Heroes and Villains Series 2 - V - Manifest Shadows
It all ends with death. Any attempt to make sense of life will end up with an eye looking through the lens of death. So I found myself back in the Kingdom of the Dead. Escorted by ghouls into the private chambers of the Skeleton Master, I found him occupied.
"Gentlemen, leave our esteemed friend here with me. Prepare the carvers and a fresh acid bath for this evening."
He didn't look in my direction while he spoke. I had to imagine the crooked smile fixed in his skull.
"Sorry to alarm you, dear boy, merely preparation for a queen. You see, they say beauty is only skin deep. I concur. The flayed are certainly not aesthetically pleasing. I stopped to vomit halfway through last time. The urge to penetrate was sickening. Most unpleasant. Why couldn't they have made me a superhero? It seems only one murder is enough to condemn you. And here we are again. Only this time they are already dead. I may choose a male this time. After all, they're all more or less the same when you get down to the bone, aren't they?"
The smile I'd anticipated remained, as though his bone structure had changed and it had locked in place. After a moment, it disappeared.
"What was that you said about convicts becoming supervillains?"
The Skeleton Master turned and attempted a smile, only this time it seemed false. A distraction from the murder discussion drained the life from his jawline.
"When the Unfinished Man infiltrated the Council, he decided that seeing as the human prisons effectively acted as a catalyst for the criminal lifestyle, and did little to end recidivism, why not take things a step further? Actively turn the convicts into supervillains? Be honest about your intentions… After all, it gives all those dreadful superheroes something to do…"
Journalism can be a lonely pursuit. You get locked inside your own head, your body merely an empty box, hoovering up experience. You build questions from what little raw materials you can gather and use them to hunt down information. Distillation is labour intensive and you're working against time. Like most discoveries, you get a story by accident. A tip off.
Deathworld was alleged to be supplying body parts to other regions. The donors were not registered. Neither were they dead before the transplant process began.
There was a warehouse a mile or so out from the Kingdom of the Dead where this was all supposed to be happening. I'd been given the password for entry.
The door slid open and nobody appeared from behind it. That should have been the first clue, but voice activation and automation were nothing new. I had no idea.
"Welcome, esteemed friend, I didn't think I'd see you again so soon… At least, certainly not this fresh…"
"Hey, deadboy, time to go. Or I'll release the photos of you receiving those fresh bodies… still warm…"
Those voices… yes, I recognised them both. A brief flicker of light as the Skeleton Master crept back out into the dark. That light… a camera flash… Obscura.
"You're a little late to the party kid. You're a pretty lousy journalist. I think I've finally worked you out. You write about superheroes and supervillains because you're sick of not being good enough. Not top of the class. Not anybody's favourite. Unwanted. Wishing you were someone. Not that it matters now anyway."
A blade at his back again. Serrated, just like with Hollowheart. My knees buckled as the blade was shoved a little deeper. I cursed
silently as they hit the floor. I couldn't see anything in the darkness,
and couldn't sense if the blade was still close. In my mind, a thousand
blades were ready to tear me into shreds. A picture for the front page.
The psychological aspect that terrified me amplified, broadcast to the world.
"See? All your villains are the same. Can't you do any better? Just like all that recycled Hollywood bullshit. Remakes and shitty sequels. You've documented their weak points, but you've never written a villain that ever worked out how to really take out the heroes. Like your wunderkind Anchor. He's too dangerous to take on directly. Even physical harm at long range doesn't really work, not with him twisting gravity. It'd be stupid to even try. So… get him out of the way for a little while, fine. He'll come back. Too important not to. What did you do? Give him some bullshit about the girl wanting to see him? Predictable. Easy bait for a young kid. You didn't think it through though, did you? If he's got any sense, he'll remember Cypher isn't like that. They just worked together, that's all. Nothing more. You're no great saviour. She sent you to him because you have no powers. You're not important to anyone else who's chasing him. He won't come and save you. He wants a calm peaceful life, doesn't he? Shame really that he's so well behaved. Means he'll be compliant when arrested for murder."
"Average Man has been found dead. Severe blunt force trauma, equivalent to say… a punch from a living weapon?"
I couldn't see his face, but I could almost feel the sneer, another blade in the dark.
"Look at you, you're fucking pathetic. You're weak. You won't even dare look at me. You're not strong enough to fight me. How dare you even come here? I'm insulted that you're even in the same room. Scum."
I flinched as I felt the saw drop on my back. He'd thrown it at me. Too disgusted to kill me.
"I think we've heard enough, don't you think, Ellison?"
"Confession's good enough for me, Manifest."
A torch from above lit us both. I shivered as I looked up into the light, but the new voices remained hidden in the darkness.
"Funny, isn't it? I got here first. I did all the hard work. All the superheroes just get given their powers, but the villains earn their curses. The inadequate achieve immortality, but what of the rest of us? What of those who seek to be a mirror to the world? I reject journalism and all of its empty promises."
Then Obscura shot himself.