It was that time of year when the air was just starting to get cool, but not enough to constitute a proper winter. Temperatures were dropping so gradually that no one really noticed. But nobody was paying attention to the weather that day because of the dragon. It rather did catch one's attention.
The beast was huge and dirty-grey; the color of smoke and storm clouds, and it was large enough to carry away a rhinoceros in its claws. It was perched atop the Argent City Central Library, clutching the top of the building defensively.
A ball of fire hit the dragon's side, which was slightly more effective than throwing spears at a freight train. Trying to hit the monster's rider was a lost cause—such a distant target, so small compared to the reptilian colossus.
"It's not working!" Tirade shouted, ducking back behind the cover of a building. "Can't you blind it or something?"
"It's too big," White Noise replied. "It'd be like trying to blind you with the light shining off a bit of glitter."
"And the army?" Tirade asked, glancing across the plaza at the artillery and anti-air guns, still behind the cover of buildings.
White Noise shook his head. "If the artillery come out from cover long enough to get a shot, they'll get roasted first. And bombing it would cause too much collateral damage. Not that we're even sure that'd work."
Just then, White Noise's wrist communicator bleeped. He hit the receive button.
"Tell me you have some good news," he said.
"I'll be there in thirty seconds," Paragon said. "I just need a distraction."
"Got it," White Noise said, and ended the call. He told the commanding officer, then the other heroes at the scene.
"Are you ready?" he asked Tirade. "It's show time."
A volley of fire balls, energy beams, and plasma shots flew at the monster from all sides.
It shot a burst of flaming stomach acid from its mouth at one masked hero, but he took cover behind a building, safe from the monster's napalm breath. It turned its attention to another, but this one vanished into thin air immediately. As it looked from one target to another, it became more and more frustrated, and it growled angrily. Then without warning, the air was filled with the sound of heavy gunfire. The artillery had come out from hiding and peppered the dragon with heavy fire. It roared in pain and rage. The beast's rider clung tightly to the saddle as it reared up.
It prepared another burst of flaming acid, ready to reduce them all to jumbo-sized paper weights.
Then suddenly, the dragon seemed to hear something—or it was warned by its rider—and turned its head around, just in time to see Paragon hurdling through the air directly at it, great sword in hand, poised to cut down any enemy of the city.
The dragon's head moved like a snake's and, in a snap, Paragon disappeared; the silver sword could be seen falling to the ground from where its owner had been.
There was a collective gasp from everyone watching, and for a second, it seemed whole world fell silent.
But the dragon seemed to be having trouble swallowing its catch. When its mouth started opening against its will, it looked entirely baffled.
Paragon stood, straining to expand the barrier around him, forcing the giant's mouth open.
The dragon bit down harder, using its incredible reptilian strength to close down on the bubble.
Then, the fire came. The flaming stomach acid erupted from the dragon's throat, putting more strain on the force field. But Paragon was nothing if not obstinate, and the only thing stronger than his energy shield was his determination, and he willed the force field to hold out against both the crushing force from above and below, and the burning, corrosive bile that assailed him from behind. But he knew that even he could not hold up against such punishment indefinitely.
Again, the army opened fire. But the rider had lost interest in the previous objective, and ordered the beast to climb. It spread its enormous wings and took off into the air.
The tug-o-war between Paragon and the dragon continued, neither able to best the other. It seemed to be a stalemate.
"I'll give you... one last chance..." Paragon managed to say under the strain.
In response, the dragon shook its head.
"Right, then," he said. "Maybe next time... you'll remember... not to bite off... more than... you... can..."
In an instant, Paragon dropped the force field and ducked down as the flying sword came in just over his head, and pierced the roof of the dragon's mouth, disappearing into its head.
The upward momentum of the beast slowed, then stopped. Its limp body began to plummet through the air back towards the ground. Paragon ran up the incline of the dragon's mouth, climbed over its teeth, and leapt out into the open air.
He stared down at the distant city beneath him, so much farther, it seemed, than he had expected. As he continued to tumble through the sky in free-fall, he wondered if he had made a miscalculation in his plan.
He tried to find the sword's location mentally, but it was stuck. Just as he started to worry, the sword found its way back to him, albeit a good ten or fifteen seconds later than he was comfortable with. He connected to the blade by his magnetic boots and regained control of his descent just in time to avoid a landing like that of the creature.
The dragon fell to the ground, crashing into the park; its rider tumbling to the muddy earth below, either stunned or unconscious. Paragon descended nearby, hopped down off the sword and faced the monstrous corpse and its former rider.
It wasn't long before the nearby heroes reached the scene and gathered around the gargantuan corpse. It definitely did catch the eye—no less so dead than alive. Then they saw the rider lying on the ground, just recovering from the crash.
"Now's our chance!" exclaimed Tirade. He ran at the fallen rider; fist cocked back, ready to strike the enemy. As he closed the gap, he managed to run head-long into a semi-invisible barrier. He rebounded off the wall, staggered back in a daze, and toppled over backwards.
Paragon dismissed the force field. Ignoring the outcry of his peers, he went to where Sycorax lay.
"Are you alright?" he asked.
"Go away," she grumbled, not lifting her face from the mud.
"Come now, there's no reason to be like that."
She turned and looked up at him. With recognition, her anger gave way to shame.
"Don't look at me," she mumbled, hiding her face. "I don't want you to see me like this."
"I don't care if you're a little muddy. I just need to know that you're okay."
She sat up, but faced away from him; her knees pulled up to her chin.
"I'm fine," she snapped, and tried to wipe some mud from her arm.
"Pretend for a moment that it's just us two," he began. "No one else can hear you, or talk to you, or touch you."
She glanced over her shoulder at him. He continued.
"You don't actually have to pretend-- they literally can't."
Looking around, she saw the other heroes and military personnel gathered around the barrier, some pounding on the bubble, some shouting threats and demands that could not reach her.
He walked over to her side.
"Stop," she said. "You'll just get dirty, too."
He deliberately sat right in a puddle of mud next to her.
"Your costume!" she exclaimed.
He brushed away the remark without concern.
"Don't worry about it," he said. "It doesn't stain."
"Okay, you've made your point. So what is this all about?"
"A hero's job is to stop a villain," he explained to her. "To fight, to foil, to capture. We're not here to humiliate or assault. When people like Tirade, or worse yet-- Retribution-- lash out violently at a helpless opponent, they cross a line that should never be crossed. They don't represent us. That's not what we're truly about."
"Shouldn't you tell this to him then?"
"I have, and I will again." He lay back, not caring about the mud in the slightest.
"Isn't that going to mess up all your fancy equipment?" she asked, indicating his boots and other power gear.
"No, it's fine," he said. Then, after a moment's silence, "I'm sorry about the dragon."
She shrugged. "You gotta do what you gotta do, right?" Despite her show of apathy, he could see how much the loss affected her.
They sat there for a while without talking. One of the officers drew a pistol and tried to shoot the force field. At this, Sycorax flinched in surprise, and Paragon chuckled. It was even less effective than throwing a fireball at a dragon.
Eventually, Paragon broke the silence.
"Why don't we get out of here?" he suggested, standing up. "Get you cleaned up and find you a safe place to go."
"Why are you doing all this? Why do you even care?"
"Because you're not all bad-- not deep inside." She was about to argue, but he spoke first. "What do you say? It's me or them. Your choice."
She looked around for a moment, then nodded. "Okay. So, what's the plan?"
"First, we have to get out of here."
He went to her and picked her up in his arms.
"Whoa!" she said in sudden, but not unpleasant surprise.
He stopped, but she nodded for him to continue.
"Right then," he said. "Hold on tight."
He jumped up, the force field went down, and he landed on the flying sword's blade just as it flew by, and it took them up into the air.
"Step one, check. Step two: clean up."
They kept rising until they reached some low-altitude clouds. It wasn't long before moisture in the air washed the mud from them, and the winds of high velocity whipped them dry.
"Step two, check. Step three: safe place."
"There's no need to hurry," she said to him. "I'm enjoying this."
"Very well," he replied, and the flying blade slowed its pace as the landscape rolled by beneath them.
He looked down at her, and she looked up at him.
"What?" she asked, trying not to smile.
"Photon's an idiot."
She rested her head on his shoulder, snuggling up to the crook of his neck.
Some time later, they descended and the sword came to a stop a few inches above the ground.
"Are you awake?" he asked quietly as he stepped down.
"Yes," she whispered, though he couldn't tell if she actually had been or not.
He set her back on her feet, and she looked at him.
"'Here'?" she asked.
"Step three:" he reminded her, "find a safe place for you to stay."
She turned around.
"Hm. Argent City Asylum," she noted. "I was expecting your place, but I suppose I can't complain, can I?"
"That's the spirit. Now, be a good girl, okay?"
She nodded, facing him again. Looking over her shoulder, she could see asylum personnel approaching fast.
"Tell you what. I will let you turn me in-- and make no mistake about it: I am allowing you do this. But what kind of nemesis would I be if I let you get off without a hitch? I'm going to make this victory cost you." She smiled, a look of sly cunning crossed her face.
"And just how are you planning to do that?" he asked, his tone both confident and skeptical.
She took his face in her hands, and kissed him. After the initial surprise, he reached out without thinking and pulled her closer to him.
They were interrupted when the asylum guards pulled her away from him and bound her in anti-magic osmium locks. Soon, other heroes began arriving.
"Well, good job capturing Sycorax," admitted Maddoc, hero and owner of the asylum as he approached, "but what the hell was that!"
However, Paragon was only half listening to him. He watched as they lead Sycorax away. She looked back over her shoulder at him with something akin to regret in her eyes. There was no fear of imprisonment, only a reluctance to be separated.
Maddoc waved a hand in front of Paragon's face. “Hey, Paragon! You there?”
"What?" Paragon asked, snapping back to attention.
“You alright?,” Maddoc asked, looking from him to where Sycorax was being escorted into the asylum. “Is this going to be a problem?”
"Ah, no. Ha ha. She just caught me off guard. That's all." He put a hand to his chest. His heart was racing. "I'm fine."
Thank you for reading chapter 2 of Hero's Dilemma! I hope you're enjoying it!
Feedback, questions, comments, and constructive criticism are welcome and appreciated
Feedback, questions, comments, and constructive criticism are welcome and appreciated