After I'd left, the Unfinished Man's last sentence finished itself in my head.
"...be disappointed. You don't always go looking for evil. Sometimes it comes looking for you."
As it happened, I wished I had been paying more attention. Thinking back on it, there was a silence beforehand. I felt a blade at my back. It sliced through my shirt and began to dig its way into my flesh. Serrated. A phantom hand pinched my cheeks in hard, and then a voice floated into my head.
"Most attackers will cover your mouth, trying to keep you quiet, but that way you can lick or bite, throw me off my guard. This way, you're unable to scream, and I'm hurting you. You understand without me needing to explain."
The knife withdrew. The grip tightened momentarily, then relaxed. Hollowheart.
HOLLOWHEART: Hello friend. I am alive.
H: You see, what your people often miss is the psychological aspect. You think violence is enough. You're too quick to forget that the threat of violence can hurt just as much. You destroy yourself so I don't have to. Maybe you're just scared of stretching yourselves. Concerned about being caught. Our lawmen know who I am.
M: So why have they done nothing?
H: Would you dare to challenge me? How do you confine a man without fear within the bounds of the law?
M: I'm not trained to answer that.
H: An honest journalist! How novel! I think I'm going to let you live. For now. Killing you here would be too easy.
M: I was told you prefer a kill to a challenge.
H: And who told you that? Clearly someone who's not seen me stalk my prey before I cut off his head and hold it aloft, sometimes with the spine still dripping whatever fluids were left in his body after I'd finished. Some of them like to struggle. One has to teach them a lesson. After all, there is one specific kill I want. The Unfinished Man is my current target. After that, well, we shall see.
M: Why don't you just kill him? Surely you have the power to do so?
H: The Council of Superheroes won't sanction it. As such, I am physically unable to do so.
M: Surely you could set the ball rolling?
H: He's survived EVERYTHING. Somehow the Council keep him alive. A chance intervention by a superhero, distracting me, or drawing him away. Blasted moral codes, I can't stand it anymore.
M: That's emotion.
H You BASTARD! HOW DARE YOU! HE SENT YOU HERE TO WEAKEN ME!
M: You ambushed me.
A pause. I saw the knife before I saw his face. Glasslike, I saw his face in its reflection, fine black hair like wire in the wind. That smile, the thunder that never came. Knife twist flips his face before mine and for a moment I imagined him as nothing more than a lightning bolt. Showing fear, the biggest weakness of all in front of people like Hollowheart. The psychological aspect.
M: You're scared, aren't you?
Defiance, a bullet to his nervous system, like caffeine carpet-bombing his brain.
H: Of him?
M: Now we're getting somewhere.
A step back briefly, trying to get the knife back in my line of vision. Focus blurs for a moment and I worry that I'll trip.
M: The Unfinished Man?
H: No. I'm not scared of him, I just hate him.
M: Who then? You are scared. The Council of Superheroes?
H: They failed me. All I needed was protection from him. They let me die. That's why they won't let me kill him. As a hero I'd be bound to expose their negligence and punish them. They can't have that. I'd kill them all. They know it's coming.
M: A hero?
H: If I killed The Unfinished Man, a known supervillain, they'd be forced to dub me a hero. Me, a vicious serial killer. It'd bring them down, like collapsing a house of cards. Their magicians have stopped me from harming him.
M: You expect anyone to believe a conspiracy theory like that?
H: No. I've learned that I can't trust any of you. I just wanted friends. That's all I ever wanted.
The knife disappeared again. I saw a few flashes and suddenly Hollowheart held his golden shell in his hand. It pulsed weakly for a moment before his grip tightened. The shell appeared softer than I'd thought. Practically putty in his hand. I'd forgotten how soft pure gold was. His legs went first, buckling, then crashing to the floor.
No scream, more a whimper. His grip wavered, and he tried to stand. Stumbling, he turned to face me. His eyes, childlike, burned brighter than the gold that was crumbling in his hand.
"Why am I such a void?"
The last words he spoke before he dropped his heart. Falling on it, he breathed his last as he crushed it into the road.
His lifeless body was less scary. Juvenile almost. His eyes… a tint of gold. His last heroic act, retribution. A single tear, gold. The boy really wanted to be a hero. I cradled him in my arms and carried him to the next town for a decent burial, villain or hero.