TEN YEARS LATER
THE STREETS OF DOWNTOWN GATLON were overflowing with fake superheroes.
Kids ran amok in orange capes, screeching and waving Blacklight-branded sparklers over their heads, or shooting one another with Tsunami-themed squirt guns. Grown men had squeezed themselves into blue leggings and painted shoulder pads to look like the Captain’s armor, and now sat clinking glasses together inside the roped-off beer gardens that dotted the main street. Gender-swapping was a big thing this year, too, with countless women having shown up in risqué versions of the Dread Warden’s signature bodysuit, and plenty of men having strapped cheap replicas of Thunderbird’s black-feathered wings to their backs.
Oh, how Nova despised the Renegade Parade.
The street vendors weren’t any better, hawking everything from cheesy light-up wands to tiny plush versions of the famous Renegade quintet. Even the food trucks were celebrating the day’s theme, with Captain Chromium funnel cakes and Tsunami fish’n’chips baskets and one sign advertising DREAD WARDEN’S FAVORITE POPCORN CHICKEN—GET SOME NOW BEFORE IT DISAPPEARS!
If Nova had had an appetite to start with, she was sure she would have lost it by now.
A great cheer rose up through the crowd and the noise of a marching band broke through the din. Trumpets and drums and the steady thumping of hundreds of synchronized musicians moved through the street. The music grew louder, bearing down on them now. Cannons blasted overhead, dousing the crowd with confetti. The children went nuts. The adults weren’t much better.
Nova shook her head, mildly disappointed in humanity. She stood at the back of the crowd, unable to see much of the actual parade, which was fine by her. Arms crossed defensively over her chest. Fingers drumming an impatient rhythm against her elbow. Already it felt like she’d been standing there for an eternity.
The cheering turned suddenly to loud, exuberant boos, which could only mean one thing. The first floats had come into view.
It was tradition for the villain floats to go first, to really get the crowd riled up, and to remind everyone what it was they were celebrating. Today was the ninth anniversary of the Battle for Gatlon, when the Renegades had taken on the Anarchists and the other villain gangs in a bloody fight that had ended with dozens of deaths on both sides.
The Renegades had won, of course. Ace’s revolutionaries were defeated and the few villains who didn’t perish that day either crawled away into hiding or left the city entirely.
And Ace …
Ace Anarchy was dead. Destroyed in the explosion that leveled half of the cathedral he had made his home.
That day officially marked the end of the Age of Anarchy, and the start of the Council’s rule.
They called it the Day of Triumph.
Nova looked up to see an enormous balloon, spanning nearly the width of the street as it floated between the high-rises. It was a cartoon-like replica of the Atomic Brain, who had been one of Ace’s closest allies before the Renegades had killed him nearly fifteen years ago. Nova hadn’t known him personally, but she still felt a spark of resentment to see the balloon’s treatment of him—the bloated head and grotesquely disfigured face.
The crowd laughed and laughed.
The tiny transmitter crackled inside her ear.
“And so it begins,” came Ingrid’s voice, wry and unamused.
“Let them laugh,” Phobia responded. “They won’t be laughing for much longer. Nightmare, are you in position?”
“Roger,” Nova said, careful to move her lips as little as possible, though she doubted anyone in the crowd was paying attention to her. “Just need to know which rooftop you want me on.”
“The Council hasn’t left the warehouse yet,” said Phobia. “I will alert you once they do.”
Nova glanced across the street, to the second-level window of an office building, where she could barely see Ingrid—or the Detonator, as the public knew her—peering out through the blinds.
The booing of the crowd started up again, more enthusiastic than before. Over the heads of the spectators, Nova caught glimpses of an elaborate parade float. On it was a miniature-scale version of the Gatlon skyline and standing among the buildings were actors wearing over-stylized costumes meant to resemble some of the most well-known members of Ace’s gang. Nova recognized Rat and Brimstone, both killed at the hands of Renegades, but before she could be offended on their behalf, she spotted a dark figure near the top of the float. A surprised laugh escaped her, easing some of the anxiety that had been building all morning.
“Phobia,” she said, “did you know they were going to put you on the villain floats this year?”
A hiss came back to her through the ear piece. “We are not here to admire the parade, Nightmare.”
“Don’t worry. You look good up there,” she said, eyeing the actor. He had donned a long black cloak and was carrying an enormous plastic scythe with a bunch of rubber snakes glued to the handle. But when he opened his cloak, rather than being consumed by shadows, the actor revealed a pale, skinny physique wearing nothing but lime green swimming briefs.
The crowd went berserk. Even Nova’s cheek twitched. “They may have taken a few liberties.”
“I think I like it better,” said Ingrid with a snort, watching the parade from the window.
“It certainly inspires terror,” agreed Nova.
Phobia said nothing.
“Is that…?” started Ingrid. “Oh my holy bomb squad, they have a Queen Bee this year.”
Nova looked again. At first the actress was concealed on the other side of the cityscape, but then she moved into view and Nova’s eyebrows shot upward. The woman’s blonde wig was twice the size of her head and her sequined black-and-yellow dress could not have been any gaudier as it sparkled in the afternoon sunlight. She had black mascara running down her cheeks and was embracing a large stuffed bumblebee to her bosom, wailing about the unfair treatment of her little honey makers.
“Wow,” said Nova. “That’s actually not a bad impersonation.”
“I can’t wait to tell Honey,” said Ingrid. “We should be recording this.”
Nova’s eyes darted around the crowd for what might have been the thousandth time. Standing still made her edgy. She was wired for movement. “Are you offended they don’t have a Detonator?” she asked.
There was a long pause before Ingrid said, “Well, I am now.”
Nova turned back to the parade. She stood on her tiptoes, trying to make out if any of their other comrades were among the costumes, when a loud crash startled the crowd. The top of the tallest building on the float—a replica of Merchant Tower—had just blown upward, and a new figure was emerging, laughing madly as he raised his hands toward the sky.
Nova clamped her jaw shut, the moment’s amusement doused beneath a rush of fury.
The Ace Anarchy costume was the closest to reality—the familiar black-and-gold suit, the bold, iconic helmet.
The audience’s surprise passed quickly. For many, this was the highlight of the parade, even more of a draw than seeing their beloved Council.
Within seconds, people had started to reach for the rotten fruits and wilted cabbages they’d brought with them for just this purpose. They started pummeling the villain float, shouting obscenities and mocking the villains on board. The actors took it with remarkable resilience, ducking down behind the buildings and screeching in feigned horror. The Ace Anarchy impersonator took the brunt of the attack, but he never dropped character—shaking his fist and calling the children at the front of the crowd stinking rascals and little nightmares, before he finally ducked down into the hollow building and pulled the top back over himself, setting up the surprise for the next street of onlookers.
Nova swallowed, feeling the knot in her stomach loosen only once the villain float had passed.
My little nightmare …
He had called her that, too, all those years ago.
The floats were followed by a band of acrobats and a Thunderbird balloon gliding overhead. Nova spotted a banner being propped up on tall poles, advertising the upcoming Renegade trials.
BOLD. VALIANT. JUST. DO YOU HAVE WHAT IT TAKES TO BE A HERO?
She faked a loud gagging sound, and an elderly woman nearby gave her a sour look.
A body crashed into her and Nova stumbled backward, her hands instinctively landing on the kid’s shoulders and righting her before she fell onto the pavement.
“Watch it,” said Nova.
The girl looked up—a domino mask over her eyes making her look like a smaller, scrawnier, girlier version of the Dread Warden.
“What was that, Nightmare?” Ingrid said into her ear. Nova ignored her.
The girl pulled away with a muttered sorry, then turned and wove her way back into the teeming crowd.
Nova adjusted her shirt and was just about to turn back to the parade when she saw the kid crash into someone else. Only, rather than set her right as Nova had done, the stranger stooped low, grabbed the girl’s ankle, and turned her upside down in one swift motion.
Nova gaped as the stranger hauled the girl, screaming and swatting his chest, back in Nova’s direction. He was roughly her age, but much taller, with dark skin, close-cut hair, and thick-framed eyeglasses. The way he strolled through the crowd made it seem more like he was carrying one of those cheesy Captain Chromium plush dolls rather than a ferocious, flailing child.
He stopped in front of Nova, a patient smile on his face.
“Give it back,” he said.
“Put me down!” the girl yelled. “Let me go!”
Nova looked from the boy to the child, then took a quick scan of the nearby crowd. Far too many people were watching them. Watching her.
That wasn’t good.
“What are you doing?” she said, turning back to the boy. “Put her down.”
His smile became even more serene and Nova’s heart stammered. Not just because he had one of those easy smiles that made other girls swoon, but because there was something unsettlingly familiar about him, and Nova immediately began racking her brain to figure out where she knew him from, and whether or not he was a threat.
“All right, Mini-Magpie,” he said, somewhat patronizing, “you’ve got three seconds before I send in a request to put you on probation. Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure the janitorial crew has been needing some help lately…”
The girl huffed and stopped struggling. Her mask had begun to slip and was close to sliding off her brow. “I hate you,” she growled, then reached into a pocket. She pulled out her hand and held it toward Nova, who uncertainly extended her own.
A bracelet—her bracelet—dropped into her palm.
Nova looked at her wrist, where a faint tan line showed where the bracelet had been worn every day for years.
Ingrid’s voice rattled in her head. “What’s happening down there, Nightmare?”
Nova didn’t respond. Tightening her fist around the bracelet, she fixed a glare on the child, who only glared back.
The boy dropped her with little ceremony, but the girl rolled easily when she hit the pavement and had sprung back to her feet before Nova could blink.
“I’m not going to report this,” said the boy, “because I believe you are going to make better choices after this. Right, Magpie?”
The girl shot him a disgusted look. “You’re not my dad, Sketch,” she yelled, then turned and stomped off around the nearest corner.
Nova squinted at the boy. “She’s just going to rob someone else, you know.”
Ingrid’s voice buzzed in her ear. “Nightmare, who are you talking to? Who’s getting robbed?”
“—can hope it will make her rethink her options,” the boy was saying. His eyes met hers briefly, then dropped down to her closed fist. “Do you want help with that?”
Her fingers clenched tighter. “With what? The bracelet?”
He nodded and, before Nova realized what was happening, he had taken her hand and started peeling open her fingers. She was so stunned by the action that he had freed the bracelet from her grip before she thought to stop him. “When I was a kid,” he said, taking the copper-colored filigree into his fingers, “my mom used to always ask me to help with her brace—” He paused. “Oh. The clasp is broken.”
Nova, who had been scrutinizing his face with wary bewilderment, looked down at the bracelet. Her pulse skipped. “That little brat!”
“Nova?” crackled Ingrid’s voice. “Have you been compromised?”
Nova ignored her.
“It’s okay,” said the boy. “I can fix it.”
“Fix it?” She tried to snatch the bracelet away from him, but he pulled back. “You don’t understand. That bracelet, it isn’t … it’s…”
“No, trust me,” he said, reaching into his back pocket and pulling out a fine-tip black marker. “This wrist, right?” He wrapped the bracelet around Nova’s wrist, and again, the sensation of such a rare, unexpected touch made her freeze.
Holding the bracelet with one hand, he uncapped the marker with his teeth and bent over her wrist. He began to draw onto her skin, in the space between the two ends of the broken bracelet. Nova stared at the drawing—two small links connecting the filigree and, between them, a delicate clasp, surprisingly ornate for a drawing made in marker, and perfectly matched to the style of the bracelet.
When he had finished, the boy capped the pen using his teeth again, then brought her wrist up closer to his face. He blew—a soft, barely there breath across the inside of her wrist that sent goose bumps racing up her arm.
The drawing came to life, rising up out of her skin and taking physical shape. The links merged with the ends of the bracelet, until Nova could not tell where the real bracelet ended and the forged clasp began.
No—that wasn’t entirely true. On closer inspection, she could see that the clasp he’d made was not quite the same coppery-gold color, but had a hint of rosiness to it, and even a faint line of blue where the drawing had crossed over one of the veins beneath her skin.
“What about the stone?” the boy said, turning her hand over and tapping his marker against the empty spot once intended for a precious gem.
“That was already missing,” stammered Nova.
“Want me to draw one anyway?”
“No,” she said, yanking her hand away. Her eyes lifted just in time to catch a flash of surprise, and she hastily added, “No, thank you.”
The boy looked about ready to insist, but then he stopped himself and smiled. “Okay,” he said, tucking his marker into his back pocket again.
Nova twisted her hand back and forth. The clasp held.
The boy’s smile took on a subtle edge of pride.
Obviously a prodigy. But was he also …
“Renegade?” she asked, making little effort to keep the suspicion from her tone.
“Renegade?” cried Ingrid. “Who are you talking to, Nova? Why aren’t you—”
The crowd burst into a new frenzy of hollers and applause, drowning out Ingrid’s voice. A series of fireworks shot upward from the parade float that had just emerged, exploding and shimmering to furious cheers from the people below.
“Looks like the headliners have arrived,” said the boy, somewhat disinterested as he glanced over his shoulder toward the float.
Phobia’s voice crackled. “West station, Nightmare. West station.”
Purpose jolted down Nova’s spine. “Roger.”
The boy turned back to her, a small wrinkle forming over the bridge of his glasses. “Adrian, actually.”
She took a step back. “I have to go.” She turned on her heel and pushed her way through a group of costumed Renegade supporters.
“Renegade trials, next week!” one of them said, shoving a piece of paper at her. “Open to the public! Come one, come all!”
Nova crumpled the flyer in her hand without looking at it and crammed it into her pocket. Behind her, she heard the boy yelling, “You’re welcome!”
She didn’t look back.
“Target now passing Altcorp,” said Phobia as Nova ducked into the shadows of an alleyway. “What’s your status, Nightmare?”
Nova checked that the alley was empty before lifting the lid of a dumpster and hauling herself up onto its edge. Her duffel bag greeted her, resting at the top of the heap.
“Just grabbing my things,” she said, snatching up the bag. She dropped back to the ground. The dumpster lid crashed shut. “I’ll be on the roof in two minutes.”
“Make it one,” said Phobia. “You have a superhero to kill.”
Copyright © 2017 by Rampion Books