A Darker Path


Part Two: Win Stupid Prizes


[A/N: This chapter beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]


Sophia


She heard the broken, jagged sobbing before she saw Emma. That should've prepared her, but it didn't. When she pushed open the bathroom stall and saw the redhead hunched over the toilet, she knew it was bad. But when Emma turned her head and Sophia saw her blotched features and swollen eyes, the snot and vomit hanging in unsightly strings from her nose and mouth, that was when she understood just how bad it was.

"Jesus fuck, Emma." She tugged her friend away from the toilet and helped her to her feet. "What the fuck happened? Did she beat you up?" Any other day, there would've been no question of even suspecting Hebert of being able to give Emma a proper tuning up. But there was something about Hebert's new attitude, not to mention the ease with which she'd evaded Sophia's punch earlier, that raised questions.

Had something happened to Hebert over the Christmas break? Did she trigger with powers and join the Wards when I wasn't looking? It might explain her new physical capabilities, and the knowledge of what to say about Piggot. The other Wards had unmasked to her … but she'd never given permission to pass that knowledge on to anyone else. Least of all fucking Hebert.

No, there were too many holes in the story. Hebert was too much of a wimp to get powers, and Sophia had been in to the PRT building over Christmas. There'd been no announcement of a new Ward, and nothing new on the bulletin board except Vista's cutesy little cut-out snowflakes.

"No," mumbled Emma. "She knows 'bout the alley. About the ABB." At Sophia's urging, she began to splash water on her face, washing away the worst of the muck. "She threw it in my face. Told me I was weak." Her face twisted, and it looked like she was going to cry again.

"You're not weak," Sophia snapped, grabbing her by the shoulders and literally shaking her. "You're strong, dammit. A survivor. Like me."

The bathroom door banged open and Sophia tensed, turning that way. If this was Hebert coming back to pull more voodoo bullshit on Emma—seriously, she looked like she'd been run over by an eighteen-wheeler—then there would be words spoken. By 'words' she meant 'punches', and by 'spoken' she meant 'thrown'.

But it was only Madison, though she looked almost as rattled as Emma. Leaning against the wall, she fought for breath, her face chalk-white under her makeup.

"What happened to you?" demanded Sophia. "Where were you when Hebert was getting into Emma's head?"

"I was … I was right there," Madison wheezed. "When Emma ran away, I con-confronted Taylor." She drew in a shaky breath and looked like she was going to cry. "Oh, god. I shouldn't have."

"The fuck?" Sophia shook her head and glared at them both. "Did she pull some woo-woo bullshit out of your past as well, to fuck with your head?"

"No. No. No, no, she didn't." Madison shook her head. "She just … gave me a warning. A warning to give to everyone. You, me, Emma, everyone. We're on our last chance. If we keep going the way we are, she'll kill us."

Sophia stared at her, then burst out laughing. "Oh, bullshit. You actually bought that, from her? The little queef is bluffing. You know it, I know it, Emma knows it. What'd she do, wave a plastic knife or something at you?"

Madison shook her head again. "No, but she hit me right about here so I could hardly breathe, then told me that she could've hit me just a bit harder so I'd suffocate, all while she was eating her lunch. Like it didn't matter to her if I lived or died. Then she hit me again so I could breathe properly, and said something about how we're on our second strike. Third strike, we're out."

It all came out at once, the words tumbling over themselves. By the time Madison squeaked the last word out, she was breathless. She stared at Sophia, as though silently asking for assistance.

"What the hell is wrong with you two?" Sophia shook her head. "You're better than this. Smarter. Tougher. Hebert couldn't push you around like this on her best day." Again, she had a moment of doubt. Something was wrong if Emma and Madison couldn't keep Hebert in her place.

Once more, she shook the feeling off. They'd been easing off on Hebert, prepping for the locker prank, and she'd managed to grow a semblance of a spine over Christmas. That's gotta be it.

Hebert didn't get to stand up for herself. She didn't deserve it. As far as Sophia was concerned, Hebert's correct place was at the bottom of the pecking order, far away from anyone who actually mattered.

Sophia didn't even consider the busted-open lockers to be a problem. Winslow lockers were shit, and everyone knew it. As for the Miss Piggy reference … I must have misheard her, that's all. She's not a Ward.

Which made it even more irritating. She'd had the perfect opportunity to smack that irritating expression across to the other side of Hebert's face, and she'd missed out. That was an oversight she was going to have to remedy, right the fuck now.

"Madison, take care of Emma," she said briskly. "I'm going to go find Hebert, and explain to her why she doesn't pull this shit."

"What? No!" Madison grabbed at Sophia's sleeve as she passed by. "I just told you! She said she'd kill us if we messed with her again!"

Brushing Madison's grasp away, Sophia pushed her back against the wall, an arm across her throat. "I wasn't asking," she growled. "And if she tries that three-strikes bullshit on me, she'll be dead for real. Now take care of Emma."

Feeling even more aggravated by the exchange—where did Madison get off, trying to tell her what to do?—she opened the bathroom door and headed out.

When she found Hebert, there was going to be hell to pay.


Taylor


Following my lunch and the little chat I'd had with Madison, I went to the library and settled down for a restful time-out with a book about the life of Caesar that I'd been meaning to read. Life had been simpler back then, I decided. Of course, it had been usually shorter and more disease-ridden, so that was a distinct downside. But being able to stab someone who was getting on your nerves had to solve a lot of problems.

I'd read somewhere that the Romans had changed up the traditional handshake to a forearm clasp so as to be able to tell if their political rivals were carrying knives strapped to their wrists. Of course, the Romans had also been the ones to give the phrase 'political backstabbing' a whole new level of meaning.

I'd only spent five minutes out of the thirty I'd allotted myself when I became aware that Sophia was looking for me with the specific intent to do me harm. Mentally, I apologised to my power for the previous sarcasm; it seemed that aspect could be useful after all. She wasn't quite as unintelligent as I'd sometimes wondered, because the library was the third place she looked into on her search.

Of course, I knew she was coming and decided to kill her chances of finding me. So, as she walked in through the main doors, I climbed out of the beanbag I'd been lying in and took a meandering path through the library. This just happened to coincide with Sophia's, in that whenever she looked in my direction, I was just out of her line of sight. Looking more frustrated than ever, she left the library; I shrugged and went back to my beanbag.

Even after searching most of the school (including all of the girls' bathrooms, twice) and not finding me, she hadn't given up. My sense of her indicated that she was waiting in an empty classroom close to my next class, which was art. Her intent to do me harm was stronger than ever. It wasn't long until the bell to start classes again, which meant that I needed to make a choice.

If I wanted to avoid the conflict that was brewing, I could skip the class altogether or simply go a slightly different way to get to the same classroom. Alternatively, I could go straight to where she was, administer a non-lethal object lesson, then go to class anyway. Or … I could just kill her. I was pretty sure she'd been warned.

Unfortunately for her, I didn't feel like letting her dictate a single one of my actions. If she wanted to poke the bear, then what happened next was all on her.

So, I got up from the beanbag and took the book back to the returns slot. On my way out of the library, I took the calculator I'd liberated from Emma's locker out of my new backpack, and slid it up my sleeve. I wasn't sure exactly why I'd done that, but it seemed to be the right thing to do.

As I approached the classroom, I checked again. Only Sophia showed up as a hostile, which meant there weren't likely to be any other witnesses in the room. This smelt to me like Sophia intended to deliver an extremely thorough beating, possibly involving broken bones.

That was just fine with me.

It took a certain amount of self-control to allow myself to fall into the trap, but I hadn't yet decided what I wanted to do with Sophia, so I was on my own. Still, it didn't seem to matter; Sophia was the sort of person who never thought of examining the teeth of a gift horse. From the enthusiastic way she hauled me into the room and threw me to the floor (or tried to throw me to the floor) she'd clearly decided that her trap was a masterpiece of Napoleonic genius.

I hit the floor, rolled, and came to my feet again with relative ease. This was one of the things my power had boosted about me. "Hi to you, too," I said.

"Shut up!" she hissed. "What the fuck did you do to Emma and Madison?"

"Told them something they needed to know," I said, slipping my pack off and tossing it to one side. "Did Madison pass on the message to you? 'That's two'?"

She sneered at me. "Yeah, she said you'd grown a backbone. Well, too bad for you. You're going down. And don't even try to fake me out like the last time, or this is going to hurt even more."

"And when I inevitably point you out as the person who beat me up?" I asked mildly.

Her sneer intensified. "There's half a dozen girls who're willing to swear blind I was with them the whole time."

"Well, that's awkward." I didn't say who it was going to be awkward for. "One more time. Just to be sure. You know this is your third strike?"

She stared with astonishment. "Are you threatening me? Are you seriously fucking trying to threaten me right now?"

Fuck, she was dense. "No, I'm telling you that this, right here, is your third strike." There; it was explained.

"You can take your third strike and shove it—" Her form as she moved in to punch me wasn't bad. She'd clearly been in more than one brawl.

I didn't much care. As she swung her fist at me, I took her arm and snapped it at the elbow, then slammed my knee into her ribs so hard that three of them broke. A couple of the shards went through her left lung.

Her eyes opened wide as she expirated a fine mist of blood, then I put a stop to that nonsense with a single knife-hand strike to the throat that collapsed her larynx. A second later, she surprised the hell out of me by turning to a dark swirling fog and lunging for the far wall. Reflexively, I slid the calculator from my sleeve and tossed it through her; she convulsed and fell to the floor, solid again.

Unable to breathe, her lungs filling with blood, she lay on her back and stared up at me as I moved to stand over her. "Shadow Stalker, huh?" I asked rhetorically. "Guess I didn't see that coming. Still, doesn't matter. Strike three is strike three." I lifted my foot above her sternum and brought my heel down hard; at just the right place, with sufficient force, it was enough to stop her heart.

Stopping only to retrieve my backpack and calculator, I left the classroom and went to art class.


Two Hours Later
Math Class

Emma


There was something seriously, seriously wrong. With Madison's help, Emma had repaired her makeup and gone on to class, but she hadn't gotten any answers back from her discreet texts to Sophia. Not that she was stupid enough to ask straight-out 'did you beat up Taylor yet' but usually it worked well enough to say something like, 'so how'd it go?'.

But there was nothing. She'd sent a test message to Madison to make sure her phone was working right and hadn't gotten water in it, but there was no problem there. It was just that … Sophia wasn't answering.

And then she came to Math class with Mr Quinlan, and there was Taylor, not a hair out of place. Admittedly, Emma didn't know what Sophia been planning on doing, but at the very least she would've repossessed her property. Yet, there sat Taylor, wearing Sophia's jeans and sneakers, and with the stolen backpack beside her desk.

As bizarre as it sounded, it seemed that Sophia had totally failed to catch up with Taylor, even knowing what her class schedule was. So Emma did what any good friend would do. Pulling out her phone, she sent a text. 'hey if youre still looking 4 T shes in math'.

No novice at classroom texting, Emma had given no outward sign of sending the message. Her phone keyboard was silent, and she could thumb-type with the best of them. But still, just after the message was sent, Taylor turned in her seat and gave Emma a raised eyebrow. Deliberately, she put a strand of hair in her mouth and pretended to chew on it.

Abruptly, Emma recalled the alley, remembered lying on stained asphalt, at the mercy of the girl wearing her jacket. The handful of hair that had been brutally cut off with the knife was shoved into her mouth. Eat it, then pick.

Taylor's face loomed large in her memory. You'll never really escape the alley. You were weak then and you're even weaker now.

It had taken her months to get over having hysterics at home when she found a hair in her food. And now, Taylor was bringing it all back again.

Jumping up from her seat, she clamped her hand across her mouth to hold in the upcoming eruption, and bolted from the room. Quinlan may have called her name as the door was swinging shut behind her, but she didn't care.


Taylor


I still wasn't sure what that was about, but it was certainly effective. Innocently, I looked around as Mr Quinlan called Emma's name. She didn't come back.

"Does anyone know what's going on with Miss Barnes?" he asked. From his tone, he wasn't expecting an answer.

"I'm not entirely sure, sir," I answered on a whim. "Maybe she's allergic to logarithms?"

He snorted heavily. "Very funny, Ms Hebert. Now, turn to page fifty-two …"

I was just doing so when I heard the sirens. Police and ambulance both, and coming toward Winslow. Yeah, someone found her. The paramedics wouldn't be able to do anything except give her a speedy ride to the hospital, where an actual doctor would be able to use his vast expertise to pronounce her dead on arrival.

I'd know in the next hour or so whether I'd need to start a new path: kill the investigation. For the moment, I was reasonably sure I was in the clear. And in fact, Sophia's status as a Ward was likely to work for me as opposed to against me. I wouldn't be surprised if the PRT went all-in on this being a murder by a villain who snuck into the school to get to Shadow Stalker, as opposed to a grudge match gone fatally wrong.

And then there were the other people inside Winslow who might have wanted to fuck her shit up even more than I did; the teenagers who held views supportive of the Empire Eighty-Eight. Nobody wore gang colours in the school itself, and the only recruiting was by the ABB (for a very enthusiastic definition of 'recruiting'), but they were around. Sophia hadn't spread the word that she was looking to relocate my teeth in several different directions, so theoretically they could've done it.

They hadn't, of course. I did say 'theoretically'.

When the end of the math period came (Mr Quinlan stayed with us the whole time, by a miracle) an announcement came across the decrepit PA system, to the effect that those of us who had been in the following classrooms at the approximate time of death had to stay behind to talk to the police. One of the classrooms listed was the art classroom; I had been there, of course.

As can be imagined, this caused a roar and a ruckus. About half of us in the classroom had been in the art class or another nearby room. Even though none of them had done this, nobody wanted to be kept back late to talk to the boys in blue.

"Class, class!" Mr Quinlan called out patting the air with his hands. "The police will not be questioning you here and now! They are here to make appointments to take your statements. As soon as you've made that appointment, you can leave."

Someone else put their hand up, saving me the trouble of doing it myself. "But why are they here? What were those sirens about?"

He knew, of course. I'd seen him taking a surreptitious phone call. "Someone has died on school property," he prevaricated. "There may be suspicious circumstances involved."

Damn right there were suspicious circumstances involved. She'd literally been beaten to death; that was about as suspicious as it came. But I said not a word. Meek and mild Taylor Hebert, that was me.

Ironically—I'd detoured between my classes to double-check this—the best evidence of my guilt had been erased without me having to raise a finger. Because of Emma's complaint to Principal Blackwell about her locker being damaged, all three lockers had been repaired, and the horrific mess in mine had been cleaned up, before the police ever arrived. It seemed there were unexpected benefits in attending a school where 'sweeping things under the rug' was raised to the level of an Olympic event.

The three wise monkeys had nothing on Winslow.

Leaning back in my seat, I prepared to wait. I hadn't thought to get that book about Caesar out of the library, but I was perfectly fine with killing time.


PRT ENE
Director's Office

Director Piggot


"What the fuck."

It wasn't a question so much as a statement. Emily breathed it soft and low, as she read through the preliminary report. The death of a Protectorate member under her command would be bad enough to generate a metric ton of paperwork. However, the death of a Ward, out of costume, on the first day of school, was nothing less than a genuine catastrophe.

It wasn't that she'd liked the Hess girl. In fact, on the few times they'd interacted, they hadn't gotten along at all. Shadow Stalker was—had been—an arrogant, cocksure little shit, almost certainly suffering (or making her superiors suffer) from an undiagnosed case of oppositional defiant disorder, making life unpleasant for all around them. But the fact remained that Hess had been (whatever her flaws) a Ward. And part of Emily's unofficial training was the truism that nobody got left behind.

It didn't matter that no witnesses had come forward yet to provide a suspect for Stalker's premature death. There had to be at least one, or maybe two or three. This was the number of people currently suspected to have had a hand in it. She had been a seasoned combatant (albeit a bit raw in her style) and if there'd been any fewer than three up against her, she had to have left marks on one of them.

Armsmaster was already on the case, apparently. His analysis equipment was the best in the state, so she had faith that the man would be able to nail down exactly which villain in Brockton Bay could have infiltrated Winslow and beaten Stalker to death. Or maybe a bunch of the older boys had been bribed to corner her in that room, and kick her until she was down.

Whichever it was, Emily knew the truth would come out sooner or later. Someone would boast, or flash the cash, and the PRT would close in on them. Murder wasn't as easy as it seemed in the movies. Nobody could just kill a fellow human being and be the same afterward. Human nature didn't allow it.


Later

Taylor


I climbed the front steps and unlocked the door with my key. Tossing my backpack onto the sofa, I detoured through the living room into the kitchen, where I snagged a soda from the fridge. "Hey, Dad."

"Taylor." Dad looked around from where he was chopping ingredients for dinner. "I got the phone call to say you'd be staying late at school. What happened?"

I shrugged. "Someone got on the wrong side of someone else, and it got fatal, or so they say. The police want to talk to everyone who was on that side of the school when it happened, to see if we saw anything." I rolled my eyes. "So now I've got an appointment at the police station. Yay me."

He picked up the cutting board and swept the contents into a bowl. "Still, it's your civic duty." He raised his head and gave me a serious look. "Are you okay?"

"Me?" I gave him a grin as I popped the soda and headed back into the living room. TV awaited, and I wanted to see if Sophia had made the news. "Never better."


End of Part Two