Vigilantes: Jade

A plume of hot air trailed in the wake of a rickety old green pickup as it rolled its way down the snowy road running through Maryland. The safety railing parallel to the road was slick with frost. A low growl escaped the driver's clenched jaw as he turned on the defroster, wiping the condensation from the windshield with his sleeve just to get a view of the road. He turned on the windshield wipers once again to cast aside a new layer of snow, and just as the snow cleared, he spotted a dark splotch in the endless white, right in the way of his truck.

"JESUS!" the driver exclaimed, slamming on the break and jerking the wheel. The figure jumped up and smashed with intense force into his windshield, rolling and falling into the snow as he careened into the safety rail. He lay back in his seat and slowly broke his vice hold on the steering wheel, catching his breath and wiping the sweat from his brow. He immediately swung open the door and ran out into the cold. His heavy coat kept him warm, and the red trucker hat kept the snow out of the precious few hairs he still had atop his head. He strained his eyes and spotted the dark figure in the distance, laying motionless on the ground. He took a step closer and peered through the confusion of winter to see that it was a woman, a young woman with long black hair and a slender face. She was dressed all in bulky winter clothing, but he could tell how frail she was underneath. There was an instrument case, something big like a cello, in the snow a couple yards away. What she was doing out here was a mystery, what she was doing lugging something like that was preposterous. He ran his fingers through his whiskers and called out, "Miss? Miss, are you alright?" When he got no answer, he immediately ran to her aid, "Are you okay? Jesus Christ, I didn't see you!"

He bent down by her side, the melted snow soaking through the knees of his jeans. "Oh god, oh god!" he cried, trying to get a grasp on the situation. Suddenly, her eyes drifted open and she peered up at him. Her eyes, even glazed by a wavering consciousness, were like burning embers that set a fearful fire in a man's soul. She raised a trembling hand and pulled aside the flap of his coat, revealing a Longshot t-shirt. The hero's visage was printed against black cloth, his name written in bold, yellow letters across the top. "Are... are you okay?" the man asked uneasily. She gave no answer, simply grabbing the collar of his shirt and ripping it down the middle.

"Hey!" the man shrieked as she tore the image of the archer from his shirt, rising up and gathering her cello case, walking away and leaving him in the cold.

The girl walked for some time, having jumped over to the opposite side of the safety rail to prevent another accident. The bare skeletons of trees were dusted in white, their bony fingers growing in number the deeper one gazed into the woods. Before she had been hit, the girl spotted a sign that told her Baltimore was only a few miles off now. The girl faltered in her step, staggering down the embankment. She leaned against a tree and tried to fill the void in her lungs. Where was she going? She couldn't recall. She dared a few steps deeper into the wood, and suddenly, she was in a clearing. She looked behind herself to find the road, but it was gone. How deep into the forest had she gone? She took another step toward the middle of the clearing, but her knee buckled mid-stride and she dropped to one knee. She touched her fingers to the back of her head and looked down, blood coating her fingertips. She rose up again, but quickly dropped back into the snow, falling face down in white, entombed in black.

Someone observed from the darkness of the woods as she lay in silence. He gave a silent nod to his cohort and they both approached the girl, boots crunching the snow, leaving footprints where she had not.

"Wakey, wakey." echoed a voice from deep in the girl's mind. What seemed a dream soon mutated into reality as her eyes fluttered open, met with the walls of a dimly lit shack. Two dark forms took the shape of men. They watched her with disturbing enjoyment as she recognized her situation. Her hands were bound behind her by duct tape, and she was on her knees. "Attagirl!" one of them chuckled, "Oh, Tom, we got a good one this time!" He put his calloused hand on her cheek and turned her head side to side, admiring her. She tolerated it in silence.

"And to think, she just waltzed inna our back yard. What the hell was she doin' out there, anyway, Mike?" said the man named Tom.

"Doesn't matter." Mike replied, "We got her and nobody's gonna come lookin'. She's a drifter. Got all the signs. 'Course, I've never seen a drifter who looked like this before."

The girl turned and looked to the far end of the room. There was a row of dog crates, five in her field of vision, although they continued around the corner. From each of them came a cacophony of misery, the voices of tortured women. Another man walked around the corner, kicking the cage of one of the women. "Shut up!" he bellowed as he pounded the crate with his boot again and again until it nearly tipped over. There was silence.

Tom drew a hunting knife from his belt and got down on his haunches, running the blade delicately across her cheek. "You're a real pretty one, sweetheart. We aren't even gonna rent you out. We're keepin' you all to ourselves." She averted her eyes and his hand snapped around her face, forcing her to look at him again. Her expression was calm, peaceful, abnormal to her captors given the circumstance. "Look at me, bitch!" Tom snarled, "Whatever you used to do, forget it! Whoever you used to be, forget it! You belong to us now. You're ours."

He let go and she bowed her head, loose strands of hair dangling down over her face. "You got that wrong." she replied calmly, stealing the smiles from their faces.

"Wanna run that by us again, sweet thing?" asked Tom.

"I'm not yours..." she replied at a whisper, peering up at him with eyes black as coal, "You're mine." Without warning, she dropped to her back, kicking her legs up over his shoulders. She hooked her left foot around the back of his head, pressing her right foot against his right cheek. With one sharp twist, his neck snapped and he fell to the floor, giving her enough time to snatch up his knife and begin sawing away at the tape around her wrists. Mike came at her, raising his foot to stomp her out. Before his foot came down, she rolled on her side and all his boot landed on was the upturned point of the knife. He cried out and dropped to the floor, convulsing in agony. The girl ripped the tape the rest of the way and slashed the third man's hand clean off, introducing his Adam's apple to his spinal column with one swift punch.

She walked around the corner and glared out a window to see an SUV parked under a tree outside. There was a nail in the wall with a key ring dangling from it. She took the keys and found the one for the crates, unlocking each one as scarred, miserable women crawled out. "Take the car." she said, tossing one of the girls the keys.

"Th-thank you." she replied weakly.

"Don't." Jade said sternly. The girls turned and ran for the door.

Mike dragged himself across the floor, his foot bleeding out and trickling through the floor boards. He was brought to a halt as Jade's foot pressed down on his back, pinning him down. "You think this is right?" she asked sharply, "You think that something gives you the right to treat people like this? You did not expect wrath to fall upon you for what you've done?"

"Crazy... c-crazy broad." Mike stammered.

"There are consequences to your actions. The more heinous the crime, the more brutal my retribution. I have spent my entire life seeking vengeance on one man. I know now that defeating him will take patience. In that time, I can allow myself to excercise my fury..." she paused and admired the knife in her hand, "On people like you."

The aura of silence surrounding the cabin was broken by the far-reaching echo of a man's screams.

BALTIMORE

Jade stood atop a building, overlooking the night-swept cityscape, dressed in her true form of black, the red lens over her right eye giving her the sight of her own personal devil. She kept a firm grip on her yumi bow, eight arrows strapped to her back. The encounter in the woods had stoked the already furious fires of her contempt. She was rebuilding in the wake of her defeat at the hands of Longshot, gathering resources, making allies. It was time to get to work.

"Well you're not the easiest person to track down..."

Jade's eyes darted to their corners and she spun around to face the man in the dark, simultaneously drawing an arrow and aiming for his throat in a single fluid motion. "There is a reason for that." she snarled.

The man raised one hand in a gesture of peace, the other on his utility belt. "Easy, I'm just a fan I guess you could say." Charles leaned up against a wall. "I saw the work you did, down the road."

The archer's eyes narrowed and her grip on the arrow waned. "Speak your point or speak no more." she retorted impatiently.

"Well I have two points, first why'd you do it?" Charles looked around making sure no one was watching.

The serpent lowered her bow, but did not fully withdraw her threatening stance as she asked, "What do you mean?"

"I understand punishing them, freeing yourself." He began to circle her, "But, freeing all the women, all of it just makes me ask why did you do it?"

"Three wicked men are dead." Jade snapped, keeping her gaze on the man as he paced around her, "Does my motivation really matter?"

He stopped abruptly in front of her, his voice was a little more aggressive as he asked, "What or who gave you the right to kill them?"

"By acting as evil men do, they permitted their own demise.", she replied with an iron resolve.

"So you believe you can do whatever you want as long as it's the right thing to do?" Charles stared at the woman, returning her intensity in kind.

Jade turned from the man, looking out over the city. She thought of the little girl bathed in blood, the shadow of death that loomed over her, fleeing the scene of his atrocity. Every day, the evils of the world were doing the same thing a thousand times over, and a thousand times again. Every day, they created people like her, victims spared the pain of death and given the agony of living with the scars. She would never stop hunting her own demon, but if she could destroy others before they did their damage, than perhaps, she could save others from this hollow life of hers. They would never have to hunt, never have to hunger and writhe in misery, they would never have to be cold. "I have all the justification I need." she whispered, not turning to face him, "It is no concern of yours."

He tried to place his hand on her shoulder, "Trust me, I understand." Jade exploded at the touch, putting a knife to his throat. Charles remained stoic, keeping eye contact with her until her grip on the knife loosened. To end it all, he finally gave her his final reason, "I'm forming a group. If you're interested we're trying to end people like that... so people won't end up like us."

The archer lowered her knife, running her fingers through her air in contemplation. Without a sound, the man was gone, leaving Jade with her thoughts. This went against everything she knew. She had no time for distractions. She would hunt Longshot to the ends of the Earth, she would never rest until he finally fell to his knees and succumbed to her wrath. But perhaps, if she were to join this 'group', she could make the allies so desperately needed to ensure victory. Until then, every wicked soul who fell to her arrows would wear his face, every drop of blood spilled would be his, and every victim saved would live the life she could have had... had someone been there for her.

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Serpent Rising

White. All the eye could see was swallowed in a torrent of biting, frozen white. The winds howled, wiping away any chance one could have of seeing their hand in front of them. A figure arose from the icy winds, body rapped in a parka, nowhere near enough to protect them from the cold. She carried in her arms a wooden box, and trudged through the waist-deep snow, pausing every five steps to breathe. There was a lapse in the wind. Not much, just enough to make the traveler's surroundings clear. She looked to the mountain pass up ahead, a small stone building billowing smoke from its chimney. She kicked out the snow directly in front of her, but before she could take another step, she heard something over the wind, "Tsk, tsk, tsk..."

The traveler spun around to see her master standing before her in the trench she had dug for herself, winding all the way down the mountainside. He wore black robes which clashed with his long white hair. "You choose destruction to achieve your goals, even peaceful ones." said the master. He didn't seem to mind the cold, despite being even more poorly clad than her.

"The criticism is getting tiresome, old man." she hissed, continuing to force herself through the snow. The man simply laughed. "Stubbornness is not a trait of the strong, child." he said calmly, watching her labor through the banks of powder, "And why do you walk through the snow?"

The girl sighed angrily, "And what other options would I have?" She got her answer as her sempai casually strolled over the surface of the snow beside her, not sinking even an inch into the tall powder as he passed her by, walking with his arms folded behind his back towards the house. She simply watched in astonishment as he did. After a moment of rest, she continued.

By nightfall, the girl arrived at the steps of the house. Her teacher was waiting for her. Apparently, he had been standing there all this time, given how much snow was heaped on his shoulders. She groaned weakly and collapsed on the steps before her master. "You strive to make things harder than they should be, don't you?" he asked.

"Please..." the student sighed, "I haven't eaten in days... just let me go to bed without the lecture."

"Come now, don't you care what is in that box you walked all the way down to the village to retrieve, and carried all the way back?"

"Not particularly." she grumbled.

The master bent down and snatched the wooden box from her, helping her up to her feet. She pulled down her hood, revealing the young, slender face of a vengeful soul, draped in long, raven hair the same dismal shade as her heart. Her expression was listless and cold. The man held out the box. "You should." he said, opening the lid, "After all, how are we to eat... without the appropriate untensils?" Her eyes lit up as she looked down and saw the contents of the box, two pairs of chop sticks.

Inside, the two sat across from each other on the floor. She had done away with her damp, cold clothes. She wore only her black undershirt and pants. The undershirt had no sleeves, and one could easily see the furious red serpent etched into her young skin by old ink. The master and the student sat in silence and ate. He patiently lifted the noodles to his mouth and ate slowly while she ferociously devoured her food. He watched with a quaint smile on his face.

"Why do you laugh, sempai?" she asked bitterly.

"I enjoy laughing." he replied, continuing to eat.

"I don't."

The master wiped his lip and set his bowl on the ground. She looked down at the empty bowl, baffled as to how he had finished before her. He folded his hands and looked at her. "Why are you here, child?" the teacher asked. She drank the rest of her noodles and set down her bowl. She averted her eyes and answered plainly, "I wish to kill a man."

The master furrowed his brow. "Kill a man? For what reason?"

"Revenge." she answered in the same cold monotone.

The teacher recoiled as if the word had left a bitter taste in his mouth. "Revenge. That is an ugly word, child, and it represents something far uglier. Revenge has no place in the world. It destroys, not only the victim, but the vindicator."

"Perhaps I wish to destroy. Perhaps I don't care if I am destroyed as well."

"Your anger is poisoning you, child. What could one man do to infect your mind with such unwavering hunger for vengeance?"

"He could take everything from me." she snarled.

"And who is this man? Who have I been training you to kill all this time?"

The girl reached into her pocket and drew a tattered piece of yellowed paper. She unfolded it and looked with heavy heart at the image inscribed on it, then passed it to her teacher. He looked over the image, a drawing of chaotic dark inks laid to paper by painful memories. Together, the dashing lines formed the character of a man, clad in a jacket and mask. Across his chest were four straps, joining in a round crest with the symbol of an arrow on it, and over his back was slung a full quiver. His mask was featureless aside from the two eyes, and one of them was large, round and red. The red ink had been pressed to the paper with the grooves of the artist's own fingerprint. It was blood. "Ah..." the teacher said at last, "He has been here."

"What?!" the girl snapped, almost jumping to her feet.

"Yes. He arrived on my doorstep one year ago. He was far more disciplined than you, but he carried a heart just as heavy."

"What do you mean?"

"He confessed to me his story. Each word was painful to him. He said that he had become overwhelmed with remorse for his crimes. He wished for me to set him on the path to redemption. I taught him everything I could and sent him off to my colleague, Akube of Bandari for further guidance in his rebirth. After all, I am more a fighter than I am a spiritualist."

The calm was broken as the girl's bowl crashed against the stone wall, shattering. "Fool!" she cried, "You knew who he was, and you let him slip through your fingers!"

"He has changed. I told you--"

"He lied! He is a serpent, that's his way! A creature like him can't be redeemed. I know what he really is, and I will hunt him down whether you help me or not!"

The master was silent. He listened to her frantic, angry breathing. "What if you are wrong?" he whispered.

"What did you say?!" she bellowed.

"Perhaps he is not the monster you have cast him as in your mind, the soulless demon who stole from you everything you loved. Maybe it is time to let go of your hatred and allow yourself a happy life." he looked up at her solemnly as he said, "Maybe it is time to forgive."

The young girl stepped back from her teacher. She looked away and thought carefully, eyes closing determinedly as she reached her decision.

Standing on the snow just as he had shown her, the girl looked back at the old house and lifted the hood of her parka as it erupted into flames. She walked down the dark path, the house burning like a torch to light her way. She never looked back.

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The Serpent Lies In Wait

In a dark hideaway, beneath the bustling city and the crowded streets, only a single light could be seen. A small fire burned on the concrete floor, and on the edge of its aura, on the brink of its warmth, sat a woman clad in black robes, her raven hair tied behind her head in a long tail. Scars were veiled in shadow. Rage was buried by meditation. Her nostrils began to flare, and for the first time in three months, two weeks, six days, she opened her eyes. They caught the glimmering of the flame, and she touched her hands to the cold floor. She had been meditating for so long, fasting, healing. When she had come here, her mind was clouded, confused in the wake of her defeat. Now, her thoughts were clear, a straight arrow of razor sharp determination. She knew what had to be done.

The darkly clad lady rose up and cast off the robes, dropping them to the floor and revealing her black clothing, her mask draped down around her neck, her tan arms covered in red ink in the form of a serpent. Her slender hands turned into fists. She stepped over the flame and walked into the darkness. There, she picked up a parcel and dragged it back into the dim light of the fire where she laid it down, a quiver of eight neatly aligned arrows. She bent down and ripped something from it, a photograph, the picture of a man clad in red and black and gold, with a gray mask, and a single red eye that crept into her vision whenever she closed her eyes. The picture was taken at a distance, Longshot obviously being unaware of the photographers presence. "I am coming, demon." she said, casting the picture into the fire. As it crumpled up and burned, she pulled her mask up over her mouth, and placed something on her eye. She pressed her finger to it and the eyepiece began to flicker, glowing a steady red. She turned and walked away from the fire, whispering to herself, "I am coming for you.

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