They had called him in on an anonymous tip.
The caller, a young girl by the sound of it, had said that something had happened at Winslow High. Some type of disturbance, and she was afraid to do anything about it for apparent fear of retaliation.
It wasn't as surprising as Armsmaster would have liked. Winslow High was the most gang-ridden school in all of Brockton Bay. Fights broke out there on a weekly basis, and inevitably the Protectorate would get called to handle it.
Normally, they wouldn't, of course. That was what the normal police were for, if it did escalate to the point that such attention was warranted. Otherwise, it was left to the school to handle its students. But Piggot had told him that he needed a boost of PR, that he was starting to be known as too standoffish, and that a trip to a school would show that he was approachable and cared about the youth of Brockton Bay.
Armsmaster thought the whole thing was ridiculous. He could think of a thousand better ways to spend his time than to make a show of him visiting a school. He had said to just have Shadow Stalker handle it, being in the prime position to do so, but Piggot was dead-set on him going, and what she said, went.
Wasteful. Just one more thing he could do nothing about.
Still, he took some satisfaction in the looks on the students' faces as they turned and gawked at him striding through the halls of their school. His heavy blue powersuit and halberd cut him an imposing image – though not too imposing, as the PR department had made sure – and they deserved to be gawked at and appreciated. He had poured months into both of them, making them as good as they could be, and still he had so many more ideas for how to improve on what he had built.
It felt good, seeing these children appreciate that. He was the hero here, and they were in awe of him.
Most of them.
It took him a moment to catch it. A hesitance in some of the students as they hid from his gaze, scurrying out of the way.
He slowed his pace, taking more time to examine them.
Now that he was looking for it, he could see many of the students appeared nervous about his presence, some even scared. There was the occasional anger or scorn, gang members or hopefuls most likely, but the overwhelming mood was apprehension.
He stopped, and the students froze around him.
He slowly turned his head to one girl. She was on the shorter side, with her brown hair held up by two blue pins. She, above all the others, looked terrified of him.
"You," he said, watching as all the color drained out of her face. "I received a report of a disturbance at this school. Do you know anything about that?"
Her mouth dropped open, then clamped back shut. She shook her head rapidly.
If Armsmaster had thought the other students were nervous before, that was nothing compared to how they were sweating bullets then. Few of them could still meet his eyes.
He adjusted the grip on his halberd. "I'll ask again," he said, raising his voice to be heard by the entire hall. "If anyone has heard of a disturbance at this school, come forward now."
No one wanted to speak out. No one wanted to do anything, to be the one to act. 'Dissolution of responsibility.' It was a concept he was intimately familiar with, had been for years before he became a hero. He was used to seeing crowds standing around, brushing past one another with eyes averted while people were being robbed or attacked just across the street.
Fine. If no one was going to stand up, he would handle it by himself. He was used to shouldering the burden of responsibility alone.
He began moving again, briskly pressing through the halls, the steady thud of the end of his halberd on the linoleum floors echoing. Students practically leapt out of his way now, all moving aside for him, but none speaking.
One suddenly appeared, rushing in front of him at an intersection in the halls. He recognized her.
Sophia Hess. Shadow Stalker.
"Can I help?" she asked.
He narrowed his eyes. Shadow Stalker was in her civilian clothes, but she was still trying to assist? Why? Driven by the same need to act? He wouldn't expect it from her, but maybe.
Or something else? Trying to prove herself?
A darker possibility existed. That she was in on the disturbance, whatever it was.
"I've received reports of a disturbance in this school," Armsmaster repeated again. He looked around and saw the other students all staring at Sophia, mouths agape, but she kept her eyes locked on to him.
"Oh, yeah," Sophia said easily, brushing aside a strand of her dark hair that had stuck to her forehead. Sweaty. "There was a fight a little while back."
Armsmaster's eyes slowly lowered from the indicator, back to Sophia's casual expression. "A fight?" he asked.
"Yeah. A couple of guys going at it. Got pretty big."
Armsmaster frowned. "And you believe that was the cause of the report?"
She shrugged, a motion his lie detector couldn't read. He wondered if she knew that. "Sorry for the wasted trip."
His eyes slowly went over the sweat on her forehead, the tension in her muscles. She was panting slightly. "Were you running?"
He saw it then. The slightest twitch in her eye. "Yeah."
Her eyes narrowed at him, but Armsmaster was more focused on the growing tension in her muscles, her jaw. "I run track."
"And that's why you were running just now?"
She looked him in the eyes.
She said nothing.
Armsmaster's voice was a low growl, quiet enough that the other students wouldn't be able to hear. "Miss Hess, you will tell me what happened right—"
A solar system, eight planets revolving around its star. The third planet is the only one of them capable of life. Not yet, not with the planet in its infancy, but eventually.
Armsmaster caught himself mid-stumble, the end of his halberd sliding along the floor. Warnings filled his helmet, flashing into his eyes.
In front of him, Sophia had fallen to the ground. She was shaking her head, eyes wide but unfocused.
What was that? Armsmaster thought, reaching out for the memories that had already begun to fade. They were familiar to him somehow, but he couldn't grasp, couldn't hold them—
The entities move as one, as they have for so long. A pair, incapable of being separated at this point. Each carries too many vital functions to allow the other to continue without them.
Armsmaster was on his back when he came to. Again. Another of those…
What? What had happened?
Armsmaster pushed himself to his feet. Around them, students were staring at him and Sophia. He couldn't be bothered to pay them any mind, not when he was beginning to understand.
It wasn't a well-known phenomenon, but Armsmaster had heard of it once or twice. A sudden flash of disorientation in certain conditions, exceedingly difficult to test and never able to be recalled by the parahumans in question afterward, but happening with too much certainty to be able to be dismissed by parahuman researchers.
A parahuman had just triggered.
Armsmaster didn't waste any more time. He pushed forward, past Sophia as she struggled to her feet, and ran through the halls of the school, searching for the cause, the child who had just triggered.
He remembered his own trigger event. He would never forget it for as long as he lived, the final catalyzation of years of frustration boiling over and overwhelming him. He had heard stories from others too, Hannah standing out among them. Armsmaster knew what a trigger event meant to a person. It meant collapse. It meant a moment of their self breaking down completely.
He wouldn't let someone else go through that. Not alone. He wouldn't just stand by.
The screams hit him first. Then the stench. Emanating from down one hallway, from a single locker, with trash and bugs swarming around the bottom of it. More bugs were arriving every second, skittering down the halls alongside him.
He hefted his halberd back, and struck the lock.
A mountain of mush, bloody and horrid, poured out of the locker as it flew open, so vile it almost made him step back. But he didn't.
He didn't, because there was a girl inside the locker; tall, no older than sixteen, with her long dark hair covered in blood with the rest of her body. She was screaming hysterically, sobbing as she burst out of the bloody mess that came up to her knees.
She fell into his waiting arms.
Author's Note: I want to give a fair warning and say updates will be slow outside of the Summer, so don't be surprised if there is a month or two gap between new chapters being posted.