The Masked Hero

“I hate these streets,” I mumbled. The shrill of a woman nearby, possibly under some form of attack, and the tinkling of breaking glass only increased my hatred. Nothing is safe in this city, I thought.

A thought that was quickly confirmed as the woman who walked in quiet, fast footsteps ahead of me, grabbed her handbag tightly against her side. Her shoulders heaving as her whole body jumped when a cat ran out from an alley and crossed her path.

To be afraid of just living was no way that I wanted to spend my days. Shopping trips and late-night walks were two of my biggest pleasures.

Yet there I was.

The time was barely 9 pm and I too was clinging tightly to my handbag from fear of being robbed as I made my way from the station to the hotel.

I could have taken a taxi, but that’s how it had happened the last time I was here. A seemingly simple taxi ride from the station turned out to be a long, terrifying ride to an abandoned warehouse. I still had the small scar that was left by the shadow I hadn’t noticed hiding, crouched in the backseat until it was too late. He’d held me with a knife pressed against my ribs and a hand pressed down roughly over my mouth while we drove. The driver played his role as a friendly taxi driver and kept up the small talk until the end of the drive when I was pulled out of the vehicle, stumbling over my leg that had all but gone to sleep due to the cramped journey.

Three years had passed since the incident, but the smell of rusted chains that they had used to fasten me to a small railing still lingers in my mind. As does the smell of water mixed with oil that lined the cloth they had bound to my mouth, and the feeling of granite beneath my knees as I waited for whatever punishment they had taken me for. The fact that their plans never came to fruition has never dampened the experience, but each time the memories ran over my sense it heightened the longing to see him again.

The dark figure that had emerged through a broken window, blocking my only view of the pale moonlight and stealing its beauty all at the same time. Slithers of moonlight shimmered along his black, skin-tight outfit, allowing the blue markings to become visible for a moment before becoming submerged once more into darkness as he moved into the shadows.

I did all I could to alert him of my presence, but the slight movement only increased the pressure of the chains and weakened me even more until I was struggling to catch my last breaths.

Could that really have been him? I had wondered, unsure of how much of an effect the stress and exhaustion were having on me. When, as if answering my internal question, the shadows beside me moved to reveal the same figure, moving closer and closer until he knelt in front of me. One black, gloved finger pressed against his lips before moving to press against mine in a silent command to keep quiet.

I nodded, and his hands slid round to the back of my head and pulled the cloth free. I inhaled deeply to rid my nostrils of the stench of the oil-soaked cloth, and was met with the warm smell of bergamot with a soft smoky aura which completely engulfed me as the masked hero drew even closer to break the locks and loosen the chains from around me. Once free he led me to the end of the small aisle of metal shelving that opened into a large empty space.

I followed his lead and crouched into a small nook that he had pointed into, and then, after a quick survey of the area, he held his open palm in front of my face, a gesture that I guessed meant to stay put until he told me otherwise.

Once again I nodded, to confirm I understood his request. And then, he was gone and the silent darkness was filled with the sound of bangs, shouts and a lot of crashing. Two gunshots echoed simultaneously, causing my heart to race in a way that matched the previous chaos.

It can’t be over, I wondered, once again covered by silence. Please don’t let him be hurt.

Even as fear tried its best to keep me gripped to the spot I was in, I expended every ounce of energy to edge myself forward and out of the small nook I had been hiding in. Just as I was clear of the shelter of the shadows another figure came into sight, reaching for the chains that had held me for a moment before his attention turned to me.

“You,” he snarled.

My back was already pressed up against the shelving, there was nowhere for me to run. And in the moment that I accepted that my rescuer had indeed been the receiver of one of those gunshots, I felt my legs give away below me.

How cruel fate could be to dangle freedom in front of me and then take it away almost immediately.

The figure, who was still standing at the railing where I had been chained, finally took a step towards me, and again fate changed its hand as, after a loud cracking sound, the figure fell to the ground.

“Thank God,” I whispered as the black figure with the blue markings appeared in the place that the man had just stood. He took two long steps towards me, lifted me from the ground and walked back over to the window he had appeared in earlier.

“Can you climb?” he asked, lowering me to stand in front of him. His grip tightened as my legs, which still hadn’t recovered their strength, quivered, threatening to give way. He didn’t wait for me to answer. “Hold tight,” he said and positioned my arms around his neck. There was a small pop as he shot his line up through the window, giving him enough traction to pull us up and out.

“A police car should be here soon,” he said as he lifted me into the bed of a nearby truck. “Are you able to wait here?”

I clenched my hand as tightly as I could around his arm, hoping it would be enough to keep him in place.

“Hey.” His voice came out softer than before. “I’ll watch you from nearby, you’ll be okay.”

“Please,” I got out.

The erratic palpitations of my heart that had evened out over the last minute, threatened to spike again at the thought of being left alone, in the dark, outside an abandoned warehouse.

He gave a single nod and waited. No other words were spoken, and aside from the slight turning of his head and eyes as he surveyed the area and his hand that lay on mine as I continued to hold his arm, no other movements were made until the sound of sirens were heard.

His eyes locked with mine, and once again he nodded. This time to acknowledge our unspoken agreement – that he would wait until help came – and with that he disappeared into the night.

I remained, waiting for an officer to escort me to their car, and back to the station to answer questions before being allowed to go home with my brother who, until my phone call, hadn’t even realised that I was late to arrive.

Why my brother had chosen to live in one of the roughest, most lawless cities around, I would never understand. Just as I will never understand why, as much as that city terrified me, I had longed for a reason to return, if only to somehow meet my masked hero again.

Stories of the masked hero had become a lot more common, when there was danger he was usually nearby to swoop in and fix the problem. Most who had seen him had only ever done so briefly, but all could recall the same markings – the blue, outspread wings of a bird, along his chest and shoulders.

The walk to the hotel went smoothly and I was checked into my room in no time, but I didn’t intend to stay. Spilling the contents of my holdall onto the bed, I picked up my own, black, skin-tight outfit. Homemade, but only from the best materials to ensure protection from fire and bullets if needed. Strong and durable, but so lightweight I could have easily been wearing nothing but my underwear.

I dressed quickly and took one last look at myself in the mirror, all in black except for the blue mask and the blue symbol on my chest – an abstract symbol of cheetah, smaller than the other wildcats of its region and often considered vulnerable, yet still fearless and capable of speeds beyond any other animal. I held the small and vulnerable characteristics and speed had become easy for me, fearless is what I would become after that night. That would be the last time that word could accompany itself with my name.

I locked the door and turned off the lights then I opened the window and climbed through. I didn’t plan to return until I had seen him again, and I had earned my spots and the right to wear his colour on my chest.

The night was still pale. If anybody had bothered to look hard enough they would have clearly noticed my form climbing the side of the building as I headed for the roof, but this wasn’t the kind of city that you looked up in. It was the kind of city where you kept your eyes down and headed to where you were going.

Once on the roof, I skimmed the layout of the surrounding area. Most buildings were within jumping distance, for me anyway. At least it was now, after the training I had taken over the last 5 months, as many martial arts as I could fit into a weekly schedule, my main focus being on Aikido, Krav Maga and Boxing.

And, parkour.

Because I never should have been so easy to abduct, but after it all, I should have at least been able to climb up to that window.

But that was behind me now, at least by morning it would be. I would repay him for his help and prove to myself that I wasn’t easy prey just waiting to be plucked up off the street. Crime was part and parcel of the nightlife in this city, I just had to find the right type of crime and I was sure to run into him at some point.

Men’s shouts mixed with glass shattering onto the ground came from the street below.

A woman’s scream pierced the air, originating about three blocks behind where I stood.

And then, three waves rippled through me as gunshots rang through the air. It was to be expected and was exactly what I had been waiting for.

“West,” I confirmed and broke into a run in the direction of the sound. Two blocks down and three men were running through an alley, each with a backpack firmly secured to their backs.

I followed, descending from the roof as they weaved through the backstreets. The next corner they took and there was a car waiting, a man with a hood sat in the front seat with his hands gripped to the steering wheel. They removed their bags, threw them into the boot and entered the car which was already purring and ready to go. I had to make a move soon or they would be gone.

I didn’t have time to think. I jumped onto the railing of the fire stairs, using it as leverage to propel myself forward as much as possible and landed on the waiting car, only losing my footing slightly as the hollow casing of the roof gave in a little.

My heart exploded in my chest as I heard the shout from inside the car followed by the click as the door handle was pulled.

“Oh my God,” I whispered, trying to recall all of my training back to the forefront of my mind.

I hadn’t waited and now I had thrown myself into a battle with four criminals.

“Oh my God,” I said again, this time it almost came out as a scream as I waited for the door to open fully.

But it didn’t.

Mumbles came from inside the car, and then a blue flash drew my attention to what stood in front of the car.

The reason they hadn’t gotten out of the vehicle.

A figure in a black suit with the blue emblem across his chest. Bright blue sparks flashed across his upper body as he drew two batons from behind his back.

My hero, I thought as his eyes caught mine, holding them only for a second, before returning to the men in the car.

“You might wanna jump,” he said, before reaching his baton forward and tapping it against the hood of the car.

I cleared the car in time to see it shimmer with the same bright blue as the batons and then all four of the doors opened, a man scrabbling from each one.

My hero didn’t give them a chance to recover before moving in, striking each only two or three times before they were strewn, face down on the alley ground.

I could barely blink as my eyes followed him to the boot of the car where he pulled out the rucksacks they had discarded earlier and emptied them.

“Damn,” he said, throwing the bag down next to the stacks of cash that now lay on the ground. “What were you following them for?” he said suddenly looking up at me and stepping forward all, three actions taking place in the same instant.

“I …” was all I got out.

He reached forward and grabbed me by the wrist, pulled me back into him while twisting my arm in and under and holding it against my chest.

“What were you looking for?”

Pain shot through my elbow and arm, but that warm, smoky bergamot that filled all of me, calmed me.

“You,” I said.

His eyes narrowed as he stared deeply into mine, but his grip loosened. And then, as suddenly as he had grabbed me, he stepped back and took a quick glance over my whole body.

“Who are you?”

“A friend?” I said, my words coming out more like a question than the statement that I had practised for such an occasion.

He groaned and looked down at the men who were quietly moaning and starting to awaken. They appeared to have been petty thieves which for some reason disappointed him.

“Who were you looking for?” I asked, jumping back as his eyes shot back to me.

“Not them,” he said. He pulled two zip ties from somewhere in the wrist of his suit and handed them to me before pulling another two zip ties and going over to the other side of the car.

“Secure them well,” he called back to me. “The police can deal with them.”

“What do I do now?” I asked when I had finished strapping their hands behind their backs.

“You should go home.”

“No. I’m coming with you,” I said.

“No, you’re not.”

“I am.”

“We’ll see,” he said and then that same pop that I remembered, as he shot a line up the side of the building and began to ascend.

I jumped to grab the lowest reaching railing and pulled myself up to the landing before jumping up to grab hold of the next level of railings. Thankfully, having exerted no effort with the men in the car, I was still at peak strength and could scale the building at a reasonable speed. Not nearly as fast as him though. I would have been impressed if I wasn’t so annoyed at the fact that I had been left so far behind, not that I was surprised.

Well, I found him once, I’ll find him again, I thought as I cleared the top of the building, only to find him still standing at the far end of the roof, looking over at the streets below.

Did he wait for me? I wondered running to catch him before he left my sight.

He turned slightly, glancing in my direction. His lips curled into what looked like a smile and then he leapt over the side.

I was better at running and jumping than I was at climbing, so keeping up with him from this vantage point was a lot easier. We crossed between 8 buildings spanning over 2 or 3 blocks until he stopped again at the ledge of a roof that overlooked what seemed to be a small, abandoned warehouse.

Men’s voices, raised in some kind of dispute could be heard from inside the warehouse, and outside two men with hoods were retrieving backpacks from a car boot.

“I see why you chose the cheetah,” he said, without looking at me. “But it’s going to be dangerous down there. You could get hurt.”

“I can help you,” I said. Each step that I had taken behind him I had felt my own courage and bravery building. I needed to go through with what I had come out to do.

“I would never allow one of my friends to put themself into danger for me.”

“Well, you don’t know me. So you don’t have to worry about one of your friends getting hurt.”

He turned to me then, this time with a clear, yet soft smile. “I thought back there you said you were a friend.”

His eyes were dark, yet still blue as he watched me, his head tilted slightly in thought, and if it hadn’t been for the sudden increase in the volume of the shouts from within the warehouse, I know I could have thought of the perfect response for such a moment. But it was over too quickly as he turned away again.

“Just don’t do anything that I don’t tell you to do,” he said and with that, he jumped over the side.

I kept as close as possible keeping in mind not to distract him. He was worried about me getting hurt, but I was more concerned about him getting hurt because of me. At the base of the building he crouched, and, keeping in the shadows, he moved towards a side entrance.

We entered and, no sooner than we got through the door, all eyes were on us.

Two men stood instantly and drew their guns, but he was quicker, pulling two metal objects from his suit and throwing them towards the men. Both men dropped their guns. He didn’t wait for a counter-attack, he leapt straight into the group, his batons already on hand and began knocking them out. One by one.

Another two men, closer to where I stood, saw me as an easier target. Little did they know that they were to mark the end of me being seen as an easy target.

I pulled my t-baton from behind me and lunged forward, instinctively expecting the man nearest to me to throw a punch, which he did. I ducked under his arm, braced my footing behind him and turned, raising my arm at the same time to send my t-baton crashing down on the back of his head. The loud crack as the baton hit down sent a wave of nausea through me, but it was better his head than mine, so I swallowed deeply and turned to face the second man who was already inside my safe zone.

His hand came down at me from above him, a glint of light reflected off of what must have been a metal bar in his grip. I threw my hands up over my head with my t-baton spread out along my arm as protection. It was all I could do in the time I had, but it was effective enough. His arm raised again, but I had already dropped to my knees, spinning in a counter direction until my foot connected with the back of his knee.

He stumbled backwards, threatening to regain his footing, but I was already back on my feet, leaping towards him with my t-baton raised and struck him hard in his forehead. He crashed down hard with that hit, and I followed with a second hit.

To the right of me was my hero in black. He was having no trouble with the constant flow of men that were coming at him. Except, he couldn’t have noticed the figure that approached him, keeping itself hidden in the shadows as it moved forward.

I ran towards the figure, jumping up onto the hood of the car closest to him and then back off of it, t-baton raised and ready to strike. Blue sparks covered a small baton in the figure’s hand, that he then thrust towards me, hitting me straight in the stomach.

If I hadn’t been falling so hard maybe the blow wouldn’t have shuddered through my whole body, or was it the charge of electricity that flowed from the baton? Whichever it was, it was powerful, and I was falling.

I used the last energy that I had and rolled myself under the same car I had leapt from. His feet neared the car, the blue sparks of the baton he held reflecting off the ground as he dragged it along with him before tapping it against the bottom edge of the car and then sliding it along as he walked around it. The blue sparks flashed along the bottom of the car, threatening to lunge down at me.

I watched his feet as they passed the front and then came around the other side of the vehicle. I needed to get out from underneath. I rolled back to the side that I had come under from and pushed myself up to my feet, which trembled, threatening to give way.

Lifting my t-baton I raised my hand to brace myself for the impact as the figure had already mounted the car and was jumping towards me with his own baton raised. I had trained for overhead attacks; I couldn’t let myself go down so easily. I concentrated my strength to balance my weight on my legs and shifted slightly to the left just in time to dodge the blow and with more than enough of an advantageous position to lean into him slightly with my t-baton and throw him off course.

Following his trajectory, I landed on his back, cracking the t-baton into his head before he could react, and then two more times to be sure he was out of the fight.

Three down, I told myself, keeping count only of my conquests. Distracted by my own battles I’d forgotten the much larger one that had been taking place on the other end of the warehouse. The pain in my stomach pulsated through my body as I pulled my body onto the top of the car hoping that my masked hero had managed to disable, in one way or another, the other men.

Relief hit quickly at the sight of the numerous bodies that lay along the ground, him being the only left standing. He kneeled amongst the bodies and again, as he had done earlier, opened the rucksacks and emptied them onto the ground. Some papers and a small black box, he retrieved from the ground and put back into the bag before throwing the handle over his shoulder.

“Are you ok?” he said, finally looking over to me.

“Fine,” I said, allowing myself to slide off the top of the car and walk over to him, doing the best I could to hide the limping. “Did you find what you were looking for?”

He didn’t answer, just as I had expected. His eyes shot a quick glance through the corner of his eye and then he walked back towards where we had entered from.

“We should hurry before more come,” he said. That familiar pop sounded and then his arm slid around my body, securing me firmly against him and we both ascended up the side of the building.

My mind fell into a daze as the speed of the upwards line contradicted the movement of time. The warm, smoky bergamot filled me, easing the weariness that had invaded my muscles, while the warmth of his body next to mine eased the throbbing pain that still circulated my stomach.

We had already reached the roof but my mind still lingered on the sensations of being held so tightly in the arms of my masked hero in black that, once again, my legs threatened to give way when he released me from his grip.

“You’re hurt,” he said, steadying me and guiding me to sit.

“I’ll be fine. There’s nothing a little rest won’t cure.”

“There are many things that negligence doesn’t cure,” he said. Leaning over me he pressed his fingers gently along my sides. “Where does it hurt?” he asked.

I didn’t need to respond as the pressure of his hand on my stomach caused me to squeal.

“What happened?” he asked.

“it’s nothing, I just got hit with a baton.”

“You should see someone. I can drop you at a hospital.”

“Not like this. People will know who I am.”

“And they’re not supposed to know who you are because?”

“Do people know who you are?”

“Are you suggesting that you are like me?” he asked, a small smirk on his face. “You here to protect the people?”

“Is that what you were doing just now? Protecting the people?”

“If you must know,” he answered. “Yes. Those men had stolen something that they could have used to harm a lot of people.”

“So I helped you? I helped save the people.”

“If you want to call it that.”

“I do,” I said. “And I think you should let the people know that you have a sidekick.”

“I don’t take sidekicks.”

“But you have to. You can train me, make me stronger. You’ve seen I can help you.”

“No. I shouldn’t have even let you tag along tonight and, to be honest. I don’t know why I did.”

“If you don’t, I guess I’ll be my own sidekick. And you’ll see me out here every night.”

The sound of raised voices came once again from the streets below and some even closer, perhaps in the very building that we were on.

“Can you run?” he asked pulling me up to stand beside him. “We need to go.”

I could still run, if that’s what was needed, I did fear that my speed would suffer though, but I couldn’t admit that.

“Maybe we should just stay and fight,” I said. I could manage two or three average skilled men. The fight would be short compared to the amount of running that would be needed.

He didn’t answer, instead, he nudged me forward in the direction of the ledge.

“I take that as a no,” I mumbled,

The eruption of feet hitting against the slate tiling of the roof, seemed to contradict my earlier statement. We didn’t have time to run.

“Stay back,” he said as I stepped forward to stand beside him and then he ran forward to meet them.

He hadn’t drawn his batons that time, and he hadn’t needed them as he struck, kicked, swiped and countered every attack that they tried to pull.

He was amazing. A moving art form, that any martial arts instructor would envy if they could have seen him fight.

Two gunshots rang through the air pausing him, if only for a second, and then the men who had dared fire at him were also down with the others groaning in pain.

Huh?

A bright flash of blue as another man leapt down from above the roof door striking my hero in the head. He keeled forward slightly before turning to face his attacker, his head rebounding each time the blue light of the baton thrust forward.

This is my chance, I thought as I rushed forward, t-baton in hand.

He turned quick enough to block my first swing, and threw a counter swing, and then another and another until he got into a full barrage of swings. Blocking was one of my strong points, but his blows were powerful and the pain in my stomach grew more and more aggravated as I duck and twisted. I ducked deep, lunging under his swing and then jumped up with my t-baton aimed directly for his chin. It hit, and he staggered. I didn’t need to do anymore after that as my hero waited to deliver the final blow which sent him down fast.

“Was that the last of them?” I asked, scanning the area.

“Let’s not wait to find out,” he answered pulling me along with him as he made his way to the far end of the roof. “Where do you live?”

“I’m staying near Melville Park.”

“Fine. We’ll head down to the rail tracks and then make our way back to yours.”

I didn’t argue, as much as I wanted to spend the whole night chasing criminals, it was probably time to call it quits, at least that’s what my muscles were telling me. I wouldn’t be able to run, jump or fight for much longer and I’d only become a liability.

I followed in silence, watching his movements as he jumped, swung and climbed until we reached the tracks.

“Where do you live?” I asked as we walked beneath the shadows of the nearby buildings.

“Not far from here.”

“Will I be able to see you again?”

“Hopefully not.”

That was more direct than I was expecting, but I managed to let out an “Oh.”

“I’m not in the habit of taking young ladies out to fight alongside me.”

“Please train me,” I said, hoping the desperation hadn’t slipped into the tone of my voice. “I would be a great apprentice.”

“I don’t want an apprentice.”

Another direct refusal. I didn’t think heroes had such bad social skills.

“I thought you would be friendlier,” I said.

He stopped then and turned to face me, a small sigh leaving his lips.

“Look, I just prefer to work alone. People get hurt doing what I do, and I don’t want to be responsible for that.”

This wasn’t how the night was supposed to end, but he had his reasons and it didn’t seem likely that I would sway him in one night.

“I get it,” I said. “You don’t have to walk me the whole way. I can make it from here.”

He didn’t react for a moment, he simply watched me. I hoped he was thinking over my proposal, but then he finally said, “Be safe,” gave a small nod of his head and shot out a line before disappearing up the side of the building.

I made my way along the backstreets, before climbing the fire stairs of my building. The pain in my stomach still hadn’t dulled, so I was in no condition for anything more rigorous than that. But I would rest well and be out again by the next night. He hadn’t seen the last of me.

Although he hadn’t given any promises, I still hadn’t had the chance to thank him properly. And whether he choose to admit it or not, we’d made a great team in our short time together. He just needed to get to know me better and see more of what I could do. That night would not be the last time he saw me, and I would give him no choice but to accept me as an ally.

“Rest well until we meet again, my hero,” I said as I slid through the window of my room, “Rest well, my Nightwing.”

< < < The Warrior

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