Heroes are such fragile things.
Sphinx takes in the scene from a distance, first, as is his custom. He makes a wide orbit around the pillars of smoke and the pathetic caution-tape bandages. The first responders are looking in the wrong place. The cones of searchlights angle away from the response team, leaving the darkness and smoke to swallow up the navy-blue uniforms. Yellow letters reading LAKESIDE EMS float, disembodied, in the air. Steel girders cut oblique angles through the top of the fog,
They’re searching in the foundations of the ruined RadioGenInc Labs building. Moving slowly, too: either out of consideration for the structure’s instability or the hazardous chemicals that may have been released by the bomb, or because they are (reasonably) concerned that Doc Diablo has left traps against the unwary would-be rescuer.
It may also be that the rescue team has access to information that Sphinx does not. This is a slender possibility, though, and it will not bear the weight of action.
The Cavalier will not be found here.
Sphinx puts his back to the searchlights and the echo of strangers’ voices. Two long steps and a leap; he lets go of his cheap coat and settles his mask onto his face as he swings up a downspout and onto a second-story window well.
Riddles are his domain and physics is a kind of riddle, too; natural laws falling into the same rhyme and reason as any well-crafted puzzle. At ten meters per second squared, implacable gravity declared/a hero will drop till the ground makes him stop/and only his nemesis cared.
Doggerel verse, to be honest, and he’s fudging the numbers a bit too, but he’s got no one to show off for. And if he keeps moving, scaling higher, jumping farther, he can’t linger too long in the quicksand-thought that he might never have that again.
He begins to narrow the circumference of his circuit, keeping RadioGenInc at its epicenter. The Cavalier must have known that a trap was waiting for him, though he cannot have guessed at the magnitude of Doc Diablo’s plan. He’ll have gone in high and cautious: a sweep of the roof, then moving down, clearing one floor at a time.
When the building blew, he would still have been high. Perhaps he had even realized and tried to make an escape. Perhaps he’s already safely ensconced in the Stronghold, nursing his wounds and trying to predict Doc Diablo’s next gambit, or Sheba’s next heist, or Renegade’s next target for destruction.
Sphinx prides himself on unpredictability. He’s overdue to issue the customary challenge, a gentleman’s invitation. A game of wits, perhaps a moonlight duel atop Lakeside Cathedral with only the crucified Christ as spectator.
But he won’t find the Cavalier on the Cathedral now, though that would have suited well: a pleasing full circle, a question that conceals its own answer. He arcs inward, moving lightly over cement and slate shingles, then wood, into an older part of the city, where exposed brick and wrought-iron ornamentation sulk in the sleek asymmetrical silhouettes of new construction. He crosses over streets, marking the patterns of debris that have not yet been shifted by conscientious passers-by or the tires of a speeding taxicab. He slides up and down streetlight-punctured shadows, and finds the Cavalier lying in a shatterglass pile inside the ruined window of an empty loft apartment on Crawford Street.
The Cavalier doesn’t stir at the pop and screech of glass shards under Sphinx’s boots. He’s masked twice over: the classic black domino atop a secondary covering of purple and black bruises. Sphinx crouches and lays his hand, an open V, on the Cavalier’s neck.
A flicker of life, then: the Cavalier strikes with one forearm, barely hard enough to dislodge Sphinx’s grasp. “You wouldn’t,” the Cavalier rasps, his eyes still closed, as if he knows Sphinx by the rhythm of his step, the very smell of him. His hand slaps at his hip, searching for a sword that isn’t there. “You won’t.”
No need to check for a pulse, then. “Of course I wouldn’t,” Sphinx says, “and I won’t.” That would fly in the face of the rules by which they have always played. Death is a door that cannot be reopened, a riddle with no answer. How dull; how wasteful. Sphinx and the Cavalier are gentlemen; Doc Diablo is a mad dog that chases mutually assured destruction in his dreams. “Now be still.”
The Cavalier’s eyes are bright, his breathing tight and rapid. Sphinx considers carefully his angle of approach, how best to make a lever of himself. He slides his arms under the Cavalier’s back and knees, and lifts. Pain draws the curtain on the Cavalier’s brief consciousness and his head lolls over Sphinx’s arm.
His enemies—including the Cavalier—might have been surprised to see Sphinx move so lightly, burdened by a hundred and seventy pounds of bone and sinew and muscle. People think of him as graceful, not strong. But it takes strength to be graceful, too.
Sabra’s apartment is small and neat and efficient. It has one bedroom, which serves as his office for the management of the escape room below. In the past year, reviews have turned over from “impenetrable, incomprehensible, impossible” to “fascinating complexity, arcane but solvable, not for the faint of heart.” He would prefer not to water down his work for mass consumption: when he has finished crafting a riddle, it has been distilled to its purest and most perfect essence. To simplify it is to spoil it.
At least, when he has the opportunity, he still knows how to rise to the occasion.
The Cavalier wakes with a start in his sickbed: Sabra’s pull-out couch. Sabra himself has slept on the bathroom floor the past two nights. “Where am I?” This time, bandaged fingers find the sword leaning at the bedside. The Cavalier hasn’t the strength to lift his weapon, but his fist closes around the hilt anyway. “Who are you?” he demands, when Sabra steps away from the kitchen counter, then stills as he realizes he already knows.
Sabra sets a tray on the end table, atop a pile of scrawled-over papers. Not a drop of blood-red tea spills into the saucer. “It’s only karkade,” he says simply. “No caffeine for you right now.”
The Cavalier takes the cup. “Your mask …”
Yes, his mask. To leave it off is to break one of the rules of this long engagement. A tacit agreement, a simplification of the three-dimensional geometry of swordplay and wordplay, of catch-and-release. “You don’t need to worry. I didn’t peek under yours.” With one finger, he slides the pot of honey across the tea-tray. “Though I wouldn’t take my word for it, if I were you.”
The Cavalier’s eyes are darker than they have always seemed in the moonlight; the first suggestion of silver has threaded its way into his hair. “I would always take your word for it.”
They sit in silence. The Cavalier drinks the tea, letting the cup come to rest in its saucer between sips. White tendrils of steam reach up from the surface, then ebb, as entropy ushers the hot liquid toward tepid equilibrium.
There are no tea leaves to read in the bottom, but the Cavalier considers the empty cup anyway, turning it this way and that. “There must be a reason that you didn’t take me to the Stronghold.”
“The Stronghold is gone.” Sabra uses words like a fencing blade: sharp, in and out before you even know you’ve been scored. There is still pain, but less than with a slow, dull cut. “Diablo ransacked it and destroyed what was left, while you were sleeping.”
The unmasked portion of the Cavalier’s face betrays no more pain than does the black leather. His voice is where the hurt hides. “Civilian casualties?”
“How should I know?”
“Put the news on. Please.” The Cavalier slides his legs off the bed, which shrieks its rusty alarm. “I’ll do it myself.”
Sabra flips the remote onto the tray of dirty tea things and carries it to the kitchen, out of the Cavalier’s reach. “There’s no reason to upset yourself. You need rest.”
“I need to know what Diablo is up to.” But the Cavalier doesn’t rise.
Sabra’s apartment is small and neat and efficient. He can see the question-mark curve of the Cavalier’s shoulders from the little space that passes for a kitchen. He can count every tight, labored breath. Teacup, saucer, spoon go into the sink without a sound. The pot of honey, untouched, remains on the counter.
“You must be hungry,” he says, with an unbearable lightness. “Do you think you can stomach ful medames? Or shall I ruin some eggs in the American style instead?”
Lakeside City has always offered an excellent backdrop for Sphinx’s hobbies. His escapades, as the fifth- or sixth-page newspaper headlines call them. The stiff-shouldered buildings have always presided over a bit of dexterous cat-burglary or a rooftop duel. Moonlight strokes the wide, dark waters, keeping them asleep for a while longer.
Sphinx, out and about by cover of night, marks out the ley lines that Doc Diablo’s imps traverse, cutting up the city into invisible pieces. More of the drones are out than he’s ever seen before now that there is no lone Cavalier to be avoided. The Lakeside police look the other way, for the most part; the city DA has his eye on a future position on the legal team at Diablo Multidimensional, LLC.
As Sphinx waits, motionless, in the hollow darkness between street-lights, an unseen something shatters. An unseen someone screams. An imp streaks past overhead; heavily laden, engines snarling, with the windfall from its grab-and-smash. Messy. Uncouth.
Sphinx waits till the imp is out of sight and out of hearing alike, then skims up a fire escape to the city’s rooftops.
No one has reported seeing Diablo himself, since his terrible triumph. He has never divulged the location of his own private headquarters to any of the city’s other villains. Perhaps he’s already found a way to open that portal to hell, unhampered by heroics as he now is.
Supervillainy on such a scale is beyond Sphinx’s interest. While the Cavalier sleeps in his bed, he slides through the wide-open night, leaving his fingerprints on the city. Literally so, in the case of a particular 1939 expressionist Delgado oeuvre in the Modern Art Museum. He doesn’t particularly covet the painting, of course. He enjoys creating his own art, not observing the dead genres of others.
On the museum’s second-floor balustrade, overlooking the empty foyer, he fences with shadows. It’s not the same.
The Cavalier makes a frustrating roommate.
Not because he leaves a mess in the bathroom (if anything, it’s cleaner after he’s done) or because he helps himself to food without asking (he would never). He doesn’t cook, he confides with some embarrassment, describing an enchanted cauldron which managed his culinary affairs at the Stronghold. He does always try to clean up after a meal, before Sabra outmaneuvers him for access to the sink and the scrub-brush. Out-gentlemanning one another is the game they have always played, and clearly it pains the Cavalier to be spotted so many points.
He also insists on doing press-ups—two, three, whatever he can manage, and one-handed, at that, with the fracture in his left wrist—instead of resting. Wounds that are struggling mightily to knit back together give way, and he bleeds constantly through his bandages, requiring Sabra’s patient attention time and again. And worst of all, he performs fencing drills with Sphinx’s practice foil in front of the open windows.
“This is an unnecessarily elaborate suicide method,” Sabra says tersely, as he draws the blinds. Witty repartee is the customary skin that glides over the taut tendons and muscles of their history, but it has been flensed back by the dull blade of constant exposure. “Your fencing style is unmistakable. If one of Diablo’s imps spots you—”
The Cavalier lowers his borrowed blade and feints with his words instead. “You’re saying that if he appears on your doorstep looking for me, you won’t defend me?”
Sabra twirls the blinds rod between his fingers, as if he could push the already-flush slats any closer together. “Are you saying you think I’m a match for him?”
The apartment goes black, the appliances electrically groaning at their sudden demise.
A familiar metal tang sings in Sabra’s mouth. He needs his mask, he needs his sword—
“Look outside,” says the Cavalier, speaking smoothly, both calm and calming. “It’s not just your apartment. It’s everywhere.”
Sabra parts the blinds. The whole block is dark; only pale fingers of moonlight push between the open slats. “He’s running one of his experiments.”
The Cavalier’s weight shifts on the old floorboards. “I wouldn’t like you to have to face him.” His hand settles on Sabra’s shoulder. It sits lightly, a fencer’s deft touch. Sabra looks back, without turning. The moon’s light restores some of the gleam to the Cavalier’s eyes, lifts the weight in his shoulders. “But not because I believe you’re incapable. You’re—”
The circuit breaker whines and the lights come back to life. The Cavalier is not looking at Sabra anymore when they do. “Doc Diablo is my responsibility,” he says, to the drooping practice foil in his other hand.
Sabra steps away and the Cavalier’s hand slides heavy off his shoulder.
It’s not that Sphinx can’t stay in the apartment, it’s that he shouldn’t.
The Cavalier talks in his sleep. Every battle he’s ever had with Doc Diablo, he fights again in his sleep. Everything Diablo has done to him, everything Diablo has taken from him. The Cavalier cries out as bones re-break over well-healed fault lines, as skin splits anew across old spiderwebs of scars.
His old protégé, Caballero, makes frequent appearances in these episodes, too. Sphinx never knew the kid’s real name, before. He’d like to forget it now, but the Cavalier’s private sorrows have carved deep canyons in him.
One night, as Sphinx sets his hand upon the frame of the open window, the word Sphinx tumbles, sleep-mangled, off the Cavalier’s lips.
He lingers a moment, half in the apartment, half out, to see what thread is dragged behind the needle of his own name, what old wounds are barely held together in its wake. But the only sound is the creak of weary furniture. When Sphinx looks over his shoulder, the Cavalier is sitting, propped up by one outstretched arm.
They stare at each other, mask to mask. The Cavalier sets the first gentle footfall on the frozen silence between them. “Where do you go every night?” he asks. “Up to your old tricks?”
The ice cracks beneath Sphinx, tipping him inexorably toward this moment, this confrontation. His hand flexes, remembering the shape of the rapier’s hilt at his side. “What good is a trick without someone to play it on?”
The Cavalier winces and Sphinx coils, muscles wired taut against whatever is coming next. But the Cavalier puts both hands to his face and peels back the domino mask. “I’m tired of tricks,” he confesses, with the kind of honesty only a hero can muster. Darkness still covers most of his face, the sliding shadows the softest and most supple disguise a hero could hope for.
Sphinx is inside the apartment and he is out of it. He is part lion, part man, part bird.
He flies away.
A gentleman’s gambit, then.
To bring down one of Diablo’s imps requires only impeccable timing and an aggressive lack of acrophobia. He steps lightly off the roof of the Weston Memorial Library and disrupts the drone’s path, making sure the embedded video camera gets a good look at his face on the way down.
Diablo’s minions find him where he stands on Holt Avenue in the drone’s glittering wreckage. His posture and cool smile disguise the pain from the ankle that took the brunt of his landing. Some bit of electronic frippery in the drone’s broken battery case sparks at random intervals—no message embedded in Morse code, encrypted or otherwise, only empty noise. The Sphinx wants, idly, for it to mean something. Anything.
Before the goons lay a hand on him, he clears his throat. “I know where the Cavalier is hiding.”
A muttered exchange; a series of dark, sidelong glances. They load him into the car “to see the boss”. There is the obligation of a hood, naturally. Even Sphinx’s carefully tuned inner ear is not dexterous enough to know if it’s the light at Starr Avenue or Bicentennial that stops them, how far they drive before bearing left, at what point the car slides down a ramp and underground.
When they unmask him, a cement sky hangs oppressively overhead. Carved gargoyles—or the petrified escapees of Hell?—make for mighty bulwarks on either side of a wide-sprawling room; beyond these, uncanny lights pulse and twist. As he passes between the statues, Sphinx lays a hand wonderingly on one, but there is no tell to separate natural stone from supernatural.
Diablo is waiting for him. Rather, Diablo is expecting him: the Doctor waits for no one. He and Sphinx have no more than a professional acquaintance; or, in Diablo’s case, an unprofessional one. A sturdy tether and harness suspends the Doctor above a boiling, screeching tear in the fabric of space and time, within which a hock of ham (it has to be ham, or a side of beef, it has to be, Sphinx tells himself it is nothing but a slab of unfeeling meat) is slowly unmade.
Diablo fiddles with some dials on a handheld sensor and curses colorfully. The sound coming from the portal is the sound of suffering and Sphinx counts heartbeats, unwinding himself from the terrible, unending march of this moment.
“Kill the process!” Diablo finally shouts, and reality knits itself back together, leaving only a waver in the air and a faint scorched scent behind as scars. The cool smile pasted on Sphinx’s face hides the rise of his gorge.
The tether lowers Diablo to the ground. He discards sensor, gloves, and goggles as he approaches Sphinx, but retains his yellowed lab coat. He does not extend his hand to be shaken, which prevents Sphinx from having to make the choice whether or not to accept such a gesture. “So. I hear you’ve got a line on the whereabouts of our mutual friend.”
The use of the possessive galls Sphinx. The Cavalier does not belong to him, and certainly not to Diablo, and whatever else he is, he is not Sphinx’s friend. His heartbeat veers tachycardic, a rhythm that even his careful counting cannot adjust. “That’s correct.”
Has his smile, that careful second mask, shifted? Diablo looks him up and down, evaluating. “Of course, I have to assume you’re not making this offer out of the goodness of your oh-so-honorable heart. What is it you want, Sphinx?”
Doc Diablo has a moment to contemplate that, martialing his scientific acumen to pare that one word to its meaning.
Sphinx’s count is accurate, and the moment is long enough.
The detonation whips the henchmen’s heads around, and even Diablo, for a moment, loses his smug composure. Only Sphinx doesn’t look back. When he reaches for it, his sword answers his hand with welcome familiarity.
Henchmen first; a purely numerical game. Six against one, four, three. Each farce of a duel goes past first blood, but not all the way unto death. Sphinx takes care to hamstring them, to sever an exposed Achilles tendon, to surgically part a kneecap from its cradle with the flick of his blade. Hypovolemia and shock are still, certainly, a risk. An acceptable one. When it falls to a villain to dispense justice, small surprise if it has a bitter aftertaste.
But he’s not fast enough to take all six of them out on his own. The last of them gets three shots off. Two bullets miss and the third tears through the flesh of his thigh. As from a great distance, his brain makes the cold calculation that the femoral artery remains intact. Any pain can be bricked up for now: a labyrinth to crawl through later.
A flick of his sword, and the gun flips away, out of reach. The henchman is disarmed but cannot be discounted: his fist, lined up perfectly with the bones of his forearm, smashes into Sphinx’s face. Teeth shatter and the sharp edges shear the inside of his lip.
Sphinx shakes his head, staggering, spitting blood. The close range and the pain both blunt his skill. Huge hands flex and close punishingly around his throat.
A shallow upward swipe of the sword opens a deep wound in the henchman’s forearm, playing a sharp high note from the radial nerve. The henchman screams and Sphinx’s airway opens. He steps back, leaving the henchman to clutch his wrist and fall, spinning slow, agonized circles in a growing pool of blood.
Where is Diablo now? Diablo hires his muscle; he’s not a brawler. Neither a lover nor a fighter. Given the opportunity, he’ll call for reinforcements. But from where? The hairs on the back of Sphinx’s neck stir. He spins on one heel and finds Diablo behind a massive computer bank.
Diablo sneers and smashes a series of keystrokes.
The portal opens.
For a moment Sphinx teeters in perfect balance between the screaming void at his back and the cement-and-fluorescent room ahead. Easy oblivion on one side of the equation; pain and suffering of so many different colors on the other. He’s heavy, so heavy, and it would be so easy to surrender—
Doc Diablo’s tether slaps him in the face.
Surprise almost makes the decision for him. He teeters and grabs the harness, wrapping it around his hand. It holds fast as his feet start to slip on the blood-smeared floor.
He looks down at his sword, at his fingers locked around the hilt. A gentleman’s weapon, a beautiful, elegant thing. An artifact of a different place and time.
When he lets go, his fingers feel as if they are breaking.
The sword falls silently into the portal and Sphinx swings his freed hand forward. Both arms pull him along now, until he finds traction on the floor, until the pull of the portal is no more than a petulant tug at his back.
Diablo retreats at his advance but there is no more computer console to hide behind, no portal in the concrete wall to admit him. There is only so far Diablo can go.
Sphinx goes one step farther.
People think of Sphinx as graceful, not strong. But it takes strength to be graceful, too, and he turns that strength against Diablo now, artlessly, crudely, finally.
He will never know how he made it back to the apartment. He finds himself pawing at his own window, leaving greasy, bloody handprints, until the sash lifts and he tumbles through. Into the Cavalier’s arms.
“What—” The Cavalier wields words like he does his sword. To see him so clumsy with them now is disconcerting and it reminds Sphinx of the pain throbbing in his mouth, his side, his leg. There is no calculation, no precise application of physics, as he lifts Sphinx from the soiled rug. He merely wills it to be so, and it is done. “Oh, God. What did he do to you?”
“It’s done,” Sphinx says, and he’s not laughing, nor crying, he’s gasping, there is no air. He fumbles his mask off, but why, beneath it he isn’t Sabra, he has always been Sphinx, and where is the air? “It’s done, it’s done, it’s done…”
Silence, then. The cool dry brush of lips against his forehead. A memory, or a dream? Pain, too; the kind that refuses to be washed away beneath an ocean of unconsciousness.
Sabra wakes in his own apartment. His wounds have been bandaged. Astringent salve burns his nostrils; the scent of stale blood persists in subtle counterpoint. Light presses insistently between the slats of the blinds, the space between curtain and wall.
He is alone. Whatever nascent thing was struggling to take shape here, he has broken it.
He would break it again. He would break it over and over and over.
He lies on his back, unable to rise, and unwilling. Salt tears debride the new scabs on his face and chest. How does one mourn something that never was? A riddle to which he can set no answer.
Some weeks later, two shadows cross atop a high rooftop.
“I wasn’t sure you would come,” says the longer shadow, which belongs to Sphinx. “The city has been too quiet lately.”
“Someone will fill the void soon enough.” The second shadow speaks wearily. The Cavalier isn’t chiding; he’s simply handling, again, a well-worn fact. “All I can do is hope that it’s not someone worse.”
Sphinx draws, his sword so slender that the moonlight need scarcely trouble to avoid it on its way to the rooftop. Its shadow is needle-fine, all but invisible when he gives it a testing flick. Schrodinger’s steel. “You should take another protégé.”
“Why?” A second blade, drawn in answer; a smile, in the Cavalier’s voice. “Are you afraid to face me, sword to sword, like gentlemen?” A hesitation, one whose tell a lesser man might have tried to hide. “Just like old times.”
It is an offer, it is an apology. “Just like old times,” Sphinx agrees reluctantly.
Two swords flash in the moonlight, in the wreckage of a thousand tender might-have-beens.
|Aimee Ogden is a former science teacher and software tester; now she writes stories about sad astronauts and angry princesses. Her first novellas “Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters” and “Local Star” debuted in 2021, and along with Kaleidotrope, her short fiction has appeared in magazines such as Lighspeed, Clarkesworld, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. She also co-edits Translunar Travelers Lounge, a magazine of fun and optimistic speculative fiction. You can follow her for updates on Twitter @Aimee_Ogden.|