My world was pain.
I could feel something in my ribs breaking as I was hit with a bat, even as I tried to curl up to protect my vital organs. Others were kicking me, stomping on me, each explosion of pain followed by another so quickly that I couldn't keep track.
Running wasn't an option. There were too many of them, and something had broken in my ankle. I tried to fight back, but I'd just turned fourteen. I was weak and nothing I did seemed to make much of a difference.
I'd wanted to be a hero once. The last thing I'd wanted was to die alone in an alley because the ABB was having initiations, forcing members to commit a crime so that they wouldn't be able to go to the police.
There was someone with a video camera, catching it all. I hoped my Dad never saw it.
It was getting harder to breathe.
Suddenly the beating stopped, even though the sounds of a fight continued. I heard the video camera being smashed to the ground, and I looked up through eyes that were so swollen that I could barely see.
There was a tall man with a sculpted physique and broad shoulders fighting all seven of the gang members who had beaten me. It should have been a massacre, and it was, but not the way I would have expected.
Most of the older gang members seemed to know some kind of martial arts, even though the younger ones flailed around cluelessly. The man, however didn't seem to care as he used their movements against them.
They stumbled and flailed around, fighting themselves almost as much as they were fighting him.
I noticed that he was wearing a T-shirt with the logo of a local game shop that Greg couldn't stop talking about. It looked old and ratty, like he'd worn it a lot.
He moved almost like he was dancing.
I found myself suddenly sick with envy. If I'd known how to move like that, then I wouldn't be laying on a dirty alley floor dying. I wouldn't have had a problem with Sophia. Just knowing that I could move like that would have been almost like being a superhero, just like having real powers.
The fight was over almost as soon as it started.
The man was standing over me, and he muttered, "Oh, man."
A moment later he started doing medical things to me, and I passed out.
I woke to the sound of beeping.
I was a little surprised to be alive, but even more surprised to open my swollen eyes and see my father sitting beside me with Armsmaster.
My mouth felt dry, and it felt like I'd lost a few teeth.
"Taylor?" Dad asked, suddenly leaning forward.
"Miss Hebert," Armsmaster said. "Are you able to tell us anything about what happened to you last night?"
Direct and to the point. It surprised me a little. He didn't actually seem that interested, seemingly distracted by something else.
"Thirsty," I muttered, and my voice felt like broken glass. I think someone kicked me in the throat at some point.
Dad grabbed a cup and handed me some ice chips.
"What happened?" I asked.
I meant what happened after the man had saved me, but Armsmaster looked disappointed.
"It's not unusual for people with head injuries to suffer from amnesia," he said. "But there is suspicion that you were saved last night from an ABB attack by an unknown parahuman."
They hadn't found him, then, the man who had saved me.
"Perhaps you will feel better after Panacea has healed you," he said. "I've given your father my card."
He was gone a moment later. If he'd been paying attention I suspect he really would have questioned me, but it felt like he was going through the motions.
"I'm so sorry," Dad said. "I should have been there."
If he'd been there he'd probably have been dead. There was no way a man with my Dad's temper would have stood for what they'd done to me. They'd have had to kill him first, and then I'd have had two dead parents.
I was glad he hadn't been there, and that someone else had.
The only thing I wished was that I could know what he knew, that I could get stronger like him. If I could, I'd do anything just to be able to defend myself.
He'd beaten seven men like it wasn't anything, a man without any superpowers.
If I had his knowledge, his skills, then I wouldn't have to be weak any more.
I must have faded out again, probably from whatever drugs they were using to keep the pain at bay, because it seemed like Panacea simply appeared.
"Do I have your permission to heal her?" I heard her ask Dad.
I heard him grunt something, and a moment later I felt a cool hand touch my arm. I heard a soft gasp from her, and a moment later I felt bones begin to shift into place. Pain began to fade.
A moment after that I felt something change inside of me.
The moment I was healed, I felt power.