Theory I “Benevolence” M

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+01      Benevolence                                       
[Super Man of the Megalopolitan Realm]

Waves rolled in from a shimmering ocean, rubbing cozily up against buildings worn from countless tides that came before. Establishments sank in their mucked foundations, street signs dripped with the spray of the waves, and the shallow water glimmered with a distorted view of once-tread concrete just beneath the surface. The downtown area was a sunken testament to nature’s ability to retake and adapt, visible from nearly every western-facing view in the greater metropolitan area. One skyscraper in particular had a clear view to the west coast stretching from Main Street, which led straight from a coastline avenue up to the front steps of the building, just as the street forked into two other thoroughfares. Sitting in that building, looking out from a cushy office, or outside of a cubicle block, gave a fantastic view of the sunset on the water, and now, the devastation the flood brought with its rising waters. A young man stood adjacent to a watercooler, nursing a tiny paper cup of lukewarm water in his hand as he stared down Main Street, his eyes suddenly fixed on the flashing lights speeding up the street towards the office.

Vicario arrived in the realm only a few hours ago, but he had already heard more sirens since his arrival than he had ever heard before, always distant wailing within the canyons of the city. A gaggle of sirens screamed through the streets at the foot of the high rise, headed towards the viaduct that snaked its way through the districts, over the neighborhoods, and out of the city. The police cruisers sped by a bar just as the door closed behind Vicario’s entrance, muffling the cacophonous caravan as it passed. Vicario surreptitiously glanced at the other patrons, taking in the modest clientele. They didn’t seem like a troublesome sort. Sliding into the first open seat at the counter, Vicario rested his elbows perpendicular to the edge. He waited patiently, watching from the corner of his eye as the bartender sized him up. Vicario kept his attention on the television in the corner of the ceiling until the bartender sidled over.

“What can I getcha?” he said. He leaned on his end of the bar, his biceps bulging snugly in the sleeves of his black t-shirt to hold his weight.

“Uh…” Vicario thought for a moment. “…what’s good here? I’ll have that.”

The bartender nodded, then setting down a mug to spray a golden brown draft up to its rim. He gently slid the drink in front of Vicario, and in thanking the bartender, he started his query.

“Hey so…have you guys gotten anyone lately that seemed as if they weren’t exactly from around here?”

The bartender rubbed the scruff on his chin and chuckled.

“Y’mean other than you?”

“Heh, you got me,” Vicario said.

The bartender turned to refill a basket of pretzels, and Vicario leaned over the bar just a bit to keep his attention.

“I was just looking for someone, or maybe if there was some strange stuff happening around town.”

“What are you, some kind of a bounty hunter or something?” he asked.

“Something like that yeah, I s’pose.”

“There’s trouble!”

Vicario and the bartender turned to a booth nestled in the back of the bar, where a couple sat staring excitedly at the television.

“It’s him, he’ll show! Yo, turn it up!”

The bartender swiped the remote from under the bartop and aimed it at the screen. A news anchor’s voice quickly loudened to accompany the scene unfolding in view of the camera. An armored car had been overturned on a highway spanning over the city. Traffic had been backed up, but a minivan closer to the off-kilter vehicle spewed fire and black smoke from under its hood. Four black-clad figures waved firearms to keep what few police that could fit on the highway at bay.

“What’s all this?” Vicario asked.

“You want somethin’ strange, this is about it here.” The bartender leaned against the bar, closer to Vicario so as to relay information. “A couple months ago this guy in a cape showed up, started trying to clean up the town. It’s got a lotta people excited any time there’s some sort of trouble goin’ on.”

“Why’s that? For a chance to see this caped guy?”

“Yup…and if the trouble is televised like this, you can bet he’ll show up. Breaking news has become a big thing around here, just in hopes of seeing this super man.”

“What makes him so super?”

“See for yourself – here he comes.”

The view on the television rose from the situation on the highway to a figure soaring over the city. The camera zoomed in close on the fuzzy shape of a man with a cape flapping wildly behind him.

~

The highway came up fast, a pillar of black pinpointing where the trouble was. The super man weaved between two of the last tall buildings in the end of the district before it gave way to shorter neighborhoods, overshadowed by the serpentine viaduct that led further and further out of the city proper. As he came in for a landing, he threw his feet down, gracelessly catching the concrete strip left vacant between the clogged lanes of traffic. His heels dug into the road enough to spit up small chunks and a cloud of powdered stone.

“You’re here!” a police officer shouted, embarrassed at the amount of relief and desperation that spilled out in his voice.

“What seems to be the problem here?” the super man asked, his gaze stern beneath the red mask covering the upper half of his face.

“These guys tried to jack an armored car, but didn’t account for the traffic and it got turned over. Shit’s all backed up now, and they took a family in a minivan hostage.” The officer lifted his cap and brushed his hair back as he rattled off the events. “They’ve already shot up the minivan, and they aren’t afraid to shoot at us either. They wanted a clean getaway with the cash, but we can’t even get them a vehicle here on the road if we were even inclined to give ‘em one.”

“Sounds hectic.”

“Very. So uh…if you wanna…do your thing,” the officer replied, and before he could finish the super man was already making a small leap past the barricade of cars.

As he landed, his foot brushed an ejected shell, one of many on the concrete, and he stopped just short of the no-man’s land the robbers had created between the armored car and the police barricade. One of the robbers peered out from behind the overturned armored car and fired a burst from his rifle. The bullets hit the caped man squarely, and within moments the other robbers appeared, drawing their own rifles and firing upon him. Unfazed, compacted bullets fell at the super man’s feet. He slipped forward like a streak, first to the robber closest to him. A punch to his gut brought the robber down. Then another streak to another robber, where an overhead strike sent him down into the pavement. A third streak towards the third robber ended with the super man punching straight, sending the criminal sprawling over the hood of a car.

The fourth and final robber jumped out from behind the armored car and loosed a bevy of gunfire towards the caped man, who strode forward unflinchingly. As he approached, the caped man grabbed the robber’s rifle by the barrel and pulled it up, hanging the assailant by his death grip on the weapon.

“Let go,” the caped man muttered.

The robber, astonished, seemed at a loss for what to do, so the caped man decided for him with a fist into his sternum. The robber flew back into the side of the overturned armored car, and crumbled like an old doll. The super man turned to the gathered crowd past the police barricade and threw the rifle down, planted by its steel barrel in the concrete of the highway. Police rushed in, apprehending the robbers and safely escorting the hostages held behind the armored car. Fire fighters snaked a hose through the barricade to snuff out the blaze belching out of the minivan’s hood. Cheers from stranded motorists carried over the police’s cacophony, and the officer the caped man had conversed with before approached.

“Hey, thanks!”

“No problem, take care.” The caped man was already floating into the air, and with a snap of the sound barrier he flew off, back towards the heart of the city’s jagged skyline.

~

The bar patrons around Vicario cheered and clapped at the television.

“That strange enough for you?” the bartender asked.

Vicario nodded with a smile. The bartender reminded Vicario to call if he needed anything, and then absconded to another part of the bar, leaving the enigmatic young man alone with his mugged draft.

“Strange indeed,” a diminutive voice said.

“Definitely,” Vicario replied.

A small person, standing no taller than six inches, stepped out from behind Vicario’s mug on the countertop. Chromatic wings twitched at its back as it leaned against his hand wrapped around the mug’s handle. Lof was Vicario’s constant companion, always present to guide him in his travels.

“What do you think then?” Lof asked.

“About what?”

“Do you think it’s an imbalance factor? Or something else?”

Vicario looked around, still worried that conversing with his faerie companion would draw the attention of others. Lof had assured Vicario many times that there was nothing to worry about, as fey conference happened just outside of a normal person’s cognizance, despite how second-nature it felt to do. Vicario’s lips moved, and his voice carried, but only those of the fey could comprehend it.

“The people here seem pretty astonished by that super man’s appearance, so I would wager against it being a normal world occurrence,” Vicario said.

“And did you see that other district, underwater and all,” Lof pointed out, brushing her hand through her curled, pale blue hair.

“You think they might be related?”

“Possibly. It is ‘a duality that explains itself’.”

“If you say so.”

“At least now we have a lead.”

“Right. Sword’s already humming.”

The steel hanging from Vicario’s waist, beneath his longcoat, quivered at the sense of something.

“I suppose we should find him then. Get to it,” said Lof as she disappeared in a blink of light.

Vicario nodded, and then reached into his pocket, filling his palm with small, featureless, circular chips of light blue metal. With a wave of his hand, Vicario spread them on the counter next to his drink. Fey magic changed the faces of the chips to the tender accepted by the bar. As Vicario passed to the entrance, he thanked the bartender for his help, but then stopped at the door, turning back.

“Sorry to bug you again, but can you tell me about the floodwaters?”

The bartender leaned over the counter, his voice hushed. “You really must be new here. A few months ago there was just this giant wave, came outta nowhere off the coast. Most of downtown is just sunk now.”

“I see. Thanks.”

~

The super man lowered himself down to a secluded rooftop within the business district. He let out a deep sigh, and checked his costume, running his hands along the fabric for any tears or scuffs. The robbers’ bullets seemed to have left no marks. Content, the man started to remove his cape when Vicario appeared from behind a large air conditioning unit.

“Quite the powers you have there,” Vicario said.

The caped man darted back, adding more space between the two of them with his extraordinary speed.

“Who are you?” the man latched his cape back onto his costume.

“Just a traveller interested in curiosities, like yourself.”

“I’m no curiosity. Just a man doing what needs to be done to protect the people of this city.”

“So what do they call you, then?” Vicario asked, crossing his arms.

“Haven’t picked out a name yet. ‘The guardian of Ostopolis’ gets used a lot in the papers.”

Lof appeared in a sprinkle of light, and floated to rest on Vicario’s shoulder.

“He is definitely radiating a lot of mana, much more than what the other people in this realm do,” she said.

“Yeah, I can sense it too, without even trying,” Vicario said, then turning his attention back to the super man.

“Who are you talking to?” The Guardian cocked his head.

Vicario and Lof’s eyes widened. “He has so much mana that his perception is heightened?” Lof stuttered, hesitant to speak, for fear of being overheard.

“Sorry, I didn’t think you could catch that. Your powers seem strong and wide-ranging.”

“They’re a blessing, for me and this city.”

The Guardian’s costume was certainly nothing more than normal fabric, which meant that whatever protected him from the bullets he took earlier was more metaphysical than anything else.

“Okay, ‘the Guardian,’ can I ask you where you got your powers, if I’m not being too forward?”

“Sorry, that’s a secret,” he snapped.

“I suppose. We all have secrets. Would it help if I told you mine first?” Vicario mused.

The super man didn’t respond, and he kept a guarded posture.

“I’m not really from around here.”

“Not much of a secret, if you ask me.”

“I come from another realm.”

“Whatever that means.”

“I’ve been tasked by higher powers to help maintain the balance of a very important source of energy, which makes up everything in the macroverse. When that energy becomes imbalanced, it can reveal itself as areas of land that wither and die; what seems like demonic influence or malformation; or it can look like miracles, or…super powers.”

“And this energy of yours…”

“Mana,” Vicario answered.

“You think this ‘mana’ gave me my powers, then?”

“That’s the reigning theory. If that is how it happened, I’ve gotta rectify it.”

Vicario brushed aside the tail of his coat and pulled a silvery grip from his waist. It looked like a sword without a blade, and Vicario held its top away with the utmost care.

The super man slid back, floating into the air just a few feet from the rooftop. “So you wanna take this from me? I got these powers and I want to do good with them, and you want to take that all away?”

“It only depends on how you got those powers: scientific experimentation – not my problem. Spontaneous endowment…” Vicario held the handle out from his side. The top of the grip blossomed into an intricate hilt, a shining blade extending from it with a resounding chorus of singing metal. “…that’s more my area.”

“So you have to kill me?”

“It’s an option, but I can get mana without harming anyone.”

“Without harming anyone? Taking this away from me will leave these people defenseless. I only wanted to make a difference! And now you want to take away the one thing that lets me do that?”

“Any person can make a difference, it doesn’t matter how strong you are – just that you want to. Don’t use that power as some sort of crutch. It happens far too often, and the results aren’t pretty.”

“Sorry traveler, it might be time for you to move on from this place,” the Guardian said, floating backwards past the roof’s edge.

“It’s my job to keep the balance of mana,” Vicario said, pointing his sword at the super man. “Don’t make me chase after you.”

“If you do, I’ll make you regret it. Safe travels.”

The Guardian turned and blasted off through the city in a blink, and Lof sighed.

“So much for that avenue,” she said.

“It’s hard to give up something when you make it such an important part of who you are.”

“I think he deserves an explanation, maybe then he’ll understand.”

“Agreed,” Vicario said, raising his sword to rest horizontally in the air.

“Better follow him.” Lof rose from Vicario’s shoulder, giving him space to work.

Vicario channeled focus on the sword in his hands, feeling its weight as he pointed it ahead. The blade quivered, the weight shifting to the right, guiding his upper body. The blade began to glow a faint teal as Vicario pivoted to his right, and the weight of the weapon evened out again.

“He may be fast, but he doesn’t know about all the mana he’s radiating. Won’t be hard to keep track of him.”

~

The Guardian had returned to his alter ego after expanding the distance between him and Vicario, becoming what seemed to be a simple salaryman in glasses and a suit. Vicario had followed the super man back to a skyscraper that stood right at the fork in Main Street, where the hero had remained for some time. Vicario and Lof bided their time at a café across the street from the building, waiting for the mild-mannered man to reappear. Lof sat on Vicario’s forearm as it lay across the small table, his fingers curving around a cup coffee that had long since lost the warmth within. Vicario kept his mind open, veritably swimming in the flow of mana that wound its way through the city streets.

“How are you finding this place?” Lof asked.

“Busy, but not unusual. Back home wasn’t all that different sometimes,” Vicario said, his metaphysical senses catching on an empty feeling that lingered deep underfoot. “I can feel something missing, though.”

“Ah, that.” Lof nodded. “The core of the imbalance, like dried-up roots crumbling beneath the realm itself.”

“Bad news?”

“That’s how it worsens. If we can’t get that excess of mana out of the super man and fed back into the realm, standing water will be the least of this city’s troubles.”

“Let’s hope our friend the Guardian sees it that way.”

“What will you do if you can’t get through to him?”

“He probably has the power to defend himself, if he really wants to keep that power.”

“He can stop bullets with his face, are you sure you want to go up against that?”

“My options are limited…” Vicario said, staring off towards the lobby of the building ahead. Even before he could see the mild man, his mana emanated through the doors, marking his appearance well beforehand. “Here he comes.”

A mild man stepped out from the lobby, and while he could hide his superhero identity from the public with mediocrity, he could not hide what coursed through his body, that blinding, overpowering flow of mana. Vicario rose from his chair, leaving his half-filled cup on the table to follow his quarry. He wound his way through the city’s streets, waiting for the best moment to approach. When the Guardian crossed over into an alleyway that opened into an empty basketball court, Vicario drew his sword and leapt from hiding.

The Guardian spun around and raised his left arm to block Vicario’s sword as it sang through the air. The force of the blow tore his jacket and shirt sleeve open, revealing the Guardian’s costume underneath. Vicario landed on the pavement and slid, planting his sword in the concrete to stop himself.

“Your perception really is heightened. Skin’s really tough too, huh?” Vicario said. “…or is it something just above the skin, like a shield? Your costume isn’t scratched.”

“Yeah…but that still stung.” The Guardian shook his left arm. “You have some power too.”

“Part of what I do. Look, if you let me explain…”

“Seems like I won’t be getting rid of you then. You want my powers.”

“Not for myself, if it makes you feel any better, but I do need to take them. You having these powers is because of an imbalance of mana in this realm. Your boon comes at the cost of something else’s loss.”

“And you’re okay with leaving this town defenseless? Did you know I stopped a robbery and saved hostages today – what do you think would have happened if I hadn’t been there?”

Vicario shrugged.

“I can only hope authorities would have been able to handle it. That’s why they exist in the first place, right? To protect people?”

“Yeah, well…I can do it better. This town has already seen an increase in crime, they need me.”

“Did you ever think that criminals become emboldened, and take more drastic measures because someone as powerful as you exists? You think you’re a deterrent, but you may be inciting more desperation, more radical action, where accounting for your interference requires more drastic solutions.”

“So the alternative is to take away this city’s guardian entirely?”

“You’re not thinking of the bigger picture here.” Vicario opened his arms in plea. “‘The Guardian’s’ existence could have an adverse effect that brings down this realm in the end. It goes beyond heroes and criminals, the danger seeps into the very core of your world – if that imbalance isn’t taken care of.”

Vicario raised his sword, gripping it in both hands tightly, throttling the spiraling handle.

“You’re really serious about this then, huh?”

Vicario didn’t answer, instead staring sternly at the Guardian for whatever move he might have made. The swordsman could match him in speed, and at least when the Guardian did anything there was a slight flare of mana betraying his actions, but Lof was right: he was resilient, and could still pose a serious threat.

“Well, I’m not gonna give this up without a fight, but…not here. This town has seen a little too much destruction already. With the two of us, I figure it might get messy.”

Vicario slowly lowered his sword. The Guardian glanced around to ensure no onlookers were present, and then took a step back and lifted off the ground.

“When you’re ready, meet me downtown…where the water covers the streets.”

Vicario nodded, and the Guardian hung in the air for a moment, simply studying the swordsman. He then shot straight up into the sky and snapped to fly parallel with the horizon, disappearing amidst the tops of the buildings.

“Did that go as planned for you?” Lof’s disembodied voice carried a tinge of disappointment.

“I didn’t really expect otherwise. If he’s itching for a fight, there’s not much I can do.”

~

Vicario headed downtown as dusk began to settle in. The sun dipped into the ocean off the coast of the city, staining the saltwater an ephemeral orange. Vicario found the Guardian on the roof of a small building, its top only a foot above the standing water that consumed the downtown district. Vicario made large leaps across the rooftops, skipping over streets turned rivers and creek-like alleys. When he came to the Guardian, he stood back for a moment. The super man sat on the edge of the roof, still in his suit with the torn sleeve. Vicario moved up and stood at the edge next to him, taking in the sunset and the drowned town.

“I used to own a bakery, down over that way,” the Guardian said, pointing towards a larger body of water surrounded by taller buildings standing above the surface. “You can’t see the sign now…the water’s too high.”

A moment passed, the two simply listening to the waves brushing up against the buildings, water trickling down from empty stairs and desks in forgotten business offices.

“This place sounds so peaceful now – used to be noisier. Kids used to play down over there, a stretch of street that wasn’t all that busy, and an alleyway that was pretty well-lit, safe to play around in. Can’t hear anything now…”

There was a distinct change in the Guardian, different from Vicario’s first encounters with him. Before where there was conviction, Vicario suddenly sensed pensiveness, and apprehension.

“You could hear the mechanics working away on peoples’ cars too, that way. People around here didn’t really have a lot of money to afford new cars, so those two brothers would fix up a lot of run-down ones, the only cars some families had. They wouldn’t overcharge, or cheat you either, like you normally hear.” The Guardian laughed in his reflections. “Once, when I needed a new radiator, I paid them in a box of donuts from my bakery every morning for like a month. Then, after it had been all paid off, I kept delivering the donuts, told them to keep a running tab with ‘em, use it to pay off some other peoples’ bills.”

“How nice of you.”

“We were a pretty tight community, needed to look out for each other. When the flood hit, I tried my best to help everyone. Me and the guy who owned a sporting goods store got in one of his boats, headed out into the street as the waters rose, picking up people along the way. We were headed up Main Street, trying to get to higher ground, but…who would have known it would turn into a riptide? Our boat smashed against the side of a building, turned over, and everyone was getting dragged out to the coast. Out to the open sea.

“I’d figured that my powers came a few days after the flood, but…maybe they happened that same day. I was the only one strong enough to fight the current and make it to safety. This balance stuff you were talking about…mana. You think the flood was caused by that, too?”

“Most natural disasters work that way, a positive balance somewhere creates a negative balance somewhere else. And it doesn’t just stop there – good crops in one field could mean bad crops in another, might cause unrest, accusations of tampering or something. Societies have fallen for less.”

“So, good crops might cause bad crops, but…could a flood be caused by…a guy getting superpowers?”

“Is that what you think now? That it’s your fault?”

“Well…I mean…” the Guardian trailed off in thought.

Vicario turned to the man.

“Look, the flood didn’t give you super powers, and you getting super powers didn’t cause the flood. In my travels, there’s what’s called ‘a duality that explains itself,’ which just means an imbalance that causes two different effects, related, but neither causes the other.”

The Guardian pushed himself to his feet.

“So I just get powers on the same day a flood washes my town off the map? What’s the point? Who decides that’s balance?”

Vicario shook his head slowly.

“Mana doesn’t work that way, it’s not some consciousness that chooses one thing or another; it’s all chaos theory. It’s not out to get your town, or make you into something more, it just happens; like the weather, you get sun, and you get storms.”

“And what then? Isn’t there a balance now?” The Guardian threw his arms open to the flooded area. “Downtown is a bathtub and I’m a superhero? Isn’t that what you want? Tit for tat or whatever?”

“That’s not the natural order. It can snowball into something even more dangerous.”

“‘It’s not the natural order?’ I became a super man after this town sank. I lost my neighbors, my bakery. Now I work in some box all day, wearing a noose around my neck, but then I can help people – I stop crime and save lives, with these powers. Isn’t that good enough? Isn’t that an acceptable balance?”

“If humans were meant to have super powers, you’d have them without a flood attached to the receipt. Like I said, it’s the natural order of things, you ever wondered why the waters haven’t receded here?” Vicario pointed to the dusk-rusted waters. “You ever wonder why it flooded in the first place? It’s not supposed to be this way, and you’re not supposed to be that way. You let me restore the balance, and these streets will dry up.”

“Only if I give up my powers, and really, what’s the point? Why do you think I brought us here? The city thinks this place is too expensive to recover, it’s already a lost cause.”

“Nothing is a lost cause, no matter how bad things look,” Vicario snapped. “They only feel the way they do because the imbalance is making things worse, that’s how it happens. It starts with the land, seeps into the people, and then burrows deeper into the realm itself. It festers and causes more trouble. The world rots away.”

“If there really is bigger and badder trouble coming, then this city will need me. I can’t give up what I am, I can’t walk away from it.” The Guardian’s voice was loud, but wavered.

“Fine then, you wanna keep those powers, fight for them. You win, you get to keep playing hero; you lose, I set things right.” Vicario drew his sword, the blade blooming from the hilt with the resounding cry of a tinny voice. “But if you think the loss of your neighbors, your life, and whatever troubles come afterward are worth keeping those powers, then you better fight like you mean it.”

The two men locked eyes, and the shrill cry of a coastal bird pierced the calming waves. The Guardian stepped forward, his right arm a blur as it hooked towards Vicario. Vicario raised his offhand with an open palm, creating a curving wall of translucent hexagons to deflect the blow. The shield disappeared as quickly as it was erected, but the force of the blow threw the swordsman backwards. The Guardian rushed in with another punch, but Vicario drew his sword in front of him, bracing the flat of the blade across his left forearm. The Guardian threw his fist straight forward, his knuckles pressing against the silver metal while Vicario leaned in to withstand the punch.

Vicario jumped back, glancing at the blade of his sword, now severely bent. The Guardian smirked, but Vicario shook his arm and the blade snapped straight back to form with the sound of warping metal.

“That sword is somethin’ else…” The Guardian said.

“It’s full of surprises.”

Vicario coiled his arm back and leapt forward, bringing his sword down as he closed the distance with the Guardian. As the super man raised his hands to catch the weapon, the blade extended several feet, its width growing. The Guardian buckled under the new, unexpected weight of his opponent’s weapon, forcing the blade to the side and into the concrete. Vicario put his weight into the end of the sword and used its position to vault over the Guardian, high into the air as the blade receded back to its original form. The swordsman turned, almost weightless over the standing water, and swiped his free hand to loose a fireball towards the Guardian. The orb hit the man in the back, bursting on contact and burning through his suit jacket and dress shirt.

The Guardian turned with coiled legs and launched himself into the air towards Vicario. The two met with fist and blade, punching and parrying over the still water that rippled with the resonance of each blow. Vicario swiped at the Guardian, then thrust his offhand forward to release a blast into the super man’s chest. The Guardian flew backwards over the flooded streets, reeling from the blast, his cape half-unfurled from the tear in his suit jacket and flapping through the air like a single limp wing. Vicario gave chase, flying through the air, kicking off roofs and the sides of buildings. The Guardian righted himself, stopping in midair just as Vicario approached, and he slammed his with a straight punch. The swordsman flew back, right through an old billboard situated atop a building. Metal and wood collapsed in on itself, smothering Vicario.

The Guardian fluttered over, hovering above the waterlogged streets. Vicario pushed himself up from the debris, raising his sword. He held a hand to his chest, nursing a visible fist-shaped, teal-colored bruise.

“Do you yield?”

“I’m not down for the count yet. I can roll with the punches, hard as they may be…” Vicario said. The wound on his chest began to glow, and it soon began to slowly disappear.

The Guardian opened his arms, welcoming another round. Vicario thrust his hand forward, sheathed in a gold light. Shining chains appeared from all sides, converging on the Guardian and snaking their way around his form. Vicario leapt from the rubble and swung his sword straight across the bound Guardian’s chest. The chains snapped in a brilliant shimmer and the Guardian flew off, smashing through the side of one of the taller buildings rising out of the water. Chunks of concrete and glass rained into the seawater as Vicario gave chase, skipping between rooftops.

The Guardian emerged from the hole in the building as the dust settled, and Vicario was overheard, running down the side of the building toward the Guardian. With another swipe of his sword, he sent the Guardian rocketing towards the water below. Vicario continued his sprint down the building, following the Guardian as he recovered just before splashing into seawater. The super man blasted off, skimming the water, and Vicario kicked off the building to give chase.

The Guardian landed on a rooftop and took a moment to catch his breath. Vicario spun his sword over his head, the metal warping into a long-hafted spear. The Guardian rolled forward just as Vicario came down spear-first, impaling the concrete. The super man turned and rushed forward with his fist wound back, but Vicario ducked under his punch by sliding downward, holding onto the spear to spin vershelf around. The Guardian planted his feet into the roof to stop himself, and Vicario returned to his feet, pulling the spear from the ground as it reformed into a sword. The swordsman whipped his free hand ahead, unleashing a spray of frost, but the Guardian avoided it by darting into the air.

The super man then swooped down, lifting Vicario off the rooftop with a low punch the swordsman was barely able to block. With only a moment before gravity again took hold, he came from above, striking downward. The Guardian grabbed the blade with his bare hands, and the two fighters descended onto the rooftop. The concrete buckled under the Guardian’s feet, holding tightly to the blade while Vicario hung suspended above the hero.

The Guardian tossed Vicario to the side, and the swordsman rolled over the concrete and popped up to his feet. As Vicario approached, the Guardian seemed distracted, his gaze fixated on something just in the distance, the top of a sign, just barely peeking out above the water’s surface. Vicario closed the distance, and the Guardian snapped back, swinging his fist in a wide, haphazard arc, but it lacked form and speed. The punch lacked commitment. The swordsman slid inside the hero’s arm span while the blade of his sword turned to an ethereal teal. Vicario thrust the blade into the center of the super man’s chest, a spark of light erupting from the point of contact. The Guardian was shocked, but he didn’t fight back, seemingly resigned to whatever fate Vicario would deliver to him.

Strands of teal whipped lithely from the Guardian’s chest, cresting across the blade and spiraling into the base of the handle. When the wisps of mana subsided, Vicario drew the sword from the man’s chest with a quick flick of his wrist. The Guardian fell backwards to the rooftop, running his hands over his chest.

“There’s no…that didn’t hurt,” he muttered.

“Of course not,” Vicario said, the blade of his sword retracting with a silvery sing, the handguard wilting back into the grip. “I wasn’t aiming for you.”

The man picked himself up and took cautious steps, seemingly accounting for any sudden weakness that never appeared. He walked over to the edge of the building, and set his hands on a thin piece of a metal protruding from a billboard. He fruitlessly tried to bend the metal, grunting with effort, then nodding with acceptance. He looked over the edge, at the water lapping at the building’s sides.

“The water isn’t receding. D’you lie to me?” He turned, his stance slightly guarded, as if he was ready to fight despite losing his strength.

“Redistribution of the mana is a different process. I can take it, but I can’t give it. That’s for the faeries to handle.”

The man nodded, not quite believing, or at least not really caring about the specifics. He looked at the costume beneath his mangled sleeve, and then to his cape, spilling from his torn jacket and dress shirt, tugging at the fabric and chuckling.

“It was fun while it lasted.”

“Feeling sorry for yourself now?”

“Kinda.”

“Don’t. You were a hero because you decided to help people, and from what you told me, you have for most of your life. Superpowers just made it easier.”

“I guess you’re right. Back to being plain old Danny.”

“Plain old Danny already sounded like a decent enough guy.” Vicario replaced his sword at his hip, underneath his coat, and then walked toward the center of the rooftop. “And just think, it could have been someone else instead you who got those powers. It could have been someone who used them to hurt the city.”

“I guess it really was a blessing then, that it came to someone like me?”

“I’d say so.”

“Hey…so…this is just what you do – go around making sure mana is okay? What about the people?”

Vicario smiled with a short chuckle.

“If the mana isn’t okay, the people won’t be either. And if it makes you feel any better, I’m not the only traveler – it’d be someone else if it wasn’t me, and they might not have been nearly as nice.”

Danny hummed at the thought.

“I should be going, though; lots of other realms to head to.”

“What’s it like? Out there, I mean.”

“Out there?” Vicario looked to the distance. “It’s interesting, but I’m compelled not to say too much.”

“Well then, see you later?”

“Maybe. I’ll try to swing by some time to see how things are progressing. Realistically though, me coming back is a bad thing.”

“Oh uh…safe travels then, I guess.”

Vicario nodded, pulling the hood of his coat over his head.

“Remember: nothing is a lost cause as long as people like you exist.”

A surge of energy began to rise at Vicario’s feet, and teal, root-like lines spread from his hood, down his shoulders, and over the rest of his coat.

“Do good,” Vicario said just before disappearing from view.

~

In the months that followed the traveling swordsman’s visit, the Guardian of Ostopolis disappeared, and with him, so did the rash of crime that plagued the city. Able to refocus efforts elsewhere, the city planned for the recovery of the flooded township, moving through as the waters receded. The Guardian, now simply the mild man Danny, walked to a stack of building materials in the center of a road crowded by other relief workers.

“Hey Danny, good work today.”

“Yeah, thanks. You too,” Danny said, slapping the palm of a fellow worker as they passed.

He sat down on a stacked pile of bricks being used by other workers to rest, pulling his backpack onto his lap. He reached in and pulled out a glossy text book, its cover sparse but for the title, “Emergency Responders Guidebook.” Danny stretched his legs out, glancing up from his book to see down the empty street. The road stretched into sunset-kissed seawater, and a modest sign stood just above the surface, in full view, that read “Danny’s Donuts.”

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