The night was in full bloom and Marcus hid behind a dumpster as he scouted four buildings across the street from him. Following the attack on the AD bar, crime had spiked all over the region. Rumor said the Eight blamed the attack on the Crusader and were sending a message to the Mayor to put more pressure on the police search for him. This message included the current spike in violent crimes the city-state was experiencing. All across the region, rapes, murders, and assaults had nearly doubled and the Middleton district was one of the worst hit districts. Marcus had no trouble in finding out that a street gang called the J’s were the ones behind it. The J’s belonged to the Swinging Jimmies organization. The Swinging Jimmies organization belonged to the Silverbacks Association. The Silverbacks Association was one of the eight Associations that belonged to the Syndicate of the Eight. Taking out the J’s would tell the city one thing. The Crusader was going to war with the Eight.
The Middleton district was one of the residential districts that housed many of the warehouse and dock workers of the city. The homes and businesses all needed new coats of paint, but all the lights were on inside and the streets were moderately clear of trash. The four buildings Marcus looked at were large multi-storied brown brick buildings with squat square windows and a small park nestled between them. The rundown park had swing sets with no seats, rusty monkey bars, incomplete jungle gyms and a few stone tables for board games. A litter strewn pathway encircled the area with benches on either side of the course hosting scrawny and dirty figures. The figures wore tattered clothing and walked as though they were moving in slow motion or sat slumped on the benches. Junkies. Juxtaposed to all this, there were a few men on the far side of the park situated around a bench.
All of the men wore fine clothes and jewelry, but none shined brighter than the two men sitting down on the bench. The two were laughing and joking with one another while another two stood in the vicinity. The second pair wore less jewelry, but they were laughing at what was said, adding nothing themselves. Four additional men stood in a wide circle around the four men near the bench. These men wore no jewelry and it was these last four men who were the ones interacting with the junkies that came up to them. All eight of them were wearing the silver and black colors of the Silverbacks Association. Looked like Marcus found the people he was looking for.
Marcus stepped out from behind the dumpster and began approaching the drug dealers. He fought the urge to pull at the uncomfortable white leotard, but the shining red gloves would have made his task impossible. His garish red boots thumped on ground as he walked and his gaudy red cape fluttered behind him, the sunburst symbol large in gold print on his chest. For the umpteenth time, Marcus asked the Divine Everlasting why Uncle’s Cato fashion sense was just as terrible as his jokes. The only redeeming part of this outfit was the silver mask. It covered half his face. Even if he didn’t need to keep his identity secret, Marcus wouldn’t want anyone to see him wearing this thing. He wouldn't ever be able to live that down.
The drug dealers saw Marcus long before he reached them. The eight men stared at him in open shock and confusion as he approached. A few of the junkies recognized the sunburst symbol and slunk away which caused the rest of the indigents to wisely make their way away from that place. When Marcus came to a stop in front of the eight gang members, he assumed the most heroic pose he could think of. Legs planted wide, chest inflated and fists on hips. Just like when Uncle Cato saved him the first time. The eight men watched him, but Marcus just stood in next to the rusted swing set. After standing like that for a full minute, Marcus pointed at the two men on the bench.
“Hear me now, drug dealers!” Marcus said in the deepest voice he could manage. “End your criminal machinations and leave this place tonight! Or face the justice of the Crusader!”
The declaration was met with a long silence. Cat and dogs screeched and barked from what seemed like everywhere. There were a few arguments in the buildings echoing down throughout the area. Even a police siren wailed in the distance, but the men in that park were completely silent as they stared at the superhero. Marcus cleared his throat and the eight men erupted in laughter. One of the men on the bench doubled over laughing and held onto the man sitting next to him. The second man was unable to do much because he was too busy pointing at Marcus as he laughed. The two standing men were holding onto each other as they laughed and the four on the perimeter were rolling on the ground.
Standing there near the set of rusty swing set, Marcus felt a hollowness at his center, like he was a kid who just wet himself in front of the whole school. Not only was he fighting crime in an area he didn’t know well, but he was wearing an outfit bright enough to match the sun. Now these guys were now laughing at him. What was next? A little girl kicking him in the shin?
Marcus almost took a step, but as soon as he moved, the air between the nine men changed. The space between them and Marcus became thick with distrust and it seemed like the slightest spark could cause an eruption. Marcus forced himself to keep his breathing steady. He was primed, watching for the slightest movement and waiting for something to happen. The eight men became a little bit too motionless and in their stillness Marcus noticed the hand of one of the standing men. It was falling to-
“Don’t touch your weapon!” Marcus commanded as he pointed at the man’s waist.
As his voice rang out, the man’s waist exploded and bits of metal flew everywhere, Marcus and the other seven men managed to dive and avoid more than just a few cursory scratches. The only person seriously hurt was the man writhing on the ground, his hand a stump and the gun's metal became shrapnel in his waist. The other seven men stared down at their writhing companion trying to figure out what just happened. Marcus was doing the same thing. Uncle Cato's instructions centered around concentrating on the ring's power, but Marcus wasn't doing that...consciously. One of the two men sitting down got to his feet, his eyes locked on the wailing man. He slowly walked over to his dying companion and that was when Marcus noticed his hand was tight on a sub-machine gun he hadn’t noticed before. Marcus involuntarily took a step back and that was when bedlam broke loose.
Without turning away from his dying friend, the man on his knees raised his sub-machine gun and began firing. This spurned the other six men into pulling out their weapons and firing. That small park in the middle of the four towering buildings became a container of death and Marcus was the target. Bullets whizzed through the air in every direction and exploded whatever they hit. The rusty swing sets sparked and disintegrated in small explosions. The jungle gym was hacked down to kindling and then mulched. Nothing was left standing in that park and that when Marcus realized they were using explosive rounds. He didn't know they had explosive rounds. He was coming to the realization that he hadn’t done enough scouting. He actually hadn’t even done the right scouting in the first place.
With the supernatural speed given to him by the ring, Marcus was just fast enough to avoid the slew of bullets. He took three bounding leaps away from his assailants and slid behind a tree on the park's perimeter, kicking up clouds of dust as he got behind cover. Marcus jammed his back against the wood and the bullets followed him, slamming against the tree with loud thunks. Sprays of bark, dust, and leaves cascaded down on him, but thankfully nothing pierced the tree. Marcus closed his eyes and tried to focus on the power of the ring, as step one required. Step two required him to imagine throwing a sphere of flame around the tree...but the air just warmed and shimmered. He'd been able to pull it off a few times before with Uncle Cato's instruction, but nothing was happening. He made a man's gun explode without trying, but now he couldn't do a basic move he'd done before...of course.
After the third try, Marcus’s eyes snapped open and panic pulsated in his chest. Marcus waited for the shot that killed him, but it never came. The tree stood strong and after a little while, the pounding against the tree trunk slowed down to just a few pop shots. Marcus took this opportunity to crane around the side of the tree and almost immediately dust and chips of the trunk went up in a blinding cloud. Marcus ducked back down, but frowned when he noticed something twinkling between his feet. Was that a piece of paper?
As Marcus bent down for cover, he realized that the paper had his name on the cover in a flowing golden script. Not the Crusader but ‘Marcellus Felix Spyros.’ His frown deepened, paranoia flaring. Marcus looked around, but the closest living people were the men making kindling out of the tree. Marcus picked up the piece of paper and read it.
’There is not much time so read this quickly. You can not merely imagine what you wish to happen. You must command the ring. So command the air to your left to harden and then you roll forward. NOW!’
Marcus was even more confused. He looked to his left and noticed that the bushes were shaking. His face dropped when one of the gang members sprang out of the bushes in a spray of leaves. He held two sub-machine guns in his hands and his head swung back and forth like an eager puppy playing fetch. The man’s eyes settled on Marcus and he smiled as he aimed.
Marcus’s eyes widened and he ducked behind his arms, the instructions from the note still floating through his mind. Acting without thought, Marcus willed the air to harden and he felt something leave him. For a two full seconds, Marcus waited for the impact of the bullets he heard, but when nothing happened he opened his eyes and couldn't believe what he saw.
The air in front of him was rippling in a manner that was jarring to his eyes. The air seemed to have taken the quality of a distant mirage on the road, but this mirage was floating and transparent. The vibrations and undulations seemed to be the movement of the very air itself and Marcus had trouble accepting what his eyes were seeing, becoming slightly lightheaded. In the area where the air ripped, flattened bullets were piled at the bottom in a line. Marcus wanted to step forward and touch the rippling air, but he was afraid the shield would dissipate so he remained still.
The man was oblivious to the shield and kept firing until the guns clicked. He then he opened his eyes and flinched, eyes growing wide when he saw the rippling air. The man gasped when he saw the Crusader still crouching behind this shimmering air and then recoiled when he saw the pile of flattened bullets on the ground. The gang member looked up and saw the superhero staring at him with wide golden eyes. They stood there in stillness for three seconds before the gang member began reloading his guns in a rush.
Marcus saw the man’s intentions and got to his feet. He was pleasantly surprised when the iridescent shield stretched to cover him, but he didn’t dally to appreciate the life-saving shield. Rather, Marcus crouched and then took three leaping strides that shot him into a sprint across the park and down the street. The gang member fired rounds at him, but the shimmering air seemed to have a mind of its own and the iridescence shimmering stretched to make sure Marcus was never touched as he fled the scene.
Marcus didn’t stop running until he was walking into the side entrance of the Residential Wing of the villa. He entered the large doors and went into the main living area of the wing on the first floor to fall into one of the soft couches. The room was a large square with dark paneled wood walls, gold frame paintings of landscapes and historical events hanging in every available space. There were two TVs in the middle of the room surrounded by lush red couches. There were matching couches in front of the fireplaces in two corners of the large living area and the rich red carpets were covered by expensive, but worn looking rugs. The myriad of red and gold couches and chairs in the room completed the look of decadence that still felt homey. The fireplaces were usually cold, but as Marcus walked in, he was surprised to see one of them was lit.
Marcus frowned when he recognized Cato sitting in one of the couches next to the fire. His uncle wore the same fluffy white robe and pink rabbit slippers that he always wore. However, Marcus's eye was caught by the man in front of his uncle. The man's back was to him, but something about the man tugged at Marcus’ memory. He was tall with long curly black hair that passed his shoulders. His shoulders were thickly muscled for a man of his frame, but he had an abnormally small waist. He stood with his back straight, legs planted and arms folded in front of him like a man of the Iotan Military. When Marcus appeared, Cato looked up at his nephew and smiled with watery eyes. Marcus frowned at the tears until the man turned around.
There was a sprinkle of hair on the cheeks and a patch of black hair on the chin that were new. There were now lines along his nose and eyes that were were unfamiliar, but that was him. Those piercing golden eyes confirmed it, but Marcus felt the truth more than knew it as soon as his eyes fell on the man. The mischievous smile was just unnecessary verification.
Henoch Sophos Spyros the fifth turned around as though in slow motion, the smile on his face widening when he saw the newcomer. Marcus’ dead brother Noch was alive.