It was late that night, well past eleven, and the year's last remnants of snow crunched underfoot as Doctor Oliver Carlson hurried home.
"Never take short cuts", he'd always said before. "If you know a certain route, take it. It might take longer, but that's a fair price for certainty." He applied this philosophy not only to literal travel, but to his work, his personal life, and almost everything else, as well. But on that night, he disregarded his own advice as he climbed into the old abandoned warehouse through an open window. "Why go around?" he thought to himself. "It's as wide as a city block, and nobody even owns it anymore." He had gone around countless times before, but on that night he was in a great hurry. That night, delays could not be tolerated.
The inside was one enormous room. Once full of industry and working men, the place had since been left empty, save for the support pillars and a few abandoned packaging machines. He could see a window on the far side, and hurried towards it.
There was never anyone in the old warehouse. No one ever bothered.
And yet, on that night, there was.
"Where ya goin', old man?" came a gruff voice from behind.
Carlson turned and saw a burly, disheveled man in a heavy winter coat. Carlson was only in his late forties and took personal offense at the remark.
He turned away from the brute, planning on making a break for the window, but he then found another man blocking that escape route. This one was taller and leaner than the first, wearing an unfriendly grin.
"What's in the briefcase?" asked the first, approaching his quarry.
"It's... it's nothing." Carlson said, grasping it defensively. "Just leave me alone. I don't have anything you want."
"You know what?" asked the second, also drawing nearer. "Now I'm curious. Why don't we take a look."
The briefcase he held contained his life's work, and it meant more to him than any amount of money. He looked around in a panic, desperately trying to find some miraculous escape from the peril in which he found himself.
But sometimes the escape finds you.
"Hey! Stop right there!" shouted a voice from behind the bigger man. All three looked to see who had spoken, and found a woman wearing a blue, pink, and orange costume climbing in through the same window Carlson had entered by. Once fully inside, she stood upright and struck a heroic pose. She looked to be about six feet tall, yet slight of build.
The big man sneered at her. "It's one of 'dem meddlin' heroes."
"Yeah," said the lanky one, though a shade less confidently. "One of them Defenders of Justice guys, I guess."
"Justice Team!" she snapped. "I'm a member of Justice Team! Defenders of Justice is a different group entirely!"
The taller man nodded, and said to his partner-in-crime, "that's that one up-start team that's been tryin' to make a name for themselves. I saw 'em on the news the other day. Bunch of newbies is all they are, though."
Looking like a pouting child, she pointed at him and a narrow beam of light shone from her fingertip. In midair, the ray refracted as if through an invisible prism, shining colored rays directly into both his eyes.
He covered his eyes and fell to the ground. “I can't see!” he shouted. “I can't see a thing!”
The other man began to pull a gun from inside his coat, and immediately received a double-dose of the same treatment, yielding similar results.
"And the name is Prism," she informed them as they crawled about on the ground. Then, to Carlson, "you'd better get going."
He nodded nervously, and ran across to the far window. He climbed out and disappeared into the night.
As she gathered the weapons and went to follow Carlson-- she could see that his ability to avoid misfortune was clearly lacking-- she heard the bigger man get back to his feet.
"You... you..." he muttered, squinting teary eyes.
"'Me... me...' what?" Prism replied, sounding unimpressed.
Fists clenched, he ran clumsily at her. Or rather, in her general direction. The afterimage was still confusing his perception.
She sighed, and pointed at him as if her finger were the barrel of a gun. As her fingertip began to glow brightly, the man was suddenly enveloped in a burst of smoke.
Prism almost jumped in surprise, and stared at the scene. After a moment, she looked at her still-glowing finger, as though she might find the answer there.
When she looked back, the last of the smoke was dissipating into the air. Where the man had been was only a pile of clothes and a fat, scruffy-furred rat.
"Who's there?" Prism asked out loud, scanning her surroundings; a light beam at the ready.
There was another puff of smoke, and the second man was changed into a rodent as well.
Out from the shadows, stepped the sorceress Sycorax.
Prism gasped and aimed a brightly glowing finger at her. "Don't move!" she commanded, feigning confidence.
"Relax," said the witch. "I come in peace." She held up her hands in front of her. This was merely a symbolic gesture, as being unarmed meant nothing to a master of the mystical arts.
"What do you want?" Prism asked.
"I just have a favor to ask of you," the sorceress said. She looked at the rats, and threw a tiny ball of fire at one of them, singeing its tail. They both scampered and squeezed under a door to the outside.
"Oh. Is that all?" Prism replied, though she kept her finger aimed. "Sure, I can help out. You can tell me all about it on the way to the asylum."
As if out of nowhere, a mirror appeared a couple of feet in front of Sycorax's face. Prism fired the light beam, and it split into an array of colored lights that, once past the mirror, rebounded again, directly into the witch's eyes.
Sycorax staggered back as Prism pressed a button on her wrist communicator.
"HQ, this is Prism! I need--!"
With a wave of the sorceress's hand, there was a burst of smoke, and the transmission ended.
Casting a spell of recovery, Sycorax began regaining proper eye sight. She blinked her eyes a few times as she approached the fading smoke cloud. She kicked the com-unit aside, then reached into the brightly colored heap of costume and pulled out a green, long-limbed tree frog.
"That one's always been a favorite amongst my kind," Sycorax said to Prism. "It's a classic, don't you think?"
Prism stared at her, wide-eyed, and made a squeaky sort of ribbit.
"This spell will wear off soon. When it does, be a dear and give this letter to Paragon, would you?" She reached out with one hand and seemed to pluck an envelope from thin air, and set it down next to the costume. "Could you do that for me?"
The frog hesitated. It wasn't easy for a frog to look skeptical, but she managed decently well.
"I suppose it's no secret that I... you know... like him. So rest assured--It's not going to hurt him. I just need to give him a message."
Contemplative wasn't any easier than skeptical, but she got the point across.
"Could you do this? Please?" Her casual tone had given way for one of reluctant, yet open sincerity. "If not for me, then for him. It's very important."
The frog hesitated, but finally nodded.
"It's magically sealed, by the way," Sycorax said, her tone casual once again, "so don't even think of trying to open it yourself, or keeping it from him. Got it?"
Again, the frog nodded.
"Thanks a million. It really means a lot to me," Sycorax said. She gave the frog a pat on the head, and set her down by the costume, next to the envelope.
"Oh! I almost forgot!" She then set another envelope next to the first. "While you're at it, could you give this one to Photon Man?"
The familiar bleep of his wrist communicator alerted Paragon of an incoming call.
"Paragon here," he said as he answered it.
But instead of a face appearing on screen, he was presented with an image that was half cement and half brick work.
"Um... hi. It’s me, Prism," came the reply, presumably from behind the communicator’s camera. "I need to see you about something. Can we meet somewhere? It's important. I think."
"Very well. What’s the matter?" he asked, already using the wrist-com tracker to head in her direction.
"I just ran into Sycorax, and she wants me to give you this letter."
"Sycorax?" he said, not meaning to interrupt. "How did she escape the asylum?"
"I don’t know," Prism replied. "I’m sorry. I really tried, but she got away, and--"
"It’s fine, don’t worry about it," he reassured her. "Are you alright? You’re not hurt, are you?"
"I’m fine," she said.
He could hear some kind of shuffling movement just behind her wrist-com’s camera.
"I can’t see you," he said, tapping the screen of his communicator as he landed and approached the door of the old warehouse.
"Yeah. I’m getting dressed."
"You’re… what?" he said, his hand stopping over the doorknob.
"Long story short, I was turned into a frog. I’ll explain later, just, are you coming or not?"
"I’m right outside," he said. "Do you need a moment?"
"Ah, yeah," she answered. "Just one second... Okay, now you can come in."
The door knob rattled briefly, but it was locked. Instead of forcing his way in, he climbed in through a nearby window. It was an entrance less impressive and dignified, but needless property damage wasn’t his preferred method of entry.
"Good of you to show up," she said to him as she finished adjusting her suit. Her gloves, wrist com, and an envelope, lay on the ground nearby, which she gathered as she spoke.
"Of course," was his reply. "Now, you said something about a--"
He was interrupted by her wrist-com, which started bleeping as soon as she picked it up.
"Hello~!" she answered in a manner that was cheerful, but not entirely professional.
Photon Man's face appeared on screen. In the background was the interior of the photon jet’s cockpit. The vehicle’s quiet rumble was just enough for Prism to hear. "You alright? We got your signal, but there was an EMP, and, well, never mind. So what’s the buzz?"
"I’m fine now," she explained. "Paragon’s here."
"The big man himself?" He smiled slyly. "Should I leave you two alone, then?"
"It’s not like that," she told him. "Besides, I do need a ride back to base, and Paragon’s only seats one."
"Sure, I’ll be there ASAP."
"See ya," she said.
And with that, the call ended.
"So... the letter?" Paragon asked.
"Right." Prism nodded. "But it could be a trap, don'cha think? A bomb or something?"
"Can I see it?"
She handed him the envelope, and he examined it. "I don't think she'd do that. She doesn't hurt people without cause, and she’s had no reason to attack me."
Still, Prism took a few steps back, and Paragon opened the seal with his back to her.
But there was no explosion, no toxic smoke, no evil incantation: just a piece of paper, which he began to read in silence.
"What is it?" she asked.
"Hm..." he said as he continued reading.
"Well, what is it already?"
"She wants to pay for the damages she caused. You know, the dragon incident."
"Oh. That's nice, I suppose. I mean, it's better than nothing. If she's for real about it."
"I'm supposed to meet her at a specified location," he explained. "Come alone, no cops, etcetera. The usual."
"Well then that's probably a trap," Prism figured.
"Maybe." He nodded, but seemed doubtful.
"Should I come with you?" Prism asked hopefully. "I can watch your back."
"No, she said to come alone," he said, checking his wrist com.
"Oh, come on! I can help," he pleaded.
"I don't doubt your ability," he said, which was mostly true. "But it won't be necessary. Nothing's going to happen."
Prism crossed her arms. "What makes you so sure?"
"I just know," he told her.
"You," she began, and poked him in the chest with one finger, "are going to get yourself killed one day."
"No, I'm going to die peacefully in my bed at a hundred and five, surrounded by my closest friends and family."
"I hope you're right," she said, no longer joking.
"You worry too much," he said, giving her a friendly jab to the shoulder. Despite his great strength, he had the self-control to be surprisingly gentle.
"I know," she admitted. "Still, don’t let your guard down. You never know."
He nodded. "I’ll be careful."
"And look both ways before you cross the street." She smiled at her own joke, trying to cover the worry she couldn’t help but feel.
"Don't worry. Out of all of my nemeses, she's the one least likely to try something like that."
Lights flooded into the windows, and they both turned to see the photon jet landing outside; its rider stepped out and approached the building, leaning in the window that had so far served as the building’s primary entrance.
"Someone call for a ride?" Photon asked.
Prism waved. "One second!"
"Well, looks everything is settled here, so I’ll be on my way," Paragon said and went to the window. Photon gave him room to climb out.
Once Paragon had gone, Photon hooked a thumb over his shoulder as Prism came forward to exit as well. "What’s he up to?"
"I just had to give him a letter," she explained. At the mention of it, she lit up with recollection. "Oh! That reminds me!"
She ran back and picked up the second letter and handed it to Photon.
"There’s one for you, too."
"Why, thank you!" he said as he opened it. "I didn’t know it was Valentine’s Day."
"It’s not that kind of letter! And it’s not from me."
"Oh, too bad." He stopped. "Then, who is it from?"
He stared at her in surprise for a moment. "Sycorax?"
"Yeah. I mean, that’s what-- oh, you weren’t here when we were talking about that. Sorry."
Holding the envelope a little further from him as if it had a spider on it, he eyed it suspiciously.
"Well... nothing happened to Paragon’s," she informed him.
"Yeah, but we all know she's got a crush on him. Anyways, I’d rather--"
She didn’t find out what he’d rather, because the letter glowed for an instant, then enveloped him in a burst of bright orange smoke.
"I guess your letter was different," Prism suggested as the smoke began to fade.
That night, at a quarter to twelve, Paragon waited atop the domed roof of the Planet Theater. He had in hand the list given to him by the city.
The night air was cool, but pleasantly so. When Sycorax was still a few minutes late, he hardly even noticed. Most of the big cities suffered so much air and light pollution that few stars could be seen. And yet, the stars above Argent still clung to the high ground, refusing to surrender.
When Sycorax finally did arrive at the scene—a full eight minutes past the specified meeting time—Paragon did not notice her arrival, nor was he bothered by the time he’d had alone with the sky.
"You weren’t followed, were you?" she asked said from behind him. "You came alone?"
"You know I did," he replied, turning to face her. "I'm sure you have ways of knowing."
She closed her eyes for a moment, then nodded. "That’s why I had to get the letter to you in particular. Most of the others would have set a trap for me."
"I can’t say I didn’t consider it," he admitted. "You are a wanted criminal. But if what you said in the message is true, then I have to comply. I have to give you a chance." He handed her the list.
She looked at the total owed at the bottom of the page, and her eyes widened.
"Is something wrong?" he asked.
"It's... a little more than I was expecting."
"It's less than I was expecting," he countered. "You did attack the city with a dragon."
"Excuse me?" she retorted. "I didn't 'attack the city'. It was practically a parking violation."
He swiped the paper from her and looked over it. "Let's see… well, there’s the damages to the library roof…"
"Some scratch marks," she said, dismissively. "Barely even visible."
"Right. Then there’s the fire damages to a number of surrounding buildings…"
"Superficial damage," she clarified. "Nothing even burned down."
"Removal of the dragon's corpse--which was enormous, by the way. Cleanup of the dragon's..." he looked up at her from the paper, "'flaming stomach bile'?"
"Fire doesn't just come out of nowhere," she explained. "Biology has to make sense, even with dragons. It’s all a matter of chemical reactions and the like."
"Are you-- a sorceress-- trying to explain the scientific logic behind the biology of a dragon's fire breath?"
"Don't act like magic is nonsense or something," she said defensively. "Magic makes perfect sense once you understand it. Magic has rules and laws just like everything else."
"Alright, alright. I'll take your word for it."
He went back to the list. "So, damages to the park grounds, disaster response personnel, time spent, labor paid, interest, and so on and so forth. You get the idea."
He handed it back to her.
"Very well. I'll have the funds delivered via courier."
"Well then that's settled," he replied.
He wondered briefly what kind of courier she had in mind, and hoped it wasn’t what he was imagining based on recent events.
For a minute, neither spoke. Even the commotion of the restless city seemed distant and faint. Finally, Sycorax broke the silence.
"By the way, I wanted to thank you for visiting me while I was in the asylum."
"I’m sorry?" he replied, a look of puzzlement crossing his face. "I think you’re mistaken."
Sycorax laughed. "Are you really so embarrassed about it that you’re going to pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about? Did you think I wouldn’t see through some a thinly veiled disguise like that?"
Paragon hesitated. "I was wearing top-grade facial prosthetics and complexion altering makeup. I wouldn’t call that ‘thinly veiled’."
"You might as well have come in wearing glasses and a hat," she explained.
"But how?" he asked. "You couldn’t have cast any spells; your cell was anti-magic sealed."
"Come on. Really?" she teased. "After our little good bye before they locked me up? It didn’t take magic to know you’d come to see me. Besides, you didn’t even disguise your voice."
Having the sorceress flaunt the ease of her victory was irritating. He crossed his arms and turned his head to look away from her.
"Congratulations," he said sarcastically. "I bet you’re really proud of yourself."
"Oh, come on now," she replied in a conciliatory tone, "what I meant to say is..." She stepped forward and lightly placed a hand on his arm. "Thank you. Most of the time, they just throw you in and leave you there, like you don’t even matter. But you’re different. We’ve been adversaries for a long time, but you’ve always had a sort of chivalry to you."
"That’s because what I do isn’t about hurting you, or anyone else; it’s about protecting them," he made a sweeping gesture towards the city around them. "And yet, you’re different than the rest of the villains. You were always better than them."
"That’s because what I do isn’t about hurting you. Or them." She nodded over her shoulder. "It’s just about achieving my goals. I’m just glad someone understands me. That’s also why I had the letter given to you; I wanted to see you again."
She stepped towards him. He opened her arms, and she hugged him. He brushed her hair out of her face, and drew her closer to him. As soon as he kissed her, however, they were interrupted by a ground-shaking explosion, less than two blocks away.
Sycorax turned from him. "What is that?"
What they saw was a pod-like, bubble-domed vehicle emerging from the side of a building, surrounded by a shower of glittering glass shards. The contraption had ten long limbs like the hybrid of a spider and an octopus. Or the mechanical approximation of such a thing, at any rate.
"Doctor Nefarious, I presume?" Paragon muttered under his breath.
Sure enough, the doctor's voice boomed from the machine's speakers. He said something generic about greatness and feeble attempts and domination, etcetera. One of the limbs picked up a pretty blond woman in its steel claws to take as a hostage. Typical, really.
"You endanger innocent people," Paragon grumbled through his teeth, "in my city," his fists clenched at his sides. "And on top of that, you had to do this at the worst time possible!"
As the flying sword arrived at his side, he turned to face Sycorax. "Sorry. I need to take care of this."
"Don't worry," she replied. "I understand."
"It’ll just be a moment." He made a sweeping motion with one hand, and the sword flew at the machine, spinning like a saw blade. In a flash, it severed the claw holding the woman, releasing the hostage who was then enveloped in a transparent force field. The bubble descended slowly, releasing her gently on the ground below where she was escorted to safety.
Nefarious could be seen in the vehicle's domed cockpit looking frantically around for what had interfered. He finally spotted Paragon atop the edge of the roof down the street, and understandably panicked.
Sycorax put a hand on Paragon's shoulder. "Go get him, tiger."
The sword came back, and Paragon stepped onto it, and flew towards the nine-legged machine as it hastened to flee the scene.
Satisfied that the situation was under control, Sycorax decided to make her leave before her presence was discovered. She knew that Paragon would be disappointed to come back only to find that she had gone, but he'd live. Besides, she was anxious to check up on Photon, and hoped he had gotten the letter. She was quite eager to see how he looked with a beak and feathers.
(I'm not sure why Blogger ruins the formatting when I try to upload it here. There are supposed to be proper paragraph breaks and indents. I'm not okay with this, but there isn't much I can do about it right now.)