In light of all the superhero movies that have come out lately, I thought it appropriate to post a short story that takes a very different look at the genre. It’s one of six tales in my science fiction and fantasy collection, Mysfits. (Available here.)
Night Warrior’s Last Stand
Copyright © 2010 Josh Langston
The county called it a rest home, but it was more like a rest stop on a back road to oblivion. The doors were open to anyone old and feeble and broke. It had nothing to do with who you once were, or what you once did. In the end, the testimonials and medals and certificates of appreciation counted for nothing. Such was the fate of the Night Warrior, a man who saved many and lost but one. I hadn’t come to gloat, nor did I believe anything had changed.
I came for the ring.
Little remained of the man I remembered from my youth. Sitting in his wheelchair, head tilted to one side, a tiny saliva bubble expanding and contracting at the corner of his mouth, he no longer retained a shred of the presence that once struck fear in what passed for a heart in the ranks of his adversaries. Yet, none of that rabble could claim victory over the Night Warrior. Time alone had brought the superhero down‑‑had made soft all the hard edges and made rough all the smooth lines. He sat quiescently; that little which moved, trembled.
The rock-like jaw, having deflected a thousand glancing blows now sported a three-day stubble and mustard stains. The raven locks lay limp, gray, and stringy, and the eyes, once glacial blue and piercing as a pike, squinted out from watery frames of viscous pink.
I observed him from a distance, unwilling to believe the stark truth in front of me, unwilling to cut the last thread binding me to the fantasy I had nurtured for so long. Did he still have the ring? If so, it hadn’t done much for him lately. Is that what I truly wanted for myself? I suddenly doubted it. Just before I turned to leave, he saw me.
“Leonard?” he croaked.
I wanted to run, to excuse myself, to plead ignorance of the hated name which first brought me to him thirty-some years ago. Instead, I stood my ground; it was the first lesson he ever taught me. “Yeah, Boss, it’s me.”
He raised his hand from the shabby upholstered armrest, the motion confined to his wrist, then signaled to me with a sweep of his fingers.
I had no desire to go near him, no desire to smell him, no desire to further impress his ruin upon my memory. I stared at him instead, trying to find the strong confident face that changed my life so long ago.
He cleared his throat, rattling like an old engine. “Leonard.”
That voice! The Night Warrior survived, if only in his voice. Though little more than a whisper, it was enough to compel me. I floated toward him, unable to resist, and came to a stop at his side. He wasn’t wearing the ring. No matter, I knelt beside him and put my hand on his, willing myself not to pull away from the dry parchment covering his bony knuckles.
“Beware,” he said.
I looked around slowly, taking in the drab walls and worn furniture of the rest home. Threadbare carpet housed mysterious stains, the flotsam of passing guests, and insect treasures. The staff consisted of two spindly matrons in flowered scrubs and rubber-soled, pastel flats. The only thing which threatened was the cloying odor of soiled linen and food prepared for people without teeth.
“Beware of what?” I asked.
“Trust me, Leonard, they’re everywhere.”
“Shh!” He trapped my hand between his–leathery leaves grasping, pressing, insistent.
I lowered my voice. “What the hell is it?”
He leaned toward me and whispered, “Sometimes I see them out of the corner of my eyes.”
“Who?” I straightened and freed my hand.
“Keep your voice down!”
“Right,” I said. Then, upon reflection, added, “Why?”
He shook his head, but the motion failed to dislodge a single gray hair plastered to the pale flesh above his eyes. “The dead ones. They’ll hear you.”
I stood up and glanced at my watch. “Yeah, well, hey, it’s been fun‑‑”
“Don’t be a fool,” he said. “Stand tall.”
With my eyes closed, it felt just like the old days when the Night Warrior‑‑clad in black and gray Spandex and daring the world to laugh–stood beside me, his faithful protégé.
“I used to see them only in my dreams,” he said. “All the ones I–no, all the ones we–killed.”
I chuckled. “Listen, Boss, I’ll admit there are a lot of people in here who look dead. I mean, you don’t look so good yourself. But you can’t–”
“I’m not talking about them. I’m talking about the Jester, the Pale Rider, and the Shrew. People we canceled–bad guys. They’ve come back from the dead. They think they can take me now.”
His eyes grew wider while he talked, and he managed to control some of the palsy I’d observed earlier. He even straightened up in his wheelchair and forced his shoulders back in a parody of a hero’s pose. How many times had I stood in the shadow of that pose while some rescued damsel or elected official fawned over him. Where were they now?
“You’ve still got the ring, haven’t you?” I asked.
“The bastards. They think that just because I’m old, I’m vulnerable.”
“What about the ring? The ring of invincibility?” I almost said, “My ring.”
He stared up at me with his rheumy eyes and didn’t say anything for the longest time. “You’re still mad about that, aren’t you?”
“Me? Nah. Why would I be mad about it? You only dangled it in front of me all my life.”
“I never said I’d give it to you.”
“You never said you wouldn’t.”
“I couldn’t give it to you, Len. You couldn’t become me; there could only ever be one Night Warrior.”
“I guess we’ll never know,” I said, slipping my hands in my pockets. It was an old truth, one I’d resigned myself to years ago. And I’d left the next day. Broke the partnership. The Night Warrior worked alone for a few years, his exploits against the villains of the world receiving less and less attention in the press. I half expected him to show up at the grand openings of discount stores, or maybe charity golf tourneys. He didn’t, thank God.
“I’ve missed you,” he said. The palsy returned.
I shrugged. “Who did you give it to? I don’t remember hearing about any other sidekicks. My guess is you couldn’t find anyone with sufficiently low self-esteem. Am I right?”
With what must have been a supreme effort of will, the once great Night Warrior raised his head and focused those cold-fire eyes at me. “I encased it in a brick of Lucite and gave it to the Superhero Museum. It was the right thing to do. Len, I once held the trust of a thousand cities, the faith of a million believers. I‑‑”
“Broke the heart of the only one who ever really cared about you.” I would’ve said more but was distracted by the slightest bit of motion I detected out of the corner of my eye. I nodded in that direction, and he turned his head slowly, all the while shrinking as if deflated.
“What is it?” he asked.
“I’m not sure exactly,” I said, “but it could’ve been either the Pale Rider or the Shrew.”
He took a short, sharp breath.
“Not that I care,” I said as I walked away.