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Very interesting and made me read it in one day!
05 February 2021 (20:16)
this is literally so good
25 March 2021 (20:38)
ITS SO GOOD ISTG I WILL NEVER STOP SAYING HOW GOOD IT IS AYO LITERALLY AN ENEMIES TO LOVERS BOOK WITH A BUNCH OF ANGST AND IT SWITCHES POINT OF VIEWS AND ITS THE “I’m not supposed to fall in love with u but I did anyway” TROPE PLEASE GO READ IT RN SO GOOD
03 April 2021 (20:53)
This is basically supposed to be Miraculous in a book so let’s see...
21 April 2021 (01:24)
I'm a 13-year-old girl and I flipping love it, I finished the trilogy in just one week!
15 May 2021 (01:45)
Love this book so much!! Def reccomend im mentally in love with Adrian and Oscar :) I llove this series so much, im reading super nova right now and i dont want the series to end. ( i also keep thinking every lightskinned boy i pass by with glass is Adrian. I think im obssesed.)
21 May 2021 (05:31)
LOVEEEE IT. Read it even if you have doubts. If u like this read the lunar chronicles, also from marissa meyer
09 June 2021 (16:27)
I read this a while ago from the library so glad I found this website because I absolutely did enjoy this is one of my new favorites! thanks so much z library so glad I can pick this up on my device when ever I need a comfort read 3/5 stars for me
14 August 2021 (01:02)
I love this series. What i didnt like was the ending thoooooo). 4/5 stars tho
15 August 2021 (21:39)
read it 10/10 DO IT its so good
01 September 2021 (06:58)
Begin Reading Table of Contents About the Author Copyright Page Thank you for buying this Feiwel & Friends ebook. To receive special offers, bonus content, and info on new releases and other great reads, sign up for our newsletters. Or visit us online at us.macmillan.com/newslettersignup For email updates on the author, click here. The author and publisher have provided this e-book to you for your personal use only. You may not make this e-book publicly available in any way. Copyright infringement is against the law. If you believe the copy of this e-book you are reading infringes on the author’s copyright, please notify the publisher at: us.macmillanusa.com/piracy. For Jeffrey, the first hero I ever had CAST OF CHARACTERS THE RENEGADES: SKETCH’S TEAM SKETCH — Adrian Everhart Can bring his drawings and artwork to life MONARCH — Danna Bell Transforms into a swarm of monarch butterflies RED ASSASSIN — Ruby Tucker When wounded, her blood crystallizes into weaponry; signature weapon is a grappling hook formed from a bloodstone SMOKESCREEN — Oscar Silva Summons smoke and vapor at will THE ANARCHISTS NIGHTMARE — Nova Artino Never sleeps, and can put others to sleep with her touch THE DETONATOR — Ingrid Thompson Creates explosives from the air that can be detonated at will PHOBIA — True Name Unknown Transforms his body and scythe into the embodiment of various fears THE PUPPETEER — Winston Pratt Turns people into mindless puppets who do his bidding QUEEN BEE — Honey Harper Exerts control over all bees, hornets, and wasps CYANIDE — Leroy Flinn Generates acidic poisons through his skin THE RENEGADE COUNCIL CAPTAIN CHROMIUM — Hugh Everhart Has superstrength and is nearly invincible to physical attacks; can generate chromium weaponry THE DREAD WARDEN — Simon Westwood Can turn invisible TSUNAMI — Kasumi Hasegawa Generates and manipulates water THUNDERBIRD — Tamaya Rae Generates thunder and lightning; can fly BLACKLIGHT — Evander Wade Creates an; d manipulates light and darkness WE WERE ALL VILLAINS in the beginning. For hundreds of years, prodigies were feared by the rest of the world. We became hunted. Tormented. Feared and oppressed. We were believed to be witches and demons, freaks and abominations. We were stoned and hanged and set afire while crowds gathered to watch with cruel eyes, proud to be ridding the world of one more pariah. They were right to be afraid. Hundreds of years. Who would have stood for it? Ace Anarchy changed everything. He united the most powerful prodigies he could find and together they rebelled. He started with the infrastructure. Government buildings torn from their foundations. Banks and stock exchanges turned to rubble. Bridges ripped from the sky. Entire freeways reduced to rocky wastelands. When the military sent jets, he plucked them from the air like moths. When they sent tanks, he crushed them like aluminum cans. Then he went after the people who had failed him. Failed all of them. Whole governments, gone. Law enforcement, disbanded. Those fancy bureaucrats who had bought their way into power and influence … all dead, and all in a matter of weeks. The Anarchists cared little for what would come next once the old world crumbled. They cared only for change, and they got it. Soon, a number of villain gangs began to crawl out from society’s ashes, each hungry for their own slice of power, and it wasn’t long before Ace Anarchy’s influence spread across the globe. Prodigies banded together for the first time in history, some full of wrath and resentment, others desperate for acceptance that never came. They demanded fair treatment and human rights and protection under the law, and in some countries, the panicking governments hastened to cater to them. But in other countries, the rebellions turned violent, and the violence dissolved into anarchy. Chaos rose up to fill the void that civilized society had left behind. Trade and manufacturing ground to a halt. Civil wars erupted on every continent. Gatlon City was largely cut off from the world, and the fear and distrust that prevailed would go on to rule for twenty years. They call it the Age of Anarchy. Looking back now, people talk about the Anarchists and the other gangs like they were the worst part of those twenty years, but they weren’t. Sure, everyone was terrified of them, but they mostly left you alone as long as you paid up when it was your due and didn’t cause them any trouble. But the people. The normal people. They were far worse. With no rule and no law, it became every man, woman, and child for themselves. There were no repercussions for crimes or violence—no one to run to if you were beaten or robbed. No police. No prisons. Not legitimate ones, anyway. Neighbors stole from neighbors. Stores were looted and supplies were hoarded, leaving children to starve in the gutters. It became the strong against the weak, and, as it turns out, the strong were usually jerks. Humanity loses faith in times like that. With no one to look up to, no one to believe in, we all became rats scrounging in the sewers. Maybe Ace really was a villain. Or maybe he was a visionary. Maybe there’s not much of a difference. Either way, the gangs ruled Gatlon City for twenty years, while crime and vice spread like sewage around a backed-up pipe. And the Age of Anarchy might have gone on for another twenty years. Fifty years. An eternity. But then, seemingly overnight … hope. Bright and sparkling hope, dressed up in capes and masks. Beautiful and joyous hope, promising to solve all your problems, rain justice down upon your foes, and probably give a stern talking to a few jaywalkers along the way. Warm and promising hope, encouraging the normal folks to stay inside where it was safe while they fixed everything. Don’t worry about helping yourselves. You’ve got enough on your plate, what with all the hiding and moping you’ve been doing lately. You take a day off. We’re superheroes. We’ve got this. Hope called themselves the Renegades. PROLOGUE NOVA HAD BEEN COLLECTING SYRINGES from the alleyway behind the apartment for weeks. She knew her parents would take them away if they found out, so she’d been hiding them in an old shoe box, along with an assortment of screws, zip ties, copper wires, cotton balls, and anything else she thought might come in handy for her inventions. At six-going-on-seven years old, she’d already become aware of how important it was to be resourceful and thrifty. She couldn’t exactly make a list and send her dad to the store for supplies, after all. The syringes would come in handy. She’d known it from the start. She attached a thin plastic tube to the end of one and stuck the opposite end of the tube into a glass of water she’d filled up in the bathroom sink. She pulled up the plunger, drawing water into the tube. Tongue sticking out through the gap where she’d recently lost her first tooth, she grabbed a second syringe and affixed it to the opposite end of the tube, then dug through her toolbox for a strip of wire long enough to secure it to the pulley system she’d built at the top of her dollhouse. It had taken all day, but finally she was ready to test it. She tucked some of the dollhouse furniture onto the elevator’s platform, picked up the syringe, and pressed in the plunger. Water moved through the tube, extending the second plunger upward, and setting the complicated series of pulleys into action. The elevator rose. Nova sat back with a grin. “Hydraulic-powered elevator. Success.” A cry from the next room intruded on the moment, followed by her mother’s cooing voice. Nova looked up at her closed bedroom door. Evie was sick again. It seemed she was always running a fever these days and they’d run out of medicine for her days ago. Uncle Alec was supposed to be bringing more, but it might be hours still. When Nova had overheard her father asking Uncle Alec if he might be able to find a children’s ibuprofen for the baby’s fever, she’d considered asking for more of the fruit-flavored gummies he’d given her on her birthday last year, too, or maybe a pack of rechargeable batteries. She could do a lot with rechargeable batteries. But Papà must have seen the request brewing in her eyes, and had given her a look that silenced her. Nova wasn’t sure what it meant. Uncle Alec had always been good to them—bringing food and clothes and sometimes even toys from his weekly spoils—but her parents never wanted to ask for anything special, no matter how much they needed it. When there was something specific, they had to go into the markets and offer up trades, usually the things her father made. The last time her dad had gone to the markets he’d come back with a bag of reusable diapers for Evie and a jagged cut above his eyebrow. Her mom stitched it up herself. Nova watched, fascinated to see that it was exactly like how her mother sewed up Dolly Bear when her seams came open. Nova turned back to the hydraulic system. The lift was just shy of being level with the dollhouse’s second floor. If she could increase the capacity of the syringe, or make some adjustments to the lever system … Beyond her door, the crying went on and on. The floorboards were squeaking now as her parents took turns trying to comfort Evie, pacing back and forth through the apartment. The neighbors would start to complain soon. Sighing, Nova set down the syringe and stood. Papà was holding Evie in the front room, bouncing her up and down and trying to press a cool washcloth against her flushed brow, but it only made her wail louder as she tried to shove it away. Through the doorway into their tiny kitchen, Nova saw her mom digging through cabinets, muttering about misplaced apple juice, though they all knew there wasn’t any. “Want me to help?” said Nova. Papà turned to her, distress shadowing his eyes. Evie screamed louder as he forgot to bounce her for two whole seconds. “I’m sorry, Nova,” he said, bouncing again. “It’s not fair to ask you to do it … but if she could just sleep for another hour or two … rest would be good for her, and Alec might be here by then.” “I don’t mind,” said Nova, reaching for the baby. “It’s easy.” Papà frowned. Sometimes Nova thought he didn’t like her gift, though she didn’t know why. All it had ever done was make the apartment more peaceful. He crouched down and settled Evie into Nova’s arms, making sure her hold was secure. Evie was getting so heavy, nothing like the tiny infant she’d been not quite a year ago. Now she was all chubby thighs and flailing arms. She’d be walking any day now, her parents kept saying. Nova sat down on the mattress in the corner of the room and stroked her fingers through Evie’s baby-soft curls. Evie had worked herself into a tizzy, big tears rolling down her plump cheeks. She was so feverish that holding her felt like holding a miniature furnace. Nova sank into the tossed blankets and pillows and placed her thumb against her sister’s cheek, scooping away one of the warm tears. She let her power roll through her. An easy, gentle pulse. The crying stopped. Evie’s eyes fluttered, her eyelids growing heavy. Her mouth fell open in a shuddering O. Just like that, she was asleep. Nova looked up to see her dad’s shoulders sink in relief. Mom appeared in the doorway, surprised and curious, until she spotted Nova with the baby tucked against her. “This is my favorite,” Nova whispered to them. “When she’s all soft and cuddly and … quiet.” Mom’s face softened. “Thank you, Nova. Maybe she’ll feel better when she wakes up.” “And we won’t have to start looking for another place to live,” Papà muttered. “Charlie’s kicked people out for less than a crying baby.” Mom shook her head. “He wouldn’t risk angering your brother like that.” “I don’t know.” Papà frowned. “I don’t know what anyone would or wouldn’t do anymore. Besides … I don’t want to be in Alec’s debt any more than we already are.” Mom retreated into the kitchen to start putting away the cans and boxes she’d scattered across the linoleum, while Papà sank into a chair at the apartment’s only table. Nova watched him massage his temple for a moment, before he squared his shoulders and started to work on some new project. Nova wasn’t sure what he was making, but she loved to watch him work. His gift was so much more interesting than hers—the way he could pull threads of energy out of the air, bending and sculpting them like golden filigree. It was beautiful to watch. Mesmerizing, even, as the glowing strips emerged from nothing, making the air in the apartment hum, then quieting and darkening as her father let them harden into something tangible and real. “What are you making, Papà?” He glanced over at her, and a shadow passed over his face, even as he smiled at her. “I’m not sure yet,” he said, his fingers tracing the delicate metalwork. “Something … something I hope will put to right some of the great injuries I’ve caused this world.” He sighed then, a weighted sound that brought a frown to Nova’s face. She knew there were things her parents didn’t talk to her about, things they tried to shelter her from, and she hated it. Sometimes she would overhear conversations between them, words passed through the long hours of night when they thought she was asleep. They whispered about falling buildings and entire neighborhoods being burned to the ground. They murmured about power struggles and how there didn’t seem to be any safe place left and how they might flee the city, but that the violence seemed to have consumed the whole world now, and besides, where would they go? Only a week ago Nova had heard her mother say—“They’ll destroy us all if no one stops them…” Nova had wanted to ask about it, but she knew she would get only vague answers and sad smiles and be told that it wasn’t for her to worry about. “Papà?” she started again, after watching him work for a while. “Are we going to be okay?” A figment of copper energy spluttered and disintegrated in the air. Her father fixed her with a devastated look. “Of course, sweetheart. We’re going to be fine.” “Then why do you always look so worried?” He set down his work and leaned back in his chair. For a moment she thought he might be on the verge of crying, but then he blinked and the look was gone. “Listen to me, Nova,” he said, slipping off the chair and crouching in front of her. “There are many dangerous people in this world. But there are also many good people. Brave people. No matter how bad things get, we have to remember that. So long as there are heroes in this world, there’s hope that tomorrow might be better.” “The Renegades,” she whispered, her voice tinged with a hint of awe. A wisp of a smile crossed her father’s features. “The Renegades,” he confirmed. Nova pressed her cheek against Evie’s soft curls. The Renegades did seem to be helping everyone these days. One had chased down a mugger who tried to take Mrs. Ogilvie’s purse, and she’d heard that a group of Renegades had broken into one of the gangs’ storehouses and taken all the food to a private children’s home. “And they’re going to help us?” she said. “Maybe we can ask them for medicine next time.” Her father shook his head. “We don’t need that sort of help as much as some other people in this city do.” Nova’s brow furrowed. She couldn’t imagine anyone needing that sort of help more than they did. “But,” her father said, “when we need them … when we really need them, they’ll be here, all right?” He swallowed, and sounded more hopeful than convincing when he added, “They’ll protect us.” Nova didn’t question it. They were superheroes. They were the good guys. Everyone knew that. She found Evie’s pudgy fingers and started to count off each knuckle, while running through all the stories she’d heard. Renegades pulling a driver from an overturned delivery truck. Renegades breaking up a gun fight in a nearby shopping district. Renegades rescuing a child who had fallen into Harrow Bay. They were always helping, always showing up at just the right moment. That’s what they did. Maybe, she thought—as her father turned back to his work—maybe they were just waiting for the right moment to swoop in and help them too. Her gaze lingered on her father’s hands. Watching them mold, sculpt, tug more threads of energy from the air. Nova’s own eyelids started to droop. Even in her dreams she could see her father’s hands, only now he was pulling falling stars out of the sky, stringing them together like glowing golden beads … * * * A DOOR SLAMMED. Nova awoke with a start. Evie huffed and rolled away from her. Groggy and disoriented, Nova sat up and shook out her arm, which had fallen asleep beneath Evie’s head. The shadows in the room had shifted. There were low voices in the hallway. Papà, sounding tense. Her mom, murmuring, please, please … She pushed off the blanket that had been draped over her and tucked it around Evie, then crept past the table where a delicate copper-colored bracelet sat abandoned, an empty space in the filigree waiting to be filled with a precious stone. When she reached the front door, she turned the knob as slowly as she could, prying the door open just enough that she could peer out into the dim hall. A man stood on the landing—stubble on his chin and light hair pulled into a sleek tail. He wore a heavy jacket, though it wasn’t cold outside. He was holding a gun. His indifferent gaze darted to Nova and she shrank back, but his attention slid back to her father as if he hadn’t even seen her. “It’s a misunderstanding,” said Papà. He had put himself between the man and Nova’s mom. “Let me talk to him. I’m sure I can explain—” “There’s been no misunderstanding,” the man said. His voice was low and cold. “You have betrayed his trust, Mr. Artino. He does not like that.” “Please,” said her mom. “The children are here. Please, have mercy.” He cocked his head, his eyes shifting between them. Fear tightened in Nova’s stomach. “Let me talk to him,” Papà repeated. “We haven’t done anything. I’m loyal, I swear. I always have been. And my family … please, don’t hurt my family.” There was a moment in which it looked like the man might smile, but then it passed. “My orders were quite clear. It is not my job to ask questions … or to have mercy.” Her father took a step back. “Tala, get the girls. Go.” “David…,” her mother whimpered, moving toward the door. She had barely gone a step when the stranger lifted his arm. A gunshot. Nova gasped. Blood arced across the door, a few drops scattering across her brow. She stared, unable to move. Papà screamed and grabbed his wife. He turned her over in his arms. He was trembling while her mom wheezed and choked. “No survivors,” the man said in his even, quiet voice. “Those were my orders, Mr. Artino. You only have yourself to blame for this.” Nova’s father caught sight of her on the other side of the door. His eyes widened, full of panic. “Nova. Ru—” Another gunshot. This time Nova screamed. Her father collapsed over her mom’s body, so close she could have reached out and touched them both. She turned and stumbled into the apartment. Past the kitchen, into her bedroom. She slammed the door shut and thrust open her closet. Climbed over the books and tools and boxes that littered the floor. She yanked the door shut and crouched down in the corner, gasping for breath, the vision of her parents burned into her thoughts every time she shut her eyes. Too late she thought that she should have gone for the fire escape. Too late. Too late she remembered— Evie. She’d left Evie out there. She’d left Evie. A shuddering gasp was met with a horrified cry, though she tried to swallow both of them back. Her hand fell on the closet door and she tried to gauge how fast she could get out to the living room and back, if there was any chance of snatching the baby up without being seen … The front door creaked, paralyzing her. She pulled her hand back against her mouth. Maybe he wouldn’t notice Evie. Maybe she would go on sleeping. She listened to slow, heavy footsteps. Squealing floorboards. Nova was shaking so hard she worried the noise of her clattering bones would give her away. She also knew it wouldn’t matter. It was a small apartment, and there was nowhere for her to run. “The Renegades will come,” she whispered, her voice little more than a breath in the darkness. The words came unbidden into her head, but they were there all the same. Something solid. Something to cling to. Bang. Her mother’s blood on the door. She whimpered. “The Renegades will come…” A truth, inspired by countless news stories heard on the radio. A certainty, patched together from the words of gossiping neighbors. They always came. Bang. Her father’s body crumpling in the hall. Nova squeezed her eyes shut as hot tears spilled down her cheeks. “The Renegades … the Renegades will come.” Evie’s shrill cry started up in the main room. Nova’s eyes snapped open. A sob scratched at the inside of her throat, and she could no longer say the words out loud. Please, please let them come … A third gunshot. The air caught in Nova’s lungs. Her world stilled. Her mind went blank. She sank into the mess at the bottom of the closet. Evie had stopped crying. Evie had stopped. Distantly, she heard the man moving through the apartment, checking the cabinets and behind the doors. Slow. Methodical. By the time he found her, Nova had stopped shaking. She couldn’t feel anything anymore. Couldn’t think. The words still echoed in her head, having lost all meaning. The Renegades … the Renegades will come … Doused in the stark lights from her bedroom, Nova lifted her eyes. The man stood over her. There was blood on his shirt. Later, she would remember how there had been no regret, no apology, no remorse. Nothing at all as he lifted the gun. The metal pressed against her forehead, where her mother’s blood had cooled. Nova reached up and grabbed his wrist, unleashing her power with more force than she ever had. The man’s jaw slackened. His eyes dulled and rolled up into his head. He fell backward, landing with a resounding thud on her bedroom floor, crushing her dollhouse beneath his weight. The whole building seemed to shake from his fall. Seconds later, deep, peaceful breathing filled the apartment. Nova’s lungs contracted again. Air moved through her throat, shuddering. In. And out. She forced herself to stand and rub the tears and snot from her face. She picked up the gun, though it felt awkward and heavy in her hand, and slipped her finger over the trigger. She took a step closer, one hand gripping the doorframe as she left the sanctuary of the closet. She wasn’t sure where she should aim. His head. His chest. His stomach. She settled on his heart. Got so close to him she could feel his shirt brushing against her bare toes. Bang. Her mother was dead. Bang. Her father. Bang. Evie … The Renegades had not come. They weren’t going to come. “Pull the trigger,” she whispered into the empty room. “Pull the trigger, Nova.” But she didn’t. “Pull the trigger.” She couldn’t. Minutes, maybe hours later, her uncle found her. She was still standing over the stranger’s sleeping form, ordering herself to pull the trigger. Hearing those gunshots over and over every time she dared to close her eyes. “Nova?” A plastic bag dropped to the floor, taking a plastic medicine bottle with it. Nova startled and turned the gun on him. Uncle Alec didn’t even flinch as he crouched before her. He was dressed as he always was—the black-and-gold uniform, his dark eyes barely visible through the copper-toned helmet that disguised most of his face. “Nova.… Your parents.… Your sister.…” He looked down and reached for the gun. Nova didn’t resist as he took it from her. His attention turned to the man. “I’d always thought you might be one of us, but your father wouldn’t tell me what it was you could do.…” He met Nova’s eyes again. Pity and, perhaps, admiration. With that look, Nova fell apart, throwing herself into his arms. “Uncle Alec,” she wailed, sobbing into his chest. “He shot them … he … he killed…” He picked her up, cradling her against his chest. “I know,” he murmured into her hair. “I know, sweet, dangerous child. But you’re safe now. I’ll protect you.” She barely heard him over the noise in her head. The tumult pressing against the inside of her skull. Bang-bang-bang. “But you can’t call me Alec anymore, not out there. All right, my little nightmare?” He smoothed her hair. The handle of the gun bumped against her ear. “To the rest of the world, I’m Ace. You understand? Uncle Ace.” But she wasn’t listening. And maybe he knew that. In the midst of her cries, he squeezed her tight, aimed the gun at the sleeping man, and fired. CHAPTER ONE 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.” CHAPTER TWO NOVA SLUNG THE BAG over her shoulder and reached for one of the weighted ropes she’d set up in the alley the night before. She wrapped her arm around the rope and untied the sailor’s knot from the weights holding it to the ground. The weights attached to the opposite end dropped, dragging it through the pulley on the rooftop above. Nova jerked upward, holding tight as the rope whistled past the building’s concrete wall. The second set of weights crashed into the ground below. She stopped with a shudder, her hand only a few inches shy of the pulley, her body swinging six stories in the air. Nova threw her bag onto the rooftop, then grabbed the ledge and hauled herself over. She dropped down into a crouch and riffled through the bag, pulling out the uniform she had designed with Queen Bee’s help. She slung the weaponry belt across her hips, where it hung comfortably, outfitted with specially crafted pockets and hooks for all of her favorite inventions. Next, the snug black hooded jacket: waterproof and flame-retardant, yet lightweight enough to keep from inhibiting her movements. She zipped it up to her neck and tugged the sleeves past her knuckles before pulling up the hood, where a couple of small weights stitched into the hem held it in place over her brow. The mask came last. A hard metallic shell perfectly molded to the bridge of her nose that disappeared into the high collar of the jacket, disguising the lower half of her face. Transformation complete, she stooped and pulled the rifle and a single poisoned dart from the bag. “Where are you, Nightmare?” Phobia rasped. “I’m here. Almost in position.” She approached the edge of the building and looked down on the celebration below. It was quieter up here—the noise of the crowd dulled beneath the whistle of the wind and the hum of rooftop generators. The street was a mess of confetti and color, balloons and costumes, laughter and music and cheers. Nova loaded the dart into the gun’s chamber. Ingrid had concocted the plan, and it was beautiful in its simplicity. When she’d told the group, Winston had griped about not being included, but Phobia had sagely pointed out that Winston, who most people knew as the Puppeteer, wasn’t capable of keeping anything simple. So it was only the three of them on the field today. They didn’t need the others. Nova had one dart handcrafted by Leroy Flinn, their own poisons master. She only needed one. If she missed, she wouldn’t get a second chance. But she wouldn’t miss. She would kill the Captain. Once he was hit, Ingrid, the Detonator, would emerge from hiding and hit the Council’s parade float with as many of her signature bombs—made from a fusion of gasses in the air—as she could launch. Phobia would focus on Thunderbird, as she usually took to the air during a battle, giving her a frustratingly unfair advantage. They’d heard that Thunderbird was deathly afraid of snakes, which was one of his specialties. They were banking on the rumors to be true. Worst-case scenario: Phobia startled her long enough for Nova or Ingrid to take her down. Best-case: He gave her a midflight heart attack. And that was it. The Council—the five original Renegades—all eradicated at once. But it started with Nova getting past Captain Chromium’s supposed invincibility. “Say … Nightmare?” “I’m here, Detonator. Relax.” “Yeah, I can see you up there. But I’m pretty sure Phobia wanted you at the west station?” Nova froze. She glanced at the rooftop behind her, then across the gap to the apartment building on the other side of the alleyway, where her second weighted rope sat waiting, unused. She squinted up into the midday sun and cursed. Phobia drawled in her ear, “Tell me she didn’t get on the wrong building.” “I was distracted,” she said through gritted teeth. Phobia sighed heavily. “She can’t hit the target from the west rooftop?” asked Detonator. After a brief silence, Phobia said, “She might have a fair shot at Tsunami or Blacklight, but not Captain Chromium. The parade route will have them turning before she’s in alignment.” He hummed thoughtfully. “She can end one Council member, and we shall have to concern ourselves with the others at a later date.” “Our priority was the Captain,” said Ingrid. “This entire mission was built around taking out the Captain.” “One Renegade is better than none.” “It still makes this mission a failure.” Licking her lips, Nova looked across at the opposite rooftop, estimating the distance over the alley. “Everyone calm down. I can get to the other side. Phobia, how much time do I have?” “Not enough.” “How much?” “Ten seconds before the float enters your prime target area, then perhaps forty-five to make the shot.” Nova picked up the duffel bag and heaved it across the gap. It landed with a thud on the other rooftop. Phobia’s voice crackled. “This seems inadvisable.” “Let her try,” said Ingrid. “It will be her own fault if she falls.” “I won’t fall,” Nova muttered. She slung the rifle onto her back and released a pair of gloves from a hoop on her belt. She shoved her hands into them and buckled the cuffs, securing them in place, then pressed her thumbs into the switches on her wrists. A jolt of electricity shot through the black fabric, forming pressurized suction cups on her fingertips and palms. She reviewed the distance one more time. Paced back to the far edge of the building. Inhaled. And ran. Her boots thudded. Air whistled past her ears, knocking back her hood. She planted her right foot and leaped. Her stomach hit the ledge of the brick wall on the other side of the alley. Pain jolted through her bones. She groaned and pressed her palms against the concrete to secure herself in place before she started to slip. Ingrid whooped shrilly in her ear. Phobia said nothing until Nova had hefted her body onto the east rooftop, and then merely, “Four seconds to visual.” Nova switched the pressure on her gloves, letting the suction cups recede into the fabric, and pulled her hood over her face again. She slung the gun off her back as she walked past the building’s utility elevator, coming to stand at the edge as her pulse thrummed through her veins. Though she couldn’t see the Council’s float, she could tell from the increased excitement in the crowd that it was close. Ignoring the throbbing pain where her stomach had hit the wall, she knelt onto one knee and propped the barrel of the gun on the rooftop ledge. She checked the loaded dart. “Ready.” “Well done, Nightmare,” said Detonator. “She hasn’t done anything yet,” said Phobia. “I know, but isn’t it nice to have a shooter on the team again?” “She hasn’t shot anything yet, either.” “Would you both zip it?” Nova growled, peeling off the gloves and shoving them back through the hoop on her belt. Below, the Council’s parade float rolled into view. It was an enormous tiered structure with five pedestals rising from a dark storm cloud. A literal thunder-and-lightning-filled storm cloud, like they thought they were gods or something. Strike that. They definitely thought they were gods. Thunderbird—the inimitable Tamaya Rae—stood on the first pedestal, her enormous black wings spanning the full width of the parade float and the wind catching in her long, dark hair, making her look like the proud mascot on the mast of a ship. She occasionally sent bolts of lightning to further ignite the cloud at her feet. Not to be overshadowed, Blacklight was on the second tier shooting fireworks and flashing strobe lights into the air as the crowd gasped and squealed. With his red beard and tightly curled mustache, Nova had always thought Evander Wade looked more like a six-foot-tall leprechaun than a superhero, but supposedly he had a dedicated fan following, and the giddy shrieks from the crowd seemed to support the theory. Above him, Kasumi Hasegawa might not have been aware she was in the middle of a parade at all. That’s how Tsunami always looked though—caught up in her own world, a cool, secretive smile on her lips. While she stood barely moving with her arms extended, the stream of fish-filled water she was manipulating moved around her like a ribbon in a mesmerizing dance. A jet of foam and spray and angelfish spinning, twirling, spiraling in all directions. The fourth pedestal appeared, at first glance, to be empty, which meant that’s where Simon Westwood was standing. And sure enough, as Nova watched, the Dread Warden flickered into view, posing like the Thinking Man. A second later, he vanished again, only to reappear posed in a handstand, which then turned into a one-handed handstand. A second later, he went invisible again. The crowd roared in laughter when he reappeared, not on his own pedestal, but on the fifth and tallest platform on the float, using his fingers to give bunny ears to Captain Chromium. Beside each other, they were like night and day. Simon Westwood had olive-toned skin, a close-trimmed beard, and dark, wavy hair, while Hugh Everhart, the city’s beloved Captain, was the picture of boyish charm, complete with golden hair and dimples. Captain Chromium rolled his eyes and glanced at the Dread Warden over his shoulder. They shared a look that was disgustingly endearing. Nova had been too young to notice if there was any shock or scandal when two of the original Renegades announced they were in love, or if there had been any announcement at all. Maybe they just were, from the start. Either way, she suspected the world had been dealing with too much devastation to really care back then, and these days Captain Chromium and the Dread Warden were practically the world’s favorite sweethearts. The tabloids were forever going on about whether or not they were planning to adopt another child, or if they were going to retire from the Council and move to the tropics, or if a dark, hidden secret from the past was threatening to tear them apart. From their smiles, though, Nova highly doubted there was much substance to those rumors, and it made her teeth grind. Why should they have such happiness? She eased herself into position, calculating the distance and angle as the gun warmed in her hand. The Dread Warden disappeared again and returned to his own pedestal, leaving the Captain alone, a king before his doting subjects. He was as familiar to Nova as her own reflection. Yellow-blond hair curling against his forehead. Blue shoulder pads jutting out from a broad, muscled chest. A winning smile with teeth so white they gleamed in the sun. Then, as the crowd’s cheers reached a deafening crescendo, he reached for the display stand at his side. His hand wrapped around a tall metal pike, and he lifted it overhead. One of Blacklight’s fireworks burst then, lighting them all in a hue of coppery gold. Nova’s stomach dropped. “Is that…?” “Don’t dwell on it,” said Phobia. “Dwell on what?” asked Ingrid. Nova swallowed around the lump in her throat, unable to respond. Captain Chromium, beloved superhero and adored Renegade, had Ace Anarchy’s helmet skewered at the top of his pike. It had been driven through the skull, fracturing the bronze-tinted material that had once been dragged from the air by her own father’s fingertips, years before Nova was born. The Detonator’s voice came through the headset again, an understanding “Oh…” as the parade float entered her view. Nova barely heard her. She was six years old again. Afraid. Devastated. Staring up into the eyes behind that helmet, throwing herself into his arms. The Renegades had not come, but he had. Maybe not soon enough to save her family, but still, he had come. He had saved her. “You’re dwelling,” said Phobia, his voice almost a taunt. Nova squared her shoulders. “Am not.” Phobia didn’t respond, but she could feel a haughty response in his silence. “It’s all right, Nightmare,” said Detonator. “We’re doing this for Ace, aren’t we? Use that anger. Use it to avenge him.” Nova didn’t respond. The world became still. Serene. Black and white. She looked through the scope, lining up the sights. It had to be in the eye. Anywhere else on his body and the tip of the dart would snap on the layer of chrome beneath his skin, and the poison would never make its way into his system. Her aim had to be perfect. And it would be. She’d been preparing for this moment for years. Use that anger. It wasn’t just to avenge Ace, though that might have been enough all on its own. It was to avenge her family, too, who the Council could have saved, but hadn’t. It was to revitalize Ace’s vision. His dream of freedom for all prodigies, not just those who were willing to pander to the self-appointed Council and their autocratic laws. It was because Nova knew that the Council was failing the people—was failing them even now—but no one was brave enough to say it. Society would be better off without them. The street below seemed to fall silent, blanketed by the purpose drumming inside her head. The Captain’s eye came into focus. Shocking blue and bearing faint wrinkles in the corner as he smiled. He wasn’t young anymore, like when he’d first formed the Renegades. The Council were getting older, passing their legacy on to a new generation. “Pull the trigger,” she whispered to herself. Inhale. The trigger pressed against her finger. They were getting older, but they still held all the power. All the control. More, perhaps, than they ever had when they’d prowled the streets at night, searching for criminals and villains. More than when he’d taken that helmet from its rightful owner. Exhale. “Pull the trigger, Nova.” The Renegades will come. Nova flinched. “What’s wrong?” asked Detonator. “Nothing.” Nova licked her lips. Lined up the sights again. The float was turning the corner now. Soon it would pass out of sight. Soon he would turn away from her, his smile and charm greeting the next street of worshipers. This was the best opportunity they would have to take down the Captain, and soon, the rest of the Council would follow. While the Renegades scrambled to replace the Council, the Anarchists would rise again. Without the villain gangs interfering this time, they would show the people of this city what anarchy was meant to look like. True freedom. True independence. For everyone. All she had to do was pull the trigger. A bug fluttered in the corner of her vision. Nova shooed it away. She found her target again. The Captain shifted, turning his head slightly in her direction. It was the best shot she would have. Nova started to squeeze. Something landed on the end of the rifle. Nova lifted her eyes, focusing on the gold-and-black butterfly, its wings opening and closing as it perched on the barrel. Nova’s gaze lifted skyward. A swarm of monarch butterflies clouded overhead—hundreds, perhaps thousands of vibrant wings fluttering as they clustered above her. “We have company.” A beat of silence was followed by, “Renegades?” She didn’t respond. The float was turning. Five seconds, maybe less. Nova looked through the sights and found the Captain, found his perfect hair, his perfect smile, his perfect blue eyes— A bundle of balloons passed between them, each emblazoned with the iconic Renegade R. She waited, frozen in time, sweat dripping down her neck. The balloons passed. Captain Chromium shifted his gaze upward, looking almost right at her. She fired. The Captain turned, just a hair. The dart struck him in the temple. The needle tip snapped off. Captain Chromium jerked to attention, searching the rooftops, signaling the others. Nova let out a stream of curses as she ducked behind the ledge. A red hook flew from the side of her vision, attached to a thin wire. It wrapped around the gun and snatched it away. Nova leaped to her feet. A teenage girl, pale and freckled, stood at the corner of the roof, holding Nova’s gun in one hand and the glittering hook in the other. She wore the Renegade uniform—form-fitting charcoal-gray Lycra from her neck to her boots, piped in red and emblazoned with a small R over her heart. Her hair was a mix of bleached white and pitch-black, pulled into a shaggy ponytail. The butterflies swarmed beside her, cycloning until their wings became a blur, then solidified into the body of a second girl, wearing an identical gray bodysuit, with long blonde dreadlocks framing her face. Red Assassin and Monarch. Nova had met them once before, when they tried to stop her from robbing a small pharmacy for supplies Leroy needed, but there were more of them that time. Nova lifted an eyebrow. “Where’s everyone else? Living it up in the beer garden?” As soon as she said it, she heard a ding, and the metal grate over the utility elevator squealed open. A third Renegade emerged from the elevator—a boy with light brown skin and thick dark hair. He walked with a slight limp and a cane, faint tendrils of smoke following in his wake. Smokescreen. The corner of Nova’s mouth curled upward. “That’s a bit more like it.” Detonator’s voice crackled in her ear. “What’s happening up there?” Nova ignored her. “Nightmare,” said Smokescreen, with a subtle incline of his head. “Long time, no see.” “You’re about to wish it had been longer.” Nova reached for her belt and unclipped two of her heat-seeking throwing stars, an invention she had worked all last summer to perfect. She threw them both at Red Assassin, knowing how dangerous she could be with that hook of hers. Red dodged. Monarch burst again into a swarm of butterflies. A bolt of black smoke struck Nova in the face. She stumbled back, blinded. “Nightmare, report,” said Ingrid. Snarling, Nova reached for the transmitter behind her earlobe and shut it off. She forced her burning eyes open and saw a blur of yellow, then Monarch was beside her. A knee collided with Nova’s side and she fell to the concrete, rolling from the force of the blow. Nova used the momentum to jump back to her feet, shutting out the pain in her ribs, blinking through the stinging tears that blurred her vision. Something hooked beneath her chin, pulling tight against her throat—Smokescreen’s cane. He yanked her against him. Though he wasn’t a big guy by any means, his arms felt like iron as his cheek pressed against the side of her hood. “Your days of villainy are over, Nightmare.” She scoffed. “You sound like you’ve read too many comics.” “You sound like you think that’s a bad thing,” he retorted. She felt around for his hands on either end of the cane, but the gloves of his uniform overlapped with his sleeves, leaving no vulnerable skin exposed. Smokescreen’s hold on her tightened. “Are you working alone?” In front of her, Red Assassin caught one of the throwing stars on her wire, flinging it at a heat vent. It stuck with a metallic clang. The second star boomeranged over the alleyway and zipped back toward her. She pinwheeled the ruby hook in front of her and stabbed the star into the concrete with the gem’s point before it could rise again. Red Assassin wrenched her gem free and turned to face Nova and Smokescreen, panting. She started to twirl the wire-tethered ruby like a lasso over her head. Nova scowled. So much work, wasted. Monarch formed again, arms crossed over her chest. “I believe Smokescreen asked you a question.” “Oh, I’m sorry,” said Nova. “I was busy daydreaming about your funerals.” She grabbed the cane and kicked back her hips, launching Smokescreen over her head. He landed on his back with a grunt. Snagging the cane from his hands, Nova struck the backs of Monarch’s knees, knocking her off her feet. Red Assassin threw the gem at Nova. The wire wound around her ankle, yanking her to the ground and dragging her across the gritty rooftop. Nova tried to dislodge another throwing star from her belt, but before she could get ahold of it, Red pulled a dagger cut from the same red crystal as her hook and pressed her knee on top of Nova’s chest. She dug the point of the dagger against Nova’s jugular. “Who,” said Red Assassin, with careful enunciation, “are you working for?” Sensing her own heartbeat against the gemstone, Nova couldn’t help smiling behind her mask. “Your worst nightmare,” she said, jamming her fingertips into the cuff of Red’s boot and finding the skin of her ankle. Her power rolled through her. The blade dug into her throat, but then Red Assassin’s eyes closed and she collapsed beside her. A wave of hazy white mist rolled across the rooftop. Nova looked around, but the mist was already too thick to see Smokescreen. Sitting up, she unwound the wire from her leg and grabbed the dagger. It was lighter than any knife she’d ever held and looked like it had been cut from a single ruby, though she knew a real gemstone would have been much heavier. Whatever material Red Assassin used for her specialized weaponry, it was sharp, and that’s all Nova cared about. On her feet again, she peered into the shroud of odorless smoke, listening for any sign of Smokescreen or Monarch. Her senses felt dulled in the fog. Infrared goggles would have helped. She would have to work on those next. She spotted a dark shape—her duffel bag. With one more glance around, she bolted for the bag and threaded her elbow through the handles. Monarch appeared from nowhere, her dreadlocks whipping behind her as she aimed a jab for Nova’s head. Nova ducked and rammed her shoulder into Monarch’s abdomen. The Renegade bent forward and Nova stabbed upward with the dagger, but the moment she felt the blade pierce the flesh of her upper leg, Monarch exploded into fluttering wings. The smoke was beginning to clear, and Nova spotted a rickety fire escape on the next building. Tucking the dagger into her belt, she sprinted toward the edge of the roof and jumped. Catching the fire-escape rail, she vaulted herself over it and onto metal stairs that shuddered and clanged beneath her. Smokescreen’s voice cut through the fog. “Monarch!” Nova paused long enough to look back and see Monarch reappear, though she immediately collapsed and pressed a palm over the cut in her thigh. The gray fabric of her uniform was darkening with blood. Nova swung the duffel bag over her shoulder and hauled herself up the winding stairs, taking the risers two at a time. She reached the roof and ran for the far side. She was halfway across when a large figure leaped up from the street below, clearing the rooftop by a good twenty feet. Nova skidded to a stop, her panting breaths warming the inside of her mask. The form landed in front of her with a clang. Rather than a charcoal-gray bodysuit, he was dressed in something akin to armor—every limb protected, every muscle sculpted into the rigid shell, his face disguised behind a helmet and dark-tinted visor. The Renegade R was emblazoned on his chest, but the armor wasn’t like any Renegade uniform she’d ever seen. Though she couldn’t see his eyes, she could feel them watching her. Nova took half a step back, scanning the figure from head to toe. There was no skin to be seen, only narrow seams between the armored plates that might be vulnerable to more traditional attacks. “You must be new around here,” she said. His head tilted. “I’ve been around long enough to know who you are … Nightmare.” Nova’s fingers skimmed along the top of her belt, though she wasn’t confident any of her weapons would be effective. “Should I be flattered?” Before the figure could answer, a bout of high-pitched laughter echoed off the high-rise buildings, pealing through the streets and alleys of downtown Gatlon. The sound was grating, shrill, and far too familiar. Nova grimaced. “What is that idiot doing here?” CHAPTER THREE THE ARMORED STRANGER turned his head toward the laughter, just as the curve of a hot-air balloon rose into view over the parade. The balloon was decorated in black-and-white harlequin, with an enormous acid-green Anarchist symbol painted over it. Its wicker basket carried one occupant—a man with wild orange hair, painted red cheeks, and deep lines drawn from the corners of his mouth down his chin in mimicry of a marionette. The Puppeteer stood on the rim of the basket in a checkered suit, gripping the upright bars as it bounced and swayed beneath him. “Oh, Reeeeenegades,” he shouted in a singsong voice. “Doesn’t anyone want to play with me?” The cheers below turned to screams of fright, and he cackled again, holding one hand out over the crowd, tilting so far forward it seemed he would topple from the basket. “Eeny, meeny, miny … mo!” Eight shimmering gold strings cascaded from his fingertips into the crowd, and though Nova couldn’t see where they landed, she knew he would be seeking out children in the chaos below. Those who were touched by his strings would turn into puppets he could control. After all these years, she still wasn’t sure if his power only worked on children, or if he just preferred them because a mindless, rabid four-year-old was so damned creepy. “Tag!” the Puppeteer bellowed. “You’re it!” The screams grew louder. “Friend of yours?” Nova glanced sideways at the armored figure. “Not exactly.” The Puppeteer laughed again, and the stranger’s fists tightened. Nova couldn’t fault him for his irritation. She wasn’t exactly Winston Pratt’s biggest fan, either, and she’d been technically on the same side as him since she was six. In one movement, Nova pulled the duffel bag around to her front and reached inside for the netting gun she’d engineered from a toy bazooka when she was eleven. The figure turned toward her at the same moment she lifted the gun and pulled the trigger, sending a net of nylon ropes soaring toward him. Its eight points spread out like an octopus. The stranger stumbled back in surprise, lifting a hand to defend himself as the net descended. He dropped to one knee. The net wrapped around him, tangling around his limbs. The helmet twisted from side to side as he struggled to pull the ropes away, but every movement only drew them tighter. “It was nice to meet you,” said Nova, tossing the bazooka back into the bag. She jogged past him, scouting out the next rooftop before making the easy jump. “We’re not done.” She glanced back. The stranger’s shoulders were hunched. He wrapped his gloved fingers around the knotted ropes, and smoke started to wisp between his fingertips. The ropes caught fire. Flames licked along the nylon, blackening the net until whole portions of it crumbled away into ash. When enough of the netting had been burned off, he tore a hole in it and stepped out of the bindings, leaving the rest to smolder on the concrete roof. He walked to the edge and peered down at Nova. She smirked, unimpressed. “Another fire elemental. How quaint. Not exactly a rare breed, but it’s hard to criticize a classic.” He bent his knees, lowering himself into a slight crouch, then sprang upward, lobbing his body clean over her head. Nova followed his trajectory through the air, a full arc that carried him onto the rooftop behind her. Though his landing was graceful, the weight of his armor made the floor shake beneath them. Nova’s smile faded. A fire elemental with a fancy anti-gravity suit … or a prodigy with superior speed and strength, who just happened to also be able to burn things … or, a superhero with both powers? She’d never heard of such a combination before. “You can’t escape me, Nightmare,” he said. “I’m taking you into custody, and you will answer for your crimes.” “Lovely as that sounds, I actually had other plans for this afternoon.” A shadow passed over them—monarch butterflies slowly merging into a girl’s shape. As Monarch took form, Nova looked between her and the stranger. She was trapped between them. She didn’t like being trapped. Monarch frowned at the armored man. A hasty bandage had been wrapped around the wound in her thigh, cut from gray cloth. “Who are you?” The stranger didn’t speak for a moment, and Nova was sure his voice deepened when he responded, taking on an air of righteousness. “I am the Sentinel.” Nova laughed. “Seriously?” The Sentinel angled his head in her direction, and she couldn’t tell whether she imagined the way his chest expanded defensively. “Friend of yours?” Monarch said, glancing at Nova. She tightened her hands around the strap of the duffel bag. “I’m really not that friendly. Besides, he’s wearing your trademark.” Monarch’s eyes narrowed as she took in the R on the Sentinel’s chest. Losing interest in Monarch’s confusion, Nova heaved the bag at the Sentinel’s head, then reached behind her for the red dagger. She swung the blade toward Monarch’s abdomen but hit only air as she dispersed again into the swarm. Snarling in frustration, Nova swung again and again—finally slicing a single butterfly in half. She let out a breath and glanced down at the faint brush of wing dust on the blade. Two arms wrapped around her, securing her elbows at her sides. If Smokescreen had been strong, this guy was iron and steel. Or perhaps it was the suit. Nova clenched her jaw and pushed backward. He yelped but didn’t release her as his foot hit the low rail along the building’s ledge. With one more shove, Nova sent them both plummeting over the side. For a moment they were airborne, his arms locked around her. They hit the next roof with a jolt that reverberated through Nova’s bones. Something beneath them crunched and shattered. Though her body ached, she forced herself to roll off him, shoving his arms away from her as she collapsed, trembling, onto a rattan mat. Nova looked around. They were in a small rooftop garden, surrounded by wicker furniture and potted plants—one of which was now pinned beneath the Sentinel. A water fountain gurgled against the wall they had just fallen from. She caught a glimpse of the Puppeteer’s balloon drifting along the street. There were flashes of strobing red lights brightening the sides of the buildings along the main avenue. Blacklight, perhaps, trying to distract the Puppeteer with fireworks and flashes, or maybe Thunderbird throwing one of her lightning bolts in an attempt to take down the balloon … or electrocute the villain. Maybe both. The butterflies returned, forming a dark cloud overhead. The Sentinel had rolled onto his side and was attempting to push himself up. “Hey, Sentinel,” Nova said, tightening her grip on the dagger. He glanced up. She plunged the knife into the space between his chest and shoulder plates. The Sentinel roared and shoved her away. He crumpled, planting one palm on the ground, while the other lit up, suddenly engulfed in orange flames. He hauled the hand back. Nova ducked, pulling her hood down as a column of flames rushed over her back. She knew adding a flame-resistant coating to her uniform had been a good idea. A cry of pain hit her ears. Nova peered up from the shadow of her hood as the swarming butterflies converged back into the body of Monarch. The flames had hit a cluster of the orange insects, and the remaining wisps of ash seemed to melt into the girl’s left side, from her ribs to her hip. Her uniform was blackened and smoking, and the stench of burned flesh permeated the air. The fire escape rattled and clanked off the side of the building. Smokescreen appeared on the ladder, hooking his cane over the rooftop edge to help pull himself up. He was breathing heavily, his dark hair matted to his brow as he took in the scene. His eyes widened. “Monarch?” Something clattered at Nova’s feet. The ruby dagger, its blade darkened with blood. Nova didn’t bother to look back at any of them as she turned and ran again, scaling the burbling stone fountain and hauling herself back to the rooftop they had fallen from. Behind her, she could hear the Sentinel ordering Smokescreen to help Monarch, and an incredulous Smokescreen demanding, “Who the hell are you?” The Puppeteer’s wicker basket drifted back into view. “Catch!” Nova yelled. The Puppeteer glanced in her direction, but made no effort to catch the duffel bag as Nova tossed it into his basket. “Good afternoon, tiny Nightmare,” said Winston. “What a delightful surprise this is. I was just out for a little … float.” He tossed his head back and started to laugh, the marionette lines on his face making it even creepier than it already was. His hands were still held out over the crowd, golden gossamer strings toying with the helpless children below. Nova glanced down long enough to see a pigtailed girl chomp hard on the ankle of a gray-haired man … possibly her own grandfather. Grimacing, Nova climbed onto the ledge of the roof. “Toss me a rope.” The Puppeteer fell silent and peered at her with emotionless eyes. “You have a tagalong.” A hand grabbed her elbow, spinning her around. Fingers closed over her throat, tilting her backward, squeezing just tight enough to keep her from plummeting to the street below. “You tried to assassinate Captain Chromium,” the Sentinel growled. “Why? Who put you up to it? What else are they planning?” The visor of his helmet was a blank canvas, but his voice was furious. Nova imagined she could still feel the heat from his flames seeping through his glove. “You Renegades sure ask a lot of questions,” she said, white spots flashing in her eyes. He moved so close that his visor almost clicked against her own face mask. “You’d better start answering them.” “You think I’m afraid of a pompous neophyte in a toy suit?” The fingers at her throat seemed to loosen, just a bit. “Neophyte?” “It means amateur. You’re obviously new to this game.” “I know what it—” The Sentinel made an annoyed sound. “Look, I don’t really care whether or not you’re afraid of me, but I’m willing to bet you’re at least a little bit afraid of dying, like we all are.” The fingers tightened again, and Nova felt herself being forced backward. The change was minimal, but just enough so she could feel the shift in her balance, the slight pull of gravity. She fought off the need for air and forced out a laugh, though it came out more like a wheeze. “You know what they say … one cannot be brave who has no fear.” He jerked back as if she’d struck him. In the same moment, Nova reached forward and pressed her hand against his chest, digging her fingers into the sliced fabric where the knife had penetrated. It was hot and sticky with blood and it was all she needed. Flesh and tissue and a heartbeat that thundered underneath. “What did you just—” She drove her power into him, a sledgehammer into his chest. His breath hitched, and he stood immovable for a moment. Then the grip loosened around her throat. Nova cried out and grabbed his forearm, pulling her center of balance toward him as he fell backward, landing with a bone-jolting crash. Nova’s heart ricocheted inside her chest as she stared down at him, still feeling the drop in her stomach when, for a split second, she’d thought she was falling. “Niiiiiightmare…” Rubbing her throat, she turned in time to catch the shimmering gold threads the Puppeteer tossed to her. Though her legs had begun to shake, Nova forced herself to gather together any last shreds of strength. She wrapped the strings around her wrist and leaped, swinging out over the street, where people had scattered and a parade float had crashed into the side of a hair salon. She hauled herself up the ropes and into the basket, landing in a heap on its floor. “Thanks, Winston,” she gasped. He didn’t respond—already he was focused again on his puppets, his mad laughter shrieking over the noise of the propane burner above them. Once Nova had caught her breath, she wrapped her hands around the edge of the basket and forced herself to stand. The street below was in chaos. The Puppeteer’s gossamer strings littered the pavement, some still wrapped around children’s throats and wrists, though many of his puppets had been discarded and were crumpled against buildings or in the middle of the street. A number of onlookers were injured, their bodies sprawled out on the sidewalks and streaks of blood trailing behind them as they attempted to crawl to safety. Winston had four children still enthralled, the strings like nooses around their necks as they threw marching band instruments through shop windows, ripped parade floats to pieces, and hurled street food at the Council members who were trying to stop them without actually hurting them. The Dread Warden, of course, had gone invisible, while Tsunami kept trying to trap the puppets in a frothy tidal wave—except the spellbound children didn’t seem to care that they might drown as they plunged into the wall of water. Nova searched for Captain Chromium but couldn’t find him in the uproar. All the while, Winston’s grating cackle echoed through the city. He could have been at a circus for all his apparent glee. Nova reached behind her ear and turned on the transmitter. “Nightmare checking in. Detonator, Phobia, where are you?” Phobia’s voice came back to her, even and dry. “Where have you been?” Nova glanced back to the rooftop, now half a block away as the balloon drifted along the street, but she could no longer see the Renegades or the Sentinel. “I made some new friends,” she said. A roar dragged Nova’s attention upward in time to see Thunderbird’s enormous black wings spread out against the blue sky. Her face was twisted with fury, one hand gripping a crackling white lightning bolt. Nova cursed. Winston giggled. “Hello, birdie bird!” Thunderbird lifted her free hand and thrust her palm toward the balloon. The air boomed, shoving the balloon backward. The basket crashed into an office building. Nova ricocheted off the side and landed on the floor again. Winston hoisted himself up, one hand gripping the upright bar as he pulled on the golden threads around his fingers, making the children below do who-knew-what. “Ah-ah-ah,” he said with a childish titter. “It isn’t polite to hit. You should say you’re sorry.” “Release those children now, Puppeteer,” growled Thunderbird, lifting the lightning bolt over her shoulder. Nova pulled open the duffel bag and grabbed the netting gun. Exhaling, she popped up over the edge, using the basket’s side to steady her aim, and fired. The ropes entwined around Thunderbird’s body. One side tangled around her left wing and she cried out in surprise. The lightning bolt struck a rope and the whole net lit up, crackling with electricity. Thunderbird screamed. Then she was falling, falling. Toward the street, toward the pavement— Right into Captain Chromium’s waiting arms. He set her down, then turned his blue eyes skyward. No longer was he smiling. No longer did he look like an overhyped imbecile on a gaudy parade float. His eyes met Nova’s, and she swallowed. “What’s happening down there, Detonator?” she said. “We could use some assistance.” “Puppeteer wasn’t a part of this operation,” came the dry response. “He wants to act on his own, he can die on his own.” Down below, the Captain grabbed the metal pike he’d been holding earlier. Nova watched as he ripped Ace Anarchy’s helmet from the top and tossed it away. The helmet rolled across the street, coming to rest in a storm drain. “It’s not just the Puppeteer now,” she said. “I’m up here, too!” “Good luck, Nightmare. This mission is over.” The faint crackle over the ear piece went silent. Captain Chromium hefted the pike over his head, holding it like a javelin, and threw. Though the balloon was hundreds of feet in the air, the pike did not waver as it soared straight for her. Nova ducked. The javelin struck the balloon’s heater with a deafening clang, disconnecting the propane line. The flame spluttered and went out. The pike ricocheted off the metal and fell back down to the street. The effect was instant. Though the balloon continued to drift from momentum, its upward course began to slow. Nova looked around. They would have cleared the next set of buildings easily, but with the change of propulsion, she doubted they could make it now. Without the heater warming the air in the balloon, they would soon be sinking, and then crashing, right into the hands of the Renegades. Winston cocked his head and peered down at Nova. “Uh-oh.” Nova held his gaze, considering. If they could lose some weight, they might still be able to clear the next block, gaining enough distance to make a getaway before the Renegades caught up with them. She turned her attention to the duffel bag, and all her weapons and inventions. All her efforts. All her work. Winston whined in sympathy. “Sacrifices must be made sometimes, mini-Anarchist.” Nova sighed. “You’re absolutely right.” Then she hooked her arm around Winston’s ankles and pulled. He yelped, arms flailing, and toppled over the edge. Nova didn’t wait for his screams to fade as she hauled herself up onto the uprights and inspected the heater. The balloon barely cleared the rooftop, giving her just enough time to reaffix the propane line. She toggled the lighter switch a few times, and the flame burst to life. The balloon drifted into the sky. Nova released a weary, relieved groan and dared to look down at the street. The Puppeteer had landed on a parade float. He was covered in confetti and flowers as Captain Chromium hauled him to the ground. Winston didn’t fight. His gaze lingered on Nova the whole time, his expression contorted into that same delirious grin. Nova lifted her arm and waved. CHAPTER FOUR ADRIAN WOKE UP feeling like his head had been stuffed with wool. He groaned and tried to roll onto his side, only then remembering that he was still wearing the armored bodysuit. The hard material dug painfully into his back. Everything ached, but it was his shoulder that hurt the worst. Throbbing and burning and sticky with blood. He couldn’t believe she had actually stabbed him. He wasn’t sure why it was so surprising, except … that just wasn’t how prodigies fought. They fought with superpowers and extraordinary skills, but that had been a plain old dirty attack. He would have to remember for next time. Nightmare didn’t follow the same rules as the rest of them. But then, he supposed, neither did he. Not anymore. Not when he was the Sentinel. He managed to sit up. Though it was still daylight, the sky was darkening and the shadows from the next building had eclipsed the rooftop. He must have been unconscious for five or six hours. He was lucky she’d knocked him out up here, where it was unlikely anyone would find him. Though it was clear he’d been undisturbed, it made him uncomfortable to think of himself lying prone and vulnerable for such a long time. Prone and vulnerable and useless. Why hadn’t Oscar come looking for him? No—that was a stupid question. Why would he have? Oscar didn’t know Adrian was beneath the Sentinel’s armor, and besides … Danna had been injured, and maybe Ruby too. Oscar had other matters to deal with. They would have gone straight back to headquarters. Were probably there still. Adrian checked to be sure no one was peering down from any nearby windows, then pressed his fingers into the center of the suit’s chest piece. The armor clunked and hissed, folding in on itself like origami, rolling inward along his limbs until the suit was no bigger than a crushed aluminum can. He tucked it into the skin over his sternum and pulled up the zipper tattoo he had inked there more than a month ago. He started to button the front of his shirt, but his shoulder screamed at him to stop. He looked down. His shirt had a gash through the fabric, and though the compression of the suit seemed to have slowed the bleeding, one glance told him he had lost a lot of blood. His entire side was damp, the fabric of his shirt nearly black where the blood had congealed. He wondered if that was why his brain seemed to be struggling to function or if it was a result of being knocked out by Nightmare. Perhaps it was a combination of both. He cursed her every way he could think of as he peeled the fabric away from his skin, then cursed himself as he pulled the shirt over his head. That girl had a bunch of low-tech gadgets and a power that only worked through skin-to-skin contact. How had she beaten him? He grimaced, recognizing his own pathetic attempts to defend his pride. But who was he kidding? He had underestimated an opponent who should not have been underestimated. She was strong. She was clever. And most of the low-tech gadgets he’d seen her use were actually pretty impressive. Shaking his head, he started to laugh, wryly at first, but it quickly grew with real humor, even if it was at his own expense. So much for being the city’s next great superhero. “Next time,” he whispered to himself. A promise. He would keep training. He would get better. And there would be a next time. Pulling the marker from the back pocket of his jeans, he sketched a water faucet on the rooftop’s concrete ledge and pulled the drawing into three dimensions. With a twist of the knob, cool water gushed forward. He used the clean half of his shirt as a rag to wipe away as much of his blood as he could. The injury didn’t look quite so devastating once it was clean. His heart was still beating and his arm was working, so she couldn’t have hit anything too important. After close inspection of the wound, he placed the tip of the marker against his skin and drew a series of stitches, gathering the skin together. Once he was finished, he capped the marker and tucked it away, turned off the water, then sat tracking his thumb around the tattoo on his left forearm. A spiral of flame in bold black ink, its edges fading away into his own dark skin. Fire manipulation. Perhaps it wasn’t rare, but it still remained one of the most coveted powers among prodigies. Between that and the armored suit and the springs he’d inked into the soles of his feet, he’d been confident he could do anything, stop anyone. But Nightmare had barely bat an eye. Not just that. She’d mocked him. With a groan, he climbed to his feet and rallied the courage to look down onto the street where the parade had passed that morning. The celebration had been replaced with a sullen quiet as cleanup crews swept away the confetti and the food wrappers along with the broken glass and destroyed parade floats and looted merchandise left behind from the Puppeteer’s attack. Nightmare had asked the Puppeteer to throw her a rope. Were they working together? Was she an Anarchist? It made sense, in a way. They were one of the few villain gangs who hadn’t vanished completely over the past decade, and they despised the Renegades more than anyone, especially the Council. And that’s why she’d been up here, wasn’t it? She’d been going after the Council. She’d been going after the Captain. Adrian pressed his glasses up on the bridge of his nose. On the street below, a little girl was being dragged from beneath a tour bus, where she must have been hiding all afternoon. She was sobbing hysterically, and even from so high above, Adrian could see a string of gold thread still tied around her throat. He wondered what the Puppeteer had made her do. His jaw clenched. Most of the Anarchists’ identities had been known for years. Winston Pratt. Ingrid Thompson. Honey Harper. Leroy Flinn. But Nightmare … she was new. A mystery. And a threat. When he closed his eyes, he could see her, the slightest glint of her eyes visible in the shadow of her hood. Without expression. Without remorse. Without fear, even as she’d said those words—the words that had haunted him for years. Even now, he couldn’t be sure whether he’d imagined her saying them. That it hadn’t been part of a dream played out while he’d been unconscious. One cannot be brave who has no fear. He released a shuddering breath. It hadn’t been a dream. She had said them. It couldn’t be coincidence. “Nightmare,” he whispered, and it felt like the first time he said it. The first time he said the name and it meant something to him. She was no longer just another villain to be stopped. Another blight on their city to be dealt with. Now she was someone who might have answers. “Who are you really?” * * * THE DULLNESS OF HIS THOUGHTS had mostly evaporated by the time Adrian made his way back to Renegade Headquarters. He had drawn a new shirt for himself, with long sleeves to hide the tattoos, his chest and shoulder still throbbing and tender beneath the fabric. He pushed his way through the rotating door of the main entrance and paused on the landing that looked out over the expansive lobby. It was a vast gathering space that was forever humming with activity and chatter and heavy boots thudding across the enormous R inset into the center of the floor. Renegades in gray-and-red uniforms passed doctors in lab coats and mingled with administrators in crisp suits. People rushed between the various departments, gathered in groups, stared at the screens that lined the walls as they replayed scenes from the Puppeteer’s attack again and again. Hugh and Simon sometimes joked about how all this had started in the Dread Warden’s basement. They’d been teenagers—friends since childhood, both with extraordinary powers, both sick of watching their city being run by Anarchists and criminals. Until one night when they decided to do something about it. As their escapades grew in boldness and publicity, four more prodigies joined the crew of vigilantes: Kasumi, Evander, Tamaya, and Adrian’s own mother, Georgia Rawles. The incomparable Lady Indomitable. It was Evander who gave them the name that would solidify their place in history. The Renegades. Back then, as Adrian understood, they’d had no money, no headquarters, no influence. Nothing but a profound determination to change the world for the better. And they had done it all while subsisting on boxed macaroni and cheese and wearing cheap homemade costumes and taking turns sleeping on one another’s moth-eaten couches. Though the original six were still considered the core group that had started the Renegades, their numbers continued to grow: more vigilantes joined the cause, more prodigies dared to fight against the villains who had torn their world apart. Seeing headquarters now, it was almost impossible to imagine how it started in that basement, all those years ago. A couple of teenagers and a desire to change the world for the better. And now—this. Eighty-two stories and eight sublevels of the world’s most comprehensive government and law enforcement facilities. Okay, most of those floors actually didn’t have anything on them, but Hugh often talked about how glad they would be for all the extra space when they needed to expand. The tower had been built to be the main office building for an international bank or something equally dull, but now it held high-tech facilities and virtual-reality simulators, where Renegades could train both physically and mentally inside a variety of programmable situations. There was a full armory, where an assortment of weapons was kept behind a series of ever-increasingly impenetrable defenses, plus an entire floor dedicated to the storage and preservation of superpowered tools and artifacts. There were two floors dedicated to city surveillance and investigative work; the always-busy call center; prison cells for housing prodigy criminals who were too dangerous to be put into the regular city prison; lounge areas for off-duty Renegades; research laboratories; a full-service medical wing; and—their crowning glory—the Council Hall on the highest floor, where the Council passed laws and made decrees designed to strengthen the society they’d liberated from anarchy and protect the world from another collapse. The Council acted like the only direction society could move was forward, away from those terrible years of chaos and crime, but Adrian sometimes had the feeling that the foundation of order the Renegades had built was more precarious than anyone wanted to admit. Straightening his spine, he started down the grand staircase to the main floor and cut across to the elevators, heading for the medical wing. A few of the overhead screens switched to an image of Nightmare, waving down to the crowd from the basket of the hot-air balloon, her face eclipsed by the hood. Renewed determination surged through Adrian at the sight of her. His mind started to replay the moment when Nightmare had stabbed him, with Ruby’s own blade, no less. He’d lost control. He’d thrown that flame, intending it for Nightmare, but he’d been blinded by rage, and he hadn’t been thinking about what might be behind her. She called him a neophyte and she was right. It was an amateur mistake. From the moment he heard Monarch’s scream, he knew she was badly hurt. He hadn’t been holding back, and much as he wanted to blame Nightmare for it, he couldn’t. The flames had been from his hands—the result of a power he’d barely explored. He had been cocky and careless and Danna was suffering for it. When he reached the medical wing, he spotted Tamaya Rae—Thunderbird—through the windows of the first room. She was sitting on the edge of a bed while a healer tended to one of her black-feathered wings. She looked enraged, though all he caught were the words Puppeteer and balloon and pathetic fishing net! He found Danna in the third room, lying on her side, unconscious. Much of her uniform had been cut away, revealing extensive burns along her left arm and torso. A mask was over her nose and mouth, probably filling her lungs with an elixir that would keep her body from transforming while she was unconscious, as sometimes happened when her brain went into fight-or-flight mode. She once told him that it happened to her a lot when she’d had nightmares growing up. Nightmares. Oh, the irony. Adrian’s gut sank. He hadn’t had time to stop and see how bad her burns were during the fight, and now he was struck with the full weight of guilt from what he’d done. Oscar and Ruby were there, too, sitting on a bench in the corner. Ruby’s head was resting on Oscar’s shoulder, and for a moment Adrian thought she might be asleep, but then her eyes peeled dazedly open. She spotted Adrian and sat up. The briefest flash of disappointment crossed Oscar’s face, but it was gone so fast Adrian thought he might have imagined it. “Oh, now he shows up,” said Oscar, standing. “Dude, where were you?” “I’m sorry,” said Adrian, feeling the apology down to his core. “I got your message about Nightmare and I was making my way to you guys when the Puppeteer showed up and I was stuck trying to get this group of kids to safety. There must have been a hundred of them there on a field trip. It was chaos.” He lightly scratched his wounded shoulder through his shirt, surprised by how easily the lie had come. “But I still should have been there with you. I’m so sorry. Is Danna…?” Oscar blew out a frustrated sigh. “She got burned really bad in the fight.” On the bed, Danna inhaled a shuddering breath. A machine on the wall beeped faster for a second, then fell again into a steady rhythm. Adrian walked closer, forcing himself to lift one of the cold compresses that had been draped over her burn wounds. Forcing himself to take in the damage he had done. How much pain had she been in? Or had her body immediately gone into shock? Setting the compress back over her burns, he rubbed the flame tattoo through his sleeve. Though it had been healed for weeks now, he imagined for a moment that he could feel it, like the flame was alive, like it was burning his skin. He turned back to Oscar and Ruby. “Have the healers been to see her yet?” Oscar nodded. “Yeah. They say she’s going to be okay, but it’ll take some time. It’s really bad.” “Danna is our eyes when we’re on patrol,” said Adrian, scratching the back of his neck. “We’ll be at a huge disadvantage without her.” “The really weird thing,” said Ruby, “is that wasn’t even Nightmare’s doing. That”—she pointed at Danna, then drew quotes in the air—“was ‘the Sentinel.’” Adrian flinched at the venom in her tone. The small part of him that wanted to tell his team that he was, in fact, on the roof with them that day, quickly evaporated. “Who?” “Some guy who showed up mid-combat,” said Oscar. “Faced off against Nightmare. He had an R on his suit, but…” He shrugged. “None of us have ever seen him before.” Adrian kept his brow tight with confusion. “The Sentinel?” “That’s what Monarch said, before they put her under. He was a fire elemental, I think.” Oscar frowned. “But it definitely wasn’t Wildfire.” Wildfire was the only fire elemental they currently had on the Renegades, at least in the Gatlon City branch. Adrian had gotten most of his ideas for how to handle fire manipulation from watching him in the training halls. Ruby yawned. “I don’t think it was that Islander prodigy, either. The one who trained here last year. Magma, was it? This Sentinel guy was fully covered, head to toe. Someone caught a photo of him from street level so they’re starting to circulate it, to see if anyone knows anything.” “He also had superior jumping,” said Oscar, “and this suit, like something straight out of a comic book. Honestly, I think he might be from research and development—like maybe some sort of new super-soldier they’ve been working on down there, and it’s too classified for them to admit it yet.” Ruby gasped and leaned forward excitedly, like she’d just uncovered a clue. “Or he could be a villain, masquerading as a Renegade. Maybe he’s trying to hurt our reputation. Maybe it’s all part of some complicated scheme that will lead to our ultimate downfall!” Adrian and Oscar stared at her. Ruby shrugged. “Maybe?” “Maybe,” Oscar agreed. Collapsing back onto the bench, Ruby threw an arm over her eyes, as if this outburst had sapped her last bits of energy. The bloodstone on her wrist reflected the room’s light, turning her cheek a rosy red. “That’s my theory and I’m sticking to it.” “But he was fighting Nightmare at first,” said Oscar, “before he attacked Monarch. Or maybe that was a mistake. Who knows?” “Was anyone else hurt?” asked Adrian. “Nope,” said Ruby, with a hint of defensiveness. “We’re grand. Positively stellar.” “Nightmare got to her,” explained Oscar. “Put her to sleep.” He reached down and pet Ruby on the head. It was one of the most awkward gestures Adrian could recall him ever making, and Oscar could be a pretty awkward guy at times. “Tattletale,” Ruby grumbled, swatting him away. “In case anyone’s wondering, I currently feel like someone’s filled my head with concrete.” Adrian bit back the impulse to say he knew exactly how she felt. “That makes the fourth time this year a Renegade team has come in contact with Nightmare. She can’t be working alone.” “She escaped on the Puppeteer’s balloon,” said Oscar. “Could be a new Anarchist.” “But,” said Ruby, thrusting a finger into the air, “she threw the Puppeteer overboard. That’s not exactly a friendly greeting.” “That’s their thing though, isn’t it?” said Adrian. “Even when they’re supposed to be working together, they still believe in trampling the weak to make way for the strong.” Oscar shrugged. “Makes no sense to me, but then, they are villains. Who knows how they think?” “On the bright side,” Ruby said, opening her eyes and flashing a mischievous grin, “I got Nightmare’s gun.” Adrian lifted an eyebrow. “They took it upstairs to have it inspected,” said Oscar. “She fired off one dart at the Captain, came this close to hitting him in the eye.” He pinched his fingers together. “That dart is being looked at too. Maybe they’ll be able to trace it back to wherever she got it from.” Adrian looked away. He didn’t know how much information they could garner from the gun or the dart she’d used, but it was something. It was a start. That morning, he had cared only about proving his abilities as the Sentinel. He had been excited to show them all what he could do. He had fantasized about taking off the Sentinel’s helmet and revealing himself to his team and the rest of the Renegades. But he hardly cared about any of that anymore. One sentence from Nightmare had changed everything. He had to find out who she was. He had to find out what she knew. He had to find her. CHAPTER FIVE ADRIAN WAS BECOMING ANXIOUS, though he wasn’t sure why. Thunderbird had been brought to headquarters hours ago to be treated for her injuries, but the rest of the Council still wasn’t back. He would have known by now if they were hurt, so that wasn’t it. Maybe he was curious if they’d heard about the Sentinel. What they thought. If they were able to see right through him. He spent some time making his way around the medical wing, checking on others who had been hurt in the fight against the Puppeteer, before heading upstairs to visit Max, who was probably feeling cut off from all the activity, like usual. Max’s quarantine was built into a sky bridge that extended over the main floor of the lobby. It was quite possibly the fanciest room in the place—practically a luxury suite—with floor-to-ceiling windows that offered a breathtaking view of the river, and private quarters tucked out of sight with a master bedroom and bathroom complete with a soaking tub, though