It was lunchtime by the time Marcus walked into the Residential Wing of the manor. It could have been midnight for all he knew. His mind was still buzzing heavily, his thoughts swirling around in his head. His emotions were simultaneously feeding the swirling while being coaxed into a manic state by the intensity of the buzzing. Marcus fought to maintain control of those emotions, but he knew he had no chance.
At the base was his anger towards Dorian for lying to Byron and him. Marcus prided himself on his honesty. Family history was one thing, but he was the honest Spyros. Yet, this morning Dorian made Marcus look like just another Spyros, scheming for every last scrap. The next layer was the fear from nearly losing his life to Ser Nathan. He wasn’t feeling the sharp point of terror anymore, but his legs were still weak and his bowels had yet to fully solidify once more. Sprinkle on the confusion that overshadowed everything else and he forget that he had any other emotions at all. What was once a foolish and errant thought was now undeniably true. He still had no concrete proof, and the hesitation could have easily been at the sound of screaming, but there were some things one just knew. Marcus knew.
Catotigernus Abelardus Spyros the twelfth was the Crusader.
First of all...what? Superheroes are real? And his uncle was one? How did that even happen? How didn’t Marcus figure it out earlier? Six years? How could he have been so blind? How would he refer to his uncle now? Uncle Cato? The Crusader? Uncle...Crusader? Saints no, not that. One thing was certain though. Life was completely different now. Nothing would ever be the same.
Marcus made it to his uncle’s bedroom and opened the door to find it empty. Not surprising given the time of day. The wide hallways he’d remembered as a child were largely empty, but soon Helena, one of the manor’s longtime maids, entered the hallway.
“Helena?” Marcus called.
The middle-aged black haired woman turned around with an arm full of folded towels and stared at him with her dark blue eyes. She wore the uniform of the manor’s female workers, a long black dress with the lion crest of the Minos Dynasty stitched on the shoulder and sturdy looking black shoes on her feet.
“Yes, Marcus?” Helena asked.
“Have you seen Uncle...my uncle?” Marcus asked. He almost said Uncle Crusader.
Helena nodded. “Last I heard he was in his study,” she answered. “Be careful though. You know how your uncle is when he’s having one of his discussions with Master Sylvester.”
Marcus nodded. “I think what I have to say is a little more important,” he said, turning in the direction of the study.
Though his uncle’s study wasn’t far away, his thoughts were swirling before his third step. Marcus was in the whirlpool again and he couldn’t stop questioning what else his uncle was hiding. Where do his powers come from? Are there others like him? Are there supervillains roaming the world too? Did he have a league for justice on a satellite in space? Did he have a team of extraordinary people hidden in the depths of the villa training for the day that they are needed? What more was there that Marcus didn’t know? With Cato’s study just a few steps away from his bedroom, it wasn’t long before Marcus was entering the room, shaking his head to dispel the circling questions.
His uncle’s study hadn’t changed in the slightest since he first arrived, as it had been for hundreds of years that the manor has existed. The room had black oak paneling on the floor and walls, everything polished to a high gleam. The dark wood gave the room a dark cast even though the room was filled with light coming through the large window on the far wall behind Cato’s desk. There was a fireplace on the wall to the right of Cato’s desk. It sat opposite a bookcase so large that it filled the entire wall. The desk and the chairs were made from black oak, but only the desk was shined to a polish that made the light shimmer as it reflected off the surface of the wood.
Cato sat in one of the chairs in front of the cold fireplace. His eyes were closed and he had a smile on his lips as Sly stood behind him massaging his shoulders. When the two of them heard the door open, Sly snatched his hands away like he burned his fingers and Cato lazily opened his eyes. He smiled when he saw his nephew, but Marcus had eyes for only one thing in the room.
Cato’s chin was bandaged.
Sly must have seen something in Marcus’ face because he almost immediately began heading for the door. Marcus took one step into the room, refusing to give either man a chance to say a word before him.
“You’re the Crusader,” Marcus declared. He didn’t specify who he was talking to, but when Sly froze and turned to his uncle, Marcus got all the confirmation he needed. There was nothing his uncle kept from the manservant.
Marcus tapped the bottom of his jaw once. “Your chin,” he said. “That’s exactly where Ser Nathan hit you this morning.”
Cato’s hand jerked but never left the armrest. That was proof enough.
“You can’t say no now,” Marcus said looking at the hand that betrayed his uncle.
Cato smiled before he motioned Sly to the door with a wave and a very deliberate nod.
“It took you long enough to figure it out.” Cato said after the manservant left.
Marcus stared at his uncle, feeling the anger in his chest bubble up to a disturbing degree. Cato just assumed the stare of a begging dog. He always did when Marcus was upset. Wide golden eyes, black eyebrows halfway up his forehead, goatee and lower lip quivering like the strings of a guitar. He looked like a simpering idiot. Marcus hated when his uncle did this. He always did it. There were more than a few reasons for any person to hate that look, but what drove Marcus up a wall was that it always worked.
When Marcus began sputtering his pent-up laughter, Cato joined him, patting himself on the back for his undefeated record. Marcus was still chuckling as he walked over and sat down in the chair next to his uncle. Marcus’s amusement died away in a heavy sigh. He stared at the cold fireplace and Cato looked at his nephew, a cast of tenderness woven into his golden eyes.
“So what happens now?” Marcus asked.
“You’re the Crusader now,” Cato said.
Marcus chuckled and shook his head. Uncle Cato and his terrible jokes. Looking at his uncle...no....oh please by the Divine Everlasting and his Saints no.
Cato got to his feet, motioning for his nephew to follow him and a little while later they found Sly waiting for them outside. He sat in an electric buggy on one of the small pebbled paths of the estate’s network of roads. When the two Spyros men entered the electric buggy, Sly’s heavy foot made another appearance and pebbles were sent skittering as the small vehicle sped off. Sly drove them to a clearing deep in what was restricted land during Marcus’ childhood. The clearing wasn’t significant in any way shape or form, just a network of small wooded hills enclosing a small green pond. Next to the pond was a dilapidated wooden shack that looked like the set of some horrible snuff film. The ‘shack’ looked to be some kind of failed fishing refuge with eroded nets and dusty, frail looking fishing poles littering the soggy soil around the pond. Marcus could understand why his uncle told him to stay out of these lands as a kid. There was an eerie feel to this place. Not necessarily bad, but most definitely dangerous.
Sly stopped a few feet away from the shack’s poor excuse for a door and Cato got out with Marcus and Sly soon following. The three men approached the shack and Marcus frowned when what looked to be a terrible door revealed itself to really be four inches of reinforced steel with locking rods disguised as a pathetic door.
So this was his uncle’s superhero lair? Interesting.
The door opened to a concrete staircase that ended with another door hosting a small light bulb at the top. Cato opened the door and the three men went inside. They entered a large but plain looking room. The room had various maps tacked on the walls next to more fishing poles and nets. There was a large table in the center of the room surrounded by office chairs with cupboards underneath. The far wall had a counter with a few ordinary computers and another wall held an impressive flat screen TV. The third wall had racks of safety deposit boxes but that was it for the lair.
Marcus couldn’t stop himself from sighing. “I kind of always thought that a superhero’s lair was supposed to be all high tech and fancy?” he said, surprised at the genuine disappointment he was feeling.
Cato laughed. “What and piss off all my neighbors with massive construction projects?” he asked. “Then alert the power company with huge spikes in usage? Yeah. Good luck with that one, son. Digging out, reinforcing and securing this place was enough of a headache for me.”
Marcus grumbled to himself and Cato pretended to not understand anything he said.
“A simple set up is always more efficient,” Cato said. “I have space for all I need in a highly secured place. Not to mention this is a controlled and secluded area. Always remember the words of King Henoch the Architect, son. Efficiency increases with simplicity.”
Cato led Marcus over to the far wall with the computers and grabbed a set of keys from the counter. He raised the keys to Marcus and urged his nephew to take them.
Marcus recoiled. “What’re you handing me those for?” he asked.
“Because you’re the Crusader now,” Cato said. “This is your lair. That’s why I brought you here.”
Marcus sputtered in indignation but nothing coherent escaped his lips. Cato smiled as he walked over to the wall of safety deposit boxes, forcing Marcus to follow him. After an official tour as brief as the lair was simple, Cato reached into one of the drawers of the table in the middle of the room. The skin on the back of Marcus’s neck prickled. That faint feel of danger outside was now humming with that drawer open
“I know you feel it,” Cato said raising his fist. “This is exactly what you think it is. This is where my- I’m sorry- where your powers come from.”
Cato opened his hand and a large but simple gold ring lay in his palm. The gold ring was big enough to cover a full digit of his middle finger, thick as one of his thumbs, and as bright as the eyes of any Minoan. There were no gemstones of any kind, but the simplicity only seemed to enhance the beauty of the ring. The only thing adorning the ring were engravings. Deep simple lined symbols on the band and a stick figure on the face. The crudely drawn figure on the face of the ring had two hands extended to the sky, a ball surrounded by wavy lines hovering above its head. Sun Worship?
As soon as Marcus touched the unnaturally cool gold, he felt a jolt. It wasn’t a sensation to pull away. It was more like he was a kid again using a vacuum hose to play with his hand, exhilaration firing through his body that made him want more. More what? He wasn’t sure. But Marcus knew he wanted more of whatever ‘more’ was. Never in his life had Marcus ever seen something like this ring. He felt the urge to put the gold on his finger, but as he reached for the gold, he paused. This felt good...too good. The kind of good that was going to require a heavy cost.
“What powers the ring?” Marcus asked, still unable to take his eyes off the ring.
“I’m halfway sure it’s blood,” Cato answered.
Marcus looked up sharply. He paused at the look of longing on his uncle’s face as Cato stared at the ring. By the time Cato was looking at Marcus, his face had returned to the same blank face beaten into Spyros members as children.
“Halfway?” Marcus asked.
Cato shrugged. “I don’t really know much about these rings,” he admitted. “I found this particular ring in a cave off the coast of southeastern Haava a few years before I took you in. When I found the first ring, I dedicated myself to finding out more about these rings but then the accident changed everything.”
“You knew nothing about it and you still put it on?” Marcus asked rolling the ring in his fingers. “That’s pretty reckless of you, uncle.”
Cato chuckled softly. “I was a different man when I was younger,” he said smiling. “Besides, it’s just a ring. Sly said I should try it on.”
Marcus could only nod. His uncle was always known for his eccentricities. His charity work for the city ensured he was constantly invited to galas and fundraisers so he would need to stand out. Wearing a ring he found while vacationing is the exact type of the Cato Spyros would do. After all, it was somewhat illogical to worry about a ring. Then again, what ring felt like this?
“Now it’s your turn to put the ring on,” Cato stated. “I mean you’re gonna have to wear the ring if you’re going to be the Crusader. Right?”
Marcus stared at Cato, wishing his uncle wasn’t right and praying for the fortitude to prove his uncle wrong for the first time in his life.
“Just be careful with that thing,” Cato said.
“Why do you say that now?” Marcus asked, the sudden gravity in his uncle’s voice making his ears perk.
“Because I burned a man to death the first time I wore it,” Cato said.
“It was an accident!” Cato protested. “Everyone knows the way a Damokles mugging goes. They snatch you and take you somewhere hidden. Take your money then send you on your way. Well, when he tried to snatch me, he surprised me. One thing led to another and he went up in flames. I didn’t want the man dead but…well...you know...”
“And you kept wearing it?” Marcus asked incredulously.
“Not at first,” Cato said. “But after that first taste of power...it was impossible to stay away.”
“And the Crusader became your excuse to keep wearing the ring...” Marcus said.
Cato sighed heavily and leaned back in his seat, rubbing the middle of his forehead. “I figured if I’m going to be addicted, I might as well do right with this addiction,” he said.
“So you didn’t even have any goals in your crusading?” Marcus asked.
Cato perked up slightly. “Crusading...” he said with a slight frown and a nod. “I like the way that sounds. Sucks I won’t be able to use it but no, there wasn’t some huge philosophical reasoning behind it. No desire to eradicate all evil. I just liked to get high.”
“If you’re so addicted then why’re you giving the ring to me?” Marcus asked.
“Because I have to,” Cato said, a shiver shaking his shoulders.
“The addiction got worse?”
“The ring started to hurt you?”
“Then why are you parting ways with the ring?”
“Because I have to,” Cato said.
Marcus stared at his uncle and he sensed the finality of his words. “Have you made any enemies?” he asked.
Cato shrugged. “None that can hurt you,” he said. “I haven’t done anything to upset the Eight or anything like that but none of that is my concern.”
“What do you mean?” Marcus asked.
“What do you mean, what do I mean?” Cato asked. “You’re the Crusader now. This is your lair. Do with it what you will. You can even change the uniform if you want but I pray you don’t. The uniform has become a symbol of sorts for some people. The people who confuse the police and obscure any of my- of your tracks may not feel comfortable with the change.”
“I didn’t agree to anything,” Marcus said.
Cato said nothing and stared at his nephew, eyebrows raised, head cocked with his lips pursed.
“I didn’t agree to anything!” Marcus said more vehemently.
Cato still said nothing and just Marcus sighed.
“Can you least pretend I made the decision and this wasn’t preordained by you?” Marcus asked.
“For what?” Cato asked. “These rings will change the world. I will be remembered forever for discovering them. My name will live forever as the man who was instrumental in bringing about the salvaton of the world.”
Something his uncle kept saying nagged on Marcus’ ear.
“You keep saying ‘rings’ as though there are multiple,” Marcus remarked.
In answer, Cato motioned Marcus to follow him and they walked to the wall of safety deposit boxes. “There’s something I suppose I should’ve made plain from the start,” Cato said coming to stop in front of a particular box as he rifled through the ring of keys.
Cato found the key he was looking for and put the key in the left lock before turning the lock. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the few keys he always carried. He placed a matching key into the second lock and turned. The box clicked opened with a metallic thump and Cato pulled out the box to reveal a dull gray drawer with seven radiation meters inside.
“There are many other rings,” Cato said pulling out the meter. “I don’t know how many but there are...many. Headmaster O’neil and I have been searching for them with these meters. He thinks it’s some sort of archeology thing because the overwhelming majority of the rings are scattered across the depths of the Thousand Isles Ocean. Only a dead man sails into the Thousand Isles but there are a few others in areas that are more accessible.”
“You think anyone else has gotten any already?” Marcus asked.
Cato shrugged. “I have no idea but I have people keeping an ear out for me in case I missed anything,” he said. “Now that you’re taking over my duties as the Crusader, I’m going to make sure that these things don’t fall into the wrong hands.”
Marcus nodded. Now he had no choice. His uncle needed him and Marcus would die before he let his Uncle Cato down. Cato walked over to the table in the middle of the room and pulled something out of one of the cabinets under the table as Marcus came to a stop next to him. Marcus looked up and fought to keep disgust from curling his upper lip.
Now that he was this close to the fabric itself and his life wasn’t in danger, Marcus realized just how appalling the uniform of the Crusader really was. His uncle had the now iconic uniform reverently laid out on the table and Cato looked like some sort of doting mother. The white bodysuit, the red boots and gloves and the ornate silver mask...disgusting. Cato carefully readjusted the body suit and the red cape caught Marcus’ eye. Somehow he’d forgotten about that. Thinking of wearing that tacky uniform made Marcus so uncomfortable his stomach hurt. But rather than cringing as he wanted, Marcus smiled and nodded at his giddy uncle who stared adoringly at the obnoxious outfit. The things we do for love.