"In the grave who shall give thee thanks?"
Tad and Paul Watkins were engaged in a favorite pastime of near-teenage boys, trespassing. In specific, they were five miles from home, investigating what lay beyond the rusting barbed wire that surrounded the old Janski place.
As they picked their way through the heavy underbrush, Paul asked his older brother, "What's the big deal about this place anyways? Why was Dad so het up about us never coming here?"
The tousle-haired eleven-year-old picked a burr from his sleeve. "Supposedly, a whole bunch of people died here back when Dad and Mom were little. The 'New Legends,' I think they were called. They were fighting a supervillain and something awful happened."
Paul scrunched up his nose the way he always did when he was thinking. "The 'New Legends?' I never heard of them."
"Well, duh! They're dead! Most of 'em, anyway." Tad ducked under a low-hanging branch. "Now, shush. I think we're real close to where it happened."
The boys came out of the woods into a large open meadow, sparsely covered with brownish grass, and muddy in the bare spots. In the center of the meadow, moss-covered stones lay jumbled together like a child's blocks. They formed a rough circle no higher than Tad's head. Some stones had been levered away, making an entrance.
Inside the circle, there was a pile of rubbish; candy wrappers, cigarette butts, pop and beer cans and a few things the boys could not immediately identify.
"Boy, Mom would have a fit if she saw this place!" laughed Paul.
"Yeah, since this place is supposed to be off limits, a lot of the older kids sneak out here to party. Big Jim says all those 'Danger' signs are just to be safe, and no one's ever gotten hurt here. But Janie said sometimes at night, you can hear something moving under the ground."
Paul shuddered in a sudden cold breeze. "M-moving?"
Sensing an opportunity to tease his little brother, Tad continued. "Yeah, moving. Like a big ol' monster that was buried under the tower when it collapsed, slowly digging its way back to the surface. Digging, digging until it finds little kids to eat."
What was that sound Paul was hearing? Could it be digging? He wasn't sure, but it felt like the ground was moving under his feet. "D-did you hear that?"
"Hear what? Oh, the monster? Yeah, it's coming right up out of the ground for you!" Tad suppressed a snigger.
There was a definite movement beneath Paul's feet now, and his nerve cracked. "Yaaahh!" He ran for the exit.
Tad laughed. "Sweet! What a little scaredy-cat!"
He started to walk after his brother, only to find his foot had caught in something. Tad looked down and saw a dirt-encrusted hand sticking out of the ground. As he stared in horror, it flailed about and grasped his ankle, pulling him down into the soft earth.
"You will not leave my soul in Hell."
A few hours later, a pale, blinking man huddled over a cup of hot chocolate in the Watkins' kitchen. He was wearing an old blanket, and nothing else. He was also apologizing.
"Honestly, Mr. Watkins, I didn't mean to scare your boys. I didn't even know they were there. I was just so glad to have broken out to air after God knows how long...."
Theodore Watkins nodded. "They shouldn't have been out there in the first place." He lifted his face to the doorway. "You two I'll talk to later."
There was a scuffle beyond the door.
Mr. Watkins turned back to his visitor. "Now, just who are you, anyway?"
"Justin Battersly. Talion." Seeing a blank look on Mr. Watkins' face, the visitor addes, "Of the New Legends."
"Oh right, let's see, you were the one that bled a lot, right?"
Justin sighed. "A fair enough description, I suppose. How long was I buried? The place looked pretty run-down."
"Let's see, I was nine then, so twenty years."
"It's 2001!?" Justin's face was even paler than before. "And no one ever came looking for me?"
"They might have, early on," admitted Mr. Watkins. "I don't rightly remember. But I suppose the ones that were left figured everyone in the tower was dead."
"And Lord Sin?"
"He died too, supposedly. Leastways, no one's ever heard from him again."
Justin sighed. "That's a relief. Guess I have a clean slate to start a new life."
"Their memorial is perished with them."
Justin got off the Greyhound bus at the convenience store on the outskirts of Cold River. The Watkins had insisted on giving him a couple hundred dollars and some spare clothing. "Just until you get back on your feet," they assured him.
The store was new, filled with products Justin didn't recognize, and redesigns of the ones he did. Hungry from the long bus ride, he bought a microwave sandwich, a granola bar and a quart of milk. He briefly considered buying a trashy-looking magazine featuring an article on "Omega's Secret Shame," but decided to save his money.
After twenty years, it was a long shot that his family home was still standing, but it was the one place he had to go back to. Justin began walking. Half an hour later, he arrived at the dirt road that led to his childhood home.
The house was still standing, though it had been painted a forest green some time back, and a couple of the outbuildings were missing. Justin didn't recognize the car in the driveway, but that was to be expected. The garden looked well-tended.
He took a deep breath, and rang the doorbell. After a few moments, a woman in her early twenties, with too much makeup on, opened the door.
"We already have a church," she began.
"Excuse me, ma'am. My name is Justin Battersly, and I'm looking for Doris and Greg Battersly, they used to live here."
"Battersly?" The woman frowned, then turned her head away and shouted, "Hey, Honey, you know anyone named Battersly?"
"They used to own this house before we bought it," came a baritone voice from somewhere inside, most likely the dining room. A tall man then came into view behind the woman. "Why do you ask?"
"I'm their son," explained Justin. "I've been... away... for a while."
The man nodded. "Never heard they had one. The husband died about ten years back, and the missus moved to Florida to be with her daughter, I think. Don't have an address or phone, sorry."
"I suppose I can look her up later. Meanwhile, can I borrow a shovel? I buried something in the back yard a while back."
The tall man looked curiously at Justin. "Yes, I suppose you could. Hope you remember where you put it."
Despite the decrepitude of the old barn, made of car batteries, it was still standing, so Justin was able to pace off the correct distance. A half-hour's digging later, he brought up a small metal box, rusting at the corners. The tall man, whose name turned out to be Hogan, watched with interest.
Inside the box, wrapped in a waterproof sack, was a pile of papers and plastic cards. Justin's spare identification, placed here for just such an occasion -- though he'd never anticipated such a long absence.
Hogan stubbed out a cigarette. "Well, I'm disappointed. I thought sure you were an ex-con coming back for the robbery money."
"No such luck. Just a long-dead superhero."
"Superhero? No offense, but you don't look like the type. A little scrawny and all, especially for a farm boy."
"We didn't all get big muscles and chisseled features from our origins, you know." Justin slashed his hand across a corner of the metal box, drawing blood. "Some folks just got powers."
Hogan watched fascinatedly as the wound stitched itself back together. Within moments, there wasn't even a scar. "Who are you, anyway?"
"Talion, of the New Legends."
"Never heard of them."
"You'll be hearing about me now, I can tell you that much."
"His mischief shall return upon his own head."
"So, Mr. Trahn, what you're telling me is that you refuse to give me my money."
The Northstar Bank vice-president put a phony-looking smile on his face. "You misunderstand, Mr. Battersly. We can't give you your money, because it isn't yours anymore. You were declared legally dead thirteen years ago, and your estate was distributed to your heirs. We had no reason to believe you would ever return."
"Okay, so what is a fella who's just come back from the dead supposed to do? The lease on my apartment must have expired ages ago, even with the automatic deposit I had."
"That's your problem, not mine, Mr. Battersly. However, I believe my taxes go to pay for an inordinate amount of welfare services. I'm sure you can find a homeless shelter or something. Perhaps, since you're a meta, you can safely sleep under a bridge tonight." The banker's smile had turned genuine, if thin.
Justin stood, his hands balled into fists, and his jaw tense. "After all I've done for this city, for the world--" He forced himself to be calm. "Are you sure that's how you want to leave this?"
Mr. Trahn sneered at Justin. "I'd never heard of you before today, or your 'New Legends.' I had to look you up on the Internet. And let me tell you, you were nothing but a joke. Your group was nothing but a joke. I only bothered to see you at all because I was curious how much of a nobody you actually were. This interview is at an end." He spun his chair away from Justin.
The angry hero turned on his heel, knowing that violence wouldn't serve his cause any better than reason. They might have new, more diverse faces in management, but petty bureaucrats were the same as ever. "Maybe one of my cousins is still living in the Cities...."
Justin almost didn't notice the men pushing past him as he headed for the bank exit. But suddenly it registered on him that they were all wearing identical black ski masks and black sweatshirts with five-pointed white stars on the chest. "A bank robbery?"
His suspicions were confirmed a moment later when one of the masked men pulled out a pistol and fired it at the ceiling. "This is a robbery! Everyone on the floor, okay?"
Justin dropped, curious to see what new wrinkles had been added to the formula since he'd been away.
As the other robbers brought out their own weapons, a man strode into the bank. He was tall and strong-jawed, clad in a midnight blue body stocking embroidered with gold stars, and a gold cape with blue stars. He grinned.
"Greetings, everyone. I am Star Master, and I assure you that if you cooperate, you will not be injured. I and my Satellites only want money today." He had a pleasing tenor voice. "Telstar, proceed."
"You betcha, Star Master!" said the robber who'd spoken before. Several of the 'Satellites' started shoveling money from the tellers into sacks, while their leader strolled towards the vault.
That seemed to be everyone except the wheelman, so Justin stood up.
"Hey! You, back down, or I'll shoot!"
Talion smiled. "I wouldn't do that if I were you." He walked towards the robber.
"You asked for it, buster!" The robber shot Talion, hitting him in the side, and spinning him nearly halfway around. As Talion regained his balance, grimacing in pain, his wound glowed a phosphorescent green, as did the side of the robber. The criminal screamed and clutched his own side, bringing away hands coated in bright red blood. He collapsed to the floor.
"What th-- Mir! Sputnik, help me out here!" yelled Telstar, as he brought his pistol to bear.
Two of their bullets connected, one shattering Talion's right knee, and the other plowing through his skull. Microseconds later, the robbers went down with the same wounds.
Talion paused to let his wounds knit a bit, and for his vision to clear. When he looked up, he saw that he was surrounded by the three remaining Satellites. They didn't look entirely confident.
"Would you like to surrender now?" he asked.
"Who are you?" demanded one, "And how'd you do that?"
"I am Talion, after the ancient principle of 'an eye for an eye.' Whatsoever you do unto me, I do to you."
Star Master had opened the vault. "What is it now, Skylab?"
The thug called back, "Just some kinda vigilante, boss. We can handle it."
Talion leapt at Skylab's throat. As he had hoped, that was the signal for all three thugs to start beating on him with their fists. He gritted his teeth and hung on, knowing that as much pain as he was in, the thugs were worse off.
The thugs broke off as they realized they'd been tricked, only to fall prey to emboldened bank customers, who were easily able to overcome the weakened Satellites.
Talion stood, and brushed himself off. It was pretty much a lost cause, however, as it just spread the bloodstains. He looked up at Star Master. "So, are you going to come quietly, or do I have to get rough on you?"
"Hahaha! So, fool, you dispatched my Satellites! But your power is as nothing compared to that of the stars themselves! Behold, my greatest invention, the Red Giant--" as Star Master was pulling out an odd-looking weapon, there was a sudden maroon and gold blur in front of him.
Star Master was sprawled on the floor. Over him stood a muscular man in a skin-tight maroon and gold spandex suit that covered every inch of his body, and a big "M" on his chest.
Talion ran towards him. "Hey, Mighty! Good to see you!"
The muscled one looked at Justin. "Talion." His voice indicated mild surprise; his face revealed nothing.
"Yes, I'm back. So, can we talk?"
Mighty shook his head, and gave a shrug. He wound a piece of metal pipe around Star Master, and flew off.
Police cars pulled up outside, as did a newsvan.
Justin quickly gave his statement to a disbelieving police officer, repeatedly having to explain who he was. The out-of-date ID didn't help much.
When he finished, Justin found a microphone being thrust in his face by a blowdried young woman, behind whom was a man with a camera of some sort. "Sir! I understand Mighty actually said something to you! What was it?"
"My name, but--"
The man with the camera interrupted. "Hey, Neile, they just spotted Mighty over on Hennepin Avenue helping a little old lady across the street."
"Great!" She put down the microphone. "Gotta run! And mister, get yourself cleaned up. You're disgusting." The reporters exited rapidly, making Justin feel a little unwanted.
"Excuse me?" came a soprano voice from behind Justin. "I understand you were injured in the robbery?"
Justin turned to see a young woman in a paramedic's uniform. She had short reddish-blonde hair and green eyes, and suddenly Justin was aware of how long it had been since he'd had even the ghost of a relationship with a woman.
"Sir? Oh, that looks like a nasty cut on your forehead." She reached up with a cloth.
"Don't touch--" Justin's warning came to late as the stinging of disinfectant snapped back at the woman.
"Ow!" She looked around, apparently thinking it was an insect that had stung her.
"I'm sorry, Miss, umm,--"
"Swales. Robin Swales. Minneapolis Fire Department."
"Miss Swales. My power doesn't discriminate between pain that is hostile, and pain that's meant to be helpful. You'd better just let me clean myself up." Justin took the cloth and started wiping away blood.
She frowned. "Then it was you that took out all those crooks?"
"All except the leader; Mighty did that. How are they doing?"
"Star Master has a concussion, most of the Satellites are going to live, but we lost the one with the head wound. Was it really necessary to be so rough?"
The cloth was nearly entirely red now, with patches of brown. "I don't choose who lives and who dies. Anyone who attacks me gets what they dish out and no more."
"But, but, you're hardly hurt at all! Even that cut isn't as big as I thought." Robin traced it with a finger, wincing a bit.
"I regenerate. It's a gift."
"I suppose... you're not exactly what I expect a meta to look like."
It was worth a try, Justin decided. She was quite attractive. "We could talk about it over dinner, if you like. I've been away for a long time, and--"
Robin frowned. "I'm a lesbian, and you're ugly. So forget it." She snatched back the cloth and marched away.
Justin sighed. His luck with women was still holding true.
"My flesh also shall rest in hope."
As it happened, Justin did not have to sleep under a bridge that night.
The bank president had seen some of the robbery, and overruled Mr. Trahn
to a degree. There was now a small loan in Justin's name, based on
his future earnings potential as a superhero. Thus the time-lost
man found himself in
a decent hotel room, chowing down on a large room-service meal. He stared at the television, trying to make some sense of CNN.
He was pretty sure now that the United States had made some sort of horrible error, because this George Bush person was clearly not qualified to be President. Either that, or the news media was scrambling his speech electronically to make him sound like an idiot.
There was a knock at the door. "Great," muttered Justin. "With my luck, they've made thinking bad things about the President illegal."
When he opened the door, he heard, "It is you!" and two powerful arms began to crush him in their grip.
"Oh, it's so good to see you and -- can't breathe, blacking out -- oh." The visitor released Justin, and they both gasped for air.
Justin got a good look at his visitor, trying to place her. She was wearing a conservative pantsuit, except for the furred tail sticking out the back, a head scarf and dark glasses. Wait a minute, tail?
"She-Cat? I didn't recognize you with clothes on."
"Ha. Ha. Your sense of humor hasn't changed much, Justin. And it's just Marcie now." She took off the scarf and glasses, revealing her tufted ears and lambent yellow eyes, the slitted pupils adjusting quickly.
"Marcie. How'd you find me?"
"I have my TV gizmo set to automatically record any mention of Mighty. And lo and behold, you were on the screen for about a second. Neile Collins has no idea what a scoop she missed. After that, it was easy. You did check in under your real name, after all."
"Oh. Yes, I did. Like some coffee?"
Marcie stretched. "Yes, please. Not that I like the instant, but I have the feeling this is going to be a long night."
As the water began to heat, Justin asked, "Why didn't you folks ever come looking for me?"
"You were dead." Marcie tapped her cheek. "Or at least that's what we thought. After all, Lord Sin's last spell disintegrated you, and you disintegrated him. And we knew he was dead, because the whole place self-destructed. It was all we could do to get out ourselves. Then what was left of the team broke up, and none of us even wanted to think about the New Legends any more."
"I don't remember being disintegrated, just blacking out, and then spending what seemed like forever digging a little, blacking out, digging a little, et cetera, until I finally got free. So just who was 'we' at that point?"
Marcie began to count on her fingers. "Well, let's see. Ebon Knight, Speedbump, Tick-Tock you should remember, since his death was what ticked Lord Sin off so bad, and probably Grey Wolf all died."
"He was blasted behind some pillars and I've never seen him since. But he always was a sneaky little son of a female wolf."
Justin nodded. "He sure was."
"Mighty went solo. He patrols the Twin Cities pretty much twenty-four seven, and only the Twin Cities." She looked at the pot. "Water's boiling."
As Justin went to pour in the coffee, Marcie continued. "I guess Speedbump's death hit Mighty pretty hard, though he'd never admit it. You remember how Mighty hardly ever talked?"
"Mm." Justin stirred. "Sugar?"
"No, a little creamer though. Well, now Mighty talks maybe once in a blue moon. That Collins woman chases him all the time hoping to get an interview or something."
"Is he still living with his mother?"
"As far as I know. He won't talk to me either."
Justin handed over the coffee. "And what of our 'great leader'?"
"Stormlord? Oh, he and Botanist finally got hitched. They moved to South America a while back to help save the rain forest. Botanist's idea, of course." Marcie sipped and made a face.
"And I just returned from the dead, so that leaves you."
"Yeah. Awful coffee. Wish you drank the stuff, so you'd
learn to make it properly. Anyhow, after the team broke up, I went
into therapy." She held up a hand. "Yes, yes, I know you thought
that should have been done from the beginning. But part of my problem
was that I couldn't focus
enough to care about my behavior problems."
"No surprise there," said Justin.
"It took a while, but my doctor and I finally found a drug regimen that regulates my biochemistry so I don't go wacky all the time. The bad news is that it also screws up my reaction time and balance down to human levels. So I couldn't be a hero anymore." Marcie sighed.
"And now you're doing what?"
Marcie grinned, showing her sharp teeth. "I met a really nice accountant, so I'm a housewife and mother!"
"M-mother?" Justin was flabbergasted. "But how -- ?"
"I got all the right parts when I transformed, silly. And I'm genetically compatible with normal humans. A boy and a girl, both apparently perfectly normal." Marcie paused. "Though neither of them has hit puberty yet, which is when the doctors think any latent metaness will show up."
"Ohh-kay." Justin thought for a moment. "So, besides Mighty, who's been minding the store?"
"Not much of anybody. If a big threat comes in, usually there's an out-of-state hero that comes by eventually. Oh, there was some new kid, but he got an endorsement contract with Reebok almost immediately, so he moved out to the coast and changed his name to Smax!"
Marcie shook her head. "Nope, I think it was part of the Reebok deal."
"A superhero endorsing a tennis shoe?"
"No, a tennis shoe company endorses him. Just like Nike does for Omega."
"Omega, he's the current hot thing, right?" Justin remembered seeing his face on the magazine racks.
"Sure is. Supposedly almost as tough as Avatar, and if his television appearances are any indication, an arrogant, selfish jackass."
"So he would have fit in just fine with the New Legends?"
"Darn straight. And I would have been on him like Swiss on cheese."
"Do you ever, you know, miss being She-Cat?" Justin had good reason to wonder. It had been her dream, after all.
"All the time. But I have responsibilities now. She-Cat, when I was her, didn't understand responsibility. It was all about having fun. I'm...I'm better off now. I can't ever go back."
"I think I understand. Maybe, someday, I'll just be a person again."
They talked about Marcie's children for a few hours, with lots of pictures.
"Oh, it's nearly midnight. I've got to get home. The kids have school tomorrow."
"Sure, Marcie. Thanks for coming by."
She stopped in the doorway and dug in her purse. "I can't believe I forgot this! Here, Justin, for you."
Justin looked at the object Marcie was holding out to him. It was a silvery metal band, engraved with the letter "L."
"Your ring? But don't you ne--"
Marcie shook her head. "No. I told you, I can't be a hero any more. You're going to need this more that I will. Besides, you know I always hated flying. Bye!" She slipped into the night, still stealthy, if nothing else.
It was quiet again in the hotel room, but Justin couldn't sleep. He turned on CNN again, hoping for a clue as to what to do tomorrow.
"--struction continues in Ireland," droned a newsreader. "Today, several members of the Protectorate leant their special talents to the rebuilding efforts."
The Protectorate. A bit on the upscale side of supergroups, perhaps, but perhaps it was time for Talion to aim high for once.
"You have delivered me from the violent man."
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