Monday, September 21. 5:42 pm.

"So what's up with that guy, Ashton?" Samantha asked the men, as they positioned her television.

The trio had made pretty short work of getting her apartment in order, passing the time by telling about themselves as they arranged her furniture, assembled her shelves, and drank her beer. She had learned that Trent was a teacher at the local community college; she wasn't surprised to learn that he taught African American Studies, or that he seemed passionate about the subject. Christian, it seemed, was less stable; he claimed to have held such diverse jobs as a banjoist, cage fighter, actor (mostly limited to body bag roles in a number of zombie movies Samantha had never heard of), computer repair specialist, Harley Davidson mechanic, and exterminator, although he currently worked as a tax prep for a large chain. He also claimed to hate preparing taxes, and said that he'd most likely kill himself if he had to keep doing it. The entire time they'd been working, he and Trent kept up a steady stream of banter and bickering of a flavor she'd never quite heard before. It was the kind of repartee one would only hear between either best friends, or mortal enemies trapped in the same room.

But until now, she hadn't found the opportunity to address the screaming they'd heard from the upper floors, and it seemed as if her neighbors had purposely been steering the conversation away from the subject. She'd waited for a good lull in the discussion, and sprung. "The screaming, I mean. You two didn't exactly seem surprised."

"Oh, yeah," Christian commented, drawing away from the perfectly positioned TV set and popping his back. He had shed his coat, holding onto his long sleeved sweater and gloves, and Samantha had gotten a better idea of the bizarre man's muscle tone. Lean as he may have been, he was definitely cut; and if he said he had been a professional fighter, she believed him. She had seen emaciated looking men trained in kickboxing, and petite woman who practiced Wing Chun, who could devastate larger opponents. Who was in a better position than Sam to know how deceiving a person's appearance could be?

"About him... You wanna field that one, Brown Bear?" he asked his gargantuan friend. "Or should I take point with my trademark tact?"

"Don't call me that," the giant warned his friend as he drew himself up to his full height. "And as for Ashton? The guy lives on the fifth floor. And he's got a few... problems," he said mildly.

"He's out of his freaking mind," Christian gleefully interjected. "A certified straight jacket model. An ordained minister in the Church of the Wackaloon. And this is coming from me."

"The man is harmless," Trent countered, defensively. "You, on the other hand, are a danger to yourself and others."

"Am not." Chris seemed to think for a moment. "Well, not very much," he amended. "But anyway, what about you, new girl? You've barely told us anything about yourself. What brings you to Baltimore, anyway?"

"New job," Samantha replied. "I got on as a sound technician for a recording studio; Orpheus Records. A friend of a friend got me the job." Although to be honest, Frank was a lot more than an acquaintance... but she wasn't obligated to tell either of them that. "I was living in Brooklyn, until last week."

"Brooklyn, huh?" Trent asked. "I hear there's a lot of crime there; some pretty bad crap goes down in Baltimore, but if you could handle yourself there, you should be alright."

"Oh yeah; I know how to handle myself," Sam replied; if they only knew...

"Really, then? Then how about the three of us go out for a night on the town? Mister 'credit to my people' here doesn't know any good bars, but I could find a couple. I'm not even banned from most of them..." Chris suggested.

"I'm up for it if you are," Trent told Samantha, before turning to Christian. "Although you, by the way, can kiss my black ass."

"It sounds like fun," Samantha said, having gotten used to the pair's interplay at this point. "Although you two will have to take a rain check on it. I kind of had some plans tonight..."

"Are you sure? If you're trying to spare Trent's feelings, you don't have to; they don't really matter," Chris said, grinning. "If you want to get me alone, we can ditch the jolly black giant and watch some movies at my place."

"Go to hell, Christian," the behemoth suggested with a sigh.

"No, really; I can't make it tonight," Samantha repeated. "Maybe next week, my schedule will clear up, but until then, I'm out. Not that I don't appreciate the offer," she added, dubiously.

"Let it go, man," Trent advised the oddball, who'd been opening his mouth for another try. "I'm sure Samantha would like to get settled in. We just about have everything wrapped up here; I think we should leave her to it."

"If you don't mind," the woman said, trying to be polite. "I need to get a shower, and unpack my clothes. But thanks for all your help. Both of you."

"Yeah, yeah, no problem," Christian said, grabbing his trenchcoat and shrugging it on. "I'll leave you alone to take care of the rest. If you need anything, I'm up on the fourth floor, in apartment 407; I'm right above Trent, actually. Just to let you know, though, I'm sort of an asshole. Just a little bit." As he spoke, he walked to her kitchen window, which overlooked the fire escape. As he opened it, he turned back around. "And I'm kind of weird," he informed her, ducking out the exit.

Samantha looked after him, blinking. "If he's above you, doesn't he live on the east side of the building?" she asked, wondering how he'd get into his place from the west side.

"Oh, yeah. He'll go up, cross the roof, and then climb down the escape to his own window; the man hates to use a door," the titan explained. "You know, he is an odd one, and he is an asshole. But at heart, he's not as bad as he acts. If he was, I would have broken his jaw a long time ago." While he was telling her this, he was moving to make his own exit, thankfully from the door this time. "But like he said; if you need anything, you can look me up, too. I'm right across the hall, if you don't want to deal with Christian."

"That sounds great," Samantha said, as she flashed the giant a smile. "But... do you mean it? About the freak, there; he really isn't as maladjusted as he lets on?" she asked.

The huge man looked pained. "Not entirely, although it's kind of hard to tell where the persona ends and the problems begin. But in the end, he's basically alright. I hang out with him, although I don't always remember why. But anyway... I'll see you around," he said, as he left towards his own domicile.

As he left, Samantha reflected on the characters she'd just met. Of the two, Trent seemed far nicer, but he was pretty quiet, reserved. He hadn't spoken much in the time they'd been helping her, and she realized with surprise that she hadn't even gotten his last name. He seemed positively introverted, the opposite from what one would expect of a person of his stature. And Christian Rosenkreutz...

Well, the words that came to mind were disrespectful, vulgar, twisted, rude, creepy, bigoted, and quite possibly unbalanced. So far, the man had neither said nor done anything to indicate any redeeming qualities, save an irreverent sense of humor. Sure, he had helped her move in, but he had more or less said he'd only done so because she was an attractive female. By all rights, she should have been revolted by the man; so why was she struck by the feeling that, despite his mannerisms, the weird person's intentions were good?

She shook her head, dismissing the thought. It didn't matter; it wasn't like she was interested in Rosenkreutz romantically. Even if she had been, she didn't have the time for such things. Her life was complicated, and she had other obligations. Obligations that tied into her plans for that night...

Reviewing the evening ahead of her, she went to unpack her underthings, and take a shower.

Tuesday, September 22. 12:00 am.

Perched on the edge of the building, Samantha took a deep breath, the way John had taught her years ago.

John Merlin- descendant of steel magnates and a billionaire in his own right, having founded the biotech firm that handled more contracts for the U.S. Government than any other. His research teams had laid the groundwork for the Human Genome Project, and seriously looked to be on their way to curing cancer in another decade or so. In addition, his subsidiary corporations dabbled in everything from nanotech to software, making Merlin one of the richest and most powerful men in the world. He was a household name, the jet-setting playboy who was seen with a different supermodel each week. Hounded by the paparazzi and a favorite of the tabloids, you might think that every person in America knew every detail of his personal life.

You'd be very wrong.

What no one knew, except for Samantha and a few privileged others, was that he led a double life. After nightfall, John Merlin donned the mantle of the Raven, the enigmatic vigilante who'd launched a one man war on crime in New York City. He'd broken up crime syndicates, and taken down entire street gangs in a single night. Armed with the knowledge to deal with every contingency, and backed with the resources of a small country, he was unstoppable, beyond the reach of both the law and the underworld. And he had taught her everything she knew.

Although, she reflected, as she jumped from the rooftop of a building in one of Baltimore's worst slums to the one next to it, it wasn't like I gave him much of a choice. It was true. When her father, a New York City detective, had been killed by the mob seven years ago, she had taken it upon herself to get justice. Untrained and untested, she had nearly gotten herself killed, and would have, if the Raven hadn't swooped in to save her. He had tried to talk her into letting him handle it, and when she wouldn't listen, he'd knocked her out with a blast of a powerful anesthetic gas he kept in an aerosol can. Seven hours later, she'd woken up in her own bed where she was staying at her aunt's apartment, with a terrible headache. When she'd turned on the news, the first story she saw was of the arrest of her father's killer; his own partner, a man Samantha had thought of as an uncle since she was a child. He'd been found beaten nearly into a coma, alongside the gun that had been used to shoot her father and indisputable forensic evidence to link him to it. As New York didn't have a death penalty, he was still in prison; Samantha still drew some small satisfaction imagining the life a former police officer would lead there.

Justice had been done, and her father had been avenged, but Samantha hadn't been satisfied. She hadn't been the one to do it. She'd been too weak to accomplish it, and a complete stranger had had to do it for her. The knowledge burned at her, and had ample time to do so; she had been seventeen years old and living with a single aunt who worked full-time, as her mother had died in childbirth. A solitary girl with no parental supervision, she'd nothing but time to brood, to plan. Only a few short weeks after the Raven had saved her, she went into action...

Back in the present, in Baltimore, Samantha had come to the end of the row of buildings. Never slowing down, she leapt off the side, drawing a grapnel gun from her utility belt and firing it into the side of a skyscraper. The end of the grapnel was coated with a miracle epoxy that dried instantly on contact with the building's surface, and was strong enough to support more than eight times her weight; she had fallen to no more than twenty feet above the pavement when the line went taut, letting her swing in a wide arc to the rooftop of a building a block over, adrenaline crashing wildly through her veins the whole time. She carried three more grapnels in her belt, and had more hidden in her apartment; John had developed them, just as he had the soft-gel colored contacts that masked the bright green shade of her eyes. While such contact lenses were now available on the market, they hadn't been when he'd first made them; when a brick hurled at the Raven prompted him to worry about the damage that would be done if a projectile or fist caused the hard plastic contact lenses, that he wore to correct his far sighted-ness, to shatter. He was always ahead of the curve, on things like that.

The thought brought back memories of her own preparations, those seven years ago. Looking back, she thought it was ridiculous; her training for her own crime fighting career had amounted to taking a few women's self-defense courses at the Y, buying some pepper spray and handcuffs, and making a batch of smoke bombs with instructions she'd gotten off the internet. In the process, she'd ruined one of her aunt's good non-stick frying pans, and had to replace it out of her own pocket before she'd found out. As shoddy as her preparations were, all the odds had it that she would be killed, but she actually managed to prevent two muggings and a rape before the Raven sought her out.

He'd tried to talk her out of crime fighting every way he could think of, but after a while it became apparent how determined she actually was. Knowing he couldn't persuade Samantha to quit, he'd done the next best thing: he'd taught her. Letting her in on his secret identity, John hooked her a job as a secretary at his company. But while the pay had let her help her aunt out with the bills, what she had been really doing while she'd been on the clock had been receiving instruction in lock picking, gymnastics, computer hacking, first aid, and a fighting style that blended Vale Tudo with Aikido, Savate, and Krav Maga; a technique perfectly suited to Samantha's frame and body weight. The Raven had taught her everything she needed to know to survive, and when she was nearly as good as him, she had taken her place beside him on the streets as the Blackbird. She'd spent seven years alongside John Merlin, cleaning up the streets of New York, and it had been more than eventful; she'd had some good times, and she'd also nearly gotten killed more times than she could count... But Samantha was twenty-four now. She had wanted to get out from under the Raven's shadow, and besides, things between them... They just hadn't been the same towards the end. It was time for the Blackbird to leave the nest. So she had come to a new city, with a new costume and a brand new identity.

As she stopped at the edge of another eight-story building, Samantha pulled her mind from the past and brought it forcefully to the here and now. Stilling herself, she cleared her mind and tried to achieve the state John used to refer to as "sekai". She opened herself to the city around her, letting all of her senses drift, trying to determine where her attentions were needed. Strangely enough, it was her nose that told her; from upwind of her she was sure she could make out the scent of blood.

Blinking, Samantha tried to convince herself she was mistaken. She didn't have supersenses; for her to pick up the smell of blood from any farther than the same room, there would have to be gallons of it... But no. Inhaling deeply, she knew there was no way to mistake that copper scent. There was truly blood in the air, and it was coming from ahead of her and to the right.

The neighborhood she was in was considered bad even by the standards of the ghetto; a maze of pawn shops, hobo jungles, and poorly funded outreach shelters. The alleys formed a labyrinth, and were teeming with garbage. She thought again that it should be impossible to make out the smell of blood over the reek, but as she touched down at the mouth of the alley where it came from, she saw why it was so powerful.

Lying on the ground were what looked like the bodies of about seven men; she couldn't tell for sure, because none of them were intact. From what she could tell, they had been homeless. Someone had torn them limb from limb, covering the ground in enough blood that it would have likely come to her ankle, if it hadn't had anywhere to drain off to. Witnessing the scene made the bile rise in her throat, but she forced it down; she had more immediate problems. Case in point: the eighth man, still alive and well, crouching with his back to her at the other end of the alley. And with a long, straight saber worn in a frog at his left side.

Without turning, the man spoke. "I hope you weren't looking for these guys." His voice was like a razor blade kept on ice; Samantha didn't believe that she had ever heard a voice that sounded so cold before. "Because they seem to be indisposed at the moment," he continued, turning to face her. Getting a better look at him, she saw that we wore a light-gray trench coat, with a pad of armor on the right shoulder and what seemed to be electric tape wrapped around both wrists and palms. His hair was jet black, short, and stood straight up in a spiky mass; his face, she saw, was obscured, covered from beneath the eyes by what looked to be some sort of balaclava.

"You did this?" she asked, staring at him evenly. She made her voice sound calm, and her muscles remain relaxed, but she was ready to spring if he so much as glanced at the weapon at his side.

"Oh, brilliant deduction," he remarked, disdain dripping from his voice. "You're just Nancy Drew in a leotard, aren't you?" Samantha fought the urge to respond to the jibe; no matter how many times it happened, she had always been annoyed at the sarcastic comments criminals made about her cat-suits. She would have ditched them for jeans and a t-shirt long ago, but they were easy to move in and durable, lined with some wonder material John had invented that was three times stronger than Kevlar. As Blackbird, her costume had been as dark as her name would lead one to expect. The one she wore now had an indigo base, but iridescent highlights at the elbows, knees, and midriff, as well as a gilded "V" on the left forearm.

"Only one problem," the masked man went on. "I just found them like this; I've got no idea who did the killing."

"Right," Samantha suggested, looking him over to try to discern any hidden weapons. If he didn't have a gun tucked away somewhere, she thought she could take him; not that she felt real great about going up against a swordsman who could slice so many people to ribbons. "And I suppose it was some other masked man with a broadsword who murdered them?"

"Number one, I don't have anything in the manner of a 'broadsword' on my being; my Joyeuse is what's known as a 'court sword', fitted with what's called a 'stirrup patterned' hilt." He briefly touched a finger to the guard in emphasis. Samantha nearly pulled the senbon needles she kept in her arm sheathes and pelted him with them, but he had already withdrawn his hand. "And number two, as I've already made implicit, I have no idea what kind of weapon the killers used. I wasn't here at the time."

"Alright, then why don't you tell me where you have been?" She was hoping beyond hope that she could resolve this without violence. "How about you give me your alibi? Or better yet, how about if you give it to the police?"

"Maybe the disguise I'm wearing isn't enough of a tip-off," he began, "but I'm not overly fond of going to the authorities. And I've got better things to do than explain myself to a novice in a spandex costume. Like finding the people who are actually responsible for this. So why don't you take your little lycra suit, go back to the wet dream you came from, and leave the vigilante justice to the stoic anti-hero? Ok, little girl?"

"The name's 'Valkyrie'," Samantha replied, surprised she hadn't named herself as the Blackbird out of the force of habit. "And you're not leaving here unless you can give me a good reason why I should let you."

Behind his mask, she was certain the stranger was smirking. "Hmph. If that's the way you want to play it. I'm not going to run; I'd rather settle up with you early so I don't have to keep looking over my shoulder later." As he spoke, he turned his head to either side, popping the joints with an audible crack. "And you can call me 'Damascene'," he stated, dropping his right hand low in a ready stance. "Come at me whenever you're ready."

Samantha knew better than to try to engage him in melee combat, where he'd have the advantage. Instead she leapt back, palming the fine steel throwing needles she kept hidden on her forearms with a flick of her wrists. Crossing both arms, she threw them at the man, who hadn't yet moved an inch.

Damascene allowed them to get within a foot of his body; all six were right on target, but before they could touch him, he moved. With a flowing motion that made him look as if he didn't have a bone in his body, he jumped into the air and flipped, letting two of the senbon bounce off the steel caps on the tips of his boots. As he rebounded off the brick wall, he grabbed them from the air and threw them back at the woman who called herself the Valkyrie, with a bonus: he'd drawn a pair of throwing knives from his own sleeves and tossed them at the same time, presuming the woman would only be watching for her own needles.

It didn't work; Samantha had dived to the right and rolled, coming off the ground with her hand on the pouch of her utility belt that contained the explosive capsules loaded with pressurized capsicum. She had opened the compartment, but before she could draw out the gas pellets, impossibly, the man was directly in front of her. "Too slow," he remarked, using his left thumb to push his sword out of the scabbard by an inch.

Shit, she thought, frenzied. Superspeed! But even as her mind was telling her how outclassed she was, her body reacted. Drawing further back, she brought her left foot out in a fouette kick aimed at his face. Without blinking, Damascene caught the blow on his forearm, grabbing her ankle and pulling as he brought two fingers, hard, into the nerve cluster of her solar plexus. He turned around, using her own momentum against her, as he threw her to the ground.

Samantha took the fall rolling and recovered, only to find her opponent watching her impassively. "Had enough yet, girl-scout?" he asked, as she reached into her belt for her next weapon.

"Hardly." She rushed him, deciding it was time to change tactics. As she drew in she saw his eyes widen, and felt a thrill course through her. Flicking her wrist, she extended the collapsible baton in her left hand, drawing his attention, as she brought the twin baton in her right down towards his head with a whipping motion. Just as she suspected he would, Damascene adjusted quickly; catching her left wrist in his right hand, he raised his left to take the impact of the baton on his forearm; as Samantha knew, hyper-accelerators were generally invulnerable as a side-effect, an attribute necessary to keep them from tearing their own bodies apart when moving at high speed.

"Is that all?" Samantha could feel pain shooting through her left wrist, where he tightened his grip. Looking into his eyes, the woman smiled. She had him right where she wanted.

She readjusted her grip on the baton in her right hand, and the segments broke apart, winding around his forearm; the weapon's core was a smart polymer, made up of dozens of strands of plastic material that could be guided by the movements of the user's hand. Even as it coiled about his wrist, she had turned, pulling him and guiding him with the solid baton in her left hand. Before he could react, she had flipped him over her shoulder; a moment later, he was on the ground with his left arm forced behind his back, and Samantha's knee on the back of his neck.

"Superspeed doesn't mean anything if you can't move," she informed him. She knew better than to gloat, but she couldn't resist. "That's the problem with superpowers; rely on them without any other skills, and you're done... Little boy."

She expected him to thrash and scream, and was taken aback to hear what sounded like a chuckle from beneath her. "So true," he grunted, surprising her more. "But it's a tendency not worth worrying about, if you have powers worth relying on. A gauche," he intoned, tensing his bound arm. "Hauteclaire."

Samantha had only a second to wonder what he was saying, when something seemed to burst from his left forearm and shred the cable of material she'd snared him with. At the same time, he reared back, rising with more force than she could have imagined and throwing her off his back. She landed badly, and by the time she had found her feet, he was eight feet away, at the far end of a long furrow cut freshly into the pavement. As he brought his left arm up to his right shoulder, she saw what had cut the line into the asphalt.

It looked as if his appendage had transformed into a double-edged steel blade; it extended for a span of about two feet beyond his wrist, and looked to be fused with his flesh. Metal seemed to be encasing his left hand, ribbons of steel unwinding from the body of the weapon and encircling his arm to the elbow, and branching further into fine wires that seemed to have grown from his bicep. As she watched, he brought his right hand to the hilt of the sword at his hip, and shifted into a sprinting stance. "En garde," he warned her, with satisfaction in his voice.

As he charged, Samantha managed to draw out a handful of her capsicum bombs and throw them into his path. She'd hoped that they would slow him down, but instead she saw only a bright flash of metal before, beyond all logic, the man just wasn't there anymore. The pellets sailed on a few more feet before bursting in mid-air; each of the four had been cleanly sliced in half. She heard a noise behind her, and dived forward, turning to face it.

In the ground behind her stood her opponent's court sword, the blade embedded in the pavement. Realizing the feint for what it was, she acted on reflex; spinning around, as she subconsciously knew he wanted her to, she caught another gleam of light against metal as he struck, drawing the blade across her eyes.

Unable to suppress her yelp of surprise, she fell back, bringing her hands to her eyes on instinct. Rising to a crouch, she forced herself to calm down, stilling herself to listen for the man's movements. As she strained to hear them, she waited with held breath for the pain to explode, so she could assess the damage she'd taken, the way her mentor had taught her. She needed to know whether both of her eyes were hurt (not gone. She couldn't face that thought) and act from there, to figure out how to survive the remaining fight. But after a too-long moment, she felt nothing, and drew her hands away, blinking.

In her palms was not blood, but instead the domino mask she wore to hide her face; it had been sliced in half with precision that she had trouble comprehending.

As she looked up, she saw Damascene re-sheathing his sword; she didn't even know when he had retrieved it. "That was just a warning," he told her, bringing his transformed arm up for another attack. "If I hack off anything else, I can assure you, it's going to be somethi-"

As he stopped in mid-sentence, she saw his eyes widen with shock. There was another emotion in them, one that made her body go cold; it was recognition.

"Dude, what the fuck?" he began, in a voice she found much more familiar. Even if he had said nothing else, she would have been able to place the man, but when he spoke again, she knew who he was unmistakably.

"New Girl?"

And there you have it; "Orthodox Legends", entry two in the three way challenge. Let me know if you enjoyed it, and let me know if I should continue it. But before you do, allow me to bore you with my views of the story's strengths and weaknesses.

Pros: Basically, I like the story, and I like the characters. I've had ideas for something of this manner for a long time, and the prompt I found while reading Stop The Press was just the framework I was looking for the graft them on to. I can do things with this; I may not be able to do them right, but I can do them nonetheless.

Cons: The setting in Baltimore. I have never been there, and I'm unwilling to do any research about it. I could explain any fictitious streets or buildings that I place there are used because of my desire to avoid emulating real people or events, but I won't lie to you; I just hate reading street maps.

Another thing that I had problems with, especially in the first chapter, is my speech tags. I do believe I've showcased every synonym for the verb "said". I've cleaned it up a bit by chapter two, but it's still a problem.

And again, there's the issue with my characterization of Samantha Perry. At this point, I'm having trouble writing her as a viable character in her own right, and not simply a reader proxy, a kind of deadpan Dr. Watson to ask the questions of the demented Sherlock Holmes (Christian Rosenkreutz, in this context) that the reader is supposed to want to ask. I'm aware of the problem, and I'll work on it, but if the rough draft of chapter three is any indication, it may get worse before it gets better.

Speaking of the anti-hero Damascene, the biggest challenge I have is with him. He's a racist asshole. This is by design, actually. I'm playing with character flaws, and I think the only one more damning than prejudice to the modern reader would be pedophilia. I know for a fact that I don't write with the subtlety or tact to weigh a character down with that and still garner audience sympathy... but I also strongly suspect that I've fallen flat with Christian.

Yes, I've got a lot of problems to address with this one, but I believe I may be able to compensate for them. The relevant question, however, is whether or not you, the reader, want me to. If you enjoyed "Orthodox Legends" and want it to be continued, drop me a review and tell me so. Or, if you've detested it, why not check out "Strange and Senseless Wars", on my profile? All the craziness, with significantly less baggage. I did good there, as I'm told.