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To the Victor...
Chapter 1:  Angel of the Mourn
By Tog

For her fifth birthday, Angela had the party children dream of.  She was surrounded by friends and family.  There was a clown, and a pony, and all manner of games.  It was perfect.

On her sixth birthday, there was only family and a few friends.  It was not a great birthday, or even an adequate one.  At least, not to the young girl who remembered the last one.  She had no idea what changed.  It’s unlikely that she would have understood anyway.  She had only been three when she met her great grandmother.  To a six year old, the death of a distant relative is no more tragic than the breaking of a forgotten toy.  Still, her parents didn’t feel a big party the following week was in order.  Deep in her mind an association was formed.

Her seventh, eighth, and ninth birthdays had much more in common with her sixth.  They were marked with a feeling of isolation and longing.  This was not due to the death of a family member, but to the work schedules of both of her parents.  They worked long hours and, though they spent as much time as they could with her in the evenings, she felt alone.  The elderly housekeeper saw to her needs as well as could be expected, but was not a nanny or governess, and didn’t feel it was her duty to entertain the girl.

Angela’s mood became more depressed when her parents had to forbid her from bringing over friends while they were out.  There had been a rumor that the girl taken from a play date at a house up the street had been taken by a man posing as the father of one of the other kids.  Eventually, her parents’ schedules, and their reluctance to let her go to a friend’s house without escort, cut her off from most of the other kids in the area.  She spent many long hours alone in her room.

Her tenth birthday was a good one.  Her parents had bought her a puppy for company.  They stressed to her that it was her responsibility to care for the dog, but she was thrilled to have a playmate.  Unconditional love means different things to different people.  She knew her parents loved her, but the love they showed was often annoying and constrictive.  The puppy was different.  It loved her, unconditionally, with every single act.

Life went on, and she spent a great deal of time in her room with her dog.  Sparks had grown into a beautiful Irish setter, with long red fur that shimmered like distant firelight.  She was still unhappy, but she was not really lonely.  The best present she was given on her eleventh birthday was a music box.  When it was opened, a tiny little ballerina would twirl about on her toes.  One day while Angela was imagining how it must be to be that ballerina, adored by fans, and loved by friends, she broke down crying.  She had no idea what could be causing these feelings, but she could not repress them either.  In her sorrow, she went back to one of her old pastimes.  As long as she could remember, she had watched the flame from a candle when she felt down.  Something beautiful about the single flame put her at ease.  She would watch it for hours at a time and become lost in the flickering light.

On the day of her breakdown, she got out a long taper candle and lit it.  She watched the flame dance about and let her mind drift away.  It was the barking of Sparks that roused her from her daze.  As her eyes refocused, she could see the little ballerina twirling about on the tip of the candle.  No, that wasn’t right.  She looked closer and saw the ballerina was really the flame of the candle.  The flame was actually the shape of a ballerina!  As soon as she realized this, the flame collapsed back to its normal shape.  The more she thought about it, the more she thought she had imagined the whole thing.  She kept the candle in her room and lit it often.  There seemed to be more and more need to do so.  On at least three more occasions she thought she saw the flame take the form of a dancer.  Convinced there was no way she could have imagined it, she set about trying to shape the flame.  Many weeks passed with no luck.  Her confidence shaken, she once again slipped into depression, and the ballerina sprang up upon the wick.  That was the key.  Only in her darkest hours would the tiny dancer form to guide her.  She got a few more candles and was soon able to focus her thoughts well enough to make them all dance.  Sometimes they would be in perfect synch, other times she would have them re-enact complete ballets.  She added fire to the short list of people and things that loved her unconditionally.

Her twelfth birthday was a good one.  There were few people there, but those in attendance were most welcome.  A few months later she pulled her mother aside, and explained that the change her mother had talked to her about last year had come.  She was becoming a woman.  Her mother began to cry and hugged her tightly.  Again she felt loved.

The next day, her father came into her room, and said it was time for Sparks to deliver her pups.  Angela ran down to the little shed they had set up as a nursery, and watched as her parents gently brought three little, red puppies into the world.  Then something went wrong.  During the birth of the fourth pup, there was a sudden flood of blood.  Angela’s dad tried to send her away, but she said she would never leave her friend.  Her mother called the vet as her dad tried hard to stop the bleeding.  Sparks last act on earth was to lean up and give Angela one gentle lick on the cheek.  Angela looked down and said, “I will”.  With that, Sparks slipped away.  There were only the three pups.  There was no more Sparks.

Angela bent down and gave her friend one last kiss on the forehead, told her parents that she was going for a walk around the house and quietly left the room.  They agreed it was best to give her some space, and tended to the newborns.  In the back yard, she let the images of the last few minutes wash over her.  Sparks had been with her a very short time, but it was during that time that she had discovered her control over fire.  Sparks was the only other living creature that knew.  She did know.  She understood.  Angela was sure of this.  It was the only way to explain the voice in her head as her friend slipped away. 

“Be strong.  I’ll still be with you.  Care for my babies and look for me when you dream.”

When she finally returned to the house, she built a fire in the fireplace and sat in front of it in the dark.  Her parents went to bed; leaving her to grieve in solitude.  When she was sure they had gone to sleep, she focused on her memories of Sparks.  There in the flames was the face of her friend.  She knew she was shaping the fire herself, but it was a comfort all the same.

The next morning was a rainy one.  It didn’t do much to take the mind of the household off of the previous night’s tragedy.  Angela came down to breakfast, ate nothing, and took her bike out for a ride in the rain.  Her mother had all but forbidden her to go out in that weather, but finally gave in at a touch from her husband’s fingertips.  Angela rode around for about 30 minutes and finally came to a stop near a vacant lot.  She pedaled off though the wet grass, weeds, and mud until she found a spot that would serve her purpose.  She leaned a bike up against a tree, walked to the middle of the clearing, took out a candle and lit it.  She formed the tiny flame into the head of Sparks and stared at it for several minutes.  Here, away from the house, she allowed herself to cry.  It was a good cry, and it had been a long time coming.  Through the tears, she could see the flame of the candle was its normal shape again.  She tried in vain to reshape it, but to no avail.  Feeling she had lost her friend once more, slowly walked her bike home, went up to her room and cried all afternoon.

Dinner that night was a blur.  She only came down to avoid having to make up an excuse.  She ate whatever it was to make her mother happy and then retired to her room once more.  That night Sparks came to her in a dream.  That was all she could remember and it made things seem worse somehow.

Over the next few years, she began to develop her ability to manipulate flame.  It seemed easiest to do when she was dwelling on an unpleasant loss, and became impossible if she gave in to the sorrow and started to cry.  As she grew, she gained more focus and control over her unique skill.  She never told anyone about it.  The feelings needed to control the flame were best felt alone.  Sparks still came to her, and the three pups were now grown and seemed unnaturally attached to her.

Shortly after her 17th birthday, she was driving home from school when an explosion rocked the car.  She looked around quickly for any sign of danger and found a chemical warehouse to her left had just sent a plume of flame nearly 90 feet into the air.  She pulled to the curb and ran toward the fire.  It was beautiful.  Huge pillars of deep orange with lighter tongues of brilliant yellow lit the street.  It was then that she noticed the people pouring out of the building though every exit, some covered flames.  She looked at the fire, then to the few people who were face down on the sidewalk, burnt and unmoving.  As emergency crews began to appear, she stood her ground, eyes focused on the blazing building, tears on the verge of rolling down her cheeks.

Of the 206 people in the building when the fire started, 9 were killed and 16 required treatment for burns.  These were among the first out of the building.  The rest all tell a similar story of the flames making a hallway, forcing them to go only one direction; to safety.  Many claim to have seen arrows in the fire along the walls as they made their way out.  At least half swear they followed a dog made of living flame to an exit.

She was not treated for anything at the scene, there was no need.  She did not appear to be injured in any way.  Her sorrow for those who had been hurt or killed before she could act ate at her.  She was injured.  She dwelled on the dead, knowing there was something she could have done to help them; to get to them sooner.  If she would have focused her thoughts faster, she may have been able to put out some of the fire, or force it off of those poor people. 

For months she dwelled on it.  Near the end of the summer, she was helping her father build some shelves when her end of the board slipped and he smashed his hand with the hammer.  She had been thinking about the fire and felt instantly embarrassed and sorry that her lapse in concentration had caused her father harm.  At that moment a green cloud pulsed out from around her, taking the pain away and repairing his hand.  Both were so shocked by what had just happened that neither could speak.  To this day, her father has never mentioned it.

Again, she locked herself in her room.  She thought about what might have happened and there was only one conclusion.  It must have been something in the fumes of the chemical fire that got bound up with her.  Then the months of agonizing over not being able to do more brought it to the surface.

Things were pretty uneventful for the rest of the school year.  She was now able to summon small puffs of flame from thin air with a thought, though they didn’t last very long.  She had graduated from high school and moved on to a local junior college.  There she made a few acquaintances, but no real friends.  Her classes all seemed very easy thanks to her nearly endless study time, and she learned a lot.  She finished with a two year degree and a list of options for a four year program out of state.  Things were going very well, and it had been months since had felt the need to light a candle.

The summer after graduation was spent preparing to head north to a school in Tennessee.   In mid-August the heat was unbearable and the humidity was taking its toll.  Several people around town had died from it.  When the city heat rises, tempers generally follow.  People tend to be on edge, and quick to anger.  Such was the case that Tuesday night.  Angela was coming out of a little market with a soda and some chips when a sound around the back caught her attention.  She carefully moved to the end of the little alleyway where she saw a woman, not much older than herself, arguing with a man.  Suddenly, the man pulled his hand back, the woman covered her head and made a tiny, squeaking noise, and Angela thought of Sparks. 

The woman was still waiting for the blow to land, when Angela grabbed her arm.  The two went off to the end of the alley and watched as the man, still engulfed in a cloud of ash and smoke, fought for air.  Angela escorted the woman back to her car and she drove off.  When the man recovered he saw Angela with her back to him.  He grabbed a bit of brick that was lying on the ground and threw it at her.  The blow was completely unexpected and it stunned her for a moment.  When she recovered, he was standing over her with a large section of pipe.  As he raised the pipe to finish her off, she thought back on her life.  She realized that she had spent so much of it alone, and that here, alone in a parking lot, was a fitting end.  As she closed her eyes to await the end, a cloud of soot and smoke in the form of a flame red dog pounced on the man.  He was powerless against it, but fought until his consciousness faded.  Angela ran off and made her way home, thinking about what had happened.

Later that night, news from Paragon City hit her in a way it had never done before.  Her destiny was clear.  Her mind was set.  School could wait.  She set off to the north, secure in the knowledge that she would forever be surrounded with misery and sorrow; enough, hopefully, to make a difference in the world.

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