Many thanks to Carluun and Lorostan for betareading.
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.
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.
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