"I break your laws. Note that: your laws, not mine. But if I am bound by laws, they are of my own making, and I believe that is my right - to choose which authority to submit to and in what way."
When Heroes Fall
They say you can tell everything about a man by the sound of his last scream. Whether he's a coward, a hero, beaten and defeated, or biding his time and hoping for a fool's escape. It's my favorite moment—that final scream. Their adrenaline and fear, their loathing and helplessness, they're all instruments culminating in a last, heart-wrenching crescendo. And everyone, no matter the gender, age, race or religion, everyone has a final scream.
Except this man, this hero, this colorful peacock who thinks himself so special to his idolizing children. Even when he's spread eagled on a table with wrists and ankles bound in barbed wire, he refuses to scream. No matter how many hot pokers I use to brand his skin underneath that red and gold leotard, he merely sucks in his lip and bites, blood dribbling down his chin. So then I move onto the knives and the razors, slicing off bits of his flesh, severing a few fingers and toes. And what does he do? He clenches his eyes shut, gives me an expression that should accompany the most glorious of music—but there's silence. Emptiness. Only a knitted brow and pale cheeks, labored breathing, wide eyes—but no scream.
No fucking scream!
Not even the shrieks from my past can suffice in wake of his silence. And make no mistake, I remember each and every one of them. I store them inside the furthest corners of my mind, then replay them on days where I'm feeling depressed. And now I use them to fight off my incompetence. In any other situation it's the best pick-me-up I can imagine.
But not today. If anything they're a mockery of what I can't achieve.
"Don't do this, Ashley."
He struggles to talk over his pain. I can hear it, that lump in his throat. I know well this tone, the one he uses when trying to convince criminals that killing a hostage isn't the answer. Each word is dipped in honey. Sweet to the taste, but deadly to the offender. It hides the consequences of surrender, claiming everything will be okay if the villain lays down his weapon and lets the helpless child go.
But I'm no fool.
I slam my knife onto a tray next to his head. I have him lying on a metal table, something you'd see in a doctor's office covered in paper. But there's no paper here, only blood. After glancing at the knife, he turns back to me and we lock eyes, his red and teary, mine narrowed in frustration. Unable to stand looking at his stupid mask, one that imitates the face of a red bird, I yank it free. He winces as the movement jostles the barbs in his wrists. They dig deeper, but nothing breaks his gaze from mine. He glares at me from behind bangs of orange, sweaty hair.
I say, "You refuse to scream, but you're still able to beg?"
"I'm not saying don't do this to me." He closes his eyes then swallows between his heavy breathing. "I'm saying don't do this to yourself."
I chuckle, shake my head and turn away. "Why? So things can go back to the way they were? So I can kneel in your shadow, hoping one day to stand in a spotlight as big as yours? The Cardinal. All everyone ever talked about was The Cardinal—and no matter how many times I risked my life, no matter how my thugs I beat off helpless women, no matter how many burning buildings I ran into to save that stupid fucking kid who always hides in a closet, they never cheered for me. They never cheered for Dark Panther!"
I grab my knife and plunge it into the back of his left hand. Blood spurts, more of it pools, and I go still. I watch him, how his lips twist. How they part as he closes his eyes. When I see his tongue lolling forward, I wait for it, crave it, beg for it to be so.
But no sound comes out of his mouth. Not even a whimper.
He isn't stupid. He knows once I get what I want his death will follow.
"Things can never go back to the way they were." I tug the knife free. "They ignored me. Took me for granted. The Cardinal is an idol, a hero, a fucking action figure. I see you on commercials, t-shirts, lunch boxes! But Dark Panther?"
"They loved you, Ashley."
"Loved? Yes, they loved me. Loved to hate me after my hand slipped and I killed that kid being held hostage by a bank robber. Then they couldn't stop talking about me. Searching for me. Hunting me. Condemning me." My eyes slide to his bruised face. "And it'll happen to you one day as well, Russell. Mark my words. If there's one thing I learned while sitting under your wing, it's that people can't wait to see their hero fall. They're always waiting for the day we make a mistake, waiting so they can peg us as failures."
He shakes his head. "That's not true—"
I impale his other hand hoping to catch him off-guard in midsentence. I lean forward, wait to hear his words twist into a scream. But no. Again he bites his lip. It's like he knows it's coming—like I'm another of his predictable villains.
After I growl, I say, "Not true? How can you possibly think it's not true? I can see it bright as day behind all that idolizing. It crouches inside their eyes, the desire to jump across rooftops like we do. To be as strong and as fast as we are. To be able to take on twenty thugs before walking away without a scratch. They're jealous of us, Russell. Jealous of The Cardinal. And the moment you give them a reason to attack you, they will. They all will, even the children." I pause to laugh. "Especially the children."
He pulls on his restraints. I don't know why he bothers—we both know I'm an expert when it comes to tying knots. I was the one in charge of binding the robbers and thugs while we waited for the police to arrive. Thinking back to those nights I remember how those cops looked at us and cursed under their breath. Like we were treading on their ground—offending them for doing what they couldn't.
We kept their streets clean when they couldn't to do it themselves. The Cardinal and Dark Panther once fought side-by-side to give this city hope. To show its citizens that anyone can stand up and fight back. That no one is helpless.
"But that was a long time ago," I say to myself.
Russell watches me. He grunts when I tug my knife out of his hand, breathes through his nose and keeps his lips tightly pressed. The ironic thing about this whole situation is that we are, right now, inside his own basement. There's only one floor separating him from help—but for to him get that help, he'll have to scream. He'll have to yell. He'll have to give me what I want.
After he regains his composure, Russell says, "That's not true. All they wanted was an apology."
"An apology, huh?" I use the knife to clean under my fingernails—nails filed to sharp points like a panther's. "I wonder what they'll want after they find your mutilated corpse. Perhaps they'll shower me with gifts for doing what no normal human could accomplish. Wouldn't that be funny? I can see the news articles now. Dark Panther—"
"—taken down by Silver Bullet."
When hearing a new voice from behind me, I hiss. I glance over my shoulder to see another man standing in the doorway dressed in his silver outfit. He's looking down the barrel of a gun, has me in his crosshairs with finger light on the trigger. I spin around. My knife is a blur, but no matter how fast I am, I'm not fast enough.
I'm knocked against the table, knife falling from limp fingers. My leg feels like it's on fire.
I sink to my knees, other leg knocked out from under me. The bastard knows the perfect place to shoot, where the armor of my suit links together creating the smallest of openings. My blood dribbles down my calves and pools around me. This time I'm the one screaming, spinning around so that I'm on my ass and crawling backward. I press up against a wall. I fumble with my utility belt trying to find my flash-bang.
A fist sinks into my gut. Silver Bullet doesn't take chances. He's a sidekick much like I used to be: hot-headed to a fault and ready to do what's necessary to make sure a villain doesn't escape. The Cardinal watches me from the table, lips twisted and saying nothing. It's now that I understand he used our conversation to keep me busy. It's a tactic we both exploited countless times—keep the villain talking until one of us arrives to save the other.
My head bounces off the wall. Everything grows fuzzy. In a last resort I lash out with my claws, feel satisfaction when they slice through Silver Bullet's suit and dig into his arm. He screams. I laugh.
He whips me across the face with his pistol. I taste blood, spit out a tooth. I'm spun around, arms pulled behind my back. Manacles bite my wrists. I thrash and twist, hissing, growling, roaring as loud as I can.
A third bullet shreds my shoulder. I go still, swallow mouthfuls of air. After a moan, I slump onto my side. Silver Bullet rolls me over so I'm on my back, then leers down at me like he's peering through a magnifying glass. He looks ready to set me on fire.
"Go on, Silver Bullet. Laugh! Gloat!" I say. "It'll never change the truth! You're a slave! An underdog who's denied the spotlight just like I was—how long do you think it'll be until you turn out to be just like me?"
The Cardinal, in that authoritative voice I once secretly despised, says, "Don't listen to her, Silver Bullet. She's mad. You just stopped one of the most deadly villains in the city; people will be talking about you for months. Now come untie me."
Silver Bullet keeps watching me, staring at me, dissecting me like I'm an intriguing specimen. I see something in his eyes. Something familiar. It's been three years since I've escaped The Cardinal's shadow—three years this young man has spent navigating that same darkness.
"No." Silver Bullet shakes his head. "No, I don't think I will."
He leaves me to approach The Cardinal. He leans down and picks up my knife, places it under The Cardinal's chin. I gasp, widen my eyes, meet my former mentor's look of shock. In his final seconds we're no longer superheroes, but Russell and Ashley. Forgotten friends. Former comrades.
I hide my face. I don't see it, but I hear Russell's blood splatter across the floor. He gurgles. He attempts to scream. My chest heaves. I swallow bile, then look up when feeling fingers curl in my hair. Silver Bullet yanks me up and presses me against the wall, his gun prodding my forehead.
"Why?" I ask. "Why?"
"I can already hear the news anchors!" he laughs. "'Silver Bullet takes down Dark Panther after she brutally murders The Cardinal in cold blood'! I'll be a hero born from the ashes of an icon. The only freak left for these people to worship—me. Just me. Just Silver Bullet. No one else."
As his finger tightens on the trigger, I finally realize the madness forced onto us by our own fame.
"No one else."
And then there is only darkness.
Author's Note: This is for the Review Game's Writing Challenge Contest - April. Voting happens from the 7th to the 14th. Don't forget to vote for your favorites!
This month's provided prompt is at the top of the page.