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A Hero's Lament

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His metal mask shone in the sunlight, and he prayed this day would not be his last. His prayers  would go nowhere, as no god could help him now, but he opened his eyes to the sky and spoke barely-remembered hymns nonetheless.

It was a ritual, of sorts, performed before any event like this. Suit up, go out, sing some words that he always seemed to know , and then… then he would just be. Be the number one hero, the commission’s poster boy. Be everything they needed him to be.

That was just his job. To be strong and there and violent when it mattered. To look pretty and to protect those who couldn’t protect themselves by any means necessary. And the things they did were necessary. He believed them.

Dream never doubted them. How could he, if he’d never had a chance?
Out of all the vile things the Hero Commission did, each one getting worse and worse as the so-called Villains and Vigilantes dug into things no one was supposed to know, Dream was their worst and best-kept secret. Everyone knew of Dream. No one knew where he came from.  

Not even the very people unearthing the Hero Commission's dirty secrets knew that secret. Not in its entirety. Maybe they didn’t want to know. Maybe they believed him complacent in it all. In a way, they were right.

Right, but not correct. A very important distinction, because when no one but Dream and those of the highest order knew of his origins, there was only so far a hacker could get. A person’s brain couldn’t be hacked like a computer. Paper records, shredded and burned, couldn’t be recovered.

But maybe that itself wasn’t even true. Not when Dream had been raised by the Hero Commission. Fed lies and beliefs not his own, given a rank and a moniker, never quite knowing who he was beyond ‘Dream.’ He didn’t even know if that was his name.

Chains were so much harder to break when they were the mental kind.

Funny, that it had taken until now for those chains to rust and crumble just enough under their own weight for Dream to pause and wonder if what he was doing was right. The barest thought of rebellion after, what, 18 years of obedience? Or at least, that’s what Dream thought.
Strange, to not know your age. He thought he was in his mid-20’s, but his only real measure was when he’d been allowed to do official hero work with all the bells and whistles and teams that came with it. Only those 18 years or older could hold a full license.

Unless that was also a lie…

Dream shook his head. He couldn’t stand doubting himself right now. Not like this. After, maybe, in the space in the hero tower, the room he called his own. The only place he was mostly alone and could think without being interrupted.

He knew about the cameras.

He didn’t dare question them.

Thanatos was the first to make his presence known. A flock of crows perched anywhere they could, surrounding and far more dangerous than they looked. Phantom feelings of those claws in his stomach made Dream weary.

Not for the first time, he wished his costume wasn’t so geared toward PR purposes. It apparently made him ‘pretty,’ but the only real armor was on his forearms and legs, and even then, it wasn’t nearly enough. But, with his Gift, it had to be.

As per usual, because Dream fought the syndicate far more than he was privately comfortable with, the number one villain himself was nowhere to be seen, hiding in the shadows until he deemed it necessary to strike.

What wasn’t usual was Vex calmly walking up the steps to greet him. Usually, it was Ares who’d interact with him, being of similar physical prowess. Then again, this meeting was for a much different reason than any other.

“Dream!” Vex raised a hand in a wave, body relaxed like this was a social visit and not a coup d'etat against the Hero Commission. Dream said nothing; he rarely did, most days. It took too much energy, energy he didn’t have, when standing hurt as it was.

“Don’t suppose you’ll be a good boy and just let us in, hm?” Vex asked, tilting his head with feigned curiosity. Dream mentally prepared himself for a fight. His Gift automatically sprang to life as he studied the man before him.

Vex. The number three villain. Mostly known for arson, stealing, and his fragile mental state. His Gift, Spirit, lets him venture through walls and turn invisible on a whim. Possible uses for assassination. No known cases tied to him.

Best Course of Action: Blinding

Like a computer program connected to his skull, the information filtered through from seemingly nowhere. A strange sort of recollection Dream was used to, He wasn’t supposed to think the other way.

“Hm, a pity. Guess we’ll have to do this the hard way,” Vex sighed, like he was disappointed Dream hadn’t listened. The pout in his voice was audible, even with the low-tech mask covering the bottom half of his face.

With a surprising, but expected, amount of speed, Vex launched himself forward up the last few steps. Dream eyed his hand, curled with claws aimed to tear out his stomach, or maybe snatch off his mask. Vex had some sort of vendetta against his mask.

Dream dodged left- No. Reboot. Dream dodged right. Just as his Gift always did, it tugged him through the motions. Step, pivot, circle around, an axe whizzing by his skull and a hand just barely missing his face. Don’t touch the axe. Don’t touch Vex.

Touching Vex to hurt him was a dangerous affair when his body used a ‘me first’ rule. If he turned material while in a living object, his body would push away anything in its path. People, animals, plants, didn’t matter. It was useful, but it didn’t work on fabricated objects. 

Being fast enough to blind him, so that he might splinch himself on metal or concrete, was the best and only bet to stop him. Be fast so he can’t react. If he can’t react, he can’t fight back. Can’t go immaterial or invisible. Fast, fast, fast.

He launched himself forward with a dull sort of certainty, or, rather, his Gift did. The specifics didn’t matter. Knife in hand, he aimed, and… Jumped back as the axe’s owner followed through. He sailed down the steps, landing neatly at the bottom.

Positions reversed, he looked back up at his opponents.

Ares. Number Two Villain. Known for his three-year rampage that killed nearly a hundred people. His Gift, Bloodborne, lets him ingest human matter to gain strength. Temporary or permanent, yet to be determined.

Dream zoned back in, already moving, landing on his hands on top of a car and pushing off with enough force to dent it. Ares wasn’t deterred, he never was. To Dream’s knowledge, Ares was sturdy enough to simply break through brick walls. The skill did little for the specially enhanced metal chambers the Hero Commission used, but…

Walls were still much stronger than people were.

Sharp metal whizzed by his body, gouging his gauntlets as he lifted them to parry it. The axe Ares used was special, made by Thanatos, if information served, and could cut through almost anything. Dream didn’t know what it was made out of, but it was a thick black material that reminded him of his handler’s skin, like it was made of solid shadow.

Vex appeared at his right once more, and Dream vaulted over him. Fighting two on one was bad, but it was worse when he couldn’t tell where their leader was. He never could. It was his one weakness. Though, no one else could either.

Ares advanced again, he and Vex pushing Dream to move faster and faster. Vex gained a slash on his cheek, a cut on his sweater, a bruise on his chest. Ares was littered in cuts that didn’t seem to weigh him down. Killing blows barely phased him, so that was no surprise. Vex grew angry.

He knew why. His small amount of armor gained chips and dents. His clothes tore and were slashed at. Yet, his mask remained untouched and his skin unmarred. Nothing seemed to be able to hit him, and maybe, that was the true power of his Gift.

Being able to do anything he knew how to at the level of the strongest superhumans. Parkour and fighting were the main focuses, naturally, but the effect was obvious. And it was frustrating when others fought him, or even fought beside him.

A pity all Gifts had equally bad side effects.

Flipping over Ares, hands on his shoulders and feet planted painfully into his back, Dream landed soundly in the middle of the circular intersection the Hero Commission main office faced. He paused to breathe when neither opponent followed suit.

His teeth rattled at the force his legs had exerted to launch himself from his previous location, jumping far too far to grab and hold himself on some third story of a building. The pavement cracked and shattered, the golden statue of some idol Dream was never told about wobbling dangerously. And then began the decay.

It was always haunting, no matter how many times he watched it. Black vines creeping out over the fragmented pavement, curling around the statue and nearby cars and even the plants. Then, it evaporated into black ash that settled over the landscape. Poisonous, dangerous, yet oddly beautiful in the way it occurred.

At the center was Thanatos, as he always was. Dream ignored the information his Gift provided, he’d long since memorized it anyway. Instead, he rerouted that feature into moving, despite how much he’d regret it later. His body had enough permanent damage. It could tank a little more.

It was necessary, though, when the crows swarmed. Black assaulted his vision as he dodged. Left, right, a flip here, a handspring there. Vex to his right, his left. The axe, watch the axe.

Pivot to his left, jump back. Swing at Vex’s eyes, miss. Vex attempted to grab him. Pull back, no, go forward. Go through him. Cold, empty, wrong, the axe followed. Duck, roll, under Thanatos.

Thanatos wasn’t moving, always watching. The crows scratched at his armor, his stomach. Too many, he couldn’t dodge them all. His head pounded. His vision blurred. Left, right, swing. Crow down, two more. The ash got in his eyes. He couldn’t see.

Back, roll, miss, attack, hit something, he didn’t know what. It hurt, he pushed through. He had to. They told him to. It always hurt. He didn’t need to see. His Gift didn’t need to see.

His vision cleared to shades of neon green before fading into something barely normal. His mask had crumbled, and Thanatos was approaching him. He dodged Vex at his side. Thanatos stopped moving. Ares was behind him.

Surrounded, he was surrounded. Thanatos attacked, and he couldn’t dodge. Strike one, a beautiful mark spiraling out on his stomach like an intricate tattoo. Vines and flowers and images of death. Thanatos attempted strike two. He only needed two.

He could kill anyone with just two.

Dream’s head spun. Dodge, dodge, dodge. There was nowhere to go, but… he threw one of his knives. It hit Thanatos in the arm. Ares attacked in a rage, and Dream took advantage of the opportunity he saw.

Up and up and over, scaling the building and dropping back down. The axe embedded in the wall. A miss. Always a miss.

The mark hurt, it hurt, it always hurt. It would fade. It would take hours, but it always faded. Thanatos couldn’t keep it there forever, and he couldn’t activate it without physical contact. Dream’s Gift didn’t let him stumble.

With all three of the Syndicate, there was no opening. They’d fought together for too long, trained too hard, been together for longer than Dream had been alive. There was no chance. He wasn’t allowed to retreat, though, the Hero Commission wouldn’t let him. Not today.

Primary Mission: Take down The Syndicate by any means necessary

Addendum: Do or Die

His Gift had retained the mission for far too long, it was far too cemented into whatever magic made it work for him to push past it. His muscles ached, breathing burned, and he was so, so tired. He was always so tired. There was nothing he could do but allow it.

A flash of red caught his eye as he was somewhere between Ares and Thanatos, again. The number one villain always started attacking once the mark has been placed. Anything to activate it, anything.

Red, the red. It’s unfamiliar, it’s too familiar. He doesn’t know it, he does though. He was tired, very tired, and very deep in his Gift. A bad day, a very bad day. A bad fight against the Syndicate.

Secondary Mission: Retrieve Vigilantes

Suddenly, Dream was far too aware of what was happening. Of the ache of his muscles. Of the burning, crippling need to collapse from the stress and pain. Of the familiar feeling of his bones being too stressed and cracked from inhuman feats his body wasn’t meant to be able to pull off. Of the ache of his skull and the blood filling his mouth.

A single moment of clarity as his Gift switched missions. Where he felt the side effects just enough to stumble.

Dream felt himself be pulled to get the vigilante, Bedlam was his name? With a Gift that the Hero Commission wanted, so impossibly powerful if only it were controlled and used right. Just like Dream’s.

He’s just a kid .

He doesn’t deserve what you went through .

The moment's hesitation was the only opportunity needed for that fatal blow. He didn’t see it, and he barely felt it. Not the pain, at least. Not the need to scream or cry as he’d heard others had, because collapsing into ash and nothingness and death was something so excruciatingly painful that Thanatos needed to be brought down.

He didn’t recall Thanatos using it often, only against him .

Numb, he hit the floor, tasting the withering magic crawling over him. The only thing he could feel. His vision faded to black and still, he felt it fighting… fighting against something

It didn’t matter. The pain was gone for once. Sure, it was cold but… he was tired, he could ignore that. Dream closed his eyes as the mask faded away. Then everything did.

The Syndicate won, taking down the vile Hero Commission once and for all. The people praised them, and society managed to rebuild. Not perfect, never, but better.

Better without the system of Heroes and Villains. Better without the Commission. Better without Dream…

But the story would be boring if it just ended there. 

Rewind a few years, many many years. Because Gifts only appeared when a child was maybe four or five. Magic was an unstable and volatile thing, after all, and if it didn’t settle, then the child’s body would just shut it down entirely. That was how there were Giftless people.

Dream was the opposite, though, even if he didn’t go by that name at the time. Whatever his original name was had long since been scrubbed from the records, but it hardly mattered anyway. What did, was that Dream was two when he got his gift.

Two and watching his parents be crushed under falling rubble when villains attacked. Two and scared and running fast, too fast, through the commotion. Nothing hit him, and he pushed away obstacles like they were nothing.

He was two when he irreparably damaged his muscles and his leg bones gained the consistency of playdough. Two when he should’ve never walked again…

He was three when the Hero Commission decided he had a use. They found him in his little place, holed away by some nice old lady who didn’t question a strange, often glowing, toddler who just needed some help and a place to sleep. Three and with far too much trauma and pain.

What Dream never remembered was that year he spent with her. Not her name nor her face, only a warm feeling on the rare nights he dreamed. But his Gift? His Gift had a way of remembering, cataloging, naming, even if neither he nor it could ever define itself. It remembered the words she spoke.

“Come back, survive,” She’d pleaded, as she’d been forced to give him up or face consequences. The last words she’d said before she died, the last person to know who Dream used to be, vocal cords silenced so no one would know.

Primary Directive: Survive.

A mission that only became what it was simply because of its impossibility to complete. A collection of magic, volatile and strange, that always made Dream spring back from the worst of things. Something that couldn’t be canceled or rerouted. A drop of life that couldn’t die.

So what happened when it meets an unstoppable killing blow? Something that couldn’t be bounced back from? Where there was nobody, nothing to remember him by? Just the soul and the magic, opposing forces wrestling for control.

It begins with a feedback loop. Going around and around, compounding and strengthening into something more . Something that was neither Dream’s nor Thanatos’ magic. Something that dared fight against the void and the clutches of death.

Days, months, years could pass and Dream wouldn’t know. Wouldn’t feel it because there was nothing to feel, like a coma where he was just barely even aware that he wasn’t fully dead, yet not nearly aware enough to think or do anything about it.

And then the cycle broke like a rubber band, pulled tighter and tighter until it finally snapped. The small, weakened soul sent flying through the void of death, out of control and far too powerful and other for its own good.

Just then, another soul died, one from far, far away. So far that had Dream’s soul been propelled by just the tiniest bit less steam, it would’ve fizzled out and died before reaching it. Yet, it didn’t. 

And just as one man died, another took his place.

One in the afterlife and the other… somewhere truly, blindingly new.

Dream woke to cold tiles on his back and the sound of running water.