“Look what we have here.”

Sylvius Raygar stopped and turned as five men moved from behind the garbage dumpster he’d just passed. Preoccupied – Sylvius was late for a Super Group meeting in Independence Port and had decided to take a shortcut through The Gish in King’s Row – he hadn’t sensed the presence of the young Skull scum now standing before him, their faces twisted with malicious sneers.

“Out for a little walk tonight, gramps?”

Sylvius smiled. “No doubt, my gray hair has led you to believe I fit the profile of your normal prey, older and weaker, but I’m thinking now that you will learn a new lesson this night, one concerning how your perceptions can often mislead you.”

Puzzlement played across the face of the young Skull. The normal reaction, what he’d come to expect, was complete, total fear. Old people were weak and pathetic. They often began to cry and beg once surrounded and intimidated. This old man…he was anything but afraid and intimidated. If anything, he looked…amused.

“You must be the leader,” Sylvius said, still smiling.

“You must be the leader,” the young Skull repeated in a high falsetto. His partners, feeling the thick tension in the air, laughed. On the end, on the right, the Skull youth pulled a knife out and began to toss it up in the air, flipping it and catching it expertly after two rotations, repeatedly, with a perfect sense of rhythm.

“Normally, I’d be more than happy to play with you, but I’m currently late for an appointment and have little time for diversions. Perhaps you can do me – and more importantly, yourself – a favor and simply turn and walk away? It would save us both a lot of trouble.”

“I smell spandex, boss,” the knife-tosser said.

“Yeah. Yeah, you might be right,” the Skull leader said. His sneer melted into a smile. Three teeth were missing on the left side of his face. “That right, gramps? You one of those Heroes? One of those superheroes?” The Skull leader laughed. “Even so, boys, he’s old. This should still be easy pickin’s.”

Still looking at the leader, Sylvius could see with peripheral vision the knife-tosser had slowly begun to inch around and behind Sylvius. Another gang member to his left had begun to do the same. The old Defender sighed. Moving to surround me. Other than to run – and at his age running was no longer a pleasant diversion, using Super Speed or no – his only option here would be to fight.

He almost felt sorry for these men-boys, really. He could never understand their motivation, could never grasp what must have happened at some point in their young lives to turn them so intractably down the dark path they had chosen. As a young hero it had never occurred to him to question the motives of the evildoers he arrested. He, along with his fellow Super Group members, had gladly and aggressively fought and arrested literally hundreds of men and women set on doing harm to the people and the landmarks of Paragon City. They’d often carried out their missions with a sense of gleeful accomplishment. Did the evil ones they arrested, did they also experience such a feeling of gleeful accomplishment upon successful completion of one of their evil deeds? How could they lack even the barest essence of a moral core? The mystery puzzled him and saddened him.

“So be it. Let the lesson begin, young one,” Sylvius said. The old Defender spread his hands, casting Recovery Aura. Its blue aura radiated out and up, sending an almost electrical charge of strength through Sylvius’ body, infusing with the very muscle tissue itself. The knife-tosser, to his right, moved then, lunging with incredible speed, the knife racing in a downward arc. Sylvius moved, his reflexes amazing for his age, the knife missing the intended target – his heart – and instead slicing Sylvius’ thumb. You are moving like an old man, Sylvius thought, feeling the steel slice his skin. These are mere puppies and one has just bitten you. A bullet whizzed by his head. The Skull leader, gun drawn, was shooting wildly, having yet to take aim. He was still too charged up with the massive first adrenaline rush of battle.

Time was now Sylvius’ biggest enemy; once they began to calm and use strategy, the battle could play out for a longer duration. The current state of confusion on his enemies part worked to his advantage.
Sylvius cast Atomic Blast. The effect was devastating; four of the five fell, defeated, while the final Skull, the leader, stood helpless, choking on the toxic vapors generated by the blast.

Sylvius steadied himself, woozy, his endurance temporarily gone, drained by the powerful force of the astounding amount of energy he had just unleashed. The Recovery Aura did its magic, however, quickly reviving the Defender. He prepared himself, readying to throw a Neutrino Bolt at the leader, but held, seeing it wasn’t really necessary. The leader was practically unconscious as it were. Instead, Sylvius walked calmly over to the leader and threw a punch, old school style, knocking the leader down to join his fellow Skulls, sprawled on the ground, defeated. It was still a rush, the personal nature of fist on chin, so much more personal than the activation of impersonal powers. For a brief moment, Sylvius felt like a teenager again.

He reached for his communicator, setting it to his Super Group’s channel, ready to let them know that he would be late despite his best efforts. He smiled, knowing the ribbing he would receive, the jokes concerning his lack of speed, his lack of discipline, his increasing habit of being late for most any event despite plenty of notice.

A high-pitched cry cut through the darkness of the alley.

Sylvius turned. The sound had come from the garbage dumpster, the same dumpster the Skulls had appeared from behind. The cry repeated. It sounded human, but Sylvius was unsure and, considering his current circumstances, cautious. He approached slowly, on guard. He peered over the edge of the dumpster, into the interior. His eyes widened. His jaw dropped.

It was a child. An infant. The child’s face was straining and red with the tremendous emissions of sound it was putting out at the end of each large intake of breath. My God, Sylvius thought, what is a child doing in a dumpster? The baby was swaddled in a plain white blanket, stained now with some of the refuse surrounding it. Sylvius reached into the dumpster, gently taking the infant into his large hands, and pulled it slowly up and away from the bed of trash it lay upon. He held it awkwardly as most men who’ve never held an infant before are prone to do, his arms stiffly locked into an extended position, the baby held as far away as possible, still crying. How can such a little thing make so much noise, the old Defender thought, approaching panic now, more scared at the prospect of dealing with the crying infant held in his hands than he’d been only five minutes before facing five malicious Skulls in a dark alley.

He tried to calm himself, to think of a way to calm the screaming child. He began to coo to it with a soft voice, meaningless words meant to convey the sound of safety and comfort. He remembered seeing his sister Voladura in the hospital on the day her son had been born, seeing her so proud and happy, holding the baby closely to her, rocking it in a comforting motion. He pulled the child to him then, cradling the infant, attempting to copy his sister’s image in his memory, and slowly began to rock the screaming baby with a steady motion.

“Did our dancing wake you, little one?” Sylvius said softly as he continued to rock the baby. Thankfully, the child stopped crying and began to coo also, seemingly in answer to Sylvius’ soft voice. “I need to get you to the proper authorities little one…though I don’t know who that might be. Perhaps a hospital. Someone there will know what to do with you.”

Sylvius winced suddenly as a fold of the blanket rubbed against his thumb, generating pain. In the excitement after the battle, he’d forgotten that the knife-tossing Skull had been quick and had struck the first blow in the battle, cutting Sylvius’ thumb. He was still bleeding, he noticed, his thumb leaving a red stain-which looked black in the dim light of the alley-on the white blanket.

“I’m sorry little one, I’m bleeding on you. Let me take care of this and then we’ll get you to the hospital. Does that sound like a plan?” Sylvius said, smiling, holding his thumb up in front of the infant. The child laughed, extending its small arms and hands, grasping at the air, just out of reach, attempting to grasp Sylvius’ thumb.

“No, you can’t have my thumb. Not at the moment. You see, it’s bleeding.”

He prepared himself, readying a Healing Aura. Distracted momentarily, his thumb lowered. The baby, seeing the object of its desire now within reach, gave a gleeful cry and grabbed it, wrapping its tiny fingers around his large thumb, hands so tiny they barely made it halfway around the circumference of the large digit. The baby’s face changed – an innocent look of puzzlement – and then the gleeful smile returned as a spectral green light – bright and whole – emitted from the hands of the infant, surrounding Sylvius’ hand and lower arm, reaching a crescendo of light. The light bathed the old Defenders skin, caressing it, and Sylvius felt the unmistakable sensation of his wound being healed, completely and decisively, in the way of the Empath. As the light slowly faded, Sylvius held his thumb up, inspecting it. Completely healed and as good as new.

The baby giggled.

He looked again at the child with new eyes, a look of speculation on his wizened face. This child, a mere infant, had just healed his wound with a level of power he would have found surprising in a teen Empath, let alone an infant.

“Just who are you, little one?” the old Defender said, as he wrapped the dirty blanket tighter around the child, and began a quick jog out of the alley and into the night of Paragon City.

To be continued…

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