Taylor Hebert, She Who Skitters in Shadows, is Earth Bet's first Abyssal Exalt. Yes, that's one of the nasty kinds. Good thing she's such a nice person, eh? XIXI Thursday is the first day back from winter vacation, and I was finally able to walk into the halls of the school without being afraid of my tormenters. They'd slowed, then stopped as the weather grew colder, and I'd even made friends with one of them. It was nice. Wonderful, really. I'd brought my books home over break, so I didn't have to linger in the halls to use my locker. No sense in tempting fate. The day went by without incident, Sophia and her group completely ignored me, and Emma and I ate lunch together. So when I opened my locker, only to receive a heavy push in the back that sent me sprawling forward into a heap of month old pads and tampons, I wasn't able to react until the door was already closed behind me. Laughter and conspiratorial whispers strain in through the narrow slits at the top of the metal door, but they ignore my fists slamming on the locker, my cries for help. Emma, my now firmly former best friend, leaves after a minute. "I have better things to do than check for trash." She taunts, and the other two girls leave with her. No one comes except the janitor, mopping floors and picking up trash, and he doesn't hear either. Dad always said earbuds would turn you deaf. The hallway goes dark through the tiny slits, and I desperately press my face against the only source of untainted air in the claustrophobic locker, but eventually I fall asleep, unable to remain awake any longer. When I wake, the hall is lit, but not with the bright fluorescents, with dim sunlight coming in the window at the end of the hall. Daylight. No one comes for me. No one notices me. No one cares, except my father. Danny isn't here. Eventually, sometime before night comes again, I fall asleep. On the third day, the hall is bright and bodies fill it, but I'm too weak to move, my throat's too parched to make a sound. I breathe in, one last time- Darkness. A shape more massive than belief moves with a yet larger shape across a penlight speckled background, but the lights are stars and the shapes are like scaled worms, shedding shards as they move through the cosmos until they come to rest over and around a green/blue world. Thousands on thousands of bright shards of light fall to Earth, until the great worm is a fraction of its former self, and it too falls. It falls because its partner is dead. Inconceivable, the death is. Such a many-faceted thing was not meant to die. But it did. It's hierarchy of shards lies fragmented and decaying, lingering as a festering wound even as its least parts continue. In the dark, far away and right behind me, thirteen shadows feel a world that lives as it connects to the world that died, reach out along the dimensional boundaries, and find a single pinhole in the barrier between, through which a golden light shines. And they hate it.- Everything stops, voices, footsteps, the breathe in my lungs. Then a voice speaks in the darkness below, crawling up my legs and vibrating in my bones, speaking without a proper sound. "Do you wish to live?" I know I shouldn't, that I really should just let go and move on, escaping from the bullying in the simplest way, but I nod to her delusion's question, and my lips move. "Then from this day forth, then, Taylor Hebert is no more." As the words echo in my ears my head begins to ache as if I've been pushed down the stairs again, and failed to catch myself. "She who Skitters in Shadows, know you serve the Mask of Winters before all others, know you have paid a price for this honor, but it is one more than fair. You who long for the bliss of nothingness, you who seek adulation and power, you who dream of victory. Know death, know glory, know that we. Shall. Prevail." A circle burns within a circle that sears my eyes, and a voiceless scream tears out of my throat. Then all is still, and my eyelids drift closed. Darkness takes me. XIXI It's a beautiful night. The moon is overhead, the sea breeze brings the scent of salt and brine to my nose from the mouth of the bay, and my bare feet can't feel the cold snow that I crunch as I walk home. I come to an intersection, and squint to make out the signs. The street light overhead is flickering, dim. Dying. "She Who Skitters in Shadows." The voice, the Mask of Winters, I correct myself, speaks behind me. "I don't know who you're talking to, or who you are, or what you're doing" I begin to jog. Maybe if I ignore it, it will go away? When he speaks again, the words are unnatural, warped grotesquely as they slither into my ears, and I collapse to my knees and bury my head in my hands. "Taylor Hebert. You will listen." My head is dragged up as if pulled by a string. The shadows on the brick wall to my right change, taking the outline of a man eight feet tall, covered in black armor wrought with a pair of concentric circles I recognize from earlier, a single massive eye. Each word falls like a hammer on my back, driving me further down even as the shadow's grip on my hair holds my head to meet its eye. "She Who Skitters in Shadows, I give you your order. You are my first agent on this world, and you seek glory, do you not? Take your glory from the death of nations. Seek fame in the rush of battle. Cast down the mighty beneath your feet, and ruin the world that held you down, forced you to suffer for its amusement!" Silence rings in my ears, and I swallow nervously. I close my eyes. "No." I whisper, words dragged from my lips despite the raw terror of the mask before me. I continue to speak, face flush as I admit what I've dreamed about for so long, each word forced out with an effort of will that leaves my arms shaking, my legs limp beneath me, but I speak to the monster, and I say, "I want to be a hero." Horrible visions flash into my mind, Brockton Bay razed by a shockwave, drowned beneath the waves, and torn apart by internal power struggles. "I won't do it. I'm not that kind of person. I want to help, not hurt." When he speaks again, the harsh voice doesn't say what I expect at all, a hint of a laugh staining his menace. "Then seek glory in the death of your enemies." And then the pressure is gone, the shadow is just a shadow, and I'm alone again, kneeling in the snow. My forehead is bleeding, dripping blood in a perfect empty circle on the ground where I was kneeling. This won't work, face bloody, shocked, barefoot, covered in blood and worse things from the locker. I can't even remember getting out of it, and now I'm on the other side of town, the north end near the boat graveyard. How did I get here? "I can't go home like this." I realize. I can't risk hurting my dad because, apparently, I'm mad. I turn east and begin the walk to the water's edge, ignoring how the buildings' shadows stretch out to cover me, and my feet don't feel the freezing snow. "What a wonderful night to go crazy." I must move through the streets of the Docks in a daze, mind wandering in circles as my feet take me to familiar places, because I don't remember the names of the streets I move through. The market is deserted this time of night, wooden stalls and larger roofed areas line the street by the bay, abandoned. The ferry sits just visible down the slope to the water, from where I stand. Bright paint barely visible through the thick coat of white snow that blankets, well, everything. The old sight calms me down, and I crack a smile for the first time in. . . It is days, isn't it? The ferry has been there for as long as I can remember, a big friendly giant of a ship that can't get the parts it needs to do what it wants to. I wonder what it would look like detached from the dock, carrying crowds of people from north to south across the bay, but that'll never happen. Dan's always told me that the city council would never approve the budget needed, wouldn't run the risk of contaminating their perfect tourist trap boardwalk, their picture perfect city, their- Deep breath, Taylor, deep breaths. No need to get worked up about the way things are, I'll be a cape soon, not a politician. I relax, and let the wooden railing my hands were gripping fall to the ground in rotten chunks. "Ugh." I grunt, and step away from the stall. Sandy's Sea Shak, the sign calls it. "Maybe they should replace the railing, but I think the 'c' is a more severe problem. What do you think?" Someone's behind me! I whirl around to face him, then stop. It's a cape, one of the Wards stationed locally. White costume, full body with a visor over his face. "Clockblocker?" I hazard, alarm forgotten and replaced with shock. I wish I said something witty next, or something about not having a mask, or wanting to join the Wards because I was a parahuman, but I didn't. Instead, my first impression on the serious cape community of Brockton Bay, and the wider world, is when I tell the second-in-command of a cape team, "I think I'm crazy." "People are crazy, it's a common sentiment in your condition." He snaps back wryly, then his body language changes. He's more focused. "You're not wearing shoes, hold on a moment." Clockblocker reaches down and fiddles with a pouch on the side of his utility belt. "I really need to get this pouch replaced." He grumbles, then shrugs, giving opening the white container up as a lost cause. "I don't suppose you have a phone?" I shake my head. "This is surreal." "You're telling me, Shadow Girl?" Clockblocker walks next to me, opens a different pouch, and pushes something against the doorknob of Sandy's Sea Shak. The lock clicks, and he opens the door. "Shadow Girl?" I follow him inside. As he searches along the walls for a light switch, the masked teen, he must be my age, replies. "Well yeah, official members of the cape-wearing community get to make up names for the members who didn't announce theirs on national media. It's one of the perks, like discount beachwear." I flip the switch to my left, illuminating rows on rows of gaudy plastic souvenirs. Clockblocker tosses me a pair of red galoshes, then presses a button on the receipt till, printing off about a foot of paper. "I owe you one pair of garish boots. -Clockblocker." "How can you tell, that I'm a parahuman?" I blurt out, "I don't remember much." Clockblocker sets the note on the keypad of the cash register, then shrugs at me. "Well, I was minding my own business in the monitor room when I noticed a blur walking south down the boardwalk, so I called Aegis up and came over to see what I could see. And when I get here, you’re just all faded into the shadows! Sorry about not noticing you were barefoot right off, but you were really blurry in dark like that." He seems nervous all of a sudden. "Just, ah, don't mention that I didn't spot that right off? It'd be a favor from a future teammate." "Teammate?" And just when I'm about to get a handle on the situation, I'm reduced to monosyllables again. Wonderful. Clockblocker looks me carefully up and down, or at least his head moves up and down. "Well yeah. You haven't tried to attack me yet, and that means you're at least open to the idea of not turning into some kind of degenerate street bum supervillain lurking around the streets at night. What do you say I get this pouch unjammed, call for pickup, and you can stay in the guest quarters and sleep it over?" He pauses, "After a shower." Floored by my sudden change of fortunes, I can only nod in the bright lights overhead, my face stretching into a wide grin. "Yes, I mean of course!" I beam, but the Ward isn't looking at me any more, instead looking behind my back, and I suddenly feel a prick of pain as a knife touches my lower back, and a hand grabs my hair and pulls until my back is arched, and I'm trying desperately not to impale myself on the blade. "As a supposed degenerate member of society myself, I can honestly say that I'd rather be a thief, than a lesionous ballsack like yourself." Brown teeth click together inches from my face, and I can see the mask that covered his face from the nose up.