There were no words to describe the magnitude of the sound that Taylor experienced the moment she pulled the trigger. A bomb exploded in her head, a noise so loud she could see it. She stood, for a moment numb, as the echoes of the gunshot reverberated within her skull, and then she fell.
Then she fell, and her knees smashed against the sidewalk so hard she felt like they had shattered, sending the vibrations of the impact up her thigh bones, up her spine, and even to her skull.
Cause, effect. Action and reaction. The price of increased hearing ... is increased hearing.
She wasn't deaf; her knees hadn't shattered, she just felt like that was the case. She flared tin and the world around her roared into focus, light and pain and noise and all.
Hookwolf still stood, hunched over and clutching something in his fist. He tossed it aside—a bullet—and glowered at her. "A gun?" he said. "You have God knows what power at your disposal, and you rely on a gun? Guns are for them!" He gestured at the rest of the gang members, his voice dripping with venom and disgust. Meanwhile, something writhed beneath his skin, then tore through and sprouted. Metal. Blades burst out of his body like a field of steel grass. "Kill the girl," he growled. "The telekinetic can watch."
Taylor was still dizzy and it took her a second longer than it should have to catch on. With her hair tucked into her hood and the scarf around her face, she looked androgynous at best and the only power Hookwolf would have heard about was the clumsy way she could push and pull on metal. The girl he had ordered killed was Claire, who had already started running.
Six men started after her, while two stayed behind and aimed their guns. Taylor started with them first, burning steel to push their weapons out of their hands. But their grip was too strong and the angle was too directed, slamming Taylor against the wall behind her. The impact was something she could feel in her teeth, but with a brick wall to push against, she was able to send the two guns flying into the night, and the men would be hard pressed to find them without night vision.
Two down, six to go.
She burned iron and pulled on the belt buckle of the slowest gangster. He stumbled and Taylor, being the smaller of the two, practically flew toward him. It was all she could do to keep her feet underneath her as she was yanked forward along the thin blue line. She ended the pull at the last second, letting the momentum carry her knee-first into the man. It hurt, but if Newton's Third Law could be applied, it hurt him just as much, and she was pretty sure her knee could take it better than his kidney.
They both went down, but only Taylor got back up. She went after the next gangster, pulling on his crowbar. Unlike the belt buckle, he let go of the crowbar immediately, and it flew right toward her chest. Panicking, she extinguished iron and burned steel, sending the crowbar back at him. Between the crowbar's slight drop in elevation due to gravity and the way the man turned toward her at just the wrong time, the crowbar hit him right in the groin.
Taylor winced and almost apologized before she caught herself.
Before she could move on to the fifth Nazi, Hookwolf came up behind her fully transformed into a quadrapedal mass of blades and spikes, and she didn't even have time to think before he tore her apart. So she didn't think, she reacted. She pushed on the first man's belt buckle to get a little bit of breathing room—
And the ground disappeared beneath her. Maybe she pushed too hard in her panic, or maybe she miscalculated how powerful pushes and pulls were at close distances, but she felt like she had been launched from a catapult. Her arc sent her away from Hookwolf, and even over the rest of the gang members. In a moment of surreal serenity, she noticed her reflection looking back at her in a second story window.
Then she hit the ground. Hard. She felt the impact like a shockwave throughout her entire body and wobbled, certain she had broken everything that wasn't turned to putty. If she was lucky, that was just tin exaggerating what she was feeling, but luck had never been something she could rely on.
She tried to stand, but her right foot flared with pain and she went down again. The remaining gangsters nearly surrounded her, but they were cautious, none of them wanting to be the first one forward. She was a new cape, and they didn't know what tricks she had up her sleeve.
Taylor didn't either. She had tin, but that was useless. Zinc could make them afraid, but would it be enough to make them run? Iron and steel. A gun, but she didn't have enough bullets, and resorting to it would prove that her powers weren't enough. Lastly, she had a pocket full of pennies.
Ah, what the hell. She reached into her pocket, causing some of her attackers to back away. Then she tossed a handful of coins into the air and shot them all out like tiny bullets.
She wasn't sure how much damage a steelpushed penny could do, if it was closer to a BB gun pellet or a shotgun shell, so just to be safe she aimed low. It was a good thing she did, because the coins tore through the fabric of their pants and lodged themselves in the gangster's legs. They fell down screaming.
That left Hookwolf. Hookwolf the mass murdering supervillain, who had already been sentenced to the Birdcage more than once. Hookwolf, who even before he transformed, was bulletproof.
Well, bulletproof or not, Taylor took out her gun and shot him until she ran out of bullets, extinguishing her tin beforehand. It had seemed to hurt him a little bit before he transformed, but now ... now It didn't do a goddamned thing.
Iron, steel, tin, zinc, she thought. Iron, steel, tin, zinc ...
Zinc, she decided. Which emotion to riot? Compassion? No, if he was feeling merciful, he'd grant her a quick death. Fear? He'd panic and finish her off quickly. Anger? Definitely not. Lust? Sure, if she had her heart set on a fate worse than death.
It was as good of an idea as any. She burned zinc, and Hookwolf stopped. Covered in metal, his body language was nearly impossible to read, but he seemed less steady than he had been before. He made a muffled noise that sounded as much like laughter as a bad cough, but for the moment Taylor had time.
If only she knew what to do with it.
Then she noticed something when she burned steel. It wasn't something that she saw, but something that she didn't see. There was no blue line connecting him to her. Why? Did his transformed state not count as real metal? Did his powers counteract hers? Was this something she could use?
The she saw ... a passing shadow, so swift and so faint she almost missed it, even with tin. A thin black wisp that fell from the sky and went right into him. He stopped laughing, arched his back, and made a grating noise that might have been a snarl. Taylor shuffled backward like a crab trying to get away as he thrashed around, and then he collapsed on the street. Taylor stared at his bladed, still form, breathing in and out as her breathing slowed.
I'm not going to die tonight. It seemed a miracle.
A dark, cloaked figure floated down from a nearby rooftop, landing without even making a sound. She ... shifted, becoming more solid and more real as she studied Hookwolf for a moment before glancing at Taylor. "You okay?"
It took Taylor a moment to recognize the cape, but only one person in Brockton Bay had her powerset. Shadow Stalker.
"I ... I hurt my leg." She didn't want to admit it, but it was too obvious to hide.
"Yeah, you really flubbed the landing back there," Shadow Stalker said. She sounded mildly amused, but not concerned. "As a rule, if it hurts when you touch it, it's broken. If it hurts when you move it, it's just sprained."
Without tin, the mind-numbing agony had been reduced to a dull ache, and there wasn't much pain when she massaged her ankle. So, not as bad as I thought. I'll put some ice on it after I limp home, and by tomorrow ... by next week, it will be as good as new. She shuffled over to an unlit street light and pulled herself to her feet, careful not to put any weight on her bad foot.
"First time out?" Shadow Stalker asked conversationally. She didn't offer her a hand, though Taylor was okay with not being patronized.
She nodded, adjusting the scarf around her face so it looked more like a mask than something she had thrown together at the last second.
"You a hero?"
Taylor gave her a flat look. "Really?"
Shadow Stalker shrugged. "If I didn't think so, I wouldn't have asked. Got a name?"
Taylor shook her head. "Not yet."
She glanced over the fallen Empire thugs. "Well, I've seen worse first timers."
Huh. That was almost a compliment. The way Taylor remembered it, she had been flailing around hoping to get lucky the whole time, so she didn't know how much Shadow Stalker had seen. But she had implied that she had seen her land after her ill planned jump so she had been around for at least that long.
Shadow Stalker went about, shooting the gangsters with her crossbow and tying their hands behind their backs with zip ties, for the most part ignoring her. Was that a dismissal? Was Taylor just supposed to limp back home now?
"Got eight E88'ers ready for pick up, and Hookwolf's gonna to need some foam before he wakes up," Shadow Stalker said, apparently to herself. "Sure, why not. Throw one in just for fun. What am I, a doctor?"
Taylor realized that she was talking into an earpiece that she couldn't see. She ignored the jolt of pain in her foot and flared tin to see if she could hear who was on the other end, but by then the call was over.
"Well, the dogcatchers are on their way," she said, sauntering over to her. "I'm going to hang here to make sure any of Hookwolf's buddies don't try to rescue him. You can do what you want."
"I'll stay." It was a ten or fifteen minute jog home, but she wasn't going to be jogging. On the other hand, asking the PRT to give her a ride home would lead to an unfortunate conversation with her dad, so...
Taylor stared at Hookwolf. Why couldn't she push or pull on his metal? And how had Shadow Stalker stopped him? She had read that Shadow Stalker used a crossbow that shot tranquilizers, but Hookwolf was bulletproof.
"You shot him with something when you were phased out of reality," she said. "It phased in after passing through his shell and got stuck inside his non-metallic core."
"Yup," Shadow Stalker said, for the first time sounding pleased. "He's got shards of a tranquilizer in him right now. He'll need surgery when he wakes up."
That was ... well, Taylor had always thought that Shadow Stalker's ability to shift out of reality was creepy—not that she had anything against creepy—but this? The girl could murder someone with a pool noodle. On the other hand, it wasn't just her powers at play. She'd need perfect aim and hours of practice to get the timing and distance right.
She didn't know what to say, but this was the first chance she ever had to have a one on one chat with an actual superhero, and Shadow Stalker was even her own age. She did her best to sound casual. "Any advice for a rookie cape?"
Shadow Stalker turned to her. "Do you want me to be nice, or do you want me to be honest?"
Something told her that Shadow Stalker didn't do nice. "Honest."
"I saw enough of your fight to know that you were doing everything you could to get yourself killed, and that boils down to two things. First, your only way out was to fight your way out. Never let yourself get trapped, cornered, or surrounded, even if it's against someone you know you can beat. Second, you got into a fight with someone you couldn't beat. Know where you are on the food chain. I don't know how twisty your power is, but in a direct fight it's just a matter of who's stronger, and Hookwolf definitely had you beat."
Taylor nodded, taking the criticism for what it was. She had gotten into a fight that she couldn't win or escape from, and had gotten lucky. But ... it hadn't been a fight she could have walked away from either. Not without abandoning someone innocent to the Empire. She wondered if Claire had made it to safety. Probably, with Hookwolf and his men focused on Taylor.
"For the rest of the cape stuff," Shadow Stalker continued, "it depends on what sort of hero you want to be. If you join the Wards, for example, you'll need to be able to follow orders and connect to the public. If you stay a solo vigilante, you won't have to worry about that kind of crap."
A valid point, to be sure. The two strongest arguments against joining the Wards was that she'd have to work with other teenagers and that there would constantly be adults telling them what to do. She might as well be in school if that was what she wanted. But Shadow Stalker's tone hinted at something more than just the words she said. "You were both, weren't you?" Taylor said. "Before you joined the Wards, you were a solo vigilante."
Shadow Stalker fell silent for a moment, then nodded slowly. "Yeah. It was ... simpler back then. Didn't have to answer to no one, and there was no one to hold me back. Just the hunter and the hunted, and I only put on my costume when I wanted to wear it instead of when I had to."
That sounded ... freeing. Ever since Taylor discovered her powers, she had dreamed about something just like that. There was no signing autographs or meeting with adoring fans, just her being her, and no one demanding anything more or less. "Why'd you join the Wards then?"
As soon as she said that, Shadow Stalker made a fist and her whole body went tense, and Taylor worried that she had pried too far. She considered burning zinc to riot Shadow Stalker's ... not-strangle-the-closest-person emotion, whatever that was, when the hero spoke.
"They made me an offer I couldn't refuse," she said, her voice bitter. "It was either this or, or ... see, it's not a matter of getting the job done to those people. Hell, you've seen this city. The job hasn't been done since before Allfather. But the desk jockeys and bureaucrats upstairs, they just care that you look good doing it, that you keep it clean, and me? I got my hands dirty. So they came down on me. It didn't matter how many drug-dealing, racist, pedophiles I took down, it was a matter of, of 'violating the rights' of the worst scum of the city." She seathed, but then shrugged in feigned indifference. "So now I'm here."
Taylor stared at her. "When you say 'violating the rights' ..."
She shrugged again. "You know. Broken bones, mild bleeding, long term injuries. That sort of thing."
Taylor looked at the gangsters she had taken down. She doubted that the pennies she had thrown had broken any bones, but few of them would be walking any time soon. She didn't feel bad about that; if anyone deserved to spend a month in a wheelchair, it was these Nazi wannabes, but ...
"And the PRT is on their way?" Taylor asked.
"And when they get here, they'll try to recruit me?"
"They'll make you an offer."
"One I can't refuse?"
Shadow Stalker shrugged. "They tend to get antsy when they hear nasty words like 'no.'"
She took a deep breath. "Will you stop me if I try to leave?"
Shadow Stalker laughed. "Girl, I never asked you to stay."
Taylor nodded in gratitude. Now, how to get back home on a twisted ankle ...
She could push herself with steel and almost fly, but not with any degree of control. But if she could plan for that lack of control ...
She laid out three pennies, forming a triangle around her, and pushed on all of them at once. She shot up into the air like a bullet, and on the way down she pushed again to slow her fall. Her stomach lurched and her nerves screamed, but she didn't crash like she had before. In fact, she was too cautious, pushing too early and too hard so she bounced in midair instead of landing, but eventually she was able to hit the ground with an impact she could withstand.
Shadow Stalker watched her, her posture unreadable.
Now for the really stupid part. If this didn't work, it would be nearly as embarrassing as it would be painful. She took a limping step forward, and pushed herself up and forward, sailing into the air like she had the first time to escape from Hookwolf. Before she hit the ground, she threw a small handful of coins in front of her and pushed against them to slow her fall.
It wasn't a perfect landing. She hit the ground and fell into a roll, scraping her knees and elbows, but she didn't break anything.
Right. I can take off and I can land. The rest?
The rest was going to be pure, unadulterated insanity.
She shot herself into the air and pushed against everything behind her. And in the middle of the city, there was metal everywhere. Sewer grates, traffic lights, street lamps, window frames, door knobs, everything she left behind pushed her forward. In a matter of seconds she made it to the end of the block.
She slowed down, trying to gain more control of her movement before she crashed into a wall. Taylor focused less on pushing herself forward and more on pushing herself upward, bouncing off of parked cars on the side of the road without ever touching them. She had managed to fall into a rhythm, going up and down at a consistent height while her momentum carried her forward, until she reached the true test of her new method of travel: turning left.
She knew it was coming up. She had more metal to steady her jumps when she followed the road than she would if she went over buildings, but that meant that she couldn't return home in a straight line.
She pulled on a window frame, hoping to use it to swing to the side, but it was an inadequate anchor. Her pull ripped the whole window out of the building, and instead of making a turn Taylor found herself veering slightly to the left instead, directly toward a wall. She pushed on a car beneath her, shooting her toward the sky, and she was able to push against an A/C unit to slow her fall enough so she landed on a rooftop of an apartment building without breaking anything.
For a moment she lay there, looking up at the stars until her breathing slowed. She could walk the rest of the way after she got back down. That would be the safe thing to do, and that way she'd be less likely to end up with a second sprained ankle. Then she could go to school the next morning, continue taking no risks at all, and see where that got her.
Gritting her teeth, she got up, limped over to the edge, and looked down. If she was going to be safe about everything, what was even the point? This ... this pseudo flight terrified her, but it thrilled her too. When she was in the air like that, she was always a moment away from splattering against a wall, but she was free.
Had she ever been free like that before? Not in years. Not since she had been a child.
Traveling like this was risky, and it was foolish, but if she could just get a handle on it then she would never be trapped again.
She stepped off the edge into the night, flared steel, and flew.
A/n And that's chapter two. Once again, I'd like to thank Lightwavers for editing this, correcting the mistakes, and helping me with the tone and pacing of the chapter.