Dedicated to my friend, heroofthenorth. :)
They’d finally caught him. How? He still couldn’t quite figure it out. One moment he’d been free, the next... He was sitting on a dirty floor, staring at four solid walls. One thick, iron door. It’d been a trap. A desperate plea--something his Defender nature would never be able to refuse-- for help had led him to this dead-end room where he’d been lumped hard on the head and knocked unconscious. When he’d awoken, the door had been shut, locked, and he’d been sealed in.
There would be no one to save him. He had reached no man’s land, beyond a helping hand. If a Defender got themselves captured, they were on their own. After all, everyone else’s identity couldn’t be put at stake as well. It was only a matter of time before one of Sloth’s henchmen walked through the door and attempted to remove his mask. They’d know his identity, and then maybe they could find the others. It was a fruitless hope, however. His real identity didn’t tie with anyone else’s, and he himself didn’t know who the other Defenders were under their masks. All part of the policy.
No one knew who he was. It was more than probable that no one knew he was even missing. No one would ever miss him. Not like they would if the Lupe or Aisha Defenders disappeared. He wasn’t a public persona. He knew there was some dispute as to whether he was a hero or a villain, but that was just a fool’s pondering. He wore the tights, didn’t he? He certainly didn’t wear them of his own accord.
He was Khan the Unstoppable. The semi-unstoppable now, he amended with a grudge. Though he was a massive, yellow Tonu, no one had ever caught him before. No one. Sloth was getting clever, tricky. He’d always been a threat to the Defenders before, had always been bent on discovering their identities and having them out of the way so that he could make good on one of his hair-brained schemes for world domination.
Khan only knew of two other Defenders that had been caught by Sloth and destroyed by the revelation of their true identity. Now, he was going to be the embarrassing third. And what would he do when the world knew his identity? He didn’t have a plan for this, a backup career. Being a Defender was his life, his whole life, and even a crucial part of his identity. Without it, he’d be only a fragmented Tonu in regular clothes with a regular name and a regular life, and a cloud of shame hanging over his head for being caught.
How long would it be now before he had to face that sort of reality? How long before that one door opened and someone stepped inside this one room to unveil his face for all to see? How much longer did he have to be himself and not the average Joe he’d been long, long ago? He was a Defender now. A strong and unstoppable force! How had he been reduced to this?
Grunting in frustration, Khan slammed a fist on the ground beside him, giving the whole room an uncomfortable shake. The ceiling above him crackled and rained a bit of debris down onto his masked head.
“Hey! Be careful! Do you want to bring this whole place down on us?” an irritable voice snapped.
Khan jolted, his head snapping up and staring across the room, searching for the voice. Its owner, he found, was tucked into a far corner, veiled in shadows and sitting with his knees curled up against his chest much as Khan himself was sitting. The fellow, though larger, wasn’t quite the enormous size of Khan, but boasted a broad, muscled chest and a body cloaked in long, shaggy fur. He wore only a jaggedly ripped pair of shorts, however, looking rather plain next to Khan’s elaborate Defenders costume.
“Who are you?” Khan snapped toward what he was now certain was a Werelupe.
The Werelupe yawned, as if Khan had just woken him from a nap, and he stretched out his long, powerful legs. He ran a paw across his chest, scratching it lazily, as he examined Khan with mildly interested green eyes.
Ugh! They’d caught another Defender too? Great! Their numbers were fast depleting at this rate. Khan nearly scowled, but the expression was only half-formed when it froze on his face. Wait. A Werelupe defender? He’d never heard of one of those.
“Hero of the North? The North, where?” Khan demanded.
The Werelupe chuckled, making Khan’s brows knit together.
“No, no. My name is HerooftheNorth,” the Werelupe explained. “Hero, for short.”
Khan was both relieved and disappointed to find that his cellmate wasn’t a Defender as well. At least they didn’t have two Defenders, but, at the same time, Khan could have used the help, the reassuring presence of another unstoppable force. Instead, he was stuck with an ordinary Werelupe. No help at all.
Khan must have been frowning, because one of Hero’s wooly eyebrows lifted, making him look mildly offended.
“You look disappointed,” he commented.
Khan shrugged, turning away. “It just would have been nice to have been with another hero. Then maybe we could have escaped.”
Now, Hero frowned as well. “I’m not completely helpless, you know.”
Khan wasn’t sure what exactly enticed him to insult the fellow, but, nonetheless, his next statement slipped freely from his lips before he could stop it, perhaps a result of his own feelings of inadequacy. Perhaps because they were both stuck in the cell, which meant, more or less, that they both equated to helpless.
“Just because your name is Hero doesn’t mean you are one.”
Hero barely missed a beat. “Just because you wear tights doesn’t make you a hero either.”
He had him there.
“Touché,” Khan grumbled reluctantly, his mood turning sour.
What kind of hero would get captured, anyway?
“So then, hero, who are you exactly?” Hero asked.
The simple question stabbed right to Khan’s core. Of course, he didn’t recognize him. He was an underground Defender, after all; very few knew him. Most even thought him a villain. But still, something about the question, the obvious disregard for whatever amazing feats Khan might have accomplished, stung the Tonu’s very soul. He tried to appear more indignant than hurt, having learned to never show weakness.
“Khan the Unstoppable.”
Hero snorted, noting the obvious irony in his name now. He wasn’t unstoppable anymore. He had been stopped. How humiliating.
“Greetings, Khan, welcome to my humble abode.” Hero waved a mocking paw around the cell.
“How long have you been here?” Khan wondered aloud.
Hero shrugged. “Awhile. They think they have the Werelupe King. I’m just a decoy, though. Sloth wants our king to help him end the current Countess’s rule in the Haunted Woods. Mezzanotte. You’ve heard of her, right? Sloth wants to overpower her so he can rule over the denizens. After all, who else could make more likely henchmen than the creatures in the Haunted Woods?”
There was a bitter tone in Hero’s voice as he said this, but he merely averted his eyes from Khan, concealing whatever it was that annoyed him about his current predicament. Beside being encaged, of course. Khan studied him for a moment, reluctantly admitting that maybe he was a hero. He’d sacrificed himself for the greater good of the Haunted Woods.
Khan couldn’t think of anything particular about the Haunted Woods that would make him volunteer to sacrifice himself.
“What are you in for?” Hero asked, when Khan remained mute.
Khan sighed. “I’m one less Defender for Sloth to worry about if he can unmask me and reveal my true identity to Neopia.”
Hero nodded, as if he suspected this. “Didn’t you used to, you know, bash through walls and stuff?”
Khan turned a grumpy expression in his direction. So, the Werelupe had heard of him before. “I was younger then.”
As if that explained his deficiency now. Even as he said it, Khan regretted it. He was still the same Tonu, still the same Defender, and yet he was making excuses. Something he never did. He sounded as bitter as Hero had.
Hero lifted a paw, patting the sturdy wall to his left. “I bet you could do it if you tried.”
Khan knew what it was he was referring to. He turned his own eyes to the wall, trying to picture himself rampaging through it, knocking it down with the mere impact of his rock-hard shoulder. Like he used to. Khan rubbed that shoulder now, as if it was riddled with the ghost of an old pain.
“I can’t,” he grumbled. “The doctor told me to lay off of wall smashing. It’s not healthy for my body.”
There was a moment of silence as Khan held his shoulder and looked at the floor, as if it was acutely interesting. Hero merely stared at him, an almost repulsed expression gleaming darkly in his eyes. There was disbelief mingling there as well.
“So what then? Are you just going to let them unmask you? Take away your identity? Your life?” Hero demanded.
Khan seemed to withdrawal slightly into himself. “I can’t go back to that.”
He couldn’t go back to the days when he’d been Fred Lee Tonum, the ordinary, unimpressive yellow Tonu of small stature and weak persona. Clothed daily in pressed pants and shirt, choked by a plain, dark tie, carrying around his heavy, burdenous briefcase. Always trudging, back hunched, eyes downcast. He’d been a nobody then. He’d been less than ordinary. He’d been plain and unremarkable.
For years, he’d followed the same routine, fallen into dull, boring habits, and lived a life that was much like the life of all the other ordinary Neopians. Deep inside he’d always harbored the feeling that he’d been meant for something more, but, in a world like his, fantasies were left on the curb. Ordinary Neopians didn’t have time for dreams when they had to provide for their families. He’d discarded the notion that his life had a greater purpose years before he’d discovered it had one.
It’d been a blisteringly hot day, an incredibly dry season. He’d been following routine, walking the same route home from work that he always took. He’d only been a block away when he’d smelt the remnants of something charred, something burning. Then he’d heard the shouts, the desperate pleas for help, and something had just... clicked.
He’d dropped his brief case, ripped off his tie, and ran toward the sounds of Neopians calling for help. He’d found a scene of mayhem, a small stone cottage burning with little Neopians still stuck inside, and then he’d acted on instinct. He’d charged at one of the rock-hard walls of the cottage, ducking his head, thrusting out his shoulder. He hadn’t expected to bust through. He hadn’t really expected anything at all. He’d only known he had to try.
When his shoulder had busted through solid rock, caving in the side of an entire cottage, he’d barely blinked an eye. He’d saved the youngsters, he’d saved the day, and it’d seemed so natural. It hadn’t been long after that before Judge Hog had called upon him. The rest was history.
As if Hero had expected his quiet, short venture back into the past, the Lupe didn’t speak again until Khan began to resurface back into the present, slowly, pulling away from the gentle arms of old memories.
“What was your name then?” Hero asked. No pretenses.
“Fred,” Khan replied softly.
Did it matter that he knew? It was just a first name. No history tied to it. He was stuck here anyway. Soon the whole world would know. It wouldn’t be a secret much longer.
“How did you get here, Fred?”
It seemed like a silly question at first, but its deeper meaning resonated inside of Khan’s chest, and the Tonu’s eyes became glassy with remembrance again. How had he gotten here? Captured, outsmarted? Like he’d always sworn he never would.
From the day he’d become Khan the Unstoppable, he hadn’t given Fred a backward glance. That other insignificant part of him had been a ghost he’d gladly left in the dust. Despite the pressure, despite the stress, he’d loved being a Defender more than anything else. Each moment of pain had been worth it. Each moment when he’d suffered with a lost identity, he’d grown stronger, more affectionate toward the one he’d gained, though it was only a mask. Only an image.
To most. But not to him. The image was his life. There was no separating the two anymore. He’d delved into his Defender duties headlong with no remorse, devoting every day, every hour, every second to his passion. Sleep had been forgotten somewhere along the way, as well as every other ounce of normalcy that had went with Fred’s life.
There were no dull moments as a Defender, no lengths of lag. Everything moved in fast forward. Nothing stopped, nothing slowed. Khan hadn’t realized until this moment how tiring that had been. Perhaps all along it had been wearing on his strength. He’d become tired without realizing it. He’d become old. Older, at least. Less indestructible. He’d stopped crashing through walls. He’d stopped being the valiant hero in the limelight. He’d gone underground. Easy work, shadow work. Stuff he didn’t have to be young and super strong for anymore.
Pitiful. Somewhere along the way he’d lost his flare.
How had he gotten here?
“I don’t know,” he sighed finally. “I never stopped to notice.”
In his own corner, Hero nodded respectfully. His green eyes had become more critical in the last couple of minutes. There was something entirely too knowledgeable about them now. Khan didn’t have the strength to flinch away, though looking at the Werelupe’s eyes made him feel like he was gazing into a mirror. A mirror that reflected all the things he’d been missing.
“Well, now you’ve stopped,” Hero said at length. “And now you’ve noticed. So what are you going to do?”
Slowly, Khan lifted his gaze to Hero’s.
“Escape?” he questioned hesitantly.
A smile bloomed across Hero’s furry face.
Hero lifted one paw. “That.” Now he lifted the other. “Or you could be Fred again.”
Khan frowned. Putting it in that perspective, it all became painfully clear to him. Those were his choices. Escape and be Khan, or remain and become Fred again. Only worse. He’d be Fred with all his boring normalities as well as the knowledge that he’d let something truly great slip through his grasp. He could barely tolerate being Fred. He didn’t think he could live being him under those circumstances again. All at once, Khan the Unstoppable shoved to his hooved feet.
“You’re right. What are stone walls to Khan the Unstoppable?”
Hero shrugged in an aloof manner. “I don’t know. What are they?”
Empowered by Hero’s indirect encouragement, Khan pulled himself up to full height, sucking in a breath and puffing out his massive, muscled chest. There was a grin on his face and a twinkle in his eye that hadn’t been there in some time.
“Child’s play,” Khan snorted.
Looking like a great, hulking boulder himself, Khan turned, drew in another deep breath, and charged full steam at the wall just left of the door. He waited for the cement to easily jump aside as his shoulder rammed the wall. Just like old times, just like good times. But he was in for an unexpected and unpleasant surprise when the wall remained unyielding, smooshing his shoulder uncomfortably flat and sending a jarring pain through his right arm. Instead of the wall bouncing off of him, Khan bounced off of it, hitting, smashing, and falling backward onto the floor. The whole room seemed to vibrate with the impact, but nothing budged.
“Ow!” he howled.
And he could have sworn he heard the indistinct sound of a chuckle from the corner.
“Stone walls are obviously an obstacle to Khan the Unstoppable,” Hero commented wisely, “but thank you for the assistance, my friend.”
There was a loud ringing in Khan’s head, but he could still hear muffled shouts from the other side of the door and the sound of running footsteps. Before he had the time to be confused, Hero swiftly stood and began to tear at one of the stones in the wall with his claws.
“I’ve been working on this for a while, and you, Defender, have given me the last bit of assistance I needed.”
It took Khan a moment to realize that it must have been loosened by his impact with the wall. He heard the gritty sound of debris sprinkling to the floor as the footsteps got closer. But Hero was quicker, and within seconds he’d dislodged the stone and dropped it to the floor. As it rolled once onto its side, Hero was already pulling the other stones around it loose.
“Here’s our freedom,” Hero grunted. “And your second chance to be the hero you once were. Don’t disappoint me for saving you, friend.”
After removing three more considerably sized stones, Hero stepped to the side and gestured with his paw toward the hole that was leaking day light into their cell. His meaning was very clear. Still a little dazed, Khan rolled onto his side and got to his feet just in time to narrowly miss behind squished by the door as it swung inward.
He heard the surprised shouts of the guards behind him, but Khan didn’t pay them any heed. Knowing time was short and freedom was close, Khan took several long, running strides toward the wall, tucking his head, bracing his shoulder, and rammed into the wall. This time, stones crumbled and exploded free.
In that one shining moment, the Tonu relived his youth in a brilliant flash. All the reasons that made him love his career as a Defender bloomed wonderously to light again, like a few dazzling fireworks exploding in his vision. He hadn’t felt this alive in a long, long time. He’d almost lost his appreciation for it.
With Hero sprinting behind him, Khan led the way to freedom, and the vision was complete.
He only glanced once to the right at Hero to see that the Werelupe was smiling in a breezy sort of way, as if they weren’t running for their lives. The smile remained on his face even as they parted ways at the entry to a small, thick forest. Even as Hero waved him goodbye and wished him luck. As if they hadn’t just been locked inside one of Sloth’s many prison cells.
Khan had never met a creature so truly puzzling.
Maybe not every hero had to wear tights. It was something he was going to have to take into consideration, he thought, as he ran with spandex squeezing his thighs.