EVERYONE HAS A nightmare.
Nova was pretty sure her worst nightmare was walking back into Renegade Headquarters, wearing her Renegade-issued patrol uniform, less than twenty-four hours after her alter ego had infiltrated the building, stolen the most dangerous weapon of all time, stripped three Renegades of their powers using her stolen batch of the substance known as Agent N, started a fight that destroyed most of the building’s lobby, and witnessed Max Everhart nearly bleed to death amid the shattered glass of his demolished quarantine.
It wasn’t only surreal that she was returning to the wreckage in the first place, it was that she was doing so willingly. Nova had believed she would never come back here again. After months of working as a spy in the Renegades’ midst, she had successfully stolen Ace Anarchy’s helmet. She had what she needed to give Ace his power back, and together they would watch this organization crumble.
But things never went according to plan, and she hadn’t known that while she was fighting for her life in this very lobby, a masked vigilante known as the Sentinel had discovered and arrested Ace Anarchy—the leader of the Anarchists and the uncle who had raised her.
Sweet rot, she hated the Sentinel. He was always around at the most inconvenient times, striking his ridiculous comic-book poses and spouting absurd catchphrases like “I’m not your enemy” and “You can trust me.”
Except, no one fully trusted the Sentinel, as far as she could tell. Vigilantism didn’t fit with the Renegade code, and despite his attempts to seize criminals and aid the Renegades, his stunts had often made the organization seem incompetent and ineffective. Perhaps the only thing Nova liked about the vigilante was his uncanny ability to get on the Council’s nerves. Meanwhile, his determination to hunt down Nightmare and his capture of Ace Anarchy hadn’t made him any friends among the villain set, either. The only people who appreciated the Sentinel’s efforts were Adrian, who seemed to have a rebellious appreciation for the guy, and the public, who saw him as a true hero, one who believed in justice and answered to nobody but himself. That reputation was solidified with his capture of Ace Anarchy.
Though she knew nothing was ever easy, Ace’s arrest had almost been enough to make Nova throw her hands in the air and succumb to the inevitable. Anarchists and prodigies like them would go on being hated, villainized, and oppressed for all eternity. She was almost ready to give up.
That had been hours ago, and now Nova was back, because … where else could she go? As far as anyone here knew, she was still Nova McLain, alias Insomnia, a Renegade through and through. Her secrets remained the best leverage she had, and now that her enemies had Ace, she knew she would need every bit of it.
Nova hadn’t realized the full extent of the destruction wrought upon Renegade Headquarters until she found herself moving shakily through the rubble. She was surrounded by Renegades, but no one was paying her any attention. Even the Council members were combing through the remains of the glass quarantine that had fallen from the second story and shattered the tiled marble of the main lobby. From where she stood, she could see Captain Chromium holding the glass clock tower that had once topped the courthouse from Max’s miniature Gatlon City.
Now it was destroyed. All of it was destroyed.
The signs of battle were everywhere. Steel beams bent at odd angles. Wires dangling from the ceiling where chandeliers had been pulled from their sockets. The information desk mangled on one side. Plaster and tables and chairs and tile and glass—so much glass from where the quarantine had fallen. The glittering shards were almost mesmerizing, the way they caught the light streaming in through the front doors.
And there was blood.
Most of it was dried in a puddle where Max had fallen. Where Frostbite had driven a spear right through him.
Nova tore her eyes from the spot and saw Adrian picking his way toward her. His shoulders were hunched and there was none of the usual grace to his demeanor. He had a shadow over his features, one that served as a reminder that Max, who was as close to a brother as Adrian would ever have, was in the hospital. The doctors had put him in a coma to stabilize his vital signs, but they weren’t filling anyone’s head with false optimism. He was hanging by a thread. There was only one saving grace—that Max had, in the last moments of the battle, managed to absorb all of Frostbite’s ability. He had taken in her control of ice and used it to stanch his own bleeding, to freeze over his own wound.
It might have saved his life.
Then again, it might not.
Nova swallowed the lump in her throat as Adrian drew closer. His dark expression was about more than Max. He was full of a new burning hatred, like nothing Nova had ever witnessed before … at least not on calm, cheerful Adrian.
A burning hatred for Nightmare, who he was convinced had been the one who attacked Max. No one had seen it happen other than Frostbite and her comrades, and they weren’t about to correct anyone’s mistaken beliefs. Nightmare was too easy a target to put the blame on.
And Nova, whose secret identity remained, miraculously, unknown, couldn’t exactly clear her alter ego’s name, no matter how she yearned to defend herself whenever she saw Adrian’s eyes smolder with restrained hostility.
“When you said Nightmare had infiltrated headquarters,” Nova said, once Adrian was close enough, “this isn’t what I pictured.”
Lying through her teeth, as usual. She was always lying these days. She hardly even realized she was doing it anymore.
“Yeah, it’s pretty bad.” Adrian’s focus was distant as he scanned the destruction. “They found the Silver Spear over there. We think Nightmare got it from the vault and used it to steal the helmet. And…” His voice caught and he coughed to clear it. “We’re pretty sure it was the weapon she used on Max, too. There was blood on it. They’re going to run tests.”
Her teeth ground.
Adrian sighed and looked down. For the first time, Nova noticed something in his hands. A sphere with a small crown on one side and an open seam around its circumference. Nova recognized it immediately—one of Fatalia’s mist-missiles, or so it had been, before she had stolen it from the artifacts department. She and Leroy had reconfigured the devices to release a gaseous form of Agent N, the noxious substance that had been developed using Max Everhart’s blood. Though harmless to civilians, it was poison to prodigies. As soon as they inhaled, imbibed, or were injected with the substance, they would permanently lose their powers.
As Nightmare, Nova had detonated two of the devices in this lobby. Those, along with a stolen dart loaded with Agent N, had resulted in both Gargoyle and Aftershock being stripped of their abilities. She had orchestrated the neutralization of Frostbite, too, though she didn’t need Agent N that time. She’d simply dragged the girl closer to Max and let the Bandit do what he needed to do.
Now she found herself staring at the shell of the device, already forming a series of lies she could tell when someone bothered to check them for fingerprints. She had touched the mist-missiles one day while working in the vault … that must have been before Nightmare stole them …
But the lies were flimsy.
The higher her lies piled up, the more precarious they became. Sometimes she felt that if she dared to exhale fully, the whole thing would topple.
“It looks like one of Fatalia’s mist-missiles,” she said, keeping her tone even.
“That’s what Callum said, too,” said Adrian.
“Callum? Is he here?” Nova’s thoughts turned back to the night before, when she had left Callum unconscious in the vault.
Adrian nodded. “He went back upstairs to check if the mist-missiles are missing.”
“Maybe Nightmare took them when she took the spear.”
Adrian’s brow furrowed over his dark-framed glasses. “I don’t think so. Mack Baxter said Nightmare had some sort of bomb filled with Agent N. That’s how she was able to neutralize Trevor. I think this is one of those bombs.”
Nova silently cursed Aftershock and Gargoyle, even if she couldn’t blame them for telling the truth. “Well, maybe she was inspired by the mist-missile design. She is supposed to be some genius inventor, right? She must have created these herself.”
Adrian hesitated, and she could see him battling with his own thoughts. Finally, he conceded, “Maybe. We’ll see what Callum finds.”
Nova wouldn’t have been convinced, either. No matter how hard she tried to deflect scrutiny away from herself, her arguments just weren’t all that convincing these days.
“The thing is,” said Adrian, tossing the empty device into the air and catching it again in his palm, “if Nightmare was setting off Agent N bombs … it would have affected her, too. Why wasn’t she afraid of losing her powers?”
“She wears a mask, doesn’t she?”
“Yeah, but I’m pretty sure it isn’t a gas mask.”
She shrugged. “We don’t know that.”
“Okay, but she was also right next to Max when”—Adrian cut short, his gaze darting toward the blood on the floor—“when he was draining Genissa of her powers. He should have been draining Nightmare, too, but she ran out of here like nothing was wrong. No one is immune to Max.”
“Your dad is.”
He scowled. “No one other than Captain Chromium.”
“I’m just saying, there might be ways around Max’s ability and Agent N. Maybe Nightmare found something … like you stumbling onto that Vitality Charm.” The Vitality Charm was an artifact Adrian had discovered that could protect a person against disease, poison, and just about anything that would weaken them, including substances like Agent N. The artifact that was, even at that moment, tucked between the worn mattress and the wooden floorboards at Nova’s house on Wallowridge. “There could be dozens of artifacts that would protect someone’s ability and we just don’t know about them.”
“And you think that Nightmare and I happened to each find one around the same time?”
“Or…” Adrian’s voice dropped to a whisper, though all of the nearby Renegades were too busy sweeping up glass and pulling debris from the wreckage to care about their conversation. “Maybe Nightmare has the Vitality Charm.”
Nova had expected this rebuttal. It made so much more sense than her argument, after all. But she kept her expression neutral. “Don’t you have it?”
Adrian grimaced. “No. Pops had it last. I gave it to him so he could visit Max. You know, outside the quarantine for once. But now it’s missing.”
“So … you think she stole that from the vault, too?”
“It wasn’t in the vault. Simon swears he brought it back to the house. That’s the last we’ve seen of it.”
She cocked her head to one side. “So you think Nightmare broke into your house?”
“Yes. No. I don’t know. In theory, she could have done it while we were all at the gala, but there’s nothing on any of our security cameras. And that doesn’t explain how she would have known about the charm in the first place. I haven’t told anyone other than you and Max, and I know my dads didn’t, either.” He rubbed the back of his neck, and she could tell he felt a little guilty to even ask—“You didn’t mention it to anyone, did you?”
“Of course not,” she said. “But Tina and Callum knew about the charm, too, and Callum can’t keep his mouth shut around anyone. Maybe they let something slip, not realizing how valuable it is.”
Copyright © 2019 by Rampion Books