Events in the alley go badly wrong ...
1) This story is set in the Wormverse, which is owned by Wildbow. Thanks for letting me use it.
2) I will follow canon as closely as I can. If I find something that canon does not cover, I will make stuff up. If canon then refutes me, I will revise. Do not bother me with fanon; corrections require citations.
3) I will accept any legitimate criticism of my work. However, I reserve the right to ignore anyone who says "That's wrong" without showing how it is wrong, and suggesting how it can be made right. Posting negative reviews from an anonymous account is a good way to have said reviews deleted.
Part One: Loss
Alone, alone, all all alone,
Alone on a wide, wide sea.
And never a saint took pity on
My soul in agony.
- from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
A blue and white globe, with hints of green and brown, slowly turning in the void. Earth, or at least a version thereof. This particular version, known as 'Earth Bet' to its inhabitants, is situated on the far slope of the probability curve, home to strange and unusual happenings. Infected by multidimensional spacegoing parasites, it is Patient Zero for a local outbreak of parahuman activity.
On its moon, a partly finished base lies desolate and abandoned, the erstwhile architect no longer of a mind or will to complete it. In orbit, a white multi-winged figure like a fractured snowflake; even those with telescopes do not look too closely. Closer to the surface, a golden figure, white-clad, saviour and destroyer in one, does good for want of a better purpose.
This nation is relatively new on the scene, although the same cannot be said for the continent upon which it was founded. Since land became distinct from ocean, billions of years past, its component parts have formed jigsaw pieces of larger landmasses, broken apart and reformed endlessly by the relentless forces of continental drift. It is only relatively recently that it has come together as it is now, emerging from the encroaching waters of the world-ocean, and shrugging off the last of the northward-retreating glaciers.
And yet, with humanity inhabiting it for thousands of years and giving it no single encompassing name, it took imperialistic invaders from a distant island empire to conquer it and give it that name. Then, mere decades later, a war with the mother country gave it another name, which it has borne for an absurdly short span of its total history; the United States of America.
In the northeastern corner of this nation, where the states are tiny and jostle for elbow room, lie six of the thirteen original states, immortalised upon the flag in blood-red stripes. These six are collectively known as New England; two are indeed named after the regions in far-away England from which those who originally settled them hailed. One is New York, famous – or perhaps infamous – for being home to one of the largest, busiest cities in the world. The other is New Hampshire.
Upon the meagre stretch of coastline allotted to New Hampshire lies a city not quite like any other. For reasons lost to history, its name is Brockton Bay, rather than the more prosaic Portsmouth, posited once upon a time by nostalgic Englishmen. For a city of its modest population – just over three hundred thousand at last census – it is home to a startlingly large number of parahumans. In fact, with more than fifty known local capes, and more than a few unknown, the Brockton Bay metropolitan area is home to the seventh highest concentration of capes per capita in the continental United States.
Unfortunately, there are more villains than heroes in Brockton Bay, and have been for quite some time. This gives rise to villain-led gangs, who often act with impunity in broad daylight. Sometimes, this leads to tragic consequences.
A through-way, somewhere between a narrow street and a wide alleyway. A dumpster at one end, lacking wheels. Butted up against the dumpster, an expensive-looking car; last year's model. At the other end of the alley, blocking the way, a white van. Crouched on the roof of the car, a dark-cloaked figure. Between the car and the van, several people.
All but one of these people wear the colours of the ABB, a local Asian-centric gang. It is headed by a parahuman called Lung, which means Dragon in his mother's tongue.
The one exception is female, caucasian, teenage, red-haired. Her name is Emma. Up until a few moments ago, she was happy, safe, secure, riding in her father's car. Now, she is kneeling on rough asphalt, surrounded by hostile, sneering teenage criminals. One of them, also a girl, is wearing her jacket, and is tracing the tip of a knife over her face. Emma's mouth is full of her own hair; she has been told by the girl that she must eat the hair and then choose which part of her face is to be mutilated.
She has just seen the cloaked figure, a girl, couched on top of the car. Watching, not acting. Not helping her. She is pleading with her eyes, not able to understand why the girl on top of the car isn't moving, isn't coming to her aid.
The vigilante crouches on the car roof. Her name is Sophia. None of the gang members have seen her yet; they are concentrating on their victim. She relishes the moment which is yet to come, when they see her, realise the danger they are in. The terror they will feel. Fear of her, the predator.
She stares at the redhead, looking for a sign of defiance, of struggle. If the girl fights back, then she will intervene before this goes too far. The girl will have earned her reprieve by proving that she's not a victim. Shadow Stalker has no time for victims.
The Asian girl is called Yan. She likes the jacket; it's much better than any of her other clothes. And this girl, this rich white bitch, was just wearing it around, like an accessory. She doesn't appreciate it. She doesn't deserve it.
Yan is working herself into a righteous anger, so that she can do what she needs to do. She's not much older than this girl, if she's any older at all, and she's tired of being treated like a plaything by the men, tired of being nothing more than their whore. She's made it clear before now that she wants to be a proper member, and this is her chance.
So if she has to carve on the girl a bit, make her into an object lesson as to why you don't come into ABB territory without paying toll – although the phrase 'object lesson' isn't really a part of her vocabulary – then that's what she's going to do.
Not that she's got any intention of killing her, of course. Just the face. Fuck her over a bit, just like life's fucked Yan over up till now. And if it means she gets to wear the colours for real, to earn the respect that a proper ABB member deserves, then fuck this bitch. A small part of her is wondering, as she watches the redhead try to chew on her own hair, what part of her face she'll choose to sacrifice.
In the car, a frantic father is held at bay by grinning ABB members, as they rifle the glove compartment for whatever they can loot. They don't know about the cloaked figure atop the car either. They will soon learn.
Face-down in the passenger footwell of the car, unheeded and unnoticed, a discarded mobile phone has been connected to the 9-1-1 network for some moments now. From the noises she has heard, the operator has decided that something is badly wrong. She has dispatched police and emergency services. They will arrive far too late.
The first thing that happens is that the gang member holding Emma's right arm notices that she is staring fixedly toward the car. He looks in that direction and sees the cloaked figure of the vigilante on the roof of the car. Beginning to shout a warning, he loosens his grip on Emma's arm.
Reacting without thinking, Emma jerks her arm free of his hands, and viciously elbows him in the testicles. He screams in pain and shoves her away from him.
Unfortunately for her, another gang member is holding her left arm, so she can't go that way. She can only pivot forward. Yan was tracing the point of the knife over Emma's jawline as she tried to swallow the mouthful of hair, and is taken by surprise; the knife slides into Emma's throat with very little resistance indeed.
Emma doesn't even feel it at first; the knife is so sharp that the cut nerves barely react. But then Yan panics – I didn't want to kill her! - and tries to pull it out again, causing farther damage. Emma pulls away, twisting her neck, and the knife blade slices out through her carotid artery.
Blood sprays out, spattering over Yan and her jacket both; her knife arm is red from wrist to shoulder. Released by the second gang member, Emma slumps backward, her hands coming up to try to stem the flow of blood.
Shadow Stalker comes off the car in a delayed reaction. She sees the redheaded girl falling, blood spraying, and she is incensed. A crossbow bolt whickers through the air, strikes the back of the neck of the girl holding the knife. That girl opens her mouth with a puzzled expression, allowing a sharp metal tongue to protrude from between her lips, before she drops to her knees and flops lifelessly to one side.
Emma, lying on the ground, watches the fight, even as blood pumps from between her fingers and her sight grows dim. She does not know the vigilante's name, and now she never will. But she moves so gracefully, so smoothly, delivering brutal blows and slashing her foes with hand-held arrows. Emma wants to cheer her on, but she can't breathe, can't do anything. Her hands are falling away from the horrific wound in her throat.
The last of the ABB gang members is down, either dead, dying or unconscious. Sophia approaches the redhead. She's lying in a huge pool of her own blood, so it's not hard to understand that she's either dead or not far off it. Sophia crouches, and takes hold of one of the girl's hands, squeezes it. Imagines that she feels a response, sees a flicker in the dimming eyes.
"I'm sorry," she says softly. "I should have done something sooner. I'm sorry."
She can't think of anything else to say. This girl was a fighter, and Sophia failed her. It's not a feeling she likes.
When she stands up, the redhead's eyes are still open, but the blood has ceased to pump from her throat; the girl is dead. Leaning forward, she passes her hand over the girl's eyes, closing them for the last time.
"You were a fighter," she murmurs. It is her highest accolade.
By the time Alan Barnes climbs out of the car, looking around dazedly, he finds that he is late to the party. The members of the group that attacked them are strewn around, sporting ghastly injuries. He ignores them, stumbles to where Emma is lying crumpled on the ground. Her eyes are closed; there is blood all over her front.
"Emma!" he croaks. "Wake up!" Perhaps she is only unconscious. "Emma, please wake up." He shakes her again.
When the police and ambulance arrive on scene, he is still shaking her, and pleading for her to wake up. When they break the news that she is dead, has been dead for some time, he has to be restrained.
Every single ABB member in the alleyway is dead; forensic examination suggests that Shadow Stalker is responsible for at least half the corpses, as they have been killed with crossbow arrows. This information is duly passed on to the PRT.
When Shadow Stalker gets home, she carefully peels her glove off. The blood of the red-haired girl, the fighter who died in front of her, is still on it. She sits, looking at it, for a long time.
Guilt is not something that she is used to feeling, and so when her mother calls her down for dinner, she shrugs it off, washes the blood from the glove, and puts it away with the rest of her costume.
In every movie Taylor had ever watched with a funeral scene, it was at least a cloudy day, usually rainy. Funerals were gloomy, sad affairs, and the weather reflected this. A bright, cheerful day with bright sunshine and birds singing from every tree was not what she considered to be that sort of day, and yet, this was the day that they were burying Emma.
She walked toward the gravesite, wearing the same black dress that she had worn for her mother's funeral, just a year previously. The ache in her heart was back, the same familiar bone-deep hurt that comes from losing someone close and irreplaceable. Her father walked alongside her, his lanky frame somehow making his black suit look cheap and shabby. She held his hand; he squeezed it encouragingly.
Emma's other friends had attended, as had their parents. Alan Barnes was there, looking somehow shrunken, reduced. On either side of him were his wife, Zoe, and his daughter Anne. His arms were about them, and they seemed to be supporting him as much as he was supporting them.
Danny approached Alan, and they shook hands. Taylor didn't know Anne very well, but she offered a few words of sympathy. Zoe was crying, had been crying all morning from the looks of it, but then, so too had Taylor. Taylor and Zoe did not need to speak to each other; each knew without words how the other felt. They hugged, each comforting the other. More tears flowed.
"I – I thought you were at nature camp," Alan Barnes said to Taylor.
"I was," she replied. "When I heard, I got Dad to come and pick me up."
He shook his head. "You didn't have to do that."
Tears were flowing down her cheeks again. "Yes, I did. It's Emma."
He folded her in his arms, a strong bear-hug; she held him in return. "Thank you for coming."
The hearse approached, picking its way between the gravestones on the path set out for it. When it came to a halt, the rear door hinged upward, and the coffin rolled out a little way.
Taylor stepped back, but Alan Barnes gestured to her and Danny. "Come on."
"But we're not -" began Danny hesitantly.
"You are now," Alan told him firmly, more firmly than he would have been capable of, twelve hours previously. "You made the effort to be here, and you're as much family as anyone but Zoe and Anne and me are. Come on."
And so, Taylor found herself in the position of carrying her best friend's coffin to the grave. Alan and Danny took the front positions, Taylor was herself opposite Anne, and Zoe was opposite a friend of Emma's, called Diane. It wasn't a physically difficult task, as the weight was split between six people, four of them adults, but it brought the reality home to her; Emma is dead. She's in this coffin. We're going to bury her.
Carefully, they placed the coffin on the straps over the six foot deep hole, then stepped back. Taylor's hand found Danny's again, and they stood like that as the priest approached the grave. He said the words that were said at occasions like this. Taylor tuned him out, as she had noticed someone standing off a way, half-behind a tree, but definitely watching the service. She couldn't see who it was, but she didn't think that she knew them.
Once the words had been spoken, the blessings had been given, Taylor stepped forward and threw a handful of rose petals on to the coffin as it slowly descended into the grave. Danny did likewise, scooping them from the bowl that was being passed around. The final blessings were given, and people started to drift away.
Alan approached Danny once more. "We're having a memorial at our house. You're welcome to come." Please come, his eyes begged.
Danny nodded. "Of course we will."
Briefly, the two men hugged. There was nothing unmanly about it; they were both strong men who had undergone travail, and if one man cannot hug another man for comfort, then there is something wrong with the world.
"Taylor and I'll be staying just a little while," Danny ventured, gesturing in a particular direction.
"Oh, of course," Alan replied, understanding perfectly. He took a deep breath. "Is it okay if … if we come along?"
"Of course, of course," Danny agreed. "We've … we've got flowers in the car."
So they backtracked to the car and got the flowers out, and made the trek to where Taylor's mother had been interred the year before. The flowers in the vase were dead, and Taylor removed them, then filled the vase with water from a bottle before Danny placed the fresh flowers in it.
"Red gardenias, her favourite," murmured Alan. Taylor nodded, tearing up all over again.
Taylor and Danny stood, side by side, silently communing with whatever they recalled of Annette Rose Hebert, while Alan Barnes stood with his wife and remaining child, off to the side.
And then Alan went to his knees and began to speak. "Anne-Rose, we were friends before you passed. My Emma's dead, but you probably know this by now. So if you could find her for me, for us, and show her the way, I'd …" He paused to swallow a lump in his throat. "You were almost as much a mother to her as Zoe was. Be a mother for her, now that she's away from us. Please."
He couldn't speak any more, as he broke down bawling. Anne went to her knees beside him, and Zoe on the other side. Taylor was holding her father and crying just as hard; the tears leaking on to her shoulder told her that he wasn't holding his tears back either.
Eventually, the tears dried up, and Alan stood up with his wife and daughter. He shook hands with Danny one more time, while Taylor hugged Zoe and then Anne. Danny hugged Zoe, and then the five of them walked back through the cemetery to where the few cars still awaited.
Just as she got into her father's car, Taylor looked around, but the silent watcher was nowhere to be seen.
End of Part One