New Rourke Unmasked
Fear of the dark is nothing to be ashamed of. It is a primal part of us born from our instinctual drive for survival and our ingrained fear of the unknown. For a species that depends so heavily on the sense of sight, the sudden removal of that ability understandably comes as a shock. As we grow up, many become more comfortable with the dark; some even relish it. It can be empowering to take something that once left you cowering under the covers and embrace it as a natural part of your environment. However some never come to grips with their fear, instead they hide behind false stoicism and bravado, denying their unease or bull-headedly chasing after the dark hoping anything bad that happens will be over quickly.
In truth, no one can ever truly be comfortable in the absence of light. The rational mind tries to convince you that there is no danger, while the lizard brain screams for you to run. For though there is nothing terrifying about what can't be hidden in the shadows, what shakes us to the core is the thought of what could be.
* * *
Shawn Tenney was having a very bad day.
For the last eight years, he had been patrolling the Bishop's Park neighborhood and McLemore Projects as his territory. He'd grown up there, and, after assuming the superhero persona of Valor, had pretty much taken over guardianship of the area from the now retired Praxus. While not a powerhouse that would ever receive much in the way of national headlines, Valor got the job done. Also being a statuesque African American helped when trying to endear trust and respect in the predominantly black population. The other superheroes in the city saw him as a white hat and kindly stayed out of his way unless he called for help.
He considered making that call now.
Quite confused, he had woken up in a tunnel that looked like part of the city's sewer system. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been rolled, but he did a quick search of the pockets on his tactical vest and utility belt; to his surprise, he wasn't missing anything. He looked at his cell phone. Sadly, it had no service, and the clock showed he was missing more than a day of time. Lacking any other direction, he dusted himself off and started following the path of water that flowed though a culvert in the center of the tunnel in the hopes that it would lead him out.
Waving his flashlight around, he saw no utility lines beyond the cable for inoperative flood lights. He'd passed a few intersections, crawl tunnels, and grated pipes, but had yet to find any doors or signs. Granted, he'd had very limited experience in sewers beyond occasionally pulling children or pets out of storm drains, but he'd expected there to be some makings that would allow workers to orient themselves.
At each intersection, water from the other tunnels joined the stream. The flow took a meandering path of turns. After three hours, déjà vu crept in, so he started marking little circles in chalk where the water met.
"You have got to be kidding me." he said, when he arrived at an intersection where the floor, ceiling, and walls were covered in similar chalk circles.
The sound of bare feet running over stone emanated from the tunnel to his left. He swung his light in that direction, but no one was there. Behind him he heard splashing. "Hey!" he shouted, turning around, but again the light showed no one.
A woman's laugh echoed around him; it bounced around so much he couldn't tell which direction it had come from.
"Who's there?" he asked the darkness.
"Who's asking?" replied a heavily accented voice. It was light and almost lyrical. Valor wasn't sure but he placed her as from somewhere in the Middle East.
"Did you bring me here." he said putting his back to a wall.
"What if I said yes?"
"That's what I want to know." she answered.
Again he swung his flashlight around, the beam of illumination slashed at the dark. "Don't play with me, lady."
"'Will you walk into my palour?' said the Spider to the Fly. ‘Tis the prettiest little parlour that ever you did spy;'"
Valor frowned. "That supposed to be funny?"
Her voice seemed to constantly shift points of origin causing a disorienting Doppler effect. "'The way into my parlour is up a winding stair, and I've a many curious things to shew when you are there.'"
"Then point me to the staircase and I'll go."
"Why are you here?" she asked.
"Lady, the last thing I remember is chasing a pickpocket into an alley, and now I'm wherever this is."
"Why are you here?" she asked more firmly.
"Just tell me how to get to the street. I don't want trouble."
Again she giggled. "Little lost boy! Swinging his light in the dark! Arguing with shadows!"
"How do I get out of here?" he shouted. "I'm not going to play games with you!"
"Oh yes, you are. We are going to play a game. A game called, ‘Who…are…you?'." The last word was whispered in his right ear. Valor snapped up his fist instinctively. He whinged as it slammed into the brick wall. The woman's hearty laughed flitted through the tunnels. He panned his light around again uselessly before turning his attention to the wall. It looked like a solid cinderblock wall. He pushed on it as hard as he could, but it seemed solid enough.
"Cute trick." he said glaring at the masonry.
"Don't make faces." she chided. "It's rude."
He scoffed. "Are you going to show me the way out?"
Silence answered him.
"Fine. I'll find it myself." he said and set off down a tunnel. He vaguely remembered a trick to solving mazes by following one wall until it led out.
After twenty minutes had passed, the woman spoke again. "Why the costume? You look like a soldier mated with a speed skater."
"It comes with the job."
"Orange and grey with a yellow skullcap helmet? It's hideous."
Valor stopped in his tracks. "Should I be impressed that you can see in the dark?"
"Yes!" she snapped.
"You're not the only one with powers." It was true, Valor himself was gifted with near superhuman strength and agility; not that those were terribly useful at the moment.
"Should I be impressed with you?" she replied in a sing-song voice.
"I've got a flashlight. It works just fine for me."
"You do, don't you." she said in a low tone.
"You might think you're special," Valor mocked, "but I've seen a lot more—"
The sound of a pump-action shotgun being cocked to his right cut him off. He tensed and slowly moved his free hand to a pouch on his belt. The gun's report, magnified by the acoustics of the tunnel, assaulted his eardrums. He wasn't hit, but the involuntary spasm that followed made him drop the flashlight. He went to his knees, pulling the bolas from his belt, while he barely registered the gun cocking again.
She shouted, "Are we having fun yet‽", and fired a second shot which exploded the flashlight.
He let the bolas fly in the direction of the muzzle blast then, without checking to see if his attack had made contact, ran off down a different tunnel.
Ears ringing, he ran blind through the tunnels. The uneven floor and the unseen culverts threatened to trip him up several times, but he managed to maintain his balance. After, becoming well and truly lost, he sat down in a corner to rub his aching ears. He was tired. He could feel the blisters forming on his feet, and the effects of not having eaten in a day and a half were beginning to bare down on him.
He unpacked a protein bar and half empty bottle of water, making a mental note to carry more food in the future; something less bland. He checked his phone to see the time, but by now the battery had completely drained.
Sitting alone in the quiet dark, Shawn Tenney felt the pressure of isolation roll in. He remembered as a child sitting home alone at night waiting for his parents to return from work. The city had scared him a lot. He'd stare out the window and his imagination would run wild manufacturing all manner of dangers that meant his parents wouldn't be coming home ever. During the day, fantasies of getting lost or being taken had haunted him.
He shook his head, gritted his teeth, and hardened his resolve. After all, the stubbornness of adolescence and physical development had given him the drive and courage to fight back against the terror. He was a man now. He had devoted himself to chasing away danger, making the city safe. He was a hero. What was this but another obstacle to face? He'd seen his share of challenges and overcome them every time. He was not about to let some crazy woman whispering in shadows hold him back. This was nothing he couldn't beat. He just had to focus on finding the way out.
He stood up and checked his gear again. He didn't have another flashlight, but he did have four road flares. They'd only last fifteen minutes each, so he he'd have to use them wisely.
He hadn't made it more than forty yards before he heard her whisper in his ear. "You can't run."
"I don't run from people like you."
"You've never met anyone like me."
"I know what you are. You're a bully who gets off on scaring people. Hiding in shadows. You're too scared to come at me head on."
"Who do you think you are?" she snarled.
"I'm Valor." he replied.
"That's not your name."
"Yes, it is."
"No." she said flatly. "It's not."
"You think you know better?"
"Oh, I do." she almost purred. "I know so many things, you'd cry."
He grimaced. "I don't cry."
"You will. You will beg and blubber."
"What? You going to shoot me again?"
She giggled again. "'Oh no, no,' said the little Fly, 'to ask me is in vain,
For who goes up your winding stair, can ne'er come down again.'"
"That all you got, huh? Stupid poetry? You gonna talk me to death‽ You wanna mess with me, you come out and face me! I’m not scared of you!"
She didn't answer. Instead there was a scrapping noise and a growling hiss. Something very large and heavy was coming toward him. He lit one of the flares and readied himself as his eyes adjusted to the red light.
"That's not fair."
Valor had managed to walk himself into a long alcove. The back wall behind him, water flowed out of a narrow pipe, into the culvert, toward the enormous crocodile that stood between him and the exit. The croc's gaping mouth hung open as it walked. The claws dug at the floor, and the tail, almost as big as Valor himself, dragged on the ground with a lazy serpentine motion.
Valor waved the flare back and forth while shouting, but the crocodile continued its approach. There was no room to run around the reptile without it easily getting him, and he couldn't have leapt past it even if he'd had the space for a running jump.
He pulled out another bolas, swinging it vertically at his side. The croc stopped a few feet away, hissing and snapping its jaws. He waved the flare again, slowly; making sure the croc's gaze followed it. Then he threw it against a side wall. When the croc snapped after it, he loosed the bolas at the croc's muzzle. It hadn't been a perfect throw, so the bolas hung loose on the croc's muzzle, but it was enough to be a distraction.
As the beast thrashed and rolled in the tunnel trying to dislodge the bolas, Valor tried to run past. The crocodile's tail swung into Valor's leg like a tree-sized baseball bat. When he hit the floor, his scream of pain was less from his ankle twisting and more from falling on his wrist with a pronounced crunch. He scrambled to his feet and limped along through the tunnels as quickly as he could, taking every turn available to him. Once the sound of the croc's thrashing had died out to the point that he was left alone with his rasping breath and pounding heart, he went another several yards before coming to rest in a corner.
Winded and in the dark again, Valor pulled the glove from his good hand with his teeth. As he tried to remove the glove from his injured hand, the pain swarmed up his forearm forcing him to cry out again.
"I'd leave that on if I was you. It will keep the swelling down."
Through gritted teeth, Valor said, "First you try to kill me, now you try to help me?"
"Oh no, no, no. If I wanted you dead, you—"
"I would be?" Valor snapped back.
"Exactly." she replied coolly. "If it was up to me you would be forced to eat your own liver…To start with."
"Why are you doing this? What do you want?"
"Little man. Playing at being someone important. Thinks he can protect."
"Who are you‽"
"I thought you'd never ask." she tittered.
The flood lights came on; only for an instant. In the after-image, Valor saw the figure of a woman dressed in black several feet away to his right.
"My name is Leila Nejem."
Again the lights flashed. She was standing closer, but he hadn't heard her move as he had before.
"I've waited a long time."
Flash! She was standing two yards away to his left.
"I've come a long way."
Flash! She was all the way down at the next intersection.
"To judge you."
Flash! She was at the opposite end of the tunnel.
The lights came on and this time she was standing right in front of him. He snapped out his good hand, grabbing her by the throat. With his eyes adjusting to the light, he could see her clearly now. She appeared to be of average height. Only the olive skin of her dainty hands and hooded face, from below her eyes to above her collar, was visible. Thin lines around her dark plum lips hinted at age. Physically she appeared relatively normal and harmless, but her clothes were something else entirely. They weren't made of any sort of material Valor had seen before. Only the vaguest of lines could be seen as it consumed the light around it. Even where his hand touched her clothes near her neck, he felt his fingers pass through the material to bare skin underneath.
”How do you know my name?” he said.
She clasped her hands on his arm in an expression of shock. But as his grip tightened, Leila grew a bare-toothed grin.
The lights went out again, and Valor felt his grip suddenly empty. She laughed.
"You know who I am." he said over her laughter, attempting to regain some of his long lost intimidation. "You know what I can do."
"All to well."
"Don't give a shit. You are weak, Shawn Tenney. They know it. You know it. That's why you never leave your little ghetto."
"It's where I can do the most good. I protect those people."
"What good have you done? People still die. They are robbed and raped. Crime rates haven't improved."
"I can’t be everywhere, but I keep people safe."
"How many gangs fight over the decaying buildings you claim to defend? Two? Three?"
"What do you care?" Valor answered, his pulse quickening again. "Why won't you shut the fuck up! You're just some sewer freak."
"And you are a joke. Admit it. Everyone laughs at you. You are weak, Shawn Tenney. You are pointless. No one would miss you if you simply disappeared." Leila let out another little giggle. "What do you know? That's what already happened. No one's come for you. You can just slither away like the useless worm you are."
"I'm going to find you." he growled. "And when I do I'll—"
"You'll what? You can't catch me. You can't even hold onto me when you have me by the throat. Pockets full of scavenged toys. Super powers? You might as well not have them. So what if you can lift a motorcycle over your head? What good is that? You exert yourself doing so, and you can even stop from tripping over one measly crocodile."
”Someone has to stand for what’s right.” Exhaustion, pain, and hunger were gnawing at him. He just wanted to go home. “Someone has to show that you don’t have to be scared.”
”The hollow boasts of a frightened child.”
Something impacted on Valor's chest and burst open. He was splashed with a foul smelling liquid. Fumes stung his eyes.
"And now you smell as bad as you look. But if you still want Valor to be a symbol, I can help you with that."
A few yards away Leila was illuminated in a bright red light. She was holding one of Valor's road flares. He suddenly realized what was dripping all over him.
"How would you like to be a beacon shining in the dark?"
Despite the pain in his ankle, Valor turned and ran as fast as he could. “No. No. No. No.” Struggling with only one useful hand, he stripped off his gasoline soaked clothes and gear. He had to stop to get his boots and pants off. As he did so, he saw Leila light up another of his flares not too far away. He rolled into the culvert and splashed water all over himself.
"Hmm…" Leila said idly tossing the flare from one hand to another. "Water. We can always use more water."
She dropped the flare and stepped back into the dark.
Valor still splashed the cold water all over himself, occasionally dunking himself in the foot deep culvert in between scrubbing at his pants.
He got out of the culvert and cautiously looked around.
There was no sign of Leila or the crocodile. He pulled his pants back on and picked up the flare. It would burn out in less than fifteen minutes, but, being left with only his boots and pants, he felt better having the light source for as long as it would last.
Then he heard a hiss. As it grew louder he could feel a slight vibration in the floor and walls. The hiss turned into a rumble. The rumble turned into a roar. Valor couldn't help but pee himself as he saw the wall of water rush towards him.
Despite his best efforts he was swept along with the tide. The current slammed him into walls where he tried in vain to gain purchase. He couldn’t see them, but he felt his head reach pockets of air. Each time he tried to take a breath he was pulled back underwater. He was lost in a lightless world with no way to tell where he was going or what his end might be. Manipulated by forces he couldn’t fight, pained by wounds, slowly dying from the struggle, Valor made the only choice that seemed available to him.
He gave in.
* * *
Shawn Tenney was having a very bad day.
Every inch of his body was bruised and aching. Searing pain clawed at his attention from multiple points. He was very, very cold.
”Wake up!” someone shouted.
There was a rhythmic pounding on his chest that didn’t come from his heart.
”Wake up, damnit!”
He felt a slap. Then another.
”Open your damn eyes, Shawn!”
There was a sharp punch to his solar plexus. He coughed up a lungful of water.
”I’m not done with you yet!” Leila said.
He wheezed and tried to roll over, but she was straddling him. He tried to push her off, but his arms could only vaguely respond. She punched him in the jaw.
”I thought I’d lost you.” she said, running a hand along his check. “We’ve barely started, and you’re cheating. Oh, we have so much more to talk about; so much more to do.”
Down the tunnel, a flood light turned on and a deep, resonating, voice that was very used to being obeyed said, “That’s enough, Leila.”
Leila stood up immediately and stepped away from Shawn. He turned his head in the direction of the light and saw the silhouette of a monstrously-proportioned man almost filling the height and width of the tunnel.
”He’s mine.” Leila asserted.
”Is he?” the man replied.
”You said I could have him.” Leila took steps toward the man. “This was the plan!” she said petulantly.
”At the appointed time.” His demeanor was calm and authoritative.
”It’s too slow.” Leila said moving forward aggressively.
”I brought you to this city because you assured me you could follow orders.”
Her voice was going shrill. “I was bored!”
The man raised a hand, and Leila recoiled. He walked toward Shawn and knelt down on one knee. Shawn still couldn’t make out any details about the man except a greater sensation of dread that accompanied his presence.
”Mr. Tenney, you’re abduction was preformed much ahead of schedule. If I had known, I would have put an end to it sooner. Please accept my sincere apologies with the knowledge that my subordinate will be reprimanded for overstepping her bounds.”
The man stood up and walked back down the tunnel. He pulled something out of his pocket and handed it to Leila who strolled over to Shawn.
Leila held the object in one hand and pressed it to Shawn’s chest. It looked like some sort of gun.
”No.” Shawn said weakly. “Please, don’t.”
Leila pulled the trigger and with the sound of compressed air escaping, Shawn felt needles enter his skin accompanied by a warm sensation wafting over him, dulling his senses. As he drifted off, he heard the words, "I thank you, gentle sir, For what you're pleased to say, And bidding you good morning now, I'll call another day."
* * *
Shawn woke up on the couch in his apartment living room. He was still sore, but no longer in great pain. His ankle was wrapped, and his wrist in a cast. On the coffee table he saw his gear; clean and neatly laid out, with a folded paper card sitting on top.
We are sorry for the inconvenience.