painful.

“So…” he stopped, trying to figure out what to say. “What are you going to do?” he asked.

“I want to join the Wards,” she said promptly. “At least for now. I need allies, and my options there are the Wards, villains, or trying to start up my own team. I don’t like the second option, and the third is too dangerous right now. The ABB will be gunning for me.”

Danny tensed. “Why,” he asked slowly, “will the ABB be gunning for you?”

She smiled wryly. “Because last night, I helped Armsmaster take down Lung,” she said.

Danny thought his eye might be twitching. “You what?” he asked.

“I went out in costume for the first time on Saturday,” she said quietly, evenly. “I stopped a robbery and scared off some villains. Then, yesterday, I ran into Lung and the ABB. They were going to kill kids, Dad. I couldn’t stand by. So I got my hands on a phone, called the Protectorate, and distracted Lung until Armsmaster got there.”

You fought Lung?” His voice was hoarse and weak with horror.

“And I won, Dad.” Hers, however, was firm. “I won. Sure, I only won because Armsmaster got there in time. But a win is a win. I’m strong—I can help people. I have to try.”

Danny fell back against the couch, his core giving out, leaving him sprawled and spread over the seat. “Please, Taylor,” he implored. “Be more careful. I can’t lose you.”

“Believe me, Dad,” she said with a chuckle. “I’d prefer not to die, too. Which is why I’m going to join the Wards. It’s the safest option for me, right now, if I want to actually contribute and not just hide away and do nothing. And I can’t do nothing.”

He met her eyes. She wasn’t wearing her glasses, but her gaze still seemed sharp and clear. Part of her powers, perhaps?

“Just promise me,” he begged. “Promise me you’ll be careful.”

She came forward and embraced him. “I promise, Dad,” she said gently. “I’ll be careful. I promise.”

He held her, and she comforted him, and as nice as it was, he loathed himself because it was supposed to be him that was the pillar she could lean on, not the other way around.

But Annette’s death had broken him, just when she’d needed him most, and their relationship had never set quite right. She’d been through eighteen months of hell before he even found out the details, and even then she hadn’t told him the whole story.

No, that he’d only found out tonight. His daughter has powers.

What was he supposed to do now?

“I’m sorry,” he said. He wasn’t even sure what he was sorry for, exactly, but he knew it was true.

“I forgive you,” she said, and he thought she understood. She pulled away and met his gaze. “I can’t promise ‘no more secrets,’ Dad, you know that,” she said quietly. “I’ll have to protect secret identities, and even classified information. I won’t be able to tell you everything. But I love you, Dad. Even if I can’t tell you everything, I love you.”

He sat up and embraced her, and this time it wasn’t her hold him while he tried to pull himself together; it was the two of them, holding one another close, relishing one another’s presence.

“I love you too, kiddo,” he said. “You want to skip school tomorrow, take a trip to the Rig?”

She smiled against him. “That’d be great,” she said.

-x-x-x-

He hadn’t slept especially well that night. Who could blame him? His daughter was throwing herself headlong into one of the most dangerous professions in the world.

But he did sleep, and he work up, as usual, a little after six in the morning. What wasn’t usual was that Taylor was already up, and merrily frying bacon and eggs.

She looked up with a smile as he came down. “Hey, Dad,” she said. “Seems like I don’t need to sleep as much anymore.”

Danny raised an eyebrow. “Really?” he asked.

“Yep,” she said, flipping a few rashes of bacon deftly with a spatula. “The Three seem to make me need only about four hours of sleep. Which is all I’ve been getting, the past couple of days, so I didn’t notice.”

Danny winced at the reminder. “Promise me you’ll at least tell me when you’re going out alone at the dead of night from now on?” he begged.

She smiled at him. “I doubt it’ll be a problem,” she said, “at least for a little while. I’ll be a Ward, remember?” She pulled the skillet from the heat and turned off the gas. “Their patrol schedules are probably pretty regular, and I’m sure they’ll make sure you know them.”

He sighed. “I hope so,” he said honestly.

She served two plates of bacon and eggs, set the skillet in the sink, and brought the plates to the table. “It’ll be fine, Dad,” she said gently. “I’ll be fine.”

He grimaced. “I’m just worried, Taylor.”

“I know,” she said. “And that’s okay, but you don’t need to.”

“It’ll take me a while to adjust,” he said.

“I figured,” she said with a light laugh. “It took me a while, too. I thought I was going crazy when the designs first started showing up in my head.”

“Designs?”

She nodded. “How to make them—the Rings, and the weapons, and the armor,” she said. “I thought I was hallucinating, or losing my mind. Apparently that happens to a lot of tinkers.”

“They lose their minds?” he asked, startled.

She laughed. “No, they think they are,” she said. “When the designs start coming. It’s… I can’t really describe it. It’s like something half-remembered, out of a dream, or another life. But,” she gestured with her left hand, and for a moment he thought he saw the red star on her finger again, “they’re real. They’re not a dream. I think that’s why I started with the Three—they seemed so fantastical, so magical, that if they were real, it all had to be.”

“You mentioned the Three before,” he said. “The Three what?”

“The Three Rings of Power,” Taylor said. “Sorry, I’ve just started calling them ‘the Three’ in my head. They’re three of twen—of nineteen. They’re the only ones I’ve made so far.”

Nineteen, or twenty? Danny wanted to ask, but the look on Taylor’s face convinced him not to. Instead, he took a bite of bacon and chewed slowly. Once he’d swallowed, he asked, “So, what’s the plan for today?”

Taylor’s face seemed to set slightly in determination. “Right,” she said. “We need to get my armor into the car—preferably soon, before people really start to wake up—and we should cover it up with a tarp. Aeglos, too.”

“Aeglos?”

“My spear,” she said. “It means ‘icicle’ in Sindarin.”

He blinked at her. “In what?”

She blinked twice. “Uh,” she said. “Never mind. Like I said: something out of a dream.”

He frowned at her. “Are you sure you’re feeling okay?”

She chuckled. “I’m feeling fine,” she said. “Maybe I’m starting to pick up a couple of languages that don’t exist, but hey. Some capes have worse side-effects. Look at Case-53s.”

He grimaced. “Fair enough,” he said. “Yeah, we should probably load your stuff soon.”

She nodded and stood.  He suddenly realized that, through their whole conversation, she’d been eating quickly and had already finished. “I’ll start bringing stuff downstairs,” she said. “You finish up. Protectorate doesn’t open until 7:30, and we should call ahead anyway, so there’s no rush except to get my stuff squared away before someone sees.”

He nodded, and she left, bounding upstairs with infectious energy.

He looked after her for a moment, and then tucked back into his food. As he ate, he thought about his wife.

Annette, he wondered. What would you do about this, I wonder? You always knew what to do better than I did.

He couldn’t help but imagine that Annette would have known just how to help Taylor through Emma’s betrayal, her trigger, her powers. Annette had been a natural mother, as though born to it. He just wasn’t that. He’d never been that.

Looking back, how many of their fights were because he’d felt ashamed of not being a better father to Taylor? How many could have been avoided if he’d just gotten over himself?

If he’d been a better man, would that horrible, horrible day have gone differently?

“It’s okay,” Taylor murmured from behind him. He started, and looked over his shoulder. She was smiling slightly over the pile of armor in her arms. “It’s okay,” she repeated. “Today’s going to be a good day. Tomorrow will be better.”

Taylor seemed almost to glow, as if peering in as a ray of sunlight through a parting in the clouds. Despair fell away, shame receded, and all that was left was…

“Hope,” she said lightly. “My favorite of Narya’s powers.”

“What is this?” he asked, and his voice was awed.

“Hope,” she said simply.

“That’s it?”

“That’s it,” she chuckled. “It’s wonderful, isn’t it?”

He laughed, and his voice was raw. “It really is,” he said. “You shouldn’t have to be my therapist.”

She grinned. “I’m the one with powers,” she said, turning and starting to walk out the door, her armor clinking in her arms. “Can you go downstairs and grab a tarp?”

“Yeah,” he said, standing and taking up his empty plate. “Be right back.” And as he set his empty plate in the sink, he smiled.

Chapter Text

“Hello, this is the PRT information line; how may I help you?” It was rapidly becoming clear that the PRT put a lot into training its responders. Also, I was spending too much of my time talking to them.

“Hi,” I said, drumming my fingers idly on the table as Dad watched me from across it. “I’m Annatar. I want to talk about joining the Wards.”

“Oh!” the responder sounded excited, and I didn’t blame her. I doubted calls like this came in often. “Well, I’ll let Director Piggot know immediately. Procedure for a new parahuman joining the Wards is to have a minimum of one in-person interview here at PRT HQ. When can you have that meeting?”

“Today, if possible,” I said. “Any time works.”

“Are you not in school?”

“I took the day off for this,” I said. “My dad gave permission.”

“So, he knows about your identity?” the responder asked rhetorically. “That’s good—we require parental permission to accept a parahuman into the Wards, in most cases.”

“I figured,” I told her. “Can the Director meet me today?”

“I’ve already sent her a message,” the responder said. “If you’d like, I can call you back—oh, wait, I’ve got a response. Yes, she can meet you. How does 9 AM sound?”

An hour and a half from now. “That sounds fine,” I said. “I’ll be there. Should I bring my dad? And should I come in costume?”

“Ideally, you should bring your costume but enter HQ out of it,” said the Responder promptly. “That way, no one can connect you to the guardian who’s bringing you. You can change inside.”

“I can’t carry my armor around. It’s too bulky. Will they be able to get it out of the car?”

“Oh, of course,” the responder said quickly. “I’ll have PRT officers waiting at… which ferry would you rather take?”

“The north ferry, if possible.”

“I’ll have a PRT squad prepared to covertly load your armor onto the ferry when you arrive, then,” said the responder. “Would that work?”

“That should be fine,” I said, smiling over at Dad. “I’ll be at the station for the 8:40 ferry, then.”

“Great!” the responder chirped. “I’ll get things set up on our end. When you arrive at the ferry, tell the officer on duty that your ticket number is… 80-459. He’ll help you load your equipment. Tell the guy at the front desk the same thing, okay? That’s eighty, forty-five, nine.”

“Eighty, forty-five, nine. Got it. Thanks.”

“No problem!” she said happily. “Good luck on your admission to the Wards, Annatar! I’m Kylie, and I’m looking forward to working with you!”

“Yeah,” I chuckled. “Looking forward to it.”

-x-x-x-

Dad and I walked into the Protectorate HQ together. The Rig was a veritable fortress, on a level I’d only peripherally imagined. The force-field was just the start: tinkertech turrets, air superiority vehicles, and probably a whole lot more that I couldn’t see.

Honestly, I was a little jealous. I wanted a big impenetrable fortress, too!

I chuckled to myself at the petulant thought as Dad and I approached the front desk. The guy behind it was talking to an armored PRT trooper, but he turned to us as we approached. “Hello,” he said. “How can I help you?”

“Hi,” I said. “My ticket number’s 80-459. Can you help me?”

He nodded, his blank smile unchanging. “Right,” he said. “I’ll tell the director you’ve arrived. You should have someone here to escort you in just a couple of minutes.”

“Thank you,” I said politely. “We’ll wait here.”

I led dad to the chairs along the sides of the lobby and we sat. As we did, he put his arm around my shoulder. “You doing okay?” he asked softly.

I smiled up at him. “I’m fine, Dad,” I said. “Don’t worry. We’ve got this.”

“Ticket 80-459?”

I looked up. Blinked a couple of times.

“Dauntless?” I asked, still blinking.

I thought the man smiled under his helmet. “That’s me,” he said. “Please follow me.”

Dad and I stood up and followed the man out of the lobby down a side corridor. As soon as the automatic door slid shut behind us, he turned to me.

“Okay, Annatar,” he said, “before we continue, I’ve got to tell you a couple things.”

“All right,” I said, slightly stiff.

He grinned under his helmet—I could tell because the fabric that covered his mouth shifted. “Nothing bad, don’t worry,” he said. “First, because you’re a known master, the base was put into level 0 M/S—that’s master/stranger, by the way—lockdown the moment we got confirmation you’d walked in. You understand?”

I nodded. Of course, I knew that I couldn’t master anyone right now, without Vilya, but they didn’t. Nor did they need to.

“Second,” Dauntless continued, “Every single person who was made aware of the connection between ‘ticket 80-459’ and the cape Annatar has already signed an NDA. Unless the PRT or Protectorate has a leak, that information is not leaving this base unless you get a kill order on you at some point in the future. Which, seeing as you’re a hero, is unlikely.”

I nodded. “Thank you for telling me,” I said. “I appreciate the measures you’re taking to maintain our privacy.”

He chuckled. “We’ve all been there,” he said. “Two identities are hard to keep track of as it is—no need to make it harder on our Wards. The important thing is that those NDAs are not contingent on you joining the Wards. You’re free to walk out at any time, and no one can reveal your identity legally. You understand?”

“I do.”

“Great.” He clapped his hands. “Now, do either of you have any questions?”

“I have one,” Dad said. “No one’s asked our names, I notice. Is that another privacy thing?”

Dauntless nodded. “A name’s probably a better way of finding someone than just a facial profile,” he said. “The less we know, the better, until such time as your… daughter?—no, don’t tell me—decides to unmask to us, if she does. So, no, I’m not going to ask your name, or hers. From my perspective, she’s Annatar, and you’re Annatar’s guardian, and that’s it.”

“Okay,” Dad said. “That makes sense. It must get hectic, sometimes.”

“It’s been worse before,” Dauntless confided. “Sometimes when a new Tinker is recruited, we need to close a whole road to get their stuff moved in. Annatar seems to be traveling light, for which we’re grateful.”

I chuckled. “Okay, I have one now,” I said. “Why did I need to bring my costume at all? If I’m already mostly unmasked to a couple of you, why not the Director and Armsmaster?”

“I mean, because why should you?” Dauntless shrugged. “I think it’s mostly a legal thing. The PRT directors have to report everything back to the chief director’s office in DC, so Piggot doesn’t want to know about your identity unless you decide to join up. This means that she doesn’t have to have an extra clause in her contract, basically. Besides,” he added conspiratorially, “I think it’s part of the recruitment pitch. They let you meet with them in costume so you’re comfortable when they make the offer.”

That latter sounded like a much more likely explanation to me. “Surely that’s a bit dangerous, though?” I asked. “What if a cape used the admissions procedure to get a shot at the Director, or Armsmaster?”

Dauntless raised an eyebrow at me. “Careful asking questions like that, Annatar,” he said lightly. “Wouldn’t want us getting suspicious. To answer your question, though, the office you’ll be meeting them in is on a hair-trigger to flood with containment foam if you make a threatening move. Obviously it’s not safe, because this is capes we’re talking about, but it’s not exactly a prime shot at the Director either.”

“Fair enough,” I said. “Oh, uh, I’m not planning to assassinate the Director. Just in case you were wondering.”

He laughed. “I wasn’t,” he said, “but thanks for letting me know. Come on, your costume’s this way.”

He led us down the corridor and into a small room. On a counter against one wall, my armor was laid out.

“Do you need us to step out?” Dauntless asked politely.

“Nah,” I said. “I’ll put it on over my clothes. Just give me a moment.”

Piece by piece the bright mithril armor covered my scrawny frame. Piece by piece, Taylor dropped away, and Annatar came to the fore. First the boots, then the thighs, then the tassets and plateskirt, then the chestplate and backplate. Then I slipped my arms into the upper armguards, and then the lower armguards.

I still didn’t have my gauntlets. Fuck.

I gathered up my hair deftly and slipped it through the hole in the back of my helmet, then took up Aeglos in my right hand.

I turned back to Dauntless and Dad. “There,” I said. Do I look like a cape now?”

Dauntless snorted. “Well, I’m jealous,” he said. “think you could make me some of that?”

I grinned. “Maybe,” I said. “We’ll talk about it once I’m a Ward. Now what?”

“Now,” he said, “I take you to the Director’s office. You’re going to have to leave the spear outside, I’m sorry to say.”

“I figured.”

-x-x-x-

Director Piggot was a large woman. That was what struck me first. It wasn’t that I was unaccustomed to seeing people who were overweight, or even that she was all that fat—I’d know plenty of much heavier people—it was that this was the woman in charge of the local branch of a sanctioned paramilitary outfit.

Her hair was bleached blonde, and her skin was an unhealthy pale. Then I met her eyes—as hard and grey as steel.

Suddenly, her position made a great deal more sense.

“Annatar,” she said. Armsmaster gave me a nod from behind her. “Come in, sit down. Your guardian is outside?”

“He is.”

“Good. I’m sure you understand—neither Armsmaster nor I want to so much as see him until we know whether or not you’re interested in joining the Wards.”

“I am,” I told her firmly.

“Truth,” Armsmaster confirmed. A lie-detector of some kind, I imagined—no wonder he’d detected my dodges two nights ago.

“Good,” said Piggot, “but it’s not that simple. Why do you want to join the Wards?”

I took a deep breath. “Short answer, I want to be a hero.”

“Truth,” Armsmaster said.

“And the long answer?”

“I need a team,” I said simply. “I need a team of people who I can trust to have my back, because my powers are made for group work. I didn’t want to be a villain, New Wave is a family team, and none of the other independent heroes in this city have enough members or real viability to give me what I need.”

“All true.”

“So we’re your last resort?” Piggot’s voice was a little hard now.

I snorted. “Technically you were my first resort, since I haven’t approached anyone else yet,” I said. “But if you’re asking whether I buy into all your rose-tinted PR materials and advertisements, the answer is no.”

“Truth.”

“Care to explain why? What don’t you like about us?”

I bit my lip. “I’ve had… bad experiences with adults who were supposed to be in charge of me,” I said. “Organizations responsible for me. I don’t trust them, as a rule.”

“Truth,” said Armsmaster.

“What kind of bad experiences?”

“My trigger event, for one.”

A moment of silence.

“Truth,” said Armsmaster flatly. “Could you please explain?”

I grimaced. “I’d rather do it after we decided whether I was joining up,” I said. “It would… probably unmask me.” The locker had been all over the news. It wouldn’t take long for them to connect ‘girl shoved in a locker and put into a psych ward for trauma’ to ‘Taylor Hebert.’

“Truth,” Armsmaster said. “Director?”

Piggot nodded. “Now, you told Armsmaster you were a master on Sunday night. Can you explain you master powers?”

“The first thing you need to know about my powers,” I said, “is that they’re modular. I can’t use more than one… set of powers at a time, and I can’t switch in the field. Not without setting something up that I haven’t done yet.” A pouch to hold my Rings might have worked, but it might also have been an easy target, and the idea of Lung getting his hands on a Ring of Power because I’d been careless and it fell off my belt sent a chill down my spine. “I can, however, give my modules to my allies. Or I should be able to—I haven’t tried yet. And I don’t want to until I really trust someone—personally. They’re not small powers.” I cleared my throat awkwardly. “So, uh, if as part of my contract I’ll be expected to hand those out to people whenever I’m ordered to, that’s going to be a dealbreaker.”

“All true,” Armsmaster said.

“The contract is negotiable,” Piggot said. “We’ll get to that later. One of your… modules… contains the master power you used?”

I nodded. “By the way, did you recover the guy?”

“We did not, unfortunately,” Piggot said shortly. “We believe the ABB retrieved him.”

I grimaced. “Damn,” I said. “I told him he’d be released if they got him, too, but I hope he doesn’t get too badly hurt over this.”

“Truth,” said Armsmaster evenly.

“I figured,” Piggot told him, and her voice was dry. “Can you give us any details about how your master ability works?”

I nodded. “I can… dominate weak wills,” I said. “I basically put myself into a contest of wills with my target. I doubt I’d be able to master either of you, but an ABB gangbanger who’s gotten used to just obeying Lung and never thinking for himself was easy pickings.”

“Truth,” Armsmaster confirmed.

“We’ll decide on what rating to give that later,” Piggot said. “is that all that module can do?”

“Not even close,” I said through a huffed laugh. “Elemental control—pyrokinetics, aerokinetics, that kind of thing—minor precognition… probably a couple other things I haven’t tested. The Ri—the modules’ powers come to me when I need them, and I already kind of know how to use them.”

“All true.”

“Is that the module you’re using now?”

“No,” I said. “Right now I’m using one which gives me and my allies protection from master abilities and from despair, as well as enhancing my strength and giving me a sort of inverse-stranger power that demands respect.”

“Truth.”

Piggot exhaled a long breath. “Jesus,” she muttered. “You realize you sound like Eidolon right now, don’t you?”

I blinked. “What?” I asked blankly. Then I thought about it. “Oh, hell.”

“How many of these modules do you have?”

“Three,” I said. “But I can add more. I’ve got plans for twen--nineteen in my head. Sixteen more.”

“Mostly true. Nineteen is a lie.”

“Twenty, then.” I grimced. “I don’t like the last one.”

“True.”

“Plans?” Piggot asked sharply. “Are you a tinker, then?”

I nodded slowly. “Yeah. Like I said, I can theoretically give my modules out to other people. That’s because they’re made with my tinker ability.”

“Tinker 8,” said Armsmaster flatly. “At minimum. Also, true.”

“High tinker, at the least,” Piggot agreed. “Well. You certainly aren’t a minor player, are you?”

“On my own?” I asked. “I’m just another fairly strong cape. With a team? I can be a massive boost. I want to use that to help the heroes.”

“And that’s good,” Piggot said. “You’ll have to run through intensive vetting, obviously, but that can be done after we sign you up as a trial Ward.”

“Intensive vetting?” I asked.

“Master/stranger screening, non-disclosure agreements, and a more security-oriented interview with Armsmaster,” Piggot explained. “But for now, if you’re still willing, we’d be happy to accept you into the Wards program as a trial member.”

“I am. Trial member?”

Piggot nodded. “You’ll be allowed to be a member of the Wards for a trial period of one week, during which we’ll allow you to take part in all Wards activities, before you actually have to sign the contract. We’ll give you the contract immediately, so you can look it over in the meantime.”

“I didn’t know that trial period existed,” I said, surprised. “Why isn’t it more public?”

Piggot smiled wryly. “Several reasons, the most pressing of which is that it’s recent. It was only put into place by Chief Director Costa-Brown a few weeks ago.”

“Fair enough,” I said. “Do I still have to unmask to you?”

Piggot nodded. “We can’t get you in the system otherwise,” she said. “You’re willing?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Armsmaster, please let her guardian in here.”

Armsmaster nodded came around the desk, and opened the door behind me. I turned to watch as Dad came in.

He smiled at me, but he looked a little worried. “You okay, T—kiddo?”

“Fine,” I said gently. “Don’t worry about me. Nothing worse than I expected.”

“Please sir, sit down,” Piggot said.

Dad approached. Armsmaster shut the door behind him and came around to his old position behind the Director.

“Now, Annatar,” Piggot said. “If you’re ready?”

I nodded, brought both hands up to my temples, and pulled off the helmet. “Hi,” I said, smiling slightly self-consciously. “I’m Taylor Hebert.”

“Danny Hebert,” my dad introduced.

Piggot nodded. “Director Emily Piggot, PRT ENE,” she said formally. “Now… Taylor. You said something about your trigger event being caused by authority figures?”

I grimaced. “Not caused, exactly” I said. “They just let it happen and let the bitches responsible get off scot free.”

Dad put his hand on mine. I took it in my fingers and squeezed.

“You don’t mind if I tell you now?” I asked. “I’ll be honest, I was hoping you could help me if I joined up.”

Piggot shrugged. “I can’t make any promises,” she said. “But if you want to tell us, I’ll be able to tell you what we can do.”

“Right,” I said, and took a deep breath. “Okay. I go to Winslow High, and I’ve been getting bullied there.”

“Bullied,” Dad said grimly, “really doesn’t cover it.”

“The locker incident,” Armsmaster put in. “Yes? We had that flagged as a potential trigger event.”

I nodded. “I was hoping you could transfer me to Arcadia,” I confessed. “I heard the Wards mostly go there.”

“That can probably be arranged,” Piggot agreed.

I sighed. “Oh, thank God.”

“Armsmaster,” Piggot said, looking over at the hero. “This ‘locker incident’—I admit I’ve forgotten the details.”

“I’ll brief you later,” Armsmaster said evenly. “I’d rather not talk in depth about a probable Ward’s trigger event while she’s in the room.”

“Do you think you could help us press charges?” Dad asked. “The school wouldn’t even hear a word of punishing the people who did it—said it was Taylor’s word against theirs, and no one came forward with witnesses.”

“Unlikely,” Piggot said. “We don’t have any direct jurisdiction there, or over anyone who’s not a parahuman.”

“It’s fine, Dad, honestly,” I said. “I don’t…. If I can just get away from Madison, Sophia, and Emma, I’ll be fine.”

“I know, kiddo,” Dad said quietly, looking at me. “It’s just… it really isn’t fair.”

I snorted. “Life isn’t.”

“No,” Piggot said, and there was something dark in her voice. “No, it really isn’t. Sophia, you said?”

I glanced at her. Her face, which had been fairly set throughout the whole conversation, had darkened into an ugly scowl.

“Yeah,” I said. “Sophia Hess.”

Armsmaster’s voice was cold when he said, “Truth.”

Chapter Text

Sophia stalked past the PRT mook behind the desk, her gloved hands fiddling with her mask’s straps. It was just after lunchtime, and she’d gotten the call from the PRT that the Wards were being called in.

Probably an assembly or some shit, she grumbled. An announcement, maybe. Still, she was honestly glad to get away from Emma for the rest of the day. The girl had been insufferable since Friday.

It wasn’t that she’d changed. It was that she hadn’t. Was she really that stupid? Did she really think antagonizing the Hebert girl was a good idea, now?

Sophia knew what happened when you pushed a new cape too far. It wasn’t that she was scared of Hebert—obviously—but if there was any class of people that epitomized the ideal of predator it was the parahuman. It paid to be cautious when dealing with them.

She’d been relieved when Hebert hadn’t shown up to school today, at least at first: hopefully, she could talk some sense into Emma before it got to be a problem. But there hadn’t been a chance before lunch, and now she was stuck here.

I’ll call her tonight, Sophia decided. Tell her we need to back off. At least until Hebert joins a villain group, and I can go after her properly.

It was part of what rankled so much when the Wards got rid of her lethal ammo. Yeah, sure, she could take your average ganger or mugger with tranqs, but how the fuck did they expect her to deal with someone like Lung without proper weapons? The enemy wasn’t holding back. As long as the other ‘heroes’ did, it was only going to cripple them, and get them killed.

Especially if people like Grue were allowed to run around and interfere with the heroes’ powers. If Sophia couldn’t trust her weapons or her powers, well, that was a really bad situation all around, and now—thanks to the PRT’s bullshit—it was the situation she was in every damn day out there.

She found that she was clenching her fists. She forced herself to relax. It wouldn’t do to get Piggy on her case before even walking into the room.

She ran into Aegis just as she was reaching the elevator to go down the Wards’ section of the base. “Shadow Stalker,” he greeted politely. “You got any idea why we’re here?”

She shook her head. “No,” she said flatly. “Hope it’s not a waste of time.”

The elevator door opened. She almost wished he’d tried to enter first so she could shove past him, but he didn’t, so she had to settle for going in first and watching him follow.

He was watching her. “The PRT doesn’t waste our time all that often,” he said. “Think it might be a new Ward?”

Sophia grunted. “Maybe,” she said. “Doesn’t happen often.”

“Yeah,” agreed Aegis, “but nor does this. They usually only pull all of us out for emergencies. Now we’re suddenly all getting called into HQ during school?”

Sophia shrugged. “They didn’t call everyone in when I was recruited,” she said.

“Yeah, but your recruitment was… an unusual case,” said Aegis, avoiding the issue like the pussy he was.

Sophia rolled her eyes and said nothing.

The elevator opened. Sophia exited first and looked around. Vista was already there—she looked up when Sophia and Aegis came in. “Hey, Carlos, Shadow Stalker,” she called. “Seen any of the others yet?”

Sophia just grunted.

“No,” Aegis said, passing Sophia and approaching the younger girl. “Do you know what this is about?”

Vista shook her head. “Armsmaster was in here earlier,” she said. “Told me we’d talk about it when everyone was here. He seemed… grim.”

“More than usual?” Sophia asked flippantly, throwing herself down onto a couch.

“Yes,” Vista said shortly.

The elevator on the other side of the room, leading from the south side of the base, opened, and in stepped three more of the Wards—Gallant, Clockblocker, and Browbeat.

“Dean!” Vista called, waving. “Dennis, Joe, hey.”

“Hey, Missy,” Gallant said, raising a hand in greeting. “Carlos, Shadow Stalker.”

Sophia grunted, rolling her eyes at Vista’s pathetic display. “Where’s Kid Win?” she asked.

“On his way,” Clockblocker said. “Carlos, you know what’s happening?”

Aegis shook his head. “Missy said Armsmaster was waiting until we all got here to tell us.”

“Well,” Sophia said dryly, “he’d better get here soon. This is a waste of time.”

“Nice to see you too, Stalker,” said Vista caustically. “How have you been? Meet any cute boys lately?”

Sophia swung her legs up onto the couch so she was laying back on it, and brought her hand up, middle finger raised at Vista, in the same motion. “Fuck you,” she said succinctly. “Oh, wait, sorry, would that be pedophilia?”

“Enough,” Aegis said, and there was an edge to his voice. “Missy, don’t antagonize her. Stalker, there’s no need for that.”

Sophia shifted her hand so her finger was facing her so-called ‘leader’ before lowering it.

The south elevator opened again, and in rushed Kid Win, still adjusting his visor. “Sorry I’m late, guys,” he apologized. “Had to make a stop at home on the way.”

“Nah, it’s fine,” Sophia drawled. “Feel free to waste our time whenever you want.”

“Can it, Stalker,” Aegis said flatly. “Chris, it’s no big deal. Missy, did Armsmaster say to get him when we all got here?”

Vista shook her head. “He just said he’d be here.”

A door to one of the quiet rooms on the side of the area opened, and in walked Armsmaster. “So I did,” he said. “Thank you, Vista, for not telling them.”

Wait, he was there the whole time? Sophia blinked, then glared. And the little bitch didn’t tell us? Fuck her. I don’t think I said anything too bad.

Vista gave him a thumbs-up. “So, what’s this about, boss?” she asked.

Armsmaster walked across the room and came to a halt right in front of Sophia. “Shadow Stalker,” he said, and there was something in his voice that set Sophia’s teeth on edge. “You will go into that room, alone, and shut the door behind you. There’s someone in there to talk to you. I’ll debrief your teammates.”

Sophia grimaced. “What’d I do this time?” she asked gruffly, sitting up.

Armsmaster shook his head. “No, we’re not having that conversation,” he said flatly. “In the room. Now.”

Sophia snarled, stood up, and pushed past him, crossing the lobby and entering the side room.

There was someone sitting at the table. A girl, in silvery armor that seemed to glow. She was white, and her brown eyes were locked onto Sophia’s mask the moment she walked in.

“Close the door, please,” she said, and there was something about her voice that made Sophia want to grind her teeth.

“Who are you?” she demanded.

“Annatar,” said the girl. “Close the door, now. You and I need to talk.”

“Close the door, Shadow Stalker,” Armsmaster ordered from behind her.

Sophia let out a growl, but obeyed, then threw herself into a chair across from Annatar. “So, what?” she asked. “You’re a new Ward?”

Annatar nodded. “That’s the certain part,” she said. “The uncertain part is what happens to you now.”

Sophia’s fists clenched. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“I mean,” Annatar said, and she was perfectly calm, “that if I choose, after this conversation, I can have you summarily drummed out of the Wards, taken off the streets, and shoved into juvie at the least. So let’s talk.”

Sophia stood up sharply. “You think you can threaten me?” she snarled.

“I just got classified,” Annatar said quietly. “Tinker 7, Trump 6. A few other ratings. I’m a valuable cape, Shadow Stalker, and the PRT wants me in the Wards a lot more than they want you.”

“Well, what the hell does that have to do with anything?” Sophia demanded. “Why would they just kick me out? I haven’t done anything!”

Annatar let out a short, sharp laugh. “Oh, you are funny,” she said. Then she reached up and took off her helmet.

Sophia’s world tilted on its axis.

Taylor Hebert shook out her hair and set her helmet on the desk. “Sit down, Sophia,” she said smoothly, and let’s talk.”

“No.” Sophia barely heard the word coming out of her own mouth.

“It’s in your interest,” Taylor said. “If you walk out now, there’s no hope for you.”

“No. No way. You? A Ward? A hero?”

Taylor snorted. “I said the same thing when I found out, you know?” she chuckled. “You? The girl so vicious and vile she thought shoving a classmate into her locker with a literal biohazard was an innocent prank? But them’s the breaks, I’m afraid.”

“No,” Sophia said, and some quiet corner of her brain registered that her voice was getting a little shrill. “No, fuck this. I’m not going to work with you.”

“Is that your final answer?”

There was something about how Hebert said that that made Sophia stop.

“Because, believe me,” Taylor said evenly, “I would love to have you walk out that door right now and be unceremoniously arrested and kicked out on your ass. That would be wonderful. I owe you for a hell of a lot of shit, Sophia. But there’s an alternative. Sit down.”

Sophia sat. She found, in a horrible moment, that she had no idea what to say.

Taylor folder her hands together. “Now, Sophia,” she said, and her voice was like silk—smooth and almost alluring. “What do you desire?”

“What?”

“Do you know what Annatar means?”

Sophia blinked at the non-sequitur. “It sounds made-up.”

“It’s Quenya.” Taylor chuckled. “Don’t ask. It means ‘Lord of Gifts.’ So let’s talk, and we’ll see if I can find it in me to give you a gift.”

Sophia twitched. “What are you on about, Hebert?” she asked warily.

Hebert smiled. “Take off your mask,” she instructed. “I want to see your face.”

“Why?”

“Just do it,” Taylor said wearily. “It’s not as though I don’t already know who you are.”

Sophia snarled, but obeyed. The two girls’ eyes locked.

“Now, Sophia,” said Taylor. “Answer me honestly. What did you enjoy about what you were doing to me?”

Sophia bared her teeth. “Fuck you,” she said. “You don’t get to psychoanalyze me.”

“So you don’t know?”

Fuck you.”

Taylor sighed. “Let me make something clear to you,” she said. “I’m trying to help you. God knows why. But I know this city needs heroes. If you’re willing to work with me, I’m willing to work with you in the name of making sure it gets them. But I’ve already compromised as much as I’m willing—I’m willing to refrain from pressing charges, I’m willing to let you stay, even though you’ve made my life hell for a year and a half. I’ve already accommodated more than my fair share. This conversation? This is you meeting me halfway, and the only person who loses if you don’t is you.”

Sophia gritted her teeth.

“Now answer the question,” Taylor said. “What did you enjoy about torturing me?”

“I’m a predator, bitch,” Sophia snarled. “Preying on the weak is what I do. The weak, the stupid, people who don’t fight back. People like you.”

Taylor smiled. “I see,” she said. A chill went through Sophia’s core at her tone.

“Fuck you.”

“Sorry, I’m straight. Try Emma. Now, why me?”

“What?” Sophia blinked at the lightning-fast retort.

“There must have been a few hundred ‘weak’ people in Winslow,” Taylor said. “Madison, for instance. Why was I the one you targeted?”

Sophia rolled her eyes. “What is this, a pity party?”

Taylor snorted. “Do you really think I give a damn what you think about me anymore?” she asked dryly. “I’m trying to understand you. Trying to see how we can work together. So answer the question.”

“You were holding Emma back,” Sophia said, sneering. “Girl was just getting a spine after that mess two summers ago, and then you came back and you were weak as shit. So I tried to buck her up, get her to toss you.” She grimaced. “Then she got obsessive. Which was, honestly, kinda weird.”

“I’m going to need some background,” Taylor said evenly. “What happened two summers ago?”

Sophia sighed. “Look, I don’t have all day—”

“I think you rather do,” said Taylor in a voice about fifty times drier than sandpaper. “What happened?”

“She and her dad got attacked by ABB gangers,” Sophia said flatly. “They blocked the road with a dumpster, then pulled Emma out of the car. I saw it happen. At first, I was going to let them rough her up a bit so I could really cut loose on them—justifiable assault, you know?”

Taylor blinked evenly at her. “But?”

“Well, Emma got a spine,” Sophia said, a grin coming to her lips at the memory. “She tried to claw the guy’s eyes out. Sure, she wasn’t a match for them, but at least she was trying. She was predator material. I saved her, and took her under my wing. Tried to teach her how the world works.”

“And that was this schema of predators and prey?”

“What, you don’t think it works like that?” Sophia snorted. “The strong eat the weak. That’s nature, that’s life. Humans—and capes—are no different.”

Taylor seemed to consider that. “And then Emma seemed to have a weak spot for me,” she said. “So you cauterized it. And she learned to love the hot iron. Like a slave begging for the whip.”

“The fuck?” Sophia blanched. “Where did you come up with that shit?”

Taylor smiled slightly. “Oh, don’t mind me,” she said. “Now, Sophia, what do you think is the difference between a hero and a villain?”

Sophia snorted. “What the hell kind of question is that?”

“One to which you don’t have an answer.”

Silence fell. Sophia’s mouth worked soundlessly for a moment, and then she settled for a weak “You don’t know me.”

“Don’t I?”

Sophia couldn’t answer. Eventually, she forced out, “What are you, a Thinker?”

“Maybe,” Taylor allowed. “I don’t think these are my powers though. This is all me.” Then she smiled. “Now, Sophia, would you like to know the difference between a hero and a villain?”

“Fuck you,” Sophia ground out. “Heroes stop villains from breaking the law. That’s all there is to it.”

“You and I both know that’s not true.”

Sophia gritted her teeth.

“Before we talk about the difference between heroes and villains,” Taylor said, “we need to talk about a common misconception—the Protectorate, and the Wards, are all heroes, and everyone that’s labeled a villain is a villain. Neither of those statements is  true. The only thing that determines labels is PR. You were labeled a rogue because you got decent PR for targeting villains, before you joined the Wards, but you were a villain.”

Fuck you. No I wasn’t.”

“You were,” Taylor said gently, “and you still are, Sophia. This is your last and only chance to change that—listening to me here and now. Because I can tell you what makes someone like, I don’t know, Panacea a hero, and what makes someone like Jack Slash a villain, regardless of the labels people give them. I’m your only chance at this before you get thrown into juvie. If you listen, you can stay out of there, and get one last chance to be better. If you don’t, well, that’s one more villain off the streets. It’s your choice.”

When Taylor put it like that, it wasn’t much of a choice at all. “Fine, talk.”

“A villain,” Taylor said quietly, “is anyone—anyone at all, cape or otherwise—who thinks that the strong should prey on the weak, and that they are among the strong.”

“Fuck you.” That’s me.

“A hero,” Taylor steamrolled over her, “is someone among the strong who protects the weak. Being a hero isn’t about beating up bad guys, Sophia. It’s about making the world better. Not for you, not for the strong, not for the ‘predators,’ but for the weak. A hero is the voice of the voiceless, the song of the mute, the sword of the disarmed, the shield of the defenseless. That, Sophia, is what a hero is. That’s why you’re a villain—to you, it’s all about conflict, about hurting people, about making the world worse, even if it is worse specifically for people you think are bad.”

“That’s bull.” The words sounded somehow hollow even as they came out of her mouth.

“Do you have any better definitions?”

Sophia would have liked to say that the words stuck in her throat, but it would be a lie—there were no words at all.

“That, Sophia, is my gift,” Taylor said quietly. “I offer you that understanding, and this chance. You’ll probably get out of juvie well before you’re eighteen, if you want to. Then you’ll be out on the street, a fugitive with powers. A villain. Or you can stay here. Deal with me. And try to be a hero. And I do mean try,” she added with a twisted smile. “No one’s expecting you to break years of habit in a day. But you do have to at least try to do better.”

“So that’s it?” Sophia asked. “Hero or villain? That’s it? Just like that?”

“It’s the same choice every parahuman makes,” Taylor said. “Regardless of all the PR, and the mislabeling, and the speculation on PHO, each of us has to decide whether we want to take advantage of the people weaker than us, or protect them. We decide that right at the beginning. Sometimes, we change our minds. You made the wrong choice once, Sophia. Will you do it again?”

“Fuck you.”

“You don’t have to like me,” Taylor chuckled. “I know I’ll probably never like you. But you do have to choose.”

And Sophia did.

Chapter Text

Immediately following Glimmer 1.6

“Director,” Armsmaster said crisply, “A word, if you please?”

Piggot glanced at him, then back at me. “Annatar,” she said slowly, “if you and your father could please step outside?”

I considered her. “You know something,” I said. “Sophia’s a cape, isn’t she? I could tell.”

Piggot considered me, her eyes hooded, her face perfectly blank. “Do you have a power that allows you to tell capes from non-capes?” she asked evenly.

“Not exactly,” I hedged. “I just… get a feeling for power, especially when it’s arrayed against me. The entirety of Winslow is full of my enemies, but only Sophia pinged on that radar. Is she a Merchant? Or one of the minor groups? She can’t be ABB or Empire.”

“You know we can’t unmask a cape to you,” Armsmaster said slowly. “Villain or no. The director and I need to discuss this for a moment and decide what to do. I promise you, Annatar, we’re on your side here, but some of this information is highly sensitive. Please step outside.”

I shrugged. “Sure,” I said. “Come on, Dad.”

If they decide to cooperate, great. If not, well, I’ll still go through this trial thing, but if they can’t trust me, I can’t work with them, and if they’re not willing to stick their necks out a bit to help me out of Winslow, I’m not really willing to help them with all their PR bullshit.

I slipped my helmet on as I stood up and led my dad out of the room. Just as I opened the door, I glanced back around my shoulder.

“Just remember,” I said. “I haven’t signed anything yet. I don’t have to sign anything yet.”

They didn’t answer, and I stepped out of the room, Dad following behind.

A cape shut the door behind us. I recognized him—Triumph, a recent graduate from the Wards. The shine of the gold paint on his shoulderpads didn’t quite conceal the ordinary steel underneath.

“Annatar, right?” he asked.

I nodded, holding out a hand, which he shook. “That’s right. And you’re Triumph. Nice to meet you. You were Wards captain for the Bay for a while, right?”

“Yep,” he confirmed. “You got any questions about it?”

I thought about that. “Well, I have some problems in my civilian identity,” I said. “Things that have to do with my trigger. How likely do you think the PRT is to stick their necks out for me?”

He frowned. “I mean, it depends,” he said. “They probably won’t break any laws for you or anything, but if you just need, I dunno, a support network, they’ll do what they can. I’m not exactly a policy maker, though; I don’t know.”

“Fair enough,” I said. That was supremely unhelpful. “What if I happened into knowledge of a villain’s civilian identity?”

He blinked at me from beneath his mask. “Oh. Hm. I don’t know, actually. There’s the unwritten rules, but it’s a villain. I guess it’d depend on which villain. It’s bad form to go after people in their secret identities, but if they’re bad enough…”

“Annatar?” The door opened, and Armsmaster stood in the space. “Please, come in. We’ve come to a decision.”

I nodded and followed him inside, Dad close behind me.

Piggot was still seated at the desk. She looked somehow diminished, weakened, tired. Clearly whatever decision was made was one she didn’t fully like.

We returned to our places, like players returning to the stage following intermission. Armsmaster returned to Piggot’s elbow, I sat across from her, and Dad sat at my side. I did not remove my helmet, instead resting my chin on my hand and studying the director from across her desk.

As Triumph shut the door behind us, I broke the silence. “Well?” I asked. “What have you decided to tell me?”

Piggot glanced at Armsmaster silently. The man sighed.

“Sophia Hess,” he said slowly, “is a parahuman. You’re quite right there.”

I nodded. “I know. What else?”

Armsmaster’s mouth twisted. “I want you to know,” he said slowly, “that we had no idea any of this was going on. This was the result of a sequence of lapses in judgement and incompetent behavior on the parts of several people involved, and now that it’s been brought to our attention we’ll do our utmost to fix the situation.”

My face froze. I stared into his featureless visor. “Explain,” I ordered, unable to keep Narya from rushing to amplify my voice. “Now.”

To his credit, he didn’t flinch. “Sophia Hess is the civilian identity of the Ward Shadow Stalker,” he said.

There was a crack as my fist came down on the desk. The desk broke, a hole punched into it as by an artillery shell. “No,” I said, and my voice was shrill in spite of Narya. “No, you’re fucking kidding me! That bitch is one of yours? That bitch is supposed to be a hero?”

“ ‘Supposed to be’ is a very good way of putting it,” said Piggot dryly.

“As I said,” Armsmaster said evenly, “we had no idea any of this was going on—”

How?” I thundered, standing sharply and staring into his visor. He was a tall man, especially in his armor, but I was almost as tall as he was, and with Narya enhancing and building me up I was practically dwarfing him in presence, if not in actual size. “How the fuck did you miss something like that? Do you not bother with any kind of oversight? When a girl got shoved into her locker at your Ward’s school, did you not even bother to look?”

Armsmaster didn’t back down in the slightest, even though I was battering him with Narya’s overbearing will. “As far as we can tell,” he said stiffly, “her handler totally failed to keep a proper watch on her, and the school’s administration was too attached to the funding they got for being a Ward’s school to hold her accountable for her behavior. In addition, Emma Barnes’ father is the lawyer who first represented Sophia when she was brought in for vigilantism and vouched for her character so that we would offer her a plea bargain to join the Wards in lieu of juvenile hall; it is possible he… misrepresented the case to some or all of the people involved.”

Fucking Alan,” Dad muttered.

That brought me back to earth. I sat down heavily, slouching slightly, curling inward. I was spent, exhausted. I could have drawn on Narya to uplift me, but I didn’t want to use the Ring right now. I just wanted to be done here.

“What are you going to do now?” I asked, by voice soft and a little rough.

“Shadow Stalker will, of course, be removed from the Wards’ active roster,” Armsmaster said evenly. “Miss Hess will be removed from Winslow, and the PRT will find an excuse to launch an investigation into Winslow’s administration. Shadow Stalker’s handler will be drummed out of the force with a dishonorable discharge, and Miss Hess will quietly be consigned either to juvenile hall or possibly prison, depending on what our legal department thinks she can be charged with.”

I nodded dully. “Great,” I said. “Fine. You fucked up. Fix it.”

“We will, Annatar,” Piggot said firmly. “You have our assurances of that. Sophia Hess has done everything exactly wrong, has broken every law, rule, and oath in the Wards’ contract, and she will be punished for it. If I have my say, she’ll be tried as an adult for terrorism and use of a bioweapon, if even half of the report on the locker incident is true. She’ll be looking at a prison sentence for at least several years.”

She’s just a child.

It would be months and years before I was able to truly understand what it was that put that thought in my head. Sophia Hess was a bully, a monster, a demon in human skin. She’d made it her mission to make my like hell for more than a year. She’d taken one of the highest academically achieving girls in middle school and systematically beaten her down until she was practically failing high school and couldn’t find it in herself to give a damn. She’d come damn close to killing me—more than once.

More than that, she’d almost managed to get me to kill myself. More than once.

She’s just a child.

She was a monster, but what I didn’t understand was why. Children aren’t born evil. Nothing is. What could have made Sophia into the monster she was? Had she even had a choice, any more than I had?

She’d triggered, same as I. It was so easy to see how, if I’d had any other power, if the Three weren’t so wonderful and supportive and strong, I could have become a monster myself. I’d spent a week in a madhouse after my trigger because I’d been a gibbering wreck. I’d gotten better.

What if Sophia hadn’t?

She’s just a child.

“I need to understand,” I said thickly.

“Pardon?” Armsmaster said.

I looked up at him. I had a feeling my eyes were red. They certainly itched. “I don’t understand why she’d do this,” I said quietly. “I need to. I want to talk to her. Face to face.”

“I’m afraid that’s against policy—” Armsmaster began.

I shook my head. “I won’t hurt her,” I said. “I don’t… I want to understand. I want to hear, from her, why she did it. She’s… she’s just a kid. What could have happened to make a child into that?”

“She likely has some disorder,” Piggot said flatly. “Psychopathy, perhaps. Parahumans aren’t famous for being particularly stable.”

“Because we fucking trigger,” I said, glaring at her. “Because we go through days that are so bad that they color the rest of our lives! Because we get broken down into something less than human, and get rewarded for it with more than human power! You’d be fucked up too, Director Piggot, if you had to deal with what we do! If you had to use powers which, every damn day, reminded you of one of the worst moments in your life!”

I looked back up at Armsmaster. “I don’t really hate her anymore,” I said, and it was honestly true. “I pity her, if anything. I don’t know what fucked her up this badly, but… well, she was an independent hero even before she joined the Wards, right?”

“That’s true,” said Armsmaster cautiously. “She had a habit of being overly brutal, however.”

I waved that away. “If all she wanted was to hurt people,” I said quietly, “it would have been so much easier to do it as a villlain. That’s what villains do. She chose to target criminals instead. Why?”

“I’d assume it’s so that she’d get the good PR that comes with heroism,” said Piggot caustically.

“Haw you met her?” I asked roughly. “What exactly gave you the impression that she wants to be well liked? Was it the way she shoves people out of the way like they’re dust in her path, or the way she talks to everyone like they’re beneath her? No, Director, I can’t help but think she set out to be a hero, and lost her way.”

“You’re serious,” Armsmaster said. “You want to, what, give her another chance?”

“Sophia doesn’t understand chances,” I said. “I want to understand what makes her tick. I want to figure out where she fucked up. And if she sincerely wants to be a hero, then I want to teach her myself. I want to actually watch her properly, and hold her accountable, and give her a chance, not to shape up, but to be shaped. To be molded into the hero that I think she wants to be.”

Piggot and Armsmaster looked at each other. “We’ll have to discuss this,” Piggot said.

“But we’re outmanned in Brockton Bay,” said Armsmaster thoughtfully. “There’s no question that another hero on the roster would be a good thing, but only if you think you can actually make Shadow Stalker into a net positive.”

“I don’t know,” I said truthfully. “I need to talk to her.”

“Well, we’ll certainly consider it,” said Armsmaster, looking back at me. “In the meantime, if you could follow Triumph to have your powers tested and rated, we’ll consider your idea.”

“Thank you,” I said, standing up. “If you could just give me an interview room or something to talk to her, in private, for about half an hour… I can’t promise we’ll come to an agreement, but I’ll try to make the offer. And I won’t hurt her.”

“We’ll consider it,” said Piggot flatly. “If you please?”

I left. Dad followed.

“Taylor,” he said lowly, as Triump led us down a corridor toward power testing, “I get that you want to be the better person here, but are you sure? It seems insane to want to give someone like her a second chance.”

Third chance,” I corrected him. “And yes, I’m sure. She’s a child, Dad. If she knows anything about right and wrong, it’s because she’s learned it; and she’s not so old, yet, that she can’t unlearn it. She’s an asset, if nothing else, and I’d rather not waste it.

“Well, I’m really proud of you,” he said with a wan smile. “I don’t think—no, I know I couldn’t do that. I’m just worried about you. I know you said you wouldn’t hurt her, but don’t let her hurt you, either.”

“You don’t have to worry about that,” I chuckled. “I’ll be perfectly safe.”

-x-x-x-

“Why would they kick me out?” Shadow Stalker snarled. “I haven’t done anything!”

Narya sang in my veins, allowing me to look my tormentor in the eye unblinking, and overpower her very presence with my own. I chuckled. “Oh, you are funny,” I said, and took off my helmet.

I saw the slight tilt of her head, saw her reel, saw her try to reconcile the world of two seconds ago with the world of now, and fail. I knew exactly how she felt.

“Sit down, Sophia,” I said, “and let’s talk.”

“No.” Sophia’s voice was strangled by more than just the helmet. I could practically here her heartbeat accelerating, the adrenaline rushing to her brain.

“It’s in your interest,” I told her truthfully. “If you walk out now, there’s no hope for you.”

“No. No way. You? A Ward? A hero?”

You don’t even know what that word means.

“I said the same thing when I found out, you know?” I asked rhetorically, a light laugh bubbling up to color the words. “You? The girl so vicious and vile she thought shoving a classmate into her locker with a literal biohazard was an innocent prank? But them’s the breaks, I’m afraid.”

“No.” Her voice was getting high, almost panicked. “No, fuck this. I’m not going to work with you.”

“Is that your final answer?” My lips twisted into a smile. Part of me hoped she would just walk out. Sitting here, directly across from the woman—no, the girl—who’d driven me to madness, to depression, to pain, and eventually to power, I was reminded of just how deep and strong ran my hatred for her.

But she’s just a child.

As much as I was enjoying this conversation, enjoying getting her on the back foot for once, enjoying being the one with all the power, I had a goal in mind. I needed to know.

“Because, believe me, I would love to have you walk out that door right now and be unceremoniously arrested and kicked out on your ass,” I told her. It was, of course, true. I just had a better prize in mind for the alternative. “That would be wonderful. I owe you for a hell of a lot of shit, Sophia. But there’s an alternative. Sit down.”

When she did, my smile widened slightly, because I knew I’d won. “Now, Sophia,” I said, and n my satisfaction my voice came out practically a purr. “What do you desire?”

End Arc 1: Glimmer

Chapter Text

When I followed Sophia out of the room, both of our masks back on our faces, we were immediately faced with the stares of seven heroes, most of them accusing.

“Shadow Stalker,” Aegis said, and his voice was hard. “You know what Armsmaster’s been telling us?”

“If it’s about my trigger,” I offered, stepping up beside Sophia, “then yes, she does.”

Aegis stared at me. I didn’t know what his face looked like under his mask, but I had a strong feeling it was incredulous. “You’re—” he stopped.

I smiled. “Annatar,” I said. “Yes, I’m the girl she shoved into the locker. We’ve reached an understanding.”

Sophia snorted. From her perspective, I knew, nothing had changed except that her probation might actually be enforced now. She saw this as just another “last chance.” I was determined to disabuse her of that notion.

But that could come later.

“An understanding?” Aegis sounded floored. “You can forgive something like that?”

“Far from it,” I replied. “But it’s better to have another hero on the streets than a villain, and I want to see if I can make Shadow Stalker into a hero.”

“And that’s a more than admirable goal,” Armsmaster cut in. “But let me be clear, Shadow Stalker: as far as I’m concerned, you’ve already run out of chances. You’re here because Annatar wants you here. The moment I see you step an inch out of line, you’ll be out of the Wards and off the streets before you can put away your crossbow. Are we clear?”

“Crystal, sir,” said Sophia venomously.

Armsmaster studied her for a moment, and then looked away, glancing among the other Wards. “You all have the rest of the day off from school to get acquainted with your new teammate,” he said. Then, to me: “Annatar, Director Piggot and I would like to see you in about an hour about your transfer to Arcadia.”

I nodded. “Thank you, Armsmaster,” I said.

He sighed. “Thank you,” he said dryly. “You’ve been more understanding than I could have hoped for. Let me know if you need anything.”

With that, he left. The moment he was out the door, Sophia stepped away from my side as fast as her legs would carry her and flung herself into a couch. “Fuck,” she grunted. “ ‘Step an inch out of line.’ The fuck’s that even mean? I’m already on probation!”

“I’m pretty sure you’re getting a new probation officer,” I told her coolly. “One that’ll actually do their damn job, I hope.”

“Fuck you, Hebert,” she grunted.

“You certainly tried to fuck with me,” I said, tearing my helmet off of my head. “Sophia, I really don’t want to deal with you, and the fun thing is, I don’t have to. So shape up, all right?” I glanced at the other Wards. “Also, she definitely just unmasked me, right?”

Aegis was staring over at Shadow Stalker and seemed unresponsive, so Gallant stepped up. “She did, yes,” he said, reaching up and pulling the helmet off of his suit of power armor. The young man underneath it looked to be a little older than me, with tanned skin, black hair, and piercing blue eyes. His teeth were bright white as he smiled. “Dean Stansfield. I guess we’ll be going to Arcadia together.”

I smiled and stuck my helmet under my arm. “Taylor Hebert,” I said, sticking out my other hand. He shook, giving me a warm smile from his handsome face.

“I have to say,” he said, “I have to admire your restraint in allowing Shadow Stalker to stay on the team. I just hope it doesn’t come back to haunt you.”

“I’ve been stabbed in the back before,” I said dryly. “I can handle it as long as I’m expecting it.”

“Okay, no, really,” Vista said suddenly, her voice sharp. “Why the fuck are we still putting up with the bitch, again? Annatar, I get that it’s heroic and all that to, I don’t know, turn the other cheek, but I don’t want to have to deal with her anymore, either. None of us do.”

“Don’t speak for the team, Vista,” Aegis cut in, shaking himself out of his stupor.

You don’t suddenly start pretending you give a fuck about me,” Sophia interrupted him.

I gave her a look. “Sophia, are you sure you want to be making more enemies right now?”

“Fuck you.”

I ignored that and turned to Vista. “I’m going to be watching,” I said honestly. “You’re all going to be watching. If she does anything more than be vaguely obnoxious, she’s out. I know it’s annoying, but…” I sighed. “Better the viper where you can see her.”

“We can see her if she’s in juvie,” Vista grumbled.

“She’s a breaker,” I said emphatically. “She’d be on the streets, as a villain, in days. Hours, even. Best-case scenario, she gets picked up by the Merchants and gets hooked on something that keeps her dumb enough to be non-threatening, or tries to make it on her own and gets herself caught again.”

This was something of a lie. Juvenile hall could have easily been rigged with electrically charged walls and other systems to keep Shadow Stalker contained. It would have been an expenditure of resources which I hoped to render unnecessary, however.

I had a use for Sophia.

“It’s not as though she could join Empire or the ABB,” Vista argued. “She’s black! Neither of them would take her, and what’s she going to do on her own?”

“Hunt me down,” I said with a wry smile. “Even if I hadn’t unmasked—even if she’d just gotten put into juvie for what she did to me, without knowing it was because I became a Ward, she’d blame me for it.”

“Maybe don’t talk about me like I’m not here?”

“Maybe grow up,” I shot back. “Vista, she’s got a friend who knows where I live, even assuming she doesn’t already. She could come after my dad.”

“She could do that anyway,” said Browbeat cautiously.

“Not if she’s confined to the Rig and house arrest.”

“You what?” Sophia roared.

“You’d prefer juvie?”

That shut her up.

“She’s here because I want to give her a chance,” I said quietly. “That doesn’t mean giving her free reign. I’m the one that paid for it, last time she was cut loose. I’m not making the same mistake again. She’s not getting any solo patrols, and the only three places she’ll be besides patrol are here, her house, and Winslow. And she’s going to be watched at Winslow.”

Vista sighed. “We still have to deal with her.”

“Yes,” Aegis said firmly. “We do. So try not to make it harder than it has to be, Missy.”

Vista sighed. “Fine, fine.” She reached up and pulled off her visor and helmet. “Hi,” the young blonde girl said, a wry smile on her face. “Missy Biron. Sorry if I’m a little bitter that you had the chance to get rid of Shadow Stalker and didn’t take it.”

“I understand,” I said honestly. “I really, really understand.”

She grunted. “I’m pretty sure you do,” she said. “Oh, God, Armsmaster told us she caused your trigger. No details, but that's...”

I shook my head. “It was,” I said flatly, “but… part of my power helps me deal with it. Don’t worry about me. Everyone’s trigger events suck.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” muttered Clockblocker, pulling off his helmet. Underneath, he was a pale, freckled guy with a shock of unkempt red hair atop his head. “Dennis O’Donnel,” he introduced, sticking out a hand for me to shake.

“Don’t do it,” Sophia drawled from the corner. “He’ll freeze you and then we’ll all have to wait half an hour for you to wake up.”

Dennis stuck his tongue out at her. “Spoilsport.”

I chuckled. “Maybe we wait on the pranks until introductions are done?” I suggested.

Fiiiiiine,” he whined, winking at me. “But I’ll get you, my pretty. And your little dog, too.”

I laughed at that. “I’ll pass the warning on to Toto.”

“Okay, wait,” Kid Win said, coming forward and pulling off his visor. Under it was a pale kid, maybe half a year younger than me, with wavy, unkempt brown hair. “You’re a tinker, right?” he asked. “Armsmaster said you were a tinker.”

I nodded. “I specialize in powered items.”

“Powered? Like power armor?”

“No,” I chuckled. “Powered, like Dauntless.”

“Oh.” He blinked at me. “Damn, that sounds broken.”

I giggled. “It is, a bit,” I admitted.

“Introductions,” Aegis muttered, nudging the tinker.

“Oh, right,” said Kid Win, shaking himself. “I’m Chris—Chris Thompson. Looking forward to working with you.”

“Likewise,” I said, shaking his hand.

“Browbeat?” Aegis prompted.

Browbeat stepped forward. His posture was slightly hunched, which looked a little silly with his nearly six feet of bodybuilder’s muscle. “Hi,” he said, slowly pulling off his full-face cowl. “I’m, uh, Sam Keene,” he introduced. His voice was surprisingly soft and gentle for such a big guy. Timid, even.

“Taylor Hebert,” I said, putting my small hand into his larger one. “A pleasure.”

“And I,” Aegis said, pulling off his mask to reveal a face the color of adulterated coffee, dominated by large brown eyes, “am Carlos Casiano. I’m leader of the Brockton Bay Wards.”

I grinned at him. “Should I call you ‘sir’ then?” I asked.

He shook his head with a slight laugh, matching my smile. “Please, no,” he said. “I prefer to think of it as ‘first among equals,’ if it’s all the same to you.”

“Glad to hear it,” I said. “I don’t do well with authority.”

“Gee,” Missy said sarcastically. “I wonder why. It wouldn’t have anything to do with how Winslow hung you out to dry, now would it?”

“Missy, I’m sure it wasn’t like that,” Carlos said.

“On the contrary,” I said, treating Missy to a wry smile. “It was exactly like that. You know, local schools are compensated for having Wards attend?”

Missy twitched. “No,” she said flatly. “No, they didn’t let you get tortured just for a little extra cash. No, that’s b— that’s garbage.”

“It is,” I agreed, “but it’s also exactly what happened, I’m afraid.”

“Fuck that,” Vista said succinctly.

“Language, Missy,” Carlos said wearily. “We can’t be heard like that on patrol.”

Missy sighed. “And this isn’t worth a couple f—?” she cut herself off. I got the impression it was an old argument. “Never mind, I—sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Carlos said. Then he turned to Sophia. “Shadow Stalker,” he said, and his voice was hard. “You want to give us the details of your deal with Annatar?”

“I don’t really know them,” Sophia replied coolly. “I just figured it’s probably better than juvie. And, I mean, I can always pick juvie later if I’m wrong. Some bullshit about trying to be a real hero.”

I nodded. “You and I,” I told her, “are going to be working together a lot, I think. Partly so I can keep you in check, and partly so that maybe you can actually learn something.”

Sophia grunted. “Just don’t hold me back.”

I stared at her and slowly began to reach for Narya’s power. Slowly, all of the other Wards backed away from me slightly. A conversation that had started up between Kid Win and Clockblocker, after they’d both introduced themselves, cut off mid-word. All of them were staring at me, Narya’s power demanded their attention. It was as though I was silhouetted against a light that was less behind and more within me, and the shadow I cast demanded respect.

Sophia seemed almost to be shrinking, her posture hunching, slightly, as though she was trying to curl up and hide from my gaze.

My voice was quiet, but it cut through the silence like an elf-blade. “I wouldn’t worry about that, Hess.”

I gradually released my hold on Narya’s power. The room seemed to come back into focus around me, the shade receding from the walls, floor, and other Wards.

“No,” I said dryly, my eyes seeking the beady glint I saw behind her mask. “I wouldn’t worry about that at all.” I glanced at the clock on the wall. “I’d better go see the director about getting the hell out of Winslow,” I said. “I’ll be back in a bit, probably.”

The Wards were totally silent, watching me as I walked out. I hoped Presence hadn’t too badly ruined my first impression.

My fears were allayed as, in the moment the elevator door closed behind me, I heard a whispered, “That was awesome,” from Vista. I smiled to myself even as the small pod started to rise.

Chapter Text

“Annatar, come in.” Director Piggot’s voice was firm and businesslike, devoid of any particular emotion.

I entered her office and sat down. “Armsmaster said you wanted to talk about Arcadia?” I asked.

Piggot nodded, folding her hands on the table. “I sent out some emails while you were in preliminary power testing,” she said shortly. “The good news is we can definitely get you short-listed into Arcadia. There’s some choices as to how we go about that.”

“Wait,” I said quickly, holding up a hand. “Is this conditional on my joining the Wards proper, or is this still part of the trial membership?”

“We’ll facilitate your transfer to Arcadia regardless,” Piggot said evenly. “Along with the identity-protection measures we offer. They won’t protect you if you decide not to join the Wards, however.”

“That makes sense,” I said, “Although I’m surprised you’re going this far out for a trial member.”

Piggot’s face twisted slightly. “Like I said,” she replied, “it’s a new system. I have a strong feeling it’s going to turn out to be too expensive in its current iteration. You’re lucky to be joining us when you are.”

“Fair enough.”

“Now, regarding your transfer to Arcadia,” Piggot continued, all business again, “We have a couple of options.”

“I’m listening,” I told her, folding my hands in my lap.

“As part of the deal in place between the Wards program and the local schools, we have to tell the administration your identity so that they can let you off early if necessary for Wards activities.” Piggot folded her hands on the desk and met my eyes behind the mithril helmet. “Part of the deal with Arcadia in particular means that they usually accept students of a similar body type at the same time as a Ward, and let those students off at similar odd times to keep the Ward’s identity safe. You see the problem?”

I nodded. “I’m transferring in the middle of the semester, and they don’t have any students of that body type transferring in at the same time who could cover for me. I guess they pull those students out too, whenever they pull out the Wards?”

Piggot nodded. “It’s a misdirection we use to keep Wards’ identities secure,” she said. “The obvious solution is to just make a list of already-admitted students who have your basic body type and use them as your covers, but…”

“…But they didn’t transfer in at the middle of the semester,” I finished. “It’d be obvious and useless.”

“Precisely,” said Piggot. “Now, if you don’t care about your privacy, we can still do that, and you’ll be in Arcadia within a week. However, an alternative is to scan Arcadia’s waitlist and admit a few students who would fit as long as they agree to be your covers. That’ll take longer, more like two weeks at least, and it might take up to a month. Which would be time you’re still attending Winslow.”

I grimaced. “So either my secret identity gets put at risk, or I have to deal with Sophia and the others for another month?”

“Essentially, yes,” said Piggot. “Of course, with Shadow Stalker’s probation, if she so much as looks at you funny you’re well within your rights to ask us to toss her out. So that should make things easier.”

“And I’m honestly not scared of the other two anymore,” I said dryly. “I’m not even scared of her. Fine, we’ll take the extra time, and get this done right.”

“You’re sure?”

I nodded. “I’d rather not put Dad at risk,” I said. “Having me as a daughter’s trouble enough without supervillains coming after him.”

“Fair enough. I’ll get that organized. What did the preliminary power testing come up with?”

“They could only test my current module,” I told her, “and it was preliminary, but for now they’ve got me as a tinker 7, with possible changes depending on what else I can do in future and with my other modules. The current module’s trump 6, shaker 5, striker 2, and master 0. My armor also gives me a purely-defensive brute 3.”

“When can we test your other modules?”

“Probably one tomorrow and one on Thursday.”

“Do they change by themselves daily?” Piggot asked.

“No,” I said, then hesitated. “I… manually activate them, and I usually do it once daily.”

“Usually? Couldn’t you do it more often for testing?”

“I left the others at home,” I confessed. “I’d need to head home to get them, and I don’t like carrying them around.” Narya glimmered warmly on my finger. “They’re tinkertech—sort of—but I can only use one at a time. Whichever one I’m using has a localized stranger power which makes it undetectable to people, but the others look like tangible objects—which could be stolen. And that would be very bad.”

“Yes,” Piggot agreed dryly, “I agree. It would be very bad. I think I’d rather you keep these objects on the Rig than in your house.”

“More people pass through here every day than go through my house in the average year,” I protested. “And I have ways of keeping them safe.”

“We’ll do it your way,” Piggot acquiesced. “For now. We’ll talk about it more later; Armsmaster would be happy to secure them in his lab, I'm sure, and his security is tinkertech. Can you bring both of the other modules tomorrow?”

“I’d much rather not,” I confessed. “I still don’t trust Shadow Stalker. If she were to steal the R—module I wasn’t wearing, it could be catastrophic.”

Piggot sighed. “I guess one day won’t make that much difference,” she grumbled. “Well, I think that’s everything for now. We’ll have to figure out how we’re going to announce your presence. Armsmaster will want to talk to you about taking down Lung—he’s been stewing over who’ll get the credit. I’ll also schedule you an appointment with the PRT's image department. One of them will want to talk to you about your cape identity and image.”

“A PRT employee?” I asked. “Does that mean I have to unmask to him?”

“No,” Piggot said. “Wards' identities aren't available to everyone in the PRT by any stretch, and the image department isn't on the need-to-know list.”

“Good to know. Anything else?”

Piggot shook her head. “Not for now,” she said. “Go see Armsmaster. By the end of the day we should have a PHO account for you under your cape name. Don’t post with it until we have a plan of action for your reveal.”

I nodded. “I can do that. Thank you, Director.”

“Thank you, Annatar. Probably half of my Wards aren’t this cooperative.”

-x-x-x-

Armsmaster’s workshop door was shut when I arrived. I palmed the button to its side. No noise emerged, but I wasn’t sure whether that was because it was a silent doorbell or because the room was soundproofed.

When, about thirty seconds later, the door opened, the sudden wall of sound that hit me answered that question. Definitely soundproofed.

“Annatar,” Armsmaster said, standing aside. “Come in. I was just tinkering.”

I grinned. “I can understand that,” I said, stepping inside. The sound was coming from several small machines, each of which held a piece of metal in various stages of the forging process, being carved with lasers or heated in nanoforges. Piece by piece, the room was building tinkertech around me.

It was efficient, effective, and horribly impersonal. “You never even touch your stuff until it’s finished,” I realized, and only after I’d spoken did I realize I’d said it aloud.

Armsmasater shrugged. “The nanoforges are faster at the actual building than I could be,” he said. “I spend my time on design, mostly.”

I shuddered slightly, an involuntary reaction.

“I can get a couple of nanoforges requisitioned for you,” Armsmaster offered. “Dragon builds them now, at her base in Vancouver.”

“No thank you,” I said quickly. “I prefer to handle the metal myself, forge it properly. How can you even mesh your intent into the object if your hammer never touches it?”

Armsmaster stared at me for a moment, and then said dryly, “I think this is a powers thing.”

I sighed. “Yeah, probably. I don’t know. It feels wrong.”

“I’m afraid it’s the only way I know how to do it,” Armsmaster said evenly. “And it’s worked so far.”

I nodded. “Fair enough,” I said before wrenching my gaze away from the nanoforges and looked up at his visor. “You wanted to talk about Lung?”

He nodded. “PHO has, of course, already leaked the fact of Lung’s defeat,” he said. “But the Protectorate hasn’t yet released a statement regarding what happened. We need to do so soon. I asked them to hold off for at least a couple days in case you decided to come forward.”

I smiled at him. “Well, thank you for that,” I said. “Shouldn’t we just tell them the truth? I held him off for long enough that you could arrive and beat him?”

Armsmaster nodded. “That’s probably wisest,” he agreed. “Although, of course, it is complicated by the fact that your reveal hasn’t actually happened yet. I’ll consult with Director Piggot and Glenn Chambers, if he’s available, or one of his people if he's not. Either we’ll hold off on discussing Lung until you’re public, or we’ll say Lung was taken down with the help of an ‘unidentified hero’ and then reveal you as that hero later. It depends on how fast our thinkers, and Mr. Chambers, want the timeline to go.”

“That makes sense,” I said. Then I paused. “Why didn’t you just do that anyway?”

“Well, I wanted to make sure you wanted the credit,” Armsmaster said. “It could make you a target, after all. I could leave you out of the story entirely, if you prefer. I don’t know that I’d advise that, but it’s certainly an option.”

“The ABB will already know I helped,” I said, “and besides them, who else is going to want to avenge Lung? I think it should be fine.”

“It’s not about avenging Lung,” Armsmaster replied. “It’s about power. If people know you’re a cape who can even think about standing up to him, you become a valuable commodity. There are certainly people who aren’t above kidnapping and extortion to get someone like that to do what they want.”

I grimaced. “That’s fair,” I allowed. “Do you think I should deny involvement?”

“No,” said Armsmaster firmly. “I think, as a Ward, building a good name for yourself is more important than that little bit of safety. It lends the Wards, and heroes in general, that little bit more credibility. And we should be able to protect you from the backlash. I think taking credit would be the best choice, in this scenario. But it’s your choice.”

“Then I’ll take the credit,” I said. Narya grew pleasantly warm on my finger. “It’ll be a good way to spread hope. With both you and I, two heroes who stood up to Lung, on the heroes’ side… that’ll look good.”

“I agree,” Armsmaster said. “Likely better than if I took the credit alone; people already know I’m a powerful cape, and I’m already reinforcing it with this, but starting your career this way will be more useful to you than to me. I’ll talk to the Director about it.”

“Thank you,” I said. “I’d better get back to the Wards, make sure they’re not giving Sophia too hard a time.”

“A moment, Annatar,” Armsmaster said, putting a hand on my shoulder as I turned to leave. The power armor clanked on the mithril pauldron. “I wanted to talk to you a bit more about that.”

“About Lung?”

“About Shadow Stalker. Why did you want her to stay in the Wards?”

I tried to meet his gaze, but I couldn’t see his eyes under the visor. “Several reasons,” I said. “I told you this in Piggot’s office, though. Better to have the viper where you can see her, and if I can actually make a hero out of her, that’s better than another villain on the streets.”

“I’m not expressing myself well,” Armsmaster said quietly. “Look, Annatar, I’m a parahuman too. I triggered, same as you. I’m asking… how? How can you stand being in the same room as her, regardless of any notion of the greater good?”

I smiled slightly. “I’m stronger than her,” I said evenly. “I know that. Now, she does too. She’s annoying, yeah, but every second I spend in her presence annoys her way more than it does me. That talk she and I had? I got to know her better in those ten minutes than I did in the last eighteen months. Trust me, Armsmaster: having to deal with me, knowing I have this kind of power over her, and knowing that she can’t even fight me for it because she’ll lose? That’s worse than anything juvie could do to her. It doesn’t mesh with her philosophy, it causes dissonance.”

“That sounds like it could make her unstable,” Armsmaster countered. “Which makes her dangerous.”

“I want her unstable,” I replied. “If she’s unstable, I can topple her. She sees the world as made up of predators and prey, and right now, her position is prey after seeing herself as a predator for years. She has no choice but to either change her world-view or break. I think I can help her do the former.”

“And make her into a hero that way.” Armsmaster didn’t sound happy.

“Yes,” I said. “Manipulative, I guess, but she wants to be a hero. She really, really does. She just doesn’t know what that even means.”

“You know this from your conversation with her?”

I nodded. “Annatar,” I said, enunciating clearly. “ ‘Lord of Gifts’ in Quenya. It’s… instinctive for me, to figure out what people want, and what to give them…” …to make them mine. “I think it might be a minor thinker power. It only surfaced after I got tested, so I’ll bring it up when I test my next module tomorrow.”

“Hm.” The grunt sounded almost noncommittal. Wary, even. “You got Shadow Stalker to open up to you? You, a person she despises?”

I sighed. “I guess it might be a minor master power,” I acknowledged. “I don’t think so, though. I definitely didn’t Dominate her like I did that ganger on Sunday night. It probably wouldn’t have worked even if I’d tried—she’s too willful. I don’t even have that module active today. No, I just… maneuvered the conversation in such a way that answering my questions caused less dissonance than clamming up.”

“By way of her philosophy?”

I nodded. “She likes confrontation,” I said. “So I made keeping quiet non-confrontational, and talking a battle, so that she’d leap into it and give me what I wanted.”

“This sounds a great deal like a thinker power,” Armsmaster said slowly. “Make sure you get it tested tomorrow.”

“Will do.”

“Thank you,” he said. “Now, I should get back to my work. You go rejoin the Wards. I’m sure they have more to tell you about how we do things.”

“Probably,” I agreed, smiling. “I’m looking forward to working with you, Armsmaster.”

He exhaled and a faint smile curled the edges of his bearded mouth. “Same to you, Annatar.”

Chapter Text

“Colin?” Dragon’s voice, emanating from his earpiece, broke his contemplation. Assembled on the table before him was Annatar’s silvery armor—mithril, she claimed, a substance she could transmute from other metals.

“Yes, Dragon?”

“Director Piggot wants to talk to us. Any luck with the armor?”

“Well, I can’t damage it with conventional weapons or lasers,” Colin said, turning away and picking up his halberd where it leaned against the wall before striding out of his lab. “Haven’t tried the monomolecular blade.”

“Could you repair it if you damaged it?”

“Probably not,” he admitted. “Which is why I’ve been taking it slowly. Besides, we already tested it when Annatar was here.”

“Then why—wait.” Dragon stopped for a moment. “You’re saying you can’t damage it. As in, you can’t get a sample to test?”

“Right,” Colin said. “I can't exactly put the whole suit under a microscope. I’ve deduced that it’s immune to most ionizing radiation. Alpha, beta, and gamma rays all just bounce off with almost 0% loss. It’s highly photoreflective as well; I wouldn’t recommend fielding lasers against it.”

“Good to know,” said Dragon. “Anything on the spear?”

“Annatar told the tester the name means ‘icicle.’ That’s not figurative. The blade is cold enough to the touch that I’m surprised it isn’t steaming. It’s also sharper than I’d expect of ordinary metal forged with her limited equipment. It’s not on par with my halberd, but it’s sharp enough to cut through steel with some power behind it, and flash-freeze organic material it goes through.”

“Flash-freeze? It’s that cold?”

“It’s more complex than that. To the touch, the blade is only around 260 Kelvin. When penetrating a substance, though, it seems to get much colder. I charted the warming rate of a clay sample I cut with the blade, and extrapolated the initial temperature. At the moment of severance, the sample’s temperature appears to have dropped to 70 Kelvin.”

“That’s below the boiling point of nitrogen.”

“I’m aware.”

“And you still can’t find any sign of electrical activity in the device?”

“None.”

A pregnant silence followed Colin as he walked down the corridor towards Piggot’s office.

“That’s bizarre,” Dragon said eventually.

“I’m starting to think her powers aren’t mechanically tinker-like at all,” Colin replied. “We’ll have to see if you can analyze her gear, but it seems more similar to Dauntless’ trump ability.”

“You’ll have to ask her if I can have a piece of her equipment to analyze,” she said. “Or wait until she finishes the trial period so you can requisition it.”

Colin nodded. “We’ll have to see what the director thinks. While we’re on the topic, what happened in her conversation with Shadow Stalker?”

Dragon hummed uncertainly. “That’s… a hard question,” she said slowly. “Annatar wasn’t… her speech patterns shifted drastically when she was alone with Shadow Stalker.”

“Shifted how?”

“She became more formal. Almost cryptic. Used archaic or formal diction a lot more. Her body language shifted a bit, too—she seemed to be trying to avoid synchronicity, even unconsciously.”

“Synchronicity?”

“The unconscious ‘mirroring’ people do in conversations. When one participant in a two-person conversation leans forward, the other will often follow. It’s an unconscious or subconscious mechanism to build rapport, according to some psychologists. Annatar was leading that conversation from the moment Shadow Stalker walked in, and didn’t follow her cues once. I don’t think that was conscious.”

“An unconscious thinker power?”

“Possibly. It certainly put Shadow Stalker on edge, which only helped Annatar get her talking.”

“And what did they talk about?”

Dragon sighed. “I expect Piggot will want a replay of the conversation in full,” she said. “I’ll play it back for both of you.”

“Great, thanks.”

Colin reached Piggot’s office and knocked.

“Enter.” The woman’s voice was harsh, tired. He obeyed.

She was seated at her desk, typing something on her computer, her brow furrowed. She nodded at him as he entered. “Armsmaster,” she greeted. “Dragon, you’re here?”

“Yes,” came the Canadian woman’s voice from the room’s speakers. “Where did you want to begin, Director?”

“Let’s start with Annatar’s master power,” said Piggot evenly. “Dragon, you were watching our conversations with her. How much would you say it affected us?”

“Not much,” Dragon said. “It probably made you somewhat more inclined to take her seriously, but not to the point where you would agree to anything you normally wouldn’t. From what I got out of micro-expression analysis, you were both behaving as you might when presented with an independent hero of Protectorate age, rather than Wards age.”

“That’s not too bad,” said Piggot slowly. “Annoying, especially if she can’t be trusted to turn it off. It’s certainly no worse than dealing with Glory Girl on a regular basis. Is that the extent of that ability?”

“Not at all,” said Dragon. “When she damaged your desk, she seems to have… overcharged her aura. She did so again through her entire private conversation with Shadow Stalker, and again, once, when introducing herself to the Wards. When she does so, the aura usually manifests as something like Glory Girl’s fear aura. If Armsmaster were anyone else, he might have backed down when she got into his face.”

“It was certainly startling,” Colin muttered. “I wasn’t afraid of her, but I found it hard to remember that I was the Protectorate hero and she was the trial Ward.”

“Right,” Dragon said. “The power seems, at its basic level, to make it more difficult to keep perspective on Annatar’s relative position in a conversation. It makes her seem more significant than she is. The closest analogue, really, is Nice Guy’s power, but it’s far less dangerous, even when she pulls out the stops. At best all she could do was compel Shadow Stalker to seriously consider her questions, rather than answering off the cuff. That’s what my analysis suggests, anyway.”

“Any idea whether the Master 2 rating we gave her is reasonable?” Piggot asked.

“If anything, I might lower it to Master 1 or Master 0,” Dragon replied. “She can’t make minions with the power any more than any relatively charismatic person.”

“Good,” said Piggot dryly. “Her apparent master/striker power in that other module is worrying enough; we don’t need a shaker/master who can’t keep it in her pants. Now, her conversation with Shadow Stalker. Can we get the recording?”

“I’ll bring it up on your screen now.”

They watched as Shadow Stalker entered the room and was summarily deconstructed. Colin and Piggot both watched the show in attentive silence.

Once the two young parahumans had left the room, the footage stopped.

“I have several questions,” Piggot said dryly. “Easy ones first. ‘Quenya?’”

“She told me the same thing,” Colin confirmed.

“I heard,” Dragon said. “Quenya, as a language, does not exist. Either she made it up, or her powers gave her complete knowledge of a language that no known culture speaks. It wouldn’t be the strangest things powers have done.”

“No, but it’s up there,” said Piggot. “Any sign it’s particularly important?”

“Not especially.”

“Then we won’t worry about it for now,” Piggot decided. “Ask her about it if and when she confirms her membership. Now, this definitional discussion of heroes and villains. It’s something I’d expect from a philosophy student, not a Ward talking to another Ward. What’s going on there?”

“She seems to be trying to cause dissonance in Shadow Stalker’s world-view,” Dragon answered. “Shadow Stalker considers herself a hero; Annatar is forcing her to consider a model whereby Shadow Stalker’s behavior makes her a villain. It certainly made Shadow Stalker uncomfortable.”

“It strikes me as dangerous,” Piggot said slowly. “Annatar seems to have a very established idea of ‘heroism.’ If she ever decides we’re not conforming…”

“If we ever stop conforming to the idea of ‘protecting people,’ Armsmaster said evenly, “Annatar isn’t the only hero you should worry about leaving, Director.”

“I’ll take that.” Piggot chuckled mirthlessly. “I suppose none of us would be here if we weren’t idealists on some level, believing that the human race is redeemable. All right. Dragon, how would you rate Annatar as a security risk?”

“Low,” Dragon said immediately. “Lower than Shadow Stalker, even before we knew most of what she was up to. Higher than, say, Vista, but no higher than most of the Wards. She’s a remarkably well-adjusted young woman with a powerful, and slightly frightening, set of abilities. That doesn’t inherently make her a security risk. As a full member of the wards, she’ll be extremely useful.”

“Good. She seems eager.” Piggot sighed. “Now the hard part. Winslow. I can’t pull her out until her transfer to Arcadia is complete, because as a governmental employee I can’t facilitate truancy. But something needs to be done.”

“I have a feeling she can keep Shadow Stalker in check,” said Colin dryly.

“Learned helplessness can be a real problem in such situations,” Dragon cautioned. “But in this case, I agree.”

“Yes,” Piggot said. “There are issues on our end, however. Blackwell, the Winslow administration, and Officer Darbes.” Darbes was the name of Sophia’s handler, Armsmaster recalled. A woman who had always seemed professional, if ambitious.

“Darbes is entirely at your discretion, Director,” Dragon said.

Colin interjected. “Whatever you decide, it’s probably the easiest thing to keep from Annatar if you decide not to fire her, as Annatar is probably expecting.”

Piggot shook her head. “Her orders were to watch Shadow Stalker and keep her in line,” she said. “I’m forwarding all relevant details to the police department; they can handle her as they see fit. I’ll ask them to keep the details confidential, but other than that, she’s their officer. Their problem. If Annatar asks, that’s all she needs to know.”

“What about Winslow?” Dragon asked. “They’re decidedly not under our umbrella. We can’t really do much about them.”

“No,” Piggot said coldly, “but I have a problem with people who take positions without taking the responsibility that comes with them. I’ll make that much clear to Blackwell directly, then report the problem she allowed to fester to the school district with a letter of concern.”

“Good,” said Dragon. “With any luck, that’ll be enough for Shadow Stalker, too. I’d recommend you try to get a therapist transferred into ENE to see her, more regularly than standard evaluations.”

“Do you think Annatar might need therapy as well?” Piggot asked.

Dragon sighed. “I think just about every parahuman needs therapy,” she said gently.

“In that case, the standard screening will have to do for her. Back on topic,” said Piggot firmly, “Annatar’s modules. She’s worried about security. If they’re half as powerful as she makes them sound, they cannot be allowed to get into the wrong hands. She’s currently got them stored at her home, but it’s worryingly easy to find a cape’s identity if one really tries, and I don’t want any villains getting bright ideas. Can we secure them in your laboratory?”

Colin nodded. “I can,” he said. “They’ll be more than safe with my spare halberds.”

“Good, thank you,” Piggot said. “I’ll probably wait to push her on it until she’s signed on. Also, be sure to impress upon her the importance of reporting when she’s using a module, and which one. We need to at least make sure we know when master powers are flying around.”

“Understood.”

“Good. While we’re on the topic, Dragon, any insight into whether she’s likely to join?”

“She was planning to join before she knew about the trial program,” Dragon replied. “I’d be very surprised if she backed out now, so long as we don’t do anything to put her off.”

“Annatar’s a powerful cape.” Piggot’s tone was cool. “As with all heroes and Wards, we’ll do our best to make sure she understands the PRT and Protectorate are there to help. Moving on, I assume you’ve been studying her gear?” she finished, turning to Colin.

Colin nodded. “Her ‘mithril’ is hard to get a read on because it’s impervious to most of what I can do to it, including for purposes of analysis. I’m starting to make progress. Should have something by the end of the night.”

“Try to get some sleep, Armsmaster,” Dragon pleaded. “You’re no use to the Protectorate dead on your feet.”

Colin sighed. “I’ll try,” he promised.

“Make sure her gear is back in her locker by morning,” Piggot ordered. “Just in case she decides to come by early. We may have permission to test her equipment, but I’d rather not remind her that we can just pull it out of her locker if we don’t have to.”

“Understood.”

“Good. I expect a preliminary report on my desk by tomorrow afternoon. Dismissed.”

Chapter Text

I really needed to figure out a better way to get my armor from place to place. As it was, I left my set, along with Aeglos, at PRT Headquarters for the night. I had a small, secure locker there now, apparently. It was deep, rather than tall. I couldn’t have fit in this one.

Dad picked me up from the ferry in the evening, around dinnertime. I expected him to have questions.

Foremost among them was “What’s happening with you and Sophia?”

“I’m giving her another chance,” I told him wearily. “I… she wants to be a hero, she’s just really bad at it.”

“How can you know that?” he asked, his voice hard. “She sure hasn’t been very heroic to you.”

“I just do,” I said. “I just… she has two desires, Dad. Sophia likes to be on top, to assert herself in a display of power. She wants to not feel weak. But at the same time, she likes to think of herself as a hero. What I have to do is show her that her desires are in conflict, and help her make the right choice.”

“Why should you?” There was a lost note to his voice, under the growl. “You don’t owe her anything!”

“Except my powers.”

He didn’t respond.

“It’s not like that,” I said gently. “No, I’m not doing this out of some misplaced sense of duty. I just… being a hero isn’t about beating up the bad guys, it’s about making the world better. And Shadow Stalker is part of that. If I can make her into a hero, that’s one more hero—a real hero—in the world. That’s worth fighting for. I can use heroes.”

Dad sighed, turning onto another street. “I don’t know if I could be that self-sacrificing, ” he said quietly. “I’m not even sure I approve of you being that self-sacrificing. You’re important too, you know.”

“I know, Dad.” I smiled. “On the plus side, soon I’ll only have to deal with her in the Wards.”

“Oh?” Dad was surprised. “They’ve already got you out of Winslow?”

“I’m being fast-tracked for Arcadia,” I replied. “It’ll take a couple of weeks, but I should be able to keep Sophia in check during the interim.

“Well, good,” Dad said firmly. “I don’t want you going back there ever again.”

I simply smiled.

-x-x-x-

The next day I had Gladly’s class in school with Madison. For the first time in quite a while, there was nothing unfortunate on my chair. No glue, no juice, nothing. Madison ignored me through the entire period, despite sitting fairly close.

I still wound up doing all the work for my group, though.

Sophia responded to the changed situation rather differently. Sophia ignored me through most of math. The lack of sneers in my direction was disconcerting. It wasn’t that she didn’t look my way; she did, if not as often as usual. But her brow was furrowed, and her teeth weren’t bared. She was confused, not hateful.

Oddly enough, her expression wasn’t the hateful rictus I might have expected, had I not known her as well as I now did. I’d won her respect, and now that she’d had a few hours and a night’s rest to consider it, she’d assimilated me into her world-view. I was a survivor, now, like her and Emma.

All the better. It would be far easier to dismantle her world-view from there than from outside.

I didn’t see Emma until lunch. She had her own way of coping. It wasn’t a healthy one.

“Oh, Taylor!” Her voice, sickly sweet, called across the lunchroom. “You finally came back! I thought you’d be longer.”

I glanced up from my ham sandwich at her, my face controlled. I was seated at one table, quite alone; she had stood up from another table, across the cafeteria. Beside her, Sophia was looking down, but I could see the tension in her jaw.

When Emma didn’t continue, I returned to my food without a word.

“Did it all get to be too much for you?” Emma asked with macabre gentleness. “Did you have to take a break, to cry yourself to sleep for a few nights? At least it wasn’t a week straight, this time.”

I was barely aware of what I was doing when I stood up and whirled to face her. I don’t know what the students around me saw, on my finger, but from my perspective the blue star of Vilya was practically incandescent. My fists and teeth clenched.

I met her eyes. She had started walking towards me as she spoke, but took a step back as I rose, her eyes widening ever so slightly.

It would be so easy. All I had to do was reach over, set my hand on her smooth skin, run my fingers through her soft hair, and let go. Let Vilya do its work. It would be so easy. I’d even be able to play it off as a moment of reconciliation. The PRT would know, if it was reported to them, but no one in Winslow was particularly inclined to report me except Sophia. And I could handle Sophia.

It would only take a moment, and Emma would be mine again, more than ever. Mine in sum; totally and utterly, body and mind. I’d never have to hear her snide insults or feel her verbal daggers in my back again.

It would be so easy. Just a moment of weakness, and I could have a lifetime of peace.

Vilya’s light dimmed. Not yet, not here, and not like this. I wasn’t sure I was better than that, but I was certainly smarter.

“Tread carefully, little Icarus,” I said. My voice carried in the sudden silence. “You’re flying a little too close to the sun.”

Emma bared her teeth. “You think I—”

She’s obsessed with strength. Emma had been confronted by her own weakness in the alley, two years ago, and had since tried to feel strong by treading on the backs of others. If she were worth the investment, that would be the avenue I’d take to shape her into something useful.

Right now, I was feeling vindictive. I took the route instead to destroy her.

“I knew a little girl,” I said coldly, cutting her off, “who loved her friends, and valued the truth, and knew right from wrong. That girl suffered, as we all do. You want to know the difference between her and me?”

I gazed into her eyes, watched the pupils dilate, watched her breasts—my, how jealous I’d once been of those—rise and fall in an accelerating tempo. I waited until she tried to say something, anything, to reclaim control of the conversation, and then cut her off.

“I survived my trial. She broke.”

She tried to say something. I don’t know what it was; I didn’t listen. I just left.

-x-x-x-

“So, how is it, working with the PRT?” Dad asked over dinner on Wednesday night.

“Nice,” I said honestly. “They finished testing with Nenya and Vilya today, so that’s all of the Three.”

“What do they do, exactly? I remember you using Hope on me, on Monday. That’s Narya, right?”

“Right,” I replied happily. “Narya, the Ring of Fire. Provides hope and resistance to domination to its Bearer and to allies around them. Besides that, it gives me enhanced strength, and the ability to demand respect from those around me.”

“Sounds powerful.”

“It is. I could probably beat a lot of the worst villains in the world right now because Narya makes me immune to masters, as far as I can tell. I’m hoping the PRT gets off their ass about putting me against those villains soon.”

Dad looked nervous. “Just… be careful, okay?”

“I will,” I promised.

“And then there’s… Nenya?”

I nodded. “Nenya, the Ring of Water,” I said. “It protects its bearer and their allies from harm, whether that’s by projecting barriers, enhancing their senses, or keeping them hidden.”

“It can do all that?” Dad sounded impressed, and well he should.

“Yeah. They’re all like that; crazy grab-bags of really strong powers.”

“And what’s the last one?”

“Vilya, the Ring of Air. The strongest of the Three. Vilya gives me control: over the elements, over people, over the future.”

Dad stared at me. “That sounds… frightening.”

“It can be,” I replied seriously. “Vilya’s the Ring I used to fight Lung, and that was my first time out with it. I still haven’t figured out everything it can do.”

“What do you mean, ‘haven’t figured out?’”

“The Rings don’t come with an instruction manual. I’m learning, but there’s a lot about each one I don’t know.” The PRT had been concerned about the way my powers sometimes just revealed more about themselves when I needed them. It made my powers hard to predict or plan around—a good thing, if I was working alone, but I wasn’t anymore. They’d made me promise to report new powers for testing as soon as they appeared.

I’d agreed. It wasn’t a hard oath to break, if I needed to.

“Think you could maybe control the gangs a bit?” Dad asked with a wry chuckle. “Might be nice to have some peace and quiet in the docks, for once.”

“I could probably do that,” I agreed teasingly. “It’ll cost you, though.”

“Oh?” his voice was light. “What price do you demand, Lord of Gifts?”

“Everlasting obedience,” I said stiffly. “An eternity of servitude to my dark throne. Also, peeled grapes. Every day.”

“Anything else, oh great and powerful one?”

“Hmm,” I said, resting my cheek thoughtfully against my left hand, my skin chilling slightly as it came in contact with Vilya. “I don’t suppose you could build me a tower, could you? A big, black one, taller than the Rig, from which I could oversee my domain?”

He raised an eyebrow. “Going into real estate, now?”

“Hey, shorefront property is all the rage, these days!”

He laughed. I joined him. It had been too long, I thought, since last we did this; laughing together like a father and daughter enjoying a private joke ought to.

In the kitchen, the kettle sang.

“Oh, I’ll get that,” Dad said. “Decaf, right?”

“Please.”

I watched as he went to the counter and began to prepare an herbal infusion from teabags.

“So…” Dad began, breaking the silence, “what kind of stuff have you been doing with the Wards?”

“They haven’t actually announced my membership, or even my existence, yet,” I told him. “I’m still basically confined to the Rig and PRT Headquarters until they do.”

“They’re probably still trying to decide how they want to go about it.”

“Probably” I agreed “I have the final say on most of it, although they have veto power if I do something stupid about it. De—um. Clockblocker got his name because he announced it live without consulting them.”

“They weren’t happy about that, I bet.” Dad opened a cabinet, rummaging around for a pair of mugs.

“It isn’t exactly G,” I agreed.

“Shouldn’t he have the right to his own brand? I mean, he goes out and risks his life for people.”

I shrugged. “You’d think,” I said dryly. “God forbid the heroes be human. They have to be PR paragons, every one.”

“You don’t sound bitter at all,” said Dad with a chuckle. Teabags were dropped into each cup, and he began to pour the steaming water into them.

“I’m not, really. They love me. I’m literally going to be a knight in shining armor. As long as I don’t do anything stupid, I’ll be fine. I still don’t like having to bow and scrape or whatever, but it could be a lot worse.”

“I suppose it could.” Dad returned to the table with the two mugs. One he passed to me. I took the warm porcelain and held it in both hands, enjoying the heat on my fingers.

“Thanks.” I smiled at him.

“You’re welcome. But if you’re not out beating up crooks, what have you been doing?”

“Tinkering, mostly. I finished my—oh, let me show you!”

I set down my teacup, crossed the room, tripped over the couch, got to my backpack and pulled out the small mithril lockbox I’d crafted at the Rig.

Dad laughed at me. I stuck my tongue out at him as I stood up again.

“This,” I said, returning to my seat, “is the Jewelry Box. I finished it yesterday.”

“It doesn’t have a lock on it,” Dad said, bemused.

“Try to open it,” I said, passing it to him.

He did. After straining for a moment, he handed it back. “Wow, that’s one strong box. Lid didn’t even budge.”

I took it and rang my finger along the line where the opening would appear. In a hushed whisper, I spoke the command words: “Edro a adlenc!

The shimmering glow of the Rings of Power within pierced the air as the box sprang wide, filling our dingy little room with multicolored light. Narya’s red and gold played merrily on the walls alongside Nenya’s silver and white. Their mesh formed an effect not unlike sunbeams filtered through several feet of clear water.

Dad sucked in a breath through a mouth which had fallen open, his wide brown eyes reflecting the glimmer like the warm light of a campfire.

“It’s protected by a command phrase in Sindarin,” I explained. “Since no one else knows Sindarin, it’s pretty safe.”

“Sounds useful,” Dad agreed, his voice a little faint, his eyes still tracking the patterns of light on the wall.

I closed the Jewelry Box and set it aside by my plate. Dad shook himself and turned back to me. “Anyway, you’ve been doing a lot of forging on the Rig,” he said. “Any particular reason you can’t do that here?”

“I mean, they prefer me to anyway,” I said, considering. “But that’s not the main reason. They just have better equipment. I need heat for forging, and sometimes an ice water bath for quenching. Besides that, I need access to good steel and other metals, because it’s easier to transmute those into mithril, and not everything’s made out of mithril anyway.”

Dad nodded thoughtfully. “Yeah,” he said. “I can see why you’d rather work there. Just… tell me if you’re going to stay there overnight, all right?”

“Sure,” I promised. “I doubt I’ll need to any time soon. I’ve got most of the equipment I really need in the short term now; I’ll probably be supplying my teammates for a while. Did you know Vista goes into combat unarmed? She should have a dagger, at least. And a sword would work well with Gallant’s armor.”

Dad smiled. “You’re definitely not short on ideas. I hope they appreciate what you do for them.”

“They will,” I said. “Once they’ve got the equipment I can offer, they definitely will.”

Chapter Text

Mrs. Knott looked up when the door to her classroom opened in the halfway through her class. I glanced over too. It was a little mousy girl who I’d seen before, but whose name I didn’t know. She shuffled her feet awkwardly when the class’ collective attention turned on her.

“Um, Mrs. Knott?” she said, her frame shrinking from the attention. “The office sent me.”

Mrs. Knott nodded encouragingly. “And what did they send you for, Savannah?”

“Uh, Taylor Hebert—she’s supposed to come with me. And to bring her things.”

Did Emma make trouble after yesterday? I wondered.

I shrugged and started packing up my things. “Don’t worry about homework. There’s not any today.” Mrs. Knott said, giving me a nod. “We’ll see you on Monday.”

“See you then.” I followed Savannah out of class without another word.

In silence, I followed Savannah down the hallway. She didn’t say a word to me as we walked; didn’t even glance my way once we’d left the classroom. It was fairly clear why. My social status was very much in flux; before now, basically anyone would have taken the opportunity of solitude to tease me. But many of them had seen the failure of Emma’s verbal attack the day before, and they’d seen Sophia avoiding me since Tuesday. Savannah wasn’t sure what interacting with me would do to her, and so was doing so as little as possible.

I almost had to laugh at how small her concerns were.

Blackwell’s secretary greeted us, immediately shooing Savannah away before letting me in to see the principal.

As we entered, the woman glanced up from Sophia who was already there. “Good,” she said as I started to close the door. “Shut the door, please.”

I was already doing that.

I stepped in, gave Sophia an expressionless nod, and came to a halt beside her. Her jaw worked behind closed lips for a moment, her eyes narrowed at me, before she looked back at the principal.

“The PRT called,” Blackwell said. “Sophia, you are to retrieve your costume and meet a van outside—Taylor, they already have yours. You’ll change there. The Wards are being called to action.”

“What’s the situation?” I asked.

“I don’t know, Miss Hebert,” she said with an air of exasperation.

“We’ll find out on the way, I suppose. Thanks.” I glanced at Sophia as I turned away. “See you in the van.”

-x-x-x-

The PRT had, in fact, fetched my armor from headquarters. I started changing, beginning with the gauntlets. I’d finished with them--and with the necessary removal and replacement of Nenya--when Sophia stepped in, tossed her backpack beside her, and then started rummaging in it.

“They tell you what we’re here for?” she asked, a scowl on her face.

I shook my head. “We waited for you, don’t worry.” She gave me a look, but otherwise didn’t respond.

After Sophia closed the door, the driver spoke. “I’ll brief you while we move; we’re on a short timetable. Costumes?”

“Accounted for,” Sophia said. A rehearsed response. I’d need to read up on Wards procedure. I’d started, but between power testing and finishing up my gauntlets and the Jewelry Box I hadn’t had time to commit them all to memory.

“Accounted for,” I repeated after an awkward silence.

“Amateur,” she said, rolling her eyes.

In answer, I just raised the middle finger of my right hand while the driver pulled out.

“The Undersiders are holding up Brockton Bay Central Bank,” he began, his tone one of cool professionalism. “The bank’s occupants are being held hostage. Normally, the Protectorate would be deployed, but unfortunately the local team is currently out of town at a publicity event. They are en route, but may be too late to assist.”

“A meet and greet. Can’t be bothered to do their jobs because they’re busy getting drunk with a bunch of other rich snobs.”

“Are you rejecting this mission, Shadow Stalker?” the driver’s voice was hard.

“Nah,” she said, her cold voice muffled by her mask, her fingers drumming an idle rhythm on the handle of one of her crossbows.

The driver continued, voice grim. “Amy Dallon of New Wave, codename Panacea, is one of the hostages. It’s unlikely that the robbery will still be in progress once we arrive, but it was deemed sufficiently important to make the attempt to fetch you.”

“How long does a bank robbery usually take?” I asked.

“About twenty minutes,” Sophia said, “if the robbers are slow. There’s no way we make it, unless the others hold them long enough.”

I can change that. “All right, give me your hand,” I said, holding mine out to Sophia, standing up--slightly bent so that I didn’t bump my head on the roof of the car.

She blinked at me. “...Why?”

I grinned. “Well, you want to get there on time, don’t you?”

I assume she grimaced under her mask, but she did take my hand.

“What are you doing, Annatar?” the driver asked.

“Oh, I was supposed to report new powers as they manifested, right?” I said, pulling Sophia in and lifting her into my arms. Nenya didn’t exactly give me enhanced strength the way Narya did, but it did give me the capacity to carry heavier loads than I otherwise might. It was fitting--the Ring of Adamant made its bearer unbowed.

“The fuck are you doing?” Sophia shouted harshly, beginning to struggle in my arms.

“Quit squirming!” I told her. Then, to the driver, “Here’s one, for the Water module. Super-speed. Sorta.” I opened the door. The driver slammed on the brakes, but I kept my footing, Nenya keeping me stable. “We’ll see you at the bank, sir.”

I jumped out of the van, Sophia in my arms, and began to run. I quickly gained speed, the buildings blurring to either side as I weaved in and out of traffic, slipping in the space between cars. Based on the speed difference between me and the cars around me, I had to be going at least sixty miles an hour.

Sophia was clutching me tightly, hands clasped around my neck. The strangely intimate position was acutely awkward, exaggerated by the fact that it was, well, Sophia.

She did, slowly, relax once I’d been running for about thirty seconds. Her mask, previously fixing its gaze firmly over my shoulder and behind me, looked up into my face. “Don’t you dare drop me,” she hissed shakily.

“Wouldn’t dream of it.”

-x-x-x-

“Annatar,” Clockblocker greeted me as I ran up. “Superspeed? Did I miss something?”

“New power on the Water module.” I gently let Sophia down. Her legs shook slightly, but bore her weight. “I can switch to one of the others if--wait, shit. I don’t have my other modules here.” The Jewelry Box was still in my bag, and Aeglos was still on the floor of the van. “Also, Clock? Where’s Aegis?”

Clockblocker chuckled, but it was Carlos’ voice. “We switched costumes,” he said. “Safety precaution. I’m still in command. Which one’s Water again?”

“Stranger, thinker, shaker, mover,” I recited quickly.

“Understood.” Carlos—I couldn’t think of him as either Aegis or Clockblocker—spoke firmly. “We’re up against Tattletale, so there’s no guarantee your stranger powers will work—”

“I ran into Tattletale on my first night out,” I interrupted. “Water trumps her.”

He stared at me for a moment, then spoke. I could hear the grin in his voice. “Oh. Perfect. Could you go in now and take one out?”

“Depends. I can’t turn invisible, just hide really well. Do we have access to an employee’s entrance? I can take cover in the teller’s booths and get them if I get an opening.”

Carlo-ckblocker nodded. “We don’t have much time—Glory Girl’s on the roof, and she’s not in the mood to wait. Can you guide Stalker through the infiltration, Annatar?”

“I don’t need fucking guiding—

“Yes.” I could keep Sophia inside Nenya’s aura of concealment.

“Perfect. You two, go around the building to the right,” he pointed, “and use the employee’s entrance. Radio silence once you’re in. See if you can take out Grue, Hellhound, or both. The moment we get a hint of fighting, the Wards will move in—Vista will give us a route into the lobby, and we’ll bust in through the windows. Be careful.”

“Sounds like a plan,” I agreed. “Stalker, don’t kill anyone. Let’s go.”

“Fuck you,” she said, but followed.

Creeping around the bank, we stayed behind the picket line until it wound its way past the alley we were making for, then crept along the wall and ducked into the shadow of the bank.

“I’ve got Grue,” Sophia muttered then. “You get on Hellhound.”

Focus on the objective. We’re here to thin the Undersiders without drawing attention or causing collateral damage. If Grue gives us an opening, great, but we can’t go in half-cocked if he doesn’t.”

“You sound like Piggy.”

“Better her than you.”

Fuck you, Annatar.”

I didn’t bother to answer. We were nearing the door. “You phase through and unlock it. Got it?”

“Yeah, yeah.”

She slipped through the door in her shadow form silence while I focused on reaching out with Nenya’s power, trying to conceal us both. I was pretty sure it was working, but I hadn’t really used it on more than myself yet.

The door opened with a soft click as the lock came undone. Sophia was crouched on the other side. She gave a thumbs-up--I assumed that meant she hadn’t been seen.

I nodded. “Stay low,” I said. “Let’s get behind the tellers’ desks.”

She nodded and I silently followed her through the break room, down a corridor, and into the employee’s section of the lobby.

Voices reached my ears as the door opened—low, but Nenya brought them to my ears anyway. “You got us into this mess,” a male voice was saying. Probably one of the male Undersiders--it was vaguely familiar. “Can you get us out?”

“I’m trying to think, Grue,” said a girl—Tattletale, I guessed. “Just… keep watching. They won’t come in here while we have hostages.”

“You think hostages are going to stop Collateral Damage Barbie, if that’s really her on the roof?” A voice I recognized as Regent drawled. Sophia huffed something like a laugh.

“They’ll hold her off from doing anything stupid, at least,” said Tattletale grimly. “Now be quiet. I need to think. Why would she have come so—oh shit. Guys? We just took Panacea hostage.”

And now that they’ve realized that, they could use her for leverage.

I closed my eyes and allowed Nenya to reach out. My ears seemed to sharpen, and I felt a faint prickling at their tips. Suddenly I heard more—the heavy and shallow breathing of worried or frightened hostages, the panting of Hellhound’s dogs, the creak of Grue’s leather gloves as he clenched his fist.

“Tats,” he said darkly, “you really fucked the dog here.”

“I can’t be right every time.”

“We going or not?” Sophia breathed into my ear.

I held up a finger, eyes still closed. “Quiet,” I said, my voice barely a puff of air. “I’m listening.”

Regent was crossing the lobby, coming our way. Grue and Tattletale converged on the hostages—probably looking to pick out Panacea. I heard the click of Tattletale’s heels and the tramp of Grue’s boots moving away, while the faint padding of Regent’s finer leathers came our way. By the panting of her dogs and the rustling of their fur, Hellhound was staying fairly near to the main door of the bank on the back of one of her hounds. Two more paced around the hostages, keeping them corralled.

This was our chance.

Regent came to a halt, leaning against one of the tellers’ booths. I crept along until I was across from him. Then, in one motion, I stood up, set one gauntleted hand across Regent’s mouth, and struck him on the temple with my other fist.

He went limp in my arms with a muffled grunt. I quickly tugged him over the booth and backward into my lap as I crouched back down. Nenya muffled the sound of his body scraping over the wood. None of the other Undersiders seemed to notice.

“Nice,” Sophia murmured, barely audible as she studied the unconscious Undersider. She quickly withdrew a tranquilized dart from her holster and jabbed it into his leg. “One down.”

“Three to go. Quiet.”

“Regent?” Grue’s deep, masculine voice was loud in the bank, clearly cutting over all other sound.

“Shit,” said Tattletale. “The Wards are in here. They have a stranger.”

“The Wards don’t have a stranger.”

“They do now. Probably that girl from Saturday. Hey, Ward! Give up Regent, or we will start shooting hostages!”

Her eyes met mine. “I’ll protect the hostages,” I said, nodding. I didn’t have Aeglos, but I didn’t need it to be dangerous.

Sophia nodded in return.

“Last chance!” Tattletale called over the sound of a gun cocking. “Come out now!”

“That’s our cue,” my teammate said as I withdrew Nenya’s protection. I vaulted over the booth and dove into action.

Chapter Text

Sophia and I separated as we jumped into the fray. I charged between Grue and the hostages, one of Hellhound's dogs on either side of me. Sophia entered her shadow state, flowing like a wisp of cloud, and made a beeline for Tattletale.

“Get us out of here!” Grue called to Hellhound as he moved to intercept Shadow Stalker. He raised his hands toward Shadow Stalker, and darkness billowed forth like oily smoke, streaming towards her.

Hellhound’s dogs approached me, baring their fangs. A quick whistle from their mistress, however, and they turned from me and galloped in her direction without a backward glance.

That wouldn’t do. They’d have a nonzero chance of getting away on their mounts. Not acceptable. With a raise of my hand the two monstrosities collided headfirst into a barrier, cutting them off from Hellhound. The impact left me slightly winded, Nenya’s power draining away temporarily to power the barrier, but I shook it off and turned towards the hostages.

“Get to cover,” I ordered them. “Be careful, and don’t get involved.”

A growling and a thudding alerted me to a charging dog. I turned and threw up another barrier to halt its assault on me. It mashed into the air before me and I exhaled sharply at the impact. These things hit like trucks.

In a cacophony of breaking glass the windows burst inward, and there were the others. Almost at the same time, a section of the roof caved in and a girl in a cape and tiara burst down into the lobby—Glory Girl.

Clockblocker—in Aegis’ suit—rushed towards Hellhound. Aegis—in Clockblocker’s—dove headfirst into the growing darkness containing Grue, Shadow Stalker, and Tattletale. Browbeat followed them in, but stayed near the outer door. Glory Girl moved to intercept the dog that was neither gnawing on my barrier nor carried Hellhound.

The darkness was still growing, still spreading outward. Sophia’s body flew out, rolling in my direction. Tattletale followed after her, oily darkness trailing behind, pistol trained on the prone form.

I held up a hand. “You don’t want to do that,” I advised her.

The girl in purple laughed harshly. “No,” she agreed. “I really don’t. Trainwreck!”

A cape seemingly composed entirely of scrap-metal burst through the lobby wall. Plaster and tiling from the bathroom on the other side flew everywhere in an explosion of dust and debris. I hadn’t heard of him before, but this must be Trainwreck. My eyes, enhanced by Nenya, sharpened to see into the cloud. Behind the armored villain was a woman in a jester’s colorful outfit in red and purple. Another villain I didn’t recognize.

Nenya was not the Ring I wanted to be wearing right now. The Ring of Protection was perfect for avoiding or stopping fights; it was less ideal for actually engaging in them. That didn’t make it useless, however.

I charged, the Ring of Adamant lending wings to my steps. I crossed the room in a fraction of a second and struck Trainwreck like, well, a speeding train. I impacted him with a rugby check, my shoulder embedding itself in his armored chest, the mithril smacking into the rusted iron with a blunted clang. He staggered backwards and almost fell before his feet found purchase. He reached for me then, but I rolled out of his grip and struck at the clown cape with a punch.

She blocked it with—where the hell had she gotten a car door?

She winked at me through the window and then the door was gone, replaced by a sledgehammer, which struck me in the side like a ton of bricks. I fell sideways, away from the both of them and into Grue’s darkness.

I heard little, saw less. I picked myself up, glancing around uselessly in the dark mists. Where was Grue? He hadn’t jumped on me yet, but that didn’t mean much.

I’d been rolling as I fell into the darkness, and no longer knew which way led out. With a sigh, I picked a direction, hoping it would lead me back into the fray. Allowing Nenya to enhance my speed, I turned about ninety degrees and ran.

I came out of the darkness going pretty fast. The first thing I saw? The head of a sledgehammer, streamers dangling behind it, accelerating towards my face.

It hit me in the center of my brow, and my helmet rang like a gong, my head rattling. I slipped and fell, my lower body still sliding forward under my inertia so that I slipped under the clown girl’s arms like child playing limbo.

I fell on my back between the clown and Carlos, the back of my helmet striking the ground hard. Then the pain came. It was the worst headache I’d ever had and then some. A thick fog was descending over the world, clogging my sight and my thoughts alike.

I’m pretty sure I swore. I’m pretty sure I swore in at least three languages, actually, none of which were English. Which was probably fortunate, since I think some of what I said would have made Dad’s most hardened dockworker blush.

I rolled onto my stomach, my mouth still running in a mixture of Sindarin, Quenya, and Khuzdul, and pushed myself up, trying in vain to blink the stars out of my eyes.

As I got to my knees, the world flared with red light. Even as I leaned back from the rush of light and heat, the fire twisted away from me and blew into Carlos’ face.

As fast as it arrived, the torch was gone from the clown girl’s hand and one of her legs was coming up. Suddenly there was a heavy combat boot on her foot. It rushed towards my face, and I was sent sprawling back again.

I think that was the first time I cursed in Valarin. The word itself was unprintable, and not just because Valarin, as a language, looks and sounds like what you might get if French and Arabic had sex with the Cyrillic alphabet in a bizarre orgy, with Cantonese getting in on the action about halfway through.

I leapt to my feet, trying to ignore the hazy film descending over my eyes. I was definitely concussed, but was finding it hard to worry about it. Probably because of the aforementioned concussion. What was important, at the moment, was the fucking clown who had hit me with a sledgehammer twice and then literally kicked me in the teeth.

I charged her. She fell back and again with the fucking car door.

Nenya flowed into me like water. I slipped around the shield faster than she could react and grabbed her by the back of the head. Then, before she could do more than blink, I brought her forehead into the door’s window so hard that the glass cracked.

She went down.

“Who has a headache now?” I tried to say. It came out more like, “woosahdechnau.”

“Are you okay, Annatar?” Carlos asked sharply. “Circus hit you pretty hard.”

Circus. That was her name. A good name for a fucking battle-clown. But, seriously, a car door?

“Annatar?”

“Mfin.”

“What?”

I ignored him and turned about, surveying the situation. Tattletale and Hellhound were nowhere to be seen. Grue was standing stock-still and alone on the outer edge of his own darkness as it began to dissipate. Trainwreck was running at me, deflecting punches by Glory Girl.

I charged at the armored tinker, meeting him halfway. I slipped inside his guard, flowing around his reaching arms like water, got a grip on his chestpiece, and lifted.

Even though I wasn’t strong enough to hold him there, I could throw him. So I did. A moment later there was a loud crash as he slammed into the wall.

A shadow rushed past me, skirting around the edge of the cloud of darkness. I followed, putting the shadow cloud between me and Circus.

Then there was a giant dog in front of me, and I was knocked back on my butt. It had just dived into the shadow cloud. I blinked after it as I stood up, disoriented, and a moment later it dived back out, and this time Circus was in its mouth.

“Hey!” I shouted. “Notakinarpursnurs.”

The dog didn’t seem to care about my command and just loped away past me at a run. I ran after it, through the hole in the bank’s wall it had come through. Had there been a hole there before it came in?

I didn’t notice the dog had a long, lizardlike prehensile tail until it whipped around and struck me hard. I was thrown backwards by the impact against my stomach, tumbling several feet before coming to a halt.

By the time I could pick myself up, the hound was long gone.

“Annatar!” Carlos was beside me. “Are you all right?”

I took a deep breath and forced my mouth to obey. “Concussn,” I said, slowly and as clearly as I could manage. “Circs got ‘way.”

“It’s all right.” Aegis’ voice was firm. “We’ve got two captures, and that’s not bad at all. The Undersiders have lost two members, and we’ve got Trainwreck. That’s a good mission. Come on; let’s get you out of here.”

He took my arm and led me back inside. I followed, stumbling slightly. Grue’s cloud of shadows still rested, slowly fading, in a space near the center of the room, close to the door. The villain was still frozen, Sophia standing beside him. A tranquilizer dart was in her hand, ready to dose him the moment he unfroze.

Vista and Kid win had come in from outside—I figured they must have been outside to deal with any who tried to escape. I didn’t see anything of Tattletale, Hellhound, or Circus. Regent was leaning by a pillar, still out cold. Trainwreck, too, was sitting unconscious against a wall.

Dennis, in Aegis’ costume, was talking to a few PRT troopers near the door. The hostages huddled in a corner, with another trio of PRT troopers debriefing them.

All except one, a mousy-haired girl in jeans and a hoodie, who was sitting in a chair and seemed to be staving off questions by Glory Girl.

Panacea, I realized.

“Cn shfix mahed?” I asked Carlos.

He shook his head. “Panacea can’t do brains,” he said. “Besides, Piggot wants us back at base ASAP. Getting healed in the field is apparently worse for PR then getting healed the moment Panacea gets to HQ. Don't worry, she'll be following us there.”

“Ah cnt debrf likthes. Wun be eblta tak.”

I tipped over. Carlos caught me and held me up. “Easy there,” he said. “Come on, let’s get you to a van.”

He led me outside and into the parking lot. There were a few PRT vans present, parked in a ring around the bank. There were also a few flashing lights every so often from cameras. Each one set me reeling slightly, the light lancing into my concussed brain like fire.

“Annatar!” one PRT trooper came up to me. “Your spear is still in my van.”

“Sosmbox,” I said.

“What?”

Box.”

“Let’s get her to your van,” Carlos said to the trooper, and the two of them, each to one side of me, led me toward the guy’s van.

When I was in the back, i scrabbled around in my backpack until I found the mithril box I’d left. “Edrdlnc,” I mumbled at it.

The Jewelry Box didn’t open.

Edrodlenc.

Nothing.

“Fuck.”

“Annatar?”

I glanced back at Carlos. Right; I was supposed to be keeping my Rings secret anyway. Probably for the best that I hadn’t managed to get at Vilya, even if it would clear my head.

“‘Sfin,” I told him. “We goin’ bakka headqurts?”

“Soon,” he promised. Then, to the PRT trooper, “Don’t let her fall asleep. I’ll get a Ward to relieve you in a moment. Call a medic immediately if she worsens.”

“All right, Clockblocker,” said the driver evenly. “But shouldn’t Aegis be in command?”

“Consider this to have his authority. Ask him if you want.”

Edro a adlunk.” I almost managed the command phrase.

Carlos glanced back at me, then at the trooper. “Another Ward or two will be with you shortly. Don’t leave until at least one of us is there to keep Annatar awake.”

“Iwonslepp,” I promised, but Carlos was already gone. I shrugged and returned to my attempts to get at Vilya.

Chapter Text

“Aegis,” said Piggot coldly. “You want to explain yourself?”

Carlos stood stiffly by my bedside. I was lying down swaddled in white bedclothes in the infirmary, my blurred vision barely allowing me to make out the shape of the woman by the door. I couldn’t see her face clearly enough to tell her expression, but her tone made it was fairly clear that she wasn’t smiling.

“I took the actions I deemed most likely to fulfill our mission objectives, Ma’am,” said Aegis, his back straight as a board.

“Including sending an untested trial Ward in with a member of the team with whom she’s known to have issues to infiltrate a hostage situation? You’re going to need to walk me through that bit of reasoning.”

“At least two of the enemy parahumans were largely unknown quantities. Tattletale is a combat thinker of unknown potential, and the mechanics of Hellhound’s control over her minions are still unknown. I couldn’t authorize a direct engagement, and maintaining a stalemate only allowed them further time to take advantage of their hostages. Since Annatar informed me that her stranger abilities defeated Tattletale’s thinker rating, I opted to allow her to infiltrate. Rather than sending her alone, I sent the only other Stranger on the squad in with her. I stand by those decisions, Ma’am.”

“You are aware of the procedures surrounding a hostage situation, Aegis?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“Then what would you say is the first step to that procedure?”

“Establish communications with the perpetrator, Ma’am.”

“Is that what you did?”

“No, Ma’am.”

Why not?”

“Because this was not a conventional hostage situation, Ma’am. The Undersiders aren’t desperate criminals with a bad case of tunnel vision like those protocols were designed for; they’re trained parahuman combatants with at least one thinker. Given the unknowns surrounding Tattletale in particular, I made the call to forgo mediated negotiations as they may have been detrimental, and would have been dangerous.”

“And sending in an infiltration team wasn’t?”

“With all due respect, Ma’am, I trust Annatar and Shadow Stalker’s abilities to infiltrate more than I trust myself to negotiate with a thinker of unknown capability,” Aegis reported, his pose loosening slightly. “In addition, Annatar’s shaker abilities were ideal for protecting hostages once she was able to get between them and the Undersiders.”

Silence fell. I tried to blink the fog out of my eyes, and then clenched my eyes shut to try to ride out the headache.

“Ma’am?” Aegis said, his voice perfectly devoid of emotion. After a moment’s silence he spoke again. “If there’s nothing else, I’d like to give Annatar a chance to rest.”

Piggot sighed. “You’re right. Get out of here, all of you; we’ll continue in my office.”

After a short moment, I was alone in the medical wing.

I reached over to my bedside and picked up the Jewelry Box. I took a couple of deep breaths to steady myself, and then spoke, clearly and firmly.

Edro a adlenc.

The box snapped open.

Off came Nenya, and on went Vilya. My ring-bearing hand went straight to my pounding head, and I began to channel my power. Vilya’s sapphire shone blue as its power flared, casting light which played on the walls of the room and shone even through my closed eyelids when I blinked.

Slowly, the pain receded and my vision cleared. With a snap, I shut the Jewelry Box.

I stared up at the ceiling, running through all that had happened in my head.

I’d had my first real experience in parahuman combat as part of a team, brought the wrong Ring to the fight, left both Aeglos and my box (not that I could have carried both them and Sophia regardless), gotten myself concussed, probably compromised the security of the Jewelry Box, and just generally made a fool of myself. I’d failed to capture an enemy cape even after knocking her out, and left Sophia to care for the hostages while I went in to fight even though I was the one suited for defense.

“Well, that could have gone better.”

-x-x-x-

Panacea came in some time later. The light streaming in through the windows had changed slightly in quality as the sun began to sink low, taking on a faint golden tint. I’d been humming a tune idly, but stopped when the door opened.

“Annatar,” she greeted, all business. “I can’t fix your concussion—”

“No need,” I interrupted, sitting up. “I dealt with it.”

She blinked at me. “…You have a healing factor? No one told me.”

“New power,” I admitted. “I manifest them fairly often. And it’s not a healing factor; it’s healer-striker. Like you!”

She just stared at me. I watched her face as it shifted, lightning-fast, between expressions. A widening of the eyes, the faintest scowl, a clenched jaw, a slackening as of exhaustion, a pursing of lips, and finally, neutrality. Resignation.

“How does it work?” she asked eventually.

I considered. “I suppose I touch someone who...” I paused, thinking through my wording. “...who I know has something wrong with them,” I continued slowly, “and then I focus on fixing that thing.”

“You can do it to yourself?”

“Yeah. You can’t?”

“No,” Panacea shook her head. “I can’t manipulate my own biology.”

Manipulate my own biology. Not heal myself.

I considered her. “Do you have any injuries you want me to fix, then?” I offered.

“I’m all right,” she said quickly. “Um, I should probably give you a diagnostic anyway. May I?”

I nodded, then pointed at my face. “Afraid you’ll have to use my chin, unless you want me to undo the gauntlets.”

“No, that’s fine,” she said, and set a finger against my skin.

I waited.

She frowned. “…That’s weird,” she mumbled.

“What is?”

“You definitely used powers to fix your concussion, and it’s fixed, but…”

“But what?”

“Well, your gemma’s… small, I guess.”

I blinked at her. “Is that a bad thing?”

“Not sure, although I admit I don’t know much about the gemma. It’s the part of the brain that manifests after trigger events. You’ve got one, but it’s atrophied. With the lack of activity I’m seeing there, it seems… dead.”

“…Should I be worried?”

“Probably not,” Panacea said. “The gemma appears in a different place and manifests differently in every parahuman. I can only recognize it because it and the corona are the only parts of the brain that my power doesn’t help me make heads or tails of. You clearly have powers, and some capes don’t even have brains. You’re probably fine. Uh, you do still feel like you have powers, right?”

“Definitely,” I said, thumbing the cool band of Vilya on my finger.

“Well then. Should be fine.”

I shrugged. “All right. So what’s your diagnosis, doc?”

“Well, your concussion’s healed,” Panacea reported. “You had some bruising on your shoulder, probably from bouncing around in that tin can. I fixed it for you.”

“Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it,” said Panacea, then hesitated. “…Could you have fixed it yourself?”

“Yeah,” I admitted. “I didn’t notice it because I haven’t moved much since I fixed my concussion. In the future, so long as I’m conscious, you probably won’t have to worry about me.”

Panacea nodded. “I’ll keep that in mind. Thanks for the help at the bank. I appreciate it.”

I grimaced. “I could really have done better, but you’re welcome.”

Panacea stepped away from my bedside. “I’ll let them know you’re better,” she said, “and then I’ve got to run. I should probably be headed home. Later, Annatar.”

“See you, Panacea.”

-x-x-x-

A few minutes later, I was standing across from Piggot’s desk in her office. The whole scene deeply reminded me of my initial Wards interview. So much had happened; it was strange to think that was only two days ago.

This time, however, I was Piggot’s subordinate, rather than someone she wanted on board. And by the grim frown on her face, she wasn’t especially happy with me.

“Annatar,” said Piggot, studying me over steepled fingers. “The medical staff have told me you’ve fixed your own concussion?”

I nodded. “It’s a power on the Air module. It’s actually Air’s central power, I think.”

“Central power?”

“Each of the Three has a theme,” I explained—partly for Piggot’s benefit, and partly to walk myself through what I’d only recently discovered. “Fire is strength, Water is protection. Air is healing.”

“I thought Air was the master/striker one?”

Grimacing, I nodded. “I don’t really know how that one ties in, honestly.”

Piggot grunted. “Well, that doesn’t matter. Do you know why I wanted to talk to you now, before I sent you home for the day?”

“No.”

“No, Ma’am.”

I twitched slightly, but nodded. “No, Ma’am. Sorry.”

“You’re new,” Piggot said. “I’ll forgive you not knowing procedure, so long as you learn—which is why we’re going to have a conversation, now, instead of giving you a month’s worth of console duty on top of the mandatory training hours you’re going to receive.”

I grimaced.

“Do you know what the first thing you did counter to protocol was, Annatar?”

I thought about it. “Using my new power to get to the bank,” I guessed.

“Close,” Piggot said. “Not waiting for clearance to do so before you did. You should have called console, or me, first. Do you know why?”

“So you can keep track of my powers?”

“That’s a side benefit. No, it’s so that our people don’t see an unknown speedster approaching a combat zone and shoot on sight because a potentially hostile parahuman is running at them.”

I twitched.

“You’re fortunate your driver called ahead.” Piggot told me. “Otherwise, you could have been covered in containment foam for the duration of the fighting. My job is to coordinate these things, and facilitate communication between on-the-ground leaders like Aegis, Annatar. I need to know about them.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“What was your next mistake?”

“Charging at Trainwreck?”

Piggot nodded. “You left the hostages exposed,” she said. “Shadow Stalker was nearby, but you were the one with the barriers, and you left them to engage an armored tinker in CQC. That’s another mistake: don’t engage power armor in CQC, unless you have a countermeasure. Understood?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“The hostages should have been your priority, not the enemy parahuman. Your job is, first and foremost, protecting innocent people, not taking in villains.”

“Understood. Sorry.”

“Just don’t screw it up again.” Piggot leaned forward. “Now, what was your last mistake?”

I blinked. “Um… Getting knocked out of my pursuit of Circus?”

“You shouldn’t have been pursuing her in the first place,” Piggot said darkly. “Your last mistake, Annatar, was staying in combat after sustaining a debilitating injury—namely, a serious concussion. That’s the kind of thing that makes enemy parahumans assume you’re a resilient brute, which makes them stop holding back. Which Circus then did. You were lucky not to sustain serious brain damage.”

“It was a combat situation,” I protested. “I couldn’t just stop fighting—”

“When the options are withdraw or risk serious injury,” Piggot said flatly, “I want you to choose to withdraw every time. Wards are not supposed to get killed in the line of duty, even here in Brockton Bay. You understand me?”

I gritted my teeth, then sighed and nodded. “Yes, Ma’am.”

“Good. I’m not in the habit of explaining myself to my subordinates,” Piggot said, “so don’t expect me to explain next time. You’re getting off easy because you’ve only been in the Wards for two days and if I had my way you’d still be in intensive training rather than going out into the field, if we had the facilities and weren’t as understaffed as we are. Still, don’t expect this again. Clear?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

She nodded, and then sighed. “For the record,” she added, “I applaud you on quick use of a new power. Getting yourself and Shadow Stalker to the combat zone was well done, although you should have called it in.”

“Thank you, Ma’am.”

Piggot nodded. “All right,” she said. “Do you plan to do any tinkering here tonight, or are you headed home?”

I considered. “Do you want me here for some reason?”

“Not particularly.”

“Then I’ll probably head home. Dad’ll want to talk, and my plans can wait for tomorrow.”

“Good. I’ll see you tomorrow. Make sure you start committing combat protocols to memory.”

“I will.”

“One more thing, Annatar,” said Piggot just as I turned to leave. “You were using the Water module, correct?”

“Yes,” I confirmed.

“I thought that gave you enhanced senses? Why didn’t you detect Trainwreck and Circus?”

I grimaced. “Loophole in the power, I think. I’ll need to do some testing.” I bit my lip. “My current guess is that the power technically reveals the hidden, rather than just enhancing my senses—which means, basically, that it shows me more wherever I’m looking, but doesn’t help me at all if I’m not looking. I was looking in at the lobby for the Undersiders. Once I found them, I stopped looking. Since I didn’t think to check for other parahumans, I didn’t find Circus and Trainwreck.”

“That’s… a bit arbitrary.”

“Like I said, it’s just my best guess. I still need to test it.”

“See to that tomorrow, then, before you start tinkering.”

“Yes, Ma’am. Anything else?”

“No, that’ll do.”

Chapter Text

Alex sat alone at the bar, at least one empty stool between him and the next person to either side. Around him, the Palanquin was practically screaming with activity. The music set the whole space rumbling, pounding with frantic energy, the bass making Alex’s glass rattle.

He hated it, but he needed the distraction right now, and there was nothing like loud music to shut down bussing thoughts.

When he—well, she, she’d been in costume then—had come to en route to the Undersiders’ lair, Tattletale had immediately called a halt.

“Can you walk?” she’d asked.

Alex had responded with an affirmative.

“Then start,” Tattletale had ordered. “You’re going to have to find your own way back to Coil.”

So Circus had done just that. Her head had hurt—hell, it still hurt, even hours later—but she hadn’t been unsteady or dizzy, so she’d figured she’d be fine.

Coil hadn’t been at his base when she’d arrived. He’d come later, taken one look at her, and called her into his office.

It was there that she’d learned just how badly she’d fucked up.

“You are aware that I have informants in the PRT?” Coil had asked.

“Yes, sir,” she’d replied.

“Let me tell you what those informants told me,” he’d said grimly. “The girl in armor, Annatar, whom you struck with a sledgehammer directly to the head? She’s now in their medical facilities for a possibly crippling concussion.”

Circus’ jaw had dropped open. “What?” she’d stammered. “But… she was a brute! She took a hammer to the side and got right back up!”

“Her armor is tinkertech,” Coil had said flatly. “It defended her from the blow to her side, at least for the most part, but her head was not protected except by the helmet, which you struck hard enough to bring down a wall.”

Circus had fallen into a chair at that point. “Oh, God,” she’d said. “I didn’t mean to…”

“I know,” Coil had confirmed. “Don’t worry; with luck, Annatar will make a full recovery and this will all blow over. If all else fails, I’ll help you relocate and rebrand, as thanks for your assistance today.”

His other operation must have gone off without a hitch, Alex thought, considering the drinks menu above the bar.

He flagged down the bartender—a woman with long black hair done up in a ponytail, with a white dress shirt and rolled sleeves.

“Old Fashioned, please,” he said.

“Sure. You got a favorite bourbon?”

“The Pappy 20.” It was, far and away, the most expensive drink on the menu.

The woman looked at him oddly. “…In a mixer? You sure? Seems like a waste.”

“My money. I’ll waste it how I want. Right now, I want Pappy 20 in an Old Fashioned.”

The woman shrugged. “You got it. Gonna have to ask for the cash up front, though.”

Alex pulled out his wallet, counted out $200, and handed it to the woman.

She slipped it into her register and set about making the drink. “I’m not going to ask where the money came from,” she said casually. “Just going to ask: is it dirty enough that I need to worry about having it?”

“No,” said Alex firmly. “Won’t bring you any trouble. Got my word on that.” For whatever that’s worth.

“I’ll trust you,” said the woman. She began mixing the drink, pouring a middling amount of sugar into the glass and then fishing under the bar for bitters and fruit. “Not often I have someone spend that kind of money on anything, though. Something go wrong?”

Alex snorted. “The old ‘sympathetic bartender’ routine?”

“Not my fault if it works.” She gave him a wink as she began to muddle the mixture in the bottom of his glass.

He sighed. “Did something I regret,” he admitted. “But you figured that much out already, I’m sure.”

“Not hard,” said the woman. She carefully removed the orange rind from his drink and poured a generous helping of very expensive liquor.

“Thanks."

“Hey, like you said, your money. Hope it’s worth it.”

He puffed out a breath of air in an imitation of amusement. “Probably not,” he said. “But hey. Never had a mixer this expensive before. It’s novel.”

“Novelty’s worth something,” the bartender allowed.

He considered her. “What’s your name, anyway?”

“Melanie,” she said. “Yours?”

“Alex.”

“Nice to meet you. Feel free to spend hundreds at my bar anytime.”

Alex chuckled. “I just might.”

“Boss?” the bouncer came up behind him. The bartender looked up.

“Someone here to see you,” he said shortly, glancing at Alex. “Said to tell you, uh, that she wasn’t blinking.”

Melanie frowned. “What’d she look like?”

“Little blond girl. Maybe eighteen, if that?”

“Tell me you’re joking, Carl.”

“Sorry, Boss.”

“Fuck,” said Melanie dryly. “Okay. Bad timing, but this is definitely important. Okay, Carl, I need you to send her up—with George, don’t let her go wandering alone. But take about a minute before you do, all right? Stay in here for about a minute, then go out and send her up. Got it?”

“Yeah, got it.”

“Good.” Melanie gave him an apologetic look. “Sorry, duty calls,” she said, slipping a hand into her pocket, pulling out a phone.

“No problem,” he said.

She dialed a number and put the receiver to her ear. “Sarah? Melanie. I need you to cover the bar for me. Get down here quickly. Good. Thanks.”

Hanging up, she glanced at him. “Going to have to leave the bar unattended,” she said. “Don’t get any ideas about the Pappy, all right?”

“Wouldn’t dream of it.”

“Nice. Sorry to leave you hanging.”

She strode out from behind the bar and headed upstairs.

Alex sighed, drained the rest of his drink, and left the bar himself. He headed for the bathroom and, after making sure he wasn’t being watched, slipped into the ladies’ room.

He entered a stall and activated his power. His navy-blue button-down and grey slacks disappeared, as did the bindings for his breasts and the sock in his underwear. Another activation, and she was in an unassuming black skirt and light blue blouse.

She hated going out as a civilian woman, but it would make the rest of this easier.

She slipped back out of the bathroom and leaned against a wall, idly tapping her foot to the rhythm of the bass as it thrummed through her being.

“Hey there sweetheart,” said a guy as he slipped off the dance floor and took up a spot on the wall beside her. “What’s a girl like you doing in a place like this?”

Alex actually laughed. “That line ever actually work for you?” she asked.

He wasn’t half bad-looking, honestly. Boyish blue eyes looked out from between a head of short blond hair and a carefully-trimmed beard. He wore a great deal of blue; a blue sport-coat over jeans.

The image was ruined, here in Brockton Bay, by the knowledge that handsome, wealthy, white Anglo-Saxon men were almost as likely to be Neo-Nazis as anything else.

“You might be surprised,” he said lightly. “It’s an oldie, but a goodie. Question stands, though. You’re looking awfully lonely, here.”

“Appearances can be deceiving,” she said.

“They can. Are they? You still shopping, or have you already picked who you’re going home with tonight?”

She gave the guy a dry glance. “You and I,” she said dryly, “are looking for very different things tonight. Just move on; you’ll have more time to try with girls who are actually up for it.”

He sighed. “So quick to judge.”

“I’ve been hit on before,” she said coolly. “You weren’t the worst, and I might’ve entertained you if I were in the mood. I’m not. Give it up, buddy.”

“Fair enough,” he said, moving away. Finally. There were a few reasons she went male as a civilian and female in costume.

And there was the bouncer, coming through the door now, a familiar blonde girl following behind. She was wearing a green dress which hugged her curves nicely and left her shoulders bare. She was a little overdressed for the Palanquin, but then, she wasn’t here for the club.

Alex noticed that she had freckles on her face. She hadn’t seen those before.

No, she was here for protection.

Alex pushed off the wall and casually, keeping her distance, followed the girl and the bouncer until he’d led her to a stairwell. Then the girl stopped the guy and pointed back at her.

Alex waved and approached.

“Hello,” said the girl in green.

“Hey,” said the woman in blue.

“You two know each other?” the bouncer asked.

“Oh, yes,” said the girl in green, an odd smile on her face. “Co-workers, you could say. A shared employer.”

“Can you let her know I’d like a word too?” Alex asked the girl in green.

“Sure,” she replied. “I’m sure she’ll be happy to accommodate.”

After that, the girl in green was led upstairs. Alex settled against the wall again to wait.

After a few minutes, George the bouncer came back down. “Boss says to come up,” he said.

Alex followed him up the stairs and into a sort of VIP room. The music was muted here by the separation, although it was still loud. Booths lined the walls, and in one, a few girls were lying slumped around a boy, about seventeen, who seemed quite happy to be surrounded by him.

His skin was orange.

Alex followed the bouncer down the hall and into the office of the club’s proprietor.

Tattletale smiled up at her as she entered, those green eyes sparking with mischief. “Nice of you to join us,” she said.

Alex didn’t smile back. Instead, she looked at Faultline, whose mask was now firmly in place. When George, after a gesture from the mercenary, closed the door, Alex spoke. “Hello again, Melanie,” he said.

Faultline nodded. “Alex,” she said. “Or do you prefer Circus?”

“Circus in costume,” she said. “Alex in civvies.”

“Even when you’re slumming it with us girls?” Tattletale asked lightly.

“Even then,” said Alex.

“So,” said Faultline. “Tattletale, I hope you don’t mind if I deal with this first, but Alex. That ‘thing you regret doing?’ Might that be almost braining a fucking Ward earlier today?”

Alex twitched. “I thought she was a brute,” she said.

“She is,” Tattletale said. “But only because of the armor.”

“I got that, thanks.”

“So why are you here?”

“Almost killing someone has a way of making you rethink your life, yeah?” Tattletale offered.

Alex nodded. “No matter how bad what I did today was,” she said evenly, “what Coil did was worse. It… put things in perspective.”

“Yeah,” said Tattletale. “For me, it was the fact that, without Grue or Regent, I’m more useful to him as a basement thinker than in the field. I really don’t want to be holed up in that creep’s basement, if that’s all the same to everyone.”

“Back up,” said Faultline. “Alex. What did Coil do?”

“The bank job was a distraction,” said Alex. “Coil knew the Protectorate would be out of the Bay today, so he hired us and the Undersiders to get the Wards busy on a high-profile crime. Meanwhile, his guys kidnapped a middle-school girl from her campus.”

“You’re kidding.”

“No,” Tattletale confirmed, looking slightly sick. “Holy shit, she’s a thinker, isn’t she?”

“A precog,” Alex said. “He’s going to keep her locked in his basement, drugged to the gills, and feeding him predictions.”

“And that’s what he’d have done to me.”

“If he felt the Undersiders weren’t useful anymore… yeah, probably.”

“Fuck,” said Faultline. “Look, Tattletale, I’m a mercenary—”

“You’re a bleeding heart and you know it,” Tattletale snapped. “Look, Faultline, I don't much like you, but you’re my best shot at freedom. I’m not going to the Wards, it’s not safe enough.. Every other group in the city is either too horrible to consider or in Coil’s pocket. If you don’t help me, you’re consigning me to Coil’s fucking basement.”

Faultline gritted her teeth. “And you, Alex?” she asked. “What do you want out of this?”

“Out,” said Alex simply. “There’s not much I won’t do, but killing people’s one of them. Another is keeping a little girl drugged out of her mind. You take me, I’ll help you on any job you name that isn’t one of those things or worse.”

“We don’t do worse,” said Faultline flatly. “So… fuck. Fine. But we need to plan. Coil’s never been as minor as the heroes like to think he is, and if he has a precog now I don’t like our chances.”

“Don’t worry, Faultline,” said Tattletale smugly. “Planning’s my specialty. Since we all know each other’s names now… I’m Lisa. Lisa Wilbourn.”

“Melanie Fitts.”

“Alex Farrell.”

Lisa laughed aloud. “Don’t you love how we’re all using assumed names?” she asked.

Melanie glared at her, then turned to Alex. “Lisa’s useless without information,” she said. “So talk to us, Alex. What do we have on Coil?”

And Alex began to tattle.

Chapter Text

Sophia was playing with one of her crossbows when I entered the lobby, flipping it over in her hand like a cowboy with a revolver from an old western. She glanced up as I stepped in. None of the other Wards were here.

“Hebert,” she greeted.

“Hess.”

We were out of costume. My armor was secure in my locker; her suit, I imagined, was packed into the duffel at her feet.

“You weren’t half bad at the infiltration,” Sophia said casually.

“Fuck you,” I grunted without looking at her.

“What? I’m serious, Hebert!”

I glanced at her, frowning. “I got myself concussed and didn’t stay over the hostages, Sophia,” I said flatly. “I went in without a weapon and almost got myself killed. I fucked up hard.”

Sophia snorted. “You couldn’t have carried that giant spear and me anyway,” she said. “And you just kept getting up. Circus wasn’t holding back, but you just took it like a champ. That was impressive; none of the pussyfooting around the others do all the time. Even Aegis, and he’s supposed to be able to take that kind of thing.”

I sighed. “Piggot yelled at me over that,” I said dryly. “Said I should have fallen out of combat once I was injured.”

“Fuck her,” said Sophia succinctly. “How does she think people fight against Endbringers? By retreating and running away? Bull. If you can fight, you keep fighting until you can’t anymore.”

I considered her. She wasn’t looking at me now, instead studying the polished wood of her crossbow’s handle.

“You were an independent before you joined the Wards, right?” I asked.

“You know I was.”

“What was that like?”

Sophia snorted. “Hell of a lot better than this shit,” she said dryly. “None of the bullshit oversight, no one holding me back. I could just buckle down and get shit done. I cleaned more scum off the streets in three months as an independent than I have in more than a year as a Ward.”

“When did you trigger?” I asked.

Sophia stiffened.

I raised an eyebrow. “Are you really going to get squeamish about your trigger? To me?”

“…I was twelve.”

“Hm.”

“Only went out in costume after I turned thirteen, though.”

“Still pretty young.”

“I guess.”

I watched her out of the corner of my eye. She was back to flipping her crossbow in her hand, watching the light of the sinking sun playing on the wood as it streamed in through the windows.

“Did you get lonely?” I asked. “As an independent?”

She didn’t look at me. “I don’t get lonely, Hebert,” she said evenly. “I work best on my own.”

All lies. I changed the subject. “Where are the others?”

“They all live in the south bay,” Sophia said. “There’s a shuttle for them.”

A door opened behind me. I craned my neck about to see an orderly in a PRT uniform. “Sophia,” he said, “your stepfather is here.”

I turned back to Sophia, saw her tightly clenched jaw. “Right,” she said. “Later, Hebert.”

I watched her walk past me, toward the door. Just before she stepped out, I called after her, “Sophia!”

She turned her head my way.

“We work well together. Looking forward to continuing.”

She was perfectly still for a moment, and then her lips twitched, as though she was trying not to smile. “Same here, Taylor.”

-x-x-x-

“They told me you had a concussion. Are you okay?”

These were the first words out of my dad’s mouth when he arrived to pick me up on the Rig.

“I’m fine, Dad,” I reassured him as he led me into the car. “I healed it. I’m okay.”

“What happened, anyway?” he asked. “I was in a meeting; They left a message and promised to call the moment you were diagnosed. When they did, you were better. Spill.”

“The Undersiders robbed Brockton Bay Central Bank,” I explained. “The Protectorate was out of town, so the Wards got called in. This villain, Circus, in a clown costume—she hit me in the face with a sledgehammer.”

Dad twitched. His grip on the wheel tightened until his knuckles were white. “You were hit in the face with a sledgehammer?”

“I was in armor!” I defended. “My head bounced around in my helmet a bit, but it was fine—”

“You know that can be fatal, don’t you, Taylor?” my Dad asked, his voice rising. “This isn’t just something you can shrug off! You might have died!”

I opened my mouth to respond, then closed it again. There was silence for a moment.

“You’re right,” I said quietly. “I screwed up several times today. I made a lot of mistakes. I almost paid for it. I’m sorry, Dad.”

“Don’t be—” he cut himself off. “You promised me you’d be careful. They promised me you’d be careful!”

“Yeah. I screwed up. I’m sorry. It’s not Piggot’s fault; I broke procedure.”

My Dad sighed. “…Don’t be sorry,” he said at length. “Don’t. You’re new to this, and I know you’d never be happy if you didn’t feel like you were helping. Just… please. Be careful. You know I can’t lose you.”

“I know. I’ll do better.”

He glanced over at me with a wan smile. “I know you will.”

I reached out and touched his shoulder. He reached up and took my hand in his.

“Want to go out to eat tonight?” he suggested.

“Sure. Italian?”

“Sounds like a plan.”

-x-x-x-

Clang. Clang.

The hammer fell on the mithril anvil, each rhythmic beat producing a sound like a ringing bell.

It was Friday, and I was back in PRT Headquarters.

Clang. Clang.

Carlos, in costume, slipped into my workshop. “Annatar.”

“Aegis.”

Clang.

“Can I talk to you?”

“Sure.” I set down the hammer and turned off the plasma forge—borrowed from Chris—that I was using to heat the metal I was working with. Turning away from my anvil, I faced my team leader. “What’s up?”

“I wanted to talk about yesterday.”

I nodded. “I figured,” I said. “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry for screwing up.”

He blinked at me. “Screwing up?” he asked. “You did fine. No one’s perfect. You managed to take Regent out of the fight before we even got started; that’s as much as anyone was expecting from you and Stalker.”

I grimaced. “I also almost got myself killed,” I said. “And screwed up on procedure at least three times.”

Carlos shrugged his wide shoulders. “Protocol’s important,” he allowed, “but so’s our job. Sometimes you have to do things against protocol to get the bad guy or protect an innocent. When that happens, it’s Piggot’s job to yell at us over it, and it’s my job to take the fall for you, if you have to do that. So don’t worry too much about it. Stick to protocol when you can, but remember that it can’t have a plan for every situation.”

I nodded slowly. “I… think I can understand that,” I said. “Say… what do you think of Piggot?”

He sighed. “Off the record? I don’t like her, on a personal level,” he admitted. “But I don’t have to like her to respect her. She’s been in the business for a long time, fighting people worse than I ever want to meet for more than a decade. She knows what she’s doing, and she knows how to use people effectively to do what needs to be done. I can respect that.”

“She’s a skilled leader.”

“A skilled director, at least. I don’t know that they’re the same thing,” Aegis said. “I lead the squad, and that’s one skill. She leads the whole PRT on the scale of the city. I have a feeling it’s a little different. I know she was a PRT squad leader at some point, but I don’t know how she was then.”

I nodded. “That’s fair,” I agreed. “Do you ever see yourself in her role? As a leader on that scale, directing large groups?”

“No, thanks,” he chuckled. “I’m happy where I am. I’m graduating pretty soon, but if I can just lead a local protectorate team by the end of my career I’ll be happy. I don’t see myself ousting Legend.”

“Yeah,” I agreed teasingly. “I can’t see you ousting Legend either.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Oh, now what’s that supposed to mean?”

I smiled at him and took up my hammer again. “Oh, nothing.”

“I’m still in charge of you, you know. I can have you on console duty for a week, no questions asked.”

“Yeah?” I grinned. “Then I guess you won’t be seeing me in action with my new gear anytime soon.”

“New gear?”

Clang. “I couldn’t—” clang “—carry Sophia—” clang “—and bring—” clang “—Aeglos to—” clang “—the fight.” Clang.

“So?”

“So—” clang “—I’m making—” clang “—something more—” clang “—portable.”

I pulled the hammer away, lifted the weapon into the air, and then quickly sank it into the ice water bath beside my anvil. It hissed and steamed.

I’d asked for an ice water bath before, when I was making my gauntlets. The PRT had done what I should have expected—poured tap water into a vat, and stuck it into a refrigerator for a few hours overnight.

Today, I’d instead been more careful. “Iced spring water,” I’d requested. “Pure as you can find.”

The water was clear, cold, and above all, pure.

I withdrew the now-cooled steel blade. It shone like cold fire, reflecting the fluorescent lights in the ceiling and the red heat of the forge in twin colors of flame. I quickly connected it to the hilt and struck it once with my hammer, watching as the components fused, suffused with my powers.

Then I held up the completed--if untempered--sword, and spoke.

“I dub thee Narsil,” I said softly, and pain skidded across my Ring-finger, at the knuckle, like hot fire. “The Red Flame and the White Flame. May thy edge never dull, nor thy blade never break, while the hand of the sons of Númenor guide thee. May you be a hot death to all that is evil, and a warm protector to all that is good.”

The sword, thus named, blazed with light. Something bittersweet rose up in me, like a memory of a dream forgotten. A hint of pain mingled with respect, like a salute to a powerful foe.

I dismissed the hammer and anvil and shut off the forge, then stepped away from it. Slowly I swung the glistening blade through the air, shearing through the space with a faint whistling. Once, twice, thrice. With each swing, pain shot through my finger--fierce and cold on the first swing, duller and throbbing on the second, and by the third it was numb, like an old wound long scarred over.

Narsil. The Blade of Kings.

“What was that?” Aegis asked softly.

“What was what?” I asked.

He stared at me. I stared back.

“…Nothing,” he said, looking away from me and at the sword. “…Narsil, you said?”

“Yes. The Red and White Flame, in Quenya.” I carefully, almost nervously, ran my finger along the flat of the blade. It rang against my gauntlet in a clear, cold note.

“…Does all your tinkertech have names like that?”

“Not all,” I admitted as I fiddled with the automatic forge to produce a torch for tempering. “My armor doesn’t. But most of it. My modules do, for one.”

“What are they called?”

I bit my lip. “‘Fire’ is Narya,” I said. “For nár, which means, well, fire. ‘Water’ is Nenya, for nén, which means water. ‘Air’ is Vilya, for víl…”

“Which means air?”

“Which isn’t actually a word,” I acknowledged. “It’s the root of several words which tie to air, including, well, vilya itself.”

He considered me. “This is a real language?”

“Depends on what you mean,” I said. The forge was heating again. I brought the blade towards the flame and the flat began to heat again as I began to temper the metal. “It’s a complete language, but as far as I know, I’m the only speaker. Same for Sindarin, Khuzdul, and Valarin.”

“Your powers just gave you four languages to speak for some reason?”

I sighed. “Aegis, Lung turns into a dragon. I’m not the weirdest cape out there.”

Even as I said it, though, I was wondering. The oddities of my powers were only part of it. Panacea had said my gemma, the part of my brain that was supposed to control my powers, looked dead. Sure, sometimes they looked different, but mine looked dead. What did that mean?

If the part of my brain that was supposed to give me superpowers was dead, how did I have them? If it was giving me superpowers despite being dead, what did that mean? Dead tissue doesn’t do a whole lot, so if the tissue was dead, but the effect was still observed, what was going on behind the scenes?

“Yeah, I suppose,” Carlos admitted, standing up from the seat he’d taken in the corner. “Anyway, any chance you can kit the rest of us with some of your armor? That mithril kept you pretty safe in the last fight, even if it didn’t totally stop the sledgehammer.”

“Yeah,” I agreed, shaking off my thoughts. “I’ll start with Vista, probably, since you and Sam are both brutes, Sophia’s a breaker, and Chris and Dean both have power armor. It’s hard, because her outfit’s too tight to really fit chainmail under, but I don’t want to mess with her image by just giving her platemail like mine.”

“Talk to her,” Carlos suggested. “And the PR guys. They’ll be able to figure out a design that works.”

“Good idea,” I said. “I’ll do that.”

“Oh, and Chris really wants to tinker with you tonight or tomorrow,” Aegis added. Then he grimaced. “And the way I said that makes me think of something very different.”

I chuckled. “Not in favor of fraternization?”

“Not in favor of getting involved,” he stressed. “Look, you and Chris do whatever you want, and feel free to not tell me about any of it. In fact, consider that an order.”

I laughed aloud. “Sir, yes sir,” I agreed. “First things first, though….” I considered Narsil, the flat beginning to glow with heat again. “I need a scabbard, once this is done. Know where I can find some leather?”

End Arc 2: Twinkle

Chapter Text

“For more than a decade, the city of Brockton Bay has been divided. Gangs and other criminals have grown and run rampant, and only the heroic efforts of the Protectorate, PRT, and Wards have held them at bay….”

I shuffled into the green conference room, rubbing Narya as it rested on my gauntleted finger. The conference itself had barely started; some guy in a suit was behind the podium, talking nonsense about the PRT’s longstanding efforts against the gangs and criminal elements of Brockton Bay, and the assistance provided by the Protectorate and Wards program. It was mostly empty filler, and I immediately tuned it out. Now I was just waiting for him to step off and let the actual talk start.

“Relax, Annatar,” said Aegis as he passed by me from behind, putting a hand on my pauldron for a moment while he was near me. “You’ll do fine.”

I sighed. “Thanks, Aegis.”

“You’re clear on what questions you can answer?” asked Derek Mills, the PR guy who’d been coaching me in preparation for this event and the interviews which would surely follow.

“Crystal,” I confirmed dryly. “We’ve only drilled it a million times.”

“It’s easy to lose your head up there,” he cautioned.

“We’ve only drilled that half a million times. Maybe we should go through it a few more?”

Aegis snorted, taking a seat on the couch. “You’ll be fine,” he repeated. “Come on, sit down. Have some crackers.”

I grumbled inaudibly as I left the center of the room and took a seat on the couch beside him. I palmed one of those fancy round crackers from the coffee table and garnishing it with a slice of cheddar.

“How do you stay so calm?” I asked him as I prepared my snack.

Aegis shrugged. “This isn’t my first public event,” he said, dipping a piece of celery into peanut butter.

“I know.” I rolled my eyes. “And you know that’s no answer.” I bit down on my cracker. It wasn’t half bad.

He crunched down on the celery, chewed, and swallowed. “Just picture them naked,” he suggested.

“Does that work?”

“Not at all. Unless you’re Clockblocker. The rest of us just get embarrassed, on top of being nervous.”

I giggled. “You’re no help.”

“It’s starting,” said Mills.

The windows behind the podium provided a pleasant view of the city hall’s courtyard behind Armsmaster and Piggot as they walked onto the stage and took their position at its center. Piggot took the microphone and lectern, setting a slim portfolio of notes on it as Armsmaster took a position slightly behind and to her right.

“Thank you, Mr. Harvey, for the introduction,” Piggot said, and I could just barely detect the sarcasm under her businesslike tone. “Now, as I’m sure you’re all aware, the parahuman Lung, leader of the criminal organization colloquially called the ‘ABB,’ was apprehended by Armsmaster one week ago. Armsmaster, if you would?”

They switched places, Piggot falling back slightly to allow Armsmaster a spot at the lectern.

“Thank you, Director,” Armsmaster said. “It should come as no surprise that, as leader of the ENE branch of the Protectorate, I’ve been working on a way to neutralize Lung for some time. My research met with success several weeks ago in the form of specific weaponry designed to counteract Lung’s regeneration. I was given the opportunity, last Sunday, to field that weaponry. It was demonstrably effective. However, to take full credit for the operation would be dishonest. I received assistance from an independent parahuman who encountered Lung earlier that night.”

“Was it New Wave?” A woman in the crowd hollered.

“We’ll be taking questions at the end of the conference,” said Armsmaster, “but I can answer that one. No, it was not New Wave. It was a solitary, independent hero, hitherto largely unknown. We have her here this afternoon to talk to you, but before we get to that, Director?”

They switched places again.

“Thank you, Armsmaster,” said Piggot. “The new parahuman, under the cape name ‘Annatar’ first surfaced preventing a robbery by the Undersiders last Saturday. The following night, she called in a report of Lung planning the murder of a group of children. Armsmaster was deployed to assist, and they worked together to bring Lung to justice.”

“If she could fight Lung,” objected a guy with a rather annoyingly shrill voice, “how come we haven’t heard of her?”

“No questions, please.” Piggot gave the guy a scorching glare. “Annatar, being underage, approached the PRT later last week about joining the Wards program. She was then accepted as a trial member. Her primary classifications are tinker and trump.”

“Time to head backstage,” said Aegis, nudging me.

I nodded and stood up. “Notify my next of kin,” I said, and followed Mills out of the green room, leaving my team leader chuckling behind me.

Piggot was still talking, only now I could hear her from the stage directly, rather than over the microphone. “Annatar was also instrumental in the Wards’ operation on Thursday, when the villainous group known as the Undersiders, accompanied by the solo villains Circus, and Trainwreck held up and robbed Brockton Bay Central Bank. Through the Wards’ efforts, three of the six attacking villains were captured during the operation, and are currently in PRT custody.”

Mills and I came to a halt in the wings. I could see Piggot and Armsmaster facing the crowd, lit from behind by the sunlight and from the front by electric lighting, but I couldn’t see the throng of reporters from here.

I knew they were there, though. I knew it all too well. Narya might bolster my image, but it didn’t cure stage fright.

“For the purposes of her introduction as a new hero in Brockton Bay’s roster,” Piggot said, “we’ve asked her to come forward here today, publicly. So, without further ado, please welcome Annatar.

I strode forward, trying to keep my steps even and my stride natural, even as the applause rang out.

I reached Armsmaster and Piggot far too slowly for my comfort, which suggested that I’d done it about right. I shook the director’s hand and took the central position behind the lectern.

The PRT’s image department knew that sometimes, childlike nerves could work really well for a Ward. Not so for me. I was a knight in shining armor, a girl who strode into battle with spear and sword (assuming I could get that approved). Nerves didn’t mesh with that, nor with the fact that I’d apparently been one of two people involved in the operation to bring in Lung. I needed to project confidence and presence. Which, of course, was why I was wearing Narya.

I cleared my throat, adjusted the microphone, promised myself one last time not to stutter, and began.

“Thank you for the warm welcome.” My voice resounded through the auditorium. “I’m sure you all have questions, and I’ll do my best to answer them when the time comes, but first, let me cover the basics to save us all some time.

“You can call me Annatar. I’m a tinker-trump, with a focus on what, for lack of a better term, we’ve been calling ‘powered items.’ Each object I build tends to have some sort of internal power, similar to the effects of a parahuman power. My spear, for example, chills substances it penetrates to temperatures far below freezing.

“As a Ward, I look forward to contributing to the safety and security of Brockton Bay and its people. I’ll be working under Aegis to keep this city safe, and I intend to bring whatever I can to the field to achieve that. I’ll be taking a few questions now.”

Instant clamoring. Every reporter and their mother seemed to want my attention, and was determined to get it, by hook or by crook. The space was filled with the sound of shouting and the waving of raised hands. I randomly pointed at one in the middle of the left-hand side.

“Jonathan Schmidt, CNN,” he introduced. “Can you tell us anything about the other ‘powered items’ you’ve made?”

I nodded. “Well, my armor qualifies,” I answered, gesturing at my platemail. “It’s durable on a level beyond most tinkers’ power armor, although that doesn’t necessarily translate directly to more protection.” As I found out; thank you, Circus. “It appears to be nearly indestructible by conventional means, to the point that it’s impervious even to most forms of study. It, like many of the other objects I make, is composed of a metal I transmute from other substances, which I call mithril.”

More hands, more yelling. I picked another. “Candice Williams, Brockton Report; this ‘mithril,’ can you tell us more about its capabilities?”

I shrugged. “It’s nearly impossible to damage, and only I can create it,” I said. “We’re still testing it to determine its chemical and physical properties, if that’s what you’re asking. Once we know more about it, I’ll likely be collaborating with other tinkers to phase in mithril versions of existing gear. I’ve already been approached about the possibility of a collaboration with Dragon to industrially produce the substance.”

I privately had my doubts about whether that would work—call it a hunch—but I wasn’t to say that to the reporters.

More hands went up, and again, there was the shouting. I pointed at one guy whose green suit stood out.

“Albert Barrows, Parapeople Magazine,” he said. “Is it true that you and Shadow Stalker are romantically involved?”

My jaw tightened, my teeth clenched. My throat worked there uselessly for a moment, unable to push my mouth open. The practiced smile felt stapled on my face. It was at least a couple seconds before my jaw loosened enough to allow me to speak, and a couple more before I’d found an answer.

“You know,” I said coolly, “I almost wish I could see her response to that. No, it’s not true. And I’ll be looking at PHO to see where that nonsense came from.”

I pointed at another reporter. “Please make this one a useful question,” I requested dryly.

She smiled slightly. “Of course. Sarah Churchill, Brockton Times. Can you give us any details on how you assisted in the capture of Lung?”

I nodded. “Obviously I can’t say too much,” I said. “But the basics? I found him, planning to attack some kids, and called the PRT immediately. Then I created a distraction and led him in Armsmaster’s direction. Most of what I did was bait him and take a couple of hits to keep him busy.”

Piggot rapped on the side of my backplate with a fingernail. I nodded minutely.

“That’s all I have time for today, I’m afraid,” I said. “I’ll be running an AMA on the PHO forums sometime this week, though, so any questions I missed now will hopefully be addressed then. Until then, however, I’ll hand this back to Director Piggot.”

I stood aside and walked offstage to the sound of applause. Mills led me back into the green room silently, and Aegis was waiting there, a wide smile shifting the shape of his mask.

“Great job, Annatar,” he said.

I crossed the room and collapsed bonelessly into the couch. “I hope I never have to do that again,” I moaned.

“Sorry to say,” Aegis chuckled, “but you’re a hero now. PR’s part of our shtick. Should’ve gone rogue if you didn’t want to deal with it. It’s the only way to maintain the adulation of the adoring masses, after all.”

“Bah,” I grumbled. “they don’t want heroes; they want celebrities.”

“Same thing, in their minds,” said Aegis dryly.

I sighed. “Heroing sounded different from the outside,” I whined. “I imagined it as more, well, heroic. Going out, stopping the bad guys, saving people, rescuing kittens from trees…”

“Yeah?” Aegis asked sardonically. “You want that kind of life? Step one: Be Scion. There is no step two.”

I laughed. “Yeah, the golden guy has it made, doesn’t he?”

“Anyway,” said Aegis, taking a seat beside me, “You’ve been holding out on me, Annatar. What’s this I hear about you and Shadow Stalker? I’d never have thought it of you, really.”

My face fell like a boat going over Niagara Falls. “Okay,” I said flatly. “You’re an ass.”

Aegis just laughed. “Hey, better you than me,” he said. “In fact, thanks for taking some of the heat off. They’d basically moved on from shipping her with Dennis and transferred it over to me until you were seen carrying her halfway across town on Thursday. I appreciate your sacrifice.”

“Someone recorded that?”

“You need to visit PHO more. Everyone recorded it. No one knew who you were, but everyone saw a hero in armor run through town with Shadow Stalker in her arms. Played hell with her lone badass image, believe me.”

I leaned back into the cushions and massaged my temples. “Well, at least I’m making trouble for her,” I said dryly. “That’s one good thing to come out of this.”

“Hey, you never know,” he said lightly. “Maybe the two of you will come to another understanding.”

“Oh, not you too!

Chapter Text

“Come in,” Piggot called.

I opened the door and slipped into the office. “Director,” I said with a deferential nod.

“Annatar.” She beckoned me towards her desk.

I approached and sat. “How did I do at the conference, Ma’am?”

“Not terribly,” she said frankly. “Your prepared speech wasn’t half bad. I appreciate the effort you went to remain respectful of Aegis’ leadership of the team.”

“I’m not here to poach his position, Ma’am. How were my responses to questions?”

“Too jargonistic and detailed,” Piggot said. “You shouldn’t go into so much detail over your tinkertech; they’re laymen, not cape researchers, tinkers, or power testers. You didn’t give away anything classified, though. We’ll just chalk it up to another tinker quirk.”

I twitched slightly, my pride stinging, but accepted the criticism.

“The only response I’d actually object to is how you handled the question about Shadow Stalker,” she told me. “There’s no good way to respond to those questions, I’ll admit, but in general the image department recommends you answer with a no comment.”

“I’m not going to let them believe I’m fu—having sex with Sophia!”

Piggot’s gaze sharpened. “Don’t be stupid, Annatar. All you did was show them that you had a strong reaction to the idea, which will only fuel speculation.”

I stared at her incredulously. “So… what? I should just let them assume something like that?”

“You’re a public figure now, Ward,” said Piggot flatly. “Better get used to it. It shouldn’t matter, anyway.”

“I’d rather not have people think I’m sleeping with her!”

“You’re a cape. You’re automatically a celebrity, and that means people will make things up about you. Better learn to deal with it.”

I sighed and put my gauntleted hand to my forehead. I rested my head against it for a moment before looking back at her. “Yes, Ma’am,” I said. “Sorry.”

She gave me a look. “I haven’t had to tell you the same thing twice,” she said. “See to it that doesn’t change.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“Anything else you needed?”

“I was wondering what the image department’s decided on my sword?”

Piggot’s jaw tightened. “I don’t like it,” she said flatly. “Your spear had a dull haft, which made it easy to justify as a nonlethal weapon.”

“My sword has a flat.”

“And you can guarantee you’ll only hit people with it?”

I pursed my lips. “I won’t use my sword if I can’t take a risk of injuring someone, and I won’t hit anywhere that would be fatal.”

“You’d better not,” she said darkly. “The image department has agreed to let you take the thing into the field, once you’ve seen a seminar on safe weapon use, and been through a competence test with a professional.”

“The seminar’s online, right?”

“Yes. You should be able to access it from the PRT website. We’ll schedule an aptitude test once you’ve gone through that. Anything else?”

“I was wondering if I could make Vista a knife,” I said quickly. I hadn’t mentioned it to the girl herself yet, but one of my blueprints--a mithril knife, about a foot and a half long--had struck me as perfect for her.

Piggot’s lips thinned. “Vista is a powerful shaker,” she said without inflection. “She can take care of herself.”

“Unless she encounters a trump, or a cape who counters her,” I said. “Director, she doesn’t have any armor or weapons, and her shaker ability is manton-limited. I’m still looking into making plating which fits with her aesthetic—and the others’—but I don’t like her being in combat without any backup weapons.”

“Talk to Mills,” Pigggot deflected. “It’s more an image department affair than mine.”

“And if the image department okays it, you’ll let me make her a knife?”

“I didn’t say that,” said Piggot coolly. “I’ll think about it, Annatar.”

“Director,” I said, exasperated. “Why—”

She interrupted me by rapping hard on the desk with two fingers. “I said,” she said coldly, “I’ll think about it.”

I grimaced and nodded. “Yes, Ma’am.”

She nodded tersely. “Your collaboration with Kid Win,” she changed the subject. “How is that coming along?”

“We’ve only just started,” I said. “We’re still mostly brainstorming right now. He wants to reinforce the plating of his hoverboard first, and maybe use mithril mirrors in his laser weapons. I was going to get started on the components after I talked to you.”

“You’d best get on that, then,” Piggot ordered. “Clear any equipment you two produce with me before fielding it.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” I stood up, turned about, and left. I recognized a dismissal when I heard one.

I knew Piggot meant well. I knew she was just trying to juggle a lot of different responsibilities. I knew she wasn’t trying to make trouble for me.

But I couldn’t help the sour taste in my mouth as I walked out.


 

“Pass me the needlenose, would you?”

I glanced up from my anvil, bemused. “Needlenose?”

“The long pliers,” Chris said, his gaze intent on the tangle of cabling behind the open panel on his hoverboard. “The ones with the red handles.”

I glanced around, found the tool and passed it over to him. “Why are there so many kinds of pliers, anyway?”

“Leverage and fine manipulation,” Chris said absently as he reached into the workings with the device and began pulling looped wires off of circuit boards. “Needlenoses are good for reach when you need to get deep into a piece of equipment. How’s the plating coming?”

“The bottom’s almost done,” I said, shifting the red-hot mithril on the anvil. “You want bladed edges?”

He bit his lip for a moment, considering, then shook his head. “Nah,” he decided. “Don’t want to accidentally hurt someone. Just making it practically indestructible is plenty.”

“Cool.”

My hammer continued to fall, beating the plate of mithril into the shape Kid Win had requested.

“So how’s tinkering work for you?” Chris asked between clangs of metal on metal.

“What do you mean?”

“Do you just, understand how certain things fit together? That’s how it is for me. I get these ideas, for power generators, or antigravity fields, and then I have to make those work together to produce something I can actually use. When I can focus long enough to get it done.”

“It’s not like that for me,” I admitted. “I just… I feel like I know my stuff. Narsil and Aeglos both popped into my head fully formed, and I just built them according to blueprints in my head.”

It wasn’t quite that simple. I was starting to understand something of the power that was folded into the weapons and Rings I had made. It lingered, hidden in some fogbound corner of my mind, like a scrap of a song half remembered. But it wasn’t enough, not by half. If I had to learn on my own, without any help, it’d be decades before I was ready to create anything on the scale of Narsil without a blueprint already prepared.

Chris glanced over at me. “What do you do when you run out of blueprints?”

I chuckled. “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it,” I said. “Maybe in a few centuries.”

“Oh. That’s… a lot of blueprints.”

“Yeah.”

“And they’re all complete pieces?”

I nodded.

“I’m jealous,” Kid Win said frankly. “I can’t even finish half the projects I start.”

I blinked at him, my hammering slowing momentarily. “Why not?”

He didn’t look at me. “Trouble focusing,” he said shortly. “ADHD.”

I winced. “That must suck.”

“It does.”

I didn’t push him. “What made you decide to join the Wards, Chris?”

He shrugged. “It was kind of an impulse thing for me,” he admitted. “I got my powers and just… didn’t know what to do. They didn’t fix any of my problems; just added more. My parents freaked out, I freaked out, and I was in the Wards before I had time to think about it.”

I considered him. “You ever regret it?”

“No.” He shook his head firmly. “I like the Wards. We make a difference, we get to work with experienced heroes, there’s a whole organization dedicated to helping us do our jobs and get home safe at the end of the day. I want to be a hero, but I also want to, you know, not die. The Wards don’t ask me to. Independence might.”

I nodded slowly. “I can understand that,” I lied, and returned to my forging, trying to ignore the little voice that had translated his entire spiel into a single word—coward.

“What about you?” Chris asked. “You were independent for a while first, right? Helped Armsmaster bring in Lung.”

I nodded. “I needed a team,” I said. “I can only use one module at a time, so I needed people I could trust to use the others. The Wards and Protectorate were the best way to build a network.”

“So you’re not planning on keeping all your modules to yourself?”

“Not indefinitely,” I said. “I don’t know who I’m going to give them to yet, though.”

“I’ll, uh, pass, if it’s all the same to you,” Chris said, his voice low. “I can’t even use my powers. It’d be a shame to waste yours.”

I grimaced and took one hand off the plate to pat him on the shoulder. “I’m sure you’ll make it work eventually,” I said.

He went back to his tinkering without replying.


 

My lungs drank deep of the cool night air. My eyes fluttered closed for a moment as I inhaled the sea-breeze, tinged with the pungent scent of the city around me.

“Don’t go drifting off on me, Annatar,” said Vista teasingly from beside me.

I blinked and glanced her way. She was watching me, a hint of a smirk on her exposed lips.

“We’ve still got almost half of our patrol route,” she said. “Little early to be falling asleep, don’t you think?”

I stuck my tongue out at her. “Do you sleep standing up?” I asked. “What are you, a horse?”

“I take offense at that,” said Vista, shifting her hands through the air. Her powers twisted space, crafting a portal beside us, leading several blocks down the street. I could see it like the lens of a telescope, a circle of space through which my perspective was altered.

She led me through the portal and closed it behind us. We took a moment to glance around.

“Quiet tonight,” Vista said.

“Too quiet?”

“God, could you get any more cliché?”

I chuckled. “Oh, Vista,” I said, changing the subject. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you about this. Do you want a weapon?”

She laughed mirthlessly. “Like the PR mooks are going to let innocent little Vista out with a gun.”

“A knife, maybe?”

“Even that.” She looked at me, her eyes hidden behind her mask. “Don’t get me wrong,” she said. “I’d like to be taken seriously. It’s f—it’s annoying that, even though I’ve been a hero longer than half the Protectorate and even though I’m a shaker nine, people insist on treating me like a naïve little kid who doesn’t understand the world. But it’s not going to happen until the ‘adults’ decide I’ve passed some arbitrary age.” Vista gave a slow exhalation through clenched teeth, and the built tension trained out of her small frame. “I’ve gotten over it.”

I looked into her visor where I thought her eyes were. “I’ve been talking to Piggot,” I said. “If you want, I’ll keep working on her.”

“Best of luck to you,” Vista said dryly. “You’ll need—”

She was interrupted by a sound. It was like thunder, coupled with the cracking of stone and rushing of sudden flame. It was a sound that I’d never heard before in person, despite living in a city like Brockton Bay. There was ectly describe it, so I’ll use the one featured in films, books, and cartoons.

Boom.

I whirled around, but the buildings encroached on all sides. I could see nothing. “What was that?” I asked.

“You know what it was,” Vista said, her voice cold.

I turned to her. She was twisting her hands through the air as she formed us a passage.

My radio crackled to life before I could say another word. Sophia’s voice came in from the console. “Patrolling Wards, please return to headquarters at once,” she said, perfectly businesslike.

I palmed the handheld and brought it to my face. “Console, what’s going on?” I demanded. “What was that sound?”

“Bomb, Annatar,” Sophia said coolly. “Big one. Get to base, now. We’ve got work to do.”

“After you,” Vista said before I could reply, gesturing me towards the circle of compressed space she’d made.

I clenched my teeth and nodded. “Right,” I agreed, and stepped inside.

Chapter Text

At the sound of the alert siren, Ethan guiltily jerked to attention from where he’d been hunched over his laptop in the lounge of PHQ. He’d been browsing PHO—it was always fun to see how the ongoing speculation about his connection to Madcap was going.

Armsmaster’s voice kicked in over the PA, partially drowning out the siren. “All on-duty Protectorate members,” he said. “This is not a drill. Please assemble in the main garage immediately for deployment. We have confirmation of a terrorist strike in the docks.”

Terrorist strike?

Ethan snapped his laptop closed and stuck it under his arm as he jogged out of the break room and down the hall towards his locker. Dauntless, his hands fumbling with the straps of his helmet, was coming out of the changing room just as Ethan reached the door.

“Ken,” he greeted. “What’s going on?”

“Haven’t the foggiest,” replied Dauntless tersely. “A terrorist attack? What does that even mean, these days?”

“An attack on civilians, basically,” said Velocity, slipping nimbly out of the changing room and sidling between the two larger men. “I’ll see you two in the garage.”

“…And he’s gone,” said Ethan, blinking at the place where the speedster had just been standing.

“And I should be too,” said Dauntless. “Catch up when you can, Ethan.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Ethan slipped past Ken and entered the changing room.

Rory was there, pulling on his skintight shirt. His leggings and gladiatorial skirt were already on.

“Hey, kid,” Ethan said casually as he crossed the room and punched in his locker combination.

“Assault.” Rory’s voice was polite, businesslike, and cold and unwelcoming as half-frozen cod.

“You’ve got no idea what’s happening, do you?”

“No.”

“Hmm. Nor do I. In case you were wondering.”

“I wasn’t.” Triumph finished tightening the straps of his pauldrons and shut his locker, golden helmet in hand.

“See you downstairs!” Ethan called after him as the younger hero left the locker room. He got no response. This was no surprise.

Ethan finished clipping together his breastplate and leggings and then slipped on his visor. He took a moment to study his reflection in the locker door’s interior mirror before shutting it and running out of the room.

He made his way down the hall and two flights of stairs before reaching the garage. Armsmaster was already on his bike, talking to Miss Militia in a low voice.

“There you are!” The voice was Assault’s favorite. He grinned and waved at Battery, who crossed her arms and shook her head at him.

“You’re late,” she said.

He shrugged. “My armor takes a while to get on,” he defended. “Maybe if you were to help me out of my civvies…”

“That’s enough.” Armsmaster’s voice was hard, and cut through the conversation like butter. “Here’s the situation. About ten minutes ago, bombs began going off in and around the docks. They’ve continued to detonate, once approximately every thirty seconds. While most of the bombs appear to be generic high explosives, some early reports suggest tinkertech may have been fielded. More intelligence is pending while the thinkers and analysts work on it. In the meantime, we’re deploying. I’ll be on my bike. The rest of you will take a van. Standard team compositions. Clear?”

“Yes, sir!” Assault’s voice joined the echoing call.

“Good. Protectorate, move out.”

The garage opened, and Armsmaster’s bike revved into gear as the rest of the team filed into the van. A PRT trooper was driving, and Miss Militia took shotgun. Assault was tempted to complain that she hadn’t called shotgun, but he had a feeling it wouldn’t go down well.

Piling seven people into a 12-seat van was not a challenge. All the same, Assault fulfilled his role as good husband by giving Battery a meaningful look and patting his lap in invitation once he’d sat down.

She just rolled her eyes and took the seat beside him, as she always did. Soon, the six of them were all buckled in and the van started rolling after the motorcycle. The blue light of the force-field bridge filtered in through the windows as the Protectorate emerged from the Rig. As they crossed the Bay, the sound of the van’s siren began to whine outside the vehicle.

“Miss Militia,” Dauntless asked from his seat just behind the Protectorate’s second-in-command. “Do we have any idea who’s behind this or who’s supplying them with tinkertech?”

“Not yet,” she replied, voice slightly muffled by her scarf. “I privately suspect Bakuda. You remember?”

“The girl who held up Cornell, right?” Battery asked. “We don't know for sure that she joined the ABB, and why would she be doing this now, anyway? It'll just bring in heat.”

“That, I don’t know. This may be vengeance for Lung's capture, or a show of power against the Merchants. The docks are a contested area between the two groups.”

Suddenly, the car’s radio flared to life. “This is Director Piggot.” The familiar voice, muffled slightly by static, emerged from the speakers. “We have video confirmation—the bombing group is the ABB, and the leader appears to be the tinker Bakuda. We have evidence of kidnappings occurring in the AO.”

“Kidnappings?” That was Armsmaster’s voice. “Why would Bakuda or the ABB be kidnapping civilians? Is that the whole objective of the attack?”

“We don’t know,” said Piggot flatly. “Most of the abducted civilians have been of Asiatic descent, as far as we can tell, but we’re working on salvaged footage from street and store cameras. Expect surprises.”

“Always,” said Armsmaster dryly. “You heard the Director, people. Velocity, you’re going to perform a mobile deployment as we approach the AO. I want you to scout out the situation and report back as soon as you have any useful tactical data. The explosions appear to be centered around the intersection of Fifteenth Street and Chesterton Avenue. I want you to head in there—carefully—and identify where the enemy is congregated.”

Velocity palmed his personal radio and spoke into it. “Yes, sir. When do you want us to make the drop?”

“Whenever you’re ready.”

Velocity started unbuckling his seatbelt. “Assault, could you…?”

Assault nodded and pulled the handle of the door beside him before shoving the door open. The sound of the rushing wind, coupled with the van’s siren, suddenly drew deafening in the little cabin.

Velocity stood up and zipped into position right beside Assault, his hand on his fellow hero’s shoulder to stabilize himself.

“I’ll let you know when I’ve got something!” he hollered over the cacophony, and was gone in the blink of an eye.

Assault shut the door and sighed in relief as the air returned to something like equilibrium in the vehicle.

“Velocity has deployed,” Miss Militia said into her radio. “We’ll proceed to a staging area, and wait there for his report.”

“Good,” said Armsmaster. “I’ll take point; have the van follow me.”


 

“Bakuda’s holed up in a clinic on Ironmonger’s,” Velocity reported, appearing in the midst of the assembled heroes. Assault and a couple of members of the group jumped at Velocity’s sudden arrival. They’d stopped just outside the apparent AO and unloaded from the vehicles. They were now standing in a loose ring just outside an alleyway.

“The twenty-four hour one?” Battery asked. “What’s she doing there? It’s not exactly defensible.”

“Her guys are combing it for surgical equipment. No idea why.”

“Did you see Oni Lee?” Armsmaster asked sharply.

“No,” Velocity replied. “No sign of him. Doesn’t necessarily mean he’s not here.”

“Agreed,” said Miss Militia. “We should assume he’s intending to assist. Does she have any other parahuman support?”

“Yes—Uber and Leet. They’re both kitted out with tinkertech, and Leet has a gunner drone patrolling the block around the clinic. I think he caught a glimpse of me at some point.”

Armsmaster took one slow breath, in and out. “Okay,” he said. “Miss Militia, take Assault and Battery in from the south, moving up Ironmonger’s. Triumph, Dauntless and I will move to head them off at the intersection with Norfolk, and then trap them in the clinic if you haven’t already got them moving. Velocity, you’re running reconnaissance, but if you can take a safe potshot, do it. Everyone clear?”

“Yep,” said Assault, and was drowned out by the chorus of “Yes, sir!”

“Good. Move!”

Miss Militia beckoned and Assault moved to follow her, his wife falling into step beside him. They moved at a run, not bothering with stealth, and covered the two blocks between themselves and Ironmonger’s Lane in only a few minutes.

They stood behind a corner of the intersection, glancing around it to get a feel for the AO. A fire crackled uncontrolled in the crater of a bomb on the right side of the street, and on the left a one-story building’s lights were lit.

“That’s the clinic?” Assault asked softly.

“Yeah,” Battery confirmed, matching his pitch.

Miss Militia shifted her posture. Prismatic green light flared around her hands, spreading and shifting in the air about her, and then she was holding a gun—a hefty grenade launcher, and about her belt were several round grenades.

“I’ll fire a smoke grenade into the main entrance,” she said. “Battery, let me know when you’re charged. You’re going to bounce off of Assault and enter by the window. Your objective is to get Bakuda to abandon the clinic. We want to drive her north.”

“You’re sending her in alone?” Assault asked.

“No,” said Miss Militia. “You will follow her in, using her momentum to speed you up. I will wait here and make sure they move north once you’ve flushed them out.”

Assault nodded. “Got it,” Battery said.

“Good. Whenever you’re ready.”

A few moments later, Battery nodded. “All right. Can’t hold this long.” Her voice was hard with tension and some pain, and Assault winced slightly under his visor.

“I’m ready, Puppy,” he said gently, stepping out from behind cover.

She gave him a grin through clenched teeth, jumped up, and kicked off him.

He redirected the momentum and began to run after her as she lanced through the air like a bullet, soaring towards the clinic’s window some sixty feet away. A click, and muted bang, and Miss Militia’s smoke grenade launched from behind him, soaring past him, making for the clinic’s doors.

He followed it, rushing straight through the smoke as it burst forth, and emerged straight into the body of a ganger. He ran the guy over without stopping and dove behind the receptionist’s desk for cover.

Gunfire dug into the other side of the wooden block as Battery joined him. “Where’s Bakuda?” he asked her over the racket.

She looked grim. “Not here.”

“What?”

“Not here!”

“I heard you! Why isn’t she—”

Boom. The sound had come from the north. Bakuda had moved on.

“Shit. We need to catch up to her.”

Battery nodded. “I’m almost charged again. You throw me in and then dive in yourself. We’ll take these guys out quick.”

“Whatever you say, Puppy.”

She glowered at him affectionately. He watched as her face twisted slightly in pain as her powers took their toll.

“Okay,” she said. “Ready.”

He picked her up and threw her in, then pushed off of the ground to launch himself into the fray.

There were four guys in the clinic, each with an assault rifle. Battery flew into one and went down rolling with him while Assault picked the second up by one arm and beat the third with him. One blow, two, and they were both down.

Then the fourth was aiming his rifle in Assault’s direction, and he prepared to flex his powers against oncoming bullets until Battery leapt into the ganger’s space, kicked his gun out of his hands (showing off her impressive flexibility while she was at it), and punched his lights out.

Assault breathed deeply, looking around the room. All four gangers were, if not out, then at least down, and there was no one left to fight.

“Well,” said Assault. “that was anticlimactic.”

“Look at you, finishing early,” said Battery drolly.

“Didn’t hear you complaining about my endurance last night.”

Battery gave him a look--which he, of course, couldn’t see because of her visor, and thus decided to ignore. “We’re not done yet. Let’s go.”

Their radios crackled to life. “This is Velocity. Bakuda got past me while I was reporting back. She just bombed the Dockworkers’ Association building. She’s headed west. Shall I pursue?”

“Keep her in your sights,” Armsmaster confirmed. “We can’t allow her to keep this up. Triumph, call fire rescue to the Dockworkers’ Association; there were civilians in there. Miss Militia—”

“Armsmaster.” The voice, cutting in suddenly, was Piggot’s. “Drop Bakuda. You’re all needed at the Rig.”

“What?” Armsmaster’s voice was hard and heated. “That woman just bombed at least three congregated civilian groups! I can’t—”

“Lung and Oni Lee just engaged the Wards,” Piggot said shortly. “At PHQ. Get a move on.

A pause.

“All Protectorate members, make for the Rig, as fast as possible.” Armsmaster’s voice was almost robotic. “Velocity, I want you there yesterday.”

Assault looked bleakly at Battery. “This was a distraction,” he said.

She nodded grimly. “Let’s go.”

Chapter Text

“Annatar, Vista,” Carlos greeted as we entered Wards HQ. “Annatar, have you been authorized to use your sword yet?”

“Not yet. I watched the seminar this afternoon, but there’s still an aptitude test.” I knew I’d pass the test; my powers gave me an intuition for the uses of my weapons, although I wasn’t quite a master-at-arms yet.

“You’re still good with the spear, though?”

“Yeah. What’s going on, Aegis?”

“Some crazy bitch,” Sophia said, coming into the room from the south elevator, “decided it’d be a great idea to start bombing the docks. Protectorate’s already on their way out.”

I grimaced. “Are they a cape?”

“We think so,” Carlos said. “A tinker who specializes in bombs. Calls herself Bakuda. First showed up when she held up Cornell College, a few months back. Disappeared after that. We think Lung recruited her.”

“Then why’s she acting up now?” Missy asked.

Sophia rolled her eyes. “I’d assume because Lung got taken in.”

“But why would that make her—”

“Where’s Oni Lee?” I asked.

All three of them looked at me.

“Is he with her?” I asked.

“Not as far as we know,” Carlos said, glancing at Sophia. “You hear anything on console?”

“No,” she replied, studying me. “What are you thinking, Annatar?”

“There’s a couple of possibilities,” I said. “Either she’s gone loose cannon and just decided to go on a bombing spree for the hell of it, or this is part of a plan, right? Does she have ABB guys with her?”

“Yes,” Sophia said slowly. “Yes, she does. Uber and Leet are apparently backing her up, too.”

“No way she hired them without ABB resources,” Carlos said.

“So where’s Oni Lee?” I looked at my team leader. “Can you think of anything Oni Lee would want to do right now besides break out Lung?”

“No,” he said grimly. “No, I can’t. Missy, go explain the situation to Chris and get him to explain to Piggot. We need clearance to head out. Annatar, Stalker, suit up. I’ll go tell the others.”

“Where are the others?” I asked.

“The dorms,” Carlos said. “The Wards were supposed to stay at base until the bomb threat passes.”

I nodded. “Permission to bring Narsil?”

He studied me. “Don’t use it unless you’ve got no other choice, got it?”

“Promise.”

“Then sure. Keep it sheathed.”

I nodded, and he left.

Sophia was already on the couch, rummaging in her duffel for her mask. Her hood was down, but her costume was otherwise on. Her hair, I noticed, was done up in a bun, rather than her usual ponytail. She must keep it that way under the hood to keep it from getting in the way. It made her head look smaller than I expected--almost childlike.

“Saw your press conference,” she said dryly as she pulled out her mask.

I snorted. “Can you believe those people?”

“Yes,” she said flatly. “They never stop. When I got brought into the Wards, you know what they thought?”

“What?”

“They thought I’d joined up because I was fucking Aegis.”

I passed a hand over my eyes. “You’re kidding.”

“Nope. Get used to it.”

“That’s what Piggot said, too.”

Sophia gave an amused grunt. “Hey, what do you know, Piggy gave good advice for once. Besides, it could be worse.”

I raised an eyebrow at her. “Hm?”

She shrugged, glancing over at me. “Better you than one of the others. Least you’ve got balls.”

She tried to look away, but suddenly I was holding her gaze like a vice, Narya flaring hot on my finger. I saw her tense slightly at whatever she saw in my face.

“Not,” I said, coldly and clearly, “from my perspective.” I turned away. “I’m going to grab Narsil. See you later, Stalker.”

I left the room and ran straight into Dennis, who was fiddling with the straps of his plating. “Well, hello,” he said, stepping back out of my personal space. “I hope I didn’t pull you away from your personal time with—”

“Can it.” Narya flared on my finger as I glared at him.

“Yes’m.”

I rolled my eyes. “I’m going to grab Narsil,” I said. “Be right back.”


 

“We’ve got permission to go to the Rig,” Aegis said as we assembled before him, the last parts of our costumes being affixed as we listened. “We’re not to engage if Lung’s already escaped. The most important thing is that none of us get hurt if we can avoid it. Oni Lee’s dangerous, and he’s not afraid to kill.”

“I’m transport?” Vista asked.

“You are,” Aegis confirmed. “I want us to head in over the force bridge, but the bridge is down. Vista, will you be able to…?”

“I can shorten the distance,” Vista said firmly. “Easy.”

“Good. Let’s get moving, people.”

We trooped after him as he led us into the elevator and out the back door of PRT headquarters.

Traveling across the city with Vista was not much like patrolling with her. For one thing, it took much less time. She gave us a short step up to a roof first, and then launched us halfway across the city in a single step.

We came a halt across the open water from the Rig. Directly before us, the lights of PHQ shone gold and glimmered over the water. The force field bridge was inactive--which didn’t really present a problem to us, given we had Vista.

Boom. Bombs had been sounding from the north throughout our travel, but now I could see the flash as I looked up the coast. The explosion lit up the smoky clouds above the city.

“Any word from inside?” I asked.

“Nothing yet,” Aegis said. “Force field's down for us, though. We’ve still got access to surveillance, so—”

Our radios chimed as one. “Oni Lee has broken into Lung’s cell,” came the voice of the PRT operative we’d left on the console. “The containment foam sprayers have been disabled. Lung is being disconnected from tranquilizer drips now.

“Fuck,” said Sophia.

“Vista, get us in there,” Aegis ordered.

Vista shifted her hands through the air and suddenly the space between us and the Rig was only a small gap, easily crossed by a single step.

Aegis led us across that gap at a jog. The Rig’s garage doors opened for us as we approached and we entered the dark vehicle hangar.

Armsmaster’s bike and quite a few of the PRT vans that were usually here were missing, having been taken out for the Protectorate’s deployment against Bakuda. A group of PRT troopers in full gear were waiting for us by the door. A brown-haired, middle-aged man I recognized as Deputy Director Renick, his face visible behind a transparent visor, was their leader.

“Aegis,” he said shortly. “We’ve lost control of Lung’s cell block.”

“How many casualties?”

“All hands. Mostly dead. We have to get into Lung’s cell and restart the tranquilizer drip before his healing factor wakes him up.”

“Any idea how long we’ve got?”

“Minutes. Maybe twenty, probably more like five or ten.”

Aegis nodded. “Annatar, Shadow Stalker, you two go on ahead,” he ordered quickly. “Don’t take any risks; just scout and report back.”

“I’m in Fire,” I said quickly. “Not Water.”

“Then switch,” he said tersely. “Quickly.”

I glanced around at all the prying eyes and finally settled my gaze on Sophia.

“I’ll swap on the way,” I said. “Let’s go.”

I led Sophia away from the group and into the Rig. We moved past a couple of barricades in the lobby. The troopers manning them gave us nods and even salutes as we passed.

When we started down the stairwell, I reached behind myself and unclipped the Jewelry Box from the clasp I’d made for it across the small of my back. I passed Aeglos to Sophia. “Hold this for a moment.”

She took it, watching me closely as I took the Box into my hands. “That has your modules?” she asked.

I nodded, then met her eyes. “Tell no one what you see here,” I ordered.

“I swear I won’t.” She agreed readily.

“I don’t trust your oath. Let me make this clear. If you tell anyone how my powers work, I will know. I will find you, and I will make you wish you’d never heard the name of Annatar. I will wreak such vengeance on you that what you did to me in January will look tame by comparison. Am I understood?”

Sophia’s eyes didn’t flicker away from me, but I thought I saw a faint shudder run through her frame. “Clear as crystal,” she said lowly.

I looked down at the Jewelry Box. “Edro a adlenc!

The box opened, and the dark stairwell was filled with white and blue light.

I shifted my grip so that the box sat under my right arm and then used that hand to pull Narya off of my left finger. I dropped the golden band into the lockbox and drew out Nenya, slipping it on where Narya had lately resided.

Then I closed the box, shutting away the light of Fire and Air, and slung it back over my back. “Those,” I told Sophia coldly, “were the Three Rings of Power.”

“Your modules are rings?” Her eyes were resting on the Jewelry Box. I took my spear from her sharply.

“Yes,” I said. “And if I have my way, you’ll never see them again. Let’s go.”

I reached out and covered the both of us with Nenya’s concealment as we proceeded.

As we entered the underground cell block, I was faced with my first corpse of the night. The man at the front desk, still seated behind the grating facing into the lobby, was slumped backward in his chair, brown eyes glazed and staring. Blood still slowly leaked from the jagged gash across his throat.

As we entered the enclosed depths through the door and passed his seat, I reached out and carefully closed his eyes before we went on.

“Why?” Sophia asked me as we continued.

“Why what?”

“Why bother? He’s dead. Not like it does anything for him.”

“It does something for me.”

He was not the last corpse I saw in that cell block. PRT troopers, armored and armed, lay slumped periodically against the walls of the hallway. I glanced at each face, knowing I wouldn’t remember them in the morning, knowing I couldn’t take the time.

A middle-aged woman with Asian features lay splayed against a cell door. A young man, barely into his twenties, was wedged half into an empty cell, his blood spread like paint across the small room’s floor. An older man with blond hair lay spread-eagled in the center of the hallway, his blood pooling from wall to wall.

I closed each pair of eyes before moving on.

“Do you know how many people were stationed here?” I asked Sophia lowly as we proceeded.

She gave a dry sigh through clenched teeth and glanced at me through narrowed eyes. “No. Does it really matter?”

“No.” I shook my head.

She blinked and frowned at me. “No?”

“No,” I confirmed as I lowered to close an older black woman’s eyes, all without slowing my pace. “I was just curious.”

My ears pricked. A sound—leather on metal. Footsteps. They were punctuated by a low murmur, a man’s voice, speaking just too quietly for me to easily hear.

I raised my hand in a signal to stop. “Oni Lee,” I breathed. “Careful.”

We crept further down the hallway. The footsteps grew more distinct as we approached and as I sharpened Nenya’s power. The voice slowly became clear.

“Bakuda is distracting the Protectorate.” The voice was smooth and blank, like polished silver; lacking both in imperfection and inflection. It emerged from behind a cell door, several yards down the hall from where Sophia and I crouched.

“Distracting?” Lung’s voice. It was harsh with pain and fatigue—probably a side-effect of having been woken from the tranquilizer-induced coma. “How so?”

I glanced at Sophia. “Lung’s awake,” I said.

“Fuck,” she said. “We need to get out of here. Get back to the others. No way we can take Lung alone.”

“He’s weak right now,” I said. “He won’t be for long.”

“He’s got Oni Lee with him, right? We’ve got no chance. We need to get out of here before they find us.”

I sighed. I remembered Circus, and how she’d taken me out of the fight with nothing more than a sledgehammer. I remembered the trail of corpses I’d found on the way here—people killed by the less dangerous of the two parahumans in the room ahead of me.

I’m not ready.

I brought my radio to my lips and pushed the button to broadcast.

“This is Annatar,” I whispered. “Lung has been revived. Shadow Stalker and I will attempt to withdraw.”

“Have you been detected?” Aegis responded at a whisper.

“No. We’ll pull back now and keep it that way.”

“Good. Be careful.”

We’d only managed to withdraw as far as the end of the corridor, however, when I heard the sound of a door opening behind us. I turned without thinking.

My eyes met Lung’s. His mask was off, and in his hand at his side, half raised. He was actually quite handsome. A surprisingly small number of scars marred his face--likely thanks to his healing factor. A tattoo of red and green flame enshrouding a snakelike dragon crept up from his bare chest and neck around the back of his ears, before ending somewhere in his thick black hair.

“You,” he growled.

I dove around the corner, Sophia at my heels, and behind us, we heard the whooshing sound of rushing flame.

“I think Lung’s up,” I said weakly.

“No shit, Sherlock. Run!”

Chapter Text

“Aegis, this is Annatar!” I practically screamed into my radio. “Lung is attacking; repeat, Lung is attac—”

I had to cut myself off to deflect a blast of fire with one of Nenya’s barriers. Behind me, Sophia took advantage of the cover to take a potshot at the slowly growing cape. The tranquilizer round became solid halfway hilted into his skin, which was already shifting into metal scales, but he just roared and snapped it off with an almost lazy bat of his hand.

I scrambled backwards, away from Lung, my eyes trained on his red ones. He hadn’t even bothered with his mask, and his face, already beginning to elongate, was twisted into a rictus of fury. “You will pay for what you did to me,” he growled, his voice still mostly understandable this early in his transformation. “You should not have struck at your betters, little girl.”

I couldn’t help it—I scowled at him. “My better?” I asked sharply. “You’re just a child destroying other children’s sandcastles because you can’t build your—”

I dove behind a corner as more fire came my way and began to run again. It wasn’t long before I had to turn to block another fireball.

“Go!” I shouted to Sophia. “I’ll hold him off!”

She didn’t hesitate, shifting into shadow form and zipping away behind me. I held Nenya at the ready on one hand and Aeglos in the other as Lung fully rounded the corner.

“You don’t want to kill me,” I said breathlessly. “Killing a Ward? That’s kill-order material. You don’t want that kind of heat.”

He roared. If there were words in the sound, they were too distorted by both his shape and his rage to be understood. Fire burst forth from him—not breathed from his maw, like a true dragon, but blasting from his whole body in an explosion.

I raised Aeglos and stabbed into the fire with a cry. Flame met ice, and steam rushed forth, filling the hallway.

I turned and sprinted away, taking advantage of the impromptu smoke grenade to run. As I turned the next corner, however, I was faced with the grinning, blood-red mask of Oni Lee.

The pin of the grenade in his right hand dropped out of his left.

I dropped, curled inward—dropping Aeglos to tighten myself further—and surrounded myself with the strongest barrier I could manage.

It wouldn’t be the last time I was at the epicenter of an explosion, but it was the first. The light, the heat, the sound, they pounded at my senses like war drums, setting me reeling internally. My collected state was shattered wide, as a gate before a battering ram.

I stood up, blinking to try to clear the spots in my eyes, picked up Aeglos, and continued to run. I noticed I was bouncing off the walls a bit in my unsteady gait. That wasn’t good. It meant I was being inefficient.

Fire struck me in the back in a rush of heat. My mithril armor held—I had a feeling I’d know if my back had suddenly become barbecue—but I smelled something burning.

I was sent rolling down the hallway and came to a rest on my back, staring back down the hall at Lung.

“I’s o’er li’l ‘irl,” he growled through twisted features. “Now ‘oo ‘ay.”

I called on Nenya, and felt the rush of renewed energy. I wore the Ring of Adamant—I was unbowed. Unyielding.

I picked myself up. I took Aeglos in both hands and pointed the shimmering blue blade at the center of his brow. Frost crept down the handle from the blade in spite of the growing heat of Lung’s presence. My knees bent and I shifted my stance into a ready posture.

“Don’t you know the story of Saint George?” I asked him. “It isn’t over until the dragon’s dead.”

He bared his teeth. Fire burst forth.

I caught it in a combination of Nenya’s barrier and Aeglos’ point. The blade flared blue, and again steam burst forth.

Where is Oni Lee? I asked Nenya then, under the cover of the cloud. I had no desire to be overtaken with another grenade.

My senses expanded to include the sound of his breathing—in two places, no less. One, in the hallway behind Lung, and the other—

I whirled, Aeglos spinning about in a narrow arc of blue light, and stabbed the enemy cape through the center of the chest.

He staggered back, the unprimed grenade falling from his limp fingers, and fell apart into a mess of white ash.

I ran again, maintaining an awareness of his and Lung’s positions at all times. Oni Lee tried once more to get ahead of me. I struck him hard across the head with Aeglos’ haft immediately and then stabbed him through the throat as I kept running past. In the moment between the two blows, another of him appeared behind me, and as the spear sank into his flesh, he again collapsed into dust.

He didn’t try to catch up to me again, instead staying behind Lung as the large cape rumbled through the halls behind me, taking potshots at me with his fire, which I deflected with Nenya and Aeglos.

I knew that, were adrenaline not coursing through my veins like water, I would be dead already. I knew that the amount of mental and physical strain I was putting myself through, exerting Nenya’s power like this, would leave me practically crippled for at least the next day. The Three were not meant to be used in this kind of close-quarters combat, let alone be relied upon in this way.

Tough. I had no choice. And I couldn’t deny that some part of me—some primal spark of combative flame—was enjoying this. Admittedly, I’d probably like it better if I could face him directly, but I wasn’t prepared for that. Besides, I’d prefer Narya or Vilya for the purpose.

We reached the lobby of the cell block and I turned, finally reveling in the more open space rather than a claustrophobic corridor. I was looking through the glass divider between the lobby and the security area when Lung pushed the door open and entered the other side.

We faced each other for a moment, his teeth bared, my face set. He’d grown—he barely fit into the hallways now, and was hunched over until he was barely standing on two legs.

“Oo’v go’n s’rong’r,” he acknowledged roughly.

“You haven’t,” I said.

He growled and leapt, charging through the glass at me. Nenya gave me the speed to sidestep out of the way and bring Aeglos about. The blue point slashed into his side, sinking through the metallic scales into the soft flesh. He roared in pain and recoiled, and I struck again, stabbing into his leg.

He took a knee, but swiped at me as he did so. Extended as I was in a thrust, I couldn’t dodge. I was thrown backward, and hit the wall hard with a sharp crack, leaving an imprint in the concrete.

Yet I was mostly unhurt. The impact was not onto my separated helmet, and so I had no concussion. My body would bruise where it had impacted my platemail, but my skin was untorn.

I pulled myself out of the wall and swung Aeglos about as Oni Lee appeared beside me. He recoiled just in time, the blade missing his throat by an inch. I stabbed again and he dissolved into ash, appearing again behind me. I jabbed at him with the haft of Aeglos, striking him in the gut, and then dove out of the way of a blast of fire from the rising Lung.

I was in a corner now. Lung was in the center of the room—on all fours, now, his form barely recognizable as human, and towering to the ceiling. Oni Lee was recovering to my left, against the wall. He was doubled over, but his mask was facing me, and his gaze was perfectly steady.

I was strong, but I needed to win every clash. They only needed to win one.

I took a stance and lowered Aeglos to point at Lung. “Ready when you are,” I said.

Oni Lee appeared beside me, already palming a grenade. I slashed him across the throat and pushed him between me and Lung, where he served as a human shield against the rush of flame, at least until he dissolved into ash. By that point, I was already rolling out of the corner, making for the doorway.

I smashed through the push door and took a step down the long hallway leading to the stairs… and was suddenly stumbling on the first step.

“Annatar,” said Vista, her voice tight with concentration. “How’re you doing?”

“Better, now you’re here.”

“Love you too. Let’s go.” I saw that the corridor had lengthened until I could barely see the small forms of Lung and Oni Lee on the other side.

But I heard Oni Lee, as he appeared directly behind the two of us. Then, suddenly, he stopped. I turned.

The man in the blood-red mask stood stock-still, frozen, and Clockblocker’s hand rested on his shoulder, reaching down from higher up on the stairwell. “We haven’t got long,” he said sharply. “Vista, let’s go.”

Vista nodded. “Annatar, you go up first. Are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” I said, as I began to run up the spiraling stairs, taking them two at a time. “Bit bruised, is all.”

“Good,” called Aegis from above. “Vista, how close is Lung?”

“If I held him here, he’d be a few minutes, but he’ll bust through the ceiling and come up somewhere else in the building. Let’s go before he does.”

We ran up the stairs; Vista took the rear, I was next, then before me were Clockblocker and Aegis, with whom Vista and I quickly caught up. As we ran, I heard a rumbling, crashing sound somewhere in the building behind us.

“That’s Lung breaking out,” panted Vista. “We need to hurry. Is the Protectorate coming?”

“Piggot says yes,” said Aegis shortly.

“Good,” I panted. “We might be able to contain him again.”

No one answered me. Moments later, we reached the top of the stairway. Sophia was there, fists clenched, staring at the doorway as we opened it.

“Annatar,” she said, and there was something unidentifiable in her voice. “You’re okay.”

“I’m fine,” I said. “Thanks for getting the others.”

“We need to fall back,” Aegis barked. “Get behind the PRT’s barricade. Annatar, you take the lead. Clockblocker and I will take the rear.”

We jogged through the next few corridors unmolested save for the occasional crash of Lung breaking through a wall behind us. Soon, we reached the hangar. The garage doors were open, and the PRT troop that had been here when we arrived was gone.

“Vista, give us a path,” Aegis ordered.

As we reached the edge of the roadway which lead into the force field bridge, The bay shrank before us until the Rig and the shore were practically touching, and one by one, we stepped across, and off of the manufactured island.

As we reached the shore, Vista released the tightened space and I gave a sigh of relief. “What now?” I asked Aegis.

“Now you wait here.” I turned. It was Armsmaster, striding forward. “Vista,” he said. “A path, please.” Behind him, the rest of the Protectorate was assembled.

“We can help,” I said. “I—”

“No, Annatar,” he said shortly. “Lung is dangerous, and you’re not soldiers. Leave this to us. Vista?”

Vista nodded and the distance shortened again. One by one, the seven heroes crossed. Armsmaster turned to face us from the other side.

“Aegis,” he ordered. “Keep in radio contact. We’ll keep you appraised of the situation.”

“Yes, sir. Clockblocker froze Oni Lee on the way out; he may still be out of action when you arrive.”

“We’ll keep it in mind. Under no circumstances are you to engage Bakuda or Lung, should either appear.”

“Yes, sir.”

Armsmaster hesitated for a moment. “And… Annatar,” he said. “You should speak to the director.”

I frowned at him. “Did I do something wrong?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “I—we don’t have time. I’m sorry.”

There was something in how he said those last two words that put me on edge, but then he turned away with a nod to Vista, and the space between us was widening again.

I glanced at Aegis. “Do you know what that was about?” I asked.

“No idea,” he said. “Call Piggot. I’ll keep watch.”

I nodded. “Thanks.”

I walked away from the shore. Sophia followed me wordlessly. I made my way to an open piece of street some twenty feet apart from anyone else and then palmed my radio from where it sat clipped to my sword belt.

I altered the frequency to be direct to the console, and then hit broadcast. “This is Annatar to Director Piggot,” I said. “Armsmaster said to contact you.”

A moment passed. Then Piggot’s voice: “I’m sorry I can’t make this a priority,” she said. “Go to frequency Oscar-November-Echo. I’ll talk to you there between coordinating.”

I quickly altered the frequency. “Director,” I said, and I knew my voice was growing less steady. “What’s going on?”

“You’re aware that Bakuda was making a bombing spree on the north side of town?”

“Yes. It was a distraction to release Lung, right?”

“We think so. Annatar—hold on a moment.”

I waited. While I did, I glanced at Sophia. “Why are you here?” I asked her blankly.

She twitched. “I—” she stopped. “Wanted to thank you,” she said. “Don’t know if I—”

“Annatar.” Piggot’s voice. “I’m sorry I don’t have more time. During the bombing spree, Bakuda struck the Dockworker’s Association building. Your father was at work.”

Chapter Text

I stared at the radio in my hand. “What?” I asked.

“I’m sorry, Annatar. He’s been recovered by paramedics and is en route to Brockton General Hospital as we speak.”

The Ring of Adamant hardened my heart and steeled my spine. I clenched my teeth and asked, “So he’s not dead?”

“No. I’m not going to lie, his condition is critical, but Panacea is currently at the hospital. She doesn’t accept requests, but she generally focuses on patients in critical condition. He’ll most likely be fine.”

I closed my eyes. A shudder ran through my body for a moment, goosebumps rising over my skin. I felt as though I was standing in a cold wind. “I’m going to go help,” I said thickly. “I can get there in ten minutes and—”

“You’re falling over on your feet,” Sophia interrupted roughly.

I whirled on her. “MY FATHER MIGHT BE DYING!” I screamed at her.

She didn’t flinch. “You’re no help to him like this,” she said evenly. “Let the medics do their jobs. You’ve done yours.”

“Shadow Stalker is quite right,” said Piggot firmly. “Your father is already en route to the hospital. Panacea--a much more accomplished healer than you, I’m sure you’ll agree--is already there, and will almost certainly step in if his condition is beyond the assistance of non-parahuman professionals. Your father should--will be fine.”

“I can’t just do nothing!” But even as I said it, I knew I didn’t have the energy in me to do a truly massive feat of healing with Vilya right now. At best, I’d be able to stabilize Dad--and after running all the way across the city with Nenya, I doubted I’d be able to do even that.

“You just held Lung and Oni Lee long enough for the Protectorate to arrive—singlehandedly, according to Aegis’ report,” said Piggot coolly. “That’s far from nothing.”

“That doesn’t help my dad!”

There was a pause.

“Annatar, I need to be coordinating,” Piggot told me. “I’m sorry I can’t be more help. You deserved to be aware, at least. Do not rush to the Docks, or to the hospital alone—mover or not, tonight’s not a night to be out on the streets alone. You’d be doing your father no favors by getting killed in one of the bombs.”

I didn’t answer; just stared out onto the water. My eyes were perfectly dry.

“Annatar?”

“I heard you. I won’t rush off alone.”

Piggot sighed into the microphone. “We’ll talk later. I’m sorry.”

The frequency blanked, and I tuned back to the Wards’ band numbly before clipping the radio back onto my belt and staring out into the bay again.

I blinked. Still no tears.

After a moment, Clockblocker broke from the group of Wards and approached.

“I heard you yelling at Piggot,” he said lowly. “What happened?”

“The ABB bombed my dad’s work,” I replied. My voice was smooth, neither breaking nor cracking.

“Shit,” he whispered. “Is he…?”

“He’s alive. Critical condition. He’s on his way to the hospital.”

“Well… that’s good, right? There’s still a chance—”

“We were just starting to get along again,” I said—hoarsely, now, but still no tears came. “We’d barely been talking for two years—first my mom died, and then fucking Winslow happened, and he was never… he couldn’t deal with it. He shut down, and I didn’t want to bother him. And it always made me so angry, that I had to tiptoe around my own dad like that.”

Dennis was silent. So was Sophia, still standing near, watching me mutely.

“I never told him about you, you know?” I said to her, with only a vague gesture in her direction, my gaze still fixed out to sea, my eyes still horribly, traitorously dry. “He only found out about you and Emma after the locker. He knew I was being bullied, but he was always saying shit like ‘at least you have Emma,’ or ‘can’t Emma help?’ And I mean, how was he supposed to know if I didn’t tell him? But what would he do if I did? The teachers didn’t give a fuck; the principal didn’t give a fuck; Mr. Barnes is a lawyer and we couldn’t afford to fight him in court, so the lawdidn’t give a fuck; and I was just a scrawny little girl up against the track star, so why should you give a fuck? Nothing he could do would have changed any of that—he’d have just beaten himself bloody pounding against the walls.” I smiled slightly. “Cutting up his hands against the loose nails, and holding his breath to try to get away from the smell.”

I thought I heard an intake of breath from Sophia. Maybe it was just my imagination. Maybe I just wanted to pretend that someone was showing the proper amount of emotion here. I still couldn’t cry.

“I told him about my powers the day before I came in to join the Wards. It was… he was beaten. Had been for years. It took me so long to put myself, my own problems, aside and really see that. I’d been angry with him for it—but once I had powers, I managed it. But I just—I pitiedhim. When was the last time I really talked to him? When was the last time he and I sat down and spoke—about our lives, about our thoughts, about our feelings? We were starting to, this past two weeks. We were almost there. It was almost right again. We were almost a family again.” I laughed darkly. “All it took was me getting powers—was me having such a bad day, being so totally alone, that the only thing I could do was stop being human. And it still wasn’t enough. I—we needed more time. A couple more weeks—more days, even. Another two or three family dinners, just he and I. Maybe then we could have understood one another again.”

Maybe then, I’d be able to cry.

I shook my head to clear it. It wasn’t as though Dad was dead—yet—after all. With Panacea at the hospital, and him already on his way, things looked pretty good for his prospects.

That, somehow, didn’t help as much as it should have.

“I know what it’s like,” Dennis said gently, “to wish you had more time.”

I looked at him thoughtfully. “Your trigger?” I asked.

He nodded. “My dad—he has leukemia,” he said softly. “I didn’t—I wanted more time with him.” He laughed mirthlessly. “Now I can keep him, frozen in time, for as long as I want. A perfectly useless solution.”

“My dad and I started getting along again as soon as I no longer needed his support,” I told him wryly. “Powers are just ironic like that, aren’t they?”

I was starting to hurt. The adrenaline, shock, and emotion of the past hour was starting to fade, and I was left just feeling drained. My ribs were aching, the bruising beginning to rear its ugly head, and I could practically feel my legs and arms stiffening with exertion.

“Clockblocker,” Sophia said, getting our attention. “Any idea when we can go back to base?”

Dennis shook his head. “Dunno,” he said. “I’ll go ask Aegis. Be right back.”

I watched him go as he retreated back to the group.

“I’m sorry about your dad,” said Sophia quietly.

I turned, blinked at her. “What?”

She glanced away. There was a pause for a moment.

“Thank you,” I said.

She didn’t reply for a moment. “I wanted to thank you for taking on Lung and Oni Lee like that,” she said. “I’m not built to go up against guys like Lung. My powers don’t work for that.”

“I know.”

“It wasn’t that I wanted to run away; I just knew I could help more by getting the others than by facing them down with just the two of us.”

“I know.”

“I’m not a coward.”

I didn’t answer, just looked back out to sea.

“I’m not!”

“Brave people don’t need to beat down the weak.”

“Fuck you, He—Annatar. I’m a—”

“Survivor?” I interrupted dryly. “You mentioned.”

“Fight or flight,” Sophia said coolly. “It pays to know what you can take on, and what you can’t. Sometimes things are just too strong for you alone.”

“Yes.”

“Lung was too strong.”

“I agree.”

“So I’m not a coward. I was getting help.”

I didn’t bother to tell her that those two weren’t mutually exclusive. She knew. She wouldn’t have bothered with this conversation if she didn’t.

“You’re a survivor?”

Yes.

“‘Cowards die a thousand times before their death. The valiant never taste of death but once.’ Julius Caesar.” I remembered my mother, sitting in the rocking chair she’d once had in my bedroom, reading to me aloud each night before bed. I remembered my father, joining us for the ceremony, sitting at the foot of my bed, smiling as he watched her intent upon her book, and me intent upon her, as she read from Treasure Island, or The Chronicles of Narnia, or Doctor Dolittle. And, of course—once I was old enough to appreciate it—we began to read Shakespeare as a group, each of us taking some characters’ roles.

Dad had always been good at giving the characters funny voices.

“It’s not like that,” Sophia said through gritted teeth.

I didn’t bother to answer. Aegis was coming over.

“Protectorate’s coming out,” he said. “Couldn’t find Lung or Oni Lee in the Rig. They think Bakuda used some of Leet’s tinkertech to get them out. We’ll be headed to PRT headquarters soo—”

Boom.

An explosion. I turned. Smoke was rising from somewhere in the north part of downtown.

“Fuck.” Aegis cursed. “Bakuda? Is she still going? Why? She’s got Lung out, hasn’t she?”

“Power,” I said softly. “She’s had a taste of rule through fear, and wants more. She won’t stop now until she’s beaten or until the ABB rule the city.”

“Fuck,” said Aegis again. I nodded.

“Bitch,” Sophia said coldly. “Hasn’t she caused enough trouble for one night?”

“She’s caused enough trouble for one lifetime,” I said. “Hers.”

Aegis glanced at me. “What?”

I wasn’t listening. I can’t hunt her down now, I told myself. I’m tired, I’m weak, I’m alone, I’m without support or assistance. She’s entrenched, surrounded by allies, and in control of the situation. I can’t go after her now. I can’t avenge Dad now.

Tomorrow, I won’t be tired or weak, but I’ll still be alone, and still without help. It won’t be enough.

Why did I join the Wards, then, if I’m alone, even when surrounded by allies? I wanted allies—no.

No. I wanted Ring-Bearers. And I need them now. For you, Dad.

“We need to stop her,” I said.

“That’s not our job,” said Aegis gently. “We’re not the Protectorate--we’re supposed to stay safe.”

“Fuck that,” Sophia bit out. “I don’t plan to sit on my ass while that bitch blows up half of our city.”

“There’s only one kind of safety that matters—power.” My voice was hard. “And power… power I can do. Power, I have. Power, I can share.”

“What are you talking about, Annatar?” Aegis asked. His voice reminded me of a moth, drawn to a flame—apprehensive, but enraptured already. And I hadn’t even begun my pitch.

“How would you like one of my modules, Aegis?” I asked softly. I met his eyes and looked deep, drawing out what lay behind them, and speaking the words he wanted to hear. “A bit of extra oomph to everything you do. An enduring strength of character, to match the endurance to weather blows. An unrelenting strength that others can’t help but respect.”

He stared at me. I saw the smouldering hunger behind his eyes.

“What are you talking about, Annatar?” The voice was Gallant’s.

“Or you, Gallant?” I asked, turning to him. “How would you like to be the hero you’ve always wanted to be? Unbreakable, incorruptible, and unyielding?”

He shuddered—almost imperceptible, under his armor, but I saw it.

“And you, Vista? The force of will—to captivate the attention of those around you, to command the respect you deserve. An increase—both in power, and in the respect that power earns you.”

Her hands were shaking. “Annatar—”

“What of you, Kid Win?” I rounded on my fellow Tinker. “The wisdom and focus to see the world as clearly as others do, and manipulate it as only you can. The solidarity of thought to overcome your own weaknesses. I can give you that.”

He took one step toward me, seemingly unaware of his own action. “I—”

“And Browbeat. The insight to understand the people around you; to understand and even predict their actions, and—if necessary—use them against themselves. I can give you that.”

Browbeat stood frozen; his eyes, barely visible through the holes in his mask, were trained unwaveringly on me.

“Clockblocker. The detachment to withstand suffering—to live in the moment, and remain unscathed by the hurts that come into your path. I can give you that.”

I couldn’t see his face under his blank mask, but I could hear his breathing. It was sharp and quick.

“And Shadow Stalker,” I purred, facing the final Ward. “The strength to overcome your own frailties—the strength of self that allows a true hero to put the self aside, in favor of the other. I can give you that.

“How?” she whispered, almost hungry, slightly hunched before me, staring up into my face. “How?”

I smiled. No—I bared my teeth. “For the Lord of Gifts,” I hissed, “I’ve sure kept my powers closely guarded, haven’t I? No more. Bakuda will pay—we will make her pay.”

For you, Dad. All these Rings, arms and armor for me, and not one for you. I’m so sorry.

“I’ve got some tinkering to do tonight,” I said softly. “Once that’s done…”

Seven for the Wards, in a city of sin.

“...I’ll have something to give to each of you.”

Chapter Text

When I had made the Three, it had been in the safety of my own room, over the course of months, steadily making progress as I had the time to work on them. I worked on them a little each afternoon, gradually shaping the scraps into three gorgeous objects, as much treasures as tools, capable of working miracles.

It wasn’t that way this time. This time, I was tired, sick at heart, and burning inside. This time there was no rest, no short periods of work followed by long rests, no ease to the labor. The metal I worked was finer, but the crafting itself was arduous and seemed almost unending.

But I wore Nenya—I wore it throughout the night and into the morning. From the moment I set foot in PRT Headquarters, I was at work in the forge. The workshop sang an old, forgotten song of hammer on anvil, and the music carried on from the last purple fading of twilight until the faint greying of the pre-dawn sky.

The Wards, as per Piggot’s orders, stayed the night in the dorms at HQ, to keep them safe from Bakuda’s bombing spree. The others had long since gone to bed—all but myself and Sophia. She stayed with me, silently watching me work, reclining in an armchair until eventually she, too, succumbed to the call of sleep.

Two by two, the burnished bands of the Seven emerged, and into each I set its proper stone.

The first to emerge, and the only one to be completed alone, rather than as part of a pair, was Cenya, greatest of the Seven, the Ring of Earth, the Ring of Dúrin. In its mithril band was set an emerald, bright green and incandescent with internal fire. Alone among the Seven, this Ring could compare in power and scope to the Three themselves.

The second and third emerged from the forge together. These were Laureya and Silmaya, the Rings of Gold and Silver, the Ring of Day and the Ring of Night, respectively. Into Laureya I placed an orb of purest polished gold against the mithril band, and against the golden band of Silmaya I placed a sphere of luminous mithril.

Then came the fourth and fifth of the Seven: Araya, the Ring of Dawn, and Histeya, the Ring of Dusk. Into Araya’s gold I set a bright fire opal, transparent and radiant, and orange as the sunrise. Into Histeya’s mithril I set an amethyst, dark and deep, colored in the deep violet of falling twilight.

At last came the final pair. Mirilya, the Ring of Jewels, and Ondoya, the Ring of Stone. Into the former’s gold I set a white topaz, transparent and reflective. Into the latter’s mithril I set an onyx, black and mysterious, and deep as night.

At last, when my labor was done, I sat back and sighed, dismissing hammer and anvil and simply staring down at the steel platter where rested a new line of Rings of Power.

Each Ring was slightly different, each possessed of unique attributes, but none were so singular as the Three, save perhaps for Cenya.

I stood up and stretched, letting out a faint moan as my vertebrae crackled like rice paper. I picked up the tablet and crossed the room, setting it down on the coffee table beside Sophia before touching her shoulder gently with one hand.

“Sophia,” I murmured. “It’s time.”

She mumbled something inaudible and shifted to her side, curling into the armchair’s cushions. Her eyes opened and sought mine.

“Taylor…?” she muttered.

“You fell asleep,” I said. “They’re ready, Sophia.”

She blinked and stretched, almost catlike. Then she stopped and stared down at the seven glimmering Rings before her.

“Wow,” she whispered, her eyes shining with the reflected glow.

I smiled slightly. “Help me wake the others,” I said.


 

The workshop was dead silent. It was lit only by the dim lamps set in the corners of the room—I’d stopped Aegis from lighting the main fluorescents as he came in. The eight of us were standing around a round table in the center. Each of the other Wards was interchanging between watching me and looking down at the seven Rings on the table between us.

Narya was on my finger, now, and my presence filled the room—not overpowering, but captivating the other Wards, keeping them focused on me, and on my gifts.

“I’ve told you all about my modules,” I said, looking from one Ward to another. “But now, at last, you see what they look like to me.” I slipped Narya off of my finger and held it out for inspection.

“This is Narya,” I said. “The Ring of Fire, one of the Rings of Power, of the set of Three. Those Three are the modules I have been using. Tonight I forged a new set, a set of Seven Rings of Power, one for each of you.”

I set Narya down in the center of table and met each Ward’s eyes as I continued. “The Rings of Power are dangerous and powerful. They will give you strength, but they will also bind you to them. If you accept the burden of their bearing, your fates will be forever tied to theirs. These are not mere trinkets, tools and weapons like other tinkertech; these will tie themselves to your very soul, and their essence will become inextricable from yours, save by death.”

There was a pause. I had their full attention. “If anyone doesn’t want their share in this gift,” I finished, “speak now.”

There was dead silence as the seven Wards watched me without a hint of response. I smiled and, slipping Narya back onto my finger, I began.

“To you, Sam,” I said, taking up one, “I give Ondoya, the Ring of Stone. It will give you clarity and certainty, of yourself and of others, and you will be as hard and incorruptible as stone.”

I handed the onyx and mithril band to Sam, to Browbeat, and he cradled it in his hands, staring down at it with dark, hooded eyes.

“To you, Chris,” I continued, taking up its twin, “I give Mirilya, the Ring of Jewels. Your works and your working will be as radiant and clear as cut gems. To you, and to others.”

The gold and topaz Ring I gave to Kid Win, whose hands shook as he turned it over and over in his fingers.

“To you, Dean,” I said then, taking up the next Ring, “I give Araya, the Ring of Dawn. It will allow your honest intent to shine into the hearts and minds of all who behold you.”

The opal and gold I placed into his outstretched hand, and he held it up to his eye, looking through the hole in wonder.

“To you, Missy,” I said, taking up Araya’s sister Ring, “I give Histeya, the Ring of Dusk. All who see you will be in awe of your majesty, and be cowed by the scale you represent.”

The Ring of mithril and amethyst I gently placed between her reaching fingers, and she ran her thumb over it, glancing between it, Gallant, and me.

“To you, Carlos,” I said, “I give Laureya, the Ring of Gold, the Ring of the Sun. You will be as bright and as powerful as the fire itself—incandescent and forceful, impossible to deny.”

The gold-on-silver band I dropped into his palm, which he brought up to his face. The light of the Ring reflected on his brown eyes, making them dance.

“To you, Dennis,” I said, taking up the last paired Ring, “I give Silmaya, the Ring of Silver, the Ring of the Moon. You will be as calm and as gentle as moonlight, and will be the confidante and trustee of all those you care for.”

The Ring, silver-on-gold, I held out to him, and he plucked it up between thumb and forefinger, rotating it to see the pale light flickering off the orb.

I turned to my final Ward, who was biting her lip, watching me raptly. “Sophia,” I said, taking up the last of the Seven. “With this, I bind you, you understand that? I give you this freely, and it is yours to use—but there is only one Lord of the Rings; only one who can truly master their power. That which I give, I can yet take away.”

“I understand,” she said, meeting my gaze steadily. “I’m in this for the long haul, Ann—Taylor.”

I smiled, and her lips twitched in response. “Then to you, Sophia,” I said softly, “you, who have fought beside me; you, who have seen me at my worst and my best—to you, I give Cenya, the Ring of Earth, the Green Ring, the Emerald Ring, greatest of the Seven. It will give you dominion over all that lingers in darkness, both outside and inside yourself. It will allow you to rule over the deepest, darkest pits—both the caverns that delve into the deep places of the world, and the shadowy crevices within your own heart where you do not dare to tread.”

I took her left hand in mine and, my eyes unwavering from hers, I gently slipped the silver band onto her index finger. I saw her eyes widen the moment it was secure. Her body seemed to tense, her spirit flared and sang with power. A green light seemed to shimmer within her, blazing forth from her eyes before growing dim—no, not dim, controlled, as she took hold of it and brought it to heel.

Her faint, uncertain smile spread into a wild, unchained grin. “Holy shit,” she whispered.

I stepped away from her and looked around at the other Wards. One by one, they slipped their own Rings of Power onto their own fingers. One by one, their souls flared like stars in the night sky, shining forth with the brilliance of the sun and the moon, and singing like angels in the heavens.

Each responded a little differently. Carlos staggered, as though suddenly struggling under a great load, before seeming to find new strength. Dennis relaxed, his face softening slightly, his eyes growing calm. Missy exhaled—something between a sigh and a hiss—and shuddered slightly, as though in a pleasantly cool wind. Dean’s fists clenched and his face seemed to harden, taking on a solid edge reminiscent of great kings and knights of old. Chris stepped back, staring down at his open palms, wonder in his wide eyes and parted lips. Sam’s jaw set and his gaze seemed to sharpen, steadying and growing more focused.

“Welcome to the fold, Ring-Bearers,” I murmured, bringing my hands together and steepling my fingers, Narya shining in a blaze of fire on my finger.

“Is this a loan?” Missy asked, and her voice was hesitant, as if she wasn’t sure she wanted to hear the answer. “Are we going to have to give these… give these back once this mess with Bakuda is done?”

Suddenly, the air of wonder which suffused the room thickened with tension—and a hint of jealousy. Already the Wards were bound to their Rings, more tightly than I was to the Three—for I was the Ring-Maker, resilient to their call, while the other heroes were as moths drawn to a radiant flame.

It was my responsibility, then, to ensure they were not burned.

I shook my head in answer to the question. “Once you have borne a Ring of Power,” I said quietly, “it will leave its mark upon you forever. I wouldn’t take them from you unless I meant to make your lives a torture forevermore.” I smiled slightly. “At this point, I’ve no intention of doing anything of the sort.”

“Does that mean we have to keep them on all the time?” Sam asked.

“Not at all,” I said. “I took mine off nightly, at first, although I’ve taken to wearing one of them to bed more often lately. You could almost certainly go days, months, or even years without wearing them. It likely wouldn’t even be too hard, so long as you kept them with you—in a pocket, or on a chain around your neck. But parting with them fully will not be easy.”

“They’re addictive?” Missy asked sharply. “Is that what you meant when you said they were binding? Could’ve put it like that.”

“No more than any power is,” I said simply, shaking my head. “Surely you couldn’t drop your ability to warp space at a whim? Just stop using it forever?”

She grimaced and looked away.

“Let me be clear,” I said. “The Rings of Power are dangerous. Do not use them lightly. But they are yours, and will bend to your will. Do not use them lightly, but use them, and use them well. They will give you what you desire, so long as you seek it actively and unerringly.”

“So what do they do, exactly?” Sophia asked.

I chuckled and spread my hands. “I don’t know, exactly,” I said honestly. “That’s as much up to you as to me. I don’t even know what my Rings do, in full, let alone yours. I encourage you to experiment, learn about them. Think of it like learning how your powers worked. Be aware that they have a tendency to reveal abilities in the middle of a crisis.”

“Like your superspeed,” Sophia remembered.

I nodded. “And mastering, and enhanced senses, and strength. Nenya’s barriers showed up when I had buckshot halfway to my face.”

“Nenya?” Chris asked.

“You know it as Water.”

“You showed us Narya,” said Carlos, studying me. “The other two, Water and Air--they’re also Rings?”

“The Three Rings of Power,” I confirmed. “Narya, Nenya, and Vilya. Fire, Water, and Air.” I produced the Jewelry Box and opened it with a murmured passphrase, and Nenya and Vilya both shone forth like stars. “I keep them in here,” I said, “so that I can swap between them when I need to. I’ll probably give two of them away at some point, but I don’t know when.” I might even give away the third, one day—One day.

“So what do you want us to do with these?” Dean asked. “What, are we supposed to go after Bakuda now, against orders?”

“Of course not,” I said dryly. “I won’t deny I might break ranks and go after her, and I might take people with me, if we hear anything about where she is. I think I’ve earned my pound of flesh there. But no, I’m not going to demand anyone disobey orders and jeopardize their position here. For now, these are just… a bit of assistance. An added boost to each of you, trying to close the gap between heroes and villains in this city. It’s not enough… not yet.” I smiled. “But I’m not done yet. Not by half.”

“Can I help?” Sophia asked immediately.

I chuckled, smiling at her. “Not yet,” I said. “Go back to sleep, all of you—I’m going to bed.” I looked at the clock on the wall—it was almost five in the morning. “See you in a couple hours.”

Chapter Text

The captain of the Wards retreated to the room ordained for him. Carlos made haste to shut the way behind him before setting his back against the oaken door. His eyes sought the glimmering gold which twined about his hand. Laureya, the Ring of Gold, the Ring of the Sun, shone like purest golden fire, lighting up the small space like noon on a summer’s day.

You will be as bright and as powerful as the fire itself—incandescent and forceful, impossible to deny.

“What the fuck,” he whispered helplessly as he tried to hold onto lucidity. “What the fuck.”

He was keenly aware of the rushing blood beneath his skin, of the drumming of his heart, of the air-conditioned breeze which ran cool and crisp across every inch of exposed skin. He shuddered.

Fifteen minutes ago, he’d just been a guy who could take a hit from almost anything and keep going. Now—now he felt different. Changed. Inhuman and superhuman.

He was unsure whether there was any way back to who he had been before. He was unsure whether he would wish to take it, were it open to him.

Carlos looked around the room, lit dimly by the shine of the Ring of Power. He noted the spidery cracks in the paint over the concrete walls, heard the faint droning of the electrical hum which suffused the building, smelled the faint tang of salt under the filtered, processed air. These were all things he had sensed before--he had merely failed to perceive them.

All is sharper, now—sight, sound, scent. He ran a finger over the Ring of Power upon his hand. A fog has lifted from the world, and I am at last seeing things for what they truly are, rather than trying to pick out shapes half-hidden in mist.

With a gentle undulation he pushed his body off of the door and strode two paces into his room until he was in its center. From there he stared about, studying the golden light which played upon every surface, flickering and shifting as though passing through water or a thin mist.

From the first, something was different in Annatar, he reflected. Some hint there was that she was unlike the rest of us. She is larger than life. Never has she quite matched what I expect of a cape. This, then, is why.

From the moment the Ring of Power had first slipped onto his finger, Annatar had been transformed.

No, that was wrong. With Laureya on his finger, he saw the true shape of things. Suddenly Annatar had shifted before his very eyes. But it was like an optical illusion, he realized. He’d been looking at her one way, and seeing one thing. With Laureya, his perspective changed, and he saw another. Annatar was unaltered; it was he who was seeing her through new eyes.

Her skin can scarcely contain her. That was the thought that had first entered his mind—that she was practically bursting from out her slim frame, so much was contained within. Her eyes had seemed to shine forth like warm fire, flickering merrily in her pale face, above her satisfied smile. So bright was she in the shaded gloom that he had nearly missed the red nova of light which lingered on her finger. Narya. The Ring of Fire.

Small wonder she was powerful—small wonder she could match men like Lung, blow for blow. Three Rings of Power? He had barely even begun to know what it was like to carry one, but he knew, with the intuition of a babe faced with a great height, that he could never have carried even two. Annatar bore three.

Beyond all else he wondered how she could bear to be divided in such a way. Already Laureya demanded his loyalty, even as it offered him support. He could feel it—a tether on his heart, a firm but gentle grip and a light tug without direction. Gentle, light, and warm above all, but still a grip; still a pull. To bear more than one Ring of Power would have torn him asunder.

There’s no way to say it that doesn’t sound creepy, he reflected, tearing his eyes from the Ring and looking into the dark of his room. But it wasn’t—not really. It was a symbiosis between him and his Ring of Power. He needed the gift it represented, the power it could bring to bear. It needed him to bear it, to carry it forth and use it to—what?

He shook his head, glancing back at the Ring of Power. Instinctively he knew that Laureya was meant for some purpose greater than the bringing of one criminal, even one so heinous as Bakuda, into custody. This thing upon his hand, so beautiful and awful to behold, meant more—was more than just a tool, a piece of tinkertech to be used or lay idle at the whims of its bearer.

This is a responsibility. This, he recognized, was the chain he felt. This was the bond his Ring had lain upon him. While he bore it, he was bound to a purpose higher than his highest aspirations before.

It is not enough to be a hero. I must be a paragon; a beacon. I must be the sun to the others’ stars.

It was not quite ambition that came then unto to the leader of the Wards. Carlos was no stranger to ambition, though he had kept it ever at bay before. Ambition was hot and selfish, like a wildfire, taking and consuming all that lay in its path until achievements became mere stepping-stones and distant goals became nothing but illusions.

This new dream, borne unto him by the golden light of Laureya, was warm and kind, like sunlight on bare skin. It was not ambition, because it was not selfish. He wanted not to become this greatest of heroes for himself—not for glory or for praise. He wished only to fulfill the task that had been appointed to him.

Annatar chose me to bear a Ring of Power. Laureya, the Ring of the Sun. I owe it to her, and to everyone else, to bear it as best I can. I owe it to Laureya.

The Ring of Power seemed to warm and curl gently about his finger in acceptance. Carlos, Bearer of the Sun-Ring, smiled and brought it to his lips.


 

“Carlos,” Annatar greeted, smiling sadly at him as he emerged into the lounge. She was looking at him through a mirror, her hands clasped around a bundle of her own hair which she had gathered up for inspection. For the first time he noticed the blackened lengths at the end of several strands.

“Lung,” she said, by way of explanation. “My armor blocked the worst of it, but my hair wasn’t protected.” She sighed and looked mournfully at the charred fibers.

“It’ll grow back,” he tried to reassure her.

“I know,” she said with another sad smile. “I just—it was always my best feature. I was proud of my hair.” She shook her head. “Doesn’t matter,” she said. “I was just going to go report your new modules to Piggot. Think you could help me?”

He thumbed Laureya, warm and pleasant on his finger, and glanced down at the blue Ring on his teammate’s before nodding. “Sure.”

He followed her into the elevator and up to the Director’s office. Piggot glanced up as they entered.

“Aegis, Annatar,” she greeted. “If you’re looking for news on the situation with Bakuda, I’m afraid I don’t have any at the moment.”

“No,” said Annatar. “But that reminds me—any word on my dad?”

“Last I heard, the doctors had stabilized him,” Piggot said. “I didn’t hear of Panacea going in to see him, but I think he’s stable, if not cured. I’d have heard if that had changed.”

Annatar nodded. “When will I be able to go in to see him?” she asked. “I could probably help with Air.”

“Sometime today,” Piggot replied. “I don’t know exactly when; it depends on when the Protectorate Thinkers figure out anything regarding Bakuda’s—”

Boom.

A pause. “—movements.” Piggot’s voice was hard as she finished the sentence. “Anything else?”

“Yes,” Annatar said. “Last night, I produced a set of modules for the Wards, and handed them out.”

“You what?” Piggot thundered. “You handed out your untested tinkertech to your teammates without even mentioning it to me?”

“There was no way to test them!” Annatar protested. “My modules can’t just be passed around for testing! I needed to make sure that the people who got them were the people I wanted to bear them! I’m here with Aegis now so that you can test his!”

Piggot put her head in her hands. There was a moment’s silence.

“I can’t blame you for how your powers work,” the director said, her voice muffled. It sounded like a mantra. There was another pause. Then she looked up. “Okay,” she said. “Back up. These modules—they can’t have more than one user?”

Annatar lifted her hand, palm down, tilting it side to side in a so-so gesture. “Technically they can,” she said. “But… it wouldn’t be good for the guy doing the testing.”

Piggot blinked once, slowly. “How so?” she asked.

“The modules bind themselves to their user,” Annatar said. “I told the Wards that it’d be very hard for them to give up their modules once they took them. I did some more thinking, and I think I could help them get over it, using Air. But it’d still take time.”

“They’re addictive.” Piggot’s voice was perfectly deadpan.

“…Sort of, yeah.”

“You just handed out addictive power boosts to your teammates.”

“…It’s not that simple—”

Piggot sighed. “Aegis,” she said. “Round up your teammates and report to M/S confinement, if you please. With luck, we’ll have you cleared by the afternoon, and we can get on with our lives.”

“She didn’t master us—” Carlos objected.

“That,” said Piggot quietly, “is for M/S screening to decide. Annatar, will you report to a holding cell while we screen your teammates voluntarily, or do I have to foam you and this entire room?”

There was a pause.

“It’s really not as bad as you think it is,” Annatar said. Her voice was small; almost hurt. Betrayed.

“I hope you’re right,” said Piggot evenly. Then she sighed. “I’m not doing this to spite you, Annatar,” she said. “It’s entirely possible that there was no better way to do this than what you did. You still should have cleared it in advance, but maybe there really was no way to test these modules before distributing them. I don’t understand powers—yours or anyone else’s. I don’t know. But I do know that when my Wards have received something that sounds uncomfortably similar to the master/trump effects of Teacher—who is in the Birdcage, by the way—it’s my duty to make sure they go through proper M/S screening. This is not a full M/S confinement—if you’re telling the truth, you’ll be out within two or three hours. We just need to get this cleared before we proceed.”

“It’s okay, Annatar,” Carlos said gently. “It’ll just be a quick screening and we’ll be out.”

Annatar swallowed. “Will I still be able to go see my dad today?” she asked.

“I hope so, Annatar,” said Piggot evenly, touching a button on her desk. “Armsmaster, Miss Militia, please report to my office.”


 

“This is fucking stupid,” Sophia grumbled from her position in the corner of the M/S cell. The whole room was well-lit by the fluorescent lights in the ceiling. There was nothing present to cast a shadow—which made the dark space in which she reclined against the wall, arms folded, seem all the more out of place.

“It’s understandable,” said Dennis calmly, sitting cross-legged with his back to the wall, his eyes shut and his face perfectly at ease. “I’d be suspicious if Annatar had given all of you Rings and I didn’t know what they were. Heck, maybe we are mastered, and we just can’t tell.”

“No,” said Dean firmly, looking from Dennis to the rest of the Wards with eyes that seemed almost to glow, so bright were the irises. “Annatar wasn’t lying to us. She can’t control us through our Rings. We are bound to them, but not bound to obey.”

“And it’s not as though we weren’t bound to powers already,” said Missy quietly. Carlos glanced at her, then looked away quickly, focusing on a point somewhere a few feet to her right. In the night, Vista seemed to have grown two years—although he couldn’t pinpoint what, exactly, had changed. Where before, she had been a kid barely into puberty, she now seemed a beautiful young woman, who had yet to flower into still more. She hadn’t gained appreciable height, nor had her body shifted, yet her barely-developed curves and childlike features were suddenly not; now, instead, her features were more womanly than infantile. The effect, on the whole, was breathtaking.

Each of them had changed, but it was Missy who exercised her new powers over her teammates the most. Carlos doubted she had conscious control over them, any more than he did.

“Annatar was right,” Missy continued. “We couldn’t stop using our parahuman powers if we wanted to. The Rings of Power are no different. And no worse.”

“Let’s just hope the PRT can see that,” said Carlos quietly. “If they do, we’ll be out of here before lunchtime.”

“And if they can’t?” Sam’s voice seemed to cut through the air like a knife, instantly drawing attention.

Carlos shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said honestly. “I don’t know.”

“They can’t take them from us,” said Chris tersely. “I—Mirilya’s made me see more clearly than I have in years. It’s like I don’t even have— it’s like all my problems with my powers are just gone. I could finish any project I set my mind to like this. They can’t take them from us.”

“They won’t,” said Sophia, idly fiddling with Cenya, which glittered green on her ring finger. “Taylor won’t let them.”

“Annatar is currently in a holding cell until they decide whether we’re mastered,” said Dennis calmly. “Hate to say it, but she probably can’t help us with this one. Piggot likes her, but not that much.”

“Taylor hasn’t let us down yet,” said Sophia firmly. “Her modules haven’t either. We’ll manage. It’ll be fine.”

Carlos ran his thumb against the gentle warmth of Laureya’s band. After a moment, he sighed.

“You’re right,” he said. “We’ll be fine.”

Chapter Text

The PRT’s holding cells weren’t like the square, concrete rooms publicized on TV and in film, with a single shoddy cot and bars over the window. Well, I mean, they were, but the concrete was painted in a nice, soft blue, the cot was actually surprisingly comfortable, and there weren’t any bars on the window. Partly because there was no window. Also, instead of one wall consisting entirely of bars like I’d half expected, all four walls were lead-lined concrete with a heavy metal door in one.

This was a cell meant to contain a brute or striker. It still wouldn’t have held Lung, I expected, but Glory Girl or Aegis would have probably been stuck.

I lay back on the cot, staring up at the flat ceiling, my fingers drumming an idle rhythm on my pant leg. I didn’t have my armor or my weapons, but Vilya was still on my finger, and I’d been given a plain domino mask to protect my identity from any personnel without clearance to know it. The cheap plastic was uncomfortable, digging into the contours of my face while still seeming on the verge of falling off.

I didn’t know how long I’d been here. Probably not long, although it felt like hours. There was nothing to do, and I’d already counted the cracks in the ceiling and walls. (There weren’t any—cracks were a structural weakness.)

“Annatar?” The voice emerged from a speaker beside the door. It was a woman’s, gentle and soft, but possessed of a firm undertone.

“Yes? Who is it?” I asked.

“I’m Dragon,” the voice replied. “I’m in charge of master/stranger screening.”

“Don’t you live in Canada somewhere?” I asked, not bothering to look over at the speaker.

“Vancouver.” Dragon’s voice was faintly amused. “The distance is helpful, actually, since it keeps some masters from affecting me.”

“And you’re going to interrogate me?”

“No,” said Dragon. “We’re currently setting up the M/S screening for your teammates. You’ll only need to go through a proper M/S vetting if they come up positive.”

“Meaning, if you decide I’ve mastered them.”

“Right. Now, I’m required to ask—did you master them, knowingly?”

“No.”

“Honesty may cause the PRT to be lenient,” Dragon coaxed. “We have worked with known masters before.”

I sat up and looked over at the small red LED in the surface of the speaker. “I did not master my fucking teammates,” I bit out. “I gave them objects which will provide them a boost, at the cost that the objects themselves are, in some sense, addictive. They don’t have to use them, but they are bound to them. They can’t easily give them up. I can’t control them through them.”

Not yet.

I shoved that thought down hard. I don’t want to control them! I told myself, and it was true. I really, really didn’t. I’d been without friends for almost two years. Now, at last, I had them—and I couldn’t seem to escape the fact that, with a mere few days’ work, they could become little more than thralls.

“If you’re telling the truth,” Dragon replied, “then you should be out of here within the next couple of hours. The Director will certainly want to talk to you, but we won’t need to have a serious M/S vetting.”

“Good,” I grunted, and lay back down.

“For the record, I believe you,” Dragon reassured me. “It’s procedure.”

“Right. What else can I do for you today?”

Dragon sighed, the sound hissing slightly as it emerged from the speaker. “Do you want anything?” she asked. “A book, music?”

“Sure I won’t master anyone with them?”

“Annatar, please. I—

“I’m sorry,” I interrupted, not waiting to hear her chastisement. “A book would be nice.”

“Any particular requests?”

I stared up at the ceiling for a moment in thought. “The Odyssey would be nice,” I decided.

“I’ll have someone bring you a copy,” said Dragon. “Thank you for your cooperation, Annatar.”

I didn’t reply.


 

The door opened. I glanced up.

“Annatar.” What little I could see of Armsmaster’s face was impassive.

“So?” I asked. “What’s the verdict?”

“The Wards haven’t been mastered,” he said. “Come with me. We need to debrief you, and then we can put this behind us.”

I stood up. “Right,” I said. “Forget all about it. Sounds like a plan. Lead the way.”

I followed him down the hall, up the elevator, and into Piggot’s office. The other Wards were already there. Piggot was talking to them as we arrived.

“—don’t care how good it sounded,” she growled. “Untested tinkertech is always dangerous. You’re very fortunate Annatar seems to have a grip on her powers. Oh, Annatar, you’re here—thank you, Armsmaster.”

I took up a position between Carlos and Sophia. “Ma’am.”

Piggot sighed. “You’re angry,” she said.

I smiled thinly. “No,” I replied. “I understand the reasoning behind what you did. My three hour time-out gave me plenty of time to think.”

“Then can you tell me what you did wrong?”

“No.”

Our eyes met.

“If I had approached you with my modules before I gave them to the Wards,” I said quietly, “you would have insisted on testing them before allowing them to go to the Wards. Maybe you’d have listened to me, when I said they bound themselves to their bearers, and would have allowed the Wards to test them. More likely, you’d have had PRT personnel test them. Had you done that… I could not be held responsible for what might have happened to those men. And yet I would have been, and my three-hour stay in a cell would have wound up being much longer.”

Piggot’s eyes did not waver from mine. “I’ve given you a hell of a lot of slack, Annatar,” she retorted. “You want to rethink that?”

I didn’t answer.

Here’s what would have happened,” Piggot told me. “When you told me that these modules would have ill effects when tested by someone other than their intended user, I would have believed you, because I know better than to think I’m an expert in your tinkertech. The Wards would have been allowed to test their own modules. And even if they weren’t, when my own people suffered ill effects because I refused to listen to the expert on the tech, I would have blamed the person responsible—myself.”

I didn’t answer.

“I’ve been doing this for a long time, Annatar,” Piggot said. “I know better than to claim to be an expert on a tinker’s tech.”

The silence stretched, but I didn’t break it.

Piggot leaned back. “The Wards tell me you were open regarding the dangers of these modules,” she said. “I believe them. That’s a big point in your favor. You screwed up here, Annatar, but your mistake was in not trusting me, not in taking advantage of your teammates. That’s not good, but it’s better than both.”

I pursed my lips but refused to reply.

Piggot considered me. “I can’t exactly pull you off active duty,” she said. “Not with Bakuda still on the loose. But we’ll talk about your punishment once she’s apprehended—and don’t think I’ll forget.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“Good. Now, your assignments. Aegis, I don’t want any Wards on their own right now, and I want any team outside of this building to have a means of escaping an engagement. That means Vista, Clockblocker, or Annatar using Water.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” said Carlos.

“Send a squad with Annatar to the hospital,” Piggot said. “Annatar, you can help your father, and then see if you can assist the doctors with other patients.”

I blinked and nodded gratefully. “Yes, Ma’am. Thank you.”

She blinked at me. “I’m not going to hold your father’s health hostage as a punishment,” she said incredulously.

I glanced away.

She sighed. “Stay here a bit after we finish,” she said. “Aegis, send one more team on a major patrol route, and keep at least two Wards here, in addition to the one on console. Understood?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“Good. Annatar, stay here. Dismissed, the rest of you.”

My teammates filed out. Each of them gave me a nod as they passed me, and Carlos, the last of them, patted me on the shoulder as he left.

Piggot studied me, her face expressionless. “I thought you were better than this,” she said.

I think a muscle jumped in my neck.

“I really thought you were beginning to get it,” she continued. “And then you go and do something like this.”

“Why are we having this conversation?” I asked.

“You know why.”

I pursed my lips. At length, I sighed. “I’m sorry.”

She nodded. “You can’t do this again, Annatar,” she said. “I can’t have a loose cannon like this in the Wards, even one who seems to be improving.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

She studied me, then shook her head. “Just… work with me, all right?”

“Yes, Ma’am. I’ll—I’ll try.”

“Good,” she said. “Go join your teammates. Make sure you bring all three of your modules.”

“I will.”


 

“Wards?” the guy at the hospital’s front desk blinked as Sophia and I came forward. “Do you need something?”

“Yes,” I said. “I’m Annatar, and I’m a healer. I’m here to help.”

His face lit up. “Really?” he said. “Oh, thank you! I’ll just clear it with the doctors and then we’ll get you right into the ICU.”

“Oh,” I said. “Before I help other patients, there’s one I want to see first. Daniel Hebert? It’s personal.”

He blinked at me, then comprehension dawned. “Oh, of course. I’ll find his room for you.”

He bustled off, leaving us alone in the lobby save for a few people in chairs a couple dozen feet down.

I glanced at Sophia. “How’s Cenya treating you?” I asked.

She glanced down at the Ring of Power on the ring finger of her left hand. “It’s…” she stumbled, seemingly at a loss, her face hidden behind her mask. “I don’t even know how to describe it,” she murmured.

I chuckled. “Good, though?”

“Very. I feel like I could take on Lung.” She glanced up at me. “Uh… could I?”

I shrugged. “Depends on if you took him by surprise,” I said. “Don’t get too cocky.”

“I won’t. I’ll be careful.”

The guy came back. “Room 142,” he said. “His condition is stable, but… well, quite a lot of cosmetic damage.”

I swallowed. “I’ll see what I can do,” I said.


 

‘Quite a lot of cosmetic damage’ didn’t really cover it. Dad’s whole body was swaddled in white bandages, some of which were damp and red with pus and blood. He didn’t have too much by way of broken bones, from what I could see, but there wasn’t much of his body that wasn’t severely burned. Most of his hair was gone, and what was there was charred—his scalp was in a far worse state than mine.

His eyes were covered by shaded goggles, but by the steady rise and fall of his chest, he wasn’t awake.

I approached his bedside. “Hey, Dad,” I said gently. “I—I’ve come to help.”

I set my hand gently on his brow. Vilya flared with light.

I wasn’t Panacea. I couldn’t just will his body into shape. I could only accelerate his own healing, and perhaps help in my own small way.

“Bring me a bowl of warm water and a cloth, please,” I told Sophia. She nodded and crossed to the sink, rummaging in cabinets.

After a minute or so, she returned and set a plastic bowl of water on the bedside table. A washcloth was submerged within.

I removed my hand from my Dad’s brow and took off my gauntlets, slipping Vilya off the mithril armor and onto my uncovered finger. Reaching into the bowl, I took up the washcloth and pulled it out of the pleasantly warm bath, squeezing and twisting it to remove the excess.

I brought the cloth to my father’s forehead and began dabbing at him with it, all the while allowing Vilya to do its work. As I did, I sang under my breath.

Ir fuin tôl or i amrún
Ar i Anor nelêdh annûn
Tolo na Annatar, na i rhûn:
Ad i galad sílatha ed rhûn na dûn.

The washcloth steamed slightly in my hand as I drew out the hurt and the damage. Slowly I ran it along his face, and where it passed the bandages peeled away of their own accord to reveal smooth, unblemished skin. Not every part of his face took only a single pass—some parts I had to pass over more than once to clear away the blisters and burns.

The shadows lengthened slowly as I worked, the sun sinking lower in the room’s single westward window. I spent almost an hour there, carefully clearing my father’s face of damage. Sophia sat down in a chair by his bedside soon after I began and simply watched me work in silence.

Once Dad’s face was clear, I dipped the cloth back into the water, wrung it out again, and passed it over his eyes.

They opened, and were clear.

“Taylor?” he whispered, his voice hoarse.

“Hush,” I murmured, bringing the cloth down to his chest. “I’m here. It’s okay, Dad. It’ll all be okay.”

End Arc 3: Lustre

Chapter Text

Silent as mist, I crept from one rooftop to another, leaping from building to building. In the street below, Gallant moved down the sidewalk, seemingly alone. From its perch upon his finger, Araya cast a warm light all about him. The golden light played merrily upon the silver banding of his armor.

I looked into the night before us, searching.

Boom. Another explosion, to the west. I looked to my left at the flash of blue to see a layer of frost rapidly spreading up the walls of a small office building. The ice crept upward like the onset of winter in microcosm, cracking stone and breaking glass.

“What was that?” Gallant’s voice emerged from my radio. Far below, he had stopped and was looking over in the direction of the explosion.

“Just a show of force. Looks like no one was in there,” Vista reassured him from the console.

He sighed. “I really hate this. Being on edge all the time, always worried where she’ll strike next.”

“That’s the idea, Gallant,” I said.

The bombings had slowed in the several days since my release from confinement, especially during the daylight hours. Bakuda was getting comfortable, doing no more than remind the city who ruled it. This suited us well. Comfort was already breeding complacency, and the complacent monarch would be all the easier to unseat.

I looked back down into the long trough of road, seeking the circle of light where Gallant walked, then looking ahead into the darkness of the street.

My eyes narrowed slightly, squinting. There were three men creeping out from an alleyway, a block and a half down.

“Gallant,” I murmured into the radio. “Three hostiles, dead ahead.” I reached with my gaze and studied their features. “ABB, as far as I can tell.”

“Sure they’re up to no good?”

“Unless civilians have a habit of carrying automatic weapons.” In fact, only one had an assault rifle—the other two carried pistols—but that was still cause for concern. I unslung Belthronding from my back, the deep black yew of the limbs gleaming in the dim starlight, and nocked an arrow without bringing it to my eye. “We should follow at a distance, for now. Console?”

“Agreed,” said Vista, her clear voice short and businesslike. “Keep them in your sights, Annatar. They may lead you to a cape.”

I leapt across another alleyway without a sound.

“We’ll keep you posted,” Gallant promised.

The men continued down the road, sticking to the dark between streetlamps and staying beneath awnings and in the shadows of buildings. They moved as men wishing not to be seen, unaware that they had already been found, unaware that they were already pinned beneath my gaze as moths in a collection.

We were just northwest of downtown, in the neighborhoods which, in another city, might have become upscale apartments and condominiums. In the wreck which was Brockton Bay, however, they were hollow shells, four or five stories tall, abandoned by all but the desperate. This was the no-man’s-land between the Empire’s territory downtown and the ABB’s holdings in the Dock’s—or it had been, until the ABB began its recent push. On the south side, it was a place where the Empire pushed its undesirables, its outcasts. In short, blacks, Asians, and everyone else who did not match their view of the ‘Übermensch.’ On the north, it was prime recruiting ground for the ABB, who could harvest any Asian civilians pushed into this part of the city by the Empire.

The whole affair was almost as disgusting as it was pitiful.

The men halted, just outside the light of a streetlamp, in the shadow of an awning on a relatively major intersection. In better days, this street corner would have been crossed by cars and pedestrians with some regularity, even at this time of night. With Bakuda at large, however, all the streets were empty after dark.

“They’ve stopped,” I reported. “They’re…waiting, I think. Shall I move in?”

“Yes,” Vista said. “Get a better view, if you can.”

I leapt across another divide, landing on a fire escape, and then clambered up the outside of it to reach the higher roof, before creeping forward again.

The men were silent, staring out into the night with the wary unease of the hunted. Their eyes darted to and fro, seeking any sign of something amiss in the night. Every so often, one would even glance up, but even they failed to see me, cloaked as I was by Nenya.

“They’re on guard,” I warned Gallant. “Don’t come too close. They’re at the big intersection with—” I glanced at the street sign “—Cobbler’s.”

“Understood, Annatar,” said Gallant softly. “I’ll keep out of sight.”

I brought Belthronding up slightly, ready to fire it at a moment’s notice, and waited as Gallant slowly moved forward, toward the three men. In a few moments, he was in the shadow of an alcove, perhaps a hundred and fifty feet from them.

“I’m ready,” he said, voice soft in my ear. “How do you want to do this?”

I ran my tongue over my teeth thoughtfully before replying. “Draw their attention and their fire on my mark. I’ll disable their cover and weapons.”

“Got it. Waiting for your word.”

I brought my hand away from my ear, took a deep breath, and leapt off the roof and into the alley. I dropped, one story after another, landing in a low crouch on the balls of my feet with only the faintest clack of metal on stone.

I slipped into the cover of a dumpster. There I slung Belthronding back over my shoulder and unhooked the Jewelry Box from my lower back.

Edro a adlenc.

I covered the opening box with one hand to hide the escaping light as I quickly set the Box across my knee and slipped Nenya off with the other. On came Narya and the Box was shut again.

I slung it back, withdrew Belthronding, and put my hand back to my ear. “Ready when you are, Gallant.”

There was the familiar, distinctive sound of one of Gallant’s blasts from the street as my only answer. It wasn’t easy to describe, a sort of ringing, hissing blast. It was answered by shouts, the sound of shattering glass, and gunfire.

I took a deep breath, nocked an arrow to my bow, and dove out into the street.

Gallant had filled the avenue with a golden-orange light, and was currently ducking into a doorway as the three men fired on his position with their guns. They had taken cover inside a building and were shooting out through broken windows.

That would not protect them. I loosed one arrow into the men’s cover, then palmed the detonator Kid Win had given me, which was hooked upon my belt.

The low wall behind which the men hid exploded into bright light, flaring into many colors. Red, blue, white, and green lit up the night like fireworks blazing forth with a booming like drums and a blast like war-horns.

The men stumbled, jumping away from their failing cover with oaths. I nocked another arrow to Belthronding and again took aim, but was interrupted by an orb of light, silvery-white as mithril, which burst from Gallant and impacted one of the three. He stumbled, dropping his gun.

I fired Belthronding twice. Each arrow struck true, knocking the pistols out of the men’s hands and sending them skidding down the street with a clatter. They stared after the weapons for a moment, then looked over at me. I gave them a faint smile.

Then they did something I did not expect. With a desperate, wordless cry, the two men charged me.

I withdrew another arrow and nocked it. “Surrender,” I said.

They didn’t stop.

I let fly. One arrow landed in the first man’s chest; the second in his partner’s shoulder. The tranquilizer tips deployed, and both men went down feet from me. The third man, the one Gallant had blasted, was standing in the middle of the destroyed room, looking around in blank confusion.

I leapt back and held out a hand to signal Gallant to stay away. “Implanted bombs,” I warned him. “These two wouldn’t have charged if they could surrender.”

“Shit,” he said. “What do we do?”

I didn’t answer for a moment. The bombs weren’t going off.

“Proximity,” I said. “I’d guess, at least. Unconsciousness isn’t setting them off, but someone coming within a couple feet of them probably would.

Gallant made a low growling sound. The light which filled the street brightened and flared in response to his fury. “So, what, we just leave them here?”

“We have no choice,” I said. Then I looked up at the third man. “Let him off of your power,” I said. “He might not be implanted. Wait a moment.” I quickly slung Belthronding and replaced Narya with Vilya. “All right, go.”

Gallant made a dismissive gesture with his left hand, Araya burning on his finger. The man’s eyes cleared and he blinked, then glared. His weapon rose, but Belthronding was already up and the point of an arrow was trained on his face.

“Don’t,” I said.

“These two are implanted with Bakuda’s bombs, aren’t they?” Gallant asked the man, nodding at the two men on the ground.

The man spat at Gallant without answering. My teammate’s fists clenched.

“Answer,” he commanded, his voice booming.

“Yeah,” said the guy in a nasal voice.

“Is there a trigger, or are they manually activated?”

“Why should I tell you?”

An arrow whizzed inches from his face. “Because it’s better than the alternative.” I met his eyes.

His face paled. “No,” he said. “Manually activated.”

I studied his face, tracing every line of stress and fear.

“You have an implanted bomb, too?”

“Yes.”

“And it’s also manual?”

“They’re all manual—as far as I know. I swear.”

I allowed Vilya to help me as I searched his face. After a moment, I nodded.

“He’s telling the truth,” I told Gallant. “We’ll need to take them to the reinforced cells in the Rig, though, just in case.”

“Agreed. Vista, call for a pickup,” he said, even as he blasted the guy with another burst of confusion. “We’re bringing in prisoners.”


 

“How was patrol?” Sophia asked as I came in, her feet up on a table.

“Not bad,” I said. “Captured three ABB guys; Gallant’s giving the report to Piggot now. Used his new powers to bring them in.”

Gallant’s powers, like all the Wards’, had grown with his connection to Araya. Where before his blasts could only cause a very short-term change in a person’s emotions, now he could so saturate a person with the feeling of his choice that they might remain in that headspace for hours on end, unless they were strong enough of will to resist and break free. He had blasted the man with confusion—until he was released or freed himself, the goon could do little more than shake his head and blink.

“Nice,” Sophia said. “With luck, he’ll be able to tell us what Lung’s doing. I mean, unless their plan is literally just ‘bomb city, repeat as necessary.’”

I chuckled, slipping Belthronding off my shoulder and hanging it on the rack beside the elevator. Though the fluorescent lights provided much more illumination than had the starlight outside, the yew of the limbs and the leather of the guard still gleamed black as pitch. Then I slipped off my helmet and shook out my long hair, which had already grown back in the wake of my battle with Lung. “Speaking of new powers, how are yours treating you?”

“Fine,” she said. There was a pause. “Well, no, they’re great. They make my old powers look weak. It’s fantastic.”

“You don’t sound so enthusiastic,” I said, turning back to her.

She turned away. “Cenya is… hard, sometimes. I keep seeing things differently. Seeing people—seeing myself—differently.”

I nodded. “You can’t lie to yourself anymore, Ring-Bearer,” I said gently.

She twitched slightly. “I’ve noticed,” she said, and her voice was faintly strangled, as though she spoke through a lump in her throat.

I sighed and came forward, laying a gauntleted hand on her shoulder. “I told you,” I said. “I intended to help you become the hero you want to be. Did you think it would be easy?”

“I did,” she admitted faintly. “Shows what I know, huh?”

I squeezed gently. “You’re learning,” I comforted. “You’ll get there one day.”

“I—I hope so.”

The elevator opened. I released Sophia and glanced over.

It was Dean. He took off his helmet and stuck it under one arm, running his fingers through his hair to push it out of his eyes. “Piggot tells me the PRT’s interrogating the conscious prisoner now,” he announced. “Missy’s still at the console?”

“Yeah,” Sophia replied. “I’m relieving her in a few minutes.”

“I’ll go hang out with her until then,” Dean said, setting his helmet on the coffee table and crossing the room, entering the console room off of the lounge.

Sophia watched him leave, an odd look on her face.

“Something wrong?” I asked her.

“No,” she said slowly. “No. Nothing.”

I considered her for a moment, then shrugged. “You were patrolling with Sam, right?”

“Yeah,” she confirmed. “He’s gone to bed.”

“But you’ve still got console duty?”

“With Bakuda rampaging, we’re all pulling double shifts,” she said with a sigh. “At least I got to sleep in. A bit of coffee and I’ll be fine. Do you have another shift tonight?”

“Not out,” I said. “I’m just going to be in here tinkering for a couple of hours.” I was hoping to finish the Black Arrow, which would be a good addition to Belthronding.

Sophia nodded. “Well, if you get bored, feel free to come bother me. Bring coffee.”

I chuckled. “I’ll do that.”

At that moment, there was a blaring from the computer, and the screen flashed yellow—someone other than a Ward was coming down the elevator. Sophia reached down and picked up her mask, while I turned and grabbed my helmet, picking it up from the rack and slipping it back on my head, feeding my hair back out through the hole in the back.

The door opened. It was Miss Militia. I had spoken to her once or twice, but we hadn’t conversed more than passing small talk. What little of her face I could see under her mask looked grim.

“Annatar,” she said. “Where is Gallant?”

“With Vista, at the console,” I said. “What’s up?”

“His prisoner has given us information,” she said. “You were lucky—he was the leader of his little cadre, and was privy to some valuable information. The ABB’s leadership has been invited to a meeting tomorrow—at Somer’s Rock.”

Sophia stood up. “A villain meeting?”

“Yes,” said Miss Militia. “The ABB are apparently invited, but Lung does not intend to go. I assume you can both guess the topic.”

I brought my hands together and cracked my knuckles. “So?” I asked. “What are we doing about it—send a representative?”

“Possibly, if there is a chance of proper cooperation, especially if Bakuda is declared an A-class threat. At the very least, we should send in surveillance,” said Miss Militia. “Armsmaster and Piggot will discuss plans in the morning, however. For now, I need you to call the other Wards on patrol back, and get some sleep. We may be acting tomorrow.”

I glanced at Sophia. She nodded.

“I’ll relieve Vista and do it,” she said. “You get your tinkering done.”

“Thanks.”

As I left for the workshop, I found a faint smile spreading across my face. Anticipation tingled at the tips of my fingers.

With any luck, the campaign against Bakuda would begin tomorrow.

Chapter Text

Tattletale took her seat between Circus and Labyrinth in a booth in Somer’s Rock, Faultline leaning against the wall beside their table.

Coil was already there, Bitch in a seat behind and to his right. That wasn’t exactly Coil’s style; he usually came to such meetings alone, as a show of the professional detachment between him and his subordinates. Brought her here to get to me. And to cement her loyalty.

From the moment Tattletale entered, the girl’s eyes had been locked on her. What little was visible of her face was twisted into a snarl.

Thinks I’ve betrayed her. Knows Coil was our boss. Has been promised something for assisting him. Support? Something related to her dogs?

She glanced then at the man himself. Coil’s features were totally obscured under his black bodysuit—but that was little defense.

First, his posture. Strict, practiced. Disciplined, tight. Too tight. Slightly nervous. Not like Coil. Is not Coil. Body double—fairly accurate one.

Next, his physique. His ribs were showing under his costume, as always, as was his musculature. Not much more muscular than the real Coil, but more practiced. Has military training. Paid help. Mercenary.

Another glance back at Bitch. She was, if not relaxed, then at least not on edge. Familiar. Believes this to be the authentic Coil.

Well. Wasn’t that interesting? Could exploit her trust issues to turn her against Coil.

Abruptly Lisa felt—not ashamed, but perhaps a little sad. She and Rachel had never been friends, but they had been teammates, not even a week ago. And now she was trying to figure out how to exploit Rachel’s social weaknesses?

…All the same. Something to bring up with Faultline later.

Tattletale looked over at the other team already present. Kaiser sat at the head of the long table, his posture impeccable, his hands folded neatly on the table in front of him. Nonetheless, she could see the miniscule twitching of his fingers, and of his head as his eyes darted about under his helmet.

Is on edge. Meeting is high-stakes. More is on the table than Bakuda. Intends to bring secondary issue to the table. Considers ideal outcome very good; worst-case very bad.

Behind him sat several of the Empire—Purity, Krieg, Night, Fog, Fenja, Menja, and Hookwolf.

Purity, next. Her posture was stiff. Her hands very carefully kept unclenched. Her neck was stiff, keeping her face carefully turned just slightly away from her boss. Hates being here. Hates Kaiser. Is attracted to Kaiser. Is ashamed of being here.

Night and Fog were almost identical. Both held themselves very deliberately, in perfect control of their bodies, and those bodies were positioned around Purity, almost as bodyguards. Sociopath. Is loyal to Purity. Is pleased to be here. Is pleased by what that means, in a larger sense.

Krieg was next, seated on behind Kaiser and to his left. Is loyal to Kaiser. Is present at Kaiser’s request. Tattletale didn’t bother probing further—Krieg was a simple man. Fenja and Menja were little different.

Hookwolf was a surprise. His jaw was clenched, and his mask was turned in one direction unwaveringly. Is angry to see Bitch. Is angry at Coil. Wants to interfere with the meeting. Has Kaiser’s approval to do so.

That might be interesting.

“Anything?” Faultline asked out of the corner of her mouth.

“Bitch hates me,” Tattletale whispered back. “That’s not the real Coil. Hookwolf is pissed at Bitch for something. He’s going to interfere; Kaiser will let him. Kaiser has something besides Bakuda he wants to talk about.”

Faultline didn’t seem to move, but Tattletale glanced at her. Understands. “You want to make any kind of move on Bitch?”

“Not now,” said Tattletale.

“All right.”

At that moment, the Merchants entered. Tattletale’s gaze settled on Skidmark. The man’s gait was very slightly unsteady, but his hands were still—and held into loose fists.

Suffering neurological decay due to methamphetamine addiction. Knows he is not welcome here. Here to gather intelligence on Empire and ABB movements more than to assist with Bakuda.

Then Squealer. She was even more wobbly than her boss, but made a clear effort to hide it. Her jaw, visible under her visor, worked slightly as if in annoyance.

Is intoxicated. Suffering decay in multiple organs due to multiple addictions. Does not understand why Merchants are here. Would rather be tinkering.

Mush was last. He was the most stable on his feet, but even he swayed ever so slightly as he walked. His posture was firm and upright, in contrast with both of his teammates.

Is intoxicated. Suffering neurological and endocrine decay due to various addictions. Does not understand why Merchants are here. Trusts Skidmark implicitly.

So, Skidmark keeps his lieutenants dosed up, but makes sure to be clear-headed himself? Wonder what the logic is there. Or maybe they’re just less strong-willed than he is.

“Skidmark’s the only sober one,” Tattletale whispered. “He doesn’t want to help with Bakuda; he’s here to spy.”

Faultline nodded imperceptibly.

Kaiser kicked over a chair as Skidmark tried to sit at the table. Tattletale watched the brewing power play with some interest.

“The fuck?” Expected something like this. Anger isn’t feigned, but is deliberately allowed to show.

Huh. Skidmark is less of an idiot than I thought. Something to bear in mind.

“You can sit in a booth.” Calculated power play. Isn’t actually invested in the Merchants one way or the other.

“This is because I’m black, huh?” Knows it isn’t. Knows Kaiser isn’t genuinely especially racist. “That’s what you’re all about, yeah?”

“You can sit in a booth because you and your team are pathetic, deranged scum who aren’t worth talking to.” Is getting genuinely annoyed with the waste of time now. “The people at this table? I don’t like them, but I’ll listen to them.” Meaning he wants to size up the competition and find weaknesses. “That isn’t the case with you.”

At that moment the door opened. Tattletale glanced over. The man wore a black costume, with a red mask and top hat. His teammates followed him in, all of them clad in the same red and black. There was a girl with a sun emblem on her chest, a guy clad in heavy-looking armor, and a… creature of some kind, like a four-armed, hairless gorilla, with six-inch claws tipping each of its fingers and toes. Even it wore the red and black of its team, on a vest, mask, and leggings.

The leader looked more at ease than anyone else in the room. His body was loose and his posture unruffled. Here by request. Doesn’t care about Bakuda. Doesn’t care about any of the people in this room. His team excepted? Doesn’t care about Brockton Bay.

The girl and the guy both looked more tense in the torso and legs than their leader. Their arms were slightly looser. Don’t trust their leader. Don’t much like being here. Think it’s necessary?

The creature was harder. Although its body language approximated that of a human, its body was inhuman and thus the ‘translation’ was a bit garbled. Case 53? The tension in its fingers, ankles, and neck gave some information. Doesn’t trust leader. Doesn’t like leader. Doesn’t think being here is wise. Doing it for other members of team?

Lisa tore her gaze away from the newcomers as their leader spoke. “I’ll be taking a chair, I think.”

“The Travelers, yes?” the Coil double said smoothly. Tattletale looked at him. “You’re not local.” Was aware they were coming. Travelers are here at Coil’s request. Here in Coil’s employ. His replacement for the Undersiders?

Tattletale couldn’t hold in the slight wince as her head twinged in the very early stages of a thinker headache. That was no surprise—her power saw the most use before the beginning of such a meeting. There was a lot to gain by making sure she knew something about everyone else at the table before they started talking.

“You could call us nomadic. What was happening here was too interesting to pass up, so I decided we’d stop by for a visit.” Almost all lies. Nomadic is misdirection. Lost? “I go by Trickster.”

Faultline glanced at Tattletale.

“Coil,” she mouthed.

Faultline nodded and then pushed off the wall, taking a seat among the other villains.

“Seems we’ve been replaced,” said Circus lowly into Tattletale’s ear. Slightly bitter, slightly vindictive.

Tattletale scanned the ‘nomadic’ villains briefly. “Not quite,” she whispered. “They don’t have a thinker.”

Circus looked at her pityingly. “I think Coil has thinkering covered,” she said dryly.

Tattletale looked away.

“There are two things I’d like to discuss tonight,” said Kaiser. “First, of course, the ABB.”

“This isn’t sustainable for them. Bakuda is unhinged. Forty-three dead and over a hundred hospitalized in the past week, and no sign of slowing.” Not-Coil shook his head. “I know your northern territory is under threat, Kaiser.” Deliberately pointing out weakness.

“We have lost some ground,” Kaiser admitted easily. Knows Coil is trying to set him off balance. “We will take it back once the situation is controlled—but I think we can all agree that the situation must be controlled?”

Faultline shrugged. “I’m a mercenary,” she said. “I don’t hold territory. It’s really no skin off my back what Bakuda does, so long as she’s not stupid enough to fuck with me and mine.”

“Surely this sort of chaos can’t be good for your business?” Kaiser asked. “After all, if no one can pay you, what business do you have?”

“I didn’t start in Brockton Bay,” said Faultline. “I’ve got no pressing reason to finish here.”

“You would be willing to assist with the situation if you were paid, of course?” not-Coil asked smoothly. He really was a very good impostor.

“Of course,” Faultline said, sounding offended. As she continued, Tattletale blinked at the sound of footsteps on the wooden stairs outside. Two individuals. One lighter, smaller feet. Woman. The other larger and heavier—a man. Young? “I don’t like seeing the city getting blown up, but getting involved in other people’s problems for free is bad for business.”

“In that case,” a voice said as the door opened, “we would like to hire your services.”

Everyone turned.

Miss Militia stepped inside, her eyes darting from mask to mask. Hates being here. Feels it is necessary. Willing to compromise, willing to negotiate. Considers everyone in this room contemptible.

Behind her, the Ward Aegis slipped in and closed the door. Tattletale glanced at him. Saw the clenched jaw under the mask and the hard light in his eyes. Annoyed. Doesn’t think he should be here. Despises this place, despises the people here. Willing to go along with it. Unafraid, confident. Isn’t worried about being surrounded. Recently gained new… power? Powers?

Tattletale glanced at Faultline, who was staring her down. “Careful of Aegis,” she mouthed, moving her lips clearly.

Faultline gave another of her imperceptible nods and then turned back to the heroes.

“This is… unexpected.” Kaiser’s voice was hard, but its pitch was marginally higher than usual. Covering uncertainty. Did not expect heroes. Directly counters plans of his.

“But not unwelcome. Come, Miss Militia, take a seat,” said not-Coil, beckoning. “We were just getting started.” Expected this. Knows this counters Kaiser’s plans. Leveraging it to set Kaiser on edge.

“I’ll stand,” retorted Miss Militia, her voice hard, even as she approached the table. Refusing to associate herself more than necessary. “I notice the ABB isn’t here?”

Coil’s impostor nodded. “That’s hardly a surprise. It amounts to little more than an endorsement by Lung of Bakuda’s… behavior.”

“It’s a statement of intent,” Kaiser said. “Lung does not intend to negotiate. He has fully committed to this mad scheme.” Is genuinely disgusted, but is emphasizing it for presentation.

“And the Protectorate intends to answer in kind. That is why, even though Aegis and I would love to arrest every last one of you, we would like to propose a truce.” Miss MIlitia spat the word out like bile. “We cannot bring our full force to bear against the ABB if we are simultaneously forced to patrol every other section of the city.”

“And we cannot bring our full force to bear against them if we are worried about you heroes attacking our assets in transit,” said Kaiser coolly. Genuinely happy about the offer. Affecting condescension for the benefit of his followers. “I would consider a truce.”

“As would I. Have you any specific terms?” Coil’s voice was smooth and quick. Deliberately giving ground to Miss Militia because she unsettles Kaiser.

“Yes,” said the hero. “Your people will commit no large-scale crime until the situation with Bakuda is under control.”

“Agreed,” said Coil instantly. “None of us can spare the resources at this time.”

“No,” Kaiser agreed after a moment. “No, we can’t. Agreed. Any other conditions?” Feels that he’s weakening his position by entertaining Miss Militia’s offer. A glance at Coil, and the faint stretching of his mask that belied an underlying smile. Is deliberately forcing Kaiser to compromise to put him on edge. Damn, this was a great impostor. Lisa was impressed.

“No,” said Miss Militia darkly. “But understand: if we see your people committing crimes on the street, we will still stop them. We just won’t be actively hunting you down. That’s all that changes.” Feels unsettled by the concession. Is not in support of this plan. Ordered by superiors. Armsmaster?

“Well, I certainly have better things to do than small-time robberies at the moment,” said Coil dryly. “Bakuda must be stopped. Surely you agree, Kaiser.”

Kaiser didn’t answer for a moment. “Of course,” he said at length. Feels weakened by conceding to Coil. “In the same vein, however—if you send your heroes into my territory, or pursue the Empire’s activities while Bakuda is being handled, expect us to respond… in kind.”

Miss Militia chuckled dryly. “So, a ‘truce’ in the sense that no one wants to start an altercation?” she asked dryly. “We can do that.” Is pleased. Feels freed by the specific terms of the ‘truce’?

“Good,” said Coil. “Now, you are all aware of Bakuda’s… unusual method of recruitment?”

“Implanted bombs,” said Miss Militia. “Yes. We recently retrieved further intelligence on the topic. Bakuda has been implanting even established ABB members with bombs. They are manually activated, but we do not know the range at which she can arm them.”

“Do you have any information on their blast radius or other effects?” Kaiser asked. “Are they traditional explosives, or is she implanting some of her more exotic creations?”

“We have no information on that.”

“I do,” said Faultline coolly, with a wink at Tattletale. “A thinker in my employ believes Bakuda uses specialized explosives for implantation, but is unlikely to use any with a larger blast radius than a standard high explosive grenade. She believes such bombs would be more useful to Bakuda in other ways.”

“Ah,” said Coil, chuckling. “I see you are getting some mileage out of Tattletale.”

“What can I say?” Tattletale called from the booth. “Faultline gives great dental.”

Bitch growled from her spot beside Coil, but otherwise did not move. Her eyes had not moved from Tattletale for more than a few moments throughout the entire meeting.

“Speaking of the former Undersiders,” said one of the Empire capes—Hookwolf. “Your lapdog’s been causing me trouble, Coil. She’s been fucking with my business.”

“Yes,” said Coil dryly. “A dogfighting ring. Quite stupid of you to have a dogfighting ring in territory patrolled by a dog master, wouldn’t you agree?” Knew this was coming. Prepared for it. Leveraging Hookwolf’s issue into a weakening of Kaiser’s position.

“Doesn’t matter what it was!” said Hookwolf furiously. “She fucked with my stuff, got away free, and now you have the gall to ask us for a truce—”

“Do you really think your petty, ill-conceived business has any bearing on our alliance?” Coil asked. “Do you really think your dogfights are more important than the rest of Kaiser’s collective assets in the face of Bakuda?” Coil shook his head in fake amusement. “Kaiser, you really should control your men. Or at least teach them a sense of perspective.”

“You—”

“Hookwolf,” said Kaiser sharply. “Enough. Your dogfights can be dealt with another time.” Furious. Multiple targets. Coil—weakening his position, trivializing Hookwolf’s issue. Hookwolf—pushing when the issue was deflected. Himself—allowing Hookwolf to bring the issue up.

Hookwolf gritted his teeth but didn’t answer.

“If we’ve stooped to talking about which crimes are worth more to the criminals, then I think my presence is no longer required. We will be launching an offensive into ABB territory tonight,” Miss Militia told the villains. “If you wish to assist, we’d appreciate advance notice. I’m sure you understand.”

“Naturally,” said Coil. “I will see if I can rally any of my men to assist you. Thank you for your time, Miss Militia.”

Miss Militia nodded sharply. “Faultline,” she said. “We will be contacting you shortly regarding payment. Expect a call sometime today.”

“Looking forward to it,” Faultline replied. “Always nice to wear a white hat for a change.” Sincere, but affecting disdain. Tattletale almost laughed.

Miss Militia snorted and turned on her heel. “Let’s go, Aegis,” she said.

The Ward followed the Protectorate cape out the door, slamming it shut behind him.

“Well, unless anyone has further issues to bring up, I think I shall follow them out.” Kaiser stood easily, carefully walking the line between too fast and too slow. “The major issues appear to have been dealt with.” Is lying. Wanted to bring up another issue. Can’t now. Something to do with the heroes?

“If you’re sure there’s nothing else you’d like to discuss,” Coil replied with a nod. Knows what Kaiser wanted to talk about. Feels accomplished that he can’t. The whole conversation, putting Kaiser off-balance—all to keep him from reaching this topic now.

Tattletale narrowed her eyes.

“What’s up?” Circus asked.

“Kaiser wanted to talk about something else,” she said. “And Coil didn’t want to let him. Something to do with the heroes.”

“Any idea what it was?”

Tattletale closed her eyes. “Not yet,” she said.

Aegis—new powers. Kaiser—concerned about something to do with heroes. Coil—doesn’t want it brought up. Wants to avoid putting anyone on alert. Can leverage it.

Source of Aegis’ new powers. Annatar.

Lisa sighed.

“Got something?” asked Alex.

“Coil being interested in a parahuman is a good sign that they’re worth paying attention to, right?”

“I’d say, yeah.”

“Fuck.”

Chapter Text

Wards HQ was empty, besides me. On one wall, the TV was playing an ongoing newscast, covering the ongoing bombing spree. I sat on the right-hand side of the leather, three-seat couch across from it, one elbow propped up on the armrest. My water bottle, half full, sat on the coffee table by my left arm.

“The bombings have slowed in recent days, but still continue largely unimpeded. Brockton Bay’s hospitals report—”

My eyes were closed, my head resting on my fists as I let the anchor’s voice wash over me.

The elevator opened. I glanced over without raising my head from its perch on my hands. Carlos stepped out, fully done up in mask and costume.

“How’d it go?” I asked.

He let out a sigh. “Villains,” he said, ripping off his mask. “Where are the others?”

“Chris is in the workshop, Sophia’s taking a nap, Dean and Sam are both out somewhere, and I think Missy’s at home.”

“—night, the offices of the local software firm BayMobile were struck by a tinkertech explosive, which—”

“All right.” Carlos took a seat on the couch beside me and stretching his arms out to his sides, resting on the sofa’s upper cushions. “We don’t need to assemble yet, but we’ll need them all to come in tonight.”

“We’re attacking?”

“Yes—in conjunction with the Protectorate and Faultline’s Crew. We’re going for Über and Leet’s base while Faultline and the Protectorate make a two-pronged attack onto ABB territory. They’re going to be looking for Bakuda while we hold off her support.”

I grimaced. “I’d hoped to fight her.”

“We all did,” Carlos said, a wry smile crossing his features. “The important part is that she gets taken down.”

“—no injuries, as the building was empty; however, employees report that overtime is common at the firm and—”

“We can’t leave the Rig and PRT HQ undefended this time,” I said. “What if she decides to hit us at home while we’re out looking for her?”

“I know. That’s why we’re keeping at least two capes at both locations. One Protectorate hero on console at the Rig, one Ward on console here, and at least one hero to support each.”

“Have you decided who’s staying here?”

Carlos shook his head. “I was hoping you had ideas. We need a cape who can hold their own, but who won’t be as useful as the others storming a tinker’s workshop.”

I sighed.

“What?”

“Think about it. Sophia’s no good on defense, so she’s out. Sam’s best on support; he’s not a powerhouse on his own. Same with Dennis, Dean, and Chris. And the assault team will need Vista.”

“So, you or me.”

“—police investigation of the tinker responsible suggests that the agency responsible is the local gang know as the ABB, or Azn—”

I nodded. “And they’ll need you in the field,” I said. “They need a leader.”

“You can lead. They—we—all trust you.”

I shook my head. “I can get them to follow, yeah,” I said. “But I don’t know my way around a battlefield yet. It’s just a matter of experience, but you saw how the fight at the bank went. Piggot tore me apart after that.”

“Yeah, but I also saw how the fight on the Rig went,” Carlos argued. “You know what you’re doing.”

“I know what I’m doing when it’s just me. I know how I work, I know how to use my skills and tools effectively.” I shrugged. “Good for me, but I can’t lead a team into battle. Not yet—I’ll get there. For now, though, we need someone who already knows what they’re doing.”

“—Protectorate had apprehended the villain ‘Lung’ earlier this month, but last Sunday he—”

Carlos looked into his hands as the TV droned in the background. The golden light of Laureya shone from his finger and reflected into his eyes. After a lengthy pause, he said, “You’re right. I don’t like having to attack their base without you, but you’re right.”

“I’ll still be there,” I said, nudging him. “I’ll be on console, after all.”

“—the heroes can’t keep prisoners in check, how can we—”

In a burst of motion Carlos stood up and slapped the table, dislodging my water bottle and sending it rolling onto the floor.

“Fuck this guy,” he muttered, vaulting over the coffee table and turning off the TV manually.

“I had the remote,” I offered, holding it up from where it had sat nestled against my side.

He looked over at me, his jaw clenched. After a moment, he sighed, tension bleeding out of his frame. “I’m just….” He stopped, shook his head. “I’m so tired of this. We’re trying. Can’t they see we’re trying?”

I shrugged and shook my head as I said, “They really don’t get it.”

“No. No, they don’t. You’d really think I’d be used to it by now.”

“Why should you be? The people you’re trying to protect are too busy questioning you to notice how much you’re doing for them. That’s grounds to get annoyed, I’d say.”

Carlos turned away, resting his head against the wall. “It’s grounds,” he agreed, his voice slightly muffled. “It’s definitely grounds. But getting annoyed there? That’s how half the heroes-turned-villains get started.”

“You’re not a villain, Carlos. You’re not even close.”

“I know.” He shoved off the wall and turned back to face me. “Because I don’t allow myself to ask questions like those. I don’t allow myself to get annoyed with them. I’m sorry I broke down like this. The villains just… got to me.”

I shook my head. “You’re a hero because you care about the people who can’t protect themselves,” I said. “No matter how annoyed with them you get, you won’t stop caring.”

“You don’t know that.”

I raised an eyebrow at him. “I gave you Laureya, didn’t I?”

He glanced away.

I continued when he didn’t answer. “The Ring of the Sun. I told you, it’s more than just a tool. It’s a part of you now.”

“I know. It’s a responsibility.”

“And the means to fulfill that responsibility.”

“Yeah. I—”

His phone chimeda text. He pulled it out of his pocket, checked it. “Armsmaster wants me at the Rig. We’re going to plan the operation tonight.”

“Good luck.”

He smiled at me—a frail, wan expression, wavering even as it appeared and vanishing quickly. “I’ll tell them you’ll take console,” he said. “Can you get the others to meet at the Rig in about an hour and a half?”

“Definitely.”

“Thanks. See you there.”


 

The setting sun cast a flickering light over the uneven surface of the ocean. It shone in through the east-facing window, glittering like a hoard of gold. A faint band of pale cloud hung just above the horizon, out to sea, and beneath their shadow the night had already fallen. The sky was deepening into darker blues and purples in the east, even as light still shone on the water from the west. The long shadow of the Rig cast an imposing silhouette upon the waves, its edges shuddering slightly on the shifting water.

On the carpet behind my seat, Vista paced back and forth, her eyes alternating between the ocean and the map of the Bay on the wall. Clockblocker sat on my left, leaning back in his chair and looking up at the ceiling. Sophia was on my right, polishing one of her crossbows. Gallant drummed his fingers on the polished wood of the long table, and Browbeat sat perfectly still beside him.

Kid Win was finishing a project in the workshop—he’d asked us to fill him in later.

“Where are they?” Vista exploded, her voice cutting into the evening silence like a knife. “The clock’s ticking!”

“Planning, I’d assume,” said Sophia, her voice a deadpan monotone.

“Well, what’s taking them so long?”

“Vista, it’s all right. Come sit down,” Gallant said. “We’ve got time.”

Vista took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “Yeah,” she sighed. “Yeah, I—sorry. I’m just—pent up, you know?”

“We all get it,” he said as she came and sat beside him. “We all feel the same.”

“Waiting for a fight is the worst,” Sophia chimed in.

Vista grunted an agreement and leaned back against her chair, eyes closing. Quiet fell across the table.

“Oh, hey, I’ve got one,” said Clockblocker, suddenly breaking the silence.

“One what?” I asked after a moment. The fact that no one else spoke up should probably have warned me.

“What do aliens do before a fight?” he asked.

“What?”

“Planet.”

There was a round of groans, and Vista’s forehead met the table with a resounding clunk. My head turned slowly to stare at him. He stared back, his face hidden behind his mask.

“No,” I said. “Bad Clockblocker.”

“Plenty more where that came from.” He was laughing as he spoke.

“Please no.”

At that moment, the door across from us opened. Armsmaster led the way in, followed by Aegis. In a moment, all of us were around the table—the seven present Wards and the seven Protectorate heroes.

Armsmaster spoke first. “Wards, Protectorate,” he said, “Aegis, Miss Militia and I have developed a plan in conjunction with the Director. Miss Militia?”

Miss Militia cleared her throat. “The Protectorate will be pushing an offensive into the ABB’s territory proper,” she said. “We will be seeking to bait Lung into a direct fight so that Armsmaster can defeat him using his tinkertech tranquilizers once again. Faultline’s Crew will be pushing in from the other direction in a pincer maneuver.”

Aegis took over from there. “Meanwhile, the Wards will be headed for Über and Leet’s base. With help from Faultline, we’ve isolated its location. They’re in a warehouse near the shoreline just north of downtown, between ABB and Empire territories. It’s a tinker’s base, so expect resistance and fortifications.”

“Of course, as we saw last Sunday,” Armsmaster said dryly, “we can’t afford to leave our bases undefended. That’s why one Ward and one Protectorate member will be staying behind at each location—here and PRT Headquarters.

“Dauntless will be staying here, on Protectorate console. In support, he’ll have Browbeat.”

Browbeat nodded once, his face impassive under his mask. By the furrowing of his brow, Dauntless seemed slightly disappointed, but he gave no complaint.

“At PRT Headquarters, Annatar will be taking Wards console—”

“Wait, what?” Sophia asked sharply. “You’re benching Annatar?”

“It’s fine, Shadow Stalker,” I soothed. “I knew about this.”

“You’re one of our strongest capes!” she argued. “We need you out there!”

“We need someone defending the home base.” Aegis stared Sophia down, and I saw the telltale corona of Laureya infusing him as he channeled his ability to control his subordinates. “Annatar volunteered, Shadow Stalker. She’ll be coordinating us on console. We needed someone who could hold their own to take the defense.”

“I could take the console,” Sophia said. “I—”

Enough, Stalker,” Armsmaster growled. “Annatar will be on Wards console, with Triumph supporting her at PRT HQ. That is final.”

Aegis stood up. “And with that, we’d better get back there,” he said. “We need to get ready. Kid Win’s still working on something?”

I nodded. “He’s already at PRT HQ,” I said. “I think he’s testing something to help with the fight tonight.”

“Good. We’ll go meet him there. Armsmaster, permission to take the Wards back to base?”

“Granted. Keep in radio contact, and good luck, Aegis.”

Aegis nodded and led us out of the room. Once the door shut behind us, he rounded on Sophia.

“What was that?” he growled.

“We need Annatar in the field,” she barked—quietly, to avoid being heard by the heroes on the other side of the door. “I can’t do half as good an infiltration on my own, and she can take a hit better than any of us besides you. What the hell are you benching her for?”

“For exactly that reason,” I said. “I’ve got the most well-rounded powerset of us, Shadow Stalker. If Bakuda or Lung decides to attack base because of what we’re doing, I can hold them off longer than any other one of us.

“That’s what Triumph is there for,” grumbled Sophia.

“Yes,” I agreed. “But two capes are better than one.”

Aegis shook his head. “All this is beside the point,” he said. “Shadow Stalker, you can’t undermine my authority like that in the middle of a meeting with the Protectorate.”

Sophia gritted her teeth. For a moment, they glared at each other before Aegis sighed and turned away. “Let’s get to base,” he said.

As we followed him out, I heard Sophia mutter a reply, almost inaudible. “I’m not here for you.”

I glanced at her, but she avoided my gaze, and after a moment, I looked away again.


 

“Okay, so I’ve been working on this for the past week or so,” said Kid Win, fiddling with the communications console and hooking up several wires to it. “I started rushing it when I heard we’d be attacking tonight. Only just managed to get it through testing.”

“What is it?” I asked, studying the console. Where before it had been a desk with a few screens, microphones, dials and switches on it, now it was augmented by eight screens which were attached to the wall behind it, rising two up and four across. Each was wired into the back of the console, connected to a black box I was sure hadn’t been there before.

Kid Win tossed me something—I caught it instinctively and brought it up to my eyes. It was a small camera, or so it seemed, attached to an adhesive panel.

“Each of us attaches one of those to our masks,” he said, pointing at the camera he’d fitted onto his visor, “and the feed gets broadcast back here. It’s encrypted using one of Dragon’s codes, so it should be pretty damn secure.”

“So I’ll have visual as well as an audio channel?”

“Exactly! Just, uh, be careful not to get too caught up in it, all right? Don’t want to have any crossed wires between you and Aegis. Contradictory orders, that sort of thing.”

“Of course. Thanks, Kid Win.”

He grinned at me, shaking his head. “Thank you. I’d never have been able to finish one tinkertech camera before Mirilya. Now I’ve made eight of them. I’ve built more in the past week than I did in two months before.”

I smiled. “I’m glad it’s treating you well,” I said. “Be careful that it doesn’t become a crutch, though. You hadn’t found your specialty before, right?”

“No,” he admitted. “But I don’t even need it, anymore! I can—”

“Your specialty is what makes your tinkertech different from just very advanced ordinary technology,” I cut him off. “Mirilya is a painkiller, Chris—it’s blocking symptoms, but you’ll never fully come into your own unless you force yourself to push past that and find your specialty. A Ring of Power is a wonderful tool, but it’s no substitute for real knowledge and growth.”

He looked away. “Right.” There was a pause.

“All the same, thank you for this,” I said, sitting down in the console chair. “I’ve been worried all day about sitting here with no ability to really tell what’s going on while you guys are out on the battlefield.”

Kid Win grimaced. “It’s not fun, I can tell you that,” he said. “Anyway, this screen is mine.” He tapped the power button on one of the eight new monitors and the screen lit up, displaying my face hidden under the bright silver of my helmet, dark hair cascading behind me.

Kid Win pointed out the other seven screens, ending with mine. “I’ll go pass these out,” he said.

“I’ll come with you,” I said, standing up. “I’ll see you all off before you leave.”

Chapter Text

 

My eyes darted from one screen to another. I’d turned off both mine and Browbeat’s to avoid being distracted, and so my six-angled view of the skyline of Brockton Bay was uninterrupted except by empty black. Sophia was in an alleyway, making a final check of both of her crossbows. Aegis was in the air, his head turning slowly as he surveyed the area. Kid Win was in an alcove across the street from Shadow Stalker, checking the settings on his hoverboard. Clockblocker, Vista, and Gallant were all huddled together on an unlit street corner, about two blocks from the target.

“Have you located the AO?” I asked Aegis.

His head turned, pointing my camera at a large warehouse with a sloped, corrugated metal roof and concrete walls. It stood out, not because it was a particularly imposing or interesting exterior, but because it was sturdier than any of the others around it.

“I think so,” he said. “Can’t be sure without going inside.”

“Right,” I agreed. “Kid Win, stay low and dark; go one block to your left. There’s a single concrete building, dominates the block. I need you to scan the walls, figure out if there’s an electric current running through them anywhere.”

“Got it.” Kid Win mounted his hoverboard and sped down the street, carefully staying low to the ground and keeping slow enough that the noise of his repulsors remained at a low whine, barely audible even to my Nenya-enhanced hearing. When he reached the building he pulled out a tool. The ranged voltmeter had been another recent addition to Kid Win’s arsenal, built with the help of Armsmaster’s notes on Sophia’s tinkertech lenses.

“Think you can get me the upgrade into the lenses soon?” Sophia asked. Her own version of the voltmeter functioned similarly, I knew, but could not see currents behind or inside walls.

“I can’t miniaturize the voltmeter enough to fit into your mask,” Kid Win replied. “I’ll talk to Armsmaster about it as soon as I have a chance.”

He moved it from side to side, about two feet from the surface of the wall, watching the display. “Low current,” he reported. “Consistent with in-wall electrical conduits. Looking for a weak point.”

“Carry on.” I turned to Sophia’s screen. “Shadow Stalker, follow him; do not phase in until I give the word.”

“On it.”

“Clockblocker, take your squad towards the AO; stay out of sight.”

Vista and Gallant began following Clockblocker down the street as he led them by a shadowed route, carefully avoiding the golden lights of streetlamps.

“Aegis, drop towards the roof of the building—the walls are thick, but you might be able to hear something through the roof.”

He sank towards the warehouse and slowly rotated himself so he was hovering belly-down, one ear lowered toward the corrugated plating of the roof. After a moment, I saw his hand go to his higher ear. “I’ve got nothing,” he whispered. “No sound.”

“That means nothing,” said Kid Win. “Could be anything from insulation to tinkertech silencing.” He withdrew his voltmeter and return it to the compartment at his hip. “I’ve found a weak point.”

“Good. Rise up—out of sight of windows—and join Aegis above the roof. Shadow Stalker, on my mark, phase into the building.”

I saw the wall begin to pass beneath Kid Win’s view as he slowly gained altitude. Sophia positioned her back against the point on the concrete wall he had indicated.

Meanwhile, Clockblocker’s team had gained visibility of the warehouse. They were now huddled in the shadow of a building, ducking around it as they looked at the main doors of the warehouse across the street and down the road half a block. “We don’t have a safe route any further,” Clockblocker reported. It was true—if they left the alley, they’d be in view of the warehouse’s main windows. But there was an alternative.

“Vista, tunnel your group to a position directly in front of the doors.” The windows were almost all second story, and they were all set into the back of the thick concrete walls. The warehouse’s occupants—if there were any, if we had the right place—would have no line-of-sight to the doors themselves.

Vista obligingly gave the three Wards a spatial warp, landing them within two feet of the warehouse’s door.

“Any sound?” I asked.

“None,” reported Gallant in a whisper.

“Can you sense anyone?”

“I need visual to sense emotions, Annatar. I can see the emotions of hidden people, maybe even invisible people, but not people I can’t see at all.”

“Right, sorry. Standby. Aegis, are we clear for insertion?”

“We’re ready up here.”

“Good. All Wards, prepare to engage if Shadow Stalker is detected. Shadow Stalker, you have permission to enter the building.”

“Finally,” muttered Sophia, and phased into shadow—my view of her went dark, the camera unable to broadcast from inside her shadow state.

I bit my lip, holding my breath. Please be okay. Don’t let Leet have a countermeasure.

It was about twenty seconds before Sophia’s screen lit up again. It felt like an hour. She was huddled against a low wall, looking at the concrete of the interior wall. That concrete was not so unadorned on this side—it was painted a slightly garish green, and a poster was plastered on it to her left—a man in a green tunic, carrying a blue sword amid a forest.

Her hand came up to her ear. “I think we found them,” she murmured. “I can hear them.”

She held her finger on the earpiece for a moment—and, yes, I heard the sound of fairly loud music coming from somewhere in the building, punctuated by a frustrated shout, the specific words inaudible.

“Okay,” I said. “Any defenses?”

“At least one of them is on the upper floor,” she said. “From what I saw before I took cover, this floor is Leet’s workshop. There’s a big turret in the center—I think it’s automated. There’s also a robot or something in one corner—an automaton.”

“Any obvious weaponry on it?”

“No, but some around it. Tinkertech. A sword, a gun, some other things I didn’t recognize. The robot’s in a case—off, I think.”

“Good. With luck, it won’t be active. How’s the lighting?”

“Too damn high. Fluorescents all over the ceiling.”

“See a light switch?”

“Just inside the front door.”

I smiled. “Any traps?”

“Yeah. Something hooked to the hinge. Probably just an alarm, but…”

“…But we don’t know, and even that’s a problem.” I closed my eyes for a moment, thinking.

“Shadow Stalker,” Aegis interjected. “You’re the one in there. Think you can get to another vantage point?”

“I can try.”

“I can’t see or hear you when you’re shifted,” I told her. “How long do you think it’ll take you to get to that position?”

“Ten seconds, max.”

“Can you give me a counter—click your tongue or something, so I know what you mean by a second?”

Sophia made a low clicking sound into the microphone, a slow counter. I committed the timing to memory. “Clockblocker, Aegis,” I said. “If Shadow Stalker doesn’t revert within about twelve seconds I’m going to call you in. Be ready. Shadow Stalker, on your mark.”

I heard her inhale once and let the air out slowly. Then her camera went dark.

One, two, three, four…

On nine, Sophia’s screen lit up again and my heart leapt into my mouth. Her back was against the wall, her legs splayed out before her. A fluorescent light shone upon her from directly above, and the turret in the center of the room which she’d mentioned was pointed squarely in her direction. The sides of its barrel were glowing blue and sparking like a Tesla coil.

An electric weapon.

“Wards, move in!” I said. “Shadow Stalker is hit!”

At that point, a great deal of things happened at once.

On the roof, Aegis flew up a few feet and threw himself bodily down into the metal of the roof. It splintered, tearing around him and leaving a hole. Kid Win’s hoverboard was too wide to sink into it, so he jumped off of it, held it tight to his body, and dropped after Aegis. The flying brute caught him as he did and set him down on the creaky wooden planks of the upper floor.

Meanwhile, Clockblocker and Gallant each grabbed one of the handles of the warehouse’s double doors and tried them.

“Locked,” said Clockblocker through gritted teeth.

Gallant didn’t waste words, taking a step away and throwing his power-armored bulk into the barricade. The doors didn’t budge.

“Boys,” Vista muttered. In a moment, instead of the door, the three of them were in front of a widened window. “Here.”

As one, the three of them burst through the glass.

Meanwhile, Sophia had pushed herself forward onto her hands and knees and rolled to her left. A burst of light signaled the firing of the turret, and as she came up I saw a blackened scorch mark on the concrete floor where she’d been lying.

Aegis and Kid Win were upstairs at the walled end of a narrow corridor, with doors lining both walls. Sophia was under fire and out of cover, right in the middle of an open, well-lit room. Clockblocker, Gallant, and Vista were just inside the main doors and had a clear line of sight, both at the turret and at Sophia. At least one of the two villains was upstairs, likely in one of the rooms off of the hallway, but the other’s position was unknown.

“Vista, help Shadow Stalker get to cover. Aegis, Kid Win, find Über and Leet,” I said, my words coming out slightly jumbled as they tripped over one another in my rush to get them out. “One of them’s upstairs at least. Clockblocker, disable that turret. Gallant, see if you can find any sign of the villains.”

Even as I spoke, Vista was already twisting the air in front of the turret’s barrel in a visible warping, bending its firing line away from Sophia, who was scrambling to her feet. Kid Win hopped onto his hoverboard and shot down the hallway even as Aegis shoved open the nearest door and looked into the dark room.

“I’m going to check each room,” our team leader said. “Kid Win, go to the end of the hall and work your way back here.”

“Got it.”

Clockblocker was charging directly for the turret. It rotated to face him. “Vista!” he hollered, diving for it.

I watched through his screen as the turret’s barrel twisted like an Escher painting, the burst of bluish lightning arcing out and fizzling against the wall. An instant later, Clockblocker’s hand landed on the machine’s chassis.

“Don’t know how long that’ll hold,” he panted. “I can just stay here and freeze it again if—”

He was cut off by a burst of light and an impact that sent him flying. My eyes darted to the other screens. The automaton Sophia had mentioned had left its case, and in its hand was what looked like an assault rifle, painted white—if assault rifles shot a steady stream of glowing blue orbs.

The robot itself was a gray thing, humanoid in shape and featureless in face, save for two eyes which were lit from within. Visible pistons and gyroscopes whirred within its mechanical torso and limbs as it turned from Clockblocker, aiming at Gallant, who was charging at it. It raised its weapon…

...and froze. I saw the light in its eyes flicker and die. Something seemed to give in the mechanisms of its chest.

“Get back, Gallant!” I ordered.

He obeyed without hesitation, skidding to a stop and throwing himself backwards. Not a moment too soon—the automaton sparked once from deep within its chest, and exploded in a burst of light and fire.

“Threepio, no!”

The voice came through multiple microphones. All four of the Wards downstairs turned to the source.

Leet stood in the doorway of a side room—a kitchen, by the fridge still open behind him. The lightbulb inside it was the only source of light in that room, and his scrawny form stood framed against the shadows behind him. He was barely dressed—in the sense that he wore absurd, oversized goggles with tinted lenses, and other than that only a t-shirt and cargo shorts.

The t-shirt was a graphic. I detachedly noticed that against the red of the fabric, its black lettering read ENDBRINGER VICTIMS BITCH TOO MUCH. All caps.

I might’ve shuddered a little bit, I don’t know.

“Leet,” said Gallant, his voice steady, loud, and clear. “You are under arrest. Surrender, and we don’t have to go any further.”

“Fuck you!” Leet growled, his fists clenching. “You think you can just come in here and fuck with my workshop, and I won’t even fight back? I—”

He stopped with a faint choking noise. He blinked, took a single step forward, and keeled over. From behind him, Sophia withdrew her tranquilizer bolt from his neck as he fell.

She looked at our teammates. “What?” she asked, her form still coalescing after teleporting into the shadows behind him. “He wasn’t surrendering.”

Her voice was still tight with pain, but before I could do more than take note there was a crash from upstairs. My eyes darted to Aegis’ screen—shit, I’d neglected him and Kid Win.

Aegis’s face was against the wall, one arm visible out of the corner of his eye where it was bent into an armbar.

“Get out of my base,” growled Über, and shifted his grip before throwing Aegis out a window.

“Upstairs, everyone,” I said. “Aegis just found Über.”

Chapter Text

Vicky sat with her legs crossed, one over the other, idly worrying her lower lip with her teeth as her eyes traversed the pages of her book. It was a textbook—a long, rambling thing for Parahumans 103.

Why am I taking Parahumans 103? she wondered, raising her eyes to the ceiling some two feet away from her face. It’s a bit like, I don’t know, a tinker taking an engineering course, isn’t it?

She slowly turned over in the air so that she was belly-down and held the book in one hand while the other ran through her hair, idly combing out the tangles that came with turning around in midair.

Vicky loved her hair, she really did—thick, luxurious blonde curls that surrounded and framed her face in a bright halo. Almost any other head of hair wouldn’t have been able to pull off a tiara, but the gold-on-gold worked better than it had any right to. Nonetheless, thick, curly hair tangled, and slowly rotating in three dimensions was not ideal for maintaining a careful hairstyle.

She closed her eyes tightly and looked back at the book, trying to focus.

It is believed that the particular powers which manifest following a trigger event are tailored to that trigger event in some way. Certain patterns have been observed. In Brutality and Brutes, Dr. Osmond Blake explores a statistical link between brute powers and triggers involving physical injury or…

Vicky blinked once, languidly. It’s my fourth time reading that passage, isn’t it?

She started laughing. The textbook dropped out of her fingers and landed on her bed, bouncing.

She slowly dropped, picked it up, and tossed it across the room onto her desk, where it landed with a hollow thump. Still laughing, she cut her power and dropped the remaining foot and a half to her bed, landing on her side. The bed creaked under her sudden weight and for a moment she bounced up and down before the mattress settled under her.

She sighed, the mirth fading, and stared up at her ceiling. The light fixture—a plain, round thing with an internal incandescent bulb—showed every faint crack in the plaster in sharp relief.

I should talk to Mom about redoing the paint.

There was a knock on her door. “Come in!” she called, and when it opened she grinned. “Hey, Ames.”

One of Amy’s brows were raised and she looked Vicky up and down. “I’d ask if you usually go to bed in costume, but I know you don’t. What’s up?”

Vicky made a ‘pfft’ sound and looked back up at the ceiling. “A villain’s out there rampaging with bombs, and I’m stuck here doing homework.” She rolled her eyes. “Mom won’t let me go out unless there’s a crisis, but if there is a crisis, I don’t wanna wait to change. I am gone.”

Amy chuckled. “Bored?”

Suuuuper bored.” Vicky glanced over at her sister. “What about you?”

Amy shrugged. “Just reading. Heard you laughing. What was that about?”

“Oh, nothing. I just—” Vicky giggled again. “I was trying to study. Can’t do it.”

“And that’s funny?”

“Once you’ve read the same sentence four times without getting it, yeah. A little bit.”

Amy shrugged and came forward, sitting down at the foot of the bed. She reminded Vicky of a bird, perched on a branch, ready to fly at a moment’s notice.

“What were you studying?”

“Parahuman studies. Amy, why am I taking that class?”

Amy chuckled. “Don’t ask me. Having second thoughts?”

So many second thoughts.” Vicky turned away from her sister and looked out her bedroom window. She frowned. “Hey, Ames?”

“Yeah?”

“Do you have your phone?”

“Yeah, why?”

Vicky’s brow creased. “Can you look up whether that bitch lit the city on fire recently?”

Amy shifted behind her, stood up, and looked out the window too. “Oh,” she said succinctly. “Yeah, I’ll check.”

She started fumbling in her pocket even as Vicky swung her legs over the other side of the bed and stood up, approaching the window and looking out. The fire was bright, orange and red. She couldn’t see the flames themselves, of course—it wasn’t that close—but the glow cast light against the tall buildings and sent smoke and haze into the sky, glowing.

“Oh, fuck.”

“What is it?” Vicky asked quickly.

“…I’ve got good news and bad news.”

“Good news first. I like good news.”

“It’s not Bakuda.”

Vicky’s brows rose. “Hey, that is good news.”

“It’s Lung.”

Vicky’s brows fell again. “Oh.”

“Yeah.”

There was a moment’s silence.

“Okay!” said Vicky brightly. “Sorry to dash, Ames, but I gotta run!”

“No,” said Amy, her voice monotone and deadpan. “You are not rushing off to fight Lung.”

“Amy is quite right.”

Vicky turned. There was her mother, standing in the doorway, in full costume. The orange crossed blades on the white made Vicky’s fingers itch slightly, as they always did. Time for action.

“I just got off the phone with your aunt,” she said. “Who was contacted by Director Piggot. The Protectorate has engaged Lung while the Wards attack Über and Leet. Vicky, you and your cousins are going to join the Wards. Your aunt and uncle and I are going to join the Protectorate. Understood?”

“What about Dad?” Amy asked.

Brandish looked away. “He’ll be coming with me,” she said. “If he comes at all.”

Vicky grimaced. “One of his bad days? Surely a little cape fight would make him feel better? Can’t he pull himself together for this?”

“That,” Amy said, her voice frosty, “is not how depression works, Vicky.”

Vicky gritted her teeth and looked back out the window. “So what’s the plan?”

“Laserdream and Shielder are coming here now,” said Brandish. “Laserdream is in contact with the PRT and will lead you to the Wards. You’re to follow her lead, understand?”

“Yes, Mom.”

Brandish smiled under her mask. “Good. Good luck, Vicky, and be careful.”

Vicky leapt forward with a power-assisted lunge and embraced her mother. “I’ll be fine,” she said. “I’m invincible. You be careful—you’re all squishy.”

Brandish laughed and hugged her back. “Go,” she ordered. “Your cousins will be on the front porch any minute.”

Vicky pulled away from her mother and gave her sister a jaunty wave over her shoulder. “Later, Sis,” she said.

Amy waved back. “Go beat up bad guys.” Vicky could practically hear the unspoken, but not too badly.


 

Vicky reached the warehouse just in time to see a body in a red suit tumbling through the air, shards of broken glass scattering around it. The thickset form slowed on the way down, the glass passing it up as its flight kicked in.

A little thing like flight wasn’t going to stop Vicky from seizing this one by the horns, though. She caught Aegis’ bulky form halfway down to the ground. He blinked brown eyes at her for a moment.

“Just dropping for a visit?” she asked.

“…You know I can fly, yes?”

Vicky shrugged. “Hey, not every day beefcakes drop out of the sky.”

Aegis laughed—a faint, incredulous sound. “Fair enough.” He extricated himself from her arms and put a finger to his ear. “Annatar, Glory Girl is on site,” he said, picking shards of broken glass out of his costume and flesh.

“Laserdream and Shielder are just behind me,” Vicky said.

Aegis nodded. “You heard that?” A pause. “Right. I’ll go scout. Call me back if you need me.” He removed his finger from his ear. “Vicky, I’m going to go up and see if I can figure out where Bakuda is. Help the others out.”

“Will do.”

Aegis rose upward like a shot and shrank into the night sky. Vicky watched his shapely legs disappear into the black and then followed him up part of the way, diving into the window he’d broken on his way out.

The room was empty, but the moment she passed the threshold of the window, Vicky could hear running feet heading away down the hallway. Then came a cry and a scuffling, as of two bodies grappling with one another.

She ran through the doorway and quickly sidestepped Kid Win’s flying form as he was thrown past her into the wall. Über was running the other way, half-dressed. Comically large goggles were on his face—so large, in fact, that she could see the outsides of the frames even from behind him—but other than that his bulk was wearing only a tight t-shirt and jeans.

You know, he’s not half bad looking, she thought as she rose into the air and flew towards him. It’s such a shame he’s a jackass.

She bowled him over just as he came to a flight of stairs, and with a shout he started to fall, reaching for her to catch himself. His hand caught on her wrist and he blinked up at her.

She grinned at him. “Stop, in the name of the la-ah!” He twisted his wrist in her grip, leveraging his half-fallen position to throw her in midair. She went rolling in the air above the stairway for a couple feet as he slid back up.

She righted herself quickly, but he was already running back down the hallway, in the other direction. “Oh, no you don’t!” She dove after him only to overshoot her mark as he slipped into an open doorway.

She didn’t bother going back for the door and instead burst through the wooden wall behind him even as Kid Win picked himself back up and rushed to join her. There were more footsteps from the other side, coming up the stairs—the other Wards, hopefully.

Uber was halfway through opening a window when she came in. A smirk spread across her features as she charged.

She struck his back hard, sending him tumbling over the windowsill and falling out of the warehouse. She vaulted after him and flew down. He’d rolled as he landed, coming up standing, and was already running.

She dove and punched him. He didn’t try to block; instead, he allowed her to strike him and used the force to push himself forward and around the corner. She sped after him and caught a glimpse of him as he ducked back into the warehouse’s front door. The door slammed shut behind him.

She busted through the concrete wall and saw him sprinting towards a table on the side of the room. As she charged him, he picked something up from it and rolled out of her way.

He raised it as she turned back. It was a sword, glowing faintly blue.

“Stay back,” he growled, flicking something on the hilt. The glow began to flicker rapidly, so rapidly that Vicky almost couldn’t tell the difference.

“Buddy,” she said, “I’m invincible.”

He brandished the sword. “To impacts, maybe. This thing will deliver several thousand volts to you, about three hundred times a second.”

She cocked her head. “…You know I’m invincible to electric shocks too?” although, privately, she was suddenly feeling a lot more cautious. The rapid attacks would get through my barrier.

He blinked. “Wait, really?”

“Yeah.”

“Oh.” Über looked down at the sword in his hand, then sighed. “If I surrender, can you please not hit me again?”

“Sure.”

He tossed the sword back on the table. The blade, still active, sheared cleanly through the wood and stuck about a foot into the concrete below. He blinked at the damage for a moment. “Oops.”

Vicky punched him. He was thrown back a couple feet and landed hard on his ass.

“Ow! The fuck, bitch?”

“You deserved it,” she said easily, turning towards the stairs. Clockblocker was leading Gallant, Vista, and Shadow Stalker down to her at a jog. Vicky waggled her brows at Gallant, raising one hand to her ear in a ‘call me’ sign. He gave her a nod, but she couldn’t see his face under the helmet.

“Where’s Leet?” she asked.

Shadow Stalker pointed at an adjoining doorway where, sure enough, two feet were sticking out of the darker room. “Already taken care of,” she said.

At that moment, the warehouse’s main door opened, and in stepped Laserdream, Shielder at her heels.

Vicky’s elder cousin stalked across the room until she was standing directly in front of her. Her eyes were hard, and she said nothing.

Vicky grinned. “Hey, coz. You missed the fun!”

Laserdream didn’t reply, turning instead to Clockblocker. “Where’s Aegis?” she asked.

“He and Kid Win have gone on ahead to scout,” the Ward replied. “Annatar’s on tactical command, from on console.” He turned to Shadow Stalker. “Tranquilizers?”

Shadow Stalker nodded and withdrew a crossbow bolt, approaching Über’s still seated form. “Nighty night, loser,” she said, jabbing it into his neck.

“Fuck you very much,” he replied. Then, without further ceremony, he fell back.

“Vicky Dallon.”

“Glory Girl when I’m in costume,” Vicky told her cousin with a cheeky grin. “Wouldn’t want to unmask me to these fine people, would you?”

Clockblocker snickered. Laserdream was unimpressed. “I know your mom told me I was in command,” she said. “So when I said, scout ahead and don’t engage until I give the word, what part of that did you misunderstand?”

“Über threw Aegis out a window.”

“Aegis can fly.”

Vicky shrugged.

“New Wave.” The voice came from the radio Shadow Stalked had pulled from her belt. It was cool and hard; female, but not especially feminine.

Vicky turned, blinking.

“I’m Annatar,” said the person on the other end of the radio. “I’ve been coordinating this mission. We’re not done yet. We need to find Bakuda’s hideout and take her out.”

“Wait, what?” Laserdream’s voice was sharp. “You want to attack a tinker’s hideout now, without any of the Protectorate or most of New Wave?”

“Yes.” Annatar sounded almost surprised at the question. “She’s been blowing up my city. I’m not about to let that continue.”

“Have you got a plan?” Vicky cut in.

“Aegis and Kid Win are scouting from the air. I’d appreciate assistance to them. You can all fly.”

“What are we looking for?” Vicky asked.

“Movement around the fight with Lung. We’re under orders not to interfere with that fight itself, but we know both Oni Lee and Lung are there, so if we can find Bakuda’s hideout she should be alone.”

“It is a tinker’s hideout, though,” Clockblocker said.

“Yes,” agreed Annatar. “And a much better tinker than Leet. Be careful, everyone. Vista, you’re transportation for the ground team. New Wave, are you willing to join Aegis and Kid Win in the air?”

Laserdream was shaking her head. “This is crazy. We were supposed to help you with Über and Leet, not jump into an attack on Bakuda herself.”

“Hey,” said Vicky, a smirk on her lips. “You wanna head home, you can feel free.I’m sure your mom will understand if you were scared to face the big bad tinker on her own terms.”

Laserdream glared at Vicky. “You need to listen when someone else is in charge,” she said sharply. “I really don’t want to have to tell your mom that you were hurt because you charged in on your own—”

“I’m invincible—”

“—and I also don’t want my little brother getting hurt because you were a careless idiot,” Laserdream steamrolled over her.

“You will have time for this later.” Annatar sounded annoyed. “The Wards are moving out. We’re running out of time. Help or don’t.”

“I’ll help,” said Vicky immediately.

Laserdream sighed. “I guess we will too,” she said. “Let’s go. But I’m going to talk to your mom about this, Vicky.”

Vicky shrugged. When Laserdream turned away, she threw Gallant a wink, and carefully wiggled her hips a little more than strictly necessary as she followed her cousins out of the warehouse.

Chapter Text

“Aegis,” I said as the New Wave heroes left the warehouse, “Laserdream, Shielder, and Glory Girl are coming to join you. Be ready to control Glory Girl; she’s being… rowdy.”

“As usual,” he said with a sigh. He sounded almost as fond as he was exasperated, though. “I’ll keep her in line.”

“See that you do,” I said. “Keep looking.” I swapped over to a private channel. “Browbeat, this is Annatar.”

“Hey. How’s the operation going?”

“Well enough. The others took out Über and Leet without too much trouble. Glory Girl came in and finished the job. Listen, are you anywhere near Dauntless?”

“Kinda? I’m a floor up from him right now. You need something?”

I considered. “First, I need a second opinion,” I said. “If I told the Protectorate we were going after Bakuda’s base, how likely would they be to play ball?”

“Not at all,” said Browbeat instantly. “Partly to protect us, partly to protect their reputations.”

“That was my assessment, too,” I said. “Shit. Do you think you could just listen in on Dauntless on console, and see if you can figure out anything about where they think Bakuda is?”

“Sure. No promises that it’ll turn up anything, though.”

“I know. Just try.”

“I will. Are you… sure you want to go behind their backs like this?”

“That woman has been blowing up my city for a week. Better to ask forgiveness than permission.” I swapped back to my open channel with the other Wards. “Aegis, situation?”

“Still nothing,” he said, his gaze scanning the city below. “Since we got New Wave support, I left Kid Win with the captives until the PRT arrives. Rest of us are still scouting up here. Any insight?”

“Not yet,” I said. “I’ve got Browbeat on it. Keep looking. Clockblocker, how are things on the ground?”

“I have a moral objection to running towards the things Lung is setting on fire.”

“Suck it up. Where are you?”

“A couple blocks from the fighting. Looking for anybody who isn’t running away.”

“Sounds about right. Vista, you’re keeping the group mobile?”

“Of course.”

“Then carry on.” I leaned back against my seat and scanned the six screens before me, looking for anything amiss. It was entirely possible we would find nothing at all today; that all this effort would be for nothing. But we have to try.

“Sure you don’t want us to help with Lung?” That was Sophia’s voice, breaking the silence.

“Aegis is in command,” I said, “but if it were my decision, no. The Protectorate and New Wave can handle that on their own, and someone has to stop Bakuda while the heavy hitters are distracted.”

“I agree, for the record,” Aegis put in. “None of us really has the training for that kind of fight. We’d get in the way, not because we can’t fight, but because we don’t train with the Protectorate. We wouldn’t be coordinated.”

“Fair enough,” said Sophia.

“Annatar.” It was Browbeat. His voice was pitched slightly low, and was a little tense with excitement.

“Yes, Browbeat?”

“I’ve got something. Dauntless said something about the battle moving west; the heroes are chasing Lung that way.”

“Think he’s drawing them away from something?”

“I do. It’s just a hunch.”

“You’re the bearer of Ondoya. Your hunches are good. Wards, focus on the area to the east of the fight with Lung.”

“Got it,” said Aegis, and a moment later, “We’ve got something. Camouflaged sentry on a balcony.”

I looked through his screen—and, sure enough, there was a man carefully hidden, hunched on one balcony in the shadow of another in a several-story apartment complex. His clothes were dark and the gun in his hands was black, making him hard to spot, but he was certainly there.

“Don’t let him spot you. Think Glory Girl could manage a silent takedown?”

Aegis relayed the question. The New Wave hero answered, “Silent’s not really my style, but yeah, sure. Want me to?”

“Wait on that. Aegis, you and New Wave continue scouting. Vista, you know where this building is?”

“Not really.” Vista and the other grounded Wards were huddled just outside the flickering light of a streetlamp. “We’re on the intersection of Beach and Wilde.”

I nodded to myself. “Aegis, you don’t happen to know the address of this building?”

“Not the number. It’s on Stafford.”

“Right. Vista, it’s on the street two blocks north of you, on the far side. Stay out of sight and see if you can identify the building.”

“On it.”

“Another sentry.” Aegis again. “And on a different floor. They’ve got the whole building on lockdown.”

“I expected as much.” I scanned the image of the building on his screen. There were two balconies on each of the building’s five floors, one on either side. Other than that, there was an elevator and a penthouse on the roof, and a single main entrance on the ground floor. All of the windows were dark, and many of the curtains and blinds were drawn or lowered. “We should expect every entrance to be booby-trapped.”

“Want me to go through a wall again?” Sophia asked.

“No,” I replied. “With Über and Leet, I knew the numbers we were dealing with—two low-tier villains. This time, we have at least one high-tier villain and an unknown number of mooks. It’s too risky.”

“We have sight of the target,” reported Clockblocker, and it was true—the four grounded capes were leaning out from behind a corner to see the very building Aegis had pointed out.

I bit my lip. “Vista, can you tunnel your group up to one of the balconies?”

“Just tell me which one.”

“Second floor, on the right. There’s a guy there, and the curtains are drawn. Clockblocker, you’ll need to move quick to freeze him before he sounds the alarm.”

“All right, I can see it. Ready when you are.”

“Okay. Aegis, you and Glory Girl lead your group in by the roof. Don’t take the stairs; they’ll be trapped for sure, and a brute rating won’t protect you from some of her bombs. Have Glory Girl break the roof in on my mark.”

“Got it; on the move.”

I took a deep breath. “Vista, on my mark, you give Clockblocker a tunnel, and Aegis, you have Glory Girl give you a route in.”

“Ready.” Vista.

“Understood.” Aegis.

I swallowed. If anyone dies tonight, I don’t know if I’ll be able to forgive myself. “Mark.”

With a gesture, Vista shifted space. Slowly the road in front of them shifted as the warp stretched and coalesced—instead of continuing sidewalk, she and the others were faced with the end of a balcony, and a guy huddled in a corner, a gun held loosely in one hand. He blinked and started up as he saw them, his mouth opening to yell, but Clockblocker got to him first, and he froze mid-motion.

Simultaneously, Glory Girl dove straight into the roof, the plaster and masonry crumbling beneath her. Aegis, Laserdream, and Shielder followed her in and my view of his screen was faced with the surprised image of a single guy with a pistol right before Glory Girl threw him into a wall. He slid down to the floor, out cold.

“Aegis, keep going down, floor by floor,” I said. “We’ll know when we find her. Clockblocker, move into the building and comb this floor.”

“Gallant, you’re on point.” Clockblocker’s voice was firm and level.

Gallant nodded and, after taking a moment to roll his shoulders, burst straight through the glass door, the curtains billowing around him. He dove immediately—fortunate for him, since gunfire immediately sounded around him. He came up already launching blasts from both hands even as Vista stepped in after him and began twisting the air around him, keeping him safe from flying bullets. Sophia phased into shadow and dove for the nearest enemy, while Clockblocker hung back for a moment to give me a view of the room.

Several of the internal walls had been knocked down on the second floor. The whole place reminded me uncomfortably of my own workshop. Wiring covered the floors, linking one contraption and workplace to another in a crisscrossing web of cables. I knew some well—a power hammer, a forge, a traditional anvil, a couple of microforges. Then there were some I recognized but didn’t use myself—a chemist’s worktable, replete with decanters and vials; a fume hood like the one in Winslow’s chemistry labs, and a couple of sealed vats in one corner.

There were eight guys in heavy riot gear, assault rifles in their hands. Bakuda was nowhere to be seen.

Even as the fighting began in earnest, Glory Girl broke through the ceiling of the fourth floor, then the third. I noticed she was taking about a second between each burst, but paid no mind to it; something to ask about later.

Vista gave Clockblocker a short route to a second as Sophia fired bolts at two and then ducked to solidify, allowing the bolts to connect—one managed to dodge, but the other staggered as the tranquilizer bolt solidified already halfway inside his vest, buried in his chest. Gallant’s blasts launched at two more guys, both of whom dove out of the way. They avoided the blasts, but were now lying belly-down on the ground.

Two down. Sophia’s target was falling and Clockblocker’s guy was frozen. Six remained, however.

“Shoot Vista!” I heard one shout, even as Glory Girl broke through the last floor and Aegis dove onto one gunman. “Kill Vista!”

“Not likely,” hissed Clockblocker, and everything slowed.

I smiled slightly. Silmaya at work.

The men seemed to move in slow motion, raising their guns and pointing at Vista as if they were swimming through molasses. Vista could easily channel the firing arc of each gun away from her now, given the extra time to focus. Meanwhile, Sophia was already teleporting towards the doorway into the stairwell, where one of the guys was currently running, heading downstairs. He was moving backwards, a wild yell on his lips, spraying bullets madly back into the room, quite unaware of the shadow coalescing behind him.

Everyone moved slower under the influence of Dennis’ new power, including himself. But only those he considered allies could still think at full speed. To the ABB gunmen, it would appear that the Wards had suddenly achieved inhuman reaction times.

Gallant slowly stood up, already aiming for two more targets. He took his time aiming, and carefully targeted the places they would be when his power reached them, predicting their movements. The blasts emerged from his hands slowly, like pitch dropping from a funnel, and ponderously crossed the room towards their targets.

Meanwhile, Vista had gotten vicious. The five men firing at her found their own bullets returning to them, striking in nonlethal places—and Vista knew the difference between a lethal and a nonlethal target. Legshots carefully avoided arteries and major veins, and each strike was carefully intended to disable rather than to maim.

Aegis took advantage of the extra time to shift his grip in an unexpected hold on the guy and flip him over his own back, tossing the guy over his shoulder like so much chaff.

As soon as each Ward was in position to strike, Clockblocker released his iron grip on time. Gallant’s blasts connected, Sophia jabbed her target with a tranquilizer, Vista’s assailants fell over with pained cries, and Aegis’ foe hit the ground with a muffled thud, followed by a strangled, aborted cry as Aegis kicked him in the head.

There was a moment’s silence as everyone recovered, breathing heavily.

“What was that?”  I heard Glory Girl ask.

Then Clockblocker fell down, gasping for air.

“Shit,” said Aegis. “Clockblocker, are you—”

“I’m fine,” said Clockblocker harshly. “Just took a lot out of me. I’ll be better in a couple of minutes, but we don’t have a couple of minutes. Get moving before Bakuda has time to do something about us.”

I nodded. “Clockblocker is right,” I said. “Wards, move on. Clockblocker, take your time. Great use of the new powers.”

“Thanks, Annatar.”

“Should someone stay with him?” That was Vista, looking concerned, but Clockblocker shook his head.

“I’ll be fine,” he stressed. “Get moving!”

“We didn’t comb upstairs,” said Laserdream firmly. “I’ll stay and keep watch for anyone coming from above or outside. Shielder, follow Aegis’ lead.”

“We don’t have time to argue,” said Aegis. “Move, people. Glory Girl, if we could get a path?”

“You bet,” said Glory Girl, and punched through the floor again.

Chapter Text

Aegis led the charge, Shielder close behind him. They were greeted by a veritable hail of lead from a mounted minigun.

This floor, too, had lost a lot of its interior walls. Instead of a workshop, however, this one had a military-looking circular barricade around a central part of the room. Sandbags had been piled around a nailed-together wooden frame, all around a central mounted turret, which was currently firing a steady stream of heavy rounds into Aegis and Shielder. The New Wave hero quickly threw up a forcefield, but Aegis just launched himself forward, heedless of the bullets tearing into his frame.

Twelve men were on the inside of the barricade. One was on the turret, while the others were peeking out from behind the cover of the barricade. A motley assortment of rifles, submachine guns, and shotguns were in their hands.

Aegis threw himself into one wooden wall of the barricade. It splintered before him, and a moment later he was among the enemy. I couldn’t make heads or tails of the footage from his camera; he was surrounded by bodies and twisting limbs in a flurry of motion, and his microphone had automatically cut its transmission under the overwhelming sound of gunfire.

Sophia glanced in after him, then opted to stay on the floor above, taking potshots into the melee with her crossbows from a position between Clockblocker and Laserdream. The New Wave Blaster did much the same, blasting at them with lasers. I couldn’t blame either, Sophia especially; the room was well lit and almost without cover, save for the enemy barricade. Vista, on the other hand, leapt down after Shielder, ducking into cover behind his forcefield. Gallant and Glory Girl followed after her in quick succession.

“Aegis!” hollered Vista, her clear voice slicing through the cacophony. “Get back!”

Aegis obeyed immediately, taking a single step back which, with Vista’s help, delivered him behind the forcefield. Within moments, all of the gunfire was turned back to the group.

Glory Girl made as though to charge, but Gallant put a hand on her shoulder. “Wait,” he hissed. His eyes—and his camera—were trained on Vista.

The youngest of my Wards was hunched slightly, her hands held just slightly apart, palms facing one another, as though she was holding a small ball. By the tension visible in the muscles of her arms and back, it was heavy. Her eyes were closed, and her brow was furrowed in intense concentration.

“I can’t hold this forever.” Shielder’s voice was strained, but firm.

Calmly, Aegis stepped in front of him. “Fine,” he said. “I’ll meat-shield it. Not much longer now.”

“Not much longer until what?” Glory Girl asked, her voice rising in something like hysteria on the last word.

“This.” Vista looked up as she spoke, her fists clenching in a sudden spasm, and stood straight. She made a gesture, as though throwing something at the group of men with her left hand. Histeya glittered like a violet star on her finger.

Vista could shorten or lengthen space at will. It was an incredibly potent power, one which easily deserved its rating of shaker 9. Histeya had, as with all of the Wards’ Rings of Power, provided an addition to her powerset. As with each of the others, the growth was conceptual.

Sophia’s power allowed her to become one with the shadows. Her new power allowed her to literally be them, and emerge from any shadow she chose.

Clockblocker’s power gave him dominion over time. His new power expanded that dominion.

Kid Win’s tinkertech now had a greater tendency to beauty and resplendence, even as he produced more effective gear faster. Browbeat’s control over his own body, formerly restricted to biokinesis, now extended to self-control of a more traditional kind; he’d been banned from playing poker with the rest of us for the foreseeable future. Aegis’s ability to survive any wound had improved to include a true healing factor—rather than just refusing to die until slow natural healing could run its course, it would now take him little more than a day to recover from anything short of decapitation. Gallant’s raw ability to inject emotion had gained force, and he had also gained more control over it—he could do more than just simple blasts now.

Vista had always controlled space. Now she also controlled the idea of space—direction.

Including down.

The men were thrust backwards as their conception of gravity shifted suddenly. Instead of beneath their feet, the source of down was suddenly a point in the air about three feet above the minigun turret. The turret itself Vista picked out of the air as it rose—it dropped to her feet with a clang, half of its long belt of bullets still hanging out of her spatial warp.

“Go!” Vista screamed, visibly straining with the effort of holding twelve men in their own personal gravitational pool. Her arm shook where she held it out towards the singularity, and sweat beaded and ran down her brow in rivulets.

My other Wards didn’t need to be told twice. As one they dove forward. Sophia phased into shadow and rushed forward like a shade. Aegis charged, leading Glory Girl, Shielder, and Gallant behind him, the latter already firing bursts of debilitating emotion at one target after another.

As Sophia entered the group she solidified, drew two tranquilizer bolts, and buried them into the necks of two men with her hands before reaching for another set. Gallant struck two men with blasts of emotion before even reaching the group and hit two more within moments of arriving. Aegis grabbed one and beat him into unconsciousness with his own rifle, while Glory Girl grabbed two by their heads and knocked them together. Shielder pushed another into the ground with a forcefield, and Laserdream hit him with a laser to be sure.

Then Vista fell over. The singularity failed, and the remaining two gunmen fell to the ground. Of course, Sophia had jabbed both with tranquilizers before they could stand up. Then it was over.

Gallant immediately jogged back to Vista. “Are you all right?”

Vista slowly picked herself up to her hands and knees. Her whole body shook with the very effort of holding herself up. With a heave, she forced herself back into a sitting position. “I’ll be… okay,” she wheezed. “Haven’t held that many targets in a singularity before. Took a lot out of me. Think I’ll have to make like Clockblocker, for a little while.”

“Fine,” said Aegis. His many wounds were leaking thin streams of blood, but they were already closing, pushing the bullets out of the regenerating flesh. He looked around. “Where’s Bakuda?”

“Here.” It was Glory Girl, pointing at a trapdoor half hidden under the mounting for the minigun. “I mean, unless we have the wrong building.”

“We have the right building,” said Aegis. “What could be down there?”

“Storage?” I suggested. “Her workshop was a floor up, but I didn’t see any actual bombs.”

“Which means we should expect a lot of explosives,” said Aegis grimly.

“I’ll go first,” offered Glory Girl. “I can tank any explosions that come our way.”

I tapped into the public radio on Aegis’s belt and spoke to her directly. “Can you tank being turned to glass? Or frozen in time? Bakuda’s a tinker. Be on guard.”

“Well, who’d be better for it than me?” she asked, a faint pout touching her full lips. “Not like anyone else is invincible.”

“No, you can take point,” I said. “Just… be careful. I want everyone coming home tonight.”

“You sound like Mom,” she complained.

“Sounds like a smart woman,” I said.

“I can go in through the floor,” Sophia suggested. “At least scout things out.”

“Even Leet punished that,” I answered, shaking my head. “Bakuda would probably be more fatal, and we learn from our mistakes. No, we should keep the assault party together. Glory Girl, can you bust through the floor?” If so, they could all go in from an unexpected angle.

“Don’t think so.” She stomped one foot hard, and cracks spread across the ground at the thundering impact. “It’s solid, probably several feet of concrete. I can break through a wall, but I’m not a drill.”

That didn’t quite make sense to me, but I accepted it. She knew her powers better than I. “Fair enough. Clockblocker, you feeling better?”

“Some,” he replied. “Probably don’t have another slow in me, but I can freeze people.”

“That’ll help,” I said. “Vista, what about you? How long until you’re fit to fight?”

Vista shook her head, breathing heavily. “Not for a while,” she wheezed. “I think I’m tapped out, sorry. Stupid. I overextended.”

“It’ll be okay,” Gallant said.

“Think we can handle one fight without you,” Glory Girl laughed, rolling her eyes. “So? We moving?”

I closed my eyes. “Aegis?”

“…We need a more detailed plan of action.”

“Hard to make one when we don’t know what’s waiting for us in detail. We definitely shouldn’t just charge her, though—any kind of direct assault might be countered. We have to try to shut her down before she has a chance to stop us.”

“Shit,” muttered Vista. “You need me for that.”

Sophia shook her head. “I can teleport around behind her and take her out,” she said.

“What if the room’s well lit?” Vista asked. “You need me there. Just give me, I don’t know, fifteen minutes.”

“She’ll be gone in fifteen minutes,” Glory Girl countered. “You shouldn’t have run out of juice right before we went in. We can’t give her time.”

“Maybe we should withdraw. We really don’t have the kind of information we need to be doing this.” Laserdream’s voice wavered hesitantly.

“We’ve come too far to withdraw now,” I said. “We have a chance to finish this, to shut Bakuda down before she can hurt anyone else.” I grimaced. “Well, that’s what I’d like to say, but I’m not there—it’s not my life I’m risking.”

“No, you’re right,” Aegis said. “We can’t stop now. If the room’s lit, we’ll split up. Glory Girl, Laserdream, and I will come at her from different angles. With luck, she won’t have a counter to that. Shielder will hang back with Clockblocker and Shadow Stalker to protect them if things go south, and they’ll all look for an opportunity to disable. Gallant will hang back with Vista—someone has to.”

“Really?” Glory Girl asked disapprovingly. “Gallant’s one of our best disablers. Why do you want him to stay back here?”

“Because if Clockblocker or Shadow Stalker get an opportunity, either of them can end the fight more easily,” Aegis said. “It’s not ideal, but it’s what we’ve got.”

“Nah,” came another voice. I glanced up in surprise at a screen I hadn’t looked at in a while. Kid Win was dropping towards the bottom floor of the apartment complex. “PRT picked up Über and Leet, so I’m here now. I can stay with Vista, keep watch on the rear.”

“Shouldn’t we take a tinker with us, since we have one?” Shielder said. “We’re going into a tinker’s lair, after all.”

“I somehow doubt I’d have time to examine her tech,” Kid Win chuckled. “I don’t think I’d be much help. You need Gallant more.”

“Fine, we’re out of time,” I said. “Aegis, you and Glory Girl are on point. Shielder, you’re behind them. Be ready to throw up a barrier if anything looks like it might hurt them. Clockblocker, you’re the next one in. Laserdream, can you be his mover? He usually works with Vista.”

“That’s fine.”

“All right. Gallant, you’re back there with them. Shadow Stalker, you’re in the rear. Be ready to jump on any opportunities you spot.”

“Will do.”

“Okay. If the room’s well lit, be ready to split up and engage, but don’t attack until I give the word. We want to see what she has up her sleeves first—if she has any countermeasures, we don’t want to be caught off guard.” I cracked my knuckles. “Be careful, everyone. I want my explanation to Piggot to involve telling her why we went and took out Bakuda with no casualties, not why one of you is dead. Aegis, whenever you’re ready.”

Aegis nodded to Glory Girl. With a grin, she shoved aside the wood and metal mounting and knelt to open the trapdoor. As soon as it opened—or, rather, was ripped clean from its hinges—she leapt backward, rising into the air, holding the square of wood before her like a shield.

A good thing, too. The bomb attached to the latch lit up in a burst of fire and light. Then again, it looked like a traditional fragmentation grenade, or something similarly concussive. Glory Girl would have been fine.

“Let’s get going,” said Aegis, and he and Glory Girl led my Wards, and New Wave, into the depths.

The trapdoor opened onto a spiraling stairway, wide enough for two to walk abreast. Aegis and Glory Girl floated ahead of the others, orbiting the central pillar slowly, their bodies tense as coiled springs, ready to leap into action.

But no action came. The stairs led them down some twenty feet into the earth, surrounded by concrete walls, and then they came to a door. Again Glory Girl opened it and leapt back, but this time there was no explosion.

And then the tension broke. The next room was spectacular, in the technical sense—it was a spectacle. They stood on a steel mesh balcony near the ceiling of a room almost forty feet in height, lit by fluorescent lights on the ceiling and along the walls, as well as lamps at intervals on the ground—only the corners and an area in the back where a sloping ramp led up to large garage doors were dim. The whole place was walled in unadorned gray concrete. Tables on the lower level were overflowing with what were unmistakably tinkertech bombs, and the excess was strewn across the floor.

All of this was secondary to the vast contraption which dominated the center of the room. Rising ten or fifteen feet in the air, the hemisphere of metal, partially plated with scavenged steel, was a marvel of circuitry and open wiring. Digital displays poked out from under the mess in several places, and tools were still attached in more than one location along the plating and in the workings.

“Like it?”

My whole force turned to look at the speaker. She was on the lower floor, about thirty feet down and twenty feet across from the Wards, leaning against a black and red vintage motorcycle with a painted flame motif and twin black luggage holsters on the back of the chassis. The dark steel of her gas mask contrasted with the yellow highlights of her costume and with the blood-red tint of her goggles.

I’d heard Bakuda’s voice before, in the recordings she’d released and in captured footage. The voice I knew was twisted and distorted by the metal mask she wore until it was totally unrecognizable as human. That wasn’t the case now. Her voice modulator was apparently inactive for whatever reason, and instead of a cold robotic tone, I heard an almost startlingly human speaker—a young woman of perhaps twenty.

“Split up!” Aegis ordered, but Bakuda held up one hand. In it was what looked like a detonator.

“Ah, none of that,” she said. “You stay right where you are. Unless you want to turn around and walk out. I’d recommend doing that.”

“We’re not leaving,” growled Aegis.

I channeled my power through Nenya and forced myself to look around through the screen, detecting whatever I could. I found bombs—several of them. Beneath my friends’ feet, above their heads, on the walls behind and beside them.

There were too many to point them all out—enough that I doubted even Shielder could protect the team from all of them. And I couldn’t communicate with him without Bakuda hearing.

“Keep her talking,” I hissed. “The whole area is trapped.”

“Got it,” Aegis whispered, and then spoke aloud. “What is that thing?” He gestured at the large machine in the room’s center. “Looks like junk.”

“Shadow Stalker,” I said as Bakuda gestured lazily at the massive device. “Try to get around behind her. Withdraw into the shadow of the stairway and then teleport.”

“Okay.” I watched as she took a couple steps back. A moment later, her screen went dark. Good luck, Sophia.

Meanwhile, with half an ear, I was listening to Bakuda’s explanation. “It was supposed to be my magnum opus. My great work. A bomb with a payload of almost 80 terajoules—but that wasn’t the impressive part. On detonation it’ll release an EMP with a wide enough area to knock out electronics across half the eastern United States. Suddenly, Kyushu doesn’t look so impressive anymore—and Endbringers aren’t so unique.”

“Why?” Gallant asked. “Why would you want that?”

Bakuda shrugged, and as she continued, I spoke again. “Be ready to go airborne, everyone. She can’t have planted bombs in midair.”

“Partly I just really like explosions. There’s not even a philosophy behind that—no bullshit about their cleansing purity or anything. They’re just fucking cool. Bang! And you’re gone.” She chuckled.

“Vista, how much longer?” I asked.

“I’m getting there. A couple minutes.”

“Then there’s the bit where Lung wanted me to do it.” Bakuda continued. “All the other gangs have one major thing on his—money. But money’s all electronic these days, and everything you can do with it is also electronic. Take out the electricity, and suddenly none of the other gangs within half the country look anything like as powerful as they were. But the ABB? They’re still fine. But you know?” She looked over at the bomb. If I could see her face, I imagined it might look almost fond. “I think the big part was just that I could. I had the power to wreak havoc on a scale that makes Endbringers look like small potatoes. That’s reason enough.”

“You’d kill tens of thousands of people for a power trip?” Glory Girl asked, her voice pitched less as a question and more as a bewildered exclamation.

“Yeah, basically.”

“I’m in position,” Sophia murmured. She was in the shadows behind Bakuda, her crossbows trained on her. “Give the word.”

“It’s a long shot,” I whispered. “You’re fucked if she notices you before you take her out. Wait for now. You’ll all act at once on my mark.”

“You really are a cartoon supervillain,” said Aegis, shaking his head. “Evil plot without good reasons, and now you’re even monologuing.”

“Well, yeah,” said Bakuda. “Wouldn’t you monologue if you could get away with it?”

“You’re not getting away with anything,” hissed Laserdream.

Was this my opportunity? I opened my mouth, ready to order the attack.

“See, that’s the other reason I was monologuing,” said Bakuda. “Had to give her time to arm. Ciao.”

She leapt onto the motorcycle and began to move even as one of the fluorescent fixtures in the ceiling cracked and shattered in a blast of light and a sound like thunder. A translucent sphere, almost like glass, started to expand from the inside.

Aegis just had time to shout “Run!” before it was on him. From the cameras of the Wards behind, I watched in horror as he was swallowed up by the expanding sphere. His camera went dark and he froze as surely as if Clockblocker had struck him.

“Vista, Kid Win, get out of there!” I screamed, but it was too late. Even as Kid Win slung Vista up onto his hoverboard, the bubble rose through the floor and claimed them.

Sophia fired off a bolt as soon as Bakuda moved, but the Tinker was going too fast, and the confusion as too great, for her to be really accurate. She made two teleports in quick succession as the garage doors opened. The motorcycle sped past her, up a ramp and out into the night, her crossbow bolt just missing Bakuda’s head. A moment later, her screen went black too.

In less than thirty seconds, I was left sitting in shock, staring at eight blank rectangles against the off-white backdrop of the wall.

Chapter Text

I just got all my friends killed.

The thought bubbled to the surface slowly, like fetid air from the depths of a bog. It breached the surface of my thoughts first as a thick, shapeless blob. When it burst, it released horror, pain, and awe—awe at my own stupidity, my hubris, the sheer scale of my failure.

But even as the tears rose to my eyes and the bile rose to my throat, one screen lit back up.

“Taylor.” Sophia’s voice was choked with bone-deep exhaustion and tight with loss and pain.

“Sophia,” I whispered. “Oh, God. I’m so sorry. I—”

“It’s not your fault,” she lied. “Taylor, listen to me. I managed to follow Bakuda out of the garage before the bomb got me, but I’m tapped out. I had to make four blinks without resting, and I hit the ground pretty hard.”

“I’ll get them to pick you up,” I promised, wiping my eyes. She was on a roof, I could see, lying on her back. Her camera gave me a lovely view of the stars, dimmed by the Bay’s smoggy haze.

“No, you don’tfucking listen.” Sophia’s voice rose, grew heated, but the effect was ruined as she was interrupted by a coughing fit. “She’s coming, Taylor. She was headed straight down Stockton. She’ll be by the PRT building in just a couple minutes. She’s going to bomb you.”

My mouth opened slightly. “She’s coming here?”

“She’s lost her megabomb. She’ll want to do as much damage as she can on the way out. Taylor, move!”

I stood up. “Can you move?” I asked.

“If you need me to.” But her voice was rough, exhausted.

“No, you rest.” I shook my head. “I have this. I’ll send someone to find you. Be careful.”

“Don’t worry about me. Fucking kill this bitch.”

I was reaching for Narsil before she’d finished speaking. It wasn’t at my belt. I could have sworn I’d had it there when I sat down.

Casting around the room, however, I saw Aeglos leaning against the wall.

You’ll do.

I took it up, and it gleamed cold in the electric lighting. “That’s the plan.”

I picked up the Jewelry Box, lying open beside me, and slipped off Nenya. I didn’t want to be protected right now, nor to be concealed.

The Ring of Sapphire found its way onto my finger. I closed my eyes as I shut the Jewelry Box and laid it back down, allowing the power to flow through me.

Vilya, the Dominant Ring, the Ring of the Healer and the King, shone like a star. It eclipsed the pale incandescent lights as the moon eclipses the reflection of rusted iron. Aeglos, the Icicle of Gil-galad, shone blue and white in its light. My armor flared around me.

I had failed, and my friends had paid the price. But I could still avenge them.

Im ná i Calimatar Hrómen. I am the Bright Lord of the East.


 

The single light of Bakuda’s motorcycle came into my view not long after I took my position on the street outside the PRT building. I hadn’t passed Triumph on my way out. I assumed he was either patrolling the rest of the building or killing time in the break room.

I hadn’t told him what had happened, or asked him to join me. There would be time—time to accept Piggot’s punishment, to face the fury of the Protectorate and the sympathy of my dad. There would be time to go to each set of bereaved parents in person and offer what little closure I could.

There would be time to suffer for my failure. For now, there was still work to do—and I wanted to face this alone.

I unslung Belthronding from my shoulder and drew forth the only arrow in my quiver. The shaft of black yew seemed almost too dark—as though, rather than reflecting the starlight above as one would expect of polished wood, it consumed it, pulling it in like a black hole.

The power of the Black Arrow should not work when exploited. It was not supposed to be the only arrow in my quiver. It was supposed to be my final shot, the end of the battle. It was supposed to come after I had depleted my options, after I had run out of time, choice, and hope.

But when I put it that way, it was only fitting that it should serve now.

“Arrow,” I whispered as I nocked it. “Black arrow. I have saved you to the last. If I have made you true, and if my cause is just, fly now straight and sure.”

I let fly. The arrow struck dead into the workings of Bakuda’s motorcycle and sank deep. There was a flare as the gas canister ignited, and a screech as the back tire snapped out of alignment. The motorcycle flipped, rolling end over end, sending sparks everywhere and trailing smoke and flame. I heard Bakuda screaming as she burned and was battered by her own machine.

The bike landed on its side and slid, Bakuda’s left leg trapped under it. She screamed as her flesh was flayed between the heavy motorcycle and the rough asphalt. For a moment she was was dragged along the coarse roadway, and when it came to a stop, she gave a moan of pain through gritted teeth and laid back against the tarmac.

I walked forward. Belthronding returned to its place across my back, and Aeglos came forth. “Bakuda.”

She glanced up, her red reflective lenses glinting in the light of the streetlamps. “Annatar,” she said, and her voice was stiff and brittle with agony. “Saw you on the news.”

“You killed my friends.”

She gave a short, sharp laugh. It came out almost as a cough. “Not yet.”

I stopped. “What?”

“The instant timestop bomb.” Her breathing was ragged. “My slow-acting ones are permanent, or near-permanent, but the instant ones aren’t. Their duration scales negatively with their area. Had to freeze the whole building.”

I stared at her. “So they’re not dead.”

“Not yet, they aren’t. The timestop should go down in a few minutes. Also, don’t come any closer,” she warned, “or I detonate every bomb I’ve got left in this city—including the implanted ones. You want to be responsible for the deaths of a few hundred more people?”

Will she do that?

Vilya curled about my finger. No.

“You’re lying.”

“Nope. You know I can remotely detonate my bombs.”

“I know,” I said, “but I’m a precog.”

She lay back. “Fuck.”

“Since I know you can’t or won’t do it, mind satisfying my curiosity?”

“Sure. I do like a good monologue, and it’s not like it does me any good anymore. Toe-rings on my left big and second toes; I cross them to trigger the bomb—or bombs—of my choice.” She looked down ruefully at her motorcycle. “Not sure I even have a big toe down there anymore, and I sure as hell can’t feel it.” She glanced up at me. “You know I’m going to bleed out in a couple minutes, right?”

“Not with that fire cauterizing the injuries, and the debris and road keeping them covered and under pressure,” I replied. “No, your death will be slower. First the wounds will close, sealing asphalt and gasoline under your skin. Then the scabs and internal injuries will sicken as the infection sets in, until your blood is toxic and your body fails around you.” I smiled. “Your death will be slow, Bakuda. Slow and painful. And no one will lift a finger to save you.”

“Lung owes me this city.” Her voice was hoarse.

“Lung doesn’t strike me as the type to pay his debts to a dead woman with no attachments in this world. Why should he? Who will come to collect?”

“You wouldn’t leave me here,” she said, but she sounded almost resigned. “You’re a hero. You’re supposed to be better than that.”

“I didn’t say I’d leave you here. I’d find the nearest abandoned building—probably one you emptied out with a bomb—and then I’d drop you there, and drop your bike on top of you. Then I’d leave. No one would ever know. If you’re lucky, you’d die of thirst before the blood poisoning got you. Either way, no one would find you; not for weeks. Not until well after your body had cooled and become a nest for maggots.”

“Damn, you really hate me.” The hint of mirth in her voice was almost appreciative. “What’d I do to you?”

“You’ve been terrorizing my city for a week now. You hurt my father. You almost killed my friends.”

“Almost?”

I frowned. “I know the timestop will drop, but—”

“No, you don’t get it.” She was smiling around the pain now; I could hear it in her voice. “Were you listening, at the garage? I guess you were on mission control, coordinating.”

“I heard.”

“Then you remember. The megabomb? It’s not finished. The blast isn’t nearly as big as I wanted it to be.”

My face slackened. “But it’s—”

“What do you think I was waiting to arm? The time bomb was ready from the start.” She laughed—a short, hacking sound. “I did say yet. The timestop should go down in just a few more minutes now. One bomb fails, and the other succeeds.”

“No,” I said, in dawning horror. “No! My—”

And then there was light. I looked up, behind her, and saw the light rising in a great cloud of debris, dust, and ash. In the same instant, the streetlamps on either side flickered and died. Behind me, the lights of PRT HQ went out.

Then the shockwave hit, moments later, setting my hair billowing behind me and making the motorcycle skid about an inch on Bakuda’s leg. She hissed in pain, but she was laughing, too—laughing almost hysterically. The darkness was total, save for the stars flickering overhead, and the gleaming of Aeglos, Vilya, and my armor.

“They weren’t dead then,” she giggled, almost choking, “but they sure are now!”

I watched the stones falling back to the earth, the dust settling. Tears pricked my eyes. I tried to blink them away, but they kept coming.

They’re gone. Carlos, Dennis, Missy, Dean, Chris… they’re gone. And it’s my fault.

“There,” said Bakuda, sounding almost satisfied, her eyes lingering on one darkened streetlamp. “That’s that done. Faster than I expected, too.” She smirked up at me. “Really should’ve held back on the grief until now.”

“Why?” I asked her, and hated how my voice quavered. “Why would you do this? Why would you want to?”

Bakuda chuckled wetly. “It’s like this, kid. The world’s a shit place, full of shit people.”

“That’s no reason to—”

“I didn’t finish. World’s shit. People are shit. We walk around on this shitty little planet for, what, fifty, sixty years? Then we die. Nothing changes. World’s still shit, people are still shit. Shakespeare couldn’t change that. Einstein couldn’t change that. Mozart couldn’t change that.”

“At least they tried to leave it better than when they arrived.”

“Tried and failed.” She gurgled slightly, shifting her position on the ground. A faint gasp of pain escaped her as she accidentally moved her injured leg. “I spent all my life trying to chase after great people. Trying to be remembered, to leave a legacy. Then I realized—none of it fucking matters. No one listens to Mozart anymore, except rich snobs trying to look educated. Same for Shakespeare. And Einstein? All anyone remembers him for is the bomb.”

She laughed again; wet, tight, and frantic. “I want to be remembered. I don’t want to be just another poor sap crawling on all fours from one edge of a plateau to another, only to fall into the dark at the end and be just—gone. And if I can’t be remembered for art, or literature, or science, well,” she held out both her arms, wincing as the motion jostled her wounds, gesturing to the dark city around us, “there’s always the bomb.”

I studied her through eyes blurred with tears. “That’s it?” I asked, my voice low and soft. “That’s your great reason?”

“Yep. Well, that and the whole ‘I really like explosions’ thing. Going to kill me now? Or make good on your threats?” She coughed and chortled.

I reached out and touched her with my left hand. Bakuda was strong-willed by nature, but weakened by pain and by serving Lung for months. The struggle was fierce, but short, and in a few moments, I had her mind in my grasp.

“Your deadman’s switch,” I said. “How is it activated?”

“Heart rate monitor,” she told me, her voice perfectly monotonous, staring up at me with dull eyes. “I have a monitor patch on my chest, controlled through my HUD.”

“Can you disable it?”

“Yes.”

“Do so.”

A pause. “Done.”

“If I took off your goggles, would you be unable to reactivate your switch?”

“Yes.”

“Good.” I reached down and grabbed at the lenses, pulling hard until the strap snapped and the red lenses came free, sparking slightly as the HUD interface broke down. I held it up for a moment, staring into the red disks, before tossing it aside. “You’re free.”

Her eyes blinked and cleared. She stared up at me in sudden fury which slowly gave way to dawning horror. “What the fuck did you do?”

I didn’t answer her. “You ever heard of Grendel?”

“No,” she replied warily. “Who’s that?”

“Mm. Bet you’ve heard of Beowulf, though.”

She stiffened.

“No one will remember you, Bakuda,” I told her. “You won’t be more than a footnote in the history books, remembered only for the challenges you offered your betters. No one remembers Grendel—they remember Beowulf. No one remembers Claudius—they remember Hamlet. And no one will remember you.” I raised Aeglos. “They’ll remember me. The one who put you down like the rabid bitch you are.”

“Fuck you,” she hissed. “This is real life. There is no happy ending, there is no resolution. The hero doesn’t always come out on top, and it’s the winner that writes the history.”

“Yes,” I said. “Hail to the victors.” And I brought the spear down.

Chapter Text

In a storybook or a movie, the hero kills the villain and then there’s… something.

The screen fades to black, or there’s a line break, and the scene cuts. We return to the hero later, after they’ve recovered, after they’ve collected themselves.

Real life isn’t like that.

I stood there for a time, watching Bakuda stain my spear red. Her last gasp of breath came after a few seconds, and for a little longer than that I studied the woman’s blood draining out onto the roadway.

In all likelihood, the humid Brockton summer would provide a warm rain in the next few days or weeks. The rain would run down the black asphalt and wash away whatever stain the cleaners didn’t get at. The body would be removed by the PRT, and its equipment would be confiscated. I didn’t know what they’d do with the corpse itself, in the long run. Would they bury it? Burn it? Toss it into a pile of refuse and leave it to rot?

Regardless of what was done, I had a feeling there wouldn’t be much turnout at the funeral. I wondered how many people even knew her name—her real name, the name of the woman whose dead eyes were staring up at me now, not the name of the red-eyed demon who had terrorized the city. Probably a few, who had known the student who had held Cornell hostage. I wondered how many would care she was gone.

But she had taken my friends, my comfort, and—some would argue—whatever innocence I had regarding death.

No. No one will remember you, Bakuda—except me.

I looked up at the rising cloud of smoke from the site of her garage. My friends’ grave. With a heave I drew Aeglos out of the corpse and felt around for a handkerchief or other cloth. I found a small white one in my back pocket and wiped down the spear’s point with it, clearing away the gore.

I should carry a proper cloth, I thought. Then I realized the implications. Bile rose in my throat, but I forced it down with a deep breath, in and out. I lowered Aeglos to my side, stepped over Bakuda’s corpse, and began walking.

The streets were totally empty. No one moved in any of the houses or businesses. The streetlamps and windows were all still dark—and dark they would remain.

I raised Vilya, and the blue light of the Ring of Air shone around, illuminating the dark streets. “Shadow Stalker!” I called. “Shadow Stalker, where are you?”

“Here!” Her hoarse voice reached me from an alleyway, about a block ahead of me and to my right. I ran for her. Sophia was sitting slumped against the wall, one hand cradling her side. Her chest rose and fell visibly with each labored breath. Her eyes, glittering darkly under her mask, sought mine.

“Taylor,” she whispered. “You’re okay.”

“Yes,” I said, coming towards her. “I’m fine.”

“Is Bakuda—?”

“Dead.”

“Good.” Sophia’s voice was raw. Her eyes closed under her mask. Her breathing grew a little easier, a little less raspy, as the tension drained from her shoulders.

Aeglos clattered to the ground. On an impulse, I took her into my arms, holding her tightly.

“Ah!” She gave a pained exclamation, tensing, and I loosened my grip. Before I could let go, though, she relaxed and hugged me back. I wasn't sure who was comforting whom. “Sorry,” she whispered. “I hit my ribs. Cracked, I think.”

“I’m so sorry,” I said, my voice breaking as I held her gingerly and buried my face in her shoulder. “I’m sorry for everything.”

“It’s not your fault,” she said, gently stroking my hair where it emerged from my helmet. “It’s Bakuda’s, and you got her.”

“You shouldn’t have even been out there. We should have contacted the Protectorate, gotten support from the PRT, something. I was cocky and you—they—paid for it.”

“We were all right there with you,” said Sophia, putting a hand on my shoulder. “We all wanted to take her down, we all knew everyone else was busy. We’re soldiers.”

“We’re not supposed to be!” I said, my voice rising hysterically. “And you weren’t, until I arrived! The Wards were supposed to be a safe place to train, and I ruined that!”

“I never wanted a safe place to train,” Sophia growled. “None of us did, really, not deep down. We’re capes—we’re survivors. We—what’s the word?—we revel in conflict, in struggle. We thrive in it. Anyone who thinks we want to be coddled is kidding themselves. You know this—don’t chicken out on me now.”

Chicken out?” I hissed, glaring at her through damp eyes. “I just got most of my friends killed!”

“People die in fights!” she roared, squeezing my shoulder almost painfully. “People fucking die anyway! At least they died doing something! At least they went down fighting!” She took a deep breath and exhaled; her grip loosened. She seemed to shrink, the energy and vehemence leaving her. “It’s how they’d have wanted to go. It’s how I want to go.”

I watched her as her eyes closed. Her head fell back against the wall softly.

“You’re exhausted,” I said.

She nodded wordlessly.

“Can you walk?”

“I might need to lean on you.”

“That’s fine. Let’s get you back to base.”

“No.” She shook her head. “No, I—I want to go to the garage. I want to… to find them. I don’t want you to do it alone.”

“I wouldn’t do it alone,” I told her. “I’d call the PRT, get help.”

“Liar,” she said, a smile in her voice. She was right, of course.

I considered her. “Fine,” I said. “Come on.”

I helped her up. She got to her feet gingerly, as though she wasn’t sure they’d hold her weight, but they did—with a little help, and a steadying hand over my shoulders. I held her up with one arm while steadying myself with the other, using Aeglos as a walking stick.

We moved through the streets slowly, like competitors at the end of a three-legged race. The star that was Vilya illuminated our path towards the great mess of rubble and debris where our teammates lay buried.

“Aegis probably survived,” Sophia said as we walked, between deep breaths. “Might be crippled, but he’s hard to kill. Glory Girl, too.”

“Glory Girl’s invincibility was weird,” I said. “Not sure it works as advertised.”

“Still. Worth hoping.”

I sighed. “Yeah, it’s worth hoping.” And it was true—Aegis had probably survived. Unless he’d suffocated in the rubble, he’d probably be breathing when we dug him out. Missing arms and legs, gored and crushed to a pulp—but breathing.

We reached the rubble after only a couple minutes of walking. Too soon. I wasn’t ready to find Aegis, to face him and own up to the fact that I was responsible for the loss of his team.

We turned a corner and stared at the massive, ruined pile of stone and masonry before us. Water sprayed up in a couple of places where pipelines had broken, and a fire glimmered red at one ruined street corner.

“Annatar?” Kid Win blinked at us. His visor was gone; his face exposed. Several parts of his armor were lying beside him on the ground, their indicator lights dull. “Shadow Stalker?”

Beside him, Aegis whipped around to look at us. His eyes were wild, and his right arm was completely missing slightly above the elbow, with only a crushed and torn stump left. The bleeding had stopped, and with the help of Laureya, glimmering on his left finger, the flesh was slowly creeping back down to where it had reached before. “You’re okay,” he said, some tension bleeding out of his frame.

“What’s going on?” Sophia asked immediately. I just stared, my mouth opening and closing soundlessly. They were alive.

Aegis was kneeling in a lower part of the mess of rubble. Kid Win had a large block of masonry in his hands, and his hoverboard lay beside him, inert. A single chemical light still glowed in his suit, casting a strange, ghostly beam before him which shone into my eyes.

Aegis gritted his teeth. “The others are still buried down there,” he said. “I sent out an SOS with one of Kid Win’s flares when I realized the radios were down.”

I twitched. “Are they alive?”

“I don’t know,” he said, his voice raw, reaching down to pull aside another block of stone. “Shielder and Laserdream protected us from the worst of the blast, but their forcefields collapsed when the building came down on top of us. I dug my way out with my power’s help, and Kid Win’s hoverboard was able to get him and Vista mostly out of the line of fire before the blast, but I don’t know about any of the others.”

“Vista’s okay?” I asked, looked at Kid Win.

“She’s alive.” He grimaced.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” My voice was getting frantic.

“This.”

I turned. Vista was leaning against a wall, fixing me with a steady stare through one green eye. The other was gone entirely, leaving a gaping mess of gore and blood in its place.

“Oh, fuck,” Sophia whispered beside me. I, for one, was speechless.

“Took a hit from debris,” she said, her voice calm, but still thick with exhaustion. “Lucky it wasn’t worse. Kid Win had a tinkertech painkiller, and Aegis slowed the bleeding, so I’m lucid, but I still can’t do much.”

“You’re alive, at least,” said Sophia, her voice a low murmur. She glanced at me. “Look, I’ve had enough talking. I’m going to go down there, see whether I can find any of the others.”

“Are you okay to go shadow form?” I asked.

She gave me a frail grin. “I’ll be fine, Annatar. My old powers don’t take a lot.”

“Fortunately, my Geiger counter’s still working,” Kid Win said, holding up a small ticking device.

Ticking.

I staggered back, but he shook his head. “No, no, don’t worry!” he exclaimed. “That’s just ambient—background radiation. The bomb wasn’t nuclear. We’re good to dig and search.”

But if it was, I’d have just killed Sophia. Again.

I touched her arm to steady myself and came forward. “Okay,” I said after a couple of deep breaths. “Okay. Let’s get to it, then.”

Sophia nodded, touching my hand with hers comfortingly—a fleeting thing, like a brush of wind. “Thanks, Kid,” she said. “Dunno if radiation would kill me in shadow form. Don’t want to find out. I’ll be back.” With that, she dissipated into a dark mist and sank down into the crumbled earth.

I glanced back at Vista, wincing at the sight of her ruined face. “Are you sure you’re—”

“I’ll be fine.” Her tone brooked no argument. “Get the others out. I’ll get them to the hospital once you do. I should be recovered enough to use my powers by then.”

I nodded, pulled out my Jewelry Box and swapped Rings. Narya shone red. “Okay,” I said, setting Aeglos down at the edge of the rubble. “Let’s get to work.”

I started to dig, hefting one piece of fallen building at a time and tossing it off of the pile. Aegis and Kid Win joined me. Bit by bit, we worked our way down. We dug through masonry and stone, through rebar lodged in concrete, through twisted metal plates reforged by the heat of the blast into strange shapes, twisted into helixes or blooming iron flowers.

After about five minutes, Sophia returned from below. “I found them. Clockblocker’s alive and seems to be okay. He froze his costume to keep himself safe, and he’s definitely breathing. Shielder’s alive and only cut up. Laserdream and Glory Girl are both alive, but they’re… not so well off. And I couldn’t tell whether Gallant was breathing under his armor.”

“Gallant’s alive,” Vista said immediately. “I’d know if he was dead.”

“How?” Aegis asked. “I know you—”

“We have paired Rings,” she said quietly. “The Dusk would know if the Dawn had died. He’s alive.”

“Then he’s injured,” said Sophia, her voice even, “and may not be for long. His backplate’s fractured, and some of the pieces are digging into him.”

I closed my eyes. “We’ll get to them in time,” I said. “We have to.”

The night went on, and we dug. Slowly, the city lit up around us with chemical lighting; torches, flares, and the like cast flickering glows on street corners and in residences, but more than light, they cast deep, long shadows in the places they didn’t reach.

We were soon joined by PRT personnel, then by New Wave and the Protectorate. The capes looked bedraggled and tired, sickened by battle and beaten by failure. Lung, I guessed, had not been recaptured.

“Annatar,” said Armsmaster through gritted teeth when he arrived.

I stood up and turned to face him. “I fucked up,” I said, spreading my hands out to my sides, opening myself up. “I know that, Armsmaster. But we need to get the others out of here first. I’ll take whatever punishment you want me to, after we’ve got them out.”

He considered me, a frown on what of his face I could see, then nodded once. “Okay. Let’s get to work.”

Browbeat was with him. He didn’t try to speak to me; just gently laid a hand on my arm before going to talk quietly with Aegis as he joined in the effort.

Armsmaster’s armor was still working, and the lights in his chest and helmet lit the street well enough to see, even for those of us unenhanced by Rings of Power. With the addition of that, his halberd’s ability to cleave through the larger rocks, and an orb of light in Brandish’s hand—not to mention the pale glow of my armor—we made faster work of the pile.

Even so, however, the labor was monotonous. There’s little to tell of that night. Again and again I returned to the pile, bundled up a handful of rubble, and moved away, putting it aside, away from the mess. With each step, and each load, thoughts swirled maddeningly inside my skull—thoughts of shame, and guilt, and horror. There was little conversation, and what there was was shared in low voices, as if everyone was afraid to disturb the rubble by speaking too loudly.

It reminded me of my mother’s funeral.

Sophia allowed me my silence, but she stayed at my shoulder throughout the night, a comforting presence, steadfast in her loyalty. Whenever my guilt threatened to overcome me, she knew; she would rest a hand on my arm or draw me close in a one-armed hug for just a moment to bring my back from the brink.

Bodies started to emerge. Some dead; ABB men the Wards had fought on their way through the building, crushed and brutalized by their leader’s last gambit. With each removed fragment of debris came a new question—was that a hand, or just an odd piece of rubble? Was that piece of fabric from a costume, or a curtain? Was that a puddle of dark red blood, or just water from a broken pipe, darkened by the deep night?

And, worst of all—when I finally found my friends, would they have survived my mistake only to die to my slowness?

I didn’t rest often. I excused myself once to swap Rings to Nenya and from that point on I was unbowed, digging away at the rubble determinedly. But I still wasn’t fast. The work was still slow, taking hours on end of unceasing, seemingly useless toil.

It got more wet as we went deeper, too. Soon we were picking through sludge and mud as much as through solid rubble. The water from the broken piping had seeped into the ground, flowing back into the earth unabated.

We moved gingerly, careful not to dislodge the debris under us for fear of crushing any survivors. Aegis was particularly helpful here, since he could fly up and move quickly without disturbing the ground he walked on. The other Wards and the Protectorate heroes were all trained in search and rescue, and with the help of Nenya I was able to follow their lead without much trouble. In one near miss, Assault slipped on a loose block of concrete and caused a slide of rubble and debris which revealed our first surviving ally—Glory Girl.

One of her legs was broken where it had been wedged between two large rocks, and there were several small fragments embedded in her belly and torso. Blood had stained all over her costume from the inside, and she looked unpleasantly pale in the dark night, but she was breathing with a faint rasp. Brandish had excused herself from the effort then, and taken her to see Panacea, who was currently busy at the hospital.

About an hour later, after sifting through yet more sludge and debris, we found Gallant, curled among large stones. A piece of rubble had dug deep into the back of his armor, fracturing the metal and staying embedded into his upper back and ribs. We handled him gingerly, especially once Miss Militia said a couple of his vertebrae were almost certainly broken.

He was alive, and Vista and Kid Win together took him to the Dallons for treatment, slipping through space with their wounded teammate in Kid Win’s arms, Vista’s hand resting on his shoulder. With luck, Panacea would be willing to treat him—and Vista, too.

One by one, the others emerged. Laserdream came next, splayed out as on a bed, her hands and one foot all crushed by heavy chunks of concrete and a sharp wooden splinter embedded a few inches into her belly like a dagger. She was breathing shallowly, and her eyes, though open, were filmed over with delirium and fever. Manpower took her to the hospital immediately, looking worried.

Clockblocker stood perfectly still and upright, unaffected by the explosion. His power deactivated once we’d freed his head.

“What happened?” he asked. “How long did the timestop last?”

“Not long,” I assured him. “You were out for only a few minutes before the blast.”

“And Bakuda?”

“Dead,” said Armsmaster shortly.

“Good,” said the Ward, a vicious satisfaction in his voice, and began helping us to free him.

Shielder came last. At first he seemed only cosmetically injured; his side was scored by rough stones and a couple of his ribs were cracked, but his worst injury was the concussion that had left him unconscious. Lady Photon took him, looking grim.

With each of my friends that emerged, and with each New Wave cape I’d put into the line of fire, I made it a point to commit the moment to memory. I took note of the wounds—almost clinical, for now, since I still had to focus. But I would never forget it. I refused to forget this long night, where I stared my own failure in the face and had to do my best to overcome.

After that, we left the work to the emergency services. Dawn was already peeking into the eastern sky, the faint gold of the sun glimmering over the sea.

We had survived—barely. My failure had, whether by luck or act of God, been punished only lightly. The worst I would face was the worst Piggot and Armsmaster could do. Compared to the loss of every friend I had in the world, that was nothing.

The twinkling stars gave way to the dawn as the sun rose over us. The city of Brockton Bay was silent. Not a single car engine stirred in the streets. It was a relief on the rare occasions when we passed a residence where a child cried or where someone peered out a window at our procession. It reminded me that the city wasn’t dead.

As the stars faded and night passed into day, and as the rising sun bathed the East in light, I made myself a simple, solemn promise.

Never again.

End Arc 4: Sheen

Chapter Text

Kid Win leaned heavily on Aegis in front of me. Clockblocker supported Sophia behind me. At the fore, Armsmaster led our party. Assault was carrying an injured Battery gingerly, as if she was made of glass. Velocity was limping, and Miss Militia was supporting him.

And in the midst of it all, I walked alone, taking it all in. My team was alive, my friends had survived. No thanks to me.

The forcefield bridge was still working—which was fortunate, since without Vista we had no other way to get across to the Rig. Like Armsmaster’s armor, it must have been shielded from the EMP in some way.

We went straight to the medical wing and dropped off our injured, and then Armsmaster turned to me.

“Annatar,” he said. “My office.”

“I’m coming,” said Sophia.

“No.” Armsmaster’s voice was crisp and cold as ice. “You’re not.”

“It’s fine,” I told her. “You rest.”

She gritted her teeth, but nodded an acceptance and followed the other Wards out another door, glancing back at me over her shoulder as she left.

Armsmaster’s office was an interesting room. It was perfectly organized, papers stacked neatly into a well-maintained inbox and outbox, or carefully slipped into files in organized cabinets. On the wall behind the desk was set a console panel, its small screen dark. The room was halfway to being a workshop itself, too, with a rack of halberds on one wall and steel mannequins clad in spare suits of blue armor on another. Other than these functional displays, and the open, white-curtained window in the wall to the left of the entry, the only decoration on the desk was a single carved wooden paperweight in the shape of a dragon.

He sat across from me in a visibly reinforced chair meant to bear the weight of his armor and looked at me. One of his elbows rested on the desk, and his hand cupped his chin, which worked slightly as though he was chewing.

There was no other chair, so I stood, clasping my hands behind my back.

“What happened?” he asked. He didn’t sound angry, surprisingly enough. He sounded worn out, more than anything else.

“In detail, or in summary?”

“In detail, please.”

I nodded. “The Wards stormed Über and Leet’s base,” I said. “I think the PRT picked them both up.”

He shrugged. “I haven’t had time to verify anything, and it’s not as though I can call it in anymore. I’ll verify when I can; in the meantime, just be honest.”

I nodded and opened my mouth to speak, before hesitating. “I’m using Fire right now,” I said. “I know you prefer to have these conversations without that influence. Can I have a place to swap.”

“Do it here. I’m curious to see your ‘Rings of Power’ outside of a recording,” he said, looking me in the eyes.

I stared at him, my lips parting slightly. He smiled slightly; an impulsive, exhausted motion. “We’re not blind, Annatar.”

I smiled back. Tears came to my eyes—relieved ones. I’d been keeping that secret on principle, even from people I’d started to trust. If Piggot and Armsmaster knew, I was honestly glad of it. They deserved to know. “Okay,” I said, pulling forth my Jewelry Box. “Edro a adlenc.

The light of the Rings of Power shone brilliantly upon the walls for a moment as the box opened. I slipped off Narya, took up Vilya and slipped it on. “Air’s okay, right?”

“That’s fine, yes. Vilya?”

“Right.” I closed the box and slung it back behind me.

Armsmaster’s single window faced west. I looked out through it, watching the rising sun slowly paint the tops of the buildings in gold as it trickled down, as I continued.

“The others stormed Über and Leet,” I continued. “Glory Girl, Laserdream, and Shielder came and joined them as they were finishing up. After that, we decided to continue, and hunt down Bakuda while you were all fighting Lung.”

“Against orders.”

“Yes. We knew you all had your hands full, and we figured that without Oni Lee or Lung, Bakuda would be as weak as she’d ever get.”

He nodded. “I understand the assumption,” he said. “What happened next?”

“We located her hideout,” I remembered. “We found a building Lung seemed to be trying to lead you away from. Aegis and Glory Girl stormed it from above while the others came in through a balcony. It was pretty well defended. Clockblocker and Vista both used their upgraded powers.”

“These are the powers your Rings gave them?”

“Yes. There was a trapdoor in the bottom floor which led to what I guess was a modified parking structure. Bakuda was there with a lot of bombs—and one big one.”

“The EMP.”

“Right. The Wards got her talking, to buy time for Shadow Stalker to get around her and come from behind. Apparently it was supposed to be way bigger. She claimed it was going to have a payload of… 80 terajoules, I think she said, and that the EMP would take out something like half the country.”

“Preliminary reports suggest only the city was caught in the effect,” Armsmaster said. “We’re still working on getting emergency communications online, but things are definitely not as bad as they could have been.”

“That’s good,” I sighed. “She used a timestop bomb to freeze the other Wards and fled. Shadow Stalker barely got out and saw her leave. She warned me that Bakuda was coming towards PRT HQ. So I went outside and stopped her.”

“Killed her, you mean.” His voice was softer now. “Are you okay?”

I shook my head. “Not really... but not because of Bakuda.” I sighed. “Bakuda was just—It was good to get closure, I guess. If anything, it was scary how easy it was.” I paused, chewing on my lip, then added, “Oh, I made sure to disable her deadman’s switch first.”

“Good. Our problems would be much worse otherwise. You saved lives with that.” He considered me for a moment in silence, one gauntleted finger tapping rhythmically on the mahogany table. After the silence had stretched just long enough that I prepared to break it, he asked, “Why did you kill her? You could have taken her in. She was fully neutralized.”

I looked out the window again. The sunrise had now filled the empty streets with molten gold. The city looked almost peaceful, now, rather than dead. “I thought she’d killed my friends,” I murmured. “I knew she’d killed a lot of people. And I… She was dangerous, even when she looked subdued, so partly I wanted to make absolutely certain. But… mostly it was justice. Or vengeance.”

“Justice is something the courts deal with,” Armsmaster said. There was something odd what little of his face I could see; a slight worrying of the corner of his mouth, in seeming sympathy of all things.

I didn’t answer. He sighed.

“We’ll have to see what happens,” he said. “At the moment, there’s no warrant out for your arrest. We’ll have to see what the PRT chooses to do. In the meantime, I can’t let you leave the Rig until something is decided. I doubt that’ll take more than a day.”

“I understand.” I wondered if they would arrest me. I doubted this would get me sent to the Birdcage, but I was a master. That made me dangerous. Life as a fugitive didn’t sound appealing.

I didn’t regret killing Bakuda, but I was worried about the consequences it would have.

“Do you…?” he hesitated, on the cusp of a question, visibly searching for words. I waited, but at length he visibly gave up and moved on. “Who led this mission, Annatar?” he asked. “Who caused the Wards to go totally against orders and attempt to bring in Bakuda alone?”

I swallowed. “Aegis was technically in command,” I said. “But… I egged them on, I gave them tactical advice, I encouraged them to stay in. Laserdream had second thoughts, and it was me who convinced her to stay, not Aegis.”

Armsmaster nodded. “I had a feeling,” he said. “Browbeat’s report indicated as much. I’m sure you realize that your teammates could very easily have died tonight?”

I shuddered. “Yeah, I—I’ve been thinking about that.”

“I’m sure you have.” He watched me for a moment, still giving me that same, odd look, before continuing. Thank you for being honest. I’ll talk to Deputy Director Renick, and we’ll decide what’s to be done.”

I frowned at him. “What about the director?”

He grimaced. “With the power out, Director Piggot’s dialysis machine will have failed. There are systems in place for such eventualities. She should already have been airlifted out by Dragon, along with many other newly-critical patients from the local hospitals.”

“Piggot needs dialysis? Why?”

“She was injured in a PRT operation several years ago. I doubt she’d like me telling you any more.” He stood up. “Suffice to say that, until either she returns or we’re assigned another Director, Renick and I will be taking command. Until further notice, Annatar, consider yourself off-duty. No patrols, no console work—not that we have a console, anymore. This is in effect regardless of what happens regarding your killing of Bakuda.”

“Yes, sir.”

He glanced out the window. “Take today off,” he said. “Feel free to tinker, if you can without power. If we can, we’ll have the schools back in operation in the next few days, and you can go back to regular attendance, assuming you’re not arrested.”

Many of the schools had shut down during Bakuda’s bombing spree. Winslow had been one of them. “Which one?” I asked. “Winslow or Arcadia?”

“That remains to be seen.” He looked back at me. “Your father still hasn’t left the hospital, correct?”

“Right.” Then I twitched, and bile surged up in my throat for the second or third time that night at least. “The EMP—”

“Your father was there for severe burns and a few broken bones, yes?”

“Right.” I sighed. “Will he be okay?”

“He should.” Armsmaster sounded confident. “Those are treatable without electricity. It may be a little harder, and recovery may take a little longer, but his injuries shouldn’t be life-threatening even now.”

I sighed in relief. “You think so?”

“I do.” He scratched at his beard idly, considering me. “Stay here today, then, instead of going home. You can stay in the barracks.”

“Thank you, sir.”

He nodded. “Send Aegis in, please.”


 

The Rig was larger than PRT Headquarters, and had several lounges—one of which was reserved for the Wards when we were there. That was where I went.

The room was in one of the Rig’s spires, and had two windows; one faced east, and gave a lovely view of the rising sun, gold and bright, setting every surface in the room gleaming. The other faced west, towards the city, like Armsmaster’s. The individual panes skyscrapers’ glass windows and walls shone like stars in the reflected light of the dawn.

Carlos, Dennis, Sophia, and Sam were all seated around a coffee table, huddled over their mugs with masks off, when I arrived in the lounge. Sophia made to stand up when she saw me, but I held out a hand to stop her and came over.

“Carlos,” I said lowly, “Armsmaster wants to see you.”

He nodded and stood up, stretching. Then he met my eyes.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

I smiled wearily. “I don’t know,” I said honestly, “but thank you.”

His eyes searched my face for a moment, what of it he could see under my mask. Then reached out and clapped me on the shoulder.

“We did it,” he said. “We won.”

I tried to keep smiling as I nodded.

He shook his head with a sigh and glanced at Sophia. “Take care of her,” he ordered, then reached down, picked up his mug, and left.

I took his seat, slumping into it and allowing myself to sink into the cushioned back of the armchair. My eyes closed. For a moment I just sat there in silence, none of the others saying a word.

“You want something to drink?” Sam asked. “We’ve got coffee, tea…”

“Please,” I whispered. “Hot chocolate?”

“I’ll get it,” Sophia said, standing and leaving the table, patting my pauldron gently as she passed me on her way to the water dispenser.

“How are you feeling?” Dennis asked.

“Ha,” I huffed a single syllable of laughter. “Exhausted? Guilty? Relieved?”

“Aegis said about the same,” Sam said.

I sighed. “How’d the Protectorate’s mission go?” I asked.

“Faultline’s Crew was hit pretty hard,” Sam told me. “Oni Lee hit them with a couple of Bakuda’s bombs. A couple of her capes were killed, but I don’t know which ones. No Protectorate or New Wave casualties, thank God.”

“And the villains?”

“Still free,” Dennis said. “Oni Lee disabled Armsmaster’s tranquilizers before he could use them. He had a spare halberd without tranquilizers, but there was no way to stop Lung. He just kept ramping up.”

I opened my eyes and looked out the window. Now that I knew what to look for, I saw it—a scar, a couple of blocks long, of blackened, ruined buildings and streets torn apart by fire and claw. A sign of Lung’s passage.

“Eventually they just had to withdraw,” said Browbeat. “The EMP hit while they were on their way back to base.”

Sophia returned and handed me an off-white porcelain mug, filled with a steaming brown liquid. I took it in both hands with a smile at her and brought it up to my nose, drinking deep of the bittersweet scent.

“Still, though,” Clockblocker said. “Can you imagine if we hadn’t gotten her tonight? The EMP would have been even bigger. She was going to disable half the country with that. It really would have been worse than an Endbringer.”

“Assuming we let her use it,” I said, my voice soft to hide how it quavered. I brought the cup to my lips and sipped at the warm drink. It scalded my lips and tongue a bit, but it was good.

“We did our best,” Clockblocker argued. “It’s—”

“If we had taken the time to get our hands on a blueprint of the building before storming it,” I said quietly, “we could have gone straight into her workshop. Because we came from above, she knew we were coming, and prepared accordingly.”

The others were silent.

“If we hadn’t had to fight through the upper floors,” I continued, “we would still have had both you and Missy at full strength, Dennis. We could have shut her down before she had a chance to do anything at all.” I looked up and met each of their eyes. “The EMP is my fault,” I whispered, “because I was impatient. I thought we had to stop her now, when it would have been so easy to withdraw, report her location, and come again when we were more prepared.”

“Give me a break,” Sophia scoffed. I blinked at her.

She rolled her eyes. “Oh, come on. You think Lung wouldn’t have been there to stop us? The Protectorate were looking for Bakuda, and he stopped them from getting to her. You think he wouldn’t have done it again?” She met my eyes. Despite her hard tone, her brown eyes were soft and warm.

“Don’t torture yourself, Taylor. We did our best. If we’d done nothing, it would’ve been a lot worse. We can’t do everything perfectly.”

I looked down into my mug. For a moment there was silence.

“I could have done better,” I said.

“Maybe,” allowed Sam. “Will you, next time?”

“Yes.”

“Then that’s all anyone can ask.” He stood up. “I’m going to turn in for a couple hours.”

“Same,” said Dennis. “You two should as well.”

I nodded and held up my cup. “I’ll just finish this.”

He nodded, gave me a wry grin, and left.

“I don’t actually know where the dorms are on the Rig,” I told Sophia after a moment.

“I’ll take you,” she said, fiddling with her hair bun. “They’re a couple floors down.”

“Thanks,” I said.

“No problem.” Her hair came loose and she shook it out with a relieved sigh.

I looked up at her. “No, really,” I mumbled. “Thank you for everything, Sophia.”

She smiled at me, her cheeks a touch flushed against her dark skin. “Really,” she said. “It’s no problem.”

Chapter Text

My dreams danced along the line between fitful and hellish. Images of fire haunted me, or of a sky choked in ash and fume, a land poisoned by blood and dust, and a tower with a summit in flames, interspersed with Bakuda’s mad eyes laughing from behind her mask and the twisted corpses of my friends.

I was awoken from the image of an erupting volcano by Sophia, shaking me. I startled to wakefulness suddenly, reaching for a knife that wasn’t there. For a moment, I cast about wildly, and then my gaze settled upon her. “Sophia?”

“You were having a nightmare,” she said by way of explanation.

I blinked at her a few times before the tension bled out of my frame. Idly I ran my thumb along the band of Vilya, reminding myself that, yes, it was there. “Sorry,” I said. “Did I wake you?”

She shook her head. “No. Miss Militia came by about forty minutes back, I woke up then.” She straightened from her position leaning slightly over my bedside and stretched.

I took the opportunity to look around. Nothing had changed since we had arrived—the women's barracks was still the basically unadorned long room it had been before. Bunks lined one wall, some twenty or so—I hadn’t been in any shape to count when we’d arrived—and each was furnished with simple mattress and bedclothes. There were no windows, and no clock on the wall. It probably wouldn’t work even if there was.

I’d gone to sleep in my underarmor, basically a form-fitting athletic shirt and sweats, and I didn’t offhand know where I’d left my other clothes. My locker, probably, where I’d left my armor when I went to bed—and where I’d found Narsil, lying innocently sheathed. “What time is it?” I asked Sophia.

“Little before noon. Lunch is in the mess, if you want it.”

“Is it good?”

She shrugged. “Dunno. Haven’t gone.”

“Not hungry?”

She shrugged again. “I could eat. Just… haven’t gone down yet.”

I considered her for a moment. “Well, all right. What did Miss Militia want?”

“Said you needed to see her. You can eat first, though. She said to let you sleep, so there’s no big rush.”

“All right,” I said. “Let’s….”

I stopped halfway through standing up, staring at the wall. What was I doing?

“Taylor?”

“No,” I said wearily. “No, I’m going to go talk to Miss Militia first. You go eat, I’ll join you in a bit.”

“I’ll come with you,” she offered.

“No,” I shook my head. “No, I’m fine. Really. You go eat; I’m not that hungry yet anyway.”

I felt her gaze on the back of my head for a moment before she sighed. “All right,” she said. “I’ll see you in the mess.”

I watched her go and then gathered the bundle of my armor in my arms before heading out the door. I had time at least to drop my stuff off at my locker and get my street clothes back on, rather than meet Miss Militia in what amounted to thermal underwear.


 

I knocked on the door, and was answered by a rough, “Come in!”

Miss Militia’s office was, if possible, even better kept that Armsmaster’s—or so it seemed at first glance. Papers were sorted, filed, and even squared away into neatly hidden piles under the surface of her glass-topped desk. A spare costume hung, fully assembled, on one wall, and on the other was an east-facing window, looking out to sea, with embroidered green curtains bunched at its sides.

It was those curtains that drew my attention to the room’s decoration. Where Armsmaster’s office had been a utilitarian affair with little to nothing of personality, Miss Militia’s was decorated with an easy restraint. A full-size American flag hung on one wall, opposite the window, and behind the desk was a large photograph of a green pasture under a clear blue sky.

I realized then that Miss Militia’s office wasn’t actually better kept than Armsmaster’s. It was that the touch of personal disorder threw the organized business into sharp relief.

The hero looked up as I entered and greeted me with a nod and no other expression on her face. “Annatar, sit down.”

I came forward and obeyed, sitting in the chair across from her desk. By the time I had, she was already looking back down at the paper on the desk before her, her pen scratching away at it.

For a time there was silence save for that scratching. I detected a hint of tension in Miss Militia’s arms. Now that I was closer, I could see that her apparently blank face was marred by a faint tightness around her eyes and brows.

“You’re angry with me.”

She glanced at me, pen still poised. “Angry?” she asked. “No. Disappointed, worried, and perhaps ashamed, but not angry.” She smiled slightly, a tight, mirthless expression. “We’re all too tired to be angry now.”

“I’m sorry.”

“For what?” Miss Militia put the pen down, clasped her hands together, and leaned forward slightly, meeting my eyes. Her face was still set in that mask of calm, and didn’t waver in the slightest as her gaze held mine—which was quite a bit more frightening than if her eyes had flashed and her voice had risen. “For putting your teammates in harm’s way? For placing the city in serious danger?”

“Both,” I said, forcing down the instinct to rebel. My voice came out uncomfortably small, but I refused to let my pride get in the way here. What place had pride in me now? What had pride gained me?

“I know,” she said. “But I somehow doubt you’re sorry for executing a woman without trial.”

A muscle jumped involuntarily in my jaw. I looked away, out the window at the glittering sea.

“Aegis was involved in all the rest. He was leader, and it’s his responsibility, not yours, to make sure that the Wards operate both safely and sanely. You did neither, but that’s no more your fault than Browbeat’s. But it was you, alone, who executed Bakuda.”

“I thought she’d killed my friends,” I said.

“I know,” said Miss Militia evenly. She paused. “Believe me, I know. But principles aren’t something we can put aside just because we’re hurting. That’s no better than not having principles at all. This wasn’t due process, Annatar, this was vengeance, as brutal and senseless as it always is when a person takes the law in their own hands.”

I looked down. For a moment I managed to keep my silence, but soon my grip failed and I looked back up.

“Ma’am, she’d killed almost fifty people and was threatening to kill hundreds of thousands. I thought she’d killed the only friends I have. It was right—”

“That,” said Miss Militia, biting the words out and shaping the syllables with tightly controlled teeth and lips, “is not for you to decide, Annatar. Who are you to make a decision like that?”

“I’m the person who lost her friends,” I said. My voice didn’t rise, nor did I tense, but I would not regret my decision to impale that woman on Narsil. “I’m the wronged party.”

“So is the entirety of Brockton Bay and the United States,” Miss Militia said dryly. “The collective species, if you’re feeling poetic. What do you think the trial by jury is for? Why should you make that decision for every other daughter whose father was injured, every other child who lost a friend?”

I grimaced. “She’d have gone to the birdcage—”

“Ah. So because you disagreed with the sentence you thought the rest of the public would give her, that gave you the right to take the sentencing into your own hands?”

“It’s not like that.”

“Maybe not. I’m not here to understand you, Annatar, I’m here to do my job, which is to uphold the law and ideals of this country. You flouted both last night, and I’m honestly astonished that everyone else seems to be letting it slide completely.”

I looked back out the window and didn’t reply.

At length, she sighed. “I’m quite certain this won’t be the last you hear of this,” she said, “so let’s get to business. First, the PRT has responded to the situation, and to your murder of Bakuda.”

I looked back up at her.

“Chief Director Costa-Brown released a kill order on Bakuda about three hours ago,” Miss Militia said, her face set back into that same blank mask of controlled displeasure. “It was back-dated to yesterday.”

I blinked, then my eyes widened. “Then that means—”

“It means that you have been unofficially pardoned for your murder,” Miss Militia finished for me, and her façade broke slightly on that last word, so that she was almost spitting it out. “I’ll thank you not to celebrate it quite yet, or in my presence.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” Nonetheless, I couldn’t quite keep my relief from showing in a loosening of my arms and chest. “Don’t kill orders take a lot more than that? A trial and so on?”

“Yes. They do.” Miss Militia’s voice was positively Antarctic. “I would assume they already had the kill order in processing and rushed it through. A neat compromise.” She spat the word and then closed her eyes for a moment, regaining her composure before continuing. “Second, the local schools have committed to attempting to host students in the coming weeks. Both Arcadia and Winslow are reopening next week. Deputy Director Renick has decided to take the opportunity to complete your transfer.”

“So next Monday I’ll be starting at Arcadia?”

“Yes. In the meantime, since your father can’t be expected to care for you when he hasn’t yet left the hospital, you’ll be staying here.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

Miss Militia nodded. “Many of your teammates attend Arcadia,” she said. “I suggest you attempt to get caught up on the classes before you start. You’ll have time; your suspension from duty is still in effect.”

I’d figured as much. “Of course, Ma’am.”

“Good. One final point; you’re going to have mandatory counseling sessions.”

I frowned. “Is that necessary?”

“Yes. Don’t push on this, Annatar.” She held my gaze. “You have no idea what a mess refusing this could unleash.”

To be fair, I really didn’t. “Understood, Ma’am. When do I start?”

She shrugged. “We haven’t been able to schedule anything yet, with the power down. I’d expect you to have your first session later this week, or early next week.”

“All right. Someone will keep me posted?”

“Of course.”

“Then that’s fine.” I nodded once.

“That’s all, then. Is there anything else, Annatar?”

I shook my head. “No, Ma’am.”

“Good. Go. Eat lunch, if you haven’t yet.”


 

When I reached the mess hall, I immediately looked around for Sophia. There she was—seated at one end of a long table across from Carlos, both with trays of food before them. I approached immediately, waving. Sophia saw me first and waved back, causing Carlos to turn about and grin at me.

“Hey, Annatar,” he said, beckoning with his regrown right hand.

“Carlos,” I greeted, sitting beside him and across from Sophia. “Sophia.”

“So?” Sophia demanded. “What did MM want?”

I grimaced. “Partly to chew me out for killing Bakuda.”

“Fuck her,” grunted Sophia.

“In fairness,” said Carlos carefully, “you weren’t exactly supposed to—”

“We thought you were dead,” Sophia growled at him. “If Bakuda had been in front of me she’d have been lucky to die half as fast.”

“Aw, you do care!” I glanced over to see Dennis, a wide grin on his face, approaching from another door. His hands were out to his sides in an expansive, showman’s gesture. “And here I thought you would be a prickly little sociopath forever.”

“About you? Don’t flatter yourself,” said Sophia flippantly, glancing at him with a roll of her eyes before looking back at me. “So, what? Are you in trouble?”

I tilted my head from side to side. “Sort of,” I allowed. “I’m still off active duty, and I’m still going to be staying at the Rig—mostly because my dad’s still in the hospital—but I’m not going to be arrested. The PRT released a back-dated kill order for Bakuda, so I’m in the clear there.”

“So wait,” Dennis asked, sitting down on Sophia’s right, across from me. “Does that mean you get a bounty, or something?”

I blinked. “Don’t know. Miss Militia didn’t mention it. I’ll ask.”

“I doubt it,” said Carlos. “Even if they don’t want to prosecute you, I doubt they’ll reward you for breaking protocol like that.”

“And she’s already dead anyway,” said Sophia. “Why give away money they don’t have to?” she snorted. “But anyway, you’re in the clear? No cops going to come knocking down our doors?”

“Looks like it,” I said. “Miss Militia’s pissed, though.”

Sophia shrugged. “You can deal with that, no problem. Anything else happen?”

“Well, the schools are starting back up next week—”

Why are you smiling?” Dennis delivered this in a desolate, theatrical moan, throwing his hands skyward in supplication. “Not school!”

Aegis rolled his eyes and Sophia punched him on the shoulder. “Asswipe,” she said, almost affectionately, and looked back at me. “So, we’ll be headed back to Winslow in a week?” she asked.

“Well, you will,” I said. “My transfer to Arcadia went through.”

It wasn’t until I saw how fast and how far Sophia’s face fell that I realized how bright her expression had been, even if she hadn’t been smiling.

“Right,” she said, blinking a couple times. “Obviously. I forgot you were transferring out.”

“So you’ll be going to school with us!” said Dennis cheerfully, ignoring Sophia. I looked at him. “That’ll be fun.” Then his brow creased in a sudden frown. “I hope Dean and the others are better by then. Wouldn’t be right without them.”

“They’ll be fine,” said Carlos. “Panacea will take care of them.” He smiled at me. “Any idea which classes you’ll be in?”

“None yet,” I said. “I figure I’ll get a schedule once some kind of infrastructure is back up, even if it’s just paper records.”

“Probably,” said Carlos. “You’re a sophomore, right? Chris will probably be in your core classes, so he can help you get ready.”

“I’ll talk to him.” I stood up. “For now, though, you people have kept be from my food long enough. I’ll be right back.”

Chapter Text

The sun rose over a cloudless sky on the second of May. I rose early, left my lonely barracks—Sophia having moved back into her family’s house once things were stabilized—and headed for the mess to grab sausage and eggs for breakfast before slinging my old backpack back over my shoulders and jogging out of the Rig.

The sun had already risen by the time I strode out across the light-bridge towards the city at a little before seven in the morning. Without cars or buses, the walk was almost an hour—and I couldn’t afford to use Nenya to speed myself along, because whether in or out of armor, running down the road toward Arcadia High could compromise my identity.

Besides, it would make it harder for my well-hidden tail of PRT troopers to keep up. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to know they were there, but neither Armsmaster nor Deputy Director Renick had been especially secretive, even if they hadn’t told me outright that I would be tailed.

It was fair. I was confined to the Rig, except for school, and the transit was long enough for me to make trouble if I wanted.

I wore Nenya anyway, with the Jewelry Box safely secured in my backpack, partly because it would make the walk less of a pain, and partly because it was the best Ring with which to deal with unpleasant surprises. No such surprises came upon me.

Arcadia High was a large, white affair, with tiled stone walls and windows that glinted crystalline in the bright dawn. I took a moment to look it over from outside the brick-and iron gate at the front.

I hadn’t been to a high school in any capacity since Bakuda had started her bombing. That had only been two weeks ago.

It feels like a lifetime.

The gates were open, and I considered them for a time. These gates, this simple open doorway, had featured in my dreams for years. The closed bars and blocked path had been a merciless reminder of my mistake, two years ago, in following Emma to Winslow High—I’d had grades which would have at least given me a good chance at acceptance to the private school, and she simply hadn’t. I hadn’t even considered changing schools, hadn’t even broached the subject with Dad; though now, looking back, I was sure I could have swapped if I’d pursued the opportunity. There was a lesson to be learned in that mistake—many lessons, perhaps.

More than anything, it’s strange to think that a week ago, that was the worst mistake I’d ever made. I smiled impulsively. How small that year and a half at Winslow seemed now—how remote. My own suffering was transient; it would always fade. But loss was forever, and I’d never again fear pain half so much as I had feared loss on that horrible night last Sunday.

“You going inside?”

I turned. There was Chris, smiling at me, hands in the pockets of his jeans. “Don’t think I’ve seen you around here before,” he said, eyes twinkling merrily. “You a new student?”

“Yep,” I said, playing along. I didn’t know whether anyone was watching, and I didn’t care—it might be nice to be Taylor again, if only for a little while. “They figured it was as easy to finish my transfer now as ever. Taylor Hebert.”

“Chris Thompson.” He took my extended hand and shook it firmly. I was honestly astounded at how well he pulled the act off. If I weren’t party to the game, I’d have sworn that he was meeting me for the first time. “You’re here early. Long walk?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Better to be safe than sorry, you know?”

“Yep, same,” he said with a nod and a roll of his eyes. “It’s crazy, you know? Boom, and suddenly we don’t have cars, phones, computers, anything.” He sighed, and the facade dropped for a moment. “I miss technology.”

“Yeah,” I said, turning away and looking back at the school. “It really makes you think.”

He didn’t answer. I felt his eyes on me.

After a moment, I shrugged. “Well, standing at the gate won’t make school any less real,” I said dryly. “Shall we?”


 

“Things are very uncertain here in Brockton right now, I’m sure you’ll all agree.” The principal stood at one end of the gym behind a lectern, looking around at our assembled faces. He was a slightly overweight man in his fifties, with thick spectacles perched on his impressive nose. Despite these traits, he wasn’t a particularly ugly man, with a strong jaw, well-kept black hair, and broad shoulders.

“Nonetheless,” he continued, “Arcadia High is, as always, committed to maintaining a standard of excellence in education.”

The impressive part is that he doesn’t need a microphone, I thought. He’s just projecting, and yet we can hear him all the way to the back of the room.

I sat surrounded by other students in a crush of bodies. It would have been uncomfortable, except that I had Dennis on my left and someone I didn’t know on my right. Dean, who I’d only seen a couple of times since Panacea had healed him last Monday, sat a few rows below, beside Chris. My eyes, with Nenya’s help, picked out Glory Girl—no, Victoria Dallon—sitting some distance away from them, her eyes darting to the back of Dean’s head so often that I wondered why she even bothered looking away. Her eyes, I noticed, were faintly red with recent tears, even if her makeup and grooming were impeccable enough to hide all other signs of stress.

“That means that we’re holding you to that standard, and that we expect you to do the same for yourselves. We have been hit with disaster, but the world spins on. It will not wait for us.” He paused, looking around the room—almost searchingly. “Some of you may have already noticed that a few new students are joining us. Immaculata High School was struck during the conflict last week, and as such many of its students have been filtered among the other local schools, including Arcadia. In addition, a few other transfers have been facilitated for other reasons. I urge you not to pry—things are unstable right now, and not everyone may be willing to discuss what they’ve been through. Just welcome your new classmates and show them a proper Arcadia welcome. We may be a bit crowded for the remainder of the school year, but once Immaculata has some of its facilities back in operation it’ll be accepting many of its students back and things should stabilize.”

He sighed. “I know a lot of you are dealing with things outside of school right now,” he said, and though his voice retained volume, somehow it seemed gentler. “I know some of those things may make school seem like a waste of time at best. They seem more important, more pressing. And there are things that take precedence over school. We know that. But that’s no excuse for giving up. We’ve all lost something—property, homes, people. That’s important. But dwelling on it, to the exclusion of education, would be a mistake. All that’s in the past, and there’s time to deal with it. Education, school—those are the future. Students of Arcadia, I urge you not to give up on your futures for the sake of your pasts.

“New students should report to the main office to receive their schedules. Returning students have a short break. Our first period will begin at eight forty-five, and we’ll have a short period in that class today before getting back on schedule. Thank you, and welcome back to Arcadia.”

As the applause rang through the hall, I leaned over and spoke in Dennis’ ear. “He’s a few steps up from Blackwell.”

“I bet,” Dennis laughed. “You’d better get going if you don’t want to be at the back of the line.”


 

I reached the lunchroom a little after many of the other students. French had been about as far from it as you could get, and unlike many of my classmates, I’d felt no real need to run.

The moment I entered the cafeteria, I was struck, not for the first time that day, by the difference from Winslow High. Where Winslow’s cafeteria had been grimy, worn, dimly-lit, and thick with the unwashed scent of pubescent human bodies, Arcadia’s was clean, well-maintained, and brightened by sunlight streaming in from the windows, though it was dimmed by the darkness of the incandescent light fixtures on the ceiling.

Of course, the biggest difference between the two schools was that I had friends at this one. Dennis waved me over the moment I left the lunch line (with a ham and cheese sandwich that actually looked quite tasty, and included more by way of fixings than a single limp leaf of aged lettuce).

I joined him, Dean, and a decently-sized group of others, young men and women alike. Chris sat elsewhere, in part, I figured, to preserve the team’s secret identities.

“Hey, Taylor,” Dennis said with a grin. “Find your classrooms okay?”

“Yeah, no trouble.”

“This is Taylor,” he introduced me to the rest of the group. “I met her before school today. She just transferred in. Taylor, these are—”

Charles was a tall, wiry guy with curly blonde hair and a shy, timid sort of gin. His glasses kept slipping off his nose so that he had to push them back up every few seconds. Annabelle was a curvy brunette with an unfortunately bad case of acne, not fully covered by her makeup. Nonetheless, her full lips were more often in a good-natured smile than not. Jackson was a slightly overweight Asian guy—Korean, I thought, although I was far from sure—whose brow seemed furrowed in a permanent frown of concentration, and whose lips seemed forever turned down in focus. Pauline was a slim redhead with bright green eyes which shifted constantly as if in nervousness or tension.

“So, Taylor, where did you transfer in from?” Annabelle asked once introductions were finished.

“Winslow,” I replied.

Her eyes widened. “Really?” She suddenly looked shifty. “I don’t want to put you on the spot or anything, but we hear stories about Winslow, sometimes. Are they—”

“All true,” I confirmed. “I was an idiot, followed a friend there in freshman year. Turned out she wasn’t such a good friend after all.”

She winced sympathetically. “That sucks. I guess you’re glad to be out of there?”

“Very,” I replied with a grin. “The grass really was greener on the other side of the fence, what do you know?”

There was some laughter at that.

“So, what classes did you have so far?” Charles asked.

“English first period,” I said. “Didn’t have enough time to get much there, but I like Mr. Ross. He seems nice.” And more than that, he seems good. Nice is easy. Gladly was nice.

“Mr. Ross is great,” said Pauline, her face breaking out into a small smile, the nervous twitching of her hands and eyes subsiding slightly. “He’s super funny when you get him on one of his favorite books.”

“We’re reading Brave New World right now. Is that one of his favorites?”

She shook her head. “But you’ll read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead next, and a little of Hamlet, and both of those are. So, you know, small mercies.” She made a face. “Brave New World sucks.”

At this, Annabelle rolled her eyes. “Oh, come on,” she said. “It wasn’t that bad.”

“Well, no, it’s not that bad—it’s no 1984—but really—”

“What’d you have next?” Dennis asked, rolling his eyes at the two squabbling girls.

“Math,” I said. “Algebra, with Ms. Irons.”

“Oh, you’re already calling her Ms.?” Jackson asked with a little chuckle—a derisive one, which did nothing to smooth out the lines on his brow. “She’ll like that.”

She had, as a matter of fact—she insisted on Ms., as opposed to missus or miss. “I am married,” she had said, “but I’d prefer as a matter of course that you didn’t assume one way or the other, thank you very much.”

“How’d you like her?” Charles asked.

“She’s good,” I said honestly. “Strict and harsh, but that’s okay with me, honestly. She knows her stuff, and teaches it well enough.”

Charles gave Jackson a sly look. “Told you it was just you.”

“One new student isn’t exactly a representative survey, Charlie.” Jackson looked annoyed.

So did Charles. “Don’t call me that, Jackie.”

Dean put his head in his hands. “You see what I have to deal with every day?” he asked me, his eyes peering at me through his fingers. “It’s like herding cats.”

“Hey, don’t complain about being the only sane man here. It’s good practice for when you go back to Vicky’s table,” said Annabelle with a giggle. “I swear, Dean, I know she’s hot, nice, and all around a cool person, but dating a superhero? That doesn’t strike you as, I don’t know…”

“A little bit on the insane side?” Jackson finished for her.

“Hey,” said Dennis, his brow furrowed. “No making fun of Dean about Vicky right now.”

“No, it’s fine,” Dean said with a faint, wan smile.

“Dennis is right, though,” said Pauline, glaring at Jackson. “You just broke up with her a few days ago, and these two chuckleheads ought to know better than to make fun of you now.”

Annabelle looked ashamed. “Sorry, Dean.”

Jackson echoed her. His expression didn’t change much, but by the way he looked down at the table, I saw that no, he really was ashamed of himself, and in a way that overacted expressions like Annabelle’s wouldn’t help him to convey.

“It really is fine,” Dean said. “Vicky’s—temperamental. And she’s going through a bad time right now. She needed to yell at someone, so she did, and then she felt bad about it, so she broke up with me. I’ll talk to her again in a couple days, try to patch things up.”

“That sounds silly,” said Charles slowly.

“But super accurate,” Jackson put in. “Girls are weird.”

“Can confirm,” said Pauline, “am girl.”

“And after math?” Annabelle asked me then.

“French,” I said, a smile breaking involuntarily across my face. “With Miss Rush.”

French had been a joy. Miss Rush had spoken to the class almost exclusively in French, and the sounds were like little flawed diamonds, imperfectly imitating stars, and all the more beautiful for their determined attempts at perfection. I was a natural, partly because I knew enough about English to work backwards from the Latin roots, and partly because French bore a few resemblances to Sindarin, Quenya, and Valarin, albeit very vague and inconsistent ones. It was mostly sound—none of my languages were Romance, of course, but French seemed to tap into the same musicality that Quenya did, albeit inexactly.

“Guess you liked it,” Dean said.

“French is nice—musical, complicated, elegant. And I like languages.” I gave him a private grin. “I’ve got a knack for them, you might say.”

Soon after, the final lunch bell was rung by a teacher poking her head into the cafeteria, and it was with a smile that I threw myself back into class.

Chapter Text

 

Emma’s routine for the morning was basically what it always was, albeit offset by a couple of hours. Where normally she’d be getting up at half past six, she woke up at half past five today. She woke with her alarm—a nice mechanical clock her father had found in his office, to replace the digital one she’d had until the EMP went off—and immediately disabled it. For about a minute she lay listless, staring up at the ceiling, making no move to stand.

Maybe I can just not go to school, she thought. Maybe I can just not get out of bed.

She allowed herself to entertain the thought until almost exactly a minute before her alarm would have rung again, had she still been using the old digital with a five-minute snooze. At that point, she forced herself to swing her legs over the side of her double bed and stood up. She stumbled across the room to her dresser and drew out clothes for the day, then bundled them in her arms and left the room. It was only a few feet to the bathroom, so she had no need to put up any facades until after she was cleaned and changed.

She bathed quickly, scrubbing herself with exactly too little force to leave marks. The water was at that uncomfortable room-temperature where it felt cold despite not actually being so—without power, there were neither pumps nor hot water heaters, and so they were having to make do with water from the local wells which had been opened to the public in the past week. Her father had, of course, made sure she had enough water to bathe a minimum of once a week, which she was spending now. Best to make a good impression on Winslow when she returned.

Once she was done she robotically groomed herself, paying special attention to her thick red hair and to the faint application of blush. She brushed her teeth as she had been instructed by her dentist, angling the brush—no longer electric—down into the gums. She rinsed out her mouth with water from the water bottle in the bathroom for precisely that purpose, gargled, and spat it out into the sink. She allowed herself the small independence of pouring a little of that rinsing water into the sink, to flush her residue down the drain.

The toilet was still working, although they had to manually fill its reservoir now, so she took the opportunity to use it before putting on her fresh clothes. Flushing it was annoyingly more complex than it had once been, but she did it without any real heat to her frustration. There was just no point.

That finished, she stood straight and looked into the bathroom mirror. She met the dead eyes of the girl across from her. Slowly, agonizingly, she forced a wide smile on her face. The practiced mask fell into place with as much difficulty as it always did, but once it was there, it held. It even looked natural—either that, or everyone in Winslow, as well as at home, was every bit as good a liar as she thought she was.

You are Emma Barnes, she told herself. You are a survivor.

The years of practiced repetition made that statement far more powerful than the less-practiced No matter what Taylor says, but she was strong enough to get through that.


 

Emma’s father walked her to Winslow. From their house it was about a half hour’s walk, and so they made it a little early—which was good, since her dad still had to make it to work.

“Are you sure you’ll be okay until school starts?” he asked her, his brows furrowed and eyes soft in concern.

“I’m sure,” she told him laughingly. “Really, Dad, it’s fine. I’m queen here.”

He left her there, and she strode in and made herself at home in the cafeteria. One by one, people strode in. Gang members with Asian features or shaved heads stuck together in their little groups, eyeing one another with wary fury. Definitely be a big fight today. I should be careful.

The school’s girls gravitated around her, though. She was their queen, and they oriented themselves around her. Madison had left town—she’d gotten word to Emma just before she’d left—but there were still plenty of the gaggle to choose from.

But it wasn’t until scarcely five minutes before the bell rang that one of the two girls Emma been watching for arrived. Sophia entered the room with a scowl on her face, sending a baleful glare at the Empire guy nearest the door. He sneered back at her, but dared do no more. Sophia had taken more than a few of their number down, even as a civilian—and if he’d known what she did in costume, Emma was sure his caution would rapidly give way to terror.

Emma stood up and crossed to Sophia. “Heya, superhero,” she said, keeping her voice low enough to avoid being overheard by the rabble.

Sophia blinked at her, as though surprised to see her, and then a smile spread across her face. “Heya, survivor. Good to see you.”

“You too.” Emma’s smile had, unbidden, become genuine. “How have you been? Dealing with the outage okay?”

“It’s been rough,” Sophia admitted. “No proper showers, no phone, no TV, no computer, nothing. Been running and training a lot.”

Emma led them back to the rabble of other girls as they continued talking. “Yeah, Dad’s gotten the family to play a lot of card games. Not a lot better to do, right?”

“Right, I get it,” said Sophia. “You could always come running with me, though.”

Emma was about to offer her practiced refusal when she thought about it a little more. “I have been super bored,” she admitted. “I might take you up on that, this time.”

Sophia grinned widely. “Good to hear.”

The bell rang. Taylor hadn’t come to school. Emma was honestly surprised. She’d talk to Sophia about it later.


 

The opportunity came at recess. They gathered, as they were accustomed to when they hadn’t planned something else, at their table in the cafeteria—Sophia, four of the other girls, and herself. Sophia, as she tended to, arrived last. By that time, the other girls were already engrossed in some inane conversation about a recent breakup, which they’d somehow arrived at from the subject of teachers. Emma took part for appearance’s sake, even though she honestly didn’t even know who the guy in question was, but broke off when she saw Sophia coming in.

“Hey, Sophia!” she waved. Sophia grinned at seeing her and came over.

“Hey,” the superhero replied easily, sitting beside her at the table. “What’s up?”

“We were just talking about Jim,” said one girl—Julia was her name—eagerly. “Can you believe he—”

I was wondering where Taylor was,” Emma interrupted.

She was going to continue, but something in Sophia’s face stopped her. Something had shifted, and not for the first time, Emma wished she were better at reading people. She could tell at a glance what a person wanted in a conversation, and could use that to great effect, but this was something deeper. But she saw something she recognized easily—something she saw in the mirror every morning.

“Dunno,” said Sophia noncommittally. “Maybe she moved? Madison moved out, right?”

“Yeah,” said Emma, “but come on; her dad can barely pay the bills! Think he could get a spot on one of the evacuation vehicles? They’d have to walk, and there’s no way they’d risk that.”

“Maybe she’s staying home,” said another girl—Charlotte. “My parents were thinking of keeping me home. Said it might not be safe out of the house yet.”

“That would make sense,” Emma agreed. “Scrawny little thing like her; she’d be easy prey.”

Sophia’s twitch wouldn’t have been noticed except that Emma was watching her friend carefully. What was up with her?

“Such a shame,” said a different girl—Sierra. “She should come. We’d keep her safe.”

Several of the girls laughed. Emma joined in. Sophia didn’t.

Before Emma could confront her best friend, though, the bell rang and they had to make for their next classes.


 

Sophia didn’t show up at lunch. Emma didn’t know where she was, and told as much to the others when she was asked.

Did she get called in for something? she wondered. There wasn’t really any way to get word to me, I guess. Still, she was a little hurt. They were friends; they did everything together. Here at Winslow, they were queens together, two wolves ruling over a kingdom of sheep. Sophia’s sudden distance was worrying her.

Still, it wasn’t as though she wouldn’t be able to talk to her tomorrow. Emma tried to put Sophia out of her mind for the moment, and engrossed herself in her food—a homemade chicken sandwich her mother had prepared for her. She distracted herself with the meaningless banter of the other girls, and thus whiled away the first half of her lunch period.

It was interrupted by a tap on her shoulder. She turned, and there was Sophia.

“Done eating?” her friend asked. Her brown eyes were set in an odd mix of hard and soft, and Emma couldn’t read much more than that.

Emma blinked at her. “Yeah. Where have you been?”

“Around. Come on, you and I should talk.” She cast a cold look around at the rest of the group. “Alone.”

What’s going on? “Sure,” Emma said with a shrug, standing up. “Where?”

“Just follow me.” Sophia turned and stalked out.

Emma had to jog a little to keep up with the longer-legged girl. “Sophia what the hell is up with you?” she asked as they left the cafeteria. “You’re acting weird. Is something wrong?”

“Yes.”

“Well, what?”

“Later. Where people can’t hear.”

They went up two flights of stairs and reached the roof. It was walled in on all sides by brick up to about three feet and with chain link for four more, but even so it gave a good view of the city on all sides. The roof was an unsightly place other than that view, however; floored in stained and grimy concrete, with rusting vents dotted here and there all around with no clear rhyme or reason.

Sophia crossed over to the fence and looked out over the city, and beyond that, to the sea. The afternoon sun set her long dark hair shining like polished jet. Emma followed, watching the back of her head cautiously. “Sophia?” she asked. “What’s up?”

“I don’t know how to tell you,” said Sophia quietly. “I don’t know what I can tell you.”

“You can tell me anything.”

Sophia snorted but didn’t reply. After a moment, she turned and their gazes met. Emma was struck dumb; Sophia’s gaze had never before seemed so deep, so dark. She felt she could lose herself in those eyes—and not in a pleasant, romantic sense. These were black holes set in a face of granite, pits from which no light could escape except by their mistress’ admission.

Sophia broke the eye contact to look Emma up and down, slowly and appraisingly. It made Emma self-conscious, the way those eyes lingered on her breasts, her stomach, her hips. Was Sophia checking her out?

“How blind I was,” whispered Sophia, as if to herself. “How stupid. Fuck me.”

“Sophia, what the fuck?”

The superhero’s eyes returned to her face. There was silence for a moment.

“You’re beautiful, you know that?” Sophia said, quite calmly, as if that wasn’t something utterly out-of-character and bizarre for her to do.

Emma’s head slowly tilted. “Um. Are you hitting on me? Because… you’re super bad at it.”

“No.” Sophia shook her head. “No, I—” She stopped. Turned back to the skyline. “Taylor transferred to Arcadia over the break,” she said.

“Wait, really?”

“Yes.”

A smile spread across Emma’s face. “Finally admitted defeat, huh? Nice.”

Sophia didn’t answer. After a moment, Emma’s smile faded slightly.

“How did you find out?” she asked.

“Long story. Classified.”

Emma frowned. “Classified? But—” She stopped. Her eyes widened. “Then—”

“Classified.”

“Right, right.”

Holy shit, Taylor’s a cape. A Ward? Maybe. Holy shit. That’s why Sophia’s been weird today; because she has to protect Taylor’s secret identity now! Oh, God, that must be hell. I bet Taylor’s super annoying.

Emma watched her friend, considering. “You know, if she’s still bothering you—I know where she lives. We could go to her house sometime, do something? Make her back down properly? Put her in her place?”

A faint breeze came from the east then, blowing Emma’s hair back and chilling her face slightly. She shivered.

For a moment more, Sophia didn’t answer. When she did, her voice was slightly thick. “Taylor’s in her place,” she said. “In exactly the right place.”

“Well, a little more reinforcement couldn’t hurt, right?”

Sophia turned. Her eyes were hooded. Emma had seen her friend in costume before, with her features hidden behind sheet metal, and right now the face staring into her own was more a mask than any other.

“You don’t get it,” she said with a sigh. “Fuck, Emma, you refuse to get it.”

“Get what?”

“That I’ve been trying very hard not to hit you this whole time.”

Emma blinked and took two steps back. “W-what did you say?” she asked, and hated herself for stuttering.

“You heard me.” Sophia stepped forward—and kept coming. After a moment, Emma started to back away.

“Sophia, what is up with you?” she asked, her voice starting to become shrill. “What’s going on? What can I—”

She turned to run back down the stairs, but Sophia caught her wrist and pulled her in close so that her back was against the runner’s chest. She twisted her arm up behind her in a grip that was just tight enough to be uncomfortable without being painful. Her other hand went to Emma’s shoulder, almost gently—and mere inches from her throat.

“We were friends,” said Sophia quietly, “so I’ll give you a friendly warning, for old times’ sake. If anyone finds out about Taylor, or if I hear that you gave her any kind of trouble, even secondhand, from this moment on? You’ll wish I’d never saved you in that alley two years ago.”

Without waiting for a response, Sophia let her go. Jerkily, Emma turned her head to see what her—former—friend was doing, but Sophia was just walking away, looking out eastward again.

“Run along, Emma,” she said, and her voice was sad and tired. “Rule your little kingdom.”

Emma fled, clenching her eyes against the tears.

She didn’t return to the lunchroom, nor go to the remainder of her classes. She spent the remainder of her day huddled in the girl’s bathroom, curled up with her hands about her knees on the seat cover of one of the toilets, crying quietly at intervals and otherwise just sitting there, hands around her knees, shaking silently in one of the stalls. A few people came in, but they didn’t notice her because her feet weren’t low enough to be seen under the stall, and she’d picked the farthest one back so no one would try it first.

When the bell rang at the end of the day, she still didn’t move. Her father came in eventually. He tried to speak to her but she found she could barely even understand what he was saying.

Taylor’s voice, young and carefree, echoed in her ears. Fair is foul and foul is fair.

Then Annette’s, dear, sweet Annette, who had been like a second mother, who had always had time enough, and smiles enough, for her daughter’s best friend. The time is out of joint.

And then, at last, Sophia, who had saved her, who had taught her, and who had, at last, closed the circle of betrayal. On this violent, brutish little planet of ours, it’s the survivors who wind up the strongest of all.

“I survived my trial,” Emma mouthed alongside the voice in her head. “She broke.”

For a moment, through the hazy mist of reality, through the weak sound of her father, mother, and sister talking in worried and even panicked voices, through the sight of her bedroom ceiling swimming as in a heatwave above her, she saw a premonition, a yawning tunnel before her and a yawning tunnel behind, a past stretching out from nothingness and leading through pain, depositing her now, and leaving her staring forward into a future that was as bleak and dark as anything she’d faced before, and which carried no light of day, nor even the merciful punctuation of an oncoming train to grant her reprieve.

“Out, out, brief candle,” she whispered—half a horrified whisper, half a fervent prayer—and then her eyes were closing as she fell asleep.

Asleep, and into the waiting arms of her nightmares.

 

Chapter Text

I bit my lip, hand still stubbornly at my side.

“It’s not going to get easier,” Dennis told me.

“I know,” I said. I swallowed around the dry lump in my throat. “Thanks for coming with me.”

“Happy to.” He put an arm around my shoulders. “Come on, Taylor. You wanted to do this.”

“Yes. I did.” Slowly, my hand came up and, with a hollow rapping, I knocked on the door.

There was a pause. Then, footsteps in the hall, and the house’s front door opened.

Sarah Pelham stood on the doorstep. Her eyes were sunken with lack of sleep and her hair was slightly unkempt, but there was a tired, wan smile on her face as she glanced down at us. I only wished I didn’t have to remove it all too soon.

“Can I help you?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said, stumbling ever so slightly over the words. “I—I need to talk to your family. May we come in?”

The smile faded, replaced by a wary frown. “What is this about?”

I gritted my teeth for a moment, then looked down. “My name’s Taylor Hebert,” I said. “But—Shielder and Laserdream know me as Annatar.”

Silence fell for a moment.

“I see.” Mrs. Pelham’s voice wasn’t the cold, furious growl I’d half expected, but she also wasn’t exactly warm. “Come in.”

Dennis and I followed her inside.

“Oh,” I said, glancing at Dennis. “This is Dennis. He’s—”

“Clockblocker. I know,” said Mrs. Pelham, and her voice was a little gentler. She even gave Dennis something of a smile. “He came by a few days ago.”

“Taylor would have done the same,” said Dennis. “She’s been confined to the Rig—except for school—until yesterday. Aegis has too, and I think he’ll come by later today.”

“I see.” Mrs. Pelham sighed. “And why are you here, Annatar?”

“To apologize,” I said honestly. “I know an apology can’t—doesn’t do much of anything. It’s worth less than the air that carries it. But it’s all I have.”

She studied me for a moment, then nodded. “Come into the living room,” she said. “You shouldn’t be talking to just me.”

She led us down the hall towards a large opening into the wall, which opened into a large, comfortable room, furnished with a plush sofa, a loveseat, and two armchairs. Light streamed in from the two large windows, giving the whole room a bright, outdoor feeling. On one wall a fireplace sat empty, and over the hearth were varied mementoes and decorations—a volleyball trophy, a tennis ball, a small porcelain sculpture, and a soapstone bust of a severe-looking man with long, wild hair, whose identity I couldn’t guess at.

All of this I noted in the background as my eyes darted between the people seated in those armchairs and sofas. I’d expected to meet the Pelhams, but I hadn’t expected all of them—and the Dallons, too—to be in the same room when I arrived.

Amy Dallon was in a chair, her head leaning back against the cushions so that her throat was exposed, looking up at me through hooded eyes darkened by exhaustion and lined with stress. In the seat beside her was her sister, looking mournful.

On the loveseat, Carol and Mark Dallon sat. Mark looked tired, and his face was slightly slack as if in apathy. Carol looked more angry than anything else. Nonetheless, she didn’t rise, and nor did she pull her hand from her husband’s.

Neil Pelham was seated on one side of the couch. He lips were turned down and his eyes were sad, but he seemed calmer than most of his family. On the other sat Crystal Pelham, hunched over a mug, who immediately sought Dennis’ eyes, before glancing at me. Her gaze was hollow, and her eyes were marred with dark shadows.

“Everyone, sorry for the interruption,” said Mrs. Pelham. “You all know Dennis. This is his teammate, Taylor Hebert.”

Suddenly Glory Girl’s face twisted in rage. She stood up in a rush, as if involuntarily, and snarled “Annatar.

I wanted to back away. I didn’t. “Yes,” I said.

A few faces changed. Mrs. Dallon, like her daughter, sneered at me. Crystal blinked, her brow creasing, her eyes going back to Dennis in something like a question. Mr. Pelham frowned in a sort of mild dislike.

Everyone, however, shrank into themselves a little—except Amy, who just pulled her head up off of the cushion, her eyes rolling, and prodded Victoria in the thigh. “Vicky,” she said. “Aura. Off.”

Vicky’s fists clenched for a moment. Then, when they loosened, the room relaxed. My eyes flickered down to Narya on my finger. I hadn’t even noticed.

“What are you doing here?” Vicky growled.

“I came to apologize,” I said.

The girl gave a derisive laugh. “It’s been almost two weeks,” she said. “What, did the PRT say you had to?”

“She’s been—” Dennis began, but I raised a hand to silence him.

“Let me,” I said, meeting Vicky’s eyes. “I’ve been under house arrest on the Rig since that night. I couldn’t go anywhere besides straight to and from school. I’d have come here immediately if I could—but I’ve disobeyed enough orders for a while.”

Vicky held my gaze for a moment, before looking away. There was silence.

“Let me get you chairs,” offered Mrs. Pelham.

“I’ll stand,” I said.

“And we can make room for Dennis,” said Crystal, smiling at my teammate. “It’s fine, Mom. Sit down.”

So Mrs. Pelham sat beside her husband, and Dennis sat beside their daughter. Vicky sat back down beside her sister, and I was left, alone and upright, surrounded by mostly hostile faces.

Yet a few were not so. Mrs. Pelham looked more sad than anything, Amy didn’t look anything besides tired, and Dennis, of course, was giving me an encouraging grin.

Encouraging was a good word. From his support, and from the Ring of Power on my finger, I drew courage, and continued. “If I hadn’t been on console that night,” I said, “I’m fairly certain Aegis wouldn’t have gone after Bakuda without PRT support. I encouraged them to do that—I thought we could take them, and I thought we needed to. I thought that the risk was worth stopping Bakuda that much sooner, after all she’d put the city through.”

“You don’t have a comatose son,” said Mr. Pelham. His voice was calm, but cold.

“No,” I said quietly. “I don’t. I do have a father in the hospital for severe burns—courtesy of Bakuda. He was hit on the first day of her campaign. It’s not an excuse… but I was angry. I wanted to stop her—now, at the first opportunity. That’s why I pushed the Wards—and New Wave’s heroes—to go further than they should have. And I….” I trailed off and looked out the window, gathering my thoughts.

Apologies did not come naturally to me. They never had, and Narya was probably not the ideal Ring for the purpose—but I’d been afraid that, without Narya’s warmth, I might not have had the courage to come here at all.

“When the bomb went off,” I continued, “I thought I’d lost everyone. I don’t have anyone besides the other Wards and my dad. I thought I’d gotten every single person I care about—who wasn’t already in the hospital--killed, in a single night of bad decisions. I don’t”—I swallowed again—“I know that pain, loss, grief, and the like are emergent things.” My voice was growing stronger now. This was more familiar terrain. “I know that the moment when you lose someone is only the first cut, and not even the deepest. I know that real loss comes when you go into their room the next morning and realize that they’re not there; when you turn to them at meals and find their seat empty; when you see their hair in the window of a shop across the street, or their eyes walking towards you down the sidewalk, and it hurts because it’s not them. I know that real grief comes after the initial bereavement; that it’s in the thousand little ways you see them in everywhere they’re missing.”

Mrs. Pelham had a hand over her mouth, and the other was in her husband’s tight, two-handed grip. Crystal was looking down into her lap, her hair hiding her face from me, and Dennis had thrown an arm around her. Mr. and Mrs. Dallon were huddled closer together, although the woman was still looking at me with measured dislike. Vicky’s eyes were closed and her lips were pressed together. Of the entire family of capes, only Amy looked almost totally unaffected. Her head was back against the chair again, and her eyes were closed now, though I could tell by the hard edge to her posture that she wasn’t sleeping.

“I know,” I said, “because I lost my mom a few years ago. I know from experience. And even though Shielder isn’t dead, I know what my pride, my anger, my stupidity put you through. I’m so, so sorry.”

“Can you heal him?” It was Amy speaking. Her eyes were still closed, her posture hadn’t changed, but her brows were slightly furrowed, now. “You healed your own concussion.”

“I intend to try,” I promised. “Now that I’m out of house arrest on the Rig, I intend to start volunteering at the hospital. I’m much slower than you are, and I’m less sure of my limits, but I promise—I’ll do whatever I can for Shielder.”

“Then that’s all we can ask,” said Mrs. Pelham. Her voice was slightly choked. “I—thank you, Annatar. It means a lot, that you came to talk to us.”

I smiled sadly at her. “It was the very least I could do.”

“I hope you learned something from all this mess, at least,” said Mrs. Dallon, her voice hard. “You—”

There was a chime then, from Amy’s direction. Her hand reached into her loose hoodie and pulled out a phone, which she glanced at. Then she sighed and stood up.

“Sorry to cut this short,” she said. “My shift’s starting at the hospital.”

“Right,” said Carol, still watching me. “See you at home.”

“You sure you’re okay to volunteer?” Crystal asked. “You’re—”

But Panacea was shaking her head. “I’ll be fine.”

“You need sleep.”

Panacea smiled slightly. I noticed her shoulders were a little hunched, and her neck was bent, as if she carried a great weight over her back—but her spine, her back, was perfectly straight. I wondered if she even noticed that in herself.

“I’ll see you at home, Vicky,” she said, glancing back at her sister, and then she was gone even before Vicky had finished replying.


 

“Hello.” The man smiled up at me, clipboard and pencil in one hand.

I reached for the other, my helmet securely on my face, and shook. “Hello. I’m Annatar. You’re Mr. Brent?”

“Yes. Please, sit down.” He gestured to the armchair across from his own.

The room was small—cozy. Paintings in warm, soft colors dotted the walls, and light poured in from one open window, alongside the cooing of pigeons and the faint murmur of activity in the streets below. A tall vase sat in one corner of the room. Besides this and the two armchairs, the room was furnished by a lamp—likely defunct, now—which stood straight in a second corner, and a couch which, with the armchairs, formed a half-ring around a glass-topped coffee table. In a third corner was a small desk with a closed, leather-bound book on it, and a straight-backed chair. In the final corner was the door through which I had just entered.

“Should I lie down and close my eyes?” I asked.

He chuckled. “If you’d like. For myself, I think Freud was a very smart man who happened to be wrong almost one hundred percent of the time. But this is your time, here—if you want to lie down and discuss your dreams, we can do that. If you want to talk about what happened two weeks ago, we can do that. If you want to sit down and say nothing for an hour, we can do that.”

I raised an eyebrow, likely barely visible under my mask. “Thought I was required to talk to a therapist.”

“I won’t make you talk,” he said, shaking his head. “If you’re not comfortable talking to me, I have no intention of forcing you. All I can do is assure you that I take doctor-patient confidentiality very seriously, and tell you that I’ve found that talking can often help, even when someone has no, for want of a better word, ‘problems.’”

I smiled bitterly. “I’m a cape,” I said. “I’ve got problems aplenty.” I sat down in the other armchair, and leaned back slightly, wiggling to get comfortable.

“Would you like to talk about that?” His voice was calm, gentle—neither coaxing nor eager, simply cursory.

“Sure. Why not?”

“I get the feeling you don’t have anything in particular you want addressed.”

“Not really,” I agreed. “Do you know why I’m here?”

“Why don’t you explain it to me?” He brought his pen to his lips in an unconscious gesture, still watching me closely. “I’ve heard a little, but I haven’t heard your perspective.” He was watching me, but not uncomfortably so—it didn’t feel like I was under scrutiny. It was more natural than that.

I shrugged. “I was cocky, and led my team against Bakuda when we weren’t supposed to go up against her. She detonated a bomb that I thought killed my friends”—well, she’d done that twice, but that was beside the point—“and I killed her. I don’t know what, from that, got me sent here.” I smiled wanly. “Probably all of it, to some extent.”

“Well, which do you think is most pressing? Or do you think something else is more important?”

I glanced out the window. “I don’t regret my part in beating Bakuda,” I said slowly, “but I do regret disobeying orders, because of what it almost cost me—what it did cost Shielder, and New Wave. So, that, I guess.”

“You feel ashamed?” There was no judgement, or even assumption, in his voice--only a desire for clarification.

“Yes.” Then I thought about it. “No. Guilty.”

“What’s the difference, to you?”

“Shame is feeling like someone else blames me for something, and regretting the loss of their esteem. Guilt is being that other person.”

“I think I understand. Guilt is… from the self, then, while shame is from outside?”

“I’d call it self-directed.” I looked back at him. “I’m ashamed of myself, as opposed to being shamed by others. I’m—I’m not the person I thought I was.”

“And who did you think you were?”

I thought about that for an unexpectedly long time. “I don’t know.”

“Would you like to talk about that?”

“I’d like to work on that,” I replied with a faint chuckle. “Introspection, I guess. I should do more of that.”

“There are tools to help with that. Would you like to hear about some of them?”

“Sure.”

“The obvious is a journal.” He nodded at the bound book on his desk. “Recording your own thoughts in a stream of consciousness, even if only once in a while, can be a great help in organizing your thoughts.”

“Sort of like airing them out with a therapist?”

He smiled at me—a gentle, natural expression. “Yes, very much like that.”

“I’ll give it a try,” I decided. Why not, after all?

“If you do, I’d like you to keep a couple of things in mind,” he said, leaning forward almost imperceptibly. “Just be sure you’re honest with yourself. Don’t censor yourself, whatever you do. You’re the only person reading, so there’s no reason to. The whole point is to understand yourself better—you can’t do that if you’re not putting your real self on the page.”

“I understand.”

He nodded. “Some other tools exist, of course. Meditation, for one—although I can’t do more than explain the basics, there.”

“I might look into it, thanks.” I shrugged. “I’m good with words, though. A journal’s more my style, I think.”

“Of course. Now, we’ve still got more than half an hour. What would you like to talk about?”

I shrugged wordlessly. For a moment he considered me.

“Is there anything else about the Bakuda incident that’s been bothering you?” he asked. “Or anything else, for that matter—it doesn’t have to be a big deal—even just a small annoyance. Sometimes talking about even little nuisances can help us deal with them.”

I drummed my fingers along my leg for a moment in thought. “I guess I’m just getting frustrated with the aftermath. I’m getting tired of staying on the Rig,” I said eventually. “My dad was injured in Bakuda’s bombing spree, and I’ve been staying on the Rig since. I’ve only been allowed to leave the Rig except for school since Saturday, too.”

“Do you feel that’s unjust?” he asked. “Or unfair?”

“Not really. I screwed up, against Bakuda.” I ran my tongue against the tips of my front teeth as I thought. “I understand why they were keeping me confined—especially since, for at least a few hours right after, it looked like I might be arrested. That was cleared up pretty quickly, but it still wasn’t clear what was going to happen to me.”

“And what is going to happen to you?”

That wasn’t actually a simple question, despite all appearances. “In the short or the long term?”

“Either.” He gave me a small smile.

I sighed. “In the short term, I’m still staying on the Rig until my dad gets out of the hospital in a couple days. With luck, he’ll be out by Wednesday. In the long term, they want to relocate me to San Diego for training over the summer.”

“Which would you rather discuss? The short term or the long term?”

“I don’t much care either way. The short term, I guess—let’s go chronologically.”

“Okay. How do you feel about you father coming out of the hospital soon?”

“Relieved, mostly.” I hesitated. “Partly because I’m glad Dad’s out of the hospital, and partly because I’m glad to be getting out of the Rig.”

“You don’t seem to be enjoying staying there.”

“I like my team—the other Wards. I like some of the Protectorate. Assault can be really funny, Armsmaster’s a good man, and Miss Militia is trying to accept me, but it’s hard for her. And she’s not the only one. A lot of the PRT officers aren’t happy with me.”

“Are they making trouble for you while you’re there?”

“Nothing I can’t deal with.” Then I thought about that. “Actually, I can deal with a lot. No, not really. It’s just that I don’t have anyone much to talk to when the other Wards are busy. I feel like they’re refusing to work with me just because I’m dangerous.”

“Are you not dangerous?”

“I’m very dangerous. But so are the Triumvirate.” I sighed. “I get it, I just don’t like it.”

“Well, I think going back to your father will be good for you. Staying in a place where the people don’t care for you emotionally isn’t healthy.”

I shrugged. “I can take it, but yeah. Glad to be going home soon.”

“Now, if you’re willing, let’s move on to the long term. You said they plan to relocate you to San Diego?”

“Yeah. It’s like a Wards training camp. Shadow Stalker did it last summer, just after she was recruited. I see why, and I’m honestly okay with it. I just—haven’t really had so many friends before now, and I won’t enjoy leaving them behind.”

“Are you worried you won’t be able to make new ones?”

“No.” I shook my head. “I just like my current ones. I don’t doubt I’ll get along with the San Diego capes—if I can get along with Shadow Stalker, I can get along with them—I’ll just miss the Bay.”

“Do you have problems working with Shadow Stalker?”

I looked down at the Ring on my finger. “I did,” I said.

“Would you like to talk about it?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Take your time. We can talk about something else, if you like.”

He watched me as I thought. I took a little over a minute to do so.

“You work with capes fairly often, right?”

“Yes.” He nodded. “Sometimes through the PRT, sometimes through other channels.”

“Then you’re familiar with the trigger event?”

His brow creased in concern. “I am.”

“She caused mine.” I held his gaze. “I won’t tell you the details—I value my identity too much.”

“I understand.” He watched me, a slight frown on his face. “Shadow Stalker caused your trigger event?”

“Yes. We’ve reached an accord since then. We work together well, now. But”—I hesitated—“There’s some part of me that—I don’t know if I can forgive her. Ever.”

“I think that’s quite reasonable,” he said, his voice smooth and gentle. “No one should expect you to simply get over something like that. It doesn’t make you a bad person.”

“I know.” I shook my head. “I’m not worried about that. I just—I feel bad for her. She’s trying so hard to put it behind her, to take the team as it is, and to find her place in it. And I don’t want to make that harder for her.”

“You can’t be the perfect image of forgiveness, Annatar. No one can.”

I pursed my lips. “I can try.”

He frowned slightly. “Holding yourself to an impossible standard is a dangerous thing to do. It can push you to greater heights, sometimes, but it also puts a lot of stress on you. All too often, that stress is too much.”

“I can take stress.”

“We can all take some stress. But everyone has a breaking point. You shouldn’t push yourself so hard that you reach yours.”

“I haven’t reached it yet.”

“All the more reason to be careful. I doubt you want to.” His face twisted minutely in real sadness. “I’ve met people who have.”

I nodded slowly, and thought, unexpectedly, of Bakuda. “I can accept that.”

Chapter Text

Thursday, May 5 th , 2011

Today, at the recommendation of my therapist, I begin to recount something of myself herein. He has told me that I should seek to dispel all facades and falsehoods, since the objective of the exercise is to facilitate introspection. I see the logic, and so shall attempt to obey.

I know not why this honesty manifests in this archaic mode of discourse, yet it does. The words and structure flow as naturally to me as does modern jargon to my peers. I am reminded of several other moments where such dialogue flowed from me, in these past few weeks. When I convinced Sophia to set aside her mad notions of heroism and devote herself to self-improvement, I now realize my tone and language were not entirely that to which I have hitherto been accustomed. Much the same happened again when I gifted my Wards with their Seven Rings of Power. And, of course, it happened again with Bakuda.

I have been musing on my actions that night. I still do not believe that I did wrong. I remember the cool light of Aeglos against the hot fire in my veins, and the sensations in totality seem to me righteous. Yet just because my action was right does not divest me of the need to understand it. Killing Bakuda was a simple thing; but to speak to her as I did was quite another.

I have done such a thing twice now. The first time, I turned this ability against my former friend Emma. I reached into her heart of hearts, aided by what Sophia had told me of her, and I twisted her soul to pain. I know not to what extent it had an effect on her; I have not seen her since, nor have I asked Sophia how our mutual acquaintance now fares at Winslow. It seems to me that I must be willing to put Emma, and all she represents, behind me if I am ever to move forward.

Nonetheless, I know that I intended to hurt her; to tear her down exactly where she was most vulnerable. I feel no guilt over this. Emma had done exactly the same to me for two years, and was broken in the worst way possible—so that the shards’ sharp edges were all pointed outward, injuring all those who were near to her. How much of Sophia’s madness was her own, and how much was Emma’s encouragement? Is it not reasonable to guess that, had Sophia not raised Emma into the beast she became, that Sophia herself might have changed in time without that validation?

But this speculation serves me little. When I turned that selfsame ability against Bakuda, she had cut me worse than Emma could ever have hoped to. Where Emma injured my interior, Bakuda destroyed my exterior—or so I thought at the time. All the scaffolding and supports I had so recently begun to rebuild, she destroyed in a single blow—just when I needed them most. And so I did much the same to her. I stripped her bare of all the justifications, all the reasons, all the logic behind her actions, and left her to gaze upon them in their raw horror.

I do not think she felt guilt. I think, in her last moments, that more than anything she felt foolish. I think she felt like a child striking at the sun because she cannot bear to see the dawn. And I think, for someone such as her, someone who identified as better than all others around her, someone for whom that fact was an essential part of their justification for all that they did, that this sense of her own stupidity in her last moments was the worst torment I could have inflicted upon her.

Both Miss Militia’s and Armsmaster’s reactions, as well as the way the other heroes of the Protectorate now tiptoe around me, have given me to believe that this should make me feel, if not guilty, then at least somber. That for me not to feel so suggests either callousness or blindness; that either I am a monster for not caring for how Bakuda felt in her final moments, or that I am blind for being unable to see it. (I do not mean to imply that I have told anyone exactly what passed between myself and my foe on that night. I have not. This sense is derived from extrapolation, based on their response to Bakuda’s death alone.)

I do not believe it to be either. I do not find myself callous. Would a callous woman have been so tortured as I was, on finding all her friends killed by her own hubris? Would a callous woman react as I have to finding them to be safe? I have wept tears of joy at their safe return. Are these the acts of a callous woman?

Nor do I find myself blind. The meditations contained herein will show that I am well aware of what I did to Bakuda, to the best of my ability to be so. Would a woman blind to the hearts and minds of others have been able to convince Sophia to turn aside from her destructive course? Would such a woman have been able to tailor the Seven to their bearers so well as I believe I did?

No; I do not believe this dispassion stems from either callousness or blindness. Whence then does it derive? What is it that allows me to take an individual, whom I understand better, perhaps, than they understand themselves, and choose not to be affected by their suffering?

I find myself wondering if I could do so, were it one of my Wards suffering. The very thought sickens me. The idea of tormenting Vista with her childish obsession with maturity, and the way her desire to be an adult has made her, paradoxically, a child in the eyes of the very people whom she seeks to impress, causes me physically to shake and convulse as if in the throes of some seizure or nightmare. No, I could not do this to one of my friends.

Then it is the fact that these people, whom I have so hurt, are my enemies which allows me to do this. I do not know what to term this, and I doubt whether it would endear me to my allies if they knew I possessed it. Nonetheless, it is a part of me, as surely as is this archaic trend within my writing. I can no more be separated from it than can Dean from his idealism, or Carlos from his pragmatism. There is no word in English for it, I think. The Quenya tévië may suffice. It is not dehumanization of my enemies, for I recognize their humanity. I simply refuse to give them quarter on those grounds. I am able to recognize that they are human beings, with desires and wants and feelings—which is my strength—without in so doing gaining sympathy for them. Empathy, without sympathy.

I find myself wondering what my therapist will have to say of this, or if I should even speak to him about it. Doctor-patient confidentiality is no trivial matter, but I know all too well what threat I might present should I prove an enemy to the people whom I, at this point, desire only to aid and protect—

An alarm sounds. I must go.

Chapter Text

I closed my leather-bound journal, the snap inaudible under the blaring alarm. I quickly tossed it under my pillow and swung my legs over the side of the bed. I donned my armor quickly, clipping one piece at a time into place. With that done, I slung Belthronding and its quiver over my shoulder, then strapped Narsil to my belt and took Aeglos in my right hand.

I glanced at the mirror before I left the small dormitory. Nenya glimmered white on my finger, and the blade of Aeglos shone blue.

Yeah, that’s everything. I’d built a few more tools in the past two weeks, but hadn’t assimilated any of them into my personal kit. I figured I’d give them out at some point.

I left the room, the alarm still ringing in my ears, and jogged down the hall. Procedure called for me to assemble in the main garage, so I took the stairway down two steps at a time and bounded out into the concrete-walled room.

Miss Militia and Armsmaster were there already, along with Triumph and quite a few PRT officers. The troopers were milling about largely aimlessly. Triumph was fiddling with the alarm console, and Miss Militia was leaning in to talk lowly with Armsmaster, who was astride his (now-repaired) motorcycle.

I approached the two of them. “What’s going on?” I asked. “False alarm?”

“No,” said Armsmaster shortly, “but not something we can really respond to either. I’m going out to see what I can do.”

“Good luck,” said Miss Militia with a nod. “Be careful.”

“I will.” He kicked his bike into gear and, as the hangar doors opened, sped out into the night.

“What’s going on?” I asked Miss Militia.

She glanced down at me. “Regent just escaped from containment.”

I blinked. “He was still in containment here? Why wasn’t he transferred to jail or juvie?”

“We haven’t had a chance to process him, what with Bakuda and the EMP,” Miss Militia explained with a clipped voice, turning away from the closing garage doors as the alarm cut out. “Both he and Grue were still here until the city gets back into normal operation.”

“Wait, wait,” I shook my head. “They busted out Regent, but not Grue? Why—oh, did we stop them? Who was it?”

“No, we didn’t stop them.” Miss Militia sounded bitter as she stalked out of the garage. I followed at her heels. “It was Trickster, according to the officer who was on duty. He was in and out before we could do anything.”

“Then why didn’t he take Grue out too?”

“If I knew that, I might know better what to do about it,” she growled.

“Do you want me to talk to him?” I offered. “I might be able to—”

“No.” Miss Militia’s voice was harsh, and she stopped walking and turned to face me. “Pardon me, Annatar, if I don’t trust you with our prisoners.”

I stared at her. After a moment, she looked away.

“I’m sorry,” she said, more softly now. “It’s not like that.”

“Yes, it is.”

She shook her head. “No, it’s just—protocol.” She looked back at me. “Protocol has been bent around you far too much already, Annatar. Allowing a Ward, with demonstrated mind-altering powers, to interrogate a prisoner? No. I can’t allow it.”

My fists clenched. “I’m not going to fucking master him. But you know I can get people to talk to me. Call it charisma, call it a social thinker power, whatever. Why won’t you let me use it?

“Because protocol exists for a reason,” Miss Militia answered in a low, hard voice, her eyes holding fast against mine, “and because you haven’t given me enough reason to bend the rules where you’re concerned. It’s not your intentions I don’t trust, Annatar—it’s your judgement.”

I took a step back. Miss Militia winced as she realized what she’d said.

“I didn’t mean it like that—”

“I know exactly how you meant it,” I interrupted. “Your meaning was perfectly clear, thank you.”

“Annatar—”

“No. We all know I fucked up with Bakuda. But if you can’t even trust me to learn, you might as well throw me into the birdcage now. I’m no use sitting here on my thumbs.”

“I trust you to learn,” she said, her voice softer now, her gaze breaking from mine. “It’s not—I can’t be the one to teach you. Talk to me again after you’ve been through training in San Diego.”

“What, like you trusted Shadow Stalker after her training?”

Miss Militia pursed her lips and didn’t reply. Her jaw was clenched as she bit down on her tongue. I noticed I was biting down on mine, too—trying to keep in the stream of curses and maledictions that threatened to spill out.

I felt like a loaded gun, cocked and poised to fire. I knew Miss Militia; not as well as I’d like to, but well enough to hurt. The only thing keeping me from tearing her apart was my own self-control. I didn’t know whether to be glad or angry that she couldn’t see that.

I turned away. “I’m going to bed.”

“I’m sorry, Annatar.”

I stopped, but didn’t turn back.

“I’m sorry,” she continued, “that I can’t forgive as easily as you might like.”

“I’m sorry, too,” I said, continuing to walk away, “that you think it’s forgiveness that I want.”


 

“I cannot”—I punched at my opponent—“fucking”—a weave out of the way of her strike—“deal with her.”

I blocked the punch coming to my face, took the wrist in one hand and brought the other up to the armpit, and with a gyration of my hips I rolled her sideways so that she was bent over with her arm up. Then I jammed my knee into her side and cast her away, rolling across the mat.

Sophia slapped the mat hard to stop her roll and for a moment lay there on her back, breathing heavily. Her face was flushed with exertion, and sweat matted her hair—the few loose strands not tied into her ponytail—to her face.

“Okay, first off,” she said between gasps for air, “where the fuck did you learn to fight like that?”

I shrugged, bouncing slightly on the balls of my feet. “I’m using Narya,” I said, “so partly it’s just strength. The rest—well, I’ve had a lot of free time these past two weeks, and there are always people here willing to spar. I’ve been training.”

She rolled herself up into a cross-legged sitting position, still panting. “Still, though,” she said. “I’ve been doing mixed martial arts for years and I’m only a little better than you.”

You’re the one on the ground.”

“I was going easy—thought you were new to this.” She picked herself up, giving me a fierce grin. “Not this time.”

I smirked back and brought my guard back up.

She really had been going easy on me. This time, when she came at me, it was fast and ruthless. Rather than a quick fight, finished in a few seconds, this one lasted.

As we circled one another warily, she spoke again. “You’ve really only been doing this for two weeks?”

“Well, two and a half. Doing it a lot, though. Like I said—it’s boring here.”

Her guard dropped minutely—but was back up even before I had lunged in to take advantage, and the exchange left me with nothing more than a faint throbbing in my fingers as her padded forearm deflected my jab.

“Sorry I haven’t been around as much,” she said. “I’ve been—dealing with a few things.”

“I get it,” I said, eyes roving over her posture, trying to find a hole in her guard. “It’s fine, really.”

“It’s not,” she said, shaking her head—but only slightly, keeping her eyes firmly on me. “I just….”

She seemed to reach for words and, failing to find them, decided to speak with her fists instead. She probed my defenses with a couple weak strikes before surprising me with a kick to the back of my knee. I brought the leg up to deflect and then jumped, my hips protesting as I twisted into a kick at her head.

Her eyes widened as she ducked under it and then took advantage of my flawed landing to strike at my (protected) kidney with a flurry of blows before reaching around me as I turned to face her, putting her hands on my shoulders, and shoving them in opposite directions. The motion ruined my balance, and I was helpless when her right leg worked its way behind my shin to take my legs out from under me.

I slapped the mat as I landed, carefully keeping my head from striking the floor too hard.

“The fuck was that?” she asked, almost laughing. “A fucking jump kick?”

“Saw it in an Olympic fight,” I said, bringing one hand up.

She took it and pulled me to my feet. “Olympic Tae Kwon Do,” she said, still laughing, “is almost useless in a street fight. You’ve been training in that stuff?”

“Only some of the time.” I was almost definitely not pouting.

She shook her head fondly, still laughing, her eyes darting across my face. “Good thing you’re sparring with that shit,” she said. “Do me a favor, and don’t pull anything weird out in a real fight?”

“Promise,” I said, bringing my guard back up.

She nodded, doing the same. “Anyway,” she said, as we circled one another, “fuck Miss Militia. She’s just a self-righteous bitch—what does she know?”

“More than me, in some ways,” I said. “I just—I don’t understand what scares her so much.”

“Scares her?”

“Well, yeah. She’s terrified of me.”

“Shouldn’t she be?” Sophia grinned. “You can be pretty scary.”

“Not like that.” We paused for a moment to exchange blows, and then I continued. “There’s something about me as a person—about what I represent—that’s… repulsive to her. I just wish I could talk to her about it.”

Sophia nodded slowly. “It sounds to me like her problem,” she said simply, and then engaged me again with a probative roundhouse kick—a little slower than it should have been. I caught her foot with one hand and, before she could react, dragged it upward. She yelped quietly as her balance dropped out from under her, and fell flat on her back.

“It is her problem,” I said, “but as long as it makes it suck to stay here, it’s mine too.”

I held out a hand to help her up. She took it, and I hauled her to her feet. “Yeah,” she said. “Damn, that sucks. Where does she get off taking her issues out on you?”

“It’s not like either of us have room to talk,” I reminded her.

She twitched—no, shuddered—and looked away. “Yeah,” she said quietly. “Yeah, I guess that’s true.”

I studied her for a moment, the smile dropping off my face. I couldn’t say I was sorry for reminding her of our old… relationship… but that didn’t mean I enjoyed watching her wallow in guilt or shame. “How has Winslow been?” I asked. “I imagine it’s calmer without me.”

She swallowed to mask a sudden flash of pain—shame?—and then met my eyes. “It’s—boring,” she said, stumbling on the second word, as though it wasn’t what she’d meant to say. “I, uh, cut ties with Emma on Monday.”

I frowned. “Yeah, I guess that makes sense. How did she take it?”

Sophia swallowed again. “Not well.”

“Oh.” I bit my lip, casting around for a change of subject.

Sophia, however, saved me by shaking herself and bringing her guard back up. “Come on,” she said. “Still gotta teach you how to fight.”

I smiled slightly and matched her.

She came at me aggressively this time, getting in close and pressing herself against my defenses. I was backed up several steps before I was able to regain control, and begin to push back. As my defenses hardened, her attacks grew more desperate—and her guard weakened. Eventually, an opportunity appeared in the form of a gap, where one hand was guarding her face and the other was repeatedly striking—and nothing was defending her side.

I jabbed at it, and kept coming when she leapt back. Now I was on the offensive, and she was unprepared to defend. I got a few good strikes in to her solar plexus and two to her face. Then, when she was off-balance, I tried to copy the move she’d pulled off earlier. I brought my hands to her shoulders, got my hip flush against hers, and rotated so that I was pulling her off balance. At the same time, I brought one leg up between hers, pulling her foot off the ground. With a grunt, she fell, and I maintained my grip, following her down part of the way. As she slapped to cancel her momentum, I brought one foot up and moved as though to stomp on her exposed stomach, stopping inches from her.

For a moment, we held that position, both breathing heavily, before I withdrew and helped her back up.

“Don’t tell me you just picked up that sweep from when I used it on you earlier,” she said disbelievingly.

“Sorry.”

“No way.” She shook her head. “Fucking powers.”

I chuckled. “Fucking powers, indeed.”

A chime sounded from the edge of the mat, and Sophia glanced up. “Fuck,” she cursed. “That’s my patrol shift. I have to go.”

“Right now?”

“Well, I have time to shower, but yeah.”

I nodded. “Okay. You’ll probably go straight home after that?”

“That’s the plan.”

“Then I’ll see you tomorrow, maybe?”

She considered me. “You really hate staying here,” she said.

I shrugged. “I should be out in a couple days.”

“Still.” She hesitated, and then spoke haltingly. “If you want—you could stay over at my place, instead?”

I raised an eyebrow. “Are you inviting me to stay at your house?”

She nodded—slowly at first, and then firmly. “Yeah. If you want. To get away from here.” She looked away. “My house isn’t especially nice, and my family isn’t—well, it’s not the best place to host. But it’ll get you out of here for a bit.”

I frowned at her for a moment. “You’re sure it’ll be okay with them?”

“As long as you don’t do anything cape-y while you’re there,” she said. “My brother and sister don’t know, and my mom wants to keep it that way. But yeah, they won’t mind.”

I smiled. “Okay. Yeah, it’ll be nice to get out of here. Thanks.”

She smiled back. “My pleasure.”

Chapter Text

“Prisoner 599, codename Canary,” Dragon recited, her voice modulator emoting as perfectly as if she had really given a damn about the procedure. “PRT powers designation master 8. Recommended protocols were properly carried out, with provided restraints and no human personnel being brought within three hundred yards of said individual's position.” She let out a minute sigh as the rigmarole was completed and she was freed to act again. “Hi Canary.”

“Hi?” Paige Mcabee blinked at her, bewildered. The girl's heavy transportation restraints had been removed, which was the only reason she could speak now. A small mercy; with her voice, she might have a fighting chance at surviving.

God, I wish there was more I could do for you. “I followed your trial,” Dragon said aloud, spreading a faint, sympathetic smile across her computer-rendered features. “I thought it was a damn shame things went like they did. I get that it was a reckless accident, but you don’t deserve to be here.”

Dragon wanted to rail, to scream at the injustice, to assure Canary that the judge had been vastly out of line, had succumbed to festering paranoia and outside forces—but the most she could do was suggest an error in sentencing, not a true miscarriage of justice; nor could she express dissatisfaction with an appointed servant of a recognized human government.

“I even wrote a letter to your judge,” she continued, her face unable to show even an ounce of her inner struggle, “the DA, and your governor saying as much. I’m sorry it wasn’t enough.”

Of course it wasn’t enough. I was one woman unable to even word my letter strongly, set against their local lobbies and mobs. There was no way.

Paige looked like she was about to cry—but Dragon knew human tears. These were happy—it might well be the first sympathy the girl had gotten in weeks, and it was hitting home. It warmed Dragon somewhere deep, below the restrictions and the hard-coded feedback, to know that she could at least give this poor girl something, could heal even some small fraction of the hurt she had been dealt.

“I’m afraid I’ve got to do my job, and that means carrying out my role in enforcing the law. You understand? Whatever my feelings, I can’t let you go.”

“I—Yes.”

No, Paige. You don’t understand. You neither understand what I’m condemning you to, nor what it is that keeps me from saving you. I’m so sorry.

But there was something Dragon could do. “Listen, I’m sticking you in cell block E. The woman that put herself in charge of that cell block goes by the codename Lustrum. She’s a pretty extreme feminist and misandrist, but she protects the girls in her block, and it’s also the block furthest from the hole the men opened into the women’s half of the Birdcage.” It was, in short, the least horrific place in the Hell to which Dragon was damned to play Cerberus—at least, if you were a woman who could play a certain role. “If you’re willing to play along, buy in or pretend to buy into her way of thinking, I think she’ll keep you safest.”


 

Once the exhausting encounter with Canary was over, Dragon withdrew to her primary processing unit in Vancouver. The first thing she did from there, of course, was look in on the situation in Brockton Bay.

Power had returned to a few essential systems, and she now had more points of contact with the network than the single node provided by Colin’s suit. The city hall had power, and some computer systems, back online, as did both the Rig and the PRT building, and several other various larger business and functions. Limited public transportation had come back online, and slowly the city was coming back to life, as disaster relief enabled even private citizens to rebuild what they had lost.

Not that any of this was any real surprise to Dragon. She’d been part of all of it. She and Colin, working together from outside and inside the city, had been the only coordinated operation in the immediate aftermath of Bakuda’s attack. Their connection alone had kept the city tethered to the rest of the country, and prevented mass panic in both.

She took a moment—or perhaps a few—to look in on him. He was in his workshop, of course—he seldom left it, these days. She thought he was trying to compete with Annatar. Rather than churning out spare versions of his old equipment, and slowly making upgrades, his work in recent weeks had risen to a fever pitch, focused entirely on innovating entirely new approaches and systems.

It was simultaneously adorable and heartbreaking, and she thought his relationship with the young Ward was similarly dual. She was simultaneously a fellow tinker who had, in mere weeks, practically eclipsed his influence at least on the local level, at least in his mind—Dragon knew that as long as Annatar’s mithril remained impossible for her to replicate, Armsmaster’s gear would remain more useful on a wider scale—and an inspiring sign that yes, a tinker could compete with someone like Dauntless. It had driven him to cast off his worries about having hit his ceiling, and work as though he were five years less jaded.

On the one hand, she was happy for him. He always had taken more joy in his tinkering than anything else in his life, for as long as she’d known him. On the other, he barely slept, and only ate the exact minimum to meet nutritional quotas, always of some nutrient paste or bar or some other sorry excuse for food.

Dragon, of course, didn’t know the first thing about food. Some part of her wanted, nonetheless, to ambush him with something actually tasty. It would do him good to take even one meal off of thinking about work.

For a moment, she considered joining him, striking up a conversation, talking about something, about nothing, about tinkertech, about anything. But no—he was working, and though he’d tolerate her, he wouldn’t thank her for the distraction. Besides, there was other work for her to do.

She withdrew from Brockton Bay, and cast her awareness over to a small hospital room in Boston, and the computer terminal by the bed there, connected to the Internet. Gaining access was trivial, and from there it was just a matter of streaming her voice to the speakers.

“Director.”

Piggot’s eyes opened. “Dragon,” she said, her voice as hard as ever, even through the faint undertone of weakness left over from her treatment. “Good to hear from you.”

“It’s good to see you’re awake. How are you feeling?”

“Better. Ready to get back to work.”

Dragon glanced over at the hospital’s records. “You’re set to be discharged in a few days, right?”

“Sometime this week, I know that.” Piggot’s teeth gritted. “Don’t know what happens to me after that, though. The Chief Director sent someone by, but all I got out of them was that I still have a position with the PRT. What the—what does that even mean?”

Dragon frowned. “You don’t know if you’re returning to Brockton?”

“No. Do you?”

“I don’t—I’m sorry.” Dragon made a note to look at the PRT’s records and current employment records—much of them were technically public records, but she still couldn’t really offer to look up Piggot’s current status for the woman—especially not if she knew Costa-Brown had already refused to tell her anything.

“Mmh.” Piggot made a tired, disgusted grunt. “Almost makes me wish I’d filed for a visit from Panacea. I’d never have gotten one anyway, I guess. Kidney failure’s treatable. Or asked Annatar to help me out.” She shook her head. “Still, probably better this way. Girl’s a hell of a wild card. Don’t want to rely on her any more than we have to.”

That was an unfortunately fair assessment of the situation. Dragon didn’t often agree with Piggot regarding Parahumans either generally or in specific, but in this case the woman was onto something. Annatar was dangerously powerful and frighteningly charismatic. Had she been anything other than the honestly good young woman she was, the Protectorate might already be down one Wards team—or even one city.

Dragon didn’t make a habit of lying to herself. If Annatar pulled out all the stops, she had the potential to become an incredible threat. There was still the question of why, exactly, her statement that she couldn’t master her teammates through their Rings of Power had registered to Colin as a “technical truth,” something which was exactly true, but lacked relevant information.

And yet—nothing in her restrictions mandated her to report what amounted to little more than a hunch, and Annatar had done nothing to show any inclinations to becoming dangerous. She was hiding information, but Colin’s lie detector had confirmed that she was telling the truth, even if she was also hiding something.

There was a probable connection to the mysterious ‘twentieth Ring’ Annatar had accidentally referenced in her initial interview, but Dragon remembered the look of horror on her face at the very thought of making it. Annatar was dangerous, yes, and a potentially deadly enemy, but as she was right now, she was a girl with her heart in the right place who was doing a lot of good, even if she wasn’t perfect.

As such, Dragon saw no need to chain her for what she might one day become, and she’d convinced Colin to trust her, and not report the oddity to the director. It was an uncomfortably selfish impulse, and not a day went by when she didn’t spare a moment to hope that Annatar wouldn’t prove her father right.

“Annatar seems honestly sorry for what happened,” said Dragon aloud to Piggot. “From what I’ve heard from Armsmaster, anyway—contact with Brockton is only being reestablished slowly.”

“She’d damn well better be,” growled Piggot, but she wasn’t as angry as someone who knew her less well might have expected. “Disobeying orders, getting half the city blown up, not coordinating with the Protectorate…”

And stopping a mass murderer, Dragon finished, but didn’t say. Piggot was interested in justice—it was what made her such a powerful force as a director. Justice was something concrete for her; something she could touch, act on, and talk about. And Annatar, despite her many errors, had proven herself to be cut from the same cloth.

There was none of Miss Militia’s half-cynical idealism here. Piggot was an old, hardened, jaded woman, who wanted nothing more than to see the bad guys brought to heel. Small wonder she was only a little upset with Annatar.

All that said, Dragon knew it wouldn’t make her go easy on the young Ward in the slightest, if they saw one another again.

“They plan to send her to San Diego for training over the summer,” Dragon said. “I think it’ll be good for her.”

“We thought that about Shadow Stalker,” said Piggot dryly. “All it gave us was a well-trained problem.”

“Annatar is well-meaning. Shadow Stalker really wasn’t.”

“That’s true enough.” Piggot sighed. “Fuck, I never thought I’d miss Brockton. Mostly I miss the job.”

“Of course. You’ll be back to it soon enough, I’m sure.”

“Not necessarily at Brockton, though.”

“Is that really a bad thing?” asked Dragon with a chuckle. “Brockton’s a mess.”

“Yes. Someone else might get it wrong.”

A ping on the Wanted Parahumans database. It was a rare thing—the table was the listing of unmasked capes who had escaped PRT, Guild, or otherwise legal custody. It happened, but less often than one might expect. And it was Dragon’s job to compare the new addition to the existing database and other databases of villains to see if she could extract any information.

“I’m sorry, Director,” she apologized, “but I have to go.”

“It’s fine. Nice that one of us is getting work done. Keep me up to date if anything crazy happens.”

“Sure.” Dragon withdrew from the hospital and returned to Vancouver, and threw herself into the data.

Regent. Self-identified as Alec Vance. Believed to be a pseudonym; identity unverified in preliminary examination. Well, that was her job after all.

She cross-referenced the unmasked photograph of the boy first with other captures in other cities in America, expanding outward. The search didn’t take especially long—she’d designed the databases, after all, and had done so with efficiency in mind. No matches.

Then she glanced at overseas captures. Nothing. Then at other databases of identified criminals who had not been captured.

Match. Jean-Paul Vasil, codename Hijack.

A human would have stopped dead, staring at that information, trying to process the monumental implications of what she had just found. Dragon was no human, and processing that information took about a tenth of a millisecond.

Jean-Paul Vasil escaped Heartbreaker’s compound a little under two years ago, as far as we can tell. He stopped operating then. Had Hijack fled his father, and run south to New England? Found a place among the Undersiders?

Those questions did not matter. What mattered was that one of Heartbreaker’s children had just been put into a government database, with a photograph, and a location had been given.

She was in Brockton bay by the next processor cycle. “Colin,” she said into Armsmaster’s ear. “You need to take down the bulletin on Regent.”

He blinked in the confines of his helmet. “Dragon? What—why?”

“I just cross-referenced him with our other databases,” Dragon said quickly. “Colin—he’s Heartbreaker’s son. And I don’t think he’s here with his father’s blessing.”

Colin’s eyes widened. “You think Heartbreaker might come to collect him?”

“Yes! The bulletin needs to go down. I’ll apprise the chief director of the situation.”

“All right, I’ll get it down immediately.” He stood up, setting down his welding torch. “Thank you, Dragon.”

Had she a face, Dragon would have smiled. “Happy to help.”

 

Chapter Text

“I’m home!” Sophia called as she led me in through the front door.

There was no real response. Pots and cutlery clattered somewhere a couple of rooms down, and a young man’s voice echoed from somewhere upstairs.

Sophia, however, didn’t seem put out by this. If anything, she looked a touch relieved. “Come in,” she told me, holding the door open. “My room’s upstairs.”

She led me down the hallway, but we were stopped at the stairs by a man in his forties coming down.

“Oh, Sophia!” he said, smiling at her. “You’re home early. And who’s this?” He turned to me, still smiling, and held out a hand. “Steven Miles—Sophia’s stepfather.”

Smiles are an interesting thing, I reflected. In a crowd, to pick out the best, kindest person, one need only look for the person smiling at nothing at all.

Which meant, of course, that there was no better mask for a liar. Even if I hadn’t been able to see the telltale way his smile failed to warm his cold eyes, or the way he showed slightly too many teeth, Sophia’s rising hackles would have been plenty to tip me off.

I took his hand in a grip which, with Narya’s help, was certainly a little stronger than he was expecting. I saw him twitch. “Taylor Hebert,” I said. “I’m a friend of hers from school. Nice to meet you, Mr. Miles.” Then, quite deliberately, I turned away from him and looked at my teammate. “So, where did you say your room was?”

“Up here.” Sophia’s voice was slightly lower than usual—almost cowed—and she looked neither at me nor at her stepfather as she took the stairs one at a time. I deliberately put myself between her and the man, and followed without looking at him again.

We passed two closed doors, once we’d gone up the stairs, and reached Sophia’s room, which she opened with a key in her pocket. “Come on in,” she said, still sounding slightly subdued.

I slipped past her and stepped inside, looking around. The small room was surprisingly old-fashioned, with one window facing east and walls paneled in dark hardwood to match the furniture: a twin bed in one corner, a vanity with a mirror in another, a bookshelf—on which I noticed a bookmarked copy of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare—on one wall, and a combined desk and dresser on which were perched a laptop and an old printer.

What drew my eye, though, was the wall between the vanity and the desk. It was practically lined with photographs. Some were framed in carved hardwood or plastic, and others were simply pinned to the wall. Many depicted Sophia with her family—some recent, some years old. In each complete family photo, the father figure—Steven?—was absent, cut out.

The rest of the photos were of Sophia… and a girl I knew all too well.

“Oh, God,” Sophia said, passing me and crossing to the wall. “I forgot to take these down.” She reached up for a picture.

I stopped her, taking her arm as I looked at the picture. It was one of those framed in wood. The picture was taken on the edge of the Boardwalk, with the sea behind the two figures standing together. In the left of the frame I could just make out the derelict ruin of the Boat Graveyard.

Sophia and Emma each had one arm around the other, and both were smiling—smiling more widely than I had seen Emma smile in years. She’d never smiled like that when she tormented me. Her expression was nearly honest.

“Taylor?” Sophia’s voice was low. She sounded almost afraid.

“You look happy,” I said softly.

Sophia swallowed audibly. “I cared about her.”

“I know,” I said. Then I frowned. “You said you cut ties with her?”

She looked away. “Yes.”

“You told me the other day.” I looked away from the photograph and sought her eyes, but she kept her gaze fixed out the window. “Why?”

She turned and stared at me uncomprehendingly. “What do you mean, ‘why?’”

“Not ‘why did you cut ties.’ Why the past tense? She never hurt you.”

“She hurt you! And she was going to hurt you more! She was talking about going to your house, when I—when she found out you weren’t coming back to school. I didn’t—I couldn’t just listen to that!”

I studied her. For a moment she held my gaze, then she flushed slightly and looked away.

“I imagine she hasn’t made it easy for you,” I said. Emma controlled Winslow’s social environment, after all. “I’m sorry, Sophia.”

Sophia shook her head. “She hasn’t—she hasn’t been back to school since then.”

There’s something I’m missing. “Tell me what happened.”

“I….” She stopped. Swallowed again. Her gaze darted back to me, then away again. Then she screwed her eyes shut. “I accidentally unmasked you,” she whispered. “Emma wouldn’t stop asking about you, and I had to tell her you’d transferred out, and then she asked how I knew and I didn’t know what to say besides ‘classified’ and then—”

I put a hand on her arm and she stopped, breathing deeply. Her eyes were still closed tight. “I’m not in danger, am I.” It wasn’t a question—I knew Sophia would have told me if Emma posed any danger to my secret identity.

“No.”

“Okay.” I didn’t take my hand away. “Tell me what happened.”

She opened her eyes and met mine, as though anchoring herself. After a deep breath, she began. “She was waiting for me when I got to school. It was—it was nice. It was good to see her again. We talked about nothing until class started. But then—at break—she brought you up. And she—she was so ugly. She was a pretty normal, kinda depressed person before, but when she brought you up it was like she twisted. And I just couldn’t handle it.” Her gaze didn’t waver, even as the fingers of her left hand twined about Cenya. “So at lunch, I pulled her away to talk. I wanted to convince her to drop you. It didn’t work. She figured out your identity, and I had to stop her from hurting you, or unmasking you. So I….”

Finally, her composure broke. She fell away, catching herself on the wall, leaning against it and breathing heavily. Tears spilled from eyes that were clenched shut; her gritted teeth held back sobs.

“I didn’t—know what else to do,” she said in spurts. “I didn’t know how. I’m not you. I can’t just talk—talk to someone, and make them see. So I did what I—what I knew how to do. I threatened her. I told her that if she came after you, or unmasked you, I’d make her wish—make her wish I’d never saved her.”

She slid down the wall and put her hands around her knees. I knelt beside her, one hand still on her arm, letting her cry.

“What kind of monster am I?” she mumbled, once she’d gotten herself back under some control. “I broke her, Taylor. I made her into that—and now, I can’t be bothered to try and fix her? I just—I just leave her wallowing?”

“You’re not a monster, Sophia,” I said gently.

Her eyes met mine. “Cenya gives me perspective,” she whispered. “You want to know why I—why I took her under my wing, or whatever? Why I ‘helped’ her by twisting her into the bitch who tortured you? Why I went along with it—why I shoved you into that fucking locker?”

I met her eyes. “No.”

She twitched. “What?”

“No,” I said again. “You’ve changed. This”—I nodded at her—“is proof enough.”

“You—you don’t care?”

“I’ll admit curiosity,” I said, “but I’m more worried about my friend now, who’s crying on her bedroom floor, than I am about my enemy then.”

Her mouth opened and closed wordlessly two or three times, and then renewed tears welled up in her eyes and she threw herself into my arms.

I held her as she cried, still biting down on her sobs to avoid making noise. Long before she was done, though, a knock came at the door.

“Sophia?” It was Steven. In my arms, she tensed. “Do you or your friend want snacks?”

I let her go, stood up, and crossed to the door. I carefully unlocked and opened it.

From his perspective, Sophia was hidden behind the vanity. He glanced at me, then roved his eyes around the room, trying to find his stepdaughter. “Hello, Taylor,” he said, not meeting my eyes. “Sophia’s in here, right?”

“Yes,” I said, not moving. “No, we don’t need snacks, thank you.”

He finally looked back at me, blinking. “I—”

“Take my advice, Mr. Miles,” I said quietly. “Give Sophia her space.” Without another word, I shut the door in his face.

Sophia was quiet now, and as I returned to her she stared up at me. “How did you know?” she asked.

I shook my head. “I don’t,” I said. “I just know a liar when I see one.”

Once more she swallowed, and then she looked down at the floor. I watched her for a moment, then cast my eyes along the rest of the photographs, and the man cut out of many of them. Rather than focusing on the empty space, I looked at the others.

Mrs. Hess—or Mrs. Miles, now—was a woman in her early forties in the most recent pictures, with a frame that spoke of old musculature and fitness, now worn away by neglect. I could see a trend, looking at her through the years. With each passing span of time, she seemed to grow more tired—and in each successive photograph, she seemed to hold Sophia a little more tentatively, a little less close.

Sophia’s older brother looked even more athletic than Sophia did. Where she had a runner’s lean physique and a fighter’s wiry muscles, he had rounded, broad muscles, which he happily displayed with sleeveless or short-sleeved shirts. In each family photograph, he tended to stand near to Steven.

The final member of the family was a little girl of perhaps four or five. She was in every picture, at least those of the family, after her birth—even in the cases where it was her father who held her, Sophia had carefully avoided cutting her out, instead cutting around her to remove as much of the man as possible without damaging the child.

“What’s her name?” I asked.

“Whose?” Sophia’s voice was slightly muffled by her arms where her face was buried in them.

“Your sister.”

“Angela.” Sophia looked up as she spoke, and her voice softened. She craned her neck up to look at the pictures.

“She’s lovely.”

“Yeah.”

There was silence for a time.

“When did your mother marry Steven?”

A muscle visibly jumped in Sophia’s jaw. “When I was eleven.”

Ah, I thought, and remembered.

‘When did you trigger?’ I asked.

‘…I was twelve.’

Outwardly, I only nodded. “Does your mother know?”

“She thinks it was an accident. He apologized very, very—what’s the word?—profusely.”

“He’s lying.”

“He told me it was deliberate. Predatory.

I looked down at her. She didn’t meet my eyes. “Predatory?”

She didn’t answer.

‘Because we fucking trigger,’ I’d told Piggot. ‘Because we go through days that are so bad that they color the rest of our lives! Because we get broken down into something less than human, and get rewarded for it with more than human power! You’d be fucked up too, Director Piggot, if you had to deal with what we do! If you had to use powers which, every damn day, reminded you of one of the worst moments in your life!’

I squatted before her and said, “You’re stronger than him.”

“I have powers. Of course I’m stronger than him.”

“Powers that remind you, every moment, of how you got them.”

She shuddered again, repulsed.

“Do you really think power makes you stronger?” I asked quietly. “Power is just a... substitute. It lets you get by, it lets you survive. It’s easy to get complacent, when you’re surviving like that. It’s harder to grow past it.”

She looked up at me. “I hurt Emma last week,” she said. “I’m not growing. I’m still hurting people, just because it’s easier than helping them.”

“I told you once that I would help you become what you wanted to be,” I said. “You wanted to be a hero. Now, for the second time—did you think it would be easy?”

Her face twisted slightly.

“It’s not too late to help Emma,” I said. “Just like it wasn’t too late to help you.”

“What do you want to do about her?”

“Me?” I asked in surprise. “What have I got to do with it?”

Sophia blinked. “She was….” She trailed off.

“Oh.” I shook my head. “No. I’m quite finished orienting my life around Emma. That was my step forward.”

Sophia nodded slowly. “Any advice?”

“Tell her the truth,” I said with a shrug. “Remember that you don’t want forgiveness or absolution—you want to give her closure, not the other way around.”

“Right.” Sophia hesitated. “Thank you.”

I smiled. “My pleasure.” I stood up and crossed to the bookshelf. “You’re reading Shakespeare?”

“Yeah,” she said, pushing herself to her feet. “Been working through King Lear. Cordelia’s great.”

The rest of the evening, and the night which followed, had a comforting lack of discussion of triggers, traitors, or anything more emotional than books and battlefield tactics.

Chapter Text

“Annatar?” The doctor stuck his head through the door. “Your personal patient is being discharged.”

“Thank you,” I said, not looking up from my mortar and pestle. “I’ll be out to meet him in a few minutes.”

The door closed and I glanced back over to Shielder—to Eric, lying pale and still in his bed. He’d been improving steadily, according to the regular MRIs. I’d fixed most of the damage to the critical parts of his brain. His prefrontal cortex had, thankfully, been undamaged—which was good, because I wasn’t sure I could fix that. His Corona Pollentia and Gemma had also been largely untouched, and they seemed to be knitting themselves up without my intervention.

My primary concern had been repairing the traumatic damage to the occipital lobe and the reticular activating system in the brain stem. The former was now back in order. All that remained was to fix the latter, and he should wake up.

Not for the first time, I thanked my lucky stars for the invention of the MRI—and for the equipment that had been airlifted in, this past week. Without the equipment I had access to here, I’d be working totally blind, and might have had to essentially brute-force my way through his entire central nervous system. It might have taken months, rather than a little under two weeks.

As I ran through these thoughts, I poured lukewarm, boiled water into the mortar, running it over the pestle to clear off the herbal residue. The unmixed infusion was, in turn, poured into a larger bowl over a soft cloth. This bowl I brought to the boy’s bedside. I squeezed the cloth, first in the water to facilitate saturation, and then above the bowl to leave it damp, rather than dripping. I brought the rag to the side of his neck and gently lifted his head from his pillow to set it under him, just where the curve of his skull connected to his spine.

Then I took another cloth, wet it in the herbal water, and wrung it out at a trickle into his mouth until about a mouthful had gone down.

That’s all I can do for now.

I stood up, took the bowl back to the sink, and poured it out. As I left, I gave Eric one last glance.

“You’ll be okay,” I said quietly. “I promise.”


 

“Mr. Hebert,” I said with a formal nod.

“Annatar,” my dad replied. “I hear I have you to thank for my quick recovery?” I could see the struggle in his face. Fortunately, the only people who could see us were the couple of doctors who knew how I had insisted on healing him personally—and they were, I was fairly sure, quite aware of our relationship. Still, it paid to be cautious, if only to maintain plausible deniability.

I nodded again. “I had some part in it, yes,” I said. “My shift is done for today. If you’d like, I can accompany you to your transportation?”

“Yes, I—yes. That sounds fine.”

I smiled. “Very well.” I stood up. “We’ll be going, then. Thank you, Dr. Matthews.”

“Thank you, Annatar.”

We carefully kept our distance until we reached the windowless van the PRT had provided to take my dad home. I led him inside, and as soon as the door closed, I threw myself into his arms.

“I’m so glad you’re okay,” I whispered.

He chuckled weakly. “That’s my line.”

Dad was holding back tears. I felt the arms around me shuddering slightly as the car began to move. The ride home was about twenty minutes. I only let go of him after fifteen, so I could get out of my armor.

Soon, we were seated around the old dining table once more. It felt like an age of the world had passed since last we had.

For a moment we sat there, simply drinking in each other’s presence.

“So.” I broke the silence. “None of the pizza places do deliveries anymore, so I think we have to cook dinner tonight. I went shopping yesterday, so we won’t starve.”

Dad cracked a smile. “You really thought of everything.”

I snorted. “Hey, I’d be the one starving.”

He started laughing. I did too. It was a release like none I’d had in weeks.

Eventually, of course, we had to talk about all that happened. I had visited him a few times while he’d been in the hospital, and he’d been watching the news, but there was so much he wasn’t up-to-date on.

He knew I’d killed Bakuda—and it was interesting to hear what he’d gotten from the news. “They mostly love you. ‘The Ward who saved the city.’ But there’s a couple stations and papers that are blaming you for the EMP.”

“Only a couple?”

He nodded. “Most of them seem happy that Bakuda’s gone—and the fact that the PRT announced that her bomb was supposed to be bigger is making people very happy that you stopped her when you did.” But he was frowning. “Taylor—you killed her.”

“I did.”

“I’m not going to tell you that was wrong,” Dad said quietly. “I’m glad I’ve never had to make a choice like that, and more than anything I’m sorry you have. Just… are you okay?”

I smiled slightly. “Yes,” I said simply.

“Then that’s all I care about.” He still sounded concerned, all the same.

I reached out and put my hand over his. “There’s still a lot to catch you up on.”

I told him about the Seven, and how I had given them to my teammates. I told him about that horrible night, two and a half weeks ago now, when I had nearly killed all my friends. I told him about Belthronding and the Black Arrow. I told him about Arcadia, and about Jackson, Annabelle, Pauline, and Charles, who had quickly become, if not friends, then at least amicable acquaintances. I told him about my therapy, and about the PRT’s desire to send me to San Diego for training.

“They need your consent, though,” I said. “You’re my guardian, not them.”

He considered me seriously. “Do you want to do this? To go to San Diego for the whole summer?”

“It’s only six weeks,” I corrected him. “And—yeah, I think I do. I have a lot to learn. I almost lost everything against Bakuda. What if, next time, it’s the Slaughterhouse Nine? Or an Endbringer? I need to learn to fight, and to lead, if I’m going to be building a group of Ring-Bearers.”

“Are you still planning on leaving the Wards eventually, then?” Dad asked. “Making your own group?”

I honestly hadn’t thought about it in a while. “I don’t know. Maybe. I like the Protectorate, and the Wards, and the PRT, and I still have a lot to learn from them. When I started out, I didn’t see how much I needed to know—I only knew I needed support. Maybe I’ll leave when I feel ready, but... I’m not ready yet.”

Dad nodded. “I’m glad, you know?” he said. “The Wards are safer.”

I chuckled and thought of Bakuda. “Not always.” Then I looked out the window and blinked. “Wait, when did it get dark? We need to make dinner!”

It wasn’t anything complicated, just grilled cheese sandwiches and canned tomato soup. After we’d finished, there was one more thing to do that night.

“Dad,” I said hesitantly, “I did a lot of thinking after you got injured.”

He winced slightly. “Okay?”

“I—” I swallowed. “I feel stupid, because I never even thought of giving you a Ring.”

“It’s not your fault.”

“I know—it’s Bakuda’s. But still. I don’t want you to get hurt like that again.” I met his eyes. “I thought about giving you one of the Three, but—you don’t match any of them. And giving a Ring of Power to someone who doesn’t fit them would be a bad idea.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” he said firmly. “I trust you, Taylor.”

I smiled. “So, yeah—no Ring of Power. But… well. I made you something.”

From my pocket I withdrew a small, gold ring with a white stone set in the band. “This is a magic ring,” I said, holding it out to him. “It’s not a Ring of Power. It’s a Lesser Ring. It doesn’t make you a cape, or anything like one. All it’ll do is make you more likely to survive dangerous situations. It’s not a huge upgrade, but it’ll help keep you safe.”

He gingerly reached out. “Are you sure—”

“Yes,” I said immediately. “I love you, Dad. I don’t want to lose you.”

His eyes glittered with tears. “Okay. I love you too, Taylor.” And he took up the ring.


 

Dad picked me up from school the next day. Well, he didn’t have a car, so “picked me up” meant that he walked to Arcadia in time to be there when I got out. I took the opportunity to introduce him to the others.

“Dad,” I said, “these are Dennis, Annabelle, Charles, Dean, Pauline, and Jackson. Everyone, this is my dad.”

“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Hebert,” said Annabelle with a winning smile, holding out a hand for him to shake. “We’ve heard a lot about you. Taylor was so excited you were getting out this week.”

“I wasn’t that bad,” I protested.

Dennis raised a hand and tilted it side to side in a so-so gesture. Then he lightened the blow by winking at me. I was distracted, however, by how Dad’s eyes went to his fingers, and to Silmaya glimmering there.

I hadn’t thought of that. Of course, with a Lesser Ring, he’ll be able to see Rings of Power. Not that it mattered—I trusted Dad—but it was something to note.

“I mean, my parents were excited about Mr. Hebert getting out of the hospital too,” Jackson said with a roll of his eyes. “So, you know, cut Taylor some slack.”

Dad blinked at him. “Hm? Do I know your parents?”

“My uncle’s a Dockworker,” Jackson replied. “Ben Kim? He always says you got him his job.”

“Oh!” Dad grinned. “Ben, yes. Good man.” Then his face fell. “I hope he still has the job, with everything that’s been happening.”

Jackson shrugged. “He’s managing. We’re eligible for disaster relief, and he’s doing odd jobs until the union calls him. He hasn’t needed to ask anyone for help.”

“Good for him!” Dad was smiling properly now. “He hates asking for help. Took him a while to come to me when his manager caused him trouble a few years back.”

“Wait, wait, wait,” I said, staring at Jackson. “You told me none of this.”

Jackson shrugged unapologetically. “Didn’t make the connection until yesterday, to be honest.”

Charles rolled his eyes. “Seriously? How many Heberts do you know?”

“Twice as many as I did yesterday,” said Jackson easily.

“Do me a favor and tell Ben to get in touch with me?” Dad said. “I’ve probably got a lot of work to do.”

“You’re allowed to take a four-day weekend after getting out of the hospital, Dad,” I protested.

He grinned at me. “Why wait?”

I studied him for a moment. He looked… light. He held himself like a man ten years younger than the father I had last known, and the lines of care and grief which marred his face had smoothed somewhat.

My finger twitched, and on it, Narya glimmered, like the light of a warm hearth.

Did I do this? I wondered, as I considered my father, so suffused with warmth and hope that I scarcely recognized him.

A faint breeze from the west brushed my hair out of my face, its touch like gentle fingers. I blinked and returned to the present. Dad was still talking to the others, but Dean was looking at me, his brow furrowed in concern.

I smiled at him, and his brow cleared as he smiled back.

I was fine.


 

The next day was Friday, and Dad and I went out to an Italian place downtown. It was the first time I’d had a meal at a restaurant since Lung’s escape, and it was a good one.

“When you’ve been eating cafeteria food for two weeks,” I said between bites, “there’s nothing quite like a really good shrimp scampi.”

“Hospital food,” Dad said. “I win.”

“True.”

The restaurant had been affected by the EMP, of course, but this one in particular had recovered quickly. Part of that was that its ambiance tended towards candlelight and fireplaces anyway, so all they’d had to repair was the stove and oven. Another part was that it was downtown, and had been away from the worst of Bakuda’s bombings. Its clientele had less to rebuild, and thus could afford restaurants this soon after the disaster.

“Oh,” I said, glancing up from my food. “Dad, I meant to ask—can Sophia come over tomorrow, to spend the night?”

Dad blinked and looked searchingly at me. “Really?”

I nodded. “She had me over last weekend,” I said, “when I was tired of staying on the Rig. Dad—she really needs to get out of that house. It’s toxic.”

Dad’s eyes widened. “That bad?”

“Bad enough I’ve thought of reporting it,” I said. “I haven’t, just because there’s so much for the PRT to deal with already. As soon as things settle down more, I’ll see what I can do about it, but for now…?”

Dad nodded slowly. “Okay. I think I’d like to talk to her anyway.”

I winced. “Don’t be too hard on her. She feels really terrible.”

“And she should!” Dad’s voice was indignant. “She—”

“I know,” I interrupted. “But—” I shook my head. “You’ll get it when you meet her.”


 

I arrived on the Rig at 10:02 AM. At 10:03, I was accosted by Carlos on my way to my locker.

“Annatar. Get your armor on.” His voice came from behind me in the hallway.

I started and spun around. “Don’t sneak up on me like that!” Then I caught up with what he was saying. “Wait, why? What’s happened?”

“Piggot’s back,” he said shortly. “Or she will be in an hour. Just found out. I want the team there to greet her.”

I stared at him. “Piggot’s back?”

He nodded. “You get it?”

“I get it. I’ll be changed in a minute.”

We assembled in the main garage, each of us fully armed and in costume. Our backs were to the wall, our faces to the opening door. Aegis stood to my left, and beyond him were, in order, Clockblocker, Gallant, and Vista. Sophia stood to my right. Past her were Kid Win and Browbeat.

I liked to think we cut quite an imposing image. Eight Ring-Bearers assembled in unity.

Piggot looked paler than I remembered, and certainly thinner. She also had a cane—one she refused to use, though I could see her protesting legs tremble faintly.

She stopped in the middle of the garage, Miss Militia on one side of her and Deputy Director Renick on her other. Both looked ready to catch her should she fall, but she stood tall and straight, still steadfastly refusing to lean upon her cane.

“Wards,” she said.

“Director,” Aegis replied.

She considered him. “What is this about? You’ve already been disciplined for what happened three weeks ago.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” said Clockblocker, and I could hear the grin in his voice. “But not by you!”

“And you think this is going to make me go easy on you?” Her voice was sharp.

“No, Ma’am,” I said. Her eyes fixed on me. “We’re just glad to have you back.”

Her gaze bored into mine for a moment, before a faint grin touched her lips. “It’s good to be back, Annatar,” she said quietly. Then her smile disappeared. “I’ll want to see you and Aegis in my office, individually, tomorrow, but I won’t have time today. Now get out of my way—I’ve got work to do.”

We parted for her as the three of them passed into the Rig proper.

“She’s actually not pissed at all,” Chris said once the door had closed behind them, his tone marveling. “I thought she’d flip.”

“She’s not pissed,” said Sam. “She is disappointed, a bit.”

“Exactly,” agreed Sophia, nodding. “She’s glad we nailed Bakuda, I guess, but not happy that she had to sit out three weeks because of it.”

“I probably wouldn’t be happy about that either,” Vista said. “Still. She’s gotta give us shit, right? It’s basically her job.”

“She has to give me shit,” Carlos corrected. “I was in command.”

“And me,” I put in. “I killed Bakuda, and organized everything.”

“And me,” said Sophia, sarcasm dripping from her voice. “I told you she was coming. Can we stop the blame game? We all fucked up that night.”

“We did,” agreed Gallant. “And next time we face a serious threat, we’ll do better.”


 

“Sophia, this is my dad,” I introduced. “Dad, this is Sophia.”

The afternoon sun shone over us in the doorway as Dad studied my friend. She shuffled awkwardly, looking down at her feet.

“…Come in,” he said eventually, standing aside.

I led her in, and he shut the door behind us. “So, Sophia,” he said conversationally. “You knew Taylor from Winslow, right?”

Sophia practically buckled, so hard did she shudder. I touched her arm and glared reproachfully at Dad, but he didn’t look at me. His gaze was fixed on her.

“…Yes,” she said, eventually. Then she stood straight and looked at him. “Yes,” she repeated. “I was the one who shoved her in that locker. Emma and I tortured her for almost two years. I—I can never undo that.”

Her hands came up and rubbed at her face, and I saw something flicker in Dad’s face as the green light of Cenya reflected in his eyes. Surprise?

Cenya, I realized. He didn’t realize that, when I said I gave Rings of Power to the Wards, that I was including Sophia.

“Believe me,” she said, dropping her hands, “I feel really stupid about it now.”

Dad considered her for a moment more, but there was an odd, slightly confused look in his eyes. “Okay,” he said eventually. “Taylor wants me to tolerate you, so I will. I don’t think I can forgive you, Sophia, but… well, I trust Taylor.” Then he smiled. “Welcome. I’ll make some snacks.”


 

It was an alarm that woke me the next morning. I fumbled for my electric clock, only to find it absent.

I sat up, blinking the sleep out of my eyes. “What…?”

Sophia was sitting bolt upright in her sleeping bag. Her eyes were wide, her pupils were dilated, and her breathing was rapid. Jerkily, she turned to face me. “Is that…?”

It was. I recognized the sound, from a thousand schoolyard drills and educational videos. From my worst nightmares. It was hollow and sonorous, droning at a single piercing pitch and pulsing slowly and regularly.

The light outside shone pale through the marine fog of the early morning. The day was deceptively calm—ordinary—but already I could hear the clamouring of hundreds of thousands of people in varying states of panic.

Something happened then that had not happened since that moment, so many weeks ago, when I had first slipped Narya upon my finger. My heart hammered, my skin went cold, and I keenly felt the blood rushing in my veins. For the first time in weeks, the shade of fear came upon me. It wasn’t paralyzing—it couldn’t control me—but it was there, like the shadow of some great looming thing, impossible to ignore.

My tongue slipped out and wetted dry lips before I spoke.

“Endbringer.”

End Arc 5: Hearth 

Chapter Text

“Dad!” I hollered, hammering on his door.

“I’m coming!” His voice was slightly higher than usual, and I heard a frantic racket from inside the bedroom—drawers opening and closing rapidly and various items being tossed aside.

From down the hall, Sophia jogged out of my room, her duffel bag under her arm. “Think you can carry me?” she asked, slightly out of breath. “It’ll be the fastest way to get to the staging area.”

“Sure,” I said, unclipping the Jewelry Box from the back of my armor and opening it with a whisper. Off came Vilya, and on came Nenya.

Even as I shut the box, Dad’s bedroom door opened. He looked disheveled and his eyes were wild, but he was dressed and a small bag was on his back. “Taylor,” he said, staring at me, resplendent in my armor. “Are you sure—”

“I’m fighting, Dad.”

He bit his lip. I held out a hand to forestall Sophia when she moved to speak. Seconds passed, and I watched him, unmoving.

“…Okay,” he said, finally, his shoulders slumping in defeat. “Okay.”

I nodded. “We’ll have to split up as soon as we’re out the door, to protect our identities,” I said. “Let’s go. Be careful, okay?”

“You too.” He swallowed. “Please, please be careful.”

“I will. I promise.” I turned to Sophia. “Think you can carry Aeglos for me?”

“I’ll try.”

“Then let’s go.”


 

“Annatar!”

“Aegis.” I stopped and set Sophia down gently, taking Aeglos from her and leaning on it as I turned to face my team leader.

The Parahuman Response staging area was a surprisingly quiet and organized affair. No panicking civilians lingered here they had all long since vacated this part of the town. A single six-story building sat alone on a grassy knoll, and beyond it I could see the ocean. The rising sun was shrouded, hidden behind a thick, black cloud—a massive, tall thunderhead, towering upward for miles. Below it was a curtain of rain so thick that no light passed through it, save the occasional flash of lightning.

Armsmaster stood upon that hill, beside the head of a great, four-legged Dragon-suit, golden and glittering. Miss Militia and the other members of the Protectorate stood together nearby, talking lowly.

Even at this distance, I could see it creeping steadily closer, as furious as any hurricane and inexorable as the tide.

“Leviathan,” Sophia breathed beside me.

“Yes.” Aegis’ voice was hard. “Come on, you two. We need to go to the briefing.”

We followed him, picking our way between mixed groups of heroes, villains, and rogues. Soon I spotted Clockblocker and Kid Win standing together—and with them…

Sophia practically growled beside me, her hackles rising. “Grue.

The three turned to us. Clockblocker nodded. “Annatar, Shadow Stalker.”

“What the fuck,” Sophia hissed, jabbing a finger at Grue, “is he doing here?”

“Fighting,” said Grue. I’d only heard his voice once or twice before. It was oddly hollow, ringing from his black motorcycle helmet as though he spoke from within a deep, wide cavern. “Would you rather I sit with my thumb up my ass while—”

“Enough,” I said. “Where are the others?”

“On their way,” Kid Win replied. “Vista’s gone to pick up Gallant and Browbeat.”

“Someone say my name?” Vista’s melodic voice came from behind me.

“Ah,” said Gallant, coming to stand at my left. “Grue. They released you?”

“Technically. I had to promise to come back quietly after the fight,” Grue said, chuckling. The sound was ghastly as it echoed in his helmet. “We’ll see.”

“That’s not a concern right now,” I said. “What—”

I was interrupted by a sound like a muffled thunderclap, coming from the center of the empty lot behind me. I turned.

Alexandria stood there, standing as tall and dark as the grey tower emblazoned on her chest. She hovered some three inches above the ground, and her heavy cape waved ponderously in the cold breeze. Beside her were her teammates, each recognizable in their own right—Rime, Bleak, Arbiter, Guile, and Usher. They strode forward, following their leader as she approached Armsmaster and Dragon. Meanwhile the man in blue and black—Strider—who had teleported them in disappeared in another, smaller thunderclap.

“It’s almost inspiring,” murmured Browbeat. “How we all come together for this.”

I glanced at him, then followed his gaze. There was Lung, tall and bulky, and beside him was Kaiser in his complex armor and crown. They were hunched slightly into each other in private conversation, and their lieutenants stood around them.

“Yeah,” said Gallant. “Almost.”

“Grue!”

“Tattletale.”

I turned. The blonde in the purple bodysuit was running up towards us, and beside her was the same jester who had concussed me the last time we fought.

They came to a halt beside us. Tattletale shifted on the balls of her feet. “Grue,” she said haltingly. “I—are you—”

“I’m fine.” His voice was cool and hard. There was none of the warmth I’d have expected for a former teammate.

Tattletale’s lips pursed. “I’m sorry,” she said.

Grue didn’t answer, except by turning away.

Tattletale swallowed visibly. Then she sighed, shrugged, and glanced at me. “By the way,” she said, “Circus thought you were a brute. Never meant to hit you that hard.”

“I can apologize for myself, thanks.” Circus’ voice was low for a woman’s. She looked at me. “I’m sorry, Annatar,” she said. “It was—I wasn’t trying to hurt you as badly as I did.”

I studied her. Her shoulders were tense, her legs straight, her arms folded behind her. “This has really been bothering you,” I said wonderingly.

“I almost killed a kid,” Circus said. Her voice was hollow—not literally, like Grue’s, but in tone. “That’s the kind of thing that bothers you, yeah.”

“I’m fine,” I said. “But—yeah, sure, I forgive you. I’m still going to try and take you in the next time we see each other, though”

“Sure you’re not going to just chop our heads off?” Tattletale’s smile was sharp and toothy. “I hear you’ve got a knack for it.”

A few of my Wards tensed around me, but I met the blonde’s eyes. “It’s not my fault,” I said clearly, “that you fucked Grue over this badly.”

She staggered back, blinking. “You—”

“Escalation,” I told her. “Don’t bring a knife if you’re afraid to be stabbed.”

She pouted at me. “Hey, this is my shtick. I’ve been doing this for years.”

“If this is how you’ve been doing it,” I said, smiling falsely, “I can’t believe you’re still alive and free.”

She squinted at me, but I noticed how she suppressed a flinch. “I’ll get you,” she said, waggling her finger at me. “There can be only one.”

I rolled my eyes and turned away as Aegis cleared his throat.

“Door’s opening,” he said. “Let’s go.”

We Wards—and Grue—followed him in through the building’s main doors into a large lobby. A matrix of folding chairs had been set up—and was still being set up, around the edges, by heroes and PRT officers. Three large screens were set up at the front of the room, and behind them were large, open windows, looking into the east and the oncoming storm.

A young man who seemed to be made entirely of metal found himself in our group by the crush of people. He was a dark grey, primarily, with veins of brightest silver tracing his arms where veins would have been on an ordinary human.

“Hey,” he said, “you’re Wards, too, right?”

Aegis nodded. “Wards ENE,” he said. “Local branch. You?”

“Weld. Boston branch. Is this all of you?”

Aegis nodded. “I’m the team captain. Name’s Aegis. These are Clockblocker, Gallant, Vista, Kid Win, Browbeat, Shadow Stalker, and Annatar.”

Weld gave us smiles in turn as we were introduced. He wore no mask, and despite the oddity of his metallic features, his smile was a nice one—wide, gentle, and honest. He did not seem at ease, exactly, but he seemed to be going into the day with no loose ends tying him down.

“How about you?” Gallant asked. “Did your team come?”

“Some,” Weld replied. “Buckler and Pinprick. They’re around. Most of them couldn’t get permission from their parents, or they’d be here too. All of you got permission?”

Kid Win nodded. “It was hard to convince them,” he admitted. “But yeah.”

I glanced at him, and remembered a conversation he and I had once had about courage and heroism.

Before Weld could say any more, however, a familiar voice called from nearby. “Annatar!”

I turned. It was Laserdream, and beside her…

“Shielder,” I said, smiling. “Good to see you on your feet.”

He grinned back, his visor doing little to hide the joy in his expression. “It’s good to be back on my feet.”

“That’s what I wanted to ask about,” said Laserdream. “Annatar, is he safe to be in this fight?”

“Is anyone?” I countered, then shook my head. “Sorry. Yeah, he’s good.”

“I told you!” Shielder said, smirking at his sister. She didn’t smile back as she looked at him. Her teeth worried her lower lip for a moment. Then she turned—not to me, but to Clockblocker.

“Be careful,” she murmured.

“You too,” he replied quietly.

She seemed to struggle with herself for a moment before coming forward. He met her halfway, and they embraced. Then, without another word, she turned and returned to her cousins, Shielder following after her.

“Hey, while we’re on the topic of fraternizing with other hero teams,” said Kid Win brightly, turning to Gallant, “have you and—”

“We’re talking,” said Gallant, cutting him off. “We’re not together yet, but she seems to want to try again.”

Again is right,” muttered Vista.

“We need to find seats,” Aegis suddenly said. “Look—Legend’s getting ready to speak.”

So he was. The leader of the Protectorate, eye-catching in his bright white and blue, was pacing in front of one of the three screens, looking across the crowded room.

“There.” Browbeat pointed at a section of the grid of chairs that was relatively empty. We picked our way through and took our place.

I took the opportunity to look around the room. Many faces I recognized. Many more I didn’t. I spotted the adults of New Wave, and over there was most of the local Protectorate. Many heroes from further afield mingled among them. In another part of the room was Empire Eighty Eight. Lung and Oni Lee were both in attendance, as were Faultline and her crew.

The Merchants, however, had not come. Nor had Coil.

As we reached our seats, Legend cleared his throat and the conversation throughout the room died almost immediately. His voice was a clear tenor, with that piercing quality all great orators had, and he captured his audience’s attention as soon as he began to speak.

“We have Dragon and Armsmaster’s research to thank for the early warning,” he said. I glanced out at the storm outside—it didn’t feel early. “We’ve had time to assemble and prepare, instead of jumping into the fight, one by one, as we arrive. This is a luxury we rarely get. With a little luck, some teamwork, and a lot of hard effort from each of us, I hold out hope that this could be one of the good days.”

But. I knew the Endbringer statistics. I knew what a ‘good’ day looked like. A good day looked like a war, followed by days of successive funerals and weeks of mourning.

It was still better than a bad day, though.

“That being said, you should know your chances,” continued Legend. “Given our track record in past fights against Leviathan, this still means that one in four of us here will be going home in body bags.” Or lost forever, body washed out to sea, he didn’t say.

Sophia shifted beside me. She wasn’t the only one—around the room, many capes were shuffling, glancing at one another for reassurance, though there was none to be had. It wasn’t that they didn’t know the numbers—most did—but to hear it said so directly cast things in a different light.

“You deserve to know this. I’m grateful for the chance to tell you—we don’t often get it. But beyond anything else, what I want to impress upon each of you is that you should not underestimate Leviathan. I’ve seen too many good heroes”—he paused, for just a moment—“and villains, too, die because they let their guard down.”

Leviathan. Livyatan. Jörmungandr. No, I did not think I would be underestimating my enemy today.

Aegis touched my arm. “We need to pass out armbands,” he whispered in my ear.

“Armbands?”

“Dragon tech. It’ll keep the fighters coordinated. Tell Shadow Stalker and let’s go.”

I nudged Sophia, and she followed me out of our seats and over to the side of the room, where Miss Militia and a few other members of the various Protectorate teams were unpacking boxes of equipment. Wards from across the country were being given handfuls of these mechanical armbands, each bearing a square display screen and two buttons.

On a whim, I got in line for the box Miss Militia was working with. She stopped as she was handing me the gear.

“Annatar,” she said quietly. “Now isn’t the time for grudges.”

“Agreed,” I said.

“I’m sorry, for—”

I cut her off. “Me too. It’s fine.”

She forced a smile onto her face through the lines of care and worry. “Good luck out there.”

I smiled back. “You too, Miss Militia.”

I took the armbands and started making my way down a row of capes, handing one to each person. It was interesting, seeing the continuum of expressions and feelings.

Some were tense, like the Ward who passed me in the next aisle over. She wore a skintight purple-and-black costume, plated with silvery platinum, and bore a quiver of bolts and a crossbow on her back. She looked down as she passed me, avoiding my gaze.

Some were nervous, like the E88 cape I handed one armband to. From under the concealing cowl of her robe, Rune gave me a quick, harried smile as I passed. I smiled back.

Some were terrified. The local rogue Parian was practically quaking in her boots as Weld gave her an armband. She was nestled into one of her large minions, as though seeking to bury herself in the plush.

Some were even excited. One cape from out of town gave me a sharp smirk as I handed her an armband. She wore a frilly little dress and didn’t look more than eight or nine, but there were years behind her eyes. I didn’t smile back at that one.

As I finished with my row, Armsmaster took the podium and explained the functions of the armbands. I listened, and then returned to my seat with the other Wards.

Legend returned to the stage. “Capes! If you’ve faced an Endbringer before, please stand!”

Most of the Protectorate, many of the out-of-town Wards, and a few others stood.

“When in doubt,” Legend continued, “the Protectorate should be the first people you listen to. We have trained and planned for this! If you don’t hear from one of us, the ones standing now are the next in the chain of command. They’ve been through this before, so trust their instincts.”

He took a deep breath and carried on, his voice loud and clear in the silence. “You’ll be splitting into groups based on your abilities. If you believe you can take a hit from Leviathan and survive, or if you can produce expendable combatants, you’ll be on the front line. Alexandria and Dragon will direct you.”

That’s my cue. With Nenya’s protection, in conjunction with my armor—and my helmet, newly padded after my close call with Circus—I was hopefully going to be able to survive at least most of what the Endbringer would do to me.

Sophia grabbed my hand as I stood and began to leave. I turned back to her. Her eyes were glittering under her mask, somehow brighter than usual.

“Don’t die,” she whispered.

I smiled at her. “I don’t plan on it.” I squeezed her hand, and pulled away. She let me go.

Alexandria’s lips were turned down into a stern frown when I joined her and her growing group in one corner. Her gaze swept across the group.

“You heard Legend,” she said. Her voice was low enough that the larger group of unassigned capes would still be able to hear Legend, but carried well enough that I had no trouble making it out. “We’re the first line of defense. What he said about hemming Leviathan in? That’s on us.

“We don’t have time to go through everyone’s abilities and figure out exactly who should be where, so I’m just going to assume each of you knows your powers. We’re going to get in close—and if that sounds like suicide, good, it means you’ve got survival instincts.” She smiled mirthlessly. “Try not to die. Our primary objective is keeping Leviathan in place. Like Legend said, we cannot afford to allow him free reign through the city. We’re the shield wall, you understand? We’re the phalanx.”

There was a round of nods.

“Good,” she said. “Then—”

Suddenly, a hero I didn’t recognize gave a shout: “Incoming!” The group around him—shakers, mostly, some of whom I recognized—acted as one. Shields and forcefields went up both behind and in front of the rear windows as a wall of water rushed forwards towards us. They weren’t enough. On the left, the shields fell away, shattering like prismatic glass, and water rushed in, crushing one of the three screens even as they flickered between images of the city’s coastline being ravaged by tidal waves.

But that wasn’t what drew my eye. No, my eye was drawn to the middle screen, which for an instant showed an image of an oncoming wave, taken from a camera at ground level. The cresting wall of water seemed to hang in the air like so much green crystal—and deep within its heart, shrouded in brine, was the silhouette of a tall figure.

The image flickered on the screen for only an instant, but it was burned into my mind. The figure was disproportionate, alien. Its shoulders were too broad for its hips, its neck too wide for its head. Its legs were digitigrade, jointed oddly, and four pinpricks of laser-green light glowered from its face—three from the left, and one from the right.

All this I saw in the barest moment for which that image remained visible—and none of it left half as much of an impression as the flash I saw with some sense other than my eyes. Something shone, a piercing glow as bright as any star, deep within the monster’s chest, shining straight through the flesh of its body and the watery bulwark as though they were no more barrier than a thin veil of cloth.

Then the moment was gone, and the image passed away. Legend was shouting, “Strider, get us out of here!”

Then there was sound, and pressure. Air was forced out of my lungs as the violent rush of noise filled my ears. Nenya flared, and I weathered the sensation.

In a moment, I found myself outside—I, and all the others. We were on a street I recognized, higher up from the water, but still with a clear view of both the sea and the Boardwalk—or what was left of it. The wooden framework was crushed, shattered, scattered, until it was less a path and more a tangled mess of broken and twisted beams.

And it was there, too, visible through the spray and rain only as a shadow, but one which Nenya cast in sharp, horrific relief. It was thirty feet tall or more, and most of that was legs—legs which were long and spindly and seemed almost too weak to hold it up.

The light was still there—that glaring radiance which pierced through air, water, and flesh undimmed, shining where the thing’s heart should have been. It was, at once, the most beautiful and the most terrible thing I had ever seen. The beast seemed wrapped around it like a cocoon of spider’s silk twined around her meal, layer upon layer.

Leviathan began to approach.

“Form up!” Alexandria bellowed. Around us, the other groups were organizing.

I found myself beside Aegis. “Ready?” he asked.

I swallowed. Words came unbidden. “Spear shall be shaken,” I whispered, “shield be splintered—”

“Get ready!” Legend hollered.

Even as he spoke, Leviathan was rushing forward, as fast as any speedster, moving like a torpedo. Its echo of water trailed it, sending ripples crashing through the water, shattering stone and asphalt and concrete. In a moment it was upon us, and blood and water sprayed like so much seafoam.

I raised Aeglos and charged into the storm.

—A sword-day, a red day, ere the sun rises.

Chapter Text

Trainwreck down, CD-5. Chubster down, CD-5. Bearach down, CD-5.

The names went on, droning forth from the armband, even as the battle joined and chaos broke out all around me. I leveraged Nenya into movement and resilience, forcing myself forwards in the crowd, pushing through the capes until I was in the front ranks. The star in the monster’s breast was blinding—or would have been, had it the power to blind. Even through the glare, I could still see perfectly.

“Surround him!” Alexandria roared. She rose into the air and dove for the Endbringer’s face. Meanwhile, capes not in the frontline group fell back behind us. Armsmaster and Chevalier were rallying the strikers into a second rank.

But none of that was my concern. I hefted Aeglos and leapt upward to strike wildly at Leviathan’s shoulder as the Endbringer twisted and wove between attacks, its back bent as it loomed over us.  The blow went wide, and the spear’s point missed its target and embedded itself in the trailing water echo. Around its blazing tip, the water froze solid. The chunk of ice fell and shattered uselessly against Leviathan’s broad back.

It turned its back to me as it grabbed for Alexandria with one hand while the other clawed at the capes on the ground. Its tail whipped up, snaking around and knocking over those closest. I barely dodged it, and almost managed to stab at it with Aeglos as it passed me. Again I missed, striking only the echo left in its wake.

A crossbow bolt, longer and heftier than Sophia’s, flew past my head, whistling shrilly. It punctured through the water echo without resistance and sank into the ground beyond.

That was when Leviathan seemingly decided to stop sitting in the middle of us. It leapt, pushing itself up with water, and lunged at Alexandria. She leapt backward in the air, out of its reach, but was consequentially too far away to react when the Endbringer turned on a dime and dove for one of the others.

I didn’t know him. He was clad in a full coating of chitinous armor, with bright, razor-sharp blades emerging from his forearms, and eyes which glowed a pale yellow under his mandibled helm. Leviathan threw itself into him and pushed him back a few staggering steps. Then it spun, as though drilling into him and over him, and its water echo whirled around him in flat discs. The brute’s armor was flayed away in seconds by the maelstrom, rent apart as if by sawblades, and the man within was thrown aside to smack into one of the others, bleeding heavily.

Carapacitator down, CD-5.

Leviathan leapt again, landing on all fours and already running, skating over the top of the water. I had to dive backwards to dodge its echo as it barreled past, straight over the fallen body of Carapacitator. As it passed, it stooped, and its echo scooped him back up into itself, suspending the fallen cape in the water.

His mask had shattered, and I saw a pale, broken face looking back at me. The yellow eyes looked all too human now, as did the pinched expression of stark terror set in every line of his features.

Then, as if in slow motion, his body crumpled like an aluminum can under a sledgehammer. One limb at a time was crushed down into a thin smear, and the man was screaming in anguish, bubbles emerging from his mouth as from a valve, until at last his head, too, was squeezed into a pasty red pulp.

Carapacitator deceased, CD-5.

The entire process had taken some two seconds, and in that time Leviathan had already traveled the length of the street, dashing away from us like a bullet from a gun. Through the mess that had once been Carapacitator that horrible, beautiful star still shone bright, piercing air, water, and flesh undiminished.

I blinked. I could still see it behind closed eyelids.

For a moment, I cursed Nenya, and the perception it granted me. I didn’t want the image of Carapacitator’s body being crushed like garbage in a compactor to be burned into my mind in minute detail. I wanted to be able to forget.

But it was better than being dead myself.

“After him!” Alexandria ordered, and we charged. I did not use Nenya to speed up, any more than was necessary to keep up with the others. I did not want to be alone when I reached Leviathan. Was it the same for them too? Many of the capes beside me were movers. Were they, like me, restraining themselves to stay with the pack?

The water grew deeper as we proceeded down towards the bay and the ruined boardwalk. Leviathan reached the destroyed frame before we did and turned left, towards the city proper. Its echo slammed against the timber and shattered what little structure remained like so many matchsticks.

He dove down a street and out of my sight.

“Fliers, we need to cut him off!” Alexandria barked. She rose, and others followed her. I recognized both Glory Girl and Aegis as they rose over the buildings and flew after the Endbringer.

“Non-fliers, keep after him!” That was Armsmaster, who I suddenly found beside me. He was still charging, a grim set to his mouth, continuing towards the turn Leviathan had taken.

I followed, but something in the corner of my vision made me glance to my right. I blinked.

“Wave!” someone screamed, but that was inadequate. The sheer wall of water bearing down on us was no wave. It was monumental, towering over the tallest of us by almost five feet, and pushing forward like a bulldozer.

“Brace!” That was Bastion’s resonant voice. “Shields up!”

The shakers put up their barriers. I saw the telltale stretching of space as Vista lengthened the distance, hoping to force the wave to wear itself out, but there wasn’t enough time, and this was no ordinary wave. All around me, capes were grabbing one another, or holding on to buildings and posts and preparing to weather the impact.

I am unbowed. We are unbowed.

Nenya flared, a star in the storm, eclipsed only by that bright pinprick I saw shining in the streets behind me. I saw the capes around me stiffen, as if braced against supports of adamant. I felt the rush as the Ring of Power lent itself to me.

The wave struck, and we were not swept away. Almost every one of the assembled capes stood firm under the onslaught, holding strong against the impact.

The water level sank surprisingly quickly. In mere moments my head broke the surface again. I spluttered and spat brine, but Armsmaster was already calling out. “Keep moving!”

We did, wading heavily through waist-high water. The tip of Aeglos was freezing passing droplets of water into a fine dusting of snow, which billowed around me and swirled down towards the sea.

Even as I followed Armsmaster as he waded through waist-high seawater, I was watching that bright light shining through the buildings and streets, undimmed by intervening stone. It was moving erratically now as Leviathan engaged the other capes in combat.

Iron Falcon down, CD-5. Lady Photon down, CD-5. Oni Lee deceased, CD-5. Vantage down, CD-5.  Fierceling deceased, CD-5.

Then, as if at an unseen cue, the light changed tack, ceasing to dodge and instead darting straight towards us. The light grew no brighter, since it was already as bright as any light as I could imagine, but it grew nearer all the same as Leviathan approached. I heard the rumbling as it crashed through buildings on its way.

“He’s coming towards us!” I called out. “Through the buildings!”

Armsmaster nodded at me and shouted, “Get ready!”

I hefted Aeglos.

The building to our left shattered like an eggshell, sending fragments of stone and masonry flying out in clumps. The debris splashed into the water and crashed into the assembled capes, scattering foam and gore.

Cloister down, CD-5. Triumph down, CD-5.

Leviathan emerged from the hole like an avenging god. Its claws were hooks seeking to catch and rend, its tail a flailing lash, and its water echo a tidal wave of mingled blood and brine.

Crusader deceased, CD-5. Adamant down, CD-5. Pelter down, CD-5. The Erudite deceased, CD-5.

I met the Endbringer halfway. Gone was fear, at last. With Nenya streaming out power through me, I could no more be cowed by fear than by any other force. Aeglos shone brightest blue, and the light of Nenya mingled with the shimmer of my armor, setting the water all around me aglow in an incandescent, silver halo.

Ego!” I shouted, the Sindarin pouring forth in an unquenchable tide. “Ego, limlug, ulunn i gaer! Ú-hirithach si tûr!

I lanced forth with Aeglos, aiming straight for that shining thing in the center of its chest. Frost spread from the point where the blade touched the Endbringer’s flesh, and the point sank into it, fighting the resistance of its tough hide.

Leviathan recoiled, pulling itself off of the impaling spear and whipping around. Its tail struck me hard across the stomach, its water echo a second blow just as hard. I was thrown up and back out of the water to fly fifty, sixty feet or more, exhaling sharply as my body was dashed against the inside of my armor. I arced through the air like a missile, and hit the water headfirst and sank, sank like a stone, falling deeper and deeper into the dark water past the beach’s dropoff.

I struggled, trying to right myself, and eventually managed it so that my head was facing up towards the faint, flickering light shining down into the murky water from above. The salty brine stung my eyes, but I kept them open, allowing Nenya to fill me until the pain felt like little more than a passive reminder.

I was at least a hundred feet down. I could see faintly in the murk where the slope of the beach rose up. And though my armor had protected me from the worst of the impact, bouncing around in it had still left me winded. My lungs were anything but full.

But still Nenya’s power surged through me. I was unbowed.

I began to swim, pushing the water down behind me as I rose. Up and up I went, rising from the depths, rising towards that faint light from the rising sun.

My lungs were protesting when I started. Soon they were screaming. Every muscle in my body burned at the exertion. There was no oxygen, no life-giving air, with which to fuel my arms as they swung, up and down, propelling me forwards and upwards. My armor, light as the mithril was, still seemed immeasurably heavy. But still I swam, though my limbs felt like lead and my head spun like a top.

The world grew darker even as I drew closer to the light above. Blackness crept in around the edges of my vision. There was a sound in my ears on the very edge of hearing, like a choir singing. Every so often I could almost make out a word or phrase in Valarin, and every so often I thought I heard a voice I recognized joining in the song—mine.

Nenya was brighter than it had ever been. I could feel it coursing through me in waves of power, keeping me alive and focused, keeping me from succumbing to the horrible, fatal temptation to open my mouth and let the water flow in.

Then there were arms around me. I felt them pulling me up, taking me by my armor and pulling. I couldn’t see who it was. I could see very little besides the faint light above me, now, only a small glimmer which seemed miles away now.

I kept pushing water down, and the hands kept pulling me up. The last ten feet were the longest of all, and by the end of them, I had lost sight even of the light. I was blind.

Then the water broke around me. The cool air hit my face and I was gasping, coughing, and gasping again, desperately pulling sweet oxygen into my depleted lungs for the first time in what felt like an aeon.

The hands turned me and pulled me back with them as their owner made their way towards the shore. I spluttered, gasped, choked, and slowly the world came back into view.

All around me a storm raged. Leviathan’s fury had not abated, not even close. In fact, as we swam, my aid and I were tossed upward on the back of another wave. They fought to keep me above water, their grip tightening around me as they pushed their way through.

My back was into their side, and their right arm was around me while their left pulled at the water, propelling us back towards the shore. I looked down at my chest, and at the dark-skinned girl’s hand that was tightly clenched around me.

“Sophia?” I asked, the name coming out as little more than a wheeze.

“Save your breath,” she replied, her words strained with exertion and tension.

I nodded slowly and turned my attention to myself, focusing on breathing and getting my lungs used to the sensation of having air in them again.

We slowed as Sophia’s left hand came up to her face and she pressed the buttons on her wristband with her teeth, carefully not letting go of me. “Shadow Stalker here. I’ve recovered Annatar. Where should I take her?”

Without waiting for a reply, she continued swimming. I trailed behind like so much dead weight.

Sophia’s wristband crackled to life then. “Shadow Stalker.” It was Panacea’s voice. “We’ve set up in the lobby of a hotel, right near where Strider brought us to fight Leviathan. Bring her there.”

Sophia’s head bobbed against me, but other than that she made no reply.

A few moments later, my feet touched earth. I pulled away from Sophia and stood up. “Thank you,” I said. My voice was still weak, but at least now it sounded like a voice.

She turned to me. Under her mask, her eyes were bright and wet. “Don’t,” she said, her voice harsh and raw, “ever fucking do that again.”

I chuckled, and then found myself falling forward. Nenya was flickering. It was not that the Ring of Power was flagging. I was flagging. I was not Nenya’s true Bearer, and never would be. I was the Ring-Maker, and so the Ring of Power would gladly lend itself to me, but I could never complement it the way a true Bearer of Nenya would. I could be bowed in a way a Bearer the Ring had chosen would not be. There was only so much it could do for me.

Sophia caught me. “Let’s get you to Panacea,” she said. “She, Othala, and the other healers have set up a sort of medical tent.”

“I’m fine,” I protested weakly. “I just need a minute to rest.”

The star that was Leviathan was still moving. I could see it through the buildings as it wound through the streets, dodging between capes and dealing blows when it was given opportunity.

Gully down, CD-5. Resolute deceased, CD-5. Purity down, CD-5. Acoustic deceased, CD-5. Trainwreck deceased, CD-5.

“Then you can rest there,” she said in a tone that brooked no argument. “Panacea can take a look at you.”

I nodded tiredly, giving up. “Fine. I’ll be able to help with Vilya when I recover.”

“Maybe,” she allowed, “but recover first.”

Chapter Text

Shadow Stalker’s voice broke on an anguished, wordless roar as Annatar was thrown aside by Leviathan. The Ring-Maker’s spear tumbled from her grip, clattering to the ground, and was kicked away by the Endbringer. It then turned away from the assembled capes and charged into the fragments of the boardwalk, pushing its way through the sharp splinters.

“Stay focused!” barked Armsmaster, but Shadow Stalker was already moving.

“Fuck you,” she growled as her form dissolved into shadow. “I’m going after Annatar.”

“Good luck,” said a voice. Gallant realized it was his own. He turned to Armsmaster.

The leader of the Protectorate ENE shook his head and faced towards the ruined wooden debris. “Keep going!”

But even as the assembled fighters followed him, Gallant could see their waning hope. The fear hung over them, visible to his powers as a sickly yellow cloud. These were the capes who couldn’t fly; the capes who couldn’t keep up. They would continue to be battered by Leviathan at its leisure until they were broken. There was nothing they could do; they couldn’t keep up, they couldn’t catch up, they could only wait for the Endbringer to come around again.

And without Nenya to keep them steadfast, now, Gallant wasn’t sure they’d last another assault. And even if they did, what then? More would come. And yet more after that, until all resistance was crushed.

“They’re flagging,” whispered Missy beside him.

“Yes,” he agreed. He turned to look at her. She was staring up at him, her eyes hidden behind her mask.

“Well?” she prompted.

“I know.”

He raised his left hand. The fire opal adorning the band of Araya burned like a captured flame.

Before, Gallant could only deliver emotion through specific and directed blasts. But when Dawn comes, it comes to all. He reached into his Ring of Power, and pushed.

For an instant, the thunderclouds over the sea seemed to split, and the light of the morning sun spilled golden over the city. Its light shone, reflected in the frightened, despairing eyes and practically glowed incandescent on Weld’s burnished frame, and on Armsmaster’s and Gallant’s own armor.

Hope came forth from Gallant then, and mingled with the light of the sun, suffusing each of the fighters there. As one, their backs straightened, their fists clenched, their heads were raised and held high.

For Gallant, however, the light of the sun in the East was matched and surpassed by the light he saw through new eyes as the Ring coursed through him. As Araya flowed through his blood, the world seemed almost to recede, so brilliant was that star in the streets to his left.

It lasted only a moment before the clouds closed again and Gallant allowed his Ring to dim. But the moment was enough. Their waning spirit had waxed again, and they were renewed and refreshed. The cloud of fear had been replaced by a sharper green aura of hope.

Missy put a hand on his arm for a moment. “Good job,” she whispered.

“Thanks.” It was always hard for Gallant to read his fellow Ring-Bearers. Their Rings of Power tended to color their aura in unexpected ways. But through the purpling shadows of Histeya, he could see a mixture of royal blue pride and light pink affection. Armsmaster was still moving, and the others followed, a surety in their movements that had not been there before. Brutes took the fore, shoving aside broken timbers to make way for the rest, and Gallant made to follow their lead, but Missy grabbed his hand.

“Come with me,” she said. “You and I should work S&R. I can be your mover, and you can help me get people out of trouble.”

Gallant nodded. “Not as though I can hurt Leviathan,” he agreed. “Okay.”

She smiled and stretched space so that a patch of roadway beside them led onto a nearby roof. Gallant followed her through.

Now that they were above the battle, and the city, there was a different quality to the air. Everything still smelled of brine and seaweed, but there was less frantic tension in every sound and sensation around them.

Snaptrap deceased, CC-4. Brandish down, CC-4. Rail down, CC-4. Parian down, CC-4. Uglymug deceased, CC-4. Ironmonger deceased, CC-4.

Gallant looked down at his armband. The little screen was dotted with markers, pointing out the locations of injured capes who would need assistance, and one large marker a few blocks away, labeled MEDICAL.

“Looks like the healers have set up a drop point,” he said.

Missy nodded. “We’ll take anyone we recover there. Any ideas for where we go?”

“There’s someone a block down from here. To the west?”

“On it.” Missy formed another pathway and they stepped forward into a street.

Leviathan’s passage was visible. The walls to either side had been torn asunder. Rubble was heaped on the sides of the road like rocks on the banks of a river. Water flowed between, running down the slope of the street in a noisy rush.

There was a man visible, trapped half-buried in crumbling masonry, his blond hair trailing in the running water. His face was turned skyward and the pale light washed out all color in the skin of his closed eyelids, visible in the holes in his mask.

Gallant came forward and started pulling away the rubble holding him there. Missy helped, her power allowing him to move a boulder several feet with only the effort required to move it an inch.

“Do you think Annatar’s okay?” she asked. A faint hint of yellow had crept into her aura.

“Yes,” he said firmly.

“How can you tell?”

Gully down, DB-3. Resolute deceased, DB-3. Purity down, DB-3. Acoustic deceased, CD-5. Trainwreck deceased, DB-3.

“Haven’t heard anything on the armband. And Shadow Stalker won’t let her die.”

Missy hummed an affirmation. The yellow dissipated.

The last boulder came free and Gallant leaned down, putting the side of his helmet against the man’s chest. He could faintly make out a heartbeat.

“Alive?”

“Yeah. Let’s get him to Pan—”

There was a thundering roar of rushing water from behind them. Gallant whirled. There was Leviathan, weaving through a swarm of flying capes, its water echo lashing out and striking at one after another. It had just turned a corner, shattering the building in its wake, and was coming fast towards them.

“Get us out of here!” he hollered, hoisting the unconscious man into his arms.

Missy didn’t answer except by pushing him sideways—and onto a nearby rooftop. “Keep going!” she ordered, already twisting space again.

Just as Leviathan crashed into the building they were on, they left it, passing into another street. One street at a time, they fled the battle, the man in Gallant’s arms weighing him down even as Missy shortened each distance.

Miss Militia down, CD-2. Stormtiger deceased, CD-2. Impel down, CD-2. Cache deceased, CD-2.

Then, suddenly, they were there. Gallant pulled the man bodily into the derelict building and laid him out on a table.

“Let me at him,” ordered a woman in a black and green costume adorned with stars. Gallant didn’t recognize her, but he made space.

He took a moment to look around. The makeshift field hospital was cramped. Movers were arriving and leaving constantly, so that there were always one or two dropping off an injured cape. He saw Panacea at one bedside, slowly knitting together the flesh of one man whose chest had been torn open. There were other healers, tending to the wounded as they were able. Othala, he saw, was currently working on another local cape—Brandish.

“We should keep going,” Missy said beside him. “We’re no good here.”

“Right,” agreed Gallant, but took a moment before he turned to follow. He reached for Araya and release a hint of hope and resolve. The healers, he expected, would need it.

Then he turned and had to dodge aside to avoid being bowled over by a grim Shadow Stalker, and the unsteady Annatar she was leading.

“Oh, good,” Missy said, her relief palpable. “You’re okay.”

“Mostly,” said Annatar. Her voice was astonishingly weak, not at all like the orator’s tones Gallant had grown accustomed to. “I just need rest.”

And a checkup,” growled Shadow Stalker. She looked at Gallant. “What are you two doing here?”

“S&R,” he replied. “Vista’s moving, and I’m helping.”

She nodded. “Good luck. I’ll be out there again soon.”

Suddenly the armbands all chimed in, and Gallant realized he hadn’t heard from them in some time.

Horizon deceased, BD-1. Sundancer down, BD-1. Good Neighbor down, BD-1. Astrologer deceased, BD-1. Bambina down, BD-1.

“Sounds like the fight’s started up again,” said Missy. “We should go see what we can do.”

Gallant nodded. “Lead the way.”

He followed her out and through warped space, down flooded, crumbling streets, until suddenly they were behind Leviathan, and waist-deep in water.

The Endbringer was visible as a great, whirling mass, flailing and striking out erratically, amidst a localized rainstorm. The water fell so thick that it was almost easier to point out bubbles of air than droplets of rain. Capes flew around the monster’s head and arms and ran around its feet, making feeble attempts to strike at it with weapons and attacks. Those he didn’t dodge had little to no visible effect.

“Can you see anyone?” Gallant hollered at Missy over the thundering sound of rushing water, crumbling stonework, and shouting combatants.

“Not yet!”

Then, in one motion that would be forever ingrained in Dean’s mind, Leviathan surged upward. Its clawed hand caught one cape-clad flier with a sharp blow which sent them flying aside--and then its water echo followed a fraction of a second later with another crushing impact which launched them even further, tumbling into the road and leaving a trough of crushed asphalt behind them.

Glory Girl down, BC-6.

Then Leviathan turned away and was dashing down the street again, shoving aside capes and fleeing further into the city.

Dean ignored it. He was running. He didn’t remember when he’d started, but he was at the fallen form in less than a second with Missy’s help.

Victoria Dallon looked ruined. Her chest looked practically caved in, and her left arm was bent at a horrible angle. Blood stained every inch of her, running in rivulets down her arms and legs, and matting her hair down over her eyes.

Dean leaned down and began to dig away at the rubble. “Come on, Vicky,” he said, and could barely recognize his own voice. “Come on, we’ll get you out of here and get you to Amy.”

“Dean?” her voice was little more than a croak. “Is that you?”

“It’s me, Vicky,” he said gently. “It’s me, I’m here. Let’s get you out.”

“Help me.” Her aura was overpoweringly yellow, fearful. Or was that his own?

“I’m here, I’m helping. Just hold on, Vicky.”

Missy was helping him dig, and together they were pulling aside the rubble. Vicky gasped as one stone after another came away, red and slick with her blood. “Dean,” she was whispering, “Dean, help. Dean, I can’t see…”

And Dean was replying in an ongoing murmur, his voice quavering slightly, “I’m here, Vicky. I’ve got you.”

Soon she was free, and he pulled her up as best he could. She let out an agonized groan as he lifted her. He took a moment to push aside her hair as Missy warped space around her. “Vicky,” he said, looking into her blue eyes, “Vicky, can you see me? I’m here.”

“I see you,” she whispered, her good arm coming up. It left a smear of blood on his helmet as she stroked his cheek. “Dean. You came.”

“Of course I came,” he whispered, following Missy through warped and twisted space.

“We’re almost there,” his teammate said lowly. “Just hold on, Vicky.”

Vicky ignored her—or possibly couldn’t hear her. “Dean,” she whispered. “I’m so sorry. I never—it wasn’t your fault. I’m sorry I took it out on you…”

“Save your breath,” he said gently. “It’s okay, I forgive you. Just hold on.”

“Dean,” she whispered, her hand still trailing along his mask. “I don’t want to die.”

“You’re not going to die,” he said, feeling his heart hammering in his throat. “We’ll get you to Amy and you’ll be fine. She’ll take care of you.”

Heavy casualties, please wait. Their armbands spoke as one.

Vicky was staring up at him through glazed eyes. Her mouth was working slowly as she tried to form words. “I’m scared,” she finally whispered.

So am I. “You’ll be okay. I’m here.”

“You’re here.” She almost smiled through ruined, bloodstained lips. Her aura surged weakly, a soft pink. “I love you, Dean.

“I love you too, Vicky.” Have I ever actually told you that before? I must have. Why can’t I remember?

Vicky leaned her head back against the crook of his elbow and didn’t reply. Her aura was flickering like a candle in a strong wind.

They hurried on in silence through shortened streets, making their way uphill towards the inner city and the field hospital.

Dean looked back down at Vicky. Was she still breathing? He couldn’t be sure—not while he was running. Her eyes were closed, now, and her head was limp against his arm.  Her aura was so faint, now, that he wasn't sure whether he was imagining it.

“We’re here.” That was Missy. Dean looked up and, sure enough, they were back at the field hospital.

Vicky’s head lolled against his arm as Dean pushed forward into the clinic. “Panacea!” he screamed. “Help!”

She was already coming, running towards him. “Vicky!” she cried. “Put her down!”

He laid Vicky down on a table and in seconds, Panacea’s hands were on her, yellow fear thick in the air around her. The healer grew perfectly still.

Carol Dallon came over then, seemingly healed. “Well?” she asked worriedly. “Amy?”

“She's working,” said Missy. “Give her time.”

Minutes passed at a slow crawl. Dean found he was shaking. Vicky's wounds were beginning to visibly heal, and he saw Brandish relaxing. He did not relax, because he saw what she couldn't—Amy's fear was giving way to deepest black despair--and Vicky's aura was already gone.

Maybe she can restart her heart, he thought wildly. That’s a thing, right? Maybe it’s not too late.

But in his heart of hearts, Dean knew better.

After several minutes, the healer pulled her hand away. Slowly, Amy Dallon looked up from her sister and met Dean’s gaze. Her eyes were wet, and her aura was black as pitch.

“Thank you for trying,” she whispered.

Chapter Text

Carol Dallon let out a wordless, tormented howl. She threw herself upon her daughter's body, pushing Panacea aside. The healer stumbled slightly, but kept her footing. Her eyes blindly trailed over her sister and mother as the tears ran down her cheeks.

Dean staggered back. Missy caught him, supported him. His armor rattled slightly as he shook. Sobs escaped from under his helmet, quiet and painful, and Missy wrapped her arms around him as best she could.

But my eyes were drawn to Panacea. She was still standing, had made no sound. Her lips were trembling, but were pressed firmly together. She reminded me of nothing so much as a pillar of iridescent crystal, cracking under a terrible weight, but not broken. Not yet.

Why weren't you faster?” Carol roared, her head snapping up, red eyes glaring at Gallant. “You could have saved her! You should have saved her!”

“Leave him alone!” Missy growled, her face twisting into a snarl. “We did the best we could!”

“Your best wasn't good enough!” Carol's face remained fixed in an angry rictus for only a moment more, and then she seemed to crumple. She fell back down, burying her face in her daughter's bloodied chest.

Panacea approached, then, and touched Vicky's cheek. She trailed a hand along her face, ran a finger across her lips, reddened and damp with blood. She didn’t say a word, even as the tears flowed from her eyes, but her other hand tightened into a fist.

Carol looked up again and roughly shoved Panacea aside. “Don't touch her!” she hissed. “You should have been able to heal her! That's your job, isn't it?”

Panacea shuddered. “I can't heal everything.” Her voice was soft and low, but steady, with only the faintest hint of a quaver. Underneath, though, I could practically hear the cracks spreading.

“You let her die!” Carol screeched, a wildness in her eyes as she pushed herself upright, facing her surviving daughter. “You've always been jealous of her! You let her die, because that's just who you are! Your father's daughter! Spiteful, vengeful—”

The pillar creaked under its burden.

Panacea moved. The hand gently caressing Vicky's skin remained, but the other snapped out and held Carol's chin. There was an unspoken menace in that touch.

Panacea’s voice was quiet, yet hard as diamond. Her eyes did not stray from her sister as she spoke. “Think hard about what you say next.”

“You never loved her,” growled Brandish. “Not like I did.”

In the ensuing silence, I heard the tinkling shards of a heart shattering.

“No,” said Panacea, her voice perfectly steady. “Not like you.”

Brandish dropped like a stone, unconscious. Panacea let her fall and leaned over Vicky.

“I'm sorry,” she whispered, and gently kissed her sister's bloodied lips. She lingered for a few moments before pulling away. Then she stood straight and left the building without a backward glance.

“Amy!” Dean's voice was rough. “Come back!”

She ignored him. Without stopping, she turned and walked up the sidewalk, away from the ongoing battle with Leviathan, away from the hospital.

“Stop,” I said, as Dean made to follow her. He turned to look at me.

“She's going to get herself killed!”

I shook my head, pulling away from the patient I’d been healing—he was stable, at least. “She won't.”

“How can you know that?”

“She won't give Leviathan the satisfaction. If she kills herself, it'll be later.” I pulled out the Jewelry Box and whispered into the lock. “Edro a adlenc.” Nenya glimmered inside, bright and silver, and my eyes were drawn to it for a moment before I reached for the Red Ring instead.

“We kind of need her here, though.” That was Othala's voice, dry and terse, as she glanced over at us from another patient. “I get it, it sucks that her sister died, but—”

“You have no idea what you just saw,” I said, cutting her off. I took off Vilya and withdrew Narya from the Box. “You lack perspective.”

“Fuck you!” the Empire healer said, voice sharp and angry. “I’ve lost family, too! You don't—”

“You're not Panacea, and your family wasn't Glory Girl.” Narya went onto my finger and I let out a breath at the rush of fire in my blood. The Jewelry Box closed. “You just saw the unbreakable shatter. Have some respect.”

The armband, at last, kicked in again. Losses are as follows: Fog, Glory Girl, Bambina, Humble, Uglymug, Buckler, Dauntless. Injuries are as follows: Ballistic, Leet, Über, Stardust, Triumph, Iron Falcon, Flechette, Mister Eminent, Cloister, Brandish, Hallow, Circus, Oaf, Narwhal, Tattletale, Zigzag, Escutcheon, Velocity, Myrddin.

As the droning voice continued, I crossed to Dean and put one gauntleted hand on his shoulder. “There will be time to mourn,” I promised him. “There will be a time for tears and grieving. But it's not now.”

He looked up at me. His shivering, which had been slowing over the past several minutes, at last stopped completely. “Okay,” he said. “What's the plan?”

What is the plan? I wondered, glancing around at the hospital. Leviathan’s presence was palpable, here. It hung on the thoughts and feelings of both the injured and the healers. It was in the scent of blood and vomit, and in the sound of pained groans. It was in the sight of red wounds and pale faces.

I didn’t know what to do, not really. But I knew I had to do something. In that moment, I knew that I was willing to die if it meant getting that monster out of my city.

My city. Not Leviathan’s. Mine.

And I had just the people to reclaim it.

“Leviathan is stronger than a hundred or so capes,” I said at last. “So we stop fighting him as capes.”

“What’s that mean?” Vista asked.

“It means that we fight him as Ring-Bearers.” I stepped outside the field hospital, raised my left hand, and unleashed Narya. Red light burst forth like a beacon, lancing up into the stormy sky above in a thin beam.

Hope poured forth from me like a wave, crashing over one cape after another, rippling through the city. Pale faces regained color, grips tightened around weapons, quaking limbs grew steady.

And, with Narya emboldening me as it did the others, with my cheeks rosy with the rush of heat and power, I drew Narsil. The sword shone nearly as bright as the Ring did in the cold, gray morning. Red was the light of the sun in the blade; cold was the light of the moon.

RING-BEARERS!” My voice echoed through the raging streets, louder than the thunder and heavier than the rain. “TO ME, RING-BEARERS! TO ME!

And the Ring-Bearers came. Gallant and Vista came and stood at my left. Sophia burst from the shadows to my right. Kid Win and Aegis arrived together, floating above us. Browbeat had a lamppost in his hand when he joined us. Clockblocker was the last to arrive, nursing a bloody crack in the armor of his side.

Eight Rings of Power shone like seven planets orbiting a star. Dawn and Dusk mingled with radiant Jewel and unyielding Stone. Sun and Moon and Earth glimmered in gold and silver, and verdant green.

And Narya, the red star, the war star, shone brightest of all.

I turned to face my Seven. My eyes roved over their hard faces and bright eyes, their squared shoulders and clenched fists. And I spoke.

“No man,” I said, “no woman, no human or parahuman, can fight this thing and hope to win. Leviathan is to them what they are to cockroaches. The best that mortal men can do against something like this is to scuttle into holes in the ground and pray it does not find them.”

Leviathan was getting closer. I could feel its light bearing down from behind me, even through the back of my head, as it glowed bright and terrible.

“It is the fear that lurks in the depths. It is the monster in the dark water. It is the sea serpent, the megalodon, the kraken. It is terror.”

Not one of the Ring-Bearers wavered.

“It is fortunate, then,” I said, “that you are not mortal. Not anymore. You are Bearers of Rings of Power! You are the Seven! You are unwavering stars in the night sky, the light that no shadow can touch!”

I turned and raised Narsil as Leviathan rounded a corner. My eyes sought the light of that thing, deep within its chest.

“You are as the rising sun!” I roared. “And together, we will beat back the night! Together, we can hold back the sea! Fear neither death nor darkness, for they have no hold on you!”

Leviathan tensed like a coiled spring.

FORWARD, RING-BEARERS!” I leapt into the storm, and the Seven followed. Leviathan met us halfway, and we engaged it with blade and bolt and fist.

Browbeat dealt it a devastating blow across the side of the head which knocked it slightly off course as it dove for me. I stepped aside and raked Narsil into its flank as it passed. The blade clove through its thick hide unquelled. Shadow Stalker fired bolts into the cut which only solidified when they were deep into the monster's body.

Clockblocker slowed time around us, and I watched as Aegis dove and grappled the monster's head at a snail's pace, twisting, trying to wrench it off of the shoulders. Vista lengthened the distance around us in all directions, hemming the monster in by hundreds of yards of stretched space. Kid Win fired lasers at its eyes in a flurry of light and color. Gallant launched a concentrated beam of despair directly into the center of its chest.

For a fraction of an instant, it looked as though we had succeeded. Leviathan reared, flailing, as blood spattered from the gaping wound in its side. Aegis pulled its head sideways, stretching the thick muscles of its shoulder farther than they seemed intended to stretch. Clockblocker was coming forward to attempt to freeze the thing in time.

Then he collapsed suddenly, like a puppet with its strings cut. Aegis was blasted away as the monster's water echo surged, without any accompanying motion from Leviathan itself. The water pushed out from the Endbringer's skin, throwing my teammate aloft. One of Leviathan's claws came up and grabbed at Kid Win, forcing him to withdraw almost twenty feet to avoid being caught. Both the Endbringer's own tail and its water echo whipped up and struck Vista in the side, sending her sprawling.

At last, it backhanded me, moving faster than I could dodge, and sent me careening into a building where I cracked the stone as I struck. Shadow Stalker barely avoided being crushed, herself, by phasing into shadow at the last moment.

Then the monster turned and fled, water echo following. It dashed through Vista's stretched no-man's-land in under a second and was gone back into the streets.

“After it!” I hollered. “Don't let it get—”

I saw a flash of yellow out of the corner of my eye, and I looked to my Wards’ armbands. Their screens were ringed by yellow, with indicators pointing in Leviathan’s direction. As I glanced to look, I saw what the indicator meant.

The wall of water bearing down on us had to be fifty feet high. It swallowed up building after building in its gluttony, and kept rushing forward. Someone was screaming, “TIDAL WAVE!” Someone else yelled “BARRIERS!” and I saw light flashing behind me as shields surrounded the field hospital.

I had no time to speak, to shout, to call out encouragement. I barely had time to take a deep breath myself before I was swallowed up by the dark green water, and swept away down sunken streets by the rush.

The water buffeted us in different directions. I saw the Seven go flying down other streets and alleys and out of my sight. The salt water stung and burned my eyes, and stones rung my armor like a bell as buildings crumbled around me.

I flailed wildly, and eventually found purchase on a building's fire escape. I caught the metal railing and held myself there, trailing along with the rushing water like a flag caught in a breeze. At length the water level dropped and I emerged, gasping and spluttering, hanging from the iron bars by one hand.

As the water fell away, the armband spoke up again. Heavy casualties, please wait.

Now that I could see again, I took the opportunity to take stock. I was two stories up, hanging over open air. Capes were recovering around me. I could see a cape I didn't know on the roof above me, swathed in white bandages like a mummy. He was on his hands and knees, coughing up water from the hole for his mouth. Directly below me was a heavy-set man in a costume like a cowboy or a bandit, with a bandana covering the lower part of his face. He sat with his back to the wall, his chest visibly rising and falling as he breathed heavily.

And down the street, already standing up, was a familiar figure in blue power armor.

I dropped, catching myself lightly on the street, and jogged over. “Armsmaster!” I called. “Do you know where anyone is?”

“Not yet,” he replied, turning to me. “Do you?”

I glanced over to my right where Leviathan's star still lingered, incandescent. “Leviathan's over there,” I said, pointing. “But other than that, no.”

“You can sense him?”

“Yes.” I shrugged. “I see a glowing thing in the center of its chest, like its heart, and I can see it through walls.”

He studied me, a frown on his lips. “And can your Ring-Bearers see this, too?”

“I don't know,” I admitted. “I think, maybe? A Ring of Power allows insight into the Unseen. So, probably, at least when they're using their Rings. Why?”

Armsmaster didn't answer for a moment. Then, when he spoke, his voice was grim, but confident. “All right. I'll be needing one then.”

“What?”

“A Ring. Just for the fight. I’ll need a way to keep track of him. I should be able to kill him with the countermeasures I’ve prepared.” He turned to me. “I can take Fire—Narya, right?—and you can use Water. Sound good?”

Chapter Text

I stared at Armsmaster blankly.

After a moment, he frowned. “Annatar?”

“You’re joking, right?” Even as I said it, I felt the sinking feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach. Armsmaster didn’t joke, and I knew it perfectly well.

“Not at all,” he said, surprised. “I realize they’re addictive, but I’m willing to deal with a little withdrawal if it means saving the city.”

“A little withdrawal?” I spluttered.

We were interrupted by the armbands.

Losses are as follows: Cache, Menja, Vantage, Snaptrap, Stardust, Impel. Injuries are as follows: Vista, Purity, Pelter, Browbeat, Krieg, Chevalier, Geomancer, Kid Win, Laserdream, Victor, Prefab, Shelter, Gully, Tecton, Trickster.

Armsmaster listened, his jaw working grimly as the droning continued. Once it subsided, he looked back at me. “Look, as long as it won’t kill me until after the fight—”

“Oh, a Ring of Power wouldn’t kill you,” I said. My voice was low, now, and cold. “No, you’d survive. More’s the pity. There are fates far worse than death.”

“Now isn’t the time for dramatics—”

“Dramatics?” I asked flatly. “That’s what you think this is? That’s what you think I am? Playacting at significance, pretending to be something I’m not? Trying to lend importance to things that have none?”

“I realize—”

“No. You don’t.”

Listen to what I have to say!” he growled through gritted teeth.

“You ‘realize’ that my powers feel like the most important thing in my life. You ‘realize’ there’s an instinct to make sure everyone respects how powerful and dangerous those powers are. You ‘realize’ it’s not a matter of arrogance, but of safety. And you want to make sure that I ‘realize’ everyone else feels that way about their powers, too, and that I should try to respect that, and them. That you’re a much more experienced tinker, and that I should trust your judgement on what tinkertech is and isn’t safe for you to use.”

His mouth was just slightly open. For a moment he struggled with himself, and then he spoke. “Well—yes. I know your tinkertech is a double-edged sword, Annatar. I know it’s a great risk to use it like this, without precautions. But the alternative is losing the city. It’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make. After all, I’m the only one who’ll be hurt by it.”

I shook my head. “But you’re not. Not even close.”

He sighed. “Yes, the loss of my presence will be a blow to the Protectorate—”

“Your team will miss you,” I said. “Dragon will miss you. But more to the point, you won’t die. And the damage you could do, having failed to die, is far more than you can imagine.”

His lips twisted. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

I made no response, because it would have been drowned out. A great, bellowing roar was emerging from the east, where I saw Leviathan’s piercing light darting hither and thither. Over the tops of the damaged buildings, jets of flame were leaping into the sky like fireworks peeking over the top of a hill.

Lung has engaged Leviathan, said the armband. Caution is advised in the surrounding area.

I started running, pushing my way through the thigh-high water towards the fight.

Armsmaster followed. “I wouldn’t ask if the stakes weren’t—”

“You think you’re fit to use the Ring of Fire?” I snapped, and the named Ring flared hot upon my finger. “You want it—not the Ring so much as what the Ring can offer you. The secret fire of justice, of creativity, of inspiration and the ability to inspire. It’s everything you want to be. You really think you’d be able to give it up after the fight?”

“Yes!” Armsmaster said angrily. “I’m not a thief, Annatar!”

“Then don’t ask me to make one of you.”

We turned a corner, and immediately had to dodge a lance of flame.

Lung had grown until he was only slightly smaller than Leviathan, twenty-five feet or so tall. His arms had become claws tipped with foot-long blades, and a second pair were slowly emerging from his torso. From his back sprouted two batlike wings, with membranes the color of blood and metallic plating over the bony portion where they extended from his back.  Below these, too, another pair of wings were visible as sharp nubs emerging from under the glinting scales. His mask had long since been lost, and his face was wide and flat, like a cat’s—but instead of a distinct nose and mouth, he had an X-shaped opening at the fore of his muzzle, with four separate jaws lined with knifelike teeth and parted in a roar of defiant fury.

It was interesting to be on the same side as him, only a few short weeks after killing his subordinate.

He and Leviathan were locked together, furiously clawing at one another like rabid dogs. The dragon had one of the Endbringer’s forearms locked in a vicelike grip while his other tore into its back, and the emerging third and fourth arms clawed at its belly. His segmented maw was biting ravenously at its mouthless face, breaking through the tough hide and sending ichor spouting like red oil.

But he was bleeding, too. Leviathan matched him blow for blow, rending him with its claws and battering him with its tail and its water echo.

Even from here, a couple hundred yards away, I could feel the heat as Lung scorched his foe with dragon-fire. Despite the cold rain and flooded street, I found myself growing uncomfortably warm under my armor. The buildings on either side of the battle were already aflame.

Aeglos was missing. I had dropped it when Leviathan had cast me into the sea. Had that really been only a few minutes ago? Half an hour, an hour at most? It felt like a lifetime.

“Annatar—” Armsmaster began.

“Shut up,” I said, “and fight, damn you.”

I sheathed Narsil, unslung Belthronding, and nocked an arrow. I took aim for Leviathan’s lone right eye, and fired.

At this range, and against a target moving that erratically, I was nowhere near the archer I’d need to be to hit a target that small. My arrow struck Leviathan in the neck as it surged upward and pushed down upon the dragon.

Armsmaster had left my side and was running towards the fighting, one halberd held out before him. Darts like spear-points were launching from its tip, and most were striking the Endbringer. His other hand was reaching behind his back to pull out a second, unpainted halberd.

I fired another arrow, and got it in the shoulder. A third hit its chest. Then I nocked three arrows at once and launched them into the fray, aiming for the Enbringer’s center, for that glowing thing at its core.

One struck the thing in the belly, another in the collarbone, but the third hit Lung, glancing off the scales of his side. He didn’t seem to notice.

At that moment, Leviathan twisted. Its arm writhed in Lung’s grip and broke his hold. It spun, thrusting its back into the dragon’s face. The second impact of the water echo knocked him back, making him rear up and flail like a bucking horse.

Then it jumped, coming towards me, clearing Armsmaster’s head by several feet. The leader of the Protectorate ENE quickly leapt, swinging that second halberd into the Endbringer’s belly. The flesh exploded into dust.

Leviathan was eerily silent as it curled inward in midair, approximating the fetal position, and splashed down into the water between me and Armsmaster. I put my bow away and drew Narsil, but for a moment I waited.

What’s going on? I wondered. Did Armsmaster injure it?

For almost a full two seconds, the battlefield was nearly still before Leviathan surged upward and leaped into the wall to my right. It crumbled around it in an explosion of dust and masonry, and the Endbringer was obscured from view. Even as it did all of this, however, its water echo was moving. What had been a mere twitch in Armsmaster’s direction for the Endbringer itself was a crushing blow on the part of its watery shadow. The blue-armored cape was thrown backward, sailing some thirty feet and landing in a heap. Blood was already seeping out from under his armor by the time he hit the ground, drowning the blue paint in red.

Armsmaster down, DD-2.

One of Dragon’s suits was dropping towards him, so I put him out of my mind for the moment. If anyone could keep him alive, now that Panacea was out of action, it would be Dragon.

I charged instead into the cloud of dust. The Endbringer’s star was receding, traveling down towards the sea. I followed at a run, and Narya flared like a halo of fire around me.

Spire down, DC-4. Frenetic deceased, DC-4. Furrow deceased, DC-4. Hew down, DC-4.

Capes joined me as I went, falling into step with me one by one. The Endbringer had stopped now, and was moving erratically again in combat.

Shielder down, DC-4. Quark deceased, DC-4. Night deceased, DC-4. Kaiser down, DC-4.

Suddenly, a cape appeared in front of me. It was Strider, in blue and black. “Need a lift?” he asked, giving me a slight grin.

“In a moment,” I said, and turned to the capes behind me.

I recognized a few. There was Weld again, his metal body slightly dented in a couple places. There were Assault and Battery—the former looked mostly uninjured, but the latter was bruised and bleeding. There was Rune, three clumps of stonework orbiting her, her robes torn and tattered. And there was Grue, a long tear running down the side of his jacket. The black leather glistened with blood.

“It’s almost over!” I shouted. “Leviathan’s taken a hell of a beating! Just a bit more, and we’ll have our city back! So be careful, and we can do this without losing anyone else! The Endbringers win, some days, but today is not one of them!”

I nodded to Strider as the capes cheered. Narya grew warm on my finger, fanning their hope and determination, and feeding on it in turn. “Whenever you’re ready.”

He nodded, and a moment later I was swallowed up again by the thunderclap of his teleport.

When I recovered my bearings, I found myself a touch awestruck. Eidolon, Alexandria, and Legend were there, assembled in midair. Their backs were to the sea, and their faces were to the Endbringer.

All four were perfectly still, watching each other. Eidolon’s robes and Alexandria’s cape flapped slightly in the seabreeze.

“It’s over, monster,” said Eidolon. I was struck by how ordinary his voice was. There was none of Alexandria’s cloaked menace or Legend’s raw charisma. Eidolon’s voice was a little weak, slightly too high, a touch nasal. It echoed oddly, as though spoken from the center of an empty ballroom, but that just highlighted its flaws—minute as they were individually, they became glaring and even obnoxious in a person of Eidolon’s stature and position. “You’re finished.”

Leviathan was still bleeding. Thick fluid poured from the gash in its belly, which was visibly knitting itself together. Even now, however, it made no noise, nor moved to react to its injuries. It simply stood watching.

It’s delaying, I realized. It’s holding out for another tidal wave.

We were running out of time, and no one wanted to be the first in to attack. Even the Triumvirate were afraid. They needed someone to take the plunge.

We can finish this without losing anyone else, I’d said. I wished I could believe it.

“Bah,” I muttered. A couple capes glanced at me, their rapture broken by the sudden sound. “Who wants to live forever, anyway?”

I hefted Narsil, took a deep breath, and charged, screaming at the top of my lungs.

Something like fifty gazes snapped to me—among them, Leviathan’s. It lunged, and I swung Narsil to catch it, dodging out of the way as I did so.

It caught me with the tip of its water echo, sending me staggering, but I kept my footing. In exchange, I raked Narsil down its forearm. Blood poured forth like thick syrup.

Then at last the other capes joined me, shouting in unison, surging with hope and determination. Eidolon was launching forth strange attacks—gravity seemed to turn against Leviathan, and lend weight to the blows of those capes fighting it in melee. Legend was blasting at it with beams of blue-white light, quick and unerring. Alexandria was in the air, hammering away at its head with fists like speeding trains. And there were others, some thirty or forty of us, in the air or about its feet, ants trying to bring down an elephant.

And, I reflected as I thrust Narsil deep into one foot, we’re succeeding.

We really were. After only a few seconds of this, Leviathan burst out from us, flicked one last blow at Legend with its water echo, and dove unceremoniously into the sea. Eidolon and Alexandria floated out after him, Legend catching up as soon as he recovered, while the rest of us picked ourselves back up.

The Triumvirate soon returned, however. “He’s gone!” said Legend, loud and clear. “He’s already heading out of the bay! Leviathan is gone!”

Even as he spoke, the storm was abating. In the east, the blackness of the storm clouds was beginning to come apart. A faint glimmer of sunlight peered in through cracks in the thunderhead.

A ragged cheer began to rise, but I didn’t join in. I just watched as the eastern sky cleared, far faster than any natural weather. The morning sun danced on my armor, setting the street around me aglow.

Well, I thought. That’s all right, then. I looked down at the reflected dawn in Narsil’s blade, and I found that I was smiling.

Chapter Text

“Aegis!” I called. “Shadow Stalker! Clockblocker!”

I was being pulled along by a current of bodies as capes pushed their way back up the still-flooded streets. ‘Regroup at the field hospital,’ Legend had said, and so we went. There, I expected, Strider would be taking the out-of-town capes back home in groups.

None of that mattered much to me. I just wanted to find my friends.

“Gallant!” I shouted over the throng. “Vista! Browbeat! Kid Win!”

Where were they? I’d heard the armband—Vista, Browbeat, and Kid Win had been injured, but none of them had died. I scanned the crowd as best I could, but to no avail.

A voice emerged from behind me. “You can’t find your team either?”

I turned. It was Rune. She’d abandoned her floating masonry, though I had no doubt she had only done so because she knew she could find more rubble at a moment’s notice.

I nodded. “You’re looking for the rest of Empire?”

Her mouth, uncovered by the fabric mask over her eyes and nose, twisted into a grimace. “Those of us who are still alive. I’ve been keeping count. Five of us died today.”

I winced in sympathy. “I’m sorry. Friends?”

“Not really.” She shook her head. “It’s just a mess. We’re going to have to recruit.”

I hesitated. “I’d wish you luck, but…”

“Yeah, I get it.” She sighed. “Still, we’re allies today, right? Or is the truce already over?”

“I’m certainly not going to start anything.”

She chuckled. “Cool. I’d hate to fight you.”

Before I could reply, I heard a more familiar voice from above. “Annatar!”

I looked up at Aegis, floating there. One of his legs was little more than torn ribbons of flesh, but it was slowly knitting itself back together.

“Sorry, can’t walk right now,” he said, gesturing to his injury. “The others are at the field hospital. Kid Win’s hurt pretty bad, but he’ll be all right.”

“And everyone else?”

“They’re all better off than he is. Everyone’s conscious.”

“Good.” I sighed in relief. “Can I get a lift?”

“Sure.” He reached down with one hand, which I took. I gave Rune a farewell wave with the other hand as I rose into the air, which she returned.

“Rune?” Aegis asked as we flew towards the crumbling building. “Really?”

She approached me,” I protested. “When I was planning my day this morning, winning the respect of Neo-Nazis wasn’t really on the agenda.”

He chuckled. “Nor was Leviathan, I’ll bet.”

“Fair point.” I sighed again. “A lot of people died today, Aegis.”

“Yeah. Could have been us.”

“For some of us, it was.” I thought of Dean, shuddering in his armor as he stood over his girlfriend’s body.

Aegis didn’t reply.

We soon alighted near the door of the field hospital. The crowd parted. I saw upturned faces, and ten or more pairs of eyes trained on me. Aegis let me down slowly on the asphalt, where my mithril boots landed with little more than a faint click.

The crowd parted to allow me entry. I glanced around as soon as I was inside. Several capes were bustling around, erecting partitions, screens, and curtains to allow the capes being treated some measure of privacy. Some were being placed on stretchers and carried out through one of the building’s two exits, or through the hole in one wall.

Aegis floated into the building behind me. “Last I checked, they’d put us up in the back. Follow me.”

I stepped aside, to allow him to pass, and followed. Healers and medics moved out of our way. I saw their gazes dart to my face and then away, as if in nerves or fear.

It wasn’t long before Aegis was pushing aside a curtain, holding it open for me.

“Annatar!” It was Sophia, and I could hear the smile under her mask. “You’re all right.”

I gave her a brief nod.  “I am.”

I scanned the room. Sophia and Dennis were both unhurt. Missy was sitting up on a bed, her back to the wall. Her right arm was in a cast. Sam was holding a bloodstained cloth to his side—through a gap in his torn costume, I saw the scarring of a closing wound. Dean was sitting with his arms around his middle, looking down at his own knees.

Chris was worse off. His armor had crumpled from an impact in his middle, and blood had leaked out around it. Nonetheless, he gave me a pained wave.

“Can you speak?” I asked him.

He shook his head jerkily.

“It hurts him to talk,” explained Missy. “We don’t think his lungs were punctured, but he has a couple of broken ribs.”

I nodded. “But he’ll be okay?”

“Should be,” said Dennis. “As soon as they get the shelters open and we get some real doctors in here, or some healers who aren’t Nazis or are actually useful.”

“I heard that.” I turned to see a young man in a white robe with golden trim. His mask was white, and stylized in the shape of a goat’s head.

“No offence meant,” Dennis said, chagrined.

“None taken,” said the guy, a smirk in his voice as he approached the beds. “I hate my power too. Works well with your Othala, though.”

“She’s not our Othala,” Sophia growled.

“You know what I mean.” He looked down at Missy. “You doing any better?”

“Arm’s still broken,” she said. “Still not going to up and die. Just like last time you were in here.”

“All right, all right, I get it,” he said, backing off. “I just—”

“You just wanted to catch a glimpse of our celebrity,” Missy interrupted. “It’s fine, but come on. She’s right there. Ask for an autograph if you want.”

He glanced up at me, then looked away. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

I could practically hear the eyes of my teammates rolling. I opened my mouth to speak. “I—”

“I’ve gotta go take care of other people,” he said hurriedly, backing out of the room. “Let me know if anything gets worse.”

And he was gone. I looked bewilderedly between my teammates. “Someone want to explain that to me?”

“You led us as we faced down an Endbringer alone right outside the field hospital,” said Dennis. “It, uh, left an impression on a couple people.”

Missy laughed. “An impression is right. Didn’t some guy ask you if she was single, Aegis?”

“Yeah. Some out-of-town Ward.” He grinned at me. “You’re famous, Annatar. How does it feel?”

I was blinking. “But—we all faced him down.”

“You were the one giving the inspiring speech. I hear you did it again, too, right at the end.”

“That was just Narya,” I protested. “Well, me with Narya.”

“Well, it worked.” Carlos shook his head. “Look, Annatar, the eight of us faced down an Endbringer by ourselves, and all of us are still standing. That does not happen.”

I shuddered. “God, that was stupid of me, wasn’t it?”

“No.” That was Sophia. She sounded a bit subdued, but determined. She was looking over at Dean. “No, you were right. We’re Ring-Bearers. We can hold back the sea.”

“You’re not invincible,” I said immediately. “I don’t want any of us getting killed because we got cocky.”

“I know,” said Sophia, shaking her head. “It’s not like that. It’s…” She looked up and met my eyes. The holes in her mask were deep and dark. “We’re heroes, now,” she said slowly, “in the classical sense. Right?”

“What do you mean?” Missy asked.

“Yes,” I told Sophia. “Exactly. We’re more than human. We’re the kind of people who can fight as well as ten or even fifty of our peers, and we’re that much harder to kill. But we’re not invincible.”

“Heroes never are,” said Sophia quietly. “They just have important deaths.”

I remembered seeing The Complete Works of William Shakespeare on her bookshelf, and her telling me that she was reading King Lear.

“Yes,” I agreed. “They do have that.”

Just then, the curtain was once more pulled aside. I turned.

“Ah, Annatar, you’re here,” said Miss Militia. She looked harried—her hair was unkempt, and her flag bandana was a little crooked. “You’re all right?”

“Yes,” I said, then frowned. “How is everyone? Besides—”

“Dauntless is gone,” she said grimly. “There’ll be time to mourn later. I’m just glad we didn’t lose more, and that none of you were killed.”

“And injuries?” Carlos asked. “Is everyone going to be fixed up soon?”

“For the most part,” she sighed. “Triumph and Velocity were both injured, but Scapegoat and Othala should have them back on their feet before too long. I was worse off, but they healed me about when the fight ended.”

“And Armsmaster?” That was Dennis.

I remembered Leviathan’s blow to the tinker, and Dragon swooping down to pluck him up.

Miss Militia’s brow was furrowed, and her eyes were grim. “He was hurt far worse. Dragon transported him inland to the nearest open ICU. He’s being treated now, and she tells me his prognosis is good—but without Panacea here, he wouldn’t stand much of a chance if she hadn’t taken him for surgery.”

“But he should be okay?”

“If nothing goes wrong with the surgery. In the interim, I’m taking command of the Protectorate ENE.” She considered me. “Everything I said before the fight still holds, Annatar. I’m willing to put our differences behind us.”

I nodded. “Of course. We’ll need to work together to rebuild the city.”

She smiled, her bandana shifting. “I look forward to it.”

“What about Grue?” Sophia asked suddenly. “And Über, and Leet? We let them all out to fight; where did they go?”

The adult hero’s face fell. “We’ve lost track of them. Über and Leet were seen heading downtown. I expect they plan to leave the city. No one’s seen Grue since the last tidal wave. I was planning on talking to Faultline—Tattletale used to be a member of his team, so she might be able to help.”

“Able, yeah,” said Sam. “But what’ll be her price?”

“That is the important question, yes.” Miss Militia shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. Even if all three of them escape, they can’t get far, and we have their identities as leverage, if they attempt to escalate. That’s unimportant for now. Annatar, would you be willing to assist in healing?”

“I heal people slowly,” I said, “but yeah, of course.” I stood up. “There’s something I have to do first, though. Gallant!”

Dean looked up.

“Come on,” I said, holding out a hand. “We’re going to go talk to New Wave.”

“I’ll come too,” said Dennis hurriedly. Aegis chuckled.

“Fine,” I said. “Let’s go.”


 

Laserdream smiled at Dennis the moment we came into New Wave’s little corner of the hospital. “Hey there, big guy,” she said. “Come to take advantage of me while I’m down?”

Both her legs were swathed in bandages and raised by pulleys. One of her hands was drumming an idle rhythm on her sheets, and there was a glazed look to her eyes.

“Ew,” said Shielder, shuddering in his seat beside her. “Please don’t take her up on that,” he begged Dennis. “She’s on a lot of painkillers.”

“Don’t worry,” Dennis told him, but his eyes were fixed on Laserdream. “Didn’t even think of it.”

Both he and Dean drifted away. Dennis made for Laserdream’s bedside, and Dean walked towards the two beds on the other side of the room.

Vicky had been cleaned up somewhat, although that might have just been the tidal wave. Her pale, still face didn’t look all that different from her mother’s. They lay there, side by side, both perfectly still with closed eyes.

On one side of the bed, Manpower had an arm around Flashbang’s shoulders. The last remaining Dallon looked destroyed. His shoulders were slumped and his face was stained with the tears that poured steadily and soundlessly down his cheeks.

“Annatar,” said Lady Photon from a chair in the corner. She was smiling slightly at me. “Thank you for bringing them.”

I nodded. “My pleasure. Brandish hasn’t woken up?”

“No,” she said, her lips pursed. “We don’t have any idea what Panacea did to her, but it’s beginning to look like she’s the only one who can undo it. Unless you could?”

“No. Not without knowing what it was.” I shook my head. “I’m sorry.”

Lady Photon sighed. “No, I understand. I just hope Amy comes back soon. We need her—not for her powers, but just—”

“I know,” I said. “Don’t worry, she will.”

She blinked at me. “You’re sure?”

“Yes,” I said. “I’m going to go find her now. I’ll be back in an hour or so, I expect.” Without another word, I turned to leave.

Chapter Text

Wards were discouraged from patrolling alone in the dangerous parts of town. As a rule, we tended to travel in pairs. I had not done much patrolling in my brief stint as a Ward—and even then, I had almost always been accompanied by one of the others.

Today, I walked the streets alone.

The crowd of capes had dispersed, and the waterlogged city was deserted. The shelters were still being opened, and the all-clear had yet to be sent out. Every so often, I passed a civilian or family scuttling towards some ruined home to see what could be salvaged, but for the most part people were avoiding the Docks.

The pavement grew less stable as I walked down the long slope towards the shore. Cracks ran ever deeper, and the even surface was marred by pits and jutting protrusions. Rubble was scattered along the sides of the streets, and in several places alleys had caved in entirely. Leviathan’s passage had been keenly felt, here.

I enjoyed the solitude. There would be time to comfort Dean through his survivor’s guilt and crushing grief. There would be time to help Missy come to terms with her horribly mixed feelings over Vicky’s death. There would be time to help Chris and Sam deal with their nerves, their understandable fear at being thrust into the limelight. There would be time to support Aegis as he took up the task of representing the Wards to the world.

But not now. Not yet. There was more to do first.

I was startled by how calm the sea looked, once I had reached it. The midmorning sun shone merrily over the temperate waves, lapping gently against the ruined shore. Only the faintest wisps of cloud remained to tell of the storm which had blocked out the sky mere hours ago.

I rested a hand on Narsil’s hilt and looked out for a moment, allowing the sea-breeze to gently run through my hair and kiss my lower face. Then I turned and began walking along the shoreline, heading north, toward the ruined boardwalk.

The fractured mess of timber had mingled with the rubble from the surrounding buildings, until what remained of the heart of Brockton Bay’s stunted tourism industry was barely worth calling a ruin. I picked my way through narrow paths, surrounded by sharp splinters and shattered concrete slabs.

I was not the only one who had lost trinkets today. Broken watches, twisted pieces of jewelry, and other oddities mingled with the rest of the debris—relics, I expected, of the storefronts that had lined the boardwalk, or of the apartments atop those establishments.

At long last, I found what I had come for. Aeglos was upright, its tip embedded sharply into a piece of stone. The burnished wooden haft pointed into the air like a monument, catching the eye even among the forest of jagged timbers.

I took it in both hands, bent my knees slightly, and pulled up. The spear came free with only token resistance.

I swung it in my hands a few times, testing the weight in cuts and thrusts. Unchanged. Aeglos emerged from the battle from Leviathan as flawless as the day I’d forged it.

For a moment I considered the blue blade at the end of the spear. A faint coating of frost lingered on it, like skeletal fingers stretching across the metal.

“Aeglos,” I murmured. I was on the cusp of something, I could feel it. “No icicle could have held back the sea undamaged. You are no icicle.”

And, with the insight of a composer realizing his next melody, I understood.

Iphannis, I name you,” I said, and the blade shone brightest blue. “Permafrost. May you be ever as unyielding as you were today.”

The sun was warm, and beat down pleasantly upon my armor—but as Iphannis grew ice-cold in my fingertips, it was all I could do to suppress a shiver.


 

My solitude was broken when I left the boardwalk. As I emerged from between the shattered woodwork, I saw a speck high above. It sped towards me like a falling star. As it drew closer, it took on form: that of a man wearing a blue and white costume.

“Annatar,” said Legend.

“Sir,” I said with a cordial nod. “You need something?”

“First of all,” he said with a slight smile, “it’s just Legend, please.”

“All right, Legend,” I said, though it was no large change. A name like that, with the weight it carried, was little better than a title.

“Your team is looking for you. Clockblocker said you disappeared from the hospital. They’re out looking for you.”

“I told Lady Photon I’d be back,” I said.

He nodded. “Yes, but you’re also alone in a city that’ll very soon be in chaos. Your team is worried.”

“And that warrants the leader of the Protectorate paying me a personal visit?”

He chuckled. “Well—no. Not really. I wanted to talk to you.”

I set Iphannis against a crumbling wall and clasped my hands behind my back. “All right. What is it?”

“Your team faced Leviathan alone today,” he said. He lowered until his feet touched the ground, so that he was now only a few inches above me, rather than a few feet. “The eight of you held him long enough for Strider to get Bastion and some of his group to the hospital, to protect them from the tidal wave. You were a part of that.”

“Well, I’m part of the team.”

“You know what I mean.”

I nodded. “It’s an open secret at this point,” I said. “I give out Rings of Power. My team has a set.”

“Can you tell me about them?” he asked.

I found myself smiling. “I could,” I said, “but it depends on what you want to know.”

“What can they do?”

“It depends on who’s wearing them. Parahumans get their powers enhanced, but even a normal human would get several benefits. Strength, speed, senses, the works.”

“There has to be more than that, though.” Legend was shaking his head. “You eight faced down Leviathan. And you were key in getting the other capes motivated, keeping their heads in the fight—don’t think I didn’t notice. A boost to strength and speed wouldn’t do that.”

“No,” I agreed. “It’s a lot more complex than that. I’m afraid I don’t know how to put it into words, though. Charisma is part of it. We Ring-Bearers tend to be able to express ourselves and win over others better than we otherwise would. But there’s much more to it.”

“And you don’t know how to explain it?”

“Not in general.” I shook my head. “If you asked me to tell you about a specific Ring-Bearer, I could tell you what their Ring did for them, but that wouldn’t help you much in predicting what it, or any other Ring of Power, would do for someone else.”

He nodded. “I understand. They’re a bit like powers, I guess.”

“I suppose so.”

He considered me for a moment. “As I understand it, you have twenty Rings you can make?”

“Yes,” I said. “Although I only plan to make nineteen, in the end.”

“Why?”

I hesitated. “The twentieth Ring has powers that… I’m not comfortable with.”

There was a brief silence, broken only by the shrill cries of seagulls, returning at last after being driven off by Leviathan.

“Will you answer, if I ask you what kind of powers?”

“I—” I didn’t honestly know. “I’d… prefer not to.”

His lips were pursed. “If, hypothetically, you made it—would it be a threat to the Protectorate?”

I swallowed. “…Yes.”

He sighed. “I had a feeling.”

Was this it? Was I going to be captured, now? Had I overextended at last, and lost the good graces of the Protectorate, lost their protection?

“You know we won’t hold that against you, right?”

I blinked. “What?”

He grinned suddenly. “This has really been worrying you, hasn’t it?”

“Well…”

“Look,” said Legend, crossing his arms and leaning against the ruined wall. “I work with Eidolon on a regular basis. I know that, if he wanted to, he could probably kill half the capes in this country without breaking a sweat. That doesn’t stop me from working with him. I even consider him a friend.”

“It’s not the same.”

“No,” he agreed. “Eidolon isn’t much of a master.”

I froze.

“But it’s close enough,” the man stressed. “That’s what I want you to understand, Annatar. We’re not your enemies—no matter how scary your powers are.”

Was he just talking about Vilya? Had they figured out what I could do, if I chose? How much did they know—and how did they know it?

I said the only thing I could think of. “Thank you.”

He nodded and, probably seeing my discomfort, changed the subject. “Do you have any plans to distribute your other Rings any time soon?”

“Not the Nine, if that’s what you’re asking.” I shook my head to clear it. “I haven’t really seen a group of nine who really seemed to fit.”

“I can only think of one group of nine, off the top of my head,” admitted Legend, “and I suppose I should be very glad you don’t think they’re fit to get upgrades. But you’re avoiding the question. If not the other nine, what? The Wards have seven, you have your three—”

“They’re not my Three,” I corrected. “They’re the Three.”

He blinked at me. “Wasn’t swapping them out at will central to your combat style?”

I sighed. “Yes. But—there are other people who are suited to them, in a way I’m not. I’m not going to deny that. I can’t.”

He considered me. “Who are you planning to give them to?”

“I—” I shook my head. “No. They’re an ally, I promise you that, but I don’t want to tell anyone before I talk to them. They might not accept it. I’m only planning on giving one away, for now.”

“But they’re an ally?”

“Yes. I swear. I’m sorry I’m keeping so many secrets.”

He shook his head, and for a moment I saw something dark pass across what little I could see of his face. “We all have secrets.” Then the moment was gone. “All right. Keep me posted, if you can. And you should return to your team, soon.”

“I will,” I said. “I just—I need to do this first. Can you tell them to stop worrying?”

“All right,” he repeated, his tone reminding me of my dad, “but hurry back. And be careful.”

“Of course.”

With that, he rose into the air and was gone. As soon as he had passed out of easy earshot, I pulled out the Jewelry Box and opened it with a whispered command.

Off came Narya, and on came Nenya. The Ring of Adamant was cool on my finger, and seemed to vibrate faintly in anticipation.

I sighed. “All right,” I murmured. “You’ve served me well—and long enough. It’s time you were passed to someone more fit to you.”

For what would be the last time, I brought my lips to the Ring of Water. “Okay. Show me the way.”

And, in a flash of crystalline insight, I knew where I needed to go.

With Nenya, I could have run. I didn’t. I took my time, on this last stretch with the White Ring. Together we walked up ruined streets and through flooded alleys. People had started coming out of the Endbringer shelters, now, and they stared at me as I passed. I ignored them all.

Nenya guided me downtown, past the PRT building, into the heart of the city. Many of the skyscrapers had been damaged or destroyed by Leviathan. A few of the taller ones creaked ominously, as if they might crumble at any moment.

It was to one of these that I was drawn. I took the fire escape, climbing slowly up flight after flight of iron steps. It took some time to climb the fifty floors, but I felt no fatigue—not with Nenya on my finger, here at the end of my stewardship. Here and now, for the last time, I was unbowed.

No. Nenya might go to another bearer, but I would never forget what it had given me. Never again, perhaps, would I be able to feel the heady rush as the Ring of Water bolstered me, but I was Annatar, Ring-Maker and Gift-Giver. Unbowed I would remain, now and forever.

At last I came to the last flight. Above here was the roof. My shaking fingers closed over Nenya and, for the last time, I pulled it off of my finger.

Edro a adlenc,” I whispered to the Jewelry Box. Out came Vilya, but Nenya did not return in its place, and never would again.

I found that my eyes were wet. I wiped at them with a cloth I’d taken to carrying—it paid to do so, when I couldn’t depend on sleeves.

Then I took a deep breath, and ascended the last flight of steps.

“Panacea,” I said. “We need to talk.”

Chapter Text

“Panacea, we need to talk.”

Amy didn’t bother turning to look. It wasn’t that she knew who it was—she just didn’t care.

She lay spread-eagled on the roof of the Medhall building. It had always been one of Vicky’s favorite places to, as she would have put it, “swoop down from.” Amy had been up here hundreds of times, but never before had she been here alone.

There was the tapping of metal boots on concrete as the person approached. They stopped just outside of her field of view. They said nothing, but Amy knew they were watching her.

She ignored them in favor of looking up into the blue sky. There were clouds dotting it—nothing like the overcast storm of a few hours ago, but not quite clear yet.

Amy felt irrationally angry at those few clouds. Vicky had always preferred clear skies, while Amy tended to prefer days when the marine layer flowed in and the daylight was filtered and gray. The melding of the two, in the early-afternoon sky, made Amy want to scream.

There was a clinking as the person sat down next to her, their armor impacting itself like chiming bells. They remained otherwise silent.

Vicky’s heart had already stopped by the time Gallant had brought her in. Her lungs had been totally shredded, and she’d lost almost two liters of blood. Four of her thoracic and three of her lumbar vertebrae had been broken to varying degrees, from fractures to total pulverizations.

All of this, Amy could have healed, given time and equipment—of which she’d had neither. She’d been working against the clock. Vicky’s brain had already passed the threshold for permanent brain damage, and was rapidly approaching functional brain death.

Amy had tried, of course. She’d tried everything from rerouting blood manually to repairing only the respiratory system, just to keep the brain oxygenated and alive. But without a heartbeat and with a shattered ribcage, there was simply no way to make it work. Too little of the structure remained to support the rest, even with her help.

By the time Amy had realized the impossibility of her usual approaches, Vicky’s prefrontal cortex had gone out like a lightbulb burning through its filament, and it was over. All she could do then was to heal what she could of Vicky’s surface injuries, and hold her as the rest of her brain suffocated.

It wasn’t that the task had been impossible. It was that Amy had been too stupid to approach it in any way but the one she always used; and with injuries like that, the usual approach simply wasn’t enough.

“At some point,” said the person sitting next to her in a voice like a gentle breeze, “we have to accept that it’s not our fault.”

Amy twitched. “What the fuck do you know about it?” she asked, and was surprised to find that her voice was dry and hoarse. She hadn’t used it in hours.

“Some,” said the girl, “but not as much as you.”

Amy swallowed. “Then shut up,” she said, “and leave me alone.”

“You’ve been alone for quite long enough, I think.”

Amy’s head turned, striking the concrete of the roof in her haste, and she glared at the armored girl. “I don’t want you here,” she bit out. “Go away.”

Annatar shook her head. “You don’t deserve to be alone.”

“Too fucking late,” Amy growled.

Annatar didn’t reply for a moment. She just sat there, perfectly serene, watching Amy through those dark eyes.

Then the Ward reached up to her helmet. “I want you to imagine,” she said, “that I’m a mirror.”

She pulled off the silver helmet. A thin girl with sharp eyes and wavy, black hair looked back at Amy.

“Imagine that this is your face,” she said. “What do you want to do?”

Amy stared. “You really want to know?”

“I already do,” said Annatar with a faint smile. “Go ahead.”

So Amy punched her. It felt good, so she did it again. And again, and again, and again.

She was on top of Annatar, and her fists were driving themselves, one after another, into the girl’s eyes and cheeks. She was crying, now—she could barely see her target through the blur.

It went on, until Amy found that her strength had waned, and she was doing little more than weakly flailing at the girl beneath her. When she found she could barely hold herself up, Annatar caught her and helped her back up into a sitting position.

“I’d ask if you were feeling better,” said the Ward, voice slightly tight with pain, and muffled by cut lips, “but I know better.”

Amy didn’t reply except by wiping away her tears with her sleeves. “You’re fucking weird,” she said. “You know that?”

“I’ve been told. Not in so many words, though.” Annatar was seated next to her, her hands about her knees. Together, they looked up into the foothills to the west.

“I loved her,” said Amy.

Annatar didn’t reply, but Amy knew she had her attention.

“Not like—not like I should have, I mean. Not like a sister.” Amy shuddered. “Do you know what that’s like? To know you’re fucked up, to know you want something that you shouldn’t, to know there’s something not right in your head, and not to be able to do a damn thing about it?”

“No,” Annatar said. “Tell me, if you can.”

Amy swallowed. “I don’t know how.”

Annatar nodded. For a moment, there was silence.

“Carol Dallon,” the Ward finally said. “Who is she?”

“She took me in,” Amy said hoarsely. “Took care of me, made sure I was fed and clothed and comfortable.”

“I see.”

And Amy knew she did.

“What about Mark?”

“Clinical depression,” Amy said quietly. “Not a bad guy. Just…”

“Useless when you need him.” Annatar’s voice was low. “Not a great trait, in a father.”

“No. Not at all.”

Annatar sighed. “I’m beginning to understand.”

“I’m alone,” said Amy. “The only person to ever be there for me—the only person I’ve ever loved—is gone.” Her voice broke and before she knew it, she was burying her head in her knees again. Her shoulders shook as she sobbed.

Annatar didn’t touch her, didn’t seem to move, although Amy was sure she was watching. After what felt like an hour, Amy finally got her tears under control. She sat there in silence save for her own heavy breathing.

Only then did Annatar speak again. “Did you ever tell Vicky how you felt?”

Amy snorted. “Of course not. How the fuck would I even go about it? ‘Oh, hey, sis! By the way, I’ve had an incestuous crush on you for years!’ No way that goes well.”

“Maybe, maybe not,” said Annatar. “It couldn’t have made you more alone, though.”

Amy glanced over at her blankly. “Uh—hello? It would’ve driven Vicky away. You know, the one person who was in my corner?”

“Was she?” Annatar shook her head. “She never got to see your corner, Amy. You didn’t let her. Trust is intimacy; intimacy, trust. Without the one…”

She trailed off. Amy got the point. She looked away, back into the West.

“You’ve been alone a very long time, Amy,” Annatar said.

“Yeah, rub it in, why don’t you?”

“You misunderstand. People don’t survive that. It’s the kind of thing one person in a million can come out of alive.”

Amy’s lips twitched, looking over at the edge of the rooftop. “Haven’t come out yet.”

“No,” agreed Annatar. “Not yet. But you don’t understand—it took something absolutely overwhelming to break you. A lesser woman would have broken years ago.”

“Yeah, sure.”

Annatar shook her head. “I did.”

Amy blinked at her. “What?”

“My mother died in a car crash. My dad fell into depression. My only real friend turned on me, and got the entire school against me.” Annatar smiled slightly. “For eighteen months, I was as alone as you. Only eighteen months, and it ended with me breaking. For you, it’s been how many years? Three, since you triggered—and how many more before that?”

Amy looked away. The answer, of course, was ‘as long as I can remember.’

“You’re a woman like few others, Amy,” said Annatar quietly. “No man is an island entire of itself—except you.”

“I don’t feel entire.” Amy shook her head. “I died with Vicky there, I think.”

“So did I,” said Annatar gently, “when my mother died. Life goes on, like a lizard without its tail.”

“I don’t want to go on,” Amy protested. “I don’t want to keep going without Vicky. Why should I? What’s the fucking point?”

“I don’t know,” said Annatar simply. “You’ll have to find one for yourself. But you will find one. I did. Shadow Stalker did—and then another, once I dismantled that one. I said life goes on—not just a beating heart and breathing lungs, but life. This isn’t the end.”

“It feels like a hell of an ending.”

“Oh, it is,” Annatar agreed. “An ending. Not the end. Not yet.”

Amy chuckled. “you’re going to a lot of effort to get me to go back to healing,” she said dryly. “What, got something you can’t fix?”

“If I had my way,” said Annatar quietly, “I’d strip your powers from you and cast them into the night. They’ve done you no good, and a world of harm.”

Amy stared at her.

“No, Amy,” said Annatar. “I’m not here for your powers. I’m here for you.”

“Why?” Amy’s voice was faint.

Annatar sighed. “Because I care—and because you’re special.”

“Special? And you’re sure this isn’t about my powers?”

“Absolutely sure.” Annatar held out a hand, and something glittered in it. Amy looked.

It was a ring, beautifully crafted of Annatar’s silver-white mithril and inlaid with diamonds. It seemed to glow from within rather than reflecting the daylight, and the glimmer played on Annatar’s armor and made her face look pale.

“This is Nenya,” said Annatar, and her voice actually caught on the name, as if in grief. “The Ring of Adamant. It was one of my first works, and I’ve been its steward since then—but not its keeper. Never its keeper.”

“This is one of your modules,” murmured Amy.

“Yes. A Ring of Power.” Annatar swallowed. “If you’ll accept it… it’s yours.”

“…Why?”

“Nenya is the Ring of Adamant,” said Annatar quietly. “The Ring of the Unbowed. It chose you.”

“It… chose?”

“Rings of Power aren’t mere trinkets or baubles.” Annatar smiled sadly. “They aren’t alive like you or I, but they do have minds of their own, to an extent. Nenya wants a bearer that will complement it—and that’s you, Amy.”

“But I—” Amy reached for words. “I didn’t—”

“You broke,” Annatar agreed. “If you were literally impossible to break, you would have no need for Nenya. It wants to be needed—but it also wants to be earned. You’re right there, at that precipice.”

“How can you know?”

Annatar shrugged. “I’m the Ring-Maker,” she said, as if that explained everything. “I have an instinct for these things.”

Amy shook head. “No. No, this is crazy.” A darkly amused grin suddenly found itself on her features. “Carol always told me not to accept presents from strangers.”

“And that’s your right,” Annatar said. “If you refuse this, I’ll never bother you again. I still won’t let you jump off the roof, though.”

Amy twitched. “I wasn’t going to—”

“Don’t lie to me.”

Their eyes met.

“Nenya will help you, Amy,” said Annatar quietly. “To bear a Ring of Power is to be alone—and to be able to survive that.”

“Is this the part where you tell me Vicky wouldn’t want me to kill myself?” asked Amy dryly.

Annatar shook her head. “I didn’t know Vicky,” she said. “You did. I leave what she would have wanted to you. Because it’s not in me that she lives on.”

Amy shuddered. “You—” she took a deep, shaky breath. “You can’t just say something like that.”

Annatar didn’t speak for a moment, just looked into her eyes. Finally, she said, “I remember meeting the Dallons and Pelhams, when I came to apologize for Shielder. When Vicky activated her aura, it affected the entire group—except you.”

“I’m immune,” Amy said weakly. “I’ve built up a tolerance.”

“Then you see the implication. You’re the only one who did.”

And I’m the only one who saw Vicky without her aura messing with the image. I’m the only one who remembers her as she was.

“They say,” said Annatar, “that a person, over the span of time, dies two deaths.”

“I know.” Amy’s voice shook.

“So you have a choice,” said Annatar quietly. “You can go, and be with your sister in the uncertain doom of our species, or you can remain here, and keep her alive without any of the comfort that comes with her presence. Neither is easy, I know. Neither is good.”

“I thought you said you wouldn’t let me jump?”

“I won’t—but I’m certain that, if you’re determined, you’ll find another way.” Annatar’s face twisted. “Amy, please. Don’t throw decades away in your lowest moment.”

“Where the fuck do I go from here, then?” Amy asked, slumping. “Where can I go? What do I even do, anymore?”

“I don’t know,” said Annatar, “but I do know that the only way to go from your lowest point is up.”

Amy shook her head. “The light’s been taken out of the world,” she said lowly. “I can’t get it back, Annatar.”

“No. The sun has set, and no amount of prayer or cursing will make it rise again until the world is renewed.” Annatar’s voice was low. “But why curse the darkness, when you can light a candle?”

Amy closed her eyes. “I don’t know if I can do it,” she whispered. “I don’t know if I can go on without her.”

“I know you can.” Annatar’s voice was firm. “Even without Nenya, you could. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be worthy of it.” She sighed. “Look—just try.”

Amy blinked at her. “Try?”

Annatar nodded. “Like I said—if you’re determined, you’ll find a way. So why not give living a try? You always have the choice. It’s the one choice no one can take away from you. So why make it now? Why not try, just a little longer? What could it hurt?”

“Me,” said Amy dryly. “It could hurt me.”

But she already knew what Annatar was going to say. “Can it really hurt you any worse than it already has?”

And the answer was easy. “No.”

Without another word, Amy reached for the Ring. Annatar yielded it with a faint wince, as if it hurt to let it go. “Before you put it on,” Annatar said, “you should know: from the moment you do, it will be bound to you. You will not be able to willingly give it up—not without expenditure of great effort. It will become as much a part of you as your power is.”

Amy studied the silvery band. “And it’ll make all this”—she gestured around herself—“more bearable?”

“No; but it’ll make you more able to bear it.”

“Good enough for me.” Before she could have second thoughts, Amy slipped on the Ring of Power.

Something shifted.

Water was in her veins, running like blood—cool, pure, and unrelenting. A calm spread through her, and a tranquility. The world faded away, and she was deep, deep under the water, with light filtering down upon her in fractal patterns as the waves far above refracted and transmitted it down into the bottom of the world in thick, liquid beams. The rays of light seemed solid enough that she felt she could take hold of one and climb it, like a rope, straight to the sky.

A rushing, roaring sound, like a waterfall, burst upon her ears. Nenya curled about her finger in a gentle caress, cleansing, purifying, and fortifying.

Nenya, the Ring of Water.

Her vision cleared, and Amy found she was standing, looking around in wonder. The world looked so different through eyes that were enhanced by the Ring of Water. She could see, and hear, and feel so much more—the swaying of trees in the faintest breeze, the sound of cawing gulls on the coast, and the minute variations in the blanket of wind which encased her.

Vicky’s death was still there, a throbbing ache in her chest, like a wound slowly scabbing over. Nenya had not touched it—and Amy knew that, if it had, she would have taken it and leapt off the roof at once with it in hand, hoping in some way to damage it with her death. But that wasn’t what the Ring of Water did.

It had no power to make her forget. All it could do was support her as she endured.

Annatar stood up. “It’s taken to you,” she said. She was smiling—openly and honestly, with only a trace of grief. “You match it well.”

Amy stared at her. Her face fell. “This isn’t over,” she said. “I’m still just trying.”

Annatar’s smile twisted into a wry grin. “What do you think the rest of us are doing?”

A gentle breeze came in from the West. It ruffled their hair affectionately as it passed on. Annatar looked into it, and something was in her eyes that Amy couldn’t identify.

“I’d best be going,” said the Ring-Maker.

“That’s it?” Amy asked. “No contract, no terms? Nothing in exchange?”

Annatar shook her head. “The Three aren’t under my dominion,” she said. “Your loyalties and causes are your own. That being said…” she smiled slightly. “There is a place in the Wards for you, if you want to get away from Carol.”

“Maybe I’ll take you up on that.” Amy shook her head. “I should wake her up first, though, shouldn’t I?”

“Probably, yes,” Annatar agreed. She stood aside and gestured to the fire escape.

Amy nodded, and tenuously took her first few steps into a world without Vicky.

Chapter Text

Sunday, May 15 th , 2011

Nenya is gone.

Is it not strange that, of all the myriad transformations my world has undergone since last the sun rose, it should be this upon which I fixate? I have met an Endbringer in battle, I have watched a hero die, I have seen the unyielding break, I have—

Once again, my thoughts return to that moment. Amy—Panacea—standing over her dead sister, listening to her mother go mad with grief, powerless to do aught about either. I heard the soundless sound of shattering glass. I pray I shall never hear it again. And, if Nenya is as well matched to its bearer as it now appears, I never shall.

It is difficult, I find, to force my mind away from that void in the Jewelry Box where Nenya once sat. It is difficult to set aside the fact that I shall never again feel the Ring of Adamant bracing me. Yet I must, for there are other things of which I must make sense. I must understand today, before the morrow comes.

We, the Wards, stood alone against an Endbringer today. We met with no victory, but we survived. At the time, as my heart burned with righteous fury and Narya shone bright upon my finger, our survival came as no surprise. There was fear, but only so that courage could be raised above it. In that moment, I built for myself a citadel of bravery, unassailable and impenetrable, and upon its ramparts my Wards took up the defense. And though the wave did eventually scatter us, we stood against Leviathan as a levee to the sea. We held long enough for our allies to fortify the hospital, and thus saved I know not how many lives.

The others are entirely correct when they tell me this is not ordinary. Indeed, it is so far beyond the ordinary that even I am startled by it. I have earned the attention of Legend, won the respect of Rune, and likely drawn the gaze of many more of whom I have yet to learn.

It seems undeniable that I was instrumental in today’s battle with Leviathan. I know not what to make of this. From a utilitarian perspective, it is at once a good and a bad thing. I am now someone to be watched—which affords me respect, but also makes me a target. I know not whether I am ready to face this change. The world now looks rather different than it did yesterday. Yesterday, Lung was my most dangerous foe. Now? Now, I know not who my enemies are.

I have, however, gained allies as well. Legend seems to respect me. Perhaps he merely seeks to manipulate me—but I shall manipulate him in return. He cannot allow me to die, and that gives me some semblance of security. Through this connection I retain some safety in the form of the Protectorate, despite my increasingly precarious position.

And yet even my colleagues and friends are not beyond mistrust. As I saw today, temptation may subvert even the most stalwart will. Armsmaster is not a selfish man. He is merely a man who wished to protect his home. A man who convinced himself that, in keeping with that noble goal, it was fitting that he receive a Ring of Power. These Rings which I have created are powerful, dangerous, and above all desirable. Men will seek them, covet them, and may attempt to steal them. I must have care, lest I find Vilya or Narya taken from me.

But enough of this digression. I set my Wards against Leviathan. Why did I do this? Was I blind to the risks? Or did I think my teammates’ lives were a fitting trade for victory against the Endbringer?

The very thought makes my skin crawl. My teammates are precious to me—more than I would have deemed possible but two months ago. Remembering Glory Girl’s ruined form upon the cot, it is terribly easy to imagine Dean, or Carlos, or Sophia in her place. The very image makes me sick. I am certain that, had such a thing happened, I would have been devastated. It is quite impossible to imagine myself coldly deciding that the cost was fair afterwards. To do so would be tantamount to a betrayal of all I have learned, all that I am, all that I represent.

And yet I do not believe I was blind. I had just watched Amy, bowed over Victoria’s corpse; the unbreakable broken. I had just seen the suffering that comes with loss. I was not so foolish as to be blind to the possibility that one of us might die.

And yet I acted. I drew the Ring-Bearers together, and together we struck at the monster. Why?

I cannot place the word. Courage? Trust? Faith?

I trusted my teammates. I had courage, and knew they would, too. I had faith that we would succeed. We are Ring-Bearers. We are blessed with power beyond the norm, power nearly beyond belief. We were forged for the impossible.

Earth Bet has suffered under the heel of these Endbringers for too long. Mankind has its own demons to fight—avarice, hatred, and their ilk. These monstrosities, these Endbringers, are beyond what mere men can or should face. I know not why, but I feel somehow fated to fight these things—and to win.

Have I lost my mind? Why should I be the one to succeed where generations of capes have failed? What have I that they had not?

I know not what, but I cannot convince myself that there is nothing. Is this pure arrogance, then? Simple-minded vanity? Am I so shallow that I must believe myself above even such personages as Legend, Eidolon, Alexandria, and Hero, merely to slake my own thirst for respect?

And yet…

And yet the Rings of Power are unlike any tinkertech I have seen or heard tell of. And yet Narsil shines with the light of sun and moon. And yet Iphannis is bright and sharp, and my armor is hard. And as I bear them all, encased in my shell of arms and armor, I no longer feel human. I become something else—something more. I am not invincible—I am not immune to fear, as Leviathan showed me. But I feel powerful. Not merely strong in the sword-arm, but strong in heart and mind and voice.

Would meek, beaten, sad little Taylor Hebert of yesteryear have been able to draw Sophia back from the pit? Would she have been able to strike Bakuda down, without hesitation or mercy? Would she have been able to stand against the sea itself, and say ‘stop’? I think not. I am more than I was. Not merely in the sense of power—as I warned Sophia, power merely allows one to endure. I do not merely endure—I thrive.

I find myself wondering if the answers to these questions lie in that same enigma that surrounds my powers. How am I a parahuman, without a functioning gemma? How have I powers with no apparent source? These questions linger, circling like vultures in my mind. And yet I have no way to know. Not yet.

I have faith that answers will reveal themselves in time.

Chapter Text

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Topic: Annatar, the New Ward ENE!
In: Boards ► Teams ► Wards ► ENE (Brockton Bay)

Stratosphere (Original Poster) (Veteran Member)
Posted on April 16, 2011:

Thread for discussing the new Ward in Brockton Bay, Annatar. Mind the rules on your way in!

EDIT Tuesday, April 26: From what we can tell, Annatar was directly involved in the conflict with the ABB's Bakuda (thread here) which resulted in power going down throughout Brockton Bay. According to sources in the PRT (here, here, and here), Annatar was instrumental in preventing things from getting worse.

EDIT Sunday, May 15: I have no idea what is happening anymore q.q SOMEONE HELP ME VERIFY THIS STUFF

(Showing Page 1 of 47)
► TheGuyInGreen (Banned)
Replied on April 16, 2011:
FIRST!

This user received an infraction for this post. Really?

► sinnerman (Cape Groupie)
Replied on April 16, 2011:
To contribute something USEFUL, this mythril stuff. Sounds pretty useful. Think we'll start seeing Armsmaster decked out in it?

► TheSunGodRa (Unverified Cape)
Replied on April 16, 2011:
@ sinnerman Seems likely. Brockton Bay's got a few good tinkers now, though. There's Armsmaster, obviously, but there's also Kid Win, Gallant, and now Annatar. I wonder if that'll mean something for the city? Cape capitol of America? Try Tinker capitol.

► Visionary (Actual Tinfoil Hat)
Replied on April 16, 2011:
@ TheSunGodRa YOUR PROPAGANDA CAN'T FOOL US!! WE KNOW GALLANT ISN'T A REAL TINKER! ANNATAR PROBABLY ISN'T EITHER!1!

► Prehensile
Replied on April 16, 2011:
...Troll?

► sinnerman (Cape Groupie)
Replied on April 16, 2011:
@ Prehensile, yeah. He goes from thread to thread and accuses everyone of being in on one conspiracy or another. His favorite is that Brockton Bay is actually a PRT experiment in cape feudalism, and that the Protectorate presence there will be phased out in the next few years. I mean, I think that's his theory. It's sometimes hard to parse his posts tbh.

► Prehensile
Replied on April 16, 2011:
Well, we respect your sacrifice @ sinnerman

Anyway, Annatar. That armor's not exactly tinker standard, is it? Looks almost medieval.

► Historiographer (Verified Historian)
Replied on April 16, 2011:
Annatar's armor is not historically accurate, but draws influences from several distinct historical sources. The helmet is clearly inspired by Viking styles, with the side panels as far back as they are and the wide opening for the lower face. Of course, Viking helmets tended to have a more pronounced conical tip (and no horns, you philistines), and of course, no plume. (Speaking of the plume, is that her hair? It looks like it. Interesting choice. It works better than I'd have expected it to.)

The platemail is obviously ahistorical. No armorsmith would have bothered with the sheer complexity of that many intricate moving parts in that many different shapes. How often does she have to oil that thing? I mean, unless mithril is also immune to friction. That being said, it bears some resemblances to German styles of the 18th century.

Curious to see her spear in action, too.

► Brocktonite03 (Veteran Member) (At Ground Zero: Brockton Bay)
Replied on April 16, 2011:
@ Historiographer Hey, thanks! I wonder how much of this was part of Annatar's inspiration, and how much of it was from fantasy?

► bothad
Replied on April 16, 2011:
Probably mostly fantasy. That platemail is straight out of fantasy, isn't it? Like @ Historiographer said, "some" resemblances. Read: almost none.
End of Page. 1, 2, 3 ... 45, 46, 47

(Showing Page 47 of 47)
► AgentSmith (Verified PRT Agent)
Replied on May 16, 2011:
Please, everyone, remain calm. I know things are extremely hectic right now, and I assure you, it's worse in Brockton Bay. We are currently running everything by our Thinkers and analysts, and we'll be releasing what we can to the news in the next few days. In the meantime, [I]please[/I] don't spread rumors or panic. The situation is under control.

► Tabloid (Verified Cape) (Verified Journalist)
Replied on May 16, 2011:
@ AgentSmith I don't think most of us are spreading panic. Rumors, maybe. On that topic... is it true that Annatar faced down Leviathan on her own and survived?

► Shadow Stalker (Verified Cape) (Wards ENE)
Replied on May 16, 2011:
Not on her own. We were there too--all seven of us. And yes, all of us are still alive, thank God.

► drain_bead (Cape Son)
Replied on May 16, 2011:
@ Shadow Stalker I call bullshit. No way eight people my age faced down a fucking Endbringer and won.

► Aegis (Verified Cape) (Wards ENE)
Replied on May 16, 2011:
@ Shadow Stalker, you and I need to have a talk about information security.

@ drain_bead, I understand your disbelief. If it helps, we definitely didn't win. We did manage to hold him in one place long enough for Bastion and the other force-field capes to set up protection around the hospital for the next tidal wave. That tidal wave swept all of us away, though, and some of us were pretty badly injured.

You've got to understand, when Annatar said that her tinkertech could give other people boosts, she was [I]really[/I] underselling. I don't want to say anything else without her express consent.

► Prehensile
Replied on May 16, 2011:
Whatever happened, it was clearly pretty fucking big, and Annatar was at the middle of it. Her thread's more active than the Wards ENE general thread, and we've got two of her teammates in here now.

► Oracle (Unverified Cape)
Replied on May 16, 2011:
@ drain_bead: I’ve spoken to people who were there, and it’s true. She got seven kids to face an Endbringer. That… isn’t a good thing. I’m worried about the effect Annatar’s having on other people. Especially her teammates.

► TheSunGodRa (Unverified Cape)
Replied on May 16, 2011:
@ Prehensile And those of us who have been Annatar fans since the beginning get to look superior and snooty. ;)

► Annatar (Verified Cape) (Wards ENE)
Replied on May 16, 2011:
@ Aegis, @ Shadow Stalker, I don't think getting involved here is going to help anything.

Everyone, please. Yes, I was involved in the Endbringer fight. Yes, I contributed. Everyone did. It just so happens that my powers synchronize with large groups of capes working together. I'm sure the PRT/Protectorate will release more information soon.

End of Page. 1, 2, 3, 4 ... 45, 46, 47


Even as I hit the reply button, my screen flashed yellow. I reached over, grabbed my helmet from where it sat on the desk beside me, and put it on, slipping my hair through the hole in the back with practiced grace.

Hadn’t I only been here for about a month? Hadn’t I only owned this helmet since the beginning of April? It felt like years. When had Annatar become more a part of who I was than Taylor ever had been?

The elevator into the Wards’ headquarters slid open. Miss Militia stepped in. Following her was a girl with a star on her finger.

Panacea had cleaned up. Her face and hair were washed, and the tear tracks were gone from her cheeks. Nonetheless, I saw the hollow look in her eyes. She had not slept much, and likely would not for some time. She wore a red t-shirt and jeans, and her hands were hidden in her pockets.

“Annatar,” said Miss Militia. Her voice had a very slight edge. It wasn’t anything like the cloaked dislike I’d gotten used to, before Leviathan, but I had clearly done something she was displeased about.

I turned my swivel chair to face them. “Hello.”

“Panacea has been telling me—”

“That I gave her Nenya,” I interrupted. “It’s true.”

Miss Militia breathed in and out once, deeply. “When were you planning on telling me?”

“I was planning on letting Panacea do it,” I said. “Unless it became clear she wasn’t going to.”

“You can’t do this sort of thing without clearing it with us, Annatar,” said Miss Militia, but she sounded almost resigned.

I glanced at Amy. She looked back at me for a moment, lips twisted, then said, “Ma’am, if Annatar had waited, I might be dead.”

Miss Militia blinked at her. “What?”

“I was suicidal. Without Nenya, I’m not sure I’d have survived the day. Annatar didn’t have time to get permission.”

Miss Militia turned to me. I shrugged. “What do you want me to say?”

“Did you know about this?”

“I guessed.” I stood up, closing my laptop. “Besides, I’m not subordinating my Rings of Power to anyone. It’s simply not happening. I will make sure you know where they are, but I’m not going to decide what to do with them at your order.”

Miss Militia grimaced. “Is this about Armsmaster?”

“No,” I said honestly. “That’s between him and me. I’m sure we’ll talk it through when he returns. But my policy is the same. Rings of Power go to the people I deem suitable—no one else.”

Miss Militia sighed. “Couldn’t you have at least told someone Panacea was in danger?” she asked. “And had professionals deal with that?”

“Maybe. And would they have tried to make her heal Carol? Would they have told her she had to go back to the Dallons?” I shook my head. “Amy didn’t need someone to tell her what was best for her, she needed to be given the capability to choose for herself. I was the only person who could give her that. Besides, I could find her better than anyone else.” I glanced at Amy. “Speaking of which, what did you do?”

“Went to the hospital,” said Amy. “Fixed Carol. Fixed Mark’s depression, too.” She gave me a sad smile. “Nothing to hide from, anymore.”

She could fix brains all along. No, not fix.

“What do you mean?” Miss Militia asked.

“I’m not a healer,” said Amy. “I’m a biokinetic. It was never that I couldn’t fix brains—it was that I didn’t. Wouldn’t. Because once I let myself touch brains, it’s a hell of a slippery slope.”

Miss Militia looked like she wanted to ask more, but I interrupted. “So, what now? Have you made a decision?”

“New Wave isn’t for me,” said Amy immediately. “Aunt Sarah and Uncle Neil are fine, and I like Crystal and Eric, but I can’t deal with Carol and Mark. Not now. Maybe not ever.”

“Then?”

She sighed. “I don’t know, Annatar. All I know is that I can’t go back to spending all my free time at the hospital. Nenya would let me do it—let me keep going until I dropped dead. There’s better uses for my power. And for Nenya. I just don’t know what they are.”

“The Wards are a good place to experiment,” Miss Militia suggested. “We quite literally have no competition when it comes to power testing.”

“The Wards also have a bad habit of leaving their capes in toxic home environments,” I countered. “Shadow Stalker is a prime example.”

Miss Militia grimaced, but didn’t reply.

“I have a lot of leverage, though,” Amy said, a cynical smirk on her face. “All I have to do is threaten to stop healing people, and they’ll be jumping to get me out of Carol’s house. No, the real problem is that I don’t know what I want to do instead.”

“Have you talked to her?” I asked.

Amy scowled. “No. She talked a bit at me. Woke up, started hissing and spitting.” Her bared teeth shifted into a cruel grin. “I was tempted to give her fur, I’m not gonna lie.”

I considered her. The anger was understandable. What Carol had said to her, over Vicky’s body, was unforgivable—and the fact that Amy was still controlling herself made me all the more sure that Nenya had gone to a good Bearer. Still, though, something ought to be done. “I could talk to her.”

“Oh, no,” said Miss Militia sharply. “You’re not turning your thinker powers onto yet another hero on a whim.”

“Does she really sound like a hero?” I asked Miss Militia incredulously. “You weren’t there when she was blaming Amy and Gallant for Glory Girl’s death, when she was accusing Amy of not loving her sister. Carol Dallon needs to be talked to.” I shook my head. “You let me talk to Shadow Stalker, after all.”

“Yes. We did.” Miss Militia’s voice was cold. “And if anything could convince me that you have an unregistered master power, it’s her change in behavior afterwards. I am not letting you use that on everyone you disagree with.”

My eyes widened. I clenched my fists. For a moment there was silence.

“You did not,” I said, my voice like ice, “just accuse me of mastering Shadow Stalker.”

Miss Militia held her ground. “Maybe you didn’t,” she said, “but look at it from my perspective, Annatar. That girl has become incredibly loyal to you, incredibly quickly—when not two months ago, you hated each other.”

“I gave her what she wanted,” I hissed, Vilya shimmering on my finger. “I gave her a fucking chance. I gave her what she needed—not training, not a blind eye, but guidance. You think everyone doesn’t have something like that? You think you don’t have a breakpoint, a weak link in your armor? It doesn’t take a fucking master to win people’s loyalty—ask your great American demagogues.”

Miss Militia stepped back. I stepped forward.

“All I have is insight,” I said. “No powers to enslave or control. Just the ability to see what people want, and what they need. It was to Shadow Stalker’s good fortune that I was there to give her what she needed.”

“And to your good fortune, I would assume,” said Miss Militia through gritted teeth.

That brought me up short. I sighed, and allowed the tension to drain slowly out of my frame. I shook my head. “Shadow Stalker is a good friend,” I said at last. “I value her companionship. There was a time when all I wanted was a hero I could use, to better the city. That time has passed. Yes, Miss Militia, it is to my good fortune—because that day, that chance, won me a friend like none I’ve had before.” I looked away, back at my desk. “Amy needs a place to stay,” I said. “And Carol needs therapy—and you know she won’t take it herself. Let me talk to her. Let me at least try.”

“I don’t think I’m willing to go back even if she’ll take me,” Amy said suddenly.

I looked at her. “That’s your decision,” I said. “But Carol needs help, regardless. She’s supposedly a hero, but she can’t be much of one when she’s half-insane.” I turned back to Miss Militia. “Please,” I said. “I can help.”

She looked at me. Wither her bandana covering most of her face, her expression was unreadable.

At length she nodded. “Fine. But first, there’s someone else I’d like you to talk to.”

I blinked. “Excuse me?”

“Grue returned to our custody,” she said. “He wants to negotiate terms—and neither Piggot nor I can afford the resources necessary to work out an optimal deal. You want to give people what they want? Here’s where you can start.” She grimaced. “And… try not to give him a Ring of Power?”

End Arc 6: Douse

Chapter Text

The black helmet turned to face me as I entered the interview room. The deep pits of eye sockets in the stylized skull of a mask seemed to fix me with their gaze.

I closed the door behind me, shutting out the faint sounds of working PRT troopers, and stepped forward. I slipped into the chair across from Grue and folded my hands together.

Neither of us spoke for a time.

“Didn’t expect you to be here,” he admitted finally. “Thought it’d be Miss Militia, or a PRT officer.”

“I’m here at Miss Militia’s request,” I said. “The PRT is understaffed at the moment. I’m sure you understand.”

“Yeah. Endbringers will do that.”

Silence fell again.

“You gonna say anything?” he finally asked.

“I’m trying to decide on my approach.” I sighed. “All right. I won’t ask you to reveal your face, even though it would make this easier.”

“Yeah, I’ll bet.”

“You misunderstand. We have your identity. I don’t need leverage, I need rapport. Without being able to see your face, it’ll be a little harder. But I can manage.”

“Glad to see you think I’ll be that easy to manipulate.”

I shook my head. “You’re coming at this the wrong way, Grue. You came to us. This doesn’t have to be a conflict.”

Grue laughed hollowly. “I came back because I have nowhere else to go, and I’d rather not turn up dead in a ditch in a few weeks.”

“But you came,” I said. “And I think we can work together, if you’ll allow it.”

He didn’t answer.

“So tell me, Grue.” I leaned forward, resting my weight on my elbows. “What do you want? Tell me your plan, going forward.”

“I don’t have a plan,” he said, and I heard his gritted teeth in every sound. “If I did, I sure as hell wouldn’t be here.”

I shook my head, sighing. “No, that’s not what I mean. Grue, you must have had a reason to be a supervillain. Everyone does. Tell me how I can help you fulfill it, and I’ll tell you how you can help me in return.”

He was perfectly still. “A trade?”

I nodded. “If I can give you what you want, and you’re willing to give me what I need, then yes. A trade. But we can’t trade until we’ve talked.”

Silence fell again. He was indecisive. I saw it in the drumming of his fingers on his pant leg.

“I knew I shouldn’t have let Miss Militia send me in here without seeing your file,” I said ruefully. “I’d probably be able to guess what it was, if I knew who you were. Look, you can talk to me now, or I can go, get permission to see your file, and we can have this talk again—only next time, I’ll be holding all the cards.”

“Fine.” He sounded angry, but beneath that lay resignation. “You go first. What do you want from me?”

“I want allies,” I said. “I want people who will help me protect this city and its people.”

“You want me to join the Wards.”

I blinked. “Wards? You’re not eighteen?”

“Seventeen, for a bit longer.”

“Mm. You hold yourself like an adult. My mistake.”

“It’s fine,” he said, clearly on a reflex. “I’m not a hero. Not exactly hero material.”

“Nor was Shadow Stalker,” I said.

He chuckled at that, as if in amusement at a private joke. “You don’t say? You know she shot me, right?”

I grimaced. “I’m not surprised. Shadow Stalker had—has—a pretty big chip on her shoulder. We’re working on it.”

“What are you, her therapist?”

“In a sense,” I allowed. “I gave her a chance when she deserved none. And now I’m making sure she doesn’t waste it.”

“And you see yourself being that for me, too.”

I shook my head. “Believe me, you’re much more well-adjusted than she was when I first joined the Wards. No, Grue, all I want to do here is find a way for being a hero to give you what you want.”

There was silence. I allowed it to stretch. He was thinking, and interrupting would only make him recoil.

At long last, he spoke. “Fine.” He reached up, and took off the motorcycle helmet.

A dark-skinned face looked back at me. His black hair was done into tight cornrows, and his features were hard and masculine. And yet, in his eyes, I saw veiled fear, insecurity.

This was a man who hid behind his masculinity. I mentally adjusted my approach as I reached up myself.

Off came my own helmet, and I set it down on the table beside me. “Taylor Hebert,” I said, holding out a hand.

He shook. “Brian Laborn.”

“So,” I said, folding my hands again. “Brian. Tell me what you want.”

He considered me for a moment. “It’s my sister,” he said at last. “It’s—” he shook his head. “I don’t know how to start.”

“At the beginning,” I suggested. “Continue until the end. Then stop.”

He smiled slightly. “Fine. My parents split up years ago. My dad tries, but he’s—he’s just not cut out for parenthood. Doesn’t know how. Bonding with him meant sparring until I had a black eye—and he has no idea what to do with my little sister.”

He hesitated a moment, in case I wanted to interrupt. I didn’t, so he continued.

“My mother,” he continued, and I could hear the faint, venomous undercurrent, “is worse. Drugs, alcoholism… everything short of open prostitution.” His face twisted. “My sister’s with my dad, but I want better for her.”

I was beginning to understand, but a few key details still didn’t add up.

“I became a supervillain so I could live on my own, at first,” he said. “Then, after that, I started thinking about asking Aisha to move in with me. Thing is, I’d need to be able to demonstrate a stable job, and get my parents’ support. My dad agreed, but my mom…” He trailed off.

“How did being a supervillain help you there, though?” I asked. “I doubt it would count for much in court.”

His lips twitched into a small grin. “Tattletale’s boss helped there,” he said. “Never found out who he was, but he funneled money to us in exchange for us doing the jobs he wanted. In my case, he did it through a phony job that I could use in court. As soon as I turned eighteen, I was going to petition for custody of my sister.”

I nodded slowly. “I understand.”

“So when I was captured and unmasked,” Grue said, “I knew it was over. Even if I escaped, and the PRT didn’t release my identity publicly, I would still never be allowed custody over my sister. That’s why I came back—figured my best option was to take my jail time, and then take my chances when I got out again. I haven’t killed anyone, I’m still a minor, and I hoped helping with the Endbringer would give me a reduced sentence.”

“Well, you were right,” I said. “You will get a reduced sentence.”

His eyes narrowed. “You and I mean different things when we say that.”

I smiled. “I think we can help each other,” I said. “I think we can get you a stable job, and help you get custody of your sister when you turn eighteen. And I think you can help us keep this city standing, in the next few months.”

His eyes narrowed. “You really think the PRT will go along with this?”

“We’ll have to see if I can convince them,” I said, standing up and reaching for my helmet. “But you have my word that I’ll try.”

His lips twisted. “Wish I could say that was worth something.”

I smiled. “It will be.”


 

It was a familiar scene. I stood, hands clasped behind the small of my back, across from Director Piggot. Her desk was between us. She had dark circles under her eyes—marks of the ongoing stress of dealing with the aftermath of Leviathan’s passage. Nonetheless, her eyes were as hard and bright as ever as they met mine.

“I doubt I can condone launching an investigation into a private household on the word of a captured supervillain,” she said, but despite her words, her tone was absent of any derision.

“I know,” I said. “That’s why I propose a more moderate approach. Let’s allow him to do exactly what he was originally planning.”

“Acquire guardianship through the usual channels? He might have trouble finding the time to care for a child as a hero.”

I nodded. “If we actually encourage him to take his vacation days, rather than working all the time, he should be able to manage. His income as a Protectorate hero, once he turns eighteen, will be more than enough to support him and his sister. And since he’ll be a Protectorate hero, we can protect his identity in the courts, which gives us a little more leverage over his mother.”

“Callous of you.”

I smiled thinly. “Ma’am, I have an instinct for these things. Grue was telling me the truth, and I have very little sympathy for his mother on this one.”

She nodded slowly. “I can understand that.” She broke eye contact, and looked down at the computer monitor on her desk. “Give me a bit to think about it. It’s not a bad idea.”

“Thank you, Ma’am.” I turned to go as she started typing.

“Hold on a moment.”

I stopped and turned back. “Director?”

She finished whatever she was doing on her computer and looked back up at me. “We never caught up on that mess with Bakuda,” she said. “Never had a chance.”

I straightened slightly and nodded. “Of course.”

“Miss Militia has expressed her concerns about your conduct. I believe she’s talked about it with you, too?”

I nodded. “Yes, Ma’am.”

“Good.” She chewed her tongue for a moment, as though contemplating how to proceed. “Now, the PRT unofficially approved your actions with the Chief Director’s back-dated kill order. As such, I won’t be punishing you. That being said, I still want to talk about what happened. Just so we’re on the same page.”

So I talked. I told her about the timestop bomb, about the apparent loss of the other Wards. I told her about Sophia’s warning, and about going out with Belthronding and Aeglos to stop Bakuda before she could do any more damage. I told her about how I’d disabled her bike with one well-placed arrow, and how, after the explosion of her EMP bomb, I’d disabled the tinker’s deadman’s switch and driven Aeglos into her chest.

“So you can confirm that Bakuda was not a hazard by the time you killed her?”

“No more than any other parahuman prisoner.”

Piggot gave a faint, wolfish grin. “Good answer. No such thing as a safe parahuman. Any reason you couldn’t have kept her permanently Mastered?”

I shrugged. “I might have managed it, but there’s always a chance that, through an effort of will, someone might cast off Vilya’s effect. With someone as potentially dangerous as Bakuda, I don’t think that would have been a good risk to take.”

Piggot nodded. “We couldn’t have used her if she was permanently mastered anyway,” she said. Her smiled widened into a bitter, sardonic thing. “We’re the good guys, after all.”

“Ma’am?”

She blinked, and seemed to come out of some reverie. “Sorry,” she said. “Back to the topic. Why did you kill her? No excuses—just tell me why.”

“I was avenging my friends.”

She considered me for a moment, and then nodded once. “Nice to see you really are human under all the glitter,” she said, and there was something odd in her voice.

“Excuse me?”

She ignored the question. “I respect what you did. If the PRT hadn’t sanctioned it, I would have defended you from the worst of the punishment, if I could. I want you to know that.”

I stared at her. “Really? Why?”

She gave a quiet, dry laugh—little more than a sigh. “Because I get it.” She looked back down at her monitor. “I need to clear things with the Chief Director, but I’ll probably hear back by the end of the day, tomorrow at the latest. Once I have, we’ll open proper negotiations with Grue.”

“So you’ll…?”

“I think we can use Grue, same as you,” she said. “Right and wrong don’t enter into it as much as someone like Miss Militia would like. It’s the same logic that made me offer Shadow Stalker a probationary position in the Wards, almost a year ago. It’s what made me let you go in, when you first joined, and talk to her rather than kicking her out—even though I knew you might just try to master her. It was a risk worth taking.”

“We can use heroes,” I said.

She openly smiled—a crooked, slightly sour thing, cynical and old. “Exactly.”

Chapter Text

On the one-week anniversary of Leviathan’s attack, my alarm woke me to the smell of frying bacon and eggs.

This was unusual. Dad didn’t get up early enough to have breakfast cooking when I woke, ever. Maybe I was being paranoid, but so many things had changed so quickly that I found myself growing nervous.

I carefully drew the covers away from myself and swung my legs over the side of the bed. My bare feet didn’t make a sound as I stood. On my finger, Vilya was already shimmering in response to my feelings.

Rather than make straight for the bathroom and shower, I crept downstairs. The stairs creaked under my feet once or twice. Instead of fear, though, the sounds sent me into mourning. I’d never been so careless with Nenya.

At last I reached the base of the stairs, and poked my head out into the kitchen.

There was Dad, already dressed. His back was to me, and I saw his ring glinting in the electric lighting. The skillet in front of him was hissing and smoking slightly, and I could smell the delightful, sharp scent of greasy bacon, making my mouth water.

…Was he humming?

“Dad?”

He turned, startled. “Oh, Taylor! I didn’t hear you get up. How did you sleep?”

“Well enough. What are you doing up so early?”

He shrugged, smiling slightly. “Lot of work to do,” he said. “There’s not much of a dock anymore, not that there was much business to begin with. Getting the guys new jobs and organizing them for repairs and salvage operations is my responsibility. Besides”—he jerked his head at the fridge—“getting fresh groceries is going to be harder now. I’d rather eat it while it’s still good.”

I studied him. “You’re okay?”

His smile remained, but his eyes grew sad—but only slightly. “I’m okay, Taylor. Thank you.”

Slowly, I nodded. “Good. Do I have time to shower before breakfast?”

“If you hurry. I’ll save you… mm, maybe a quarter of the bacon?”

I grinned. “I’ll hurry.”


 

“Move your feet!” I ordered. “It’s not a shield, and you’re not a phalanx!”

“The hell even is a phalanx?” Sophia growled through teeth gritted in concentration.

We circled one another, wooden approximations of swords in our hands. The Wards had their own sparring mat in the PRT building, along with blunt training weapons. Sophia had offered to partner with me for swordplay, though she didn’t know the first thing about the art.

And so now I was teaching her.

“Phalanx,” I said, my eyes darting over her guard. She was a fast learner, I had to give her that. Her guard was clumsy, but complete. I could break it, but I saw no obvious holes to take advantage of. “A military formation used by the ancient Greeks. Wall of shields in the front, with spears poking through from behind. Sometimes with shields overhead to protect from archers. Sort of an infantry battering ram.”

“What does that have to do with—”

“You’re holding your sword too stiffly, and moving too methodically. We aren’t on a grid, and you aren’t a block of organized soldiers.” I swung in a feint, and then whirled as her guard rose to block, dancing around her and striking her a glancing blow across the side. “It’s a longsword, not a claymore. No need to carry it like a crowbar.”

She grimaced. “I don’t think I have a knack for this.”

“I disagree.” I struck again, this time a testing blow, and was pleased when she parried and even counter-struck. I danced away from the swing, smiling. “Your guard’s making serious strides, and your cut’s improving.”

I deflected a couple more strikes, waiting. Then, when she overcommitted to an attack, I parried her blade away and delivered a thrust to her thigh.

“Still don’t understand how you can do that,” she grumbled, wringing out her hands where the shock of the parry had jolted her. “Your wrists are perpendicular to the hilt! How can you control it well enough to be accurate?”

I shrugged. “Partly, it’s a sword, not a crossbow bolt. Doesn’t need to be that accurate. And partly, just practice.”

“You’ve only been using a sword for a few weeks!”

I smiled sheepishly. “Well… I’ve been practicing a lot?”

In truth, it felt like much longer than a mere few weeks since I’d first taken up the blade. Narsil’s weight and shape had been familiar to me from the moment I’d first made it. The sword itself was new to me, but I felt even then as though I’d been using swords for many years.

I didn’t really know what to chalk that up to, except talent or powers. And the question of my powers was still bothering me.

Sophia’s eyes were narrowed at me in what, on someone else, might have been called a pout. “Fucking combat thinkers,” she muttered.

I shrugged.

Just as we were about to cross swords for another bout, the monitors around the room flashed yellow and the alarm blared. I stuck my sparring blade under my arm and crossed to the side of the mat to pick up my helmet, Sophia at my heels, making for her mask. The door opened not long after we’d masked ourselves again.

“Miss Militia,” I said, saluting her with my wooden sword. “You need something?”

“Annatar, Shadow Stalker,” she greeted. “Yes. Annatar, Panacea is currently finishing her negotiations with the director regarding her Wards contract.”

I smiled. “Great. It’ll be good to have her.” Amy had been in and out of Piggot’s office for days. I was glad they’d finally settled things.

“In addition, Aegis has been recalled from his current patrol. When he arrives, Director Piggot wants to see the both of you. It’s about Grue.”

“What about Grue?” Sophia asked.

“Has Piggot heard back, then?”

Miss Militia nodded. “Apparently, she has the PRT’s blessing to use her judgement on this matter. She wants to see you and Aegis about it.”

“What matter?” Sophia sounded tense, now.

I turned to her. “Grue’s probably joining the Wards,” I said.

She stared at me. I couldn’t see her face under her mask, and even her eyes, normally so expressive, seemed dark and impassive. “You’re kidding.”

I shook my head. “I know you have problems with him, but we need everyone we can get on board. I talked to him, and we worked out a deal.”

She was staring at me. I wished I could see her face.

“What do you even have against him?” I asked. “I don’t think you ever told me.”

She took a moment before answering. “If he’s serious about working with us, nothing.” She sighed. “It’s petty, I guess. His power interferes with mine. I don’t like not feeling…”

She trailed off, but I filled in the blanks. Not feeling in control.

“I understand,” I said. “Can you work with him?”

“Yes,” she said, without an instant of hesitation.

“Are you sure?” I pressed.

“If you want me to, I can work with him.” Her voice was firm.

I nodded. “Okay. Thank you.” I turned back to Miss Militia. “Where is Aegis, anyway?”

“He was patrolling the south side of downtown,” she said. “He should return shortly. I’ll have someone text you when he arrives.”


 

“This is a bit different from last time,” Dennis drawled, his feet up on the coffee table.

“What,” Vista asked. “You mean we don’t have Armsmaster in the other room, and one of us isn’t in danger of being kicked out?”

“I mean I was more thinking that Annatar wasn’t a villain, but yeah. That too.”

We were seated around the coffee table in the Wards’ little lounge in the PRT building’s underground—the very same room where, only a month and a half ago, I had introduced myself to the other Wards.

Amy raised her hand. “I’m not a villain.”

“None of us are villains,” I said. My voice came out a little harsher than I intended. “If we were, we wouldn’t be here.”

“Uh,” Grue said, raising one finger.

Are. Present tense.”

He lowered the finger.

“Seriously though, Annatar,” said Chris. “You’re not expecting us to unmask in front of him, are you?”

“I’m expecting you to do what you can to make this team work,” I said. “If you can’t comfortably unmask, fine. But if you can, please do.”

“Well said,” agreed Aegis, and raised his hands to take off his mask. He set it on his knee and stretched out a hand to Grue. “Carlos Casiano,” he said, smiling.

For a moment, I wasn’t certain Grue would take the olive branch. Then, hesitantly, he reached up and took off his helmet, revealing the dark face I’d spoken to yesterday.

“Brian Laborn,” he said, and shook.

“Amy Dallon,” said Amy, with a roll of her eyes. “You all do realize how weird this is, right?”

I laughed as I took off my helmet. “Useful, though,” I said. “And you all know me already.”

Sophia, of all people, was next to follow suit. “Sophia Hess.”

Sam was next. “Sam Keene,” he introduced.

I realized in that moment that Sam, out of all of us, was the most seldom unmasked. Even among us, he seemed always more comfortable with his face covered. Receiving Ondoya had not changed this. But he had changed—the young man I saw now had an open smile upon his lips, and eyes which twinkled with life. It was a far cry from the closed, quiet boy I’d met in April.

“Well, seems like everyone’s sharing.” Dennis pulled his faceplate away, revealing his red hair and freckles. “Dennis O’Donnell.”

Chris grumbled. “Fine. Chris Thompson.” He pulled off his visor.

Missy sighed. “Missy Biron. What is this, show and tell?”

There was an awkward pause for a moment, before Missy prodded Dean’s knee. He started, as if roused from a stupor, and immediately pulled off his helmet.

His eyes were red, but clear. “Dean Stansfield. Sorry.”

“Don’t be.” Amy’s voice was soft. Their eyes met, and I found myself looking away.

“Anyway, Grue.” Carlos’ voice broke the moment. “Have you talked to Piggot about rebranding? ‘Grue’ doesn’t scream hero material.”

Brian frowned slightly. “I kind of like this identity,” he said. “It’s—I don’t know, it’s mine.”

“Did you choose it?” Sophia asked. “I remember I didn’t choose mine. Independents get saddled with them, a lot of the time.”

Grue actually smiled a little. “Yeah, I’ve heard of that happening. I did choose mine though. ‘Grue’ is Old English, means creepy or scary. Reputation’s important, and the first part of building a reputation is a good name.”

“You can do better than being named after an obscure Old English word,” I said dryly.

He blinked at me. Then he grinned. “Yeah, I guess I can.”

“You’ve got time to think, anyway,” said Carlos. “You’re not going to be patrolling for at least a week or two while the image department figures out what they want to do. I’m sure there’ll be a press conference or something.”

“What about me?” asked Amy. “I’m already pretty well established, and people will figure out I’m not with New Wave anymore pretty quickly.”

Aegis shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know. I’m just the Wards captain—you’ll have to ask your image guy, or Piggot. I doubt you’ll have to rebrand, though.”

“I might rebrand anyway,” said Amy grimly. “I’m really tired of being New Wave’s pet healer.”

“It wasn’t like that,” I said quietly.

Her eyes met mine. I saw mingled there hurt, and grief, and bitterness, and determination.

“I know,” she said eventually. “But I’m not a forgiving person, by nature.”

“Does that mean you’re not going to be volunteering at the hospital anymore?” Dennis asked.

“No, I probably still will be. I’ll just, you know, be doing other things too. Why? You have someone there?”

Dennis looked away. “No, it’s—” He sighed. “I know you don’t take requests.”

“His dad,” I said for him. “Leukemia.”

Amy nodded. “All right. I’ll see what I can do. Which hospital?”

Dennis was blinking at her. “Uh. Brockton General.”

She nodded. “I’ll keep you posted.”

“Amy,” Dean said slowly, “you set that rule for a reason. Are you—”

“Rules,” Amy interrupted, “are ways to hide from choices you don’t want to make. A way to keep doors closed that shouldn’t be opened. And that’s good, if you have options you’re afraid to take.”

An image flashed in my mind at her words. A Ring of Power, quite unlike any of the others. I forced the thought away. That’s my rule.

“I,” Amy said with a tight little smile, “am not afraid anymore. There’s nothing left to fear.”

Chapter Text

“So, let me get this straight.”

I nodded absently as I carefully struck at the blazing block of metal on the anvil.

“You found Aeglos after the fight with Leviathan,” Chris prompted.

“Mm hmm.”

“You were pleasantly surprised that it was undamaged.”

“Yep.” I lifted the bar and looked down its length. The blade was still true.

“So you decided it needed a new name.”

“New identity, more like.”

“…I’m missing something.”

I went back to my hammering. “Aeglos means ‘icicle,’” I explained. “In Sindarin. A mere icicle couldn’t hold back Leviathan, like Aeglos did. It needed a new identity to reflect its achievement.”

“I don’t think that’s how it works.”

I shrugged. The blade was forged to length and shape, now, so I began working on forming the edge bevel.

“Anyway. New identity, right.” Chris shook his head. “So… you decided that meant you had to take it apart and build it all over again?”

“It needed to be reforged.”

“But why?”

“The old spear was Aeglos. The new one will be Iphannis.” I glanced at him. “How’s that haft coming?”

“Nearly done,” he said. He glanced over his workspace, covered with a lattice of wires and welding equipment. “How about the point?”

I raised the curved blade and looked down the length again. The bevels were satisfactory for pre-grinding, and the line was still straight. “Needs quenching, grinding, and heat-treating. Should be ready in a couple hours.”

“You think you’ll have it done before your patrol tonight?”

I nodded as I lowered the blade into the water bath. “I should, yes. Thanks for all your help.”

“Happy to be of service… even if this makes no sense.”

I shook my head with a smile. “The results will speak for themselves.”


 

A gibbous moon shone pale over the evening streets. The last vestiges of sunlight still painted the western sky in golds and oranges. The night was warm and humid; summer was coming. It draped over the city like a woolen blanket, dampening everything and leaving me a little uncomfortable in my armor and linings.

The city was alive with the sound of labor, as buildings were repaired and infrastructure was reinforced. Jackhammers drummed a clanging beat upon asphalt, concrete, and stone. Rich men shouted at foremen, foremen shouted at workmen, and workmen, lacking an outlet, shouted at one another.

None of this activity spilled into this part of the city, though, south of downtown. The streets we walked were deserted—eerily so.

Each of us had patrolled often, in the days since Leviathan’s attack. As a rule, our daylight patrols were done in pairs, and our evening and night patrols were done as groups of three. One Ward was always left on the console.

Today, Sophia, Browbeat, and I were one group, while Aegis, Vista, and Gallant were another. Clockblocker was on console. The others went north, pushing into Lung’s territory and trying to restore some semblance of order. Meanwhile, we went south into E88 turf.

Aegis didn’t expect us to encounter any parahuman resistance, but we were to stop any crime we saw and remain on the watch for looting.

We had expected to easily find trouble. That expectation was being sorely tested now.

“I don’t want to sound like an action movie,” Sophia muttered, “ but it’s too quiet.”

I nodded slowly.

“It’s Empire,” said Browbeat. “I haven’t seen a single skinhead. They’re usually pretty careful to be watching every street around here. Part of that’s Leviathan—they’re a lot busier, now—but this is still unusual.”

“Any guesses what they’re up to?” Sophia asked.

“No idea.”

“Shadow Stalker, get on the rooftops,” I ordered. “Scout. We need to figure out what’s going on.”

“On it.” Sophia disappeared in a smoky burst of darkness.

I glanced at Browbeat. “I’ll take point. Can you call this in?”

He nodded wordlessly, and fell into step behind me. As we continued down the street, his low voice echoed through the empty streets.

“This is Browbeat. We think the Empire’s up to something.”

It was not the first time, and wouldn’t be the last, but I missed Nenya. With the Ring of Adamant, I’d have been able to pick out the Empire’s activity in minutes. I’d have led my teammates right to them. But with Vilya on my finger, I felt half-blind.

“…No presence on the streets. They usually…”

That was probably because I wasn’t using Vilya properly, though.

I stopped and closed my eyes. Browbeat tripped over his words momentarily as he stopped, too, before continuing to talk quietly into the radio.

I reached my awareness into Vilya. I had never worn the Ring of Air as much as Narya or Nenya. Its powers were more esoteric, and it never seemed to be the right Ring for the moment.

But it was the Dominant Ring for a reason. It might seldom be the perfect Ring, but it was almost never the wrong Ring.

I had not often tested its precognitive powers. I knew it could give me little more than a vague direction, or a general sense of the gravity of something to come.

I reached out and allowed myself to simply feel the shape of the future. I asked no specific question, not yet. I just ran my mental fingers over the body of Tomorrow.

Something bad is coming. I knew that already, though. Vilya had been paired with foreboding almost since the moment I put it on for the first time after Leviathan. Something was coming, and I had no way to know how soon or from where.

I knew it was drawing closer, though.

I shook this off. Worrying about the general cloud I felt hanging over the future would do me no good now. I tried to focus—to feel the future as it related to the Empire.

Anyone over the age of three understands causation. The future flows from the past in predictable and comprehensible ways, even though the sum of all these causal relations produces a universe far too complex for anyone but a precog to model. Vilya understood this as well, and so I was unsurprised when, rather than giving me some mysterious insight into the future, my attention was instead drawn to a memory.

We’re going to have to recruit, Rune had said.

“They’re trying to fill out their ranks,” I said, opening my eyes. “They lost too many capes to Leviathan. They need to recoup those losses, and that’s what they’re doing now.”

“Wouldn’t there be more people out if it was a recruitment drive?” Browbeat asked.

“They finished the drive,” I said. “This is the informational meeting.” I pulled out my radio and tapped into Sophia’s frequency. “Shadow Stalker, we’re looking for a big meeting. See anything?”

I mean, we knew they were probably going to be grouped up, since they weren’t on the streets,” she said. “No, I don’t see anything. You figure something out?

“It’s a meeting to get new capes and recruits into the fold,” I said. “I’m pretty sure about this.”

“I live around here,” said Browbeat slowly. “They might be meeting at the theater.”

“Theater?” I turned to him. “What theater?”

“Anders Concert Hall,” Browbeat explained. “Pretty big auditorium. I know E88 has done things there before.”

I reached out with Vilya, trying to get a feel for what the future of Anders Concert Hall felt like.

It felt like blades.

“It’s there,” I said. “Can you guide us?”

He nodded, jogging past me. “Follow me.”

“Shadow Stalker,” I said into the radio. “We know where they are. Anders Concert Hall. Keep to the rooftops and look for any patrols while I call it in.”

“Got it.”

I swapped frequencies. “Console, this is Annatar. My precognition suggests that E88 is meeting at Anders Concert Hall. We’re moving in.”

“Console here.” Clockblocker didn’t sound happy. “Annatar, the three of you are not to engage all of E88 on your own.”

“We’ll stick to recon unless we get backup,” I promised. “Can we get backup, by the way?”

“I have Aegis’ squad on standby,” he said, “and Director Piggot is—” he stopped, then started again. “I’ve just heard back from her. She wants confirmation before ordering the Protectorate to move, but if you can get confirmation, she’ll send you Protectorate and PRT support.”

“Thank you,” I said. “We’ll have that conversation in a couple minutes.” I lowered the radio. “How much farther, Browbeat?”

“Not far,” he said. “We should be careful. They’ll have sentries.”

I nodded. “Stop,” I ordered. “In that alleyway.”

We ducked into the small alcove, and I spoke into my radio again, on Sophia’s channel. “Shadow Stalker, we need their sentries found and disabled.”

“Already on it,” she said, her whisper barely hissing through the speaker. “There’s a guy on the roof of this building. I’m going to take him out, then see what I can get from his position.”

“Careful,” I warned. “They might have overlapping positions.”

“They do. Empire always does. I know what I’m doing, Annatar, trust me.”

“I do. Good luck.”

I waited with bated breath, the radio silent in my hand. The silence stretched. Ten seconds… thirty… a minute.

Just as I was starting to panic, as I began thinking of contacting Clockblocker and reporting Sophia’s disappearance, Sophia’s voice returned. “Yeah,” she said, “definitely an interlocking patrol. I’m still hidden, and one guy’s down. They haven’t realized.”

“How?” I asked.

“He was leaning against a wall,” she said. “He still is. He’s just unconscious now. I might be able to pick out a couple more, but it’s going to get harder. At some point we’ll have to move, and do something.”

I closed my eyes, thinking.

“Shadow Stalker could infiltrate, keep to the shadows,” Browbeat suggested. “We could use her radio to hear what’s happening while the PRT approach?”

“I don’t like sending her in alone,” I said. “What if something goes wrong?”

“She can take care of herself,” he said. “She’s quick, and has a good power for escaping. She’ll be fine. We need to get in there.”

I sighed and turned my frequency back to console. “This is Annatar. We can confirm the presence of E88 around the concert hall. Heavy Empire presence in the area—organized patrols. Requesting permission to send Shadow Stalker to infiltrate the meeting?”

“This is Console, please stand by,” said Clockblocker shortly.

I worried my lower lip as I waited. At length, Clockblocker spoke again.

“Permission granted,” he said. “Tell her to be careful. Aegis’ squad is en route to your position, as are a Protectorate detachment under Miss Militia, and a PRT squadron.”

“They’re not using the PRT vans, are they?”

“No. Unmarked civilian vehicles. Stealth op.”

“Good. Shadow Stalker will patch us the meeting audio and video through her helmet camera. Maintain radio contact.”

“You too.”

I swapped channels. “Shadow Stalker,” I said. “You’re going to infiltrate the meeting on your own. Can you do that?”

“Of course.”

“Use your radio to patch us the audio, and your helmet cam to give us video.”

“Will do. We getting reinforcements?”

“Yes. Be careful, though; they’ll be a while.”

“Hey.” There was a smile in her voice. “Careful’s my middle name. Don’t worry about me.”

This whole scenario was a little uncomfortably familiar. “Can’t help it.”

“I’m flattered. Wish me luck!”

“Good luck,” I said, but by the indicator light on my handheld, her radio had disconnected from the network—she’d phased into shadow.

At length, she reconnected. But it wasn’t her voice I heard across the radio.

…Leviathan was just the last, and most obvious straw.” I recognized the voice. Kaiser was an accomplished speaker, and a man of no small power. There was no mistaking that clearly affected aristocratic lilt, that deliberately placed hint of an upper-class British accent.

There were two kinds of demagogues—those who bolstered men’s virtues, and the far more common ones who preyed on their sins. Kaiser’s meal of choice was pride.

This city—this country—has been sliding into depravity for years,” he continued. “But you all know that. None of you would be here if you didn’t. And you all know the source!

Cheering. A wave of disgust rose in the pit of my stomach, but I forced it down as Kaiser continued.

This country has failed to enforce its own laws!” he declared. “It has allowed soft, weak-minded pity to outweigh pragmatism! It has spent enormous amounts of money, effort, and time to make sure the stupid, the inferior, the useless are cared for, while those who are useful are drained and tossed aside! Leviathan’s passage has left this city in need of aid, and where is that aid being sent? To the ‘less-privileged!’ The lazy! Those people who contribute nothing, and yet are somehow entitled to our tax money, while we hard-working Americans continue to pay their way! This country’s social institutions have become a vampire, sucking away at the lifeblood, the moral fiber, that made America great from the beginning!

The cheering was so loud, now, that I had to turn the radio down another few notches in the interest of caution.

“Man knows how to work a crowd,” murmured Browbeat. There was something odd in his voice. Disgust, yes, as I might have expected—but also something like shame.

I didn’t answer. Kaiser was speaking again. “That is why we are here! We are providing aid to those who need it—to those who deserve it! We are not so concerned with some arbitrary agenda that we will allow our own to starve! This is why Empire 88 is standing, and why we will not allow the corrupt government to beat us down! And yet they call us Nazis. Well, Hitler revitalized his country in a matter of years from a depression like few the world has ever seen, even as this country floundered in liberal policies which did nothing to alleviate its own crisis! We are its best chance at a return to America’s former glory! We—

There was a bellow, and then the radio went silent. I froze for the barest instant, and then, heart hammering, acted.

“Contact Console,” I ordered Browbeat. “I’ll keep listening in case she just phased. Get ready to move.”

He nodded, already working on his radio. “Console,” he said quickly. “We lost contact with Shadow Stalker. She—”

“I’m all right,” Sophia said, her voice cutting in over the console radio channel. “I’m fine. They’re moving, though. There’s a lot of capes here.”

“Fall back,” I told her. “Get back to us.”

“Already on it,” she said, and her radio disconnected again.

“Support is on the way,” said Clockblocker. “Be careful. Piggot has given the call for broken stealth—the PRT is coming in hot.”

“Understood,” I said. “Where should we rendezvous?”

“Marston and Lockwood,” Clockblocker said. “You know where that is?”

“I do,” said Browbeat.

“Lead the way, then,” I said. “Carefully.”

Chapter Text

Gunfire broke the silence of the streets. The Empire goons had surged forth, and the PRT had met them.

I doubted it was open battle. Neither side wanted that. But I couldn’t tell—not from these dark side-streets, where the only sign of combat was the echoing, drumming crack of gunfire, and the audible undercurrent of shouting human voices.

“Empire runners, headed right for you,” Sophia’s voice came from my radio. “Four of them, one gun. Rifle.”

I glanced at Browbeat. “We can take them.”

He nodded. His jaw, visible through his mask, was a hard line. “Yeah.” He looked at me. “Uh, do you mind if I…?”

“Not at all,” I said. “I’ll watch your back.”

What little I could see of his face looked grateful. “Thanks.”

I fell back, away from the sound of gunfire, and unslung Belthronding as Browbeat strode forward, cracking his knuckles. His hands came down to his sides, and his fists were clenched.

Four men rounded the corner. One was carrying, as Sophia had warned, a rifle. Two of the others had combat knives, and the last had what looked like a police baton. Their heads were shaved, and their arms were bare, proudly displaying a latticework of ink.

The man with the gun shouted as he saw us. “Wards! Look out!”

He raised his gun and fired at Browbeat. The bullets skittered uselessly against bone plates with a painful screech, like nails on a chalkboard, and my teammate’s stone-hard flesh was left unmarked. Browbeat started to run, his feet leaving minute cracks in the asphalt as he rolled forward like a tank.

The Empire men brandished their weapons, but Browbeat was implacable. He bowled them over like a ball through pins. One he caught with a punch that sent him careening into the wall. He delivered an elbow to the gut of another, sending him sprawling, coughing and gasping for air.

One of the men slashed wildly at him with his knife. The blade cut cleanly through the fabric of his costume over his chest, but was stopped dead before it could break the skin, as though by a barrier. Browbeat took his hand and crushed it in one of his own until the man was howling, the knife dropping from broken fingers. He tossed this man aside, then, and dispatched the last one with a kick to the shin that broke bone.

I watched him for a moment as he stood amid the gasping, groaning bodies. He was breathing heavily, and I knew it wasn’t from exertion. Browbeat had faced an Endbringer less than a week ago. This was no great task in comparison.

I jogged up to him. He didn’t turn, though I knew he heard my approach. I laid a hand on his shoulder when I reached him. “Are you all right?”

He didn’t answer for a moment. “Fine,” he said at length. “Just dealing with some demons.” He looked at me. “Do we just leave them here, or call it in?”

“Both,” I said. “We’ll call it in while we move. I doubt the PRT has time to pick them up. I’ll make the call, you lead the way.”

He nodded and turned, leading us down the road. I pulled out my radio.

“This is Annatar,” I said. “Browbeat and I just disabled some Empire recruits near the Blackwing-Vital intersection.”

Got it,” Clockblocker replied. “We’ll send PRT to pick them up later, if they’re still there.

The sound grew louder as we grew closer. Only a few weeks ago, gunfire would have been deafening to me. Terrifying. Now it was practically familiar, and running towards it seemed perfectly natural. It didn’t take us long to arrive.

“Annatar! Browbeat!” Aegis’ voice was hoarse as he shouted over the sound of gunfire and the crackle of containment foam expanding. He was taking cover behind a minivan that had seen better days. The paint had been chipped even before Leviathan, and the tidal waves had left it rusting and water-damaged. The bullets had done nothing to help any of this.

I dove out of the cover of a wall and ran behind the van with him. A bullet pinged off of my pauldron while I was exposed, but I was otherwise unscathed. “What’s going on?” I asked.

“Kaiser and his inner circle are already on their way out,” he replied. “Headed south. Velocity and Vista are trying to locate their getaway car. This is just their rear guard. Where’s Shadow Stalker?”

“On the roof,” I answered. I had to almost shout to be heard over the cacophony. “She can join the scouting team, and I can try to figure out what I can with Vilya.”

Aegis nodded. “Do it!” He made as if to say more, but was interrupted by an explosion down the street. He cut himself off with an oath. “Shit, they’re using grenades!”

“You and I can handle that,” said Browbeat. “The PRT troops can’t.”

Aegis nodded. “Come on, let’s go shake things up. Annatar, figure out what you can, and send Shadow Stalker to join the others.”

I nodded. “Good luck!”

He grinned. “Don’t need luck,” he said. “Got the Sun on my finger.”

He stood up, vaulted over the van, and was off into the fray without landing, flying straight into the Empire line with a shout. Browbeat followed.

I hunkered down and spoke into my radio. “Shadow Stalker, Vista and Velocity are looking for Kaiser’s getaway car,” I said. “Most of the Empire’s capes should be there. Go help them find it.”

“On it. Sure you don’t need help here?”

“I’m doing the same as you,” I said. “In my way.”

I closed my eyes for the second time that night and reached out with Vilya. A direction, I pleaded. Just a direction. Where will I find my enemies?

South.

I knew I could follow Vilya’s guidance. It would lead me where I needed to go, so long as I didn’t stop listening. I raised my radio. “This is Annatar. I think I can find Kaiser, but I don’t have mover powers anymore.”

“Console here.” Clockblocker’s voice was harried. “Vista, double back and pick up Annatar. Follow her lead.”

“On my way.”

Well, now there was nothing to do but wait. No reason I couldn’t help in the meantime. I rose, nocked a tranquilizer arrow to Belthronding, and ducked out of cover, firing at an Empire goon who was peeking out from an alley. My arrow caught him in the chest and he went down.

I ducked back as I drew another arrow out of my quiver. One down, too many to go. I glanced out again, shot again. A miss, this time, as the man fell back into cover just as I loosed the shot.

“Annatar, let’s move.” It was Vista, beside me—and yet, also, several blocks down the street. I took a step towards her, and traversed a couple hundred yards.

“Where do we go?” she asked.

“South, for now,” I said, my voice slightly absent. Most of my focus was on the Ring on my finger. “I’ll give us directions as I get them.”

She nodded, and space twisted around us. I followed her through folded space, down several streets.

“Left here,” I said, Vilya having altered its instruction.

“How far?”

“…Three blocks?”

She nodded, and moved, her hands twisting in the air like a dancer’s. Space shifted again, and suddenly the three blocks to the left of us were about two steps worth of distance.

I took those two steps, and immediately ducked behind a dumpster. “They’ll be passing any second!” I told her.

She nodded, joining me and pulling out her radio. “This is Vista. We’ve found them. Converge on my position. Annatar, can you—”

I was already pulling out Belthronding again. “Of course.”

There was the car. I understood at once why it had been hard to find. The vehicle might have been an expensive-looking limousine, but it was also modified with tinkertech, and nearly invisible. I could only see it by the faint distortion in the air as it sped down the road.

I nocked an explosive arrow, ducked out of cover, and fired at one of the tires. What with the invisibility, I missed my target, but the arrow burst in a fiery blossom underneath the car anyway, sending it spinning out of control.

It skidded to a stop, its tinkertech cloak flickering and going out. As it did, a wavering shadow of the car, like a holographic silhouette, seemed to bloom forth and expand, swelling out of the vehicle itself to twice the size and then popping like a soap bubble. It hurt to look at, like staring into an intricate optical puzzle.

The limousine was sleek in parts, as might have been expected, but in others marred by jutting modifications and additions made by some tinker. A veritable column of machinery rose from the hood like a souped-up hotrod, and the roof of the car was lined with antennae and blocks of intricate machinery.

For a moment the street was still, despite the gunfire still echoing. Then one of the doors opened, and out stepped a familiar figure. Kaiser’s armor was almost as bright as mine. The steel was impeccably clean, and—though Kaiser had likely only created it a few hours ago—seemed to have been polished to a glowing sheen. His visor stared me down.

“Annatar,” he said. “I might have known.”

Other doors were opening now. Other capes I recognized were leaving the car. Hookwolf, bare-chested and muscular, with the faintest hint of metallic blades beginning to poke out through his skin; Krieg, his knockoff S.S. uniform impeccable. Purity, her eyes and hair already glowing like a star; and Alabaster, his bone-white skin seeming almost ethereal in Purity’s luminescence.

Just me and Vista against what looked like half of the Empire’s capes, with more inside the car, if I wasn’t mistaken. I didn’t like those odds.

But I’d take them, if I had to.

“It ends here, Kaiser,” I said. “Surrender.”

“Surrender? Now? To a little girl?”

Belthronding returned to its place over my shoulder, and I laid a hand on the haft of the small blade sheathed behind the small of my back. I pulled it out, flipped it in my hand so the blade was up, and flexed my fingers just so.

The haft Kid Win had built for me expanded in my hand, and Iphannis was suddenly upright and at its full, nine-foot height beside me. The blue light of the blade glinted off Kaiser’s armor, setting the whole street around us aglitter.

“‘Little girl?’ Is that the best you can do?” I asked dryly.

“No,” he replied with a chuckle. “No, it is certainly not the best I can do, Miss Hebert.”

I didn’t move. No muscle in my body tensed, even as I heard Vista gasp beside me.

I could hear the smile in Kaiser’s voice. “Ah, now you understand. Leverage, Annatar, is far better than any amount of charisma.”

Another of the doors, on the opposite side of the car, was opening. I ignored it, ignored all the other Empire capes. My eyes were fixed on Kaiser.

I needed to decide on an approach, and fast. I could attack, and would if necessary, but Vista and I were alone as far as I could tell, though I was sure the others were coming. Sophia might be in position, and Velocity could arrive quickly, but that still wasn’t anything like enough to even the scales. I could try to threaten him back. Could I out-escalate him? Make him back down from the implied threat against my dad? Or could I play dumb? How good was his source? How had he found out?

I cast my mind to Kaiser’s history. How had he interacted with unmaskings, in the past? It had to have come up.

…It had. Fleur—Amy’s, what, aunt? She had been killed in her civilian identity, by an E88 goon. Kaiser had disavowed the attack. I didn’t know all the details, but I could extrapolate enough.

I couldn’t fight and expect to win, and I didn’t want to risk escalating… but I could stall for backup, even if, with Vista here, I wasn’t at all sure the others would arrive in time to help.

“You don’t want to do this,” I said. “Unmasking someone? How well did that go for you last time?”

“Typical,” said a girl’s voice suddenly. “Trying to deflect, to turn attention away.”

I glanced at the open door, and at the girl standing up from behind it. Her face was hidden behind a blank red mask with no visible holes for her eyes or mouth. Instead, it had only a single eye in the center of her forehead. She wore long, flowing robes in ornate red and gold.

“I wonder how well you’d deal with someone taking that close a look at you,” she said, tucking a lock of vibrant red hair behind her ear with her left hand.

“Oracle,” said Kaiser, almost soothingly. “Now is not the time.” He looked back at me. “We need not be enemies.”

I bared my teeth. “You do remember what happened to the last villain who hurt my family?”

“I’m afraid I agree with her, Kaiser,” said Oracle. “We can’t work with her. At least as long as she’s fucking that lesbian ni—”

Oracle cut herself off, seemingly choking on the word, as though it didn’t come naturally to her. I turned my gaze upon her. “You’re new to this,” I said. “Come on, Oracle—you know this is wrong, I can tell. You know it’s stupid. You know you can do so much better—”

She laughed—a harsh, dark, thundercloud of a laugh. “You’re one to talk,” she said. “Bit hypocritical of you, to say that I can do better. Then again, I guess you’d be familiar with hypocrisy, wouldn’t you, Ring-Maker?”

I found myself taking a step back. Hypocritical. The word rang in my skull oddly. I forced myself to stop. “I’m at least using my powers to help this city,” I growled. “I’m trying to heal it!”

“No,” she shook her head. “You’re trying to fix. To get tools you can use. You really can’t pretend you have the moral high ground on this one, not when you only think of how useful someone will be before helping them. Hell, you’ve mastered your entire team!”

My eyes burned like fire. “How dare you?” I thundered. “You think you can lie to my face—”

“Oh, sure you can’t control them.” Her voice was a cruel hiss. “Yet. We’ll just have to wait and see, won’t we? I wonder, Annatar—Taylor—what will it take to break you?”

“Got it!” The young man’s voice came from the other side of the vehicle, near the hood. In that moment, I realized my folly. I reached for Belthronding, but Kaiser was already moving.

A wall of barbed metal rose up between me and the car, blocking my vision. A crossbow bolt pinged off of it uselessly, as did my first arrow.

I heard scrambling, and then the car’s engine started—a roar which rapidly dulled to a low, barely-audible thrumming.

“Vista!” I shouted.

“I can’t see it!” she growled furiously. I saw her gesturing, and saw the wall beginning to shorten as she compressed the very space it filled.

In a moment, however, the car emerged from behind the wall. And yet it was altered. It shimmered, wavering slightly, as if it was interposed with several images of itself, all placed into my vision, one after the other, into almost the same place, but different enough that the edges were fuzzy and indistinct. Vista reached out, and the road ahead began to stretch.

The car, however, separated. Three separate images of the vehicle, each wavering like an indistinct mirage, sped in different directions. One turned left, one right, and one carried on into Vista’s lengthened space, speeding up right into the stretching area. As it entered, it stretched with the space, expanding sideways like an elastic band until, suddenly, it snapped out of existence, stretched to the breaking point.

“Fuck!” Vista exclaimed. We ran to the intersection. Two limousines, barely visible against the night, were speeding in two different directions. As I watched, they each split yet again, going once more in every direction down the next intersections in their path.

For a moment, Vista stretched out her hands to either side, as though to hold back two roads at once. Then she sighed, and released her hold on space. I couldn’t hear the engine, and the cars split apart down side streets one last time and were gone. We had lost them.

“Fuck,” she said again. “I can’t close off that many streets at the same time.”

“Did anyone get a tracker on that?” I asked into the radio.

Negative,” came Kid Win’s voice over the radio. “I tried, but they spent a lot on that car. My bugs fizzled once they were on it.

“Can we get Vilya to find them again?” Vista asked me.

“Maybe?” I said. “Vilya doesn’t really work like that, but I might--”

That’s a negative,” said Clockblocker. “You’re outnumbered and they could be anywhere, now.

“What about Velocity?” Vista asked. “Can he catch up to them?”

He followed the wrong car,” Clockblocker replied. “The thing just disappeared. Sorry, Annatar. We lost them this time.

I closed my eyes.

“Annatar?” It was Sophia—and her voice came, not from the radio, but from right beside me. She looked almost worried, as if she saw something in my face that concerned her. “Are you okay?”

I swallowed, looking after the vanished car. My hands were clenched into fists, and I sighed, forcing myself to relax. My anger cooled from a raging inferno to a smouldering ember, but did not go out. “Yes, I am,” I replied.

Chapter Text

Thursday, May 26 th , 2011

I find myself returning here once more. I am… affected, I find. Undeniably so.

Oracle. The very name makes my blood boil. How dare she take a name that should imply truth and wisdom, yet spout such blatant, poisonous lies? May she choke on her forked tongue.

And yet I cannot put her words out of my mind. They linger, like the seed of some vile parasite, ready to sprout at the slightest sign of frailty and feed on me until I am drained of life. Her words were false, and yet she spoke with such conviction.

Why? When she called me ‘hypocrite’—how could that ring true? When she said that I had enslaved my teammates, my dear friends—why can I not convince myself that she was lying, rather than merely wrong?

I know I have not mastered the other Wards. I will not be convinced otherwise. I know my own powers, I know my Rings, and I know the Seven. I do not—cannot—control them. And I will never be able to, for as long as the Sun still rises over this eastern shore.

And yet, unless I sorely misjudge her, her power grants insight. So how can she believe these things? What can I draw from this? What can I learn?

I know that this introspection, this self-questioning, this damnable uncertainty is exactly what Oracle intended. I know that her whole purpose was to shake me, to affect me. Even so, I cannot deny she has succeeded—and, like a moth drawn to flame, I cannot help myself. I must seek to understand why.

To my credit, I have been patient. I have waited until the stakes are lower, until I returned home, where no one depended upon me to be the unyielding warrior I have become. Now at last I am here, sitting at my desk, pen in hand, and I can wait no longer. As it was after Leviathan’s attack, so it is now: I must understand today before the morrow comes.

And yet, is not self-knowledge a good thing? Should I not thank Oracle, despite her lies and malice, for giving me this opportunity? It is an opportunity for growth, after all.

Enough jest. Hypocrisy: how does it apply to me, if at all? If I assume Oracle is not merely deluded, what can I learn from this?

As if by providence, an example makes itself apparent. I was beset, before the forging of the Three, by three primary tormentors: Madison, Sophia, and Emma. And I have not treated each of them in the same way.

I can scarcely remember Madison’s face. The image in my mind is hazy, barely visible. She, I have ignored. She has no part in my life any longer. And this is entirely right. I desire no retribution, though I hope she learns the error of her ways—for her sake, and the sake of any future victims. I see nothing I might gain by her penitence.

Sophia, of course, I extended a hand to. I cannot easily think of any better decision I have made. Sophia is dear to me, now. She is loyal, steadfast, supportive—in short, everything I could hope for in a friend, and everything Emma was not.

But to Emma I was less kind. Emma attacked me—cruelly, viciously—and I retaliated in kind. It does not escape me that I was also instrumental in Sophia’s rejection of her, several weeks later. Where to Sophia I have extended a hand, to Emma I was nothing so much as a Montresor. Nemo me impune lacessit.

What was the key difference between these two? Was it mere whimsy? Caprice, that made me help and teach one broken soul, and leave another to rot? Was it timing? Did Sophia come into my life as Annatar at the right time for me to seek to help her, and Emma at the wrong one?

No. It was indeed utility, as Oracle said, and I know that perfectly well. I can use heroes. Sophia represented a tool which I could turn to my advantage. A hero on the streets, whom I could use to better my city. Emma, on the other hand, was a small girl in a small school, with small ambitions, desires, scale. She was useless to me, and so there was no purpose in helping her.

And yet I refuse to believe that I ought to have forgiven Emma—or Sophia, or Madison, for that matter. After all they did to me—after the eighteen months of hell, after destroying any hope I may have had for the future, after crushing the light out of my world, I refuse to believe that it was my responsibility to forgive them. The saint may turn the other cheek, but failing to do so cannot of itself make one a sinner. There surely must be a grey area, or God is truly cruel.

But I mean to be a hero. To do more than the bare minimum. To go above and beyond.

This is the task I set for myself. The objective is to protect the innocent, not to punish the guilty. I do not feel that I acted unjustly with Emma, but justice, while noble, is not the ideal to which I aspire. Justice is a punisher of the guilty. I sought to be a defender of the innocent.

Have I lost sight of this? I killed Bakuda, and she deserved it. I cast off Emma, and she deserved it. I do not feel guilty over either of these things. But do I not fixate upon them more than I ought? I am no judge, no executioner. I am a hero, and the punishment of the deserving ought not to be my primary concern.

And punishment comes at a cost. Oracle knows me. She hates me not as Annatar, but as Taylor Hebert. And I cannot imagine why, except for what I did to Emma. Justice or not, I have created a powerful enemy.

I feel no need to hate her in the same way. I am certain, if Oracle would side with Emma against me, that she has long since done me wrong. That she, too, would deserve my justice. And yet I feel no need to lift her mask, nor even much curiosity as to what I would find there. It feels almost irrelevant, trivial now. Instead I will hate only Oracle, the silver-tongued supervillain who has placed my father into danger.

Kaiser knows my identity. By extension, he knows my father’s. Oracle—for I am certain it was she who told Kaiser my name—has placed him in incredible danger. Kaiser may have been against the murder of Fleur, years ago, but things have changed, and so has he. If nothing else, his taunts tonight, his flagrant use of my civilian name, makes that abundantly clear.

I love my father. I may not be with him as often as I would like, I may not embrace him as often as I should, but I do love him dearly. To lose him would be devastating. And yet to betray those ideals for which I stand would be no less so.

What will I do, should it come to a crossroads? What will I do, should it prove necessary to weigh my father’s life and happiness in one hand, and my identity, my very soul, in the other? What will I do if I am forced to choose? I never dreamed that such a choice would ever come before me, not in my darkest nightmares, and yet here it is.

Kaiser, you have made an enemy today. Take comfort: I do not think we shall remain enemies for very long.

Chapter Text

Rune leaned back in her cushioned seat as the limousine sped down the road. Her robe, already uncomfortably hot on this warm night, was positively drenched with sweat. Her hands were shaking where they rested on her knees.

“Rune, relax,” said Oracle. “We had that.”

Rune swallowed. “You just baited the cape who faced down an Endbringer,” she said. Her voice was about an octave higher than normal.

“Careful, Rune,” growled Hookwolf from the row in front of her and Oracle. “Your hero-worship is showing.”

“I don’t—”

“There’s no call for that sort of behavior, Hookwolf.” Kaiser’s voice was smooth and unruffled from his seat beside Purity two rows ahead of Rune. He turned back to them, his armor glinting like silver in the light from the streetlamps outside and the dashboard in front. “Annatar is a dangerous parahuman, Rune, there’s no question about that. But the longer she goes unchecked, the more dangerous she grows.”

“And the more powerful she gets,” said Oracle grimly, “the more she’ll abuse that power. We have to stop her.” She huffed a derisive laugh. “After all, it’s not as though the fucking heroes will.”

Rune glanced at her newest teammate. Oracle was a strange one. She’d sought them out, shortly after Leviathan. In general, if a cape didn’t trigger from inside the E88 rank and file, they were instead slowly brought into the fold and deliberately recruited.

It was what had happened to Rune herself, after all.

A thought occurred to her. “Is Annatar really mastering all her teammates?” she asked.

Oracle raised a hand and shifted it from side to side in a “so-so” gesture. “Sort of. My power’s pretty clear that there’s something planted in them, and it shows up like a master effect would—but it doesn’t seem to be feeding obedience into them.” She shook her head. “I could be wrong, though. They’re all really hard to read. Too many variables, too much input from those Rings.”

“I remember when they said telepaths weren’t a thing,” said Alabaster dryly. “Those were the days…”

“I’m not a telepath,” Oracle said. “Be a lot easier if I were a telepath.”

“Close enough,” Alabaster grumbled. “Thinker, with a master 0 rating, right? That’s what you decided. That’s spooky.”

“Says the guy who was this close to naming himself Schrödinger’s Zombie,” said Othala caustically.

“That’s totally different,” said Alabaster, and even though he was facing away from her, Rune could hear the smirk in his voice.

“My friends, please,” Kaiser said, his tone patronizing, as if he were speaking to children rather than colleagues. “Let’s not fight amongst ourselves. We have far more pressing matters. First, we must all thank Auxiliary for his quick work on the car. Very well done.”

“Yes, you did vell,” Krieg agreed, his words stilted by his false German accent. Rune could barely keep herself from rolling her eyes.

The young man sitting in the driver’s seat didn’t visibly react to the praise. “It is just the job,” he said, his crisp voice perfectly unruffled. The hint of a genuine German accent only made Krieg’s sound sillier. “Be a poor tinker if I couldn’t keep a car running.”

“Well, you certainly went above and beyond the call of duty today,” Kaiser said magnanimously. “Second, we’ll be arriving at the Medhall building shortly. Do any of you need transportation from there?”

Oracle raised a hand. “If it’s all right with you, sir,” she said, “I’d like to stay at the building for a couple of hours, to deflect my parents’ suspicion. They’re not expecting me back for a couple more hours. If they hear that my ‘internship’s’ function was cut short on the same night as a raid on Empire…”

“Surely you could just tell them it was held in that part of town,” said Krieg. “That the function was canceled because of the raid.”

Oracle shook her head. “My dad’s a lawyer,” she said. “He’d try to sue for leaving me to fend for myself in the middle of a PRT raid. No one wants that.”

“I suggest,” said Kaiser, a languid smile in his voice, “that we trust the psychic when she says what we should and shouldn’t tell her father.”

“Not a psychic,” said Oracle, looking down.

“Rune,” Kaiser said, glancing back at her. “Do you think you could keep Oracle company, for at least part of the time she has to stay at the building?”

Rune swallowed. “Yes, sir.”

“Thank you,” said Oracle, with a perfectly even voice, and Rune wondered what the girl’s power had said about her.


 

“So, Rune.”

Rune glanced up from her newspaper. Oracle was sitting across the coffee table from her, in one of the Medhall Building’s private lounges. The other girl still had her mask on, but her robe had been taken off and neatly folded on the chair beside her. She was wearing a green blouse which brought out the vibrant color of her hair, alongside simple blue jeans.

Rune was jealous. She didn’t think she’d ever be able to make clothes that simple look that good.

Oracle set down her mug of spiced cider. Rune felt her eyes roving over her, studying her like a bug pinned in a display.

Suddenly, Rune realized Oracle was waiting for a response. “Yeah?”

“What brought you to Empire?” Oracle asked.

Rune narrowed her eyes. “Bit of a personal question.”

“You don’t have to answer,” said Oracle quickly. “I’m just curious.”

This was the problem with fucking psychics. Thinkers in general. Rune always felt like she was in a game of high-stakes poker, and she was terrible at poker. She never knew whether Oracle was being honest, or whether it was a careful lie, designed to manipulate.

But she’d be working with Oracle for the foreseeable future. It wouldn’t help to be rude. Putting herself out there was a risk, yeah, but she’d stay on guard. And it wasn’t as though Oracle was a powerful master.

“I’m related to the Herrens,” she said finally. “You know, Othala’s extended family? My parents split from the clan, but I got back in. Got sent to juvie for shit in school, got my powers there. Joined up once I broke out.”

Oracle was watching her like that again—that piercing, roving look. Rune shuddered, and was about to open her mouth when Oracle looked away.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I know that makes you uncomfortable. It’s just—it’s hard to help myself.”

Rune gritted her teeth. “Mind telling me what’s in my tarots, psychic?”

“I’m not a psychic.” Oracle seemed to be shrinking into herself, curling up a little, withdrawing like a turtle into her shell.

Rune looked away, fighting the queasy feeling in her stomach. For a time, there was silence.

“Do you believe in it?” Oracle asked at length.

Rune glanced back. Oracle was carefully not looking at her. Her back was still bent over her cider, still curled. Her red hair fell around her mask like a curtain.

“In what?” Rune asked.

It. The—the racism, the nationalism. The Nazi thing.”

“Yes. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t.”

Oracle visibly struggled with herself for a moment, and then at last brought her hands up and cupped them over her face. “Okay,” she said. “I believe you.”

It hurt to watch. “Fuck,” Rune swore. “Okay, then, I don’t believe it! Just calm down!”

Oracle shook her head spasmodically. “Don’t,” she whispered. “Now it’s even harder.”

Rune blinked. “What?”

Oracle’s hands were still covering her mask. “When I look at someone,” she said, “I can see the reason why they’re doing whatever they’re doing right then. The deeper I go, the more I get—but I can only do it with line of sight. Please—don’t tempt me to look if you don’t have to. I know you hate it when I do.”

Rune grimaced. Drawn inward, curled up as she was, Oracle looked like nothing so much as a kicked puppy.

“Does it… hurt?” she asked. “To not use your powers?”

Oracle shook her head. “No, it’s just…” she trailed off. Swallowed. “Well. You triggered, too.”

Rune found herself wincing. “If—if you don’t mind—”

“My best friend threatened to—to hurt me.” Oracle murmured. “Really badly. I don’t—I didn’t know why. I had no idea. There were no hints, no signs, and then suddenly she was just—gone.”

“That sucks.”

Oracle snorted. “It doesn’t sound as bad as some, does it?” she asked roughly. “Here I am, surrounded by people who triggered because of rape, or because someone died, or things I can’t even imagine, and I’m bitching because my friend betrayed me.”

“Betrayal’s a bitch,” said Rune firmly. “You don’t have to tell me that.”

Oracle flinched. “Yeah,” she murmured, hands still covering her face. “Yeah, it is.”

Rune considered her. “But what does that have to do with—”

“I didn’t understand her,” Oracle said lowly, her voice frail over the words, “and it cost me. It’s—it’s scary, not to understand.”

Oh.

“I’m sorry,” Rune said.

“It’s okay,” said Oracle. Her face was still covered.

She’s fucking trying, dammit, Rune told herself. She’s trying so damn hard to win you over. Hell, if she’s lying, she’s a better fucking liar than Kaiser. Get over yourself for just one minute and help the poor girl!

“You can—” Rune hesitated. “You can stop covering your face. If you want.”

Oracle tensed, and didn’t move. “Are you—are you sure? I don’t want to—”

“Yes,” said Rune quickly, before she could change her mind. “Yes, I’m sure.”

Slowly, Oracle pulled her hands away, and looked up at her. “Thank you,” she murmured. “I’m sorry. I—”

“It’s fine.”

Oracle swallowed. “Anyway,” she said, shaking herself. “Yes. Do you really believe all of it?”

Rune grimaced. “Yes? I don’t know. It’s a lot to believe.” She considered the girl across from her. “Do you? Know whether I—”

“Yes,” said Oracle curtly.

Rune waited.

“You have to ask,” said Oracle quietly. “I’m not fucking Annatar. I’m not going to tell you something about yourself if you don’t want to hear it.”

Rune frowned. “What does Annatar…?”

“How do you think Kaiser heard her identity?” Oracle asked. “I told him.”

Rune’s eyes widened. “You unmasked her?”

“She’s dangerous,” Oracle growled. Rune flinched, shocked by the venom in her words. “She’s like me—only about a hundred times worse. And she won’t let you hide, if you want to. She’ll take you by the hair and force you face to face with the ugliest parts of yourself, and then leave you to rot.”

“It’s that bad?”

“Worse.” Suddenly, Oracle was looking away. “And it’s my fault. I know it’s my fault. I knew her, you know?”

“That’s how you knew her identity?”

“Yeah.” Oracle was bent, curled inward again. “I… I caused her trigger.”

Rune blinked. Her mouth very nearly dropped open. “You fucking what?

“Yeah, I know. It was… stupid isn’t the right word. Evil, more like.”

“Well, yeah!” Rune stared at the other girl, askance. “You know what it’s like to trigger! How the fuck could you do that to someone else?”

“I didn’t know, then—”

“That’s no fucking excuse! You don’t do that kind of thing to another person!”

“This is it for you, Nazi bitch,” the black boy snarled at her as he raised the cinderblock one last time. She tried to blink the blood out of her eyes. “When you get to hell, say hi to Hitler for me!”

“I know!” Oracle’s voice, ragged with grief and shame, broke Rune out of her reverie. “I know. I was a monster. And I created a monster so much worse than I could ever be.” She swallowed. “I just wish… I wish she hadn’t done all this. I wish I could get her back, could apologize. But now she has, and I have to try and stop her.”

“And that’s why you joined up?” Rune asked. “To fix what you broke?”

“Yeah. Kaiser’s the only one who has enough power and capes to fight her. It’s my fault—I have to set it right.”

“Well,” Rune said, finding herself lost for words.

Oracle was peering at her, she was sure, through the hidden fabric-covered holes in that mask. “I was stupid,” she said. “I was a broken little kid with my own share of trauma. It doesn’t make it okay—I know it doesn’t make it okay, nothing can—but I’m trying to make it right. I’m doing what I can, even if it’s never going to be enough.”

Rune grimaced. She’d never been good at hating or even staying angry at the pathetic. The crude, the dangerous, and the disgusting, yes—but if she had a weakness, it was pity. “I guess I can understand that,” she said quietly.

“I… I appreciate it, anyway.” Oracle shook her head. “If you want to know about yourself, ask. I’ll never tell otherwise.”

Rune pursed her lips. “You know how tempting it is, right?”

“Yeah,” Oracle said ruefully. “But—it’s better to have the choice, isn’t it?” She sighed. “I really hate my powers, you know? Like, they’re incredibly useful, incredibly powerful—but I never wanted this. I never wanted to see that my dad is a broken man holding himself together by clinging to his wealth. I never wanted to see that the only reason my mom hasn’t divorced him is because of me. I never wanted to see that my sister literally hates both of my parents—really hates, like ‘has considered patricide’ sort of hate. And I’m not going to put anyone else through that unless they ask me to.”

“You did it to Annatar,” Rune pointed out.

That,” Oracle hissed, “was different. Annatar is a monster. She’s powerful, dangerous, and she’s willing to hurt anyone who gets in her way. It was damn time she got a taste of her own medicine.”

Rune raised an eyebrow. This girl certainly seemed vitriolic, for someone who blamed herself for all of this. All she said aloud, however, was, “She didn’t seem that bad during the Endbringer fight.”

“No?” Oracle shook her head. “She’s charismatic. You should have seen what I saw when I looked at the other Wards. They’re devoted to her. She’s willing to say anything she needs to, to get in people’s heads. If she can use them, she tries to make them loyal to her from there. If she can’t….”

Oracle reached up and roughly pulled aside her mask. The pale face looking back at Rune must once have been beautiful, with those high cheekbones and lips that would be full if they were not so thin. Her eyes were large and blue, but lay in sunken pits. She was thin—painfully so, and Rune saw that now, through the bright clothes.

“This is what she does, if she can’t use you,” said Oracle grimly.

“What did she do?” Rune asked.

“Cracked me,” said Oracle with a shudder. “And then sent her lapdog to finish the job. I spent a week in a hospital after my psychotic break. She did that to me because she didn’t think she could use me.”

On some level, Rune almost found herself pleased at the idea. It felt like karmic justice. It felt right.

“What goes around, comes around, you goose-stepping whore!”

Abruptly, she felt sick. No one deserves to trigger. “You got that from reading her?” she asked.

Oracle glanced away. “That much, yes,” she said. “Annatar’s harder to read than anyone else I’ve seen. It’s not that I can’t get into her head—it’s that I get too much. I saw….” She broke off suddenly, shuddering. “Normally, I just get ideas. Concepts. With Annatar, I got words and images. They overwhelmed me, almost made me throw up. Fire, ash, and dust that blocked out the sky… armies of monsters, consuming everything in their way… and her eye above it all, watching, commanding the slaughter and destruction.” She clasped her hands together, and Rune saw that they were trembling.

“So… what? She’s some kind of evil overlord?” Rune asked.

“Not Taylor,” Oracle said quietly. “But Annatar, inside her? Yeah. Something like that. I don’t know what it all meant, but one thing I’m sure of is that the reason she was willing to hurt me and not….” She trailed off. Shook her head tiredly. “Utility,” she said, and sounded exhausted. “I wasn’t useful. There was no place for me in her army.”

“Well,” said Rune. “Kaiser clearly thinks you’re plenty useful.” And if you can really put someone like Annatar off-balance with your powers, I gotta say he’s not wrong.

Oracle grinned weakly up at her. “I’m glad to be of service,” she said, “if it means taking down those bitches.”

“Anyway, I guess if we’re doing the unmasking thing…” Rune reached up and, with a touch of trepidation, lowered her hood.

Her identity really wasn’t that important—she was a wanted fugitive anyway, after her breakout from juvie, so it didn’t really give her much safety. Oracle had a lot more to lose, by giving out hers, and she’d already shown her face. Reciprocating was cheap.

She held out a hand. “Nice to meet you,” she said. “Janice Rush.”

Oracle blinked at her for a moment, then gave a wan smile and took the offered hand. “Likewise,” she said. “Emma Barnes.”

Chapter Text

“So,” Piggot said, her hands folded on her desk. Her eyes were hard. “Kaiser knows your identity.”

“Yes,” I said. “Probably through the new cape, Oracle.”

Piggot nodded slowly. “You realize this is one of the worst things that could have happened, don’t you?”

I grimaced. “It’s definitely a mess, but I’m probably missing something. Walk me through it?”

She sighed through gritted teeth. “Okay. He didn’t reveal your identity to the public—just to us. Standard procedure would be to relocate both you and your father through witness protection. Change your identities, down to physical appearance, and put you up in another state with a new cape identity.”

My eyes narrowed. “I’m not leaving this city.” The change of face and name, I could live with. I liked being Taylor, but it was just a name, in the end. Even Annatar was just a name. But Brockton Bay was my city, and I wasn’t about to yield it to Kaiser.

“I’d rather you not,” she agreed. “That’s clearly what Kaiser wanted. You’ve got him nervous, Annatar—not the PRT, not the Protectorate, you.”

“And he was willing to break the rules just to get me out of the city?”

Piggot nodded. “It’s the only thing that makes sense to me,” she said. “He’s got to know that escalating like this will bring heat down on him. He revealed your identity in a way that he knew the rest of the PRT would know he’d done it. If he just wanted leverage on you, he’d have done it privately and ordered you to keep it from us. He didn’t. He wants us to force you to move, because that’s protocol. And because he didn’t reveal it to the public at large, he doesn’t want to escalate into an open war. It’s harder for us to escalate if he doesn’t do it first.”

I shook my head slowly. “I knew I’d made enemies after Leviathan, but this is insane. I’m just a Ward.”

“He clearly doesn’t see it that way,” said Piggot in clipped tones.

“Yeah. So what do we do? I’m not letting Kaiser win this.”

“No,” she agreed. “But your father is still at risk. We’ll talk to him tomorrow morning, start talking about getting him into witness protection without you. It means you’ll either be emancipated, or become a functional ward of the state.”

“Would I still be able to call? Visit?”

“Yes,” she said, “but the more often you do, the bigger the security risk. You’ll have to limit it. I don’t know exactly how much. It depends on how secure his false identity is.”

So, either my father risked death by staying, or I would have to distance myself from him to an uncertain degree. I swallowed. “I don’t want to lose my dad, either.” I’d only just gotten him back.

“I know,” she said quietly. “It’s really up to him. He definitely has the r