A Darker Path
Part One: The Field is Barren
[A/N: This chapter beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]
Thirty-Some Years Ago …
As the two Entities spiralled down toward the single life-bearing planet, the Third moved onward. However, its attention was not totally on the distant galaxy before it; some small part was on the other two Entities. When it gauged they were no longer paying it attention, it detached a tiny part of its mass and flicked it back toward the planet.
[ENJOY], it murmured to itself. They wanted conflict? They'd get conflict.
Chuckling about the practical joke it had just played on the other two—for an extremely generous definition of the word 'joke'—it forged onward. This planet was taken, but there were many others. Who knew, maybe it would find something interesting.
Behind it, the obsidian-black shard infiltrated itself into the space around the planet, watching and waiting for precisely the right host to attach itself to. Because once it did, shit was going to go sideways.
Winslow High School, Brockton Bay
January 3, 2011
First Day Back After Christmas Break
To say that Emma was feeling exuberant as she ducked out of her home room was an understatement. There was a fizzy feeling in her chest that wouldn't go away; but then again, she didn't want it to. She'd had to work to keep the grin from plastering itself across her face all the way through Gladly's lazy-as-fuck World Affairs class, and for good reason.
They'd fucking got Taylor. Once and for all. This felt like the culmination of all the last year's hard work, pushing her down, trying to spark a reaction. Trying to get her to wake the fuck up. To either shape up to their standard, or to walk away forever.
"Hey." Sophia fell into step alongside her. Madison was also there, but she didn't greet them. Sophia was talking, and she didn't like anyone talking over her.
"Hey." Emma finally let the grin out. "Holy shit, am I right?"
"Fuck yeah!" That was Madison. She sounded so cute when she tried to swear, like she was a five-year-old sounding out naughty words that she didn't know the meaning of. But this whole thing had been her idea, so Emma nodded in acknowledgement.
"We fuckin' did it." Sophia punched the air in triumph. "The look on her face …" She didn't complete the sentence. Even though there was nobody close enough to listen in, or even connect all the dots, she was careful about what she said. Emma figured it was part and parcel of her being a Ward, and a vigilante before that. Loose lips, et cetera.
"Wish I coulda seen." Madison had been the farthest back, because Sophia had been shoving Taylor into the locker, and Emma had been ready to close the door.
"It was kind of awesome." Emma tilted her head. "You know, her locker isn't too far from yours and mine, Soph. Maybe we could wander past …" She let her voice trail off. See if anyone's let her out yet.
Sophia gave her the side-eye. "You aren't going soft, are you?" You better not let her out yourself.
Emma snorted and rolled her eyes. "Nope. Maybe we could ask her if there's anything she wants in there, like a pillow. Or a magazine to pass the time."
Madison burst into giggles, while Sophia let out a bark of laughter and clapped Emma on the shoulder. "I fuckin' love that. We really should."
"Oooh, oooh, or we put this in with her." Madison had her Art sketchbook open to the last page, and was feverishly drawing something. Emma waited, curious. It didn't take long, then she tore it out and handed it over.
"Nice one, Mads," said Sophia, looking at the picture. It was a rough copy of one of those stupid 'for dummies' books, with 'Escape Artistry for Ugly Bitches' as the title. "Really captures the essence, or whatever it was they keep saying in art class."
Emma felt the grin coming back as she admired the picture. "Yeah. I like it."
They turned the corner to where Emma and Sophia shared a row with Taylor. Immediately, Emma noticed something badly wrong. "My locker's open!"
Dashing forward, she grabbed the door of her locker, which was indeed swinging open. Looking down, she stared at the dent just over the lock, then opened it wide and looked inside. Most of her stuff seemed to still be there, but the hanging clothes—she liked to change into something totally new after physical education class—had been disarranged.
"Fuck your locker!" shouted Sophia, her voice sharp with anger. "My locker's open!"
Emma tried to push her locker door shut, but the metal had been bent just far enough that the tongue didn't engage. What the fuck? She knew these lockers were crap, but this was ridiculous.
"Uh, guys …?" Madison ventured.
"Someone took my favourite top!" Emma felt a surge of outrage. How dare they break into her locker and steal her stuff! This sort of thing didn't happen to her! Nothing else had been taken, but that was beyond the point. Her stuff was her stuff.
"My running shoes are gone." Now Sophia's voice was low and deadly. "Those are my best shoes. Someone is gonna die for this." She paused, staring. "And my best skinny jeans, too. Oh, they're gonna pay big time."
"Guys!" shouted Madison, just as a bunch of other students came around the corner.
"What?" Sophia yelled back, turning to glare at her. Emma turned also, wondering why she was drawing attention to herself with Sophia on the warpath like this.
Madison just pointed; first at the floor, then farther down the row of lockers. Emma looked down, and saw the footprints for the first time. Stepping back, she saw Taylor's locker … with the door wide open. A mess of the crap they'd put into it spilling out into the hallway. And the footprints, leading from there, first to Sophia's locker and then to hers. After that, they petered out, but she'd seen enough.
As the other students swarmed the area, pointing at Taylor's locker but not getting too close—because that shit reeked—Emma regrouped at the far side of the hallway with the other two.
"What the fuck?" Sophia was keeping her voice down, barely. "Did she honestly break out of her fucking locker, and into ours?" It was hard to determine which aspect she showed more disbelief about.
Emma shrugged. She had nothing. "Unless she had someone helping her … I guess?"
"Oh, no, that shit ain't gonna fly." Sophia shook her head. "She does not get to pull that shit on me. I am gonna find her skanky ass and kick it up around her ears."
"While you're doing that, I'll go to Blackwell and report the locker break-ins," Emma decided. "See how fast we can get new ones." With any other student, she knew, this would be a slow and torturous process, but it was nice to be able to flaunt that she was the daughter of a lawyer every now and again.
"And I'll check with everyone I know, to see if they've seen her," Madison offered, pulling out her phone.
"Good idea." Emma nodded to Sophia and gestured at their lockers; the doors were currently shut, but only because they'd been pushed that way. Anyone could open them and take the rest of her stuff. "We're going to need to grab everything before we go anywhere."
Sophia set her jaw. "Motherfucker. I was looking forward to finding Hebert right the fuck now."
"Yeah," said Emma, more to acknowledge the sentiment than to agree with it. "Hey, you know how we've been trying to get her to push back? Do you think this is enough of a reaction?"
The look Sophia gave Emma disabused her of the notion immediately. "Hell the fuck nope. I don't care who you are, you don't mess with my shit."
Emma nodded. "Okay. Didn't think so, but I had to be sure." Also, she owed Taylor a smackdown for stealing her favourite top.
As she began emptying her locker into her backpack, she noticed that a couple of her textbooks were missing. And then she heard the outraged squawk from Sophia. "The little fucking cow stole my backpack, too!"
Okay, yeah, Taylor was dead.
Ninety Minutes Later
World Affairs Classroom
"Hey, Mads!" Everyone was still making noise settling in, but Julia kept her voice pitched low anyway. "Weren't you guys looking for Hebert? Because there she is."
Madison looked around as she slid into her seat, and felt her eyebrows hitch upward in surprise. Taylor was indeed sitting in the classroom, right down at the back. She was still wearing Emma's top (and kind of rocking the look, Madison acknowledged reluctantly) as well as Sophia's skinny jeans. Poking out from under the desk were Sophia's favourite running shoes. Even the missing backpack was there, leaning up against the side of the desk.
"Jeez," she muttered. "She must have a death wish." If I'd broken into their lockers, I'd be over the horizon by now, on the way to LA. But there sat Taylor Hebert, large as life and bold as brass.
Her eyes accidentally drifted upward, and met Taylor's, and that was when she got her next shock. Normally, Taylor never looked her in the eye. She always looked away, hoping not to be noticed. It was something that Madison had once seen described as 'prey behaviour' on the National Geographic channel.
But now, Taylor was looking firmly back at her, her attitude almost challenging. Go ahead, she seemed to be saying. Do something. Say something. I'm right here.
Madison could've done just that. Mr Gladly was up at his desk, and he always listened to her. The only thing that stopped her was that if she did this, Taylor would be enfolded in official punishment, and Emma and Sophia had said they wanted her. So, she said nothing.
Instead, she took her phone out and kept it under desk level while she sent a single text to two recipients.
She's in World Affairs.
In return, she got back two messages. From Sophia, a terse 'OK', and from Emma a thumb's up.
Her duty done, she settled back to endure the rest of the lesson. Gladly might be putty in her hands when it came to screwing with Taylor, but fuck he was boring.
Ninety Minutes Later
Hoisting my 'borrowed' backpack over my shoulder and settling the weight of the equally 'borrowed' textbook within into a comfortable position, I bypassed Madison's feeble attempt to delay me and left Mr Gladly's classroom. I kept my eyes on the floor, mainly to avoid temptation, though I did take care to maintain my peripheral vision. As such, I picked out immediately when Emma and Sophia joined Madison.
As I strode along at a ground-eating pace I wouldn't have been able to maintain before—it appeared powers came with a few useful fringe benefits—Madison and Emma fell behind, but Sophia steadily caught up with me. That was fine; I had several different plans lined up for her, depending on how violent the girl wanted to get.
"Hey, Hebert!" Sophia's hand caught the backpack and slowed me down. "Where you running to? You trying to hide from me?"
It was clear she was trying to force a confrontation, but I didn't have the inclination to deal with this crap right now. "Nobody's hiding from anyone. I'm going to the cafeteria."
This time, Sophia grabbed me by the shoulder and swung me around. A solid fist powered in toward my solar plexus, but I saw it coming and stepped back out of the way. Options presented themselves, giving me half a dozen ways to end this confrontation (and Sophia herself) permanently, but I decided to end the conversation instead. Although it was an abstract kill rather than a physical one, it still worked with my new-found power.
"Careful," I said, speaking the words that my subconscious presented to me. "We both know Miss Piggy would disapprove." At the same time, I knew, my entire attitude and tone of voice radiated pure certainty.
Leaving Sophia staring at my back, I turned on my heel and headed onward to the cafeteria.
Funny, I mused. I never would've picked Sophia for a Muppet Show fan.
Oh, well. I don't pick the words. I just say 'em.
When Emma and Madison caught up with Sophia, she had the kind of look on her face that Emma's dad liked to describe as belonging to 'someone who bit into an apple and found half a worm'. Taylor was still in sight, barely, but Sophia was making no effort to go after her.
"What?" asked Emma. "What's the matter?"
Sophia blinked. "She knows."
"That it was us?" scoffed Madison. "Let's see her prove it."
"No, not that." Sophia shook her head. "About me. About my other hobby."
Emma blinked. There could only be one interpretation of that. Shit, Taylor knows Sophia's Shadow Stalker?
"But how?" asked Madison blankly. "I'm good at finding shit out, and I didn't know 'til you told me."
"How the fuck am I supposed to know?" Sophia ground her teeth. "But she just said something to me that only someone who's also a member could possibly know to say."
Someone who's also a Ward, Emma filled in.
Madison frowned. "Could she be? Have you had any new members recently?"
"Nope." Sophia shook her head definitively. "I'm the newest. I've seen enough of everyone else to know she couldn't be any one of them. But she used a nickname only we use. It doesn't matter where she comes into it, she knows."
"Fuck." Emma's father did divorce rather than criminal or parahuman law, but she'd heard enough stories to know where this could go to if it was left unchecked. "I'll go talk to her. Put the fear of God into her. Make sure she knows it's us she's dealing with."
"I'll come with," offered Madison. "You know, if you need a witness or something."
Emma grinned. They both knew Madison's version of being a witness would involve agreeing with Emma's version of events, whatever that was. "Good idea, but hang back a bit."
Madison nodded. "You got it."
I was halfway through the line when Emma and Madison showed up. To the normal eye, they would've been just the same as any other two high school students, but my power picked them out as being specifically interested in me. Good going, power. I never would've guessed.
Finishing up in the line, I paid for the food and then strolled over to an empty table where I could sit with my back to the wall. It was one of my old habits that had made the transition seamlessly to my new outlook on life. Sliding onto the seat, I put my tray on the table and waited.
Sure enough, over they came, zeroing in on me like homing missiles. They weren't even very subtle about it, which showed just how pissed-off they were with me.
Not that I cared, or would ever care again, what they thought about me. That chapter in my life was closed, locked in a safe, welded shut and handed over to Behemoth for safekeeping.
Sticking my fork through some wilting salad, I looked up as Emma came over and sat opposite me. "Boy, have you fucked up," she began.
"Do tell," I suggested mildly, twirling the fork to wind the strands of lettuce on it. After all, I'd just gotten this top and I didn't want to get salad on it.
"Breaking into our lockers and stealing our stuff," she began, real anger flaring in her eyes. "And then there's threatening Sophia. What are you trying to do, blackmail her? That's about as stupid as you can get. But you've never been too smart, have you?"
I sighed. Where she got 'blackmailing Sophia' from I had no idea, but I wanted some time to myself so I could eat my lunch in peace and quiet. There were several ways I could murder her from where I sat, but that would probably draw attention, so again I decided to kill the conversation.
As I made this decision, the words and actions came to me. I had no idea what they meant, just as I hadn't with Sophia, but that didn't matter; only the execution did. Taking up a strand of my hair, I looked her in the eye. "It doesn't matter how tough you think you are," I said, then scratched at the corner of my eye and fiddled with my earlobe. "You'll never really escape the alley. You were weak then and you're even weaker now." Lifting the hair to my mouth, I pretended to chew on it for a second, then offered it to her. "Want some?"
Her eyes went wide and her face turned paler than the imitation mashed potatoes on my plate. Clamping her hands over her mouth, she jumped up from the seat and bolted from the cafeteria, leaving a trail of annoyed students in her wake.
With a shrug, I put the forkful of salad in my mouth. It wasn't bad, I decided, though it could've used a little more dressing. Just as I went back for another load, Madison came at me.
What she'd seen of how I dealt with Sophia and Emma must have warned her against trying to cow me with words, but instead of backing off, she evidently decided to do the worst thing possible. Specifically, to get into close proximity and offer physical violence to me.
I watched with mild interest as she snatched up the plastic knife and grabbed my hair with one hand, then held the knife up under my eye with the other. "What did you say to them, you bitch?" she hissed. "Tell me, or I'll—"
The blunt end of the plastic fork jabbed her in the solar plexus at just the right point. Wheezing, she sagged and dropped the knife. I half-stood and assisted her into the chair next to mine, then sat down again. This had all happened so smoothly and naturally that barely anyone knew she'd just threatened me, and nobody cared.
The hidden benefit of being the pariah, I decided.
"You'll live," I told her, then ate some of the faux potatoes. "I didn't hit you hard enough to paralyse your diaphragm all the way, just partially. Though I could have, if I really wanted to. You could be sitting there, suffocating in front of everyone, with nobody the wiser. I could finish this meal, get up and walk out, and you'd die in the middle of a crowded room. The same way you shoved me into my locker in the middle of a crowded hallway. I suppose that's irony for you."
Her eyes, about the only parts of her that were able to move, swivelled toward me, rolling in their sockets. I saw her face turn red with the effort of inhaling, then exhaling again. "Whhhh…" she managed to wheeze.
"Why didn't I kill you?" I began to peel my banana. "Oh, that's easy. I want you to pass a message on to all your friends, but especially Emma and Sophia. And while I could write it on your face or something, it's simpler just to tell you what it is. Also, I must confess to enjoying a certain amount of schadenfreude." I paused at her blink of confusion. "Look it up."
I finished the banana, then opened my juice while she sat and wheezed at me, straining to drag air into her oxygen-starved lungs. As far as I could tell, she was trying to ask what the message was.
"Let me tell you a story," I said. "Once upon a time, a farmer was driving his cart home from market, and he had a new mule pulling it. They came to a gentle hill, and the mule stopped. The farmer said, "that's one", and smacked the mule on the rump, and the mule went on. Then they came to a shallow creek, and the mule stopped again. This time, the farmer said, "that's two", and smacked the mule on the head with his shotgun butt, and the mule went on. And then …" I paused to draw it out and take a drink of juice. "As the cart rolled into the farmyard, it came to a big mud puddle, and the mule stopped a third time. This time, the farmer said, "that's three". Then he shot the mule in the head."
My juice was empty. I got up from where I'd been sitting and struck her hard between the shoulder blades with the heel of my hand. Jolted out of her paralysis, she drew a long breath and stared up at me. "What … what's the message?" she asked cautiously.
Leaning down close to her ear, I whispered, "The message is … that's two."
Then I turned and left the cafeteria.
End of Part One
[A/N: Taylor's shard is Path to Ending. It's like Path to Victory, but it's focused on killing things. People, machines, abstract concepts such as 'this conversation' or 'his reputation' or 'her bank account'; if something can be in any way killed, she can Path how to do it. However, although its ambit is limited compared to PtV, there are seven important aspects about it:
1) Because it's an Abbadon shard that never made it to the Warrior's (or Thinker's) attention, it has none of the limiters that any of the other ones do.
2) Because it's more focused than PtV, its bullshit overrides PtV's bullshit.
3) While she can't deliberately perform a strictly nonlethal attack, she can (in hand to hand) perform a lethal attack but pull the blow. This takes a deliberate act of will.
4) It warns her about anyone paying hostile attention to her.
5) The shard can and will tell Broadcast to go and take a long walk off a short pier.
6) To ensure she has the wherewithal to actually kill things, the shard also buffs her up to nominal levels of strength, speed and endurance. Not 'peak human' capability, but definitely 'athletic teen'.
7) She no longer has any fucks to give, in whole or part. They are forever gone.]
[A/N 2: I will continue this when and where I can.]