I woke up that morning for the first time without having dreamed of Plasma.  It felt really good.  I threw on a robe and walked out into the main room, and found Shawn sitting in an easy chair by the window, looking at something on his phone.  So I said, “Good morning, Shawn.”

“Good morning,” he said.  “Did I snore?”  I must have looked puzzled, because he continued, “I noticed you went back to your own room last night, so I assumed I must have snored or something.”

“No, I had another bad dream.  I guess it didn’t wake you up, but I was afraid if I tried to go back to sleep I’d have another one and disturb you.”

“So did you?  Have another one, I mean?”

“No, I didn’t,” I said, smiling.

“That’s a good sign, isn’t it?”  I nodded, and he said, “Are we going down for breakfast or ordering room service?”

“I’d like to go down and hit the buffet, actually.  Give me a minute to get ready.”

While I was picking out something to wear and putting on my makeup, Shawn turned on the TV.  The news anchor was in the middle of talking: “… attack on the hero Lightning of the San Francisco Guardians by the armored villain called Plasma.  This video was taken by a bystander.”  I stepped out of the bathroom to watch.

The video was shaky and not very good quality, but I could plainly see Plasma trying to aim his guns at Lightning, who was, of course, not standing still for it.  The swirling white streams of energy kept overloading the camera, but in between I could see Lightning running up to him and hitting him, then speeding away again.

It wasn’t working, though, and so after a moment Lightning changed tactics.  He would stop, just for a moment, and wait for Plasma to fire, then speed away at the last moment only to stop somewhere else.

He was stalling… someone else, a heavy hitter like Troll maybe, must be on the way.  But if I could figure that out, so could Plasma.  He suddenly stopped shooting, and Lightning stopped running.  For a moment they stood facing each other, less than a dozen steps apart, and then Plasma pointed his guns down and away from his body and began firing.  He turned in a circle, and the blaze of light and smoke hid him from view; when the smoke cleared, there was a hole in the pavement and Plasma was gone.

The newsman had been speaking the whole time, the way they do, but I had tuned him out.  The video ended, and I heard him saying something about Plasma having disappeared from the scene.  “Damn,” I said.  “Too bad Lightning couldn’t have ended him.”

Shawn looked shocked.  “Polly, what… you’re a Guardian.  You know we don’t kill the bad guys, we just apprehend them.”

I looked at him.  “I’m not a Guardian anymore, Shawn, and I swear if I could I would do away with him.  Remember what he did.  He’s not your garden variety supervillain… he means to kill Guardians, and he almost did kill me.”

He looked away for a moment.  “I guess I understand, Polly.  But you need to let go of this anger.  It’ll just screw up your judgment.”

I sighed.  “Maybe.  I’ll try.”

We went down to the hotel restaurant for breakfast, but I was distracted.  I was thinking about the sword of Nemvex, which I now controlled, and what I could do with it.  What I wanted to do with it.  I wanted, maybe even needed, to get back to San Francisco and get started.

I got my tickets changed online while eating my breakfast.  “I’ve got a flight leaving at twelve forty-five this afternoon,” I said.  “What time are you meeting your son?”

“About one o’clock,” he replied.  “I won’t be able to drive you to the airport.”

“That’s okay, I’ll take a cab,” I said.  “You need to see your son.  Don’t worry about me, I can take care of myself.”

“I can see that,” he said.

So we went our separate ways, Shawn and I.  He took the rental car around midmorning, since he had a bit of a drive to the college.  We both checked out of the hotel, as Shawn was planning to spend his next night nearer to his son.  I called an Uber car to take me to the airport.  The driver was an older woman, which I guess surprised me a little; she was polite and professional, and we didn’t talk much.  Nor did I talk much to the older couple who sat beside me on the plane… at least until the woman fell asleep and the man started making passes at me.  I calmed him down by “accidentally” spilling ice cold soda in his lap.

Normally I would have called a friend to pick me up at the airport in San Francisco, but I decided to go with another Uber instead.  A young Asian man driving a Taurus picked me up, and he wanted to talk until I got snippy with him.  I did feel a little bad, and gave him a nice tip and a good review to make up for it.

Because the time zones were in my favor, it was still daylight when I got home.  Zoe wasn’t around, which honestly suited me fine.  There was something I needed to know.

I stood in the living room with the blinds open, in a patch of bright daylight, and I tried to call the sword.  It didn’t appear.  I stepped back into the shadows, and I could make it appear instantly… but if I carried it into the sunshine it disappeared again.

So whoever I was going to be, I’d have to work nights or indoors.  I figured I could live with that.

I put the saddlebags on my Triumph and headed into San Francisco.  I drew some cash at an ATM, and then I went shopping.

I knew I needed a different kind of costume.  If I didn’t want people to realize I was the same person as Mystery Woman, I would have to look different.  But I had already come up with a plan.

It was dark when I finished up my shopping.  Instead of going home, I went to my new office.  There was a loading dock in the back, which of course we hardly needed, but it did have a convenient ramp and a roll-up back door, so I rolled the Triumph inside for safe keeping.  I took my shopping bags up the elevator to the front office I had claimed; the building was dark and empty, of course.  I was curious what Frank and Sarah had gotten done while I was away, but I was more interested in the project I was working on so I didn’t look.  Monday would be soon enough, I thought.

I closed the blinds, turned on the lights, and dumped the shopping bags out on my desk.  I started with the black bandanna, putting it on like a robber in an old western.  I followed with a dark wig, just long enough to touch my shoulders; it would cover my own hair pretty nicely.  Last, I put on a pair of retro-style motorcycle goggles, and checked the look in the mirror Frank had helpfully put on the back of my office door.  I’d had one in my old office, and when I mentioned how much I liked having it there, I saw him making a note.

It was perfect.  No way to identify my face, as it was completely covered.  But good as it looked and worked, it wasn’t done yet.  Putting on three items just to cover my face would be too slow in any emergency, and I also didn’t want any skin showing.  This new identity wouldn’t be like Mystery Woman; in that guise, I was all about being seen, drawing the attention and the attacks of the bad guys away from others.  This new me would have to be more sneaky, making better use of concealment and surprise.  With the combination I’d chosen, my neck was still partly bare and my forehead would show if my fake bangs moved too much.  But I had a plan for that too.

I took off the goggles, wig, and bandanna, and put on a black Avenger mask.  Those things are really handy, to be honest.  The mask left my mouth and nose exposed, but covered my neck, which would be perfect.  I put the other items back on, then pinned them in place with safety pins (stabbing myself several times in the process) and then took them all off at once.

I’m not much of a seamstress, but sewing the fabric-lined goggles, the bandanna, and the wig to the mask wasn’t too hard.  A few hidden stitches were added to keep the goggle strap in place.  My newly-decorated mask could be put on and taken off much more quickly than the separate items.

The rest of the “costume” was simple.  Long-sleeved black leotard, leather pants, high-top leather boots with as much heel as I thought I could get away with and still parkour, motorcycle gloves with reinforced knuckles, and the pièce de résistance, a snug, belted black jacket that came down to my upper thighs.  The best thing about the jacket?  It was reversible, and the other side was hot pink.

Take off the coat, turn it inside out, pull off my gloves and mask and voila, I’m just normal Polly dressed in stylish, quirky clothing.  Reverse the process, and I was… who?

I still didn’t have a name.  I stood there in my new costume, looking at myself in the mirror, and I summoned the sword to my hand.  I held it in guard position, looking at my reflection… I looked badass, and the sword was beautiful, a shimmering blade of pure shadows….

That was it.  Shadowblade.  That would be my new identity.

I slipped out the back door in my new costume, sword safely hidden wherever it went when I wasn’t using it.  I took a deep breath… the night air was cool, even with the coat on.  I wasn’t resistant to cold anymore either… it was part of the reason I chose a costume with a coat.  I moved carefully, keeping to the shadows until I was a block or so away from my new office.  Then I came out of the shadows and started free running.

I had to learn how to do parkour all over again.  I wasn’t as strong, not nearly, so I couldn’t make the incredible leaps I used to do.  I wasn’t invulnerable, either… of course, I’d heal if I got hurt, but it would still hurt.  And it did hurt, several times.  It took me several tries, and several falls, before I mastered ascending to the rooftops again.  But ascend I did.  I ran for hours, then finally gave in to my tiredness and returned carefully to the office.

After changing back to my civvies, I got on the Triumph for a cold ride home.

I came in as quietly as I could.  I wasn’t prepared to explain to Zoe where I’d been… I’d tell her, but not yet.  I was just too tired.  Regeneration does extend how long you can function without sleep, just not as much as I would have liked.  I didn’t even shower, I just got undressed and practically fell into bed.

The sword was in my hand, and I was in my new costume.  I could see my reflection in a store window; looking around, I saw I was somewhere in the city, though I wasn’t exactly sure where.  It was dusk, and the streets were strangely empty.  There was an alleyway near me, I noticed, and then I thought I heard a sound… a desperate, female sound, like a woman who was surprised by someone who frightened her.

I stepped to the alleyway and looked around the corner, but the shadows were too deep.  I heard another sound… breathing, deep and masculine.  “Who’s there?” I called, and I heard a chuckle.

“Who else?” said Plasma, stepping out of the shadows and opening fire.

I woke up screaming.  It was daylight… Sunday morning.  I forced myself to calm down, and I noticed I was holding the sword; looking around, I saw that I had once again hacked up my bedding.  “Damn,” I said, sliding to the edge of the bed.

I expected Zoe to come in at any moment, but she didn’t.  I put the sword away, hit the bathroom, then went downstairs to see if she was around.  She wasn’t, and my car wasn’t around either.  It was a little irritating, honestly… I didn’t mind her living with me, she was welcome, but she really needed to get her own transportation.  I knew I’d have to talk to her about that, if I ever caught up with her again.

Sunday was wasted.  All I wanted to do was to go out and run… go out and be Shadowblade.  But it was a bright day, hot despite the chill of the night before, and without the sword I could not be Shadowblade.  I thought about calling Frank or Sarah, telling them I was back, maybe getting together, but I decided against it.  Frank would have a date, and maybe Sarah as well; I’d interrupted their personal time too often as it was.  No, I wouldn’t bother them.

I sat around the house most of the day in my pajamas.  Zoe never came home; I considered calling her, but I didn’t want to interrupt her plans either, whatever they might be.  I didn’t even turn the TV on.  I did nap a few times, thankfully with no dreams of Plasma to wake me, so when the sun finally went down I was pretty well rested.

I put on my “costume” with the pink side of the coat out, tucked the mask and gloves inside, and rode into the city.  I stashed the Triumph in the back of the office again… seemed like a good place to keep it.  There was still daylight when I slipped out again in full costume, but the fog had rolled in, making it easy to leave unobserved.

I ran.  I ran hard, trained hard, practiced going up and down.  I remembered the bag I had left on a rooftop with my boots inside, and I went back, and amazingly it was still there.  It looked like the bag had gotten wet, but I was sure the boots were okay.  I carried them back to the office, dropped them on the roof, and carried on running.

As a matter of habit I suppose, I was running mostly in and around the Tenderloin.  Troll and I had patrolled in that area a lot… after-hours crime was bad there, making the pickings easy for us.  So I was familiar with the buildings… I knew my way around the rooftops pretty well, in fact.

But I wasn’t really looking for Troll.  I wasn’t prepared to reveal my new self to him, and I knew if we met face-to-mask he might still recognize me.  So I was kind of on the lookout, and around midnight I finally saw him, jogging along at what was for him an easy pace but which would have outpaced anyone slower than an Olympic runner.

I kept pace with him as best I could, though I was not nearly as fast as I had once been.  But then he came to a sudden stop as another figure dropped into view beneath a streetlight, making an awkward and distinctly amateur three point landing on the sidewalk.

She stood up, and I recognized the costume… it was mine.  Mystery Woman.