Monday, November 19, 2018

Hero's Dilemma - Chapter 3


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."
"Thank you."
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.)

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Hero's Dilemma - Chapter 2


     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.
     "We're here."
     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
: )

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Hero's Dilemma - Chapter 1


     The world was dark to Parth Ansari, the ambassador from India. He was not sure how long he had been in this black place, nor how he had gotten there. He had no idea where he was. He couldn't even remember where he had been before the dark place.
     There were faint pinpoints of light before him, like dull stars in a sky that hung just before his eyes. He then became aware of the weight and texture of the sack over his head.
     Before he could contemplate the matter further, the sack was pulled from his head, and even the dim light was almost blinding. Eventually, his eyes adjusted to the flickering light around him, and he managed to look around.
     He found himself seated before a dark altar in a room lit only by candles that cast black shadows onto nearly black walls. They were not the tall, slender candles that burned neat and evenly, nor were they squat little scented candles. They were the sort of candles that could only have been custom made specifically for occult rituals.
     As his eyes grew more accustomed to the dim light of the room, one of the shadows stepped away from the wall and came towards him. It was a figure clad in a hooded cloak of blackest velvet.
     "Who... who are you?" the ambassador asked.
     "Don't be afraid," said the cloaked figure in a distorted voice that sounded like a council of malevolent spirits speaking in unison. It did absolutely nothing to alleviate the man's fears.
     "What do you want from me? What are you doing?"
     "I'm not going to kill you, if that's what you think."
     "No." The hooded head shook. "I just need some blood."
     "What? Well... you can't. I'm using it."
     The figure reached into its cloak and produced a large, decorative brass knife.
     "You... you can't do this...!" the ambassador said, as if saying so would make it true.
     "It's nothing personal. It's just that your astrological sign and energy type make you a perfect match for my plan. It's all just bad luck, I'm afraid."
     The cloaked figure gestured with its free hand and the ambassador found himself suddenly pulled towards the altar. His left hand was bound to the cold surface, as if by invisible ropes. He tried to pull free, but his efforts were in vain.
     The cloaked figure came towards the altar opposite from him and raised the dagger high with malicious intent.
     "Be still," it said. "It will only be a moment."
     For a few seconds, the blade remained motionless. And then, it came down. It came down in a blur like a bolt of copper lightning, and Ansari squeezed his eyes shut.
     But instead of blinding pain or the sound of metal piercing flesh, there was a strange, reverberating chaaannng!
     "What?!" the cloaked figure gasped. As the ambassador opened his eyes, he saw that the knife had been stopped in midair, just inches from his up-turned hand, though the villain still strained to close the gap. Between blade and hand was a faint blue distortion in the air.
     "Didn't your mother ever tell you not to play with knives?" said a strong, heroic voice that any resident of Argent City would recognize.
     To the Ambassador's left, about twenty feet away, a door stood open. Silhouetted in the rectangle of light behind him, a figure stood with one hand outstretched, the other a fist at his hip. It was the sort of pose only one of his kind would ever assume.
     The hero stood just over six feet tall, was muscular of build, and seemed to radiated confidence and valor like a lantern. As he stepped into the room, his light brown complexion, as well as the red, grey, and white of his iconic costume became visible.
     "Paragon!" the ambassador exclaimed with relief.
     "We can do this the easy way, or the hard way," Paragon said, taking another step closer. "The choice is yours."
     The dark figure threw the knife down and tossed the hood back in a huff.
     "Why do you always have to interfere!" she yelled; her voice returning to a natural, human tone.
     She was not tall, and her most prominent features were her rather large nose, and the mass of curly brown hair that flowed behind her. In other circumstances, Ansari might have wondered how she had kept it hidden under the hooded cloak. But as it was, he was more concerned with other matters.
     "Sycorax," Paragon said. "I should have known it was you."
     She gave him an incredulous stare. She looked around the room to the numerous earthy-yellow candles (that had been hand-drizzled just for the occasion, she would have you know), then at the black crystal altar to which the ambassador was still bound, to the ritual dagger that lay on the ground at her feet, then finally back to Paragon.
     "I suppose you thought I was one of the other resident black magic super villains." Her tone was over saturated with sarcasm, and bordered on insulted.
     "Of course I knew it was you," he responded. "But it's a common expression amongst heroes. It's standard protocol that when a villain is revealed you shout 'so-and-so! I should have known it was--" but stopped mid-sentence as he made a sweeping gesture.
     Paragon's trusted flying sword flew into the room from behind him and struck the altar, cracking it in half with a thunderous crash.
     The sorceress stared at the destruction of her altar in shocked disbelief. "Son of a bitch!!"
     "Ambassador!" Paragon shouted, stepping aside. “Go! Now!”
     When Ansari found that the binding spell had been broken, he leaped out of his chair and ran for the open door.
     "Oh no you don't!" Sycorax shouted, and aimed one hand at the runner. A bolt of energy flew from her fingers, but a force field blocked the magic projectile, allowing the man to escape.
Before Paragon could drop the barrier and project a new one, she opened her other hand, and a bolt of lightning struck him square in the chest, throwing him off his feet. The streaming energy carried him through three walls, numerous office cubicles, and finally planting him into another wall. There he lay stunned; his feet dangling out of the wall, electricity crackling as he struggled to get up.
     Throwing off the cumbersome black cloak, the pudgy witch ran towards where Paragon lay, more magical energies gathering around her hands as she did; ready to blast or hex him at the first available opportunity.
     Leaping through each holes he left behind, she reached the office room with its cubicle walls scattered across the floors. As she closed in on his position, the sword flew in along the ground. It's hilt caught her ankle and she tripped, landing face-down among the office debris. Then a force field appeared below her and slammed her against the ceiling.
     Paragon climbed out of the broken wall, brushing debris off his suit as he recovered from his shock. He then slowly lowered the faintly visible barrier and tilted it, gently setting the dazed witch on the ground where she sat slumped against the wall.
     "It looks like your wicked schemes have been foiled again," Paragon said in his famously heroic voice as he stood over his adversary. He levitated the sword close to his enemy's throat. They both knew he couldn't bring himself to kill a woman, even one as dangerous as she, but it emphasized who was currently in charge.
     "What do you have to say for yourself, Sycorax?"
     "I will have my revenge," she said through clenched teeth. "Even you can't stop me forever."
     "And who has invoked your wrath this time?" Paragon inquired. "World leaders? Interpol? First Strike? Myself?"
     "Photon Man," she muttered.
     "Wait, what?" This answer took him a little bit by surprise. Everything had been predictably by the books and ordinary up until then. "But... Why Photon? What did he do?"
She was quiet for a moment, avoiding eye contact.
     "Sycorax, what?" he had dropped the hero's tone of voice, and spoke like a normal man.
     "He... he made fun of me."
     "He made fun of you," he repeated, trying to get his head around such a petty motive-- so unlike a villain of her caliber.
     She nodded.
     Finding himself strangely curious, he continued.
     "So, ah, what exactly did he say?" he asked out of genuine concern, rather than out of duty or protocol. "If you don't mind my asking."
     Her voice, usually strong and confident, became timid. "He said I looked like a bird."
     "A what?"
     She slowly got to her feet, and the sword followed her movements. "'Bird Face', I believe were his exact words."
     "That is entirely inappropriate," he said, shaking his head. "I am going to have a word with him later."
     "A word?"
     "I will have several words with him," he reassured her. "That kind of childish name-calling does not suit a hero-- and honestly, it's not like him."
     "It's true, though."
     "What? No, I'm not saying you're lying. I believe you. It's just, he's not usually quite so..."
     "I mean it's true, what he said. I do look like a bird." Then, barely more than a whisper, "it's my nose."
     She put a hand to her large, high-bridged nose, and sniffled quietly.
     "Don't say that," he said consolingly.
     "It's a beak," she mumbled. "I am a bird."
     "Hey-- look at me," he said, and she obeyed. "Sure, your nose is a little... prominent... but you know what? I think it's a fine nose."
     "You're just saying that."
     "No, I'm not. You have a very distinct look."
     "'Distinct'?" she echoed, raising an eyebrow. "Really? You're gonna go with 'distinct'? That's the best you've got?"
     "What I mean is... you have a face that's entirely your own. You don't look like you came out of some... production line."
     "Yeah right. My life would be a whole lot easier if I looked like Catalyst."
     "Catalyst?!" He retorted.
     "Tell me she doesn't have the body of a goddess, and a face to match," she challenged.
     "Well, yes," he reluctantly admitted, "I suppose she is what some people might call 'beautiful', or 'attractive', or... 'stunningly gorgeous', but that comes from being a shape shifter. Anyway, in trying to make herself look perfect in every way, she just looks like any one of a hundred movie stars or super models. You look like a real person, not some mass-produced plastic doll. And if I may say so, you're actually pretty cute, yourself. Especially when you smile."
     "You're not half bad, yourself," she replied. "Especially when you stutter awkwardly."
     "Ah, when- when I what?"
She chuckled under her breath, and looked at him coyly. "Am I really so..." she began, and snapped her fingers. Chains of energy appeared from the floor, binding the flying sword to the wall and held it fast. "...disarming?"
     Paragon looked from the sword to the sorceress. Finally, a smile grew across his face and pointed at her. "Good one. You know what? I like you. You're not all that bad after all."
     She was about to speak, but he cut her off.
     "Yes, yes. I know you're technically a 'villain', but I know your plans-- God knows, you've monologued them plenty of times. Sure, you want to take over the world, and while I cannot abide anyone trying to conquer the free people of earth, your planned method of rule is unlike those of the truly evil. No mass executions, no authoritarian police states; just the elimination of corruption and conflict. Well, there is that colossal statue of yourself you want built on the site of the UN building, but never mind that. My point is that you're not really as bad as people say. I understand you. We both want to clean up this world. Only our methods vary. And our motives."
     "To a degree," She added.
     "Excuse me a moment." He turned and spoke into his wrist communicator.
     "HQ-- Sycorax's nefarious plot has been thwarted," he said, again in his official hero's voice. "I will turn her in to the asylum and return before long. All that remains is the cleanup. Yes. Oh yeah, plenty. Of course, and I'll be sure to--" He stopped mid-sentence when he heard a faint magical crackle. When he looked back at her, she held up her hands in front of her, trying very hard to look innocent.
     “I'll get back to you in a moment,” he said into his com. Then to the witch, he continued. “Sorry to have to cut things short, but I'm going to have to bring you in.”
     “I understand,” she said, and held out her hands, wrists up.
     From his belt, he produced a set of osmium infused handcuffs. But as he tried to put them on her, he found her intangible.
     The illusion of Sycorax laughed out loud when she saw the surprised look on his face. “I'm afraid I have business of my own and simply cannot afford to waste time being locked up. Far too much to do.”
     Paragon said nothing. His expression gave away little, but there was a trace of frustration... and embarrassment. Seeing this, she became more serious. “About what you said? Thank you. I do appreciate it.”
     “I meant it,” he replied.
     “I know,” said the image of Sycorax. “That's why it meant something.”
     He smiled. “Maybe next time I thwart your plans, we can chat a bit more.”
     “I'd like that. I'd like that a lot. Well... I do need to get going. And sorry.”
     “About what?” he asked, but the illusion had already vanished. He then saw something out of the corner of his eye. On one wall was burned some kind of magic symbol. As he stared, it began to faintly glow a dull red. Then it gradually became a brighter orange, and then brighter still.
     "Are you serious?" he asked, sounding more inconvenienced than anything else. "You're still going to do this? Really?"
     He sighed, and the sigil began to crackle and spark.
     "I just thought... you know, we could do without the whole—"
     A blast of fire filled the third floor of the old warehouse, incinerating over five and a half thousand dollars worth of equipment, furniture, and motivational posters. Several seconds after the spell went off, Paragon lowered the energy barrier he had projected.
     "Now really, what was that for? Seems like just kind of a waste."
     A second explosion went off just then, and Paragon found himself in a pile of burnt rubble one floor below where he had been a moment earlier. That one had finished off the floor beneath him, and the ceiling above didn't look like it'd last much longer.
     "Not bad," he said, his ears still ringing. "Not bad at all."
     He brushed some embers from his arms as he got back to his feet and headed over to the nearest window. He stepped out on to the fire escape, and jumped off. The sword flew down below him and he landed on it, his magnetic boots connecting, and he flew up into the air and back to headquarters.


Thank you for reading chapter 1 of Hero's Dilemma!
I hope you liked it so far, and I will post more here soon.
Feedback, questions, comments, and constructive criticism are welcome and appreciated
: )