The Sidekick

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Chapter 10 - The Wrath of Marath

Issue Four

The City Strikes Back

“Hey Jet! Can you come down here for a minute!” Uncle Quinn called from the first floor.

Jet left his room and then did a small wall run along the curve of the stairs on his way down. He thumped on the ground and then looked up with an eager smile at Quinn. His expression abruptly changed, however, as he saw Paladin sitting on the couch. He wasn’t in his full armor, rather he was wearing a black tank top and his sweatpants he would wear back when he and Jet trained in the bunker. He sat forward, his hands folded together.

Quinn sat at the table with his chair leaned out to face the couch. He rested one arm on his table and his other on his legs. Quinn had a small smile on his face, as opposed to Paladin who had a more nervous expression. Jet looked between the two of them in confusion, until Paladin finally seemed to snap to and see Jet standing there.

“Jet,” Paladin said. “Please sit.”

Jet eyed the chair nervously and then sat down carefully.

“Hey Paladin,” Jet said. “Are...are you still mad at me?”

A smile cracked his face, and Paladin shook his head.

“I was never really mad at you, I was just frustrated,” Paladin said.

Paladin sat up more straight to address Jet more fully.

“You see Jet, in truth, I think you were right. In fact, my heart knows you were right,” Paladin explained. “You were right in the bunker when you wanted to leave, you were right when you questioned if we were doing the right thing as heroes.”

Jet looked at his mentor in confusion. This was not the anger he was used to from Paladin. But then Paladin’s warm smile faded.

“But, the other half of the truth is...doing what’s right isn’t always what’s best for the city,” Paladin explained. “In Vinton, we suffer from the death grip of a few different things. The biggest one is Xanor and his Construct horde. But without him, if all we target is the gangs, then we’re running a larger risk.”

Jet cocked his head to the side.

“What?”

“I explained to you that once upon a time Xanor was a superhero,” Paladin continued. “I had told you the theories why he changed, but I never told you exactly why.”

Paladin inhaled through his nose, and then out through his mouth.

“The truth is, he did it to control the gangs.”

Jet sat back and stared into blank space. Several quiet moments passed, and Paladin exhaled. He sat more into the chair, and clasped his hands together again.

“He told us he had been getting sick for a while, that his powers were starting to drain away at his health. So when he came up with the solution of siphoning his own powers away to make Constructs, he also realized that he was building an army,” Paladin explained. “With an army like that, he could use fear to control the gangs instead of trying to put them away. If he became the true-crime boss, he could reign crime in.”

“But, but that’s not a solution. That still creates crime,” Jet argued. “And that’s just sinking to their level.”

“I never said I agreed with it,” Paladin quickly replied.

After a tense pause, he continued, “But it’s worked. The gangs have...have a hitman. One who was notorious for picking off heroes. When Xanor entered the scene, the assassinations stopped. Mostly.”

“Mostly?” Uncle Quinn prodded.

“I don’t know what kind of deal they struck, but the assassinations have almost stopped. They only happen, when people interfere too much with the gangs,” Paladin explained.

Jet fought back a gulp. So exactly like what he and his friends had been doing.

“If their business that Xanor allows is interfered with, then they send Marath,” Paladin explained. “He’s a force of nature, I’ve only seen him in combat once and it was enough to show me that I never wanted to face him myself.”

“Has it worked?” Quinn asked.

Paladin looked at Quinn quizically.

“Has it reduced crime?” Quinn asked. “Not to get high and mighty on you, but things still seem pretty bad from where I’m sitting.”

Paladin nodded in understanding.

“We haven’t had a dead superhero in two years,” Paladin muttered. “That’s something.”

Jet couldn’t believe how much he hated Paladin at that moment. How much the weakness in Paladin’s voice betrayed Jet’s view of his mentor.

“But it’s why I’m still working on bringing Xanor down, eventually,” Paladin said. “If it’s done right, done carefully, I can unbalance the elements in the city, and hopefully avoid being on Marath’s list.”

Paladin then looked to Jet.

“You deserved that explanation, Jet. The truth is I’ve been afraid to tell you, but it’s time to know.”

Jet stared at Paladin, probably harder than he meant to.

“Why would you be afraid to tell me?” Jet asked.

“Because Jet, I still wanted you to see me as that superhero that you saw me as that first night,” Paladin said. “But, we’re beyond that now. I need to trust that you’ll follow my lead out there. But it’s only fair that you trust me, and you can’t do that if I’m keeping secrets from you.”

Jet looked to the floor. Somehow, knowing the truth made it worse. Knowing why Paladin had kept him at arm’s length, why Paladin had kept him in the bunker so long. It was because he was afraid of Marath? Was that truly why?

“Well,” Jet said, trying to find the words. “I guess that all makes sense.”

Jet said it with such a lack of conviction that Quinn leaned back in his chair and bit back a sigh. Paladin’s expression hardened. He closed his eyes and nodded.

“That’s what I came over to say at least,” Paladin said. “But tomorrow night suit up after dinner, we’ll go on patrol.”

Paladin looked at Jet, but the teen still stared into space. He pat his legs and stood up.

“I’ll see you tomorrow night Jet.”

After Paladin closed the door on his way out, Quinn let a quiet minute pass. Quinn looked from the door to Jet, and then back to the ground.

“You okay?” Quinn asked.

“Yeah. Yeah I’m fine,” Jet said.

Quinn continued to stare at Jet for a few moments longer. Then he rubbed the back of his head and stood up, and continued to clean the kitchen. Jet’s eyes were a little glazed over, his mind still feeling like it was stuck in neutral.

“Hey Blade Boy,” Hunter said, waving his hand in front of Jet’s face.

Jet shook his head, snapping into reality. He had zoned again, thinking about Paladin. He wasn’t really sure when he had arrived at the rendezvous point that night but he was standing around waiting for Hunter to make the call to go into a Brigand safehouse.

“Oh jeez, I’m sorry,” Jet commented. “I totally spaced.”

“All good,” Hunter said with a raised eyebrow. “It happens.”

Hunter then walked back to the edge of the building. Siege nodded towards Jet grabbing his attention. Jet walked to the edge of the building to join them.

“Hunter was saying at fifteen minutes we should head in,” Siege explained. “That’s when the guards change and we’ll have the path of least resistance.”

Jet blinked and rubbed his eyes a couple of times.

“Um, about that,” Jet said.

The group turned to look at Jet for a moment. He considered telling them what Paladin had relayed, it was information they probably needed to hear. But his anger at Paladin overrode it.

“Ah, never mind,” Jet said. “Sounds like a plan.”

“No, it doesn’t.”

Everyone turned to see standing behind them was Paladin. Jet’s heart plummeted into the far, deepest pits of his stomach.

“It took me a while to track your trail of destruction and figure out where you would be hitting next,” Paladin said. “But I finally managed to stop you before you caused more chaos.”

“Destruction? Chaos? Last I checked we were stopping those,” Sting interjected.

“No, you don’t get to talk now!” Paladin yelled, anger in his voice as he pointed at the whole group. “You don’t know what you’ve done!”

Everyone visibly shrunk at the moment. The powerful teenage superheroes who were standing tall not a moment before reverting to the kids who were in trouble.

“I told him,” Paladin said as he pointed at Jet. “And now I have to tell the rest of you. In Vinton, when you prod the gangs, you’re inviting something worse.”

“There is an ecosystem here, and when you don’t proceed cautiously, you disrupt it and bring something way worse down on all of us,” Paladin continued.

Hunter at that moment stepped forward.

“Look, all due respect Paladin, seriously. But I’m following my dad’s plan for taking these gangs out, stopping their operations and taking them down on a structural level,” Hunter said.

Paladin stopped and breathed in through his nose.

“Your father, who I knew, planned to take them down, quietly. I agreed with his plan, his plan worked. His plan didn’t involve getting into nightly brawls with the gangs.”

Hunter backed down, turning quiet. Paladin breathed heavily, anger seething from him.

“You all need to leave, now. Or I’ll make you,” Paladin said.

“You can’t stop us from doing this,” Siege said.

“I’m not!” Paladin shouted.

Jet felt every muscle clench. He didn’t know Paladin could get this angry.

“I would never stop you from doing what you believe is fundamentally right,” Paladin said, physically trying to calm himself down. “But I realize now, once I knew there were other teens active in the city, that I should have taken you all under my wing, and not assumed that Jet would help reign you in.”

The three teens all turned to Jet, and he felt his face flush a deep red. There went his secret identity.

“I won’t make you wait long. Tomorrow night, this roof. I’ll show you my plans for taking down Xanor and then the gangs, and we’ll come up with something that will work for the city,” Paladin explained.

“But for now? Tonight? Go home. Go home before I do something we’ll all regret,” Paladin finished.

The group all shared looks. Siege wasn’t happy about it, but he was the first to depart as he leaped down from the building, followed by Sting who glided down. Hunter was last to leave, going to the building’s rooftop access.

“You really knew my father?” Hunter asked before he left.

Paladin hadn’t taken his eyes off Jet, but he looked to acknowledge Hunter. Paladin nodded.

“He was a good man. I’m sorry you lost him.”

Hunter nodded in response, and then closed the door behind him.

There were several, excruciating, quiet minutes after they left. Jet continued to wait for Paladin to tear him apart.

“Look, Paladin-” Jet began, but Paladin cut him off.

“I had hoped that by coming over tonight I would help curtail the behavior,” Paladin said. “I don’t want to control you Jet, but when I realized that the gang activities had been so greatly disrupted by a group of teens, I knew you had to be involved.”

His voice was calm, but there was a definite sadness.

“I guess I hoped you still trusted me,” Paladin muttered.

Jet wasn’t sure what snapped in him at that moment. He had yelled at Paladin before in the five years he had known him. But the anger, frustration, reached that point of tension where it snapped irreparably.

“How can I trust you when you don’t tell me the truth!” Jet yelled. “That all this time you kept me in that bunker because you were afraid!”

Jet slapped his chest and gestured out to the city.

“Other than those Constructs we hunted down, I haven’t seen a single one these past two weeks! Were they ever really hunting me?!” Jet screamed.

Paladin stood tall and looked down at Jet.

“I don’t know why they stopped hunting you,” Paladin continued to calmly speak.

“I think you were always just scared because you knew that this is what I would do! That I would actually try to make a difference!” Jet countered.

Paladin said nothing in response.

“If you weren’t such a coward then maybe Vinton would be a better place to live for everyone, not just you!” Jet shouted.

“Enough!” Paladin finally yelled back. His tone was hard, definite, and rough.

“You don’t know the full extent of what I’ve sacrificed for this city. For you, Jet,” Paladin shouted at Jet. “You don’t understand how any of this works, you’re too young. Any time, any time that someone pushed forward too much, they die here, Jet. I can’t afford to die yet, not when the city and so many others, like you, need me!”

“You’re selfish then!” Jet shouted. “We put on these costumes and take on these personas to be selfless, we know there’s a chance we can die doing this!”

“Actually, you put on those costumes to hide,” a third venomous voice said.

Jet and Paladin both turned to see the source of the voice, as the first few pitter-patters of rain began to fall around them. Immediately, Paladin’s whole demeanor changed from one of solidarity to one of fear. Standing across from them was a man with long red hair that reached down past his shoulders. He was wearing a long red coat that he left open and it extended to just before his knees. Covering his chest seemed to be black kevlar like armor with a blood-red dragon curled over in the middle of it. He was wearing black pants, with long black boots. In one hand was a long, clear, slender sword that reminded Jet of a katana but longer, and it shimmered like a diamond. His eyes were a bright shade of green, almost neon.

“You hide because you are afraid of the consequences of your good intentions,” the man said while walking forward, one hand displaying air quotes over the last few words. “You pretend to be good, to be gods because you can’t imagine a world where you might be wrong. That maybe being ‘good’ is wrong.”

Jet looked from the man to Paladin, back to the man. Every word dripped with a biting poison that stung at Jet’s core. He walked with such swagger in his step, such confidence, almost bravado, that Jet couldn’t help think that man was right. He shook his head, realizing that he had disagreed with pretty much everything he had said.

“I’m sorry, who are you?” Jet asked as he took a step towards the man. The rain began falling harder than, but it was as if none of them could feel it as they became more and more drenched. Faster than Jet could think, Paladin, outstretched a hand and prevented Jet from walking any further.

“Me, I’m the consequence,” the man said. “Or as you may have heard me called in the darkest alleys, in the whispered breaths of terror, I am Marath.”

Jet’s eyes widened. His feet and legs locked into place. He couldn’t move. No ethereal force-controlled or compelled him. He realized it was terror.

“Now, the Brigands and Xanor agreed these teenage superheroes had to go,” Marath said, stopping walking. “They disagreed on body count, but I think one dead teen plastered all over the news will be more than enough to scare the others straight. What do you think Paladin?”

Paladin said nothing in response. Marath’s lip twitched upwards into a smile.

“Or will it be a dead adult superhero? The last bastion of hope in Vinton? I’m sure the gangs would also be fine with that.”

Jet’s eyes darted from Marath to Paladin. Then in his peripherals, he saw Paladin’s hand that was blocking him from advancing. It was trembling.

“So what will it be? Get in my way and be the last dead superhero in Vinton? Or let the boy die and live to fight another day? The choice is yours, Paladin,” Marath said, his voice teasing.

Nothing was said for several moments. Jet almost grew angry that Paladin’s immediate response wasn’t to fight back, to try and stop Marath from either.

“Jet,” Paladin whispered. “Run. I’ll hold him as long as I can.”

Marath closed his eyes and let out a breath.

“Very well, if you can’t choose, two dead superheroes it is!”

Marath charged forward, moving faster than Jet thought possible.

“Run!” Paladin yelled, and suddenly he was gone too, returning the charge at Marath. They moved so fast, Jet lost his breath for a moment. By the time, Jet had caught his breath, only seconds later, so much had happened his head spun, and the world snapped into hard focus as the chaos and ferocity before him exploded into a kinetic battle.

Paladin’s feet splashed through the puddles formed by the rain, while Marath seemed to have an almost ghostly charge. With a horizontal swing, Paladin lashed out at Marath. Marath seemed to flow over the top of the attack, like water passing by a rock, rolling over the top of Paladin’s back. Marath, with his back to Paladin, quickly raised his sword, knowing Paladin had already spun around with a second swing. Marath’s unexpectedly quick parry reeled Paladin back, and Marath pivoted on one foot and quickly slashed upwards. Paladin leaped backward, and Marath rushed in to close the gap.

Knowing he couldn’t stop another attack head-on, Paladin backflipped upon landing and just dodged a follow-up swing from Marath. Marath then spun low and vaulted forward and slashed again. Paladin had just enough time on landing to bring up his sword and block the blow. But the sheer momentum Marath came at him sent Paladin skidding backward. Marath grinned and stood up tall.

With a growl Paladin charged back forward. Marath remained in a neutral stance, as Paladin took several swings at him. Marath seemed to easily dodge the attacks, even though Jet could barely see Paladin swing his arms, his sword only leaving gold blurs in the air. At the end of one attack, Marath grabbed Paladin’s wrist and held his attack in the air. With a burst of speed Jet could only compare to an arrow being fired, Marath jabbed the butt of his sword in Paladin’s side. Paladin keeled, and Marath then raised one foot up high, high above his head, and then he swung it down hard on the top of Paladin’s head. Paladin fell to the ground, and with a flourish, Marath prepared his sword to stab down.

Paladin suddenly found the will to move and he quickly rolled away, and then somersaulted backward into a standing position. However, Paladin was unprepared as Marath had left his sword embedded in the roof of the building, but then Marath kicked at it, dislodging and sending it up into the air. With pinpoint precision, Marath kicked at the pommel of the sword and sent it like a bullet towards Paladin. Paladin had just enough time to raise his sword to block the blow, but the impact sent Paladin off his feet.

He managed to find his footing, but Marath was too fast. Marath was upon him in a moment, having caught his sword out of the air and now swinging in at him. Paladin blocked with his sword, Marath’s blade inches from his throat. Paladin grimaced as Marath grinned. Paladin shifted one of his feet, laying it over top of Marath’s, and used his position of power to push back, repelling Marath. Marath took several steps back and chuckled. Paladin then stepped forward and feinted a blow towards Marath, his sword coming in from high. Marath seemed to fall for the feint, so as Paladin let go of his sword and dropped low, he swung his other fist into Marath’s stomach.

It was Marath’s turn to go skidding backward, however, Paladin was left unsatisfied. Before he had landed his punch, Marath had blocked the blow with one of his hands, prepared to take the full force of the attack. Both Jet and Paladin hadn’t seen Marath move fast enough to block the surprise blow.

Jet snapped out of his funk at the temporary lull in the battle. It was only a second or two, but it was enough that the two combatants weren’t moving. With a growl, Jet gripped his sword.

“Oh, screw this,” Jet muttered, still angry with Paladin. “I’ll protect myself!”

Jet ran into the battle. Paladin turned his head to see Jet charging in and outstretched a hand towards him.

“Jet, no!”

At that moment where his concentration wasn’t on Marath, Marath swooped in. He elbowed Paladin hard on the side of the head, sending Paladin sprawling out.

“Oh, let him try,” Marath said. “If I can’t make up my mind on who to kill, I’ll just kill you both.”

He turned to see Jet charging in, and Jet leaped forward with abandon. He figured if he hit MArath with enough force he could at least stagger him. Marath didn’t move, and let Jet approach. As Jet neared he swung with all his might, hoping to send Marath backward like he watched Paladin do to him. Marath only raised his sword to block, and Jet was sure he had him.

However, as the hit connected, Marath didn’t budge. There was a brief moment in time when Jet’s feet were in the air, and his and Marath’s eyes met. The intensity in Marath’s was only heightened by his calm demeanor. But then before he could roll off the attack as his momentum was shattered, Marath suddenly pushed back, transferring all that power right back at Jet. Jet went flying backward in an uncontrolled flight.

However then his direction was shifted again as Marath grabbed Jet’s foot, and then slammed the teen down hard into the ground. Jet felt his ribs crack and his muscles groan in agony as he cracked the roof below him. Marath then picked Jet back and slammed him into the ground again, and Jet’s world darkened.

Before Marath could punish him further, Paladin was there and slashed at Marath. Marath leaped back to dodge the swing, and then was suddenly working harder than before to block Paladin’s onslaught. Paladin attack with renewed vigor, each of his swings faster and stronger than before. As Marath parried and blocked, he teased his adversary.

“Well, if I had known hurting the boy would have gotten this much effort out of you, I would have done it sooner!” Marath said between attacks.

“You’ll never get the chance again!” Jet called out.

He came in from Marath’s side, slashing wildly. There was a moment where there seemed like no way Marath could block both blows. The rain around them seemed to cease or a brief moment as all three clashed. With an unexpected speed and grace, Marath held Paladin’s sword at bay with his own, and he had stepped down hard on Jet’s sword, sending it straight to the ground. There was no physical strain present in Marath, no exertion present. Only an eerie calm. The rain then came down harder than ever as Marath swung back at Paladin, sending Paladin backward. With his foot he kicked Jet in the head as Jet tried to bring his sword to bear.

Jet reeled backward, and as Paladin tried to recover, Marath moved towards him first. Marath swung twice, forcing desperate quick blocks from Paladin. Paladin attempted to step in and parry, but Marath struck with such force Paladin’s guard broke, and he was sent sprawling onto his back. Jet finally regained some sense and then slashed in at Marath with three quick swings, but hit nothing as Marath dodged with his back still to Jet, seemingly sensing Jet’s movements. He then spun and swung upwards, and Jet managed to just bring his sword up to block the blow.

Jet reeled as the sheer strength of Marath’s attacks rattled his muscles and bones. He watched as Marath’s smile grew ever so slightly. And then Marath unleashed a volley of attacks in such rapid succession, his sword blurred into a flurry of lines that seemed to cut the air itself. Jet held his sword out in front of himself and blocked the majority of the blows, knowing that if Marath ever went for an attack that would aim for a critical spot, he could kill him instantly. But instead Marath seemed to be toying with Jet, wearing him down as it took all of Jet’s strength of resolve to continue enduring the hits. Just as Jet felt like couldn’t take anymore, the attacks stopped, and Marath suddenly disappeared. Jet felt his whole body tremble as he lowered his sword cautiously, looking for Marath. How could he just be in front of him, and then vanish? Jet felt a presence behind him, and realizing Marath had looped around behind him, Jet spun around. Before Jet had time to react, he received a punch to the stomach from Marath that was so strong, so powerful, the rain around Jet blew back.

He felt his ribs crunch and his stomach contort. Then he was off his feet. Jet flew backward, off the building. He heard Paladin call his name, but then his back hit the opposing wall, and then Jet was tumbling into the alley below. His world faded out before hitting the ground.

Paladin stood up, having struggled to get to his knees. He immediately began moving towards Jet, but suddenly felt a sharp jab through his ribs. He fell back to his knees and then felt the blade extract as Marath walked around in front of him.

“You should know better than to your back on your opponent,” Marath mocked.

Anger seethed through Paladin’s helmet. With a roar he stood and swung at Marath with abandon, Marath just leaning back in time to dodge it. Paladin then jabbed forward with a punch, which Marath grabbed mid-air. Marath swung back at Paladin, and Paladin blocked it, holding the attack in place. He felt Marath push in, but Paladin matched the strength. Marath raised an eyebrow in curiosity, seemingly impressed with Paladin matching his strength.

“If you haven’t been able to tell, this is not the battle to hold back in,” Marath said over the top of the sounds of the clashing steel. “You should have been trying to kill me with everything you have the whole time.”

Paladin gritted his teeth.

“I won’t make that mistake again!” Paladin shouted.

He pushed through, finally overpowering Marath. Marath leaped backward, soaring through the air over the gap between buildings. Paladin chased, leaping between buildings and chasing Marath as the two continued their battle on the next building.

As the air rushed over his head, Jet’s world snapped back to focus. All around him it smelled like garbage. Right in his eye line was a banana peel, and as he tried to stand he felt his weight shift. Looking around and seeing garbage bags and other assorted trash, he realized a dumpster had broken his fall. Still, he could sense the fight was still happening, and he tried to scramble out of the dumpster.

As he did, he felt his body twinge and he surged with pain. He gasped for air and then fell out of the dumpster landing on his back. His entire core ached with extreme pain he had never felt before. His ribs had to be broken, there was no other explanation for it. Jet counted himself lucky to still be alive after falling into the alleyway, and with the strength, he could muster, he did his best to stand. He wasn’t sure what else he could do, but he knew he needed to help Paladin.

Paladin and Marath continued to trade sword blows, their swords clashing and sparking in the night sky. They maneuvered around each other, moving so quickly Paladin could barely follow. But he had to keep pushing through, or Marath could kill him instantly. They clashed in the middle during one exchange, interlocked for a moment, before they both leaped backward and then charged in again. Marath swung low and Paladin blocked the attack. He tried to shoot a knee up into Marath’s torso, but Marath leaped back and then stepped in again with a downward swing. Paladin knocked the attack with his sword and then spun and swung again. Marath blocked the attack with his sword and skidded backward.

With an upwards swing Paladin lunged forward. Marath backflipped, just passing by the edge of the sword. His foot just caught Paladin’s chin and hit it with such force it dislodged Paladin’s helmet. Paladin stumbled backward, his helmet loose. Marath landed and dashed forward. Taking advantage of his disoriented opponent, Marath grabbed Paladin’s helmet and yanked it off his head. Paladin shook free, his world suddenly becoming full screen, and as he turned back to Marath he was suddenly bashed in the head with his own helmet, Marath bludgeoning Paladin with it. Paladin’s world went hazy, and then suddenly he was kicked backward. Paladin felt himself tumble backward and fall into an alleyway.

He crashed into a landing, and although his body groaned in protest, he had to quickly stand as Marath gracefully landed in the alley across from him. They were in a tight, contained space, which meant Paladin’s bigger sword would be less helpful than Marath’s slender one. It was a kill zone, where Marath meant to finish him.

Marath dashed in, and Paladin just brought his sword to bear in time. It was there in that alley that the two had their last dance, their swords bouncing off each other. They fought as only trained warriors could, with every attack there was a counter, for every feint a prepared follow up. The two struggled and exchanged for minutes, neither gaining ground or giving any. For a brief moment, there was a glimmer of hope, as Marath seemed to struggle for breath. Paladin intended to take full advantage.

He stepped in swinging down low. Marath just moved his leg out of the way in time. He then with a sharp flick of his wrist swung up, abusing Paladin’s use of momentum. Paladin felt his sword leave his hands, as Marath disarmed him. His sword flipped through the air behind Paladin, lodging itself into the ground, just showing the reflection of the battle. Then Paladin, who had been a superhero for over ten years, who had battled villains on the streets of Vinton, who had lost friends and loved ones in his pursuit of justice, felt a pain he had never felt before.

Marath dug his sword deep through Paladin’s chest, piercing his heart. Paladin gurgled as his body tried to react, but all of his pain sensors were on overload. Marath leaned in close, placing his mouth just by Paladin’s ear.

“And now, with you dead, there is no one who can stop what is coming,” Marath whispered.

Marath then slashed outwards to extract his sword. The wall of the nearby building was painted with Paladin’s blood. Paladin fell backward, his eyes glazing over. He collapsed onto his back, into a puddle on the ground. Marath stood over his victim for a few moments, until he could hear a panicked running coming from the street near the alley. He gripped his sword tightly for a moment, but then loosened it.

“Be glad you will not be here to see what happens to the boy. For it will be longer, and far, far worse,” Marath stated to Paladin.

With two quick jumps, one vaulting off the side of the building, Marath was on the roof.

He watched as Jet neared the alley his fallen mentor was in and smiled before departing.

Jet ran as fast as he could, his hands clutching at his ribs. He had heard the sounds of battle just an alleyway down, and he hobbled his way into it. As he reached the entrance, he became dizzy and he had to lean against the side of the building while panting to avoid falling over. Once his vision was corrected, he saw the body of Paladin lying in the alley.

All of his pain washed away with the rain. His mind was flooded with dread. Ignoring his body screaming at him for doing so, Jet ran to Paladin’s side. He slid onto his knees just by Paladin’s chest, and could see Paladin’s labored breathing. Jet realized it wasn’t just the rainwater soaking through his uniform.

“Paladin! Paladin!” Jet clambered. He checked Paladin’s pulse and felt how faint it was. He didn’t know how much time he had. He couldn’t even hope to perform CPR on Paladin with his armor on, and he didn’t know if it would do any good. The slits in Paladin’s armor and the bruises that marked his face looked fairly definitive.

Jet pushed that thought from his mind. He couldn’t give up on Paladin. He couldn’t. Jet scrambled into one of the pouches of his uniform, fumbling through the buckles that he had once laughed at it. The costume he had judged so harshly. That Paladin made for him. He brought out his phone and immediately dialed for an ambulance.

“I have a superhero down! We’re off of 7th street and...and... I don’t know where exactly, we’re in an alleyway and there’s a lot of blood! You have to hurry!” Jet started crying as soon as someone picked up on the other line.

Paladin found the strength to lift up a hand and grabbed the wrist of the hand that held his phone. Jet looked to his mentor, who stared at him with the smallest of smiles.

“Please! Hurry!” Jet cried again, before hanging up. He dropped his phone to the ground, letting it splash into a puddle, not thinking twice about it.

“It’s-it’s okay, someone’s going to come and help you and you’re going to be okay!” Jet said to Paladin.

Jet watched in his mind’s eye all the training he had done with Paladin. All the frustrations he had with his mentor fell to the wayside in the face of the good times. In the face of Jet learning to fight, Jet catching up on curriculum, of Jet and Paladin watching movies together and playing board games together on nights Paladin didn’t patrol. Jet watched that all begin to slip away as the face of his mentor, of his friend, grew pale.

“You have to be okay,” Jet whispered into Paladin’s hand.

“Jet,” Paladin muttered, his voice labored. “It will be okay.”

Jet looked up to his mentor, tears in his eyes. Any possible words he could muster became lost in a lump in his throat.

“I was wrong,” Paladin said. “All these years, I’ve been wrong and I see that now.”

Every word wheezed out of Paladin, but he seemed to have just enough strength left to say this.

“I was afraid, afraid of what would happen to me, that I became blinded,” Paladin said. “Because of you, because of who you are, I wanted to be better, but I was still afraid.”

Paladin suddenly gripped Jet’s hand so tightly, Jet almost had a surge of hope Paladin would pull through.

“Don’t be afraid. Just...be you. You are the strongest… of all of us. In you...in your heart...I see the strength...the love...the hope that you need to save Vinton,” Paladin said. “To save...us all.”

Paladin’s grip softened, and his eyes began to shut.

“You...can be...the greatest...hero...my...hero…”

Paladin’s hand went limp in Jet’s grip. Jet quivered as he looked to Paladin. His eyes hadn’t closed over completely. But he had stopped breathing. He was completely still. A small smile still marked his face.

Jet stared at Paladin for a few moments, until a few sobs bubbled out. And then he let out a long, painful wail at the loss of his best friend, his mentor, his father.

Vinton had lost its last superhero. And it was Jet’s fault.

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