Thursday, March 15, 2012

Where It Began: Heart of a Hero

This was the first story to ever feature the character of Emma Earl.  I wrote it about a year before the first draft of A Hero's Journey while I was just fooling around.  You'll note some differences, such as the superhero is the Scarlet Lady not the Scarlet Knight yet.  Also the city is River City not Rampart City yet.  Someone on the Internet chewed me out for the latter one because that's the city in "The Music Man" I think and I was totally unaware because I don't watch musicals unless forced to.  The story is also a lot more comic book-y, '60s Batman-y/Superfriends-y than the later novel.

In this story, Emma Earl tracks down the evil Watchmaker, who uses a time machine to send her back to when she was just eight years old.  As Emma soon realizes, it's only days before her parents will die.  Can she save them?  Should she?
Heart of a Hero
The Scarlet Lady
High on the rooftops of River City, a solitary figure watched the traffic below. In particular, the high-powered lenses inside her helmet watched a pair of men scurrying away from the Museum of Natural History. They had just paid a visit to the museum and under the cover of darkness had stolen the priceless Diamond of Kor’Rum. She knew this because in her job as chief curator of the museum, she had brought the diamond to the city. Now she would recover it from the evildoers.
Breaking into a run, the figure reached the end of one building and then leaped into the air, her golden cape billowing in the night as she sailed to the next roof. If she chose, she could have already intercepted the criminals to reclaim their prize, but she was after more important game. Henchmen like these two couldn’t possibly have pulled off a theft like that on their own. Someone had given them help and she aimed to find out which of her nefarious foes was responsible.
Launching herself into the air again, she came down on a roof to find a pair of teenagers kissing. They looked up at her in surprise. If these two had been up to anything dangerous, the golden sword on her hip would have given her a warning. “Go home,” she hissed, as always disguising her voice so as not to reveal her true identity.
“Yes, ma’am,” the couple said dutifully. She didn’t have time to make sure they carried out the order; she crossed the roof in a flash and hopped over to the next one. By now an ordinary woman would have needed to stop for a rest—if she hadn’t already plunged to her death by missing a jump—but she was far from ordinary. With the power of her scarlet armor she could run the length of the city without breaking a sweat, in which case it was good the old buildings of River City were so close together to facilitate jumping from roof-to-roof.
The criminals stopped in an alley, surveying the space around them. Their walk turned nonchalant, certain they had lost anyone who might have followed them. Like typical dumb henchmen, they didn’t bother to look up where she sat perched like a gargoyle, the lenses in her helmet scanning for their hideout. There it was, the old Centurion Watch factory.
A watch factory. That could only mean the henchmen were working for the Watchmaker, one of her oldest and most dangerous foes behind the vicious Black Dragoon. She had put the Watchmaker away numerous times, but somehow he kept finding his way out to wreak more havoc.
The henchmen disappeared through the rusty gates and into the factory. With one leap, she dropped from the roof and onto the ground to follow. Wrapping the golden cape around her armor, she became invisible to the eyes of evildoers. Anyone of pure heart would have noticed an armored woman wrapped like a crepe in a golden cape and probably started whistling a jaunty tune before going on his or her way.
From the data collected by her helmet, the henchmen had gathered in the factory’s main structure along with a third figure, no doubt the Watchmaker. There were other heat readings coming from machinery inside the factory. Yes, the scheme began to make sense now. Obviously the thieves couldn’t sell the diamond in its current state without attracting suspicion, so they would need to chop it into pieces. Only someone of the Watchmaker’s skill could do that with a diamond as big as this one. She had to get in there to stop them before they harmed the priceless jewel.
Inside the factory, she climbed up a set of stairs and onto a catwalk to confirm her suspicions. There was the Watchmaker in his white suit with an oversized jeweler’s loupe on his eye. That was no ordinary loupe; the Watchmaker could focus an intense beam of light to fry someone to a crisp, at least someone without magic armor. In a circle were computers that matched the description of those stolen from the River City Research Institute two weeks ago. Under a tarpaulin was something else that she couldn’t make out, probably the machine he would use to slice up the diamond.
“You’re certain no one followed you?” the Watchmaker asked with his phony British accent in a vain attempt to sound sophisticated.
“No way, Boss,” one of the henchmen said.
This was her cue. Unraveling the cape, she leaped from the catwalk, right into the middle of the trio. The henchmen started back in horror to see a beautiful woman in red armor with a golden cape wielding a glowing white sword appear out of nowhere. They dropped the diamond and took off running. One powerful somersault allowed her to drop right back in front of them. Taking one skull in each head, she slammed their heads together. An illustrator would have drawn stars and birdies around their heads as they collapsed to the ground.
Brushing dust off her hands, she started towards the Watchmaker. “Your time’s up,” she said. “By tomorrow morning you’ll be back in prison where you belong.”
The Watchmaker hadn’t moved yet. A slow grin came to his face. “What an honor to see you again, Scarlet Lady,” he said. “I’ve been expecting you.”
“Give me the diamond and come quietly.”
“Not much on conversation, are we?” The Watchmaker shrugged. “Very well, then. If you wish, you may have the diamond.”
He knelt down ostensibly to pick up the diamond. As his hands reached out to take the jewel, the gold watch on his wrist beeped, its face glowing red. The Watchmaker rolled out of the way just as an hourglass came tumbling down from the ceiling. Too late the Scarlet Lady saw it coming and found herself encased by the glass. This wouldn’t have presented a problem except for the load of sand that tumbled down from the top chamber of the hourglass to bury her up to the neck, pinning her hands at her sides. She was trapped!
On the outside of the hourglass, the Watchmaker laughed. “I think it’s you who are out of time, m’ Lady. Soon enough you’ll be very out of time indeed.”
The hourglass began to fill with gas until the Lady’s eyelids drooped, her last thought of how she could have walked into such an obvious trap.
When she awoke, she found herself pinned to an enormous watch, arms at ten and two while her legs were at five and seven. The Diamond of Kor’Rum hovered overhead, connected to a metal arm with a forest of wires running to the computers. Turning her head to one side, she saw the Watchmaker standing by the computers, flanked by the recovered henchmen.
“If you’re going to kill me, get on with it,” she hissed at them.
“Kill you? I suppose that would be satisfying, but I have something far better in mind.” The Watchmaker sauntered over to hover inches from her face. “You see, I’m not going to kill you, my dear. I’m going to erase you from history entirely.”
“What? That’s impossible.”
“No, it was impossible until Bruno and Vincent here retrieved this item for me. With it, I now have the energy I need to power my machine. And you, dear Lady, have the honor of being the guinea pig.”
“I have to give you credit,” she said, looking past him to where her sword rested on a table. If she could keep him busy long enough, she could summon the magic blade to cut through the bonds. But she would have to be careful not to alert the Watchmaker or his thugs before it was too late. “I shouldn’t have pegged you for someone who would stoop to a simple robbery just for the money. You’re far too clever for that.”
“Yes, quite so. I think you’ll come to realize the full brilliance of my plan soon enough.” As the Watchmaker talked, the Sword of Justice slipped out of its sheath and began floating towards the Lady. A few more seconds—
The Watchmaker snatched the hilt out of the air. The sword glowed a violent red at being touched by an evildoer. Had he not had the foresight to wear heatproof gloves, the Watchmaker’s hand would have disintegrated. “Such a feeble attempt at escape. I would have thought better of you.”
“It was worth a shot,” she said. There had to be some other way out of this trap. At times like this she wished for a sidekick who could appear just in time to rescue her from a tight spot. She would have to make a note of it later, if there were a later.
The Watchmaker took off his loupe in favor of a pair of solid black goggles. “I’m afraid your time has come,” he said, reaching over to push a button.
The Diamond of Kor’Rum took on a green glow and soon enough the Lady saw why her nemesis had the goggles. The watch-shaped platform began to spin counterclockwise, going faster and faster until the Lady thought she would throw up. Then a beam of green light shot out from the end of the diamond, sweeping over the platform and the Scarlet Lady disappeared.
She crashed onto a carpeted floor in a dark room, something glass shattering behind her. Angry footsteps pounded towards her, a door opening and a light snapping on. The Lady found herself looking up at a ghost.
“Emma Jane, what have I told you about jumping on the furniture? You go back to bed right this instant, young lady.”
“Huh?” the Lady blurted out. That was when she realized she was no longer wearing her armor. In its place was a simple cotton nightgown. The hands stretched out in front of her were pale and tiny.
“I said go back to bed,” her mother said in a voice that would make even the Scarlet Lady cringe with fear. Emma Jane Earl climbed back obediently under her Rainbow Brite comforter and listened to her mother sweep up the pieces of a cat ballerina lamp Emma remembered breaking while jumping on her bed when she was eight years old.
Peeking just over the edge of the comforter, she saw the face of a scared little girl in the vanity mirror and quickly darted back under the covers. The Watchmaker had really done it. He’d sent her back in time twenty years to when she was just an ordinary little girl. The comforter was snatched down from her forehead so her mother could give her a kiss. “Good night, honey. Go to sleep now.”
Long after Mom left, Emma still felt the kiss on her forehead. She hadn’t received one like that in twenty years, when her parents died. Killed during a robbery attempt by thugs like those of the Watchmaker after going to the Spring Jubilee. A week. It happened a week after the lamp broke, she remembered because tomorrow morning Mom would ground her for a week as punishment.
That meant she had one week to save her parents.
When the alarm clock went off in the morning, Emma hoped for a moment the previous night would have all been a terrible dream and she would wake up in her humble flat overlooking the river with a day of cataloguing new items and calling donors ahead. Opening her eyes, she saw the Rainbow Brite comforter and her heart sank. It was real. The Watchmaker had sent her back in time and in a week her parents would die all over again. The urge to pull the covers back over her head to try again occurred to her, but she really needed to use the bathroom. At least she hadn’t wet the bed. That would have been far too embarrassing a way to start the day.
8-year-old Emma
In the bathroom mirror, her pale little eight-year-old face greeted her with cheeks dotted by freckles and long copper hair falling straight to her waist. It was the face of a little girl who read comic books and dreamed of being a hero. It was the face of a girl who still lived in a happy suburban home with her loving parents unaware of the dangers lurking ahead in the shadows.
“Emma? Hurry up or you’ll miss the bus!” Mom called from downstairs.
The bus. Little Emma still had to go to school, the third grade at Alexander Hamilton Elementary. She didn’t want to go; she wanted to stay home to keep her parents safe and to figure out some way of getting herself to the present. She could try faking an illness to stay home, but then Mom would be fawning over her the entire day so she wouldn’t have a moment to think. For now she’d better go about the usual routine to avoid arousing suspicion.
Back in the bedroom, she spent five minutes combing the tangles out of her hair, using a white plastic headband to keep it in place. Having this much hair had always been a lot of work, which is why Emma kept it short once she became the Scarlet Lady. Fighting crime and maintaining a secret identity didn’t leave much time for the beauty parlor. At this time, though, she remembered Mom wanting to cut it short and she bawling as if she were going to lose a limb. Her mother capitulated with the caveat that Emma became responsible for its maintenance.
With this finally done for the morning, she changed into her school uniform. She had never liked the uniforms at Alexander Hamilton. The white blouse always hung too loose on her skinny frame and the plaid skirt was always too short for her long legs. The latter situation had led to several run-ins with her teacher, who thought Emma was trying to flaunt the dress code until Mom finally had a talk with her. No one ever lasted long under Mom’s penetrating gaze. A pair of white knee socks, saddle shoes, and a pink My Little Pony backpack completed the outfit. In the vanity mirror she saw Emma Jane Earl, third grader, ready for action.
Downstairs, Mom had already poured a bowl of cereal for her and cut half a grapefruit, which Emma never touched without prodding. Across the table, her father sat behind the newspaper, peeking out to give her a smile. “I hear there was a little excitement last night,” he said.
“It was just an accident,” Emma said, quickly shoveling in a mouthful of Alpha Bits. The rest happened just as she remembered. Her father folded up the newspaper to fix her with a stern look.
“Are you sure about that?” he asked. “Are you sure you weren’t jumping on the bed and knocked it off the stand?”
Emma looked guiltily into her cereal for any words of encouragement. “I’m sorry,” she finally said.
“You’re too old for jumping around like that,” Mom said, oblivious to the irony in this statement. Emma couldn’t help but smile. “You think this is funny?”
“No,” Emma whispered.
“Good,” Mom said. “You’re grounded for the next week and you’ll pay for a new lamp out of your allowance.”
“But Mom—”
“No buts, young lady. It’s time you learn responsibility.”
“This isn’t fair,” Emma whined. “It was an accident.”
“Accident or no you have to take responsibility for your actions,” Dad said. “Finish your breakfast and go to school. We’ll talk about this more later.”
Emma dug back into her now-soggy cereal, feeling sadness not only at being grounded and losing her allowance but because this incident proved things would continue to unravel as they had before—unless she did something. There had to be some way to prevent it from happening again. As the spoon touched the bottom of the empty bowl she still didn’t have any answers.
Before she could trot out to the bus stop, Mom dropped a brown lunch sack into her backpack and then gave her a hug of reconciliation. “You have a good day at school, sweetie,” Mom said in a tender voice.
“Go get ‘em, kiddo,” Dad said, tousling her well-groomed hair.
At the bus stop, she found her best friend Becky Beech. Where Emma was tall and skinny, Becky was short and fat with her white blouse tight and skirt hanging down to her ankles. She had her own daily hair ritual, one far more painful as her mother would every day severely pull her brown hair back and braid it into pigtails. “One day she’s going to pull my scalp right off,” Becky would often say and rub her head.
Today Becky took one look at Emma and asked, “What’s wrong?”
“I got grounded,” Emma said, going on to explain the lamp incident. She of course left out the part about going back in time twenty years. Not even her childhood best friend would believe that.
“Are you still going to the Jubilee?”
“I suppose so,” Emma said without enthusiasm.
“Everyone’s going to be there. Including Danny Schneider.”
The name didn’t register in Emma’s brain for a moment. Then she remembered Danny was a cute fifth grader she and Becky drooled over, devising elaborate fantasies where they married him and had his babies, though at the time they knew nothing about dating, marriage, or making babies. She hadn’t thought about him in probably nineteen years or whenever she moved on to her next crush.
The bus came and they got on, taking their usual seat in the middle of the bus to avoid getting picked on by the older kids in back and being seen with the little kids in front. This social pecking order didn’t stop someone from grabbing a handful of her hair and yanking back her hair. “Hey there, Dorky Storky,” a boy’s voice growled in her ear. “What have you got for me today?”
This voice was burned in her memory. Jimmy Gates, a third grader who should have been in seventh grade by now. His ‘Dorky Storky’ nickname for her stuck until sixth grade when the rest of her body caught up with her height. As he usually did, Jimmy used his free hand to rifle through her backpack for anything of interest.
“Why don’t you leave her alone?” Becky said.
“Why don’t you lose some weight?” Jimmy shot back with a sneer.
Becky didn’t have a good comeback for this, so she went with the tried and true, “I’m going to tell on you.”
“Oh, I’m so scared. Fatty’s going to tell on me.”
“I will,” Becky said without moving. The bus driver wouldn’t do anything; she was legitimately afraid of Jimmy. So long as he didn’t murder anyone, the driver let him have free rein, and if he did kill someone he would probably get a warning.
Jimmy took Emma’s lunch sack, taking the cup of chocolate pudding and peeling back the lid. “Hey, that’s mine!” Emma said as he dug a finger into it.
“Yeah? You want it so bad how about I dump it on your head?”
Like Becky, Emma didn’t have any good comeback to this. “You’re mean,” she said in a tiny, impotent voice. Jimmy only shrugged in response and then sauntered to the back of the bus to laugh about it with his friends.
“He’s such a jerk,” Becky huffed.
“He’ll get what’s coming to him,” Emma said, jamming her lunch back into the backpack. From experience, she knew people like Jimmy ended up as hired muscle for someone like the Watchmaker until she put them behind bars.
In typical fashion, Becky changed gears quickly to get back to the really important issues. “What do you think Danny will be wearing at the Jubilee?”
The morning went by easily enough. As someone who held two PhDs, learning fractions and state capitals didn’t tax her brain at all. This gave her time to consider what she could do to get out of this mess. Try as she might, Emma couldn’t think of anything to save her parents or herself.
She still didn’t have anything at recess, when Becky led her underneath the slide to read comics and gossip as they always did. Most of the time this afforded them privacy, but today Emma was just about to turn the page to find out how Wonder Woman would thwart the evil terrorist leader who had trapped her when the comic was torn from her hand. “Whatcha reading, Dorky Storky?” Jimmy Gates asked.
“Like you’d know. You can’t even read,” Emma fired back.
“Oh yeah? Let’s see you read this.” With that he proceeded to turn the comic book into confetti, scattering the colored pages all over Emma.
For a moment Emma looked at the pieces of paper, her hands trembling with rage. Then she looked up at Jimmy’s satisfied grin and decided she wouldn’t wait for time to beat Jimmy Gates for her. Lurching to her feet, she charged at the bully.
The Scarlet Lady had used the kick she delivered to his midsection to take down thousands of hired goons over the years. But that had been with a well-toned leg encased in magic armor to augment her natural strength. Her scrawny eight-year-old leg did far less, the worst damage being a smudge of dirt on Jimmy’s shirt.
He in turn grabbed her by the offending saddle shoe and spun her down to the ground face-first. “Leave her alone!” Becky shouted, but that was as involved as she would get in the fight except to run in search of Miss Steen.
Meanwhile, with sand stinging her eyes and filling her mouth, Emma tried to blindly crawl her way to safety. Jimmy easily snagged her by the hair to yank her head back. A familiar metallic click sounded in her ear—the sound of a switchblade knife. “Please, don’t hurt me!” she cried out, “I’m sorry.”
Adding to the horror of the moment, she felt her panties filling with liquid until it dribbled down her leg and into the sand. In all her years of crime fighting she had faced death many times and never felt this sheer, paralyzing terror. The cool steel of the knife touched the back of her neck, but it didn’t cut into her. Instead, Jimmy used the knife to saw off a large chunk of her hair, dangling it before her eyes. “Looks like you’re missing something,” he hissed into her ear.
Emma didn’t know what else he might have done if Miss Steen hadn’t arrived with Becky at that moment. “Oh my God!” the teacher blurted out as Emma collapsed sobbing against her. “Jimmy Gates, you get to the principal’s office right this minute!” Once Jimmy had gone, Miss Steen patted Emma’s shorn hair. “It’s all over now, dear. He won’t bother you again.”
Miss Steen spoke the truth. Jimmy was expelled from the third grade and after a string of petty robberies and assaults was locked up in juvenile hall until he turned eighteen. After his release, he found his way to Gotham City to work as hired muscle. Not long after he wound up doing twenty years in the state penitentiary.
As for Emma, she spent the next hour in the office, a dirty, pee-stained, sobbing mess, the hunk of cut hair still clutched in her hand. Why did she ever think she could stop her parents from dying or foiling the Watchmaker when she couldn’t stop a schoolyard bully? She was too little and weak to be a hero.
The principal called Mom, who came to pick Emma up and carry her from school as if she were a baby again. On the way home, Mom reached over to wipe at Emma’s tears. “It’s all right, honey. No one’s going to hurt you again.”
Emma shook her head. “Yes they are.”
“That boy is going to be expelled from school. He won’t get near you again.”
“Not him,” Emma said with a sniffle. “After the Jubilee on Saturday two men are going to attack you and Daddy and they’ll kill you.” With this, Emma broke into uncontrollable sobs again.
Mom pulled the car over to the shoulder. “Who told you that, Emma?”
“No one told me,” she said.
“Who told you that, Emma?” 
“No one! I saw it! I watched it happen once and now it’s going to happen again and there’s nothing I can do to stop it because no one will listen to me because I’m too little!” She threw herself against her mother, taking comfort in feeling the warmth of her mother’s skin that would turn cold in less than a week.
Mom stroked her hair, whispering, “That’s not true, honey. You’ve been reading too many of those comic books.” They remained by the side of the road for another five minutes before Mom said, “Let’s get you home and cleaned up.
Once they got home, Mom carried Emma up to the bathroom, undressing her and helping her into the tub. Again Emma felt as if she’d become a baby, Mom scrubbing her, washing the remains of her hair, and eventually drying her off. She sat on a chair in the kitchen with her head hanging in shame while Mom fashioned the long, mangled tresses into a lopsided bob that made Emma look like a scrawny tomboy. “I’ll take you to the salon tomorrow and we’ll get this fixed up.”
Emma only nodded, no longer caring much about the hair. That could always grow back while she only had one set of parents. And they would die in less than a week.
“Go on up to your room and take a nap, sweetie,” Mom said, patting Emma’s new hairstyle. “You’ll feel better after some rest.”
Emma after haircut
Emma obeyed, trudging up to her room and slipping into a nightgown. As she stared up at the ceiling, clutching her favorite stuffed unicorn Sara, she felt the hopelessness of this situation. What could she do to help her parents like this? If she couldn’t defeat a third grade bully, then what could she do against adult criminals? If only she had the Scarlet Lady’s armor—
The armor. Hidden in the third subbasement of the Museum of Natural History was the magic armor forged by Merlin the magician to give its wearer the power to banish evil. In fifteen years, a brilliant young clerk would find her way into the subbasement and uncover the suit of armor and golden sword, taking up the mantle of the Scarlet Lady, defender of all that was good and pure.
With the change from her piggy bank jingling in her backpack, Emma went out to the bus stop. She noticed none of the other children looked directly at her, except for Becky, who carefully avoided staring at Emma’s hair. “Are you all right?” she asked. “I tried to call last night but your mom said you went to bed early.”
“I was a little tired,” Emma said, staring down at her feet. “Listen, there’s something I need you to do for me.”
“I need you to give this note to Miss Steen,” Emma said, producing the note from her backpack. Forging her mother’s handwriting would have been tough for a normal eight-year-old, but not as much for one with a background in crime fighting. While the note wasn’t perfect, it should convince Miss Steen that Emma would stay home from school today to recover from the incident on the playground. That shouldn’t be too hard to believe given what had happened.
“What are you going to do?”
“I have to take care of something in the city.” She left her best friend to wonder about this, dashing away to find the big people’s bus stop. A handful of people were clustered around the bench with their briefcases and purses, making her feel completely out of place with her pink backpack.
The bus clanked to a stop in front of the bus and Emma waited until everyone else boarded to climb on. The driver met her eyes for a moment, but only kept chewing on a piece of gum as Emma dumped out the change from her piggy bank into the box. As the bus lurched into motion again, Emma threw herself onto the nearest seat, nervously sitting with the backpack on her knees. Any moment she expected one of the grown-ups to snatch her by the ear and drag her back to school.
As the bus entered the outskirts of River City, Emma tightened her grip on the backpack. She had spent years jumping off the roofs, but never had they looked so high up. What am I doing? she thought. I’m just a little kid. I should go home before anyone finds out. No, she couldn’t. Not yet. She might be a little girl, but she still had a job to do. Right now that job entailed sneaking into her future workplace to steal valuable artifacts so she could save her parents.
The bus finally came to a stop in front of the museum, the doors hissing open. For a moment Emma stood at the top of the steps, clutching her bag. “Excuse me, little girl, are you getting off or not?” the driver asked sweetly.
“Oh, yes, thank you,” Emma mumbled and went down the steps. The bus wheezed and rattled away, leaving Emma standing before the imposing façade of the Museum of Natural History. The two flights of stone steps loomed before her like a mountain, daring her to enter.
I can do this, she thought. After all, no one in the world knew this museum as well as Emma. Even as a little girl she could find her way into the subbasements without alerting security. The security probably wasn’t nearly as good as it would become in another seventeen years when Emma took over as curator. With a deep breath, she climbed the first step—
And someone grabbed her by the collar of her blouse. “Aren’t you supposed to be in school, young lady?” asked a voice with a phony British accent. The owner of this voice turned Emma around so that she found herself looking at the Watchmaker. “Truancy is a very serious offense.”
“You? What are you doing here?”
“I’ve come to finish the job.”
“What, you’re going to kill me right here with all these people around?”
“I doubt any of them would be too concerned. This is River City we’re talking about,” he paused to chuckle at his own bad joke. “But no, I’m not going to kill you. I’m going to erase her,” he said, nodding to the building.
The meaning of this dawned on Emma. The Watchmaker had come back in time with the same purpose in mind as Emma: to take the magic armor. Only he intended to use its power for evil instead of good. In the hands of someone like the Watchmaker, Emma didn’t want to imagine the horrors that would be unleashed.
“No, you can’t,” Emma said.
“Of course I can. And you’re going to lead me there or else Mummy and Daddy will suffer the consequences.”
Emma closed her eyes. The responsible adult thing she knew would be to refuse, to let the Watchmaker kill her and her parents if it kept the armor out of his possession. Yet the child within her couldn’t bear the thought of letting her parents die, not when she had a chance to save them. “You win,” she whispered.
“Very good. I trust I don’t need to remind you not to do anything foolish.” With his arm draped over her shoulder like that of a loving parent, the villain climbed up the steps with Emma and steered her through the doors. At the donation box he left a penny for the two of them.
The Watchmaker and Emma strolled along the display of geodes, pausing to feign interest in the one nearest the door to the archives. “Daddy, I have to go potty,” Emma whined loudly.
“Now, darling, can’t you wait—”
“No! I gotta go, now!” Emma performed a little dance to indicate she might explode at any moment.
The Watchmaker steered her over to the nearest security guard. “I’m sorry, but my little girl really needs to use the facilities. Could you tell me where they are?”
“The bathrooms are on the ground floor.”
“There aren’t any closer? I don’t think we can wait.”
“Dad-dy, please. I gotta go!” Emma whined again.
The security guard studied her for a moment as if weighing the risk to his job by letting the girl use the bathroom in the archives or the embarrassment among his peers by letting her piss all over the floor. “Follow me,” he said, leading them over to the door. They hurried along stacks of books, folders, and various artifacts to the tiny unisex bathroom next to the file room.
Emma paused dramatically at the entrance to the bathroom, shaking with fear. “Daddy, can you come with me?”
“Of course I can, sweetheart.” He gave the guard a helpless look as if to say, “Whaddya going to do?”
The guard waited for five minutes by the bathroom door. How long was that little brat going to be in there? If his supervisor caught him back here instead of on the floor, there would be Hell to pay. The guard already had two demerits on his personnel file for smoking around the priceless antiques; one more demerit would mean his job. The girl and her father could find their way back easy enough. What trouble could they really get into back here?
Once the guard disappeared, the Watchmaker stuck his head out the door. “Well done, my dear. If only I could have recorded that performance.”
“Shut up,” she growled. “Follow me.”
She led him along the winding stacks to the freight elevator. At this time the elevator didn’t have the security lock she would later install to prevent any unauthorized people from getting to her sanctuary in the subbasement, so she merely had to push a button and they were on their way. As the elevator ground its way down, Emma prayed for a malfunction that would prevent them from reaching the subbasement to let the Watchmaker have the armor.
No such luck. The doors opened onto what was essentially a cave. The third subbasement served no actual purpose; the designers had only added it to work around a natural formation they discovered when laying the foundation. In the ‘50s the elevator shaft had been carved out so the subbasement could be used as an emergency shelter in the event of nuclear war. Stacks of ancient C-rations, gas masks, and medical supplies were still piled against one wall of the cave. When she converted this subbasement to the Scarlet Lady’s Sanctuary, she donated those antiques to the Museum of Military History across town.
Neither the building’s designers nor the paranoid curator in the ‘50s had ever dared to crawl deep into the tunnel as Emma would and did today. Just as she remembered from the first time, she heard an angelic humming in her brain, guiding her along the tunnel until her school uniform was covered in mud. The tunnel finally opened up into a wide cavern, at the center of which was a stone slab and atop that a lead crate.
“So this is the Sanctuary,” the Watchmaker said from behind her. “A trifle dank for my tastes. I suppose I’ll have to redecorate.”
Emma sagged against a wall of the cavern, not wanting to watch this moment as the Watchmaker strode up to the altar and opened the box. The angelic humming in her mind turned to a protesting scream. The Watchmaker reached into the box, laughing with triumph as he pulled out the scarlet armor.
When he finished donning the suit, he pulled the Sword of Justice from the bottom of the box. “Now, little one, you’ll see what true power is all about,” he shouted, his voice booming through the cavern. With another triumphant laugh, he pulled the sword from its sheath.
“Whosoever wears this armor must be deemed worthy, having proven himself to be pure of heart,” a voice intoned. Emma remembered these words from when she had first donned the magic armor. What she didn’t remember was the armor turning a volcanic red. “He who proves unworthy shall forfeit his life.”
The Watchmaker screamed as the armor turned white-hot. Emma threw an arm over her eyes as the Watchmaker’s body began to glow, steam rising into the air. There was a flash of light and then the armor clattered to the ground. Nothing remained of the Watchmaker except his golden watch.
Running over to the now vacant armor, Emma lifted the heavy breastplate, waiting for the surge of energy that would run through her body, giving her the Scarlet Lady’s power. Nothing happened. In desperation she strapped on as much of the armor as she could get over her little body. Picking up the Sword of Justice, she pulled it from the sheath; the sword remained a dull gold.
“When you are old enough, return to this place,” the voice of Merlin the magician called out, echoing throughout the cavern. “I will be waiting.”
“No, please, I’m ready. I know what I have to do,” she pleaded.
“You still possess the heart of a child. Only one who is mature in spirit can take up the mantle of justice.”
“I am not a child!” she shouted, but heard the whining keen in the echoes. He was right. While she may have an adult’s memories, she had come here out of the childish fear of losing her mommy and daddy. By attempting to use the armor to ease her own pain, she was guilty of being no better than the Watchmaker. Without another word, she gently placed the Sword of Justice back into the box, followed by the rest of the armor. The lid closed with a metallic thud that put her in mind of a coffin being shut—or rather two coffins.
“You have done well, young one. Go and enjoy the time that remains.”
“I will,” she said quietly. “Thank you.”
When she got home that night, she found her parents waiting for her. Mom raced over, wrapping Emma in a hug despite the mud caked on her uniform. “Where have you been? We were so worried about you,” she said, planting kisses over Emma’s dirty face.
“I went to the city,” Emma said.
“You went to the city by yourself?” her father asked with disbelief. “Do you have any idea how dangerous that is? You could have been killed!”
“I know. I’m sorry,” she said.
“Why did you do it?” Dad asked.
“I didn’t want to go to school,” Emma lied. “I was afraid.”
Dad’s expression softened. He knelt down beside Mom to look Emma in the eye. “Oh, sweetheart, you don’t have to be afraid. No one’s going to hurt you anymore.”
Finally she couldn’t hold the tears back any longer and collapsed sobbing against her parents. They rubbed her back and whispered reassuring things to her, unaware that she was crying for them, not for herself. Mom finally pried Emma loose to pick her up. “Let’s get you cleaned up,” she said as she had the day before.
After another bath, Mom led Emma to the bedroom to tuck her in. “Tomorrow we’ll have a talk about this,” Mom said and kissed Emma’s forehead. “Goodnight.”
“I love you, Mom.”
“I love you too, honey.” The light clicked off and Mom’s footsteps retreated down the hallway. When they faded away, Emma climbed out of bed to retrieve her backpack. Inside, she found the gold watch left from the Watchmaker’s body. The face of the watch had years written on it instead of the traditional numbers. After climbing back into bed, Emma took one last look around her childhood bedroom and turned the face of the watch clockwise. There was a flash of green light—
Emma woke up in the bed of her flat, the river curving gently past the window. Rolling out of bed, she hurried over to the antique armoire in the corner. Brushing away the rack of dresses and suits, she felt for the hidden latch. With a click a panel rolled back to reveal the scarlet armor along with the golden cape, boots, and sword.
Everything was as it had been except for one slight difference. When she went to the mirror, she saw copper hair cascading down to the small of her back. Putting a hand to her forehead, the memory came back to her. After the incident with Jimmy and the deaths of her parents, she had vowed to grow the hair back and keep it that way as a reminder that she would not be intimidated by life again.
With a smile, Emma fixed the helmet over her long hair and went to work.

(If you enjoyed this story, I cannibalized the premise for the sequel to A Hero's Journey, which is tentatively titled Time Enough to Say Goodbye.)

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