Ali lived in an apartment complex in the residential district of Fox’s Nose about thirty minutes northwest of downtown. The drive from the villa to Ali’s apartment would normally take a full hour, but Marcus was knocking on her door in six minutes. Her panicked call infused him with all the fear she felt. Ali peeked through the spyhole and the door was flung open, her small frame jumping into his arms as soon as she could. Marcus enclosed her in a hug and he murmured in her ear to try and calm her shivering. Once her breathing was even, he peeled her off and searched the apartment.After finding nothing, Marcus walked the grounds of the apartment complex and even did a fly over, but he found nothing. When he saw he got all that he was going to get, he returned to Ali’s apartment, sitting down next to her on the couch in her living room. He encased her in his arms and she held onto him, shivering as she explained what happened.
For the past two weeks, there’d been someone calling her at work. This person said nothing and would often hang up as soon as she picked up. A nuisance but only a nuisance. But then, when she was driving home, some white minivan had been following her. Ali noticed the minivan parked near her apartment and she saw a man inside the van. Nothing more than the outline of a man’s figure, but she swore she saw that same figure near the bushes outside her bathroom window. That was when she called Marcus.
When Ali finished, Marcus reassured her that no one was out there. She asked Marcus to stay the night and he told her she was crazy if she thought he was going anywhere for the next few days. His heart melted when she graced him with one of those perfect smiles. As the couple made their way to her bedroom, Marcus heard Noch’s words buzzing in his ear like an overeager mosquito.
The next day, Marcus was patrolling downtown Damokles in the late afternoon. The dark yellow sky was clear, the breeze cool as the wind rushed past his face. The streets and sidewalks were packed with professionals, young and old, getting the attention of whoever was near and pointing up at the white streak flying through the air. A daytime sighting of the hero was a rare one. Seeing the hero rounding Centennial Plaza, a wide open paved area near the heart of downtown, people got excited like a parade was marching before them.
Marcus had come to ignore the staring and pointing when something caught his ear. He planted his boots on the side of a skyscraper. He was hundreds of feet in the air facing the street below with his lips parting as he listened. Another muffled cry sent Marcus flying and the air clapped behind him as he took off. Within seconds, he came upon a commotion in an alley between two restaurants. They were a few blocks east of Centennial Plaza and Marcus saw a man on top of what looked to be a young girl in a uniform of some sort. He was thrusting violently like his life depended on his climax with three other men holding down the catatonic girl, each with loose belts and satisfied looks in their eyes.
Marcus streaked through the air as he dove for the group at a dangerous speed. He planted his boots in the chest of the man at the girl’s head, jackknifing in the air and connecting a boot to the head of the still thrusting man. He landed over the small child’s body as both men went soaring through the air. As soon as his boots touched the ground, Marcus sprang, and seized the throats of the two remaining men as he stood upright. He smashed their heads together and he felt the bones in their necks snap upon impact, but he didn’t care. Something about their smiles drained Marcus of his empathy for any of them.
With the rapists handled, Marcus dropped to his knees and gently scooped up the little girl. She was a skinny little thing with frizzy black hair and big cloudy green eyes that fluttered when he lifted her. The tattered uniform she wore belonged to a nearby all girls secondary school meaning this girl couldn’t be any older than fourteen.
“You’re gonna be fine,” Marcus said as he cradled her tiny broken body. He cooed softly to comfort her the best he could as he turned around and launched himself into the sky.
The rings allowed the wearer to access remnants of the powers that spawned the universe, access to the very particles that combined to make the scientific table of elements. Novice wearers who were still new to grasping control of the particles, caused explosions which could be chained into flames as was with the case with Cato. Mastery came with taking control of the particle while being delicate enough to avoid an explosion. Activated, the ring allowed Marcus to create a bubble around the two of them by hardening the particles of the air to form a shield. This allowed him creep close to Mach-One each time he tore through the air without hurting himself or anyone he might be carrying. The bubble also allowed him to talk to her as though they were alone in a small room.
“Are…are you the Crusader?” the little girl asked in a pitifully weak voice. “Is it really you?”
Marcus nodded as he grunted to clear the lump that kept trying to form at the base of his throat. “It sure is me, sweetheart,” he said gently, smiling down at her. “It’s so nice to meet you, princess. What’s your name?”
“Mmmiii…Mmiirr…Miriam…Mmmmmii…” she trailed off, eyes fluttering as she began drifting into unconsciousness.
“Miriam!” Marcus urged. “Come on, Miriam! Stay with me, Miriam! You’re going to hurt my feelings if you don’t talk to me! Miriam! You don’t want to hurt the feelings of a superhero, do you, Miriam?”
“I’m sorry,” Miriam croaked. “I’m just…so…tired…”
“We have to get you some help before you can sleep, okay, Miriam?” Marcus asked. “Can you stay awake with me, Miriam? Please?”
“Okay…I’ll try…” Miriam said, obviously fighting off unconsciousness.
“What happened, Miriam?” Marcus asked. “How did those men take you from your school?”
“I…I don’t remember.” “What do you remember?”
Miriam fell silent and Marcus almost nudged her to make sure she remained awake but she spoke after a brief pause.
“I wasn’t feeling good after breakfast this morning.” she said in that threadbare voice of hers. “I told Mrs. Wagner and she sent me to see Nurse Wendy. Nurse Wendy gave me some pink stuff and some crackers and I started feeling better so she sent me back to class but…”
“What? What is it, Miriam?”
“I…remember…I think I was going up the stairwell when someone grabbed me and put something over my nose and mouth and then…” Miriam paused for a second before continuing, face crumpling. “I can remember waking up, but they kept that rag over my nose and mouth and everything keeps going dark anytime I think about it...”
Marcus comforted the little girl the best he could before moving the conversation into subjects he figured a teenage girl would like. Boy bands, actors, other girls at school and Miriam seemed happy enough to talk about these, but Marcus felt sick. He managed to keep her awake and talking, but he neither absorbed nor gave any information in the conversation. Miriam needed to hear words that Marcus didn’t have and he felt an overwhelming sense of deficiency as he realized this. All Marcus could do was keep her distracted and the weight his failure manifested into a physical mass in his chest. She was so young, so innocent. Marcus did the only thing he knew would help and tightened his grip on Miriam as he poured every ounce of his energy into his speed.
The flight to a hospital wasn’t a long one and wearing the uniform of the Crusader made sure Marcus was seen and helped. Although he didn’t like remaining in any one place for too long when wearing the uniform, Marcus still walked into the ER with the nurses after he placed Miriam on the stretcher. He was tired from the flight and he needed time to rest. So he informed the nurses of everything he knew as they took the little girl into the hospital, cradling one of Miriam’s small hands in both his hands as they walked.
The nurses took over long before they reached the restricted area and Marcus continued to walk with the stretcher, reassuring Miriam as much as he could. He promised her everything was going to be fine. He promised her that she was going to get out of their soon. For once, he was glad of something on this repulsive, but undeniably symbolic uniform. The silver mask left his mouth exposed so he was able to smile for Miriam.
Looking into those big cloudy green eyes of hers, Marcus could see hope flare in those dimming, once innocent eyes of hers. A smile touched her lips despite her agony and she tried to talk, but the she didn’t have the strength. Marcus was stopped short by a pair of terrified security guards clutching his arms. He looked at the two men and then realized he’d dragged them a few feet inside the restricted area. He immediately retreated with apologies to the two men and walked back towards the ER lobby. He was still trying to process what he just witnessed when something made him look up.
The ER lobby was a large white tiled square with a receptionist’s counter next to the large silver doors leading to the hospital’s interior. Boxy TVs were anchored in the corners of the room, each one on a different fuzzy channel with the closed captioning on. The fluorescent lights overhead were painful to the eye, but what hurt Marcus most were the people surrounding the cheap furniture and outdated magazines.
People in various conditions, mild and major, filled the ER lobby to the brim. There was blood everywhere, groans of pain reverberating through the air alongside the cries of babies Marcus didn’t see. People held crooked limbs, bloody rags, and a myriad of items that were likely the coldest things the hurt people could find at the time of injury. There were far too many people in that lobby for any civilized nation and every single one of them had their eyes on the Crusader.
Some of the people staring at him looked angry, others looked scared, but most had a cast of hope to their features. Marcus wanted to make as quick an exit as possible, but looking at that ER lobby, he knew that wasn’t going to happen. He was proven correct when he moved to take a step and a stampede broke out. Marcus felt a moment of fear, but that passed as soon as people began inundating him with petitions and calls for vengeance and justice. He tried to get away, but the people wouldn’t move unless he agreed to do what was asked. This led to a grinding process of Marcus nodding and grunting before shuffling a step or two, three if he was lucky, then having to nod or grunt again. After a while, Marcus managed to get out of the automatic doors and he flung himself into the air.
As he flew, Noch’s words drifted in Marcus’s ear like the comforting feeling one gets from hearing logs crackling in the fireplace on a snowy night. By now, the sun was nothing more than a blood red slice sitting on the orange horizon. The stars were making their appearance in the cloudless sky and the moon was a faint purple blotted suggestion. Marcus flew over the less urbanized parishes and townships surrounding Damokles proper but he saw nothing except Miriam’s hopeful eyes. Not the stars, not the moon, not even the wall of darkness that congealed in front of him.
The sudden crash disoriented him and Marcus began plummeting to the ground. He caught himself before he fell more than twenty feet by somersaulting using the momentum of the premature corkscrews. As soon as he was stable, he immediately began scanning the area.
He hovered over the parking lot of an abandoned shopping center that had yet to begin decaying. The outlines of the signs and marquees were still visible above the boarded up entrances and weeds grew in the cracks of the parking lot pavement. Small mom and pop shops dotted the small road they shared though more than a few of the surrounding buildings were just as dark as the shopping center. Marcus saw nothing and he wondered if he was imagining things. He was still trying to figure out what happened when darkness congealed and smashed him in the chest. Air exploded from his lungs, his head spinning as he caught himself in the air. Darkness congealed once more and smacked Marcus across the jaw. This threw off his balance once more and he was fighting to stop himself from spinning as he fell.
By the Divine and all his Saints, no way. This…this was not happening. Was he really about to fight…darkness? Was this real life? Darkness itself? Papa said the forces of Apophis would begin emerging, but he never said anything about having to fight literal darkness.
A blow to his chin sent Marcus tumbling through the air again until he stopped himself midair just in time enough to receive another blow to the back of his head. That sent him plunging to the ground once more, but this time Marcus could only focus on covering himself from the blows that rained down on him as he fell.
He crashed into the concrete at full speed, dust and rock chips spraying everywhere upon impact. Marcus was still balled up against the blows that continued to bash him, but now that he was no longer occupied by remaining in the air, Marcus redirected his focus.
Marcus closed his eyes and took control of every particle in a ten foot radius around him as the blows continued to crack against his body, growing stronger with each strike in the last rays of the sun. He kept a light touch on his grip of the surrounding particles and was pleased when he sensed very human motions. A thunderous blow to the right side of Marcus’s body sent him tumbling into the shadows of the abandoned building. He managed to jump back to his feet, a smile on his lips as he slid to a stop.
As he got to his feet, Marcus compacted the particles without hardening the air like he would to make a shield. Rather he made a bubble and performed osmosis to increase the pressure inside of the bubble without making the air itself any denser or harder to move through. The new composition in the bubble of control was far more sensitive and this gave Marcus a clearer picture of exactly what he was fighting.
The bubble told Marcus the person was behind him and doing some motion. Then something else, an incredibly dense ball of some sort, condensed into existence. The person began moving, the dense ball shifting with his movements and Marcus swept the legs out from under the person behind him. The person sprawled onto the ground, the dense ball dissipating and Marcus pounced on the attack. Marcus felt the person trying to get back to his feet but he dropped into a crouch and performed another leg sweep, sending the person sprawling once more. This time Marcus didn’t stop moving and he continued the spin until his back was to the sprawled figure. He exploded out of his crouch and flipped once in the air, coming down with both knees aimed for the sprawled figure. Marcus wanted to end this quickly, but the person rolled out of the way at the last minute. As soon as he hit the ground, Marcus rolled in the same direction and was rewarded with clothes under his hands.
A man’s rough hands tried to push him away, but the grappling methodologies of King’s Law were proficient and Marcus was able to force a wrestling engagement with the individual. The dark form was strong but untrained. Within seconds, Marcus was on top of the person, feet on the ground and bent over the struggling man.
Making sure to keep his weight forward, Marcus pinned the man to the ground and landed a thunderous punch to the man’s head. Marcus felt the man’s body lose cohesion for a second, but as Marcus cocked his arm back for another swing, a bar of darkness congealed and smacked Marcus in his throat. He was launched straight up into the air and the bar dissipated as though it never existed. Marcus managed to catch a street light as he soared into the sky. He swung around to stand on top of the pole, swaying as he balanced and he produced a ball of flames, leaving it hovering above his cocked fist to cast an orange light onto his face. Something shifted in the darkness in front of him and the ball of flames grew as Marcus pulled his arm back, but whatever moved, dissipated with the danger of the attack.
When nothing happened, Marcus lowered his arm, but kept the flames hovering over his shoulder. His bubble told him no one was near him even when he increased the sensitivity and doubled the radius twice over. Satisfied that he was alone, Marcus jumped down to the street below. He stood still as he caught his breath for a minute. He began walking down the sidewalk to stretch his legs a bit in the hopes of speeding his recovery when something in the window of one of the mom and pop shops caught his eye. In the restaurant, there was a TV showcasing the evening news to the nonexistent clientele. What Marcus saw there had him hurtling himself into the sky long before he was ready.
When Marcus arrived home, he searched out Noch. He found his brother sitting in one of the secluded alcoves surrounding the main living area on the second floor of the Residential Wing. Noch’s eyes were closed as he reclined in a large blue bean bag wearing a pair of those huge headphones from thirty years ago. They were plugged into one of those too big wooden box vinyl record players from the same time period and he had a small joint in his lips. Noch leaned back with his eyes closed, tapping the ash of the joint into the ashtray resting on his chest and swaying to the music. Marcus walked up to his brother and snatched the joint from his lips which made Noch’s eyes snap open. He saw Marcus and grew confused then jubilant when he witnessed his normally abstemious brother put the joint to his lips. That jubilance soured to dismay when Marcus’ ring-enhanced lungs finished the entire joint with one pull.
Noch jumped to his feet when Marcus pulled away a tragically small bit and looked near to tears when Marcus flicked it away. With his chin raised to the sky, smoke bellowed out of Marcus’s mouth like he was some old smokestack from the Badlands of Sigma. When his lungs were empty, Marcus began nodding as he looked down at his brother.
“Let’s do it,” Marcus said, already feeling the numbing effects of the drug. “I want to control everything that happens in this city. I want structure in the underworld of Damokles and you will get that for me.”
Noch cried out, punching the air in his excitement. Marcus took a deep breath. The tree’s euphoric effects were hitting him harder and harder as the time passed, but he liked how it felt. It didn’t compare to the high from the ring, but it was still nice. He needed to feel this. To escape the horrors of the reality in which he lived. The high made his next decision much easier. There was something he was going to have to do if he planned on doing this right and the knowledge Papa gave him told him what he needed to do.
The ring was glowing by the time Marcus raised his fist. Sparks flashed between swirling strands of electricity encircling Marcus’s entire fist. The room felt supercharged by the powers being channeled and a low buzzing could be heard.
Noch immediately stripped off his shirt staring at the glowing ring. The knowledge from Papa said the mark of the ring must be placed above the heart and Marcus chose the perfect place on the rigid contours of his brother’s scarred ribs. He placed his hand on the point and looked at Noch. His brother nodded and the two of them stared at the ring, neither golden eye wavering as Marcus’s fist got closer. No smoke trailed into the air and no smell filled the space either, but the sizzling and popping of Noch’s skin was loud and clear. Noch grunted as his skin sizzled, but nothing else.
This was a lot of power to give to someone that returned to his life less than a month ago, but Marcus couldn’t do this carousel anymore. A scant two weeks and he was ready to dirty his hands exactly like Uncle Cato asked him to not do. Marcus was disappointed in himself for falling, but his uncle’s warning was muted after what he saw on the TV of that mom and pop restaurant.
Never again would he see a face on the news. The face of a beautiful little girl with big cloudy green eyes and a smile big enough to host ice skating events. Never again would he see ‘Tragic’ under her picture. Never again would such an innocent little girl be listed as the deceased victim of a brutal gang rape following her abduction from her school by a group containing a particular man. A particular man whose mugshot revealed him to be a man Marcus had delivered to the police.