Billy Wilkinson was saved by a monster.
Billy screamed and thrashed in the robber’s grasp, while the robber pointed his gun squarely at Billy’s head.
“Give me the money and no one gets hurt!”
Billy’s mother, who had brought him in with her to work that day, sobbed and fumbled over the vault lock, pleading for her son’s life the whole time.
“Open it now!” spat the robber.
And that was when, on millions of television screens across the country, the Mr. Legend theme began to play. The robber, trapped fully within the fourth wall, continued to gesture wildly with his gun between the creaking bank-vault door and the terrified boy in his clutches.
Well off-camera, one of Mr. Legend’s ‘assistants’ froze time around the robber, trapping him in what felt like a thick, gelatinous universe. Another ‘assistant’ punched a hole through the bank wall right in front of Mr. Legend, while a third ‘assistant’ whisked her out of frame too quickly for the cameras or any of the witnesses to catch it.
Mr. Legend stomped proudly over to the robber and cracked his knuckles, like he’d been the one to punch the wall in. The robber looked like he was frozen in fright, but really he just couldn’t move due to Assistant #1’s NEXT power.
Mr. Legend dealt a very human punch to the robber’s face. Mr. Legend was a large enough man that he could deliver a powerful blow, even without NEXT powers. Still, Assistant #3 zoomed Assistant #2 back in, faster than the blink of an eye, just to make sure the robber went down in one mighty punch.
The dust settled.
The wind from one of the hover-cam’s fans blew Mr. Legend’s cape behind him dramatically.
And Billy Wilkenson clung to Mr. Legend’s leg, calling him a hero. Billy Wilkenson’s mother ran over to give Mr. Legend a kiss on the cheek for saving her precious boy.
“All in a day’s work for the heroes of Sternbild!” Mr. Legend said right into the camera, patted Billy on the head, and flashed the audience a killer smile.
Billy Wilkenson was saved by a monster and didn’t even know it.
Yuri Petrov knew it, though, when his father stumbled home that night, reeking of booze, cursing at his assistants who still had their powers, and throwing his ordinary-but-brutal human punch at anyone who got in his way.
“Your father doesn’t mean it,” Yuri’s mother assured him the next morning, as she caked cover-up around Yuri’s black eye. “Your father is a great man.”
“Did you see Mr. Legend beat up that robber last night?” the other kids enthused in school that day. “He’s a real hero!”
And Yuri Petrov alone knew the monster behind the mask, as the rage inside him burned hotter and hotter and…
Dominic Ellis was saved by a monster.
The Southside Rangers and the East Bank Vandals pulled out their guns on either end of the street, and Dominic Ellis ran out after his ball just as the first shots were fired.
Dominic’s mother screamed and Dominic froze, like a deer caught in the headlights, and bullets whizzed past him every way. A mewling little whimper escaped his lips when one of the gang members right in front of him was hit, and thick red oozed from the man’s temple as he crumpled to the ground.
“A gang war has broken out right in the heart of Sternbild!” the announcer’s voice chirped cheerfully from the helicopters circling overhead. “Can our heroes stop them? You vote who saves the day!”
A primodial cry escaped Dominic’s lips and suddenly he was running, sobbing, to where his mother had also rushed out into the fray to try to save her son.
“That’s 200 points for Blue Rose!” the announcer updated everyone perkily when ice crackled up to disarm one flank of gang members.
Of course, that wasn’t enough to stop one stray bullet from hitting Dominic’s mother in the calf. She went down with a scream of anguish, and Dominic screamed “Mom!” at the top of his lungs and ran toward, right through the line of fire, and—
“Wild Tiger! That’s Wild Tiger, using his one-hundred power to block the bullets!” the announcer continued to prattle on. “Six-hundred points to Wild Tiger!”
Dominic sniffled and looked up to where Wild Tiger hunched over both Dominic and his mother, shielding them from the last burst on gunfire.
“A-a-a-and Sky High disarms the last criminals! It’s six-hundred-fifty points to Sky High! Sky High has saved the day!”
The camera flashed to where Sky High did a little spin in mid-air before blasting back off into the stratosphere, before panning back to Wild Tiger, who was now carrying Dominic’s mother over to a waiting ambulance, while Dominic clung to Wild Tiger’s side.
“Thank you, Mithter Tiger,” Dominic said with an endearing lisp that won Wild Tiger an additional twenty-five bonus points.
Wild Tiger grinned toothily at the camera and gave a thumbs’ up before delivering that iconic line, “All in a day’s work for the heroes of Sternbild!”
Hero TV cut to a comercial.
And that was how Dominic Ellis, too, was saved by a monster and didn’t even know it.
Yuri Petrov watched the whole program with fire in his eyes and knew that he alone saw through the heroes’ deceit. Bright smiles and bold poses hadn’t fooled him since he was so young he shouldn’t have known better.
“You can’t lie to me,” Yuri told Wild Tiger’s thumbs’ up, in duplicitous mimicry of his father’s signature pose from years ago. “Thanatos will judge you all.”
Yuri pulled the trigger on the crossbow and smiled when the practice bolt hit its target on the far wall.
It was time to fight back against the lying monsters once and for all.
“Justice be done…”
Julio Lopez was saved by a monster.
Yuri had caught a lucky break, if such things could be called lucky, since he was with Judge Lopez when he got the call from the kidnappers, demanding their ransom.
“It will be all right, Carl,” Yuri lied. “Just call the police.”
“They said that, if I contact the police, they’ll kill Julio.” Judge Lopez collapsed in his chair and ran his hands feverishly through his hair. “It was the Lamont gang, Yuri. I recognized… Oh, God.”
The Lamont gang were a family of two NEXT brothers and their cousin, who had all been arrested just last month. They’d broken out of prison two days later and had been in hiding ever since. They’d killed six people in their last crime spree. Judge Lopez had sentenced them.
Simply put, there was no ransom. Just a masochistic forewarning.
Hero TV was currently filming a high-speed chase downtown. Those always got the highest ratings. Certainly higher than a kidnapping rescue.
“I’ll get help,” Yuri said. “We have to contact the police.”
Judge Lopez hung his head forlornly.
Yuri called it in anyway, because the producers of Hero TV sometimes did double-headers and Yuri had a backdoor into all Hero TV’s systems. In less than five minutes, Hero TV’s tracking units had identified the warehouse where Julio Lopez was being held.
Yuri slipped out of the Justice Hall without anyone noticing. Everyone who could was trying to reassure Judge Lopez that his case was on Hero TV’s docket next.
Yuri stepped into the night, pulled on his mask, and took off in a trail of blue and green flames.
The warehouse was quiet as the dead when Yuri landed on the rooftop, but as he paused and waited, he could make out indistinct sobs, then shouting and the sound of a blow. The sobs quieted.
Yuri burned a hole down through the ceiling and landed in the middle of the Lamont gang with his crossbow cocked.
They tried to fight back – they always did – but Yuri lit them up with Justice’s fire, one after the other, until the warehouse echoed with their screams, wails, and desperate pleas for mercy. Through it all, Julio sat tied to a chair and watched with wide eyes as the flesh of his captors melted inward, until their charred skeletons crumbled to ash.
When the last of the enemy had sizzled to nothing, Yuri turned to leave. Sternbild’s hypocrites would soon be by to take care of the rest.
“M-M-M…” Julio stuttered.
Yuri walked away.
“M-Mister Lunatic!” Julio finally said.
Yuri paused and turned to where Julio sat tied. “What?” he demanded.
“I… Can I see my dad now, Mister Lunatic?” Julio sniffed.
Yuri tensed. “Don’t call me that.”
Julio sniffed some more.
“Someone will be coming for you shortly,” Yuri offered after an awkward pause.
“I wanna see my dad now!”
“Look, kid, I’m not a hero. You don’t want to come with me.” It felt ridiculous to have to say something like that.
“You are, too!” Julio insisted. “I saw you on TV!”
“As the villain!” Yuri found himself spouting out in disbelief, before his brain could catch up with his words. This whole situation was absurd, because Yuri wasn’t the villain even when he was, but how did anyone explain the depths of corruption in this city to a judge’s six-year-old son?
“Nuh-uh,” Julio shook his head. “They were the bad guys.” He nodded his head toward the black circles of soot where the Lamont gang had been. “You saved me. That makes you the hero.”
Yuri was beginning to develop a headache. “Whatever. I’ll untie you. But wait here for the police.”
“’Kay!” Julio agreed far too happily.
Yuri approached Julio cautiously, like the kid was a cobra ready to strike. Julio kicked his feet in the air when Yuri – extremely carefully – burned through the ropes around the kid’s ankles.When Yuri burned through the ropes around Julio’s wrists, Julio hopped up out of the chair and instantly stumbled because the circulation hadn’t returned yet to his limbs.
It wasn’t Yuri’s fault; it was just instinct to catch the kid. Tiny hands clutched at his cape, entangling him like a fly in a spider’s web.
“I’m afraid of the dark,” Julio said. “I don’t want to stay here alone.”
“Mom says that’s a bad word,” Julio said.
Yuri tore his cape away. “Get this straight,” he tried to say in his most menacing voice. “I am not a hero. I am not here to save you. I am here to burn society’s scum to ash. Heroes do not even exist! Do you understand now?”
Yuri turned away and escaped into blue-and-green flight just as the police sirens could be heard in the distance.
Julio Lopez was saved by a monster and didn’t even know it, despite the fact that Yuri had told him to his face repeatedly. In the end, it didn’t matter whether the monsters lied or told the truth.
“No matter what you do, my Legend lives on,” the ghost of Yuri’s father taunted him that night in the mirror. “All in a day’s work for the heroes of Sternbild…”
Yuri screamed and scorched the glass into a liquid puddle, and still the echo of his father’s words wouldn’t let him escape.
“A hero saved me,” Julio told a reporter later that night. “He had a cape and a mask and superpowers and everything!”
And, as always Yuri Petrov alone knew the monster behind the mask, as the madness inside him bubbled over and over and…
For just one second…