A solo story from the beginning of the Artis' career, before the villains and the terrorists and the love interests. If this story ever comes to fruition, know that his origin (which is basically spelled out for you here) will not be revealed to the public until it comes from a very unexpected source- Still, whatevs.
A man stood alone on a roof.
He sang quietly. His voice carried upwards, into the overcast night, lost to any other ear.
“Lately I’ve been hard to reach, spent too long on my own. Everyone has a private world, where they can be alone a lone. Are you reaching out to me, are you trying to get through? Are you reaching out for me? I’m reaching out… for you.” The opening refrain finished, he sighed, and lowered his head.
He was not what one would call a normal man. He wore a thick, cerulean blue long-sleeved shirt, the “fuzzies” he liked to pick off whilee idle sparse. Over the shirt, a light, black flak vest covered his entire torso, with only his neck visible, and ended in black gloves with a soft leather palm. His legs were covered in pants made from the same fabric and color of his shirt, the bright blue clouded by thick, black kneepads, and by a belt with countless pockets and items, flasks, marbles and spray cans. The leggings disappeared into his boots mid-calf., which were heavy, with soft soles that wouldn’t make any unnecessary sounds.
Surely, his outfit could hardly be considered normal, but what made this man stand out was not what he wore, but what he held. In his right hand, he tightly gripped two things: a newspaper he had purchased earlier in the evening, and a mask, a black baklava that allowed only his eyes and the bridge of his nose to be seen. The mask was heavy, and on anyone else, it would have been dehumanizing.
In his other hand, he carried a sword. It was long and made of flawless steel. Its reflective surface danced with colors, the ghosts of cars and neo signs moving rapidly across the blade. The hilt was simple, and elegant. The black handle was customized to his grip, with room for both hands if he so chose. A blue translucent marble was held on the end by steel claws, creating an ornate pummel.
His name was-
“The Artist,” he said, reading aloud from the newspaper. “The Artist, as dubbed due to the tell tale markings he leaves behind, yadda yadda… Ladies and gentlemen, the press of the 21st century. No imagination.”
His voice was light, with little sincerity weighting it down. In point, his voice was too light; it sounded empty.
“Couldn’t they have come up with something better, like Awesome Man or Mega Guy?” he continued. He put the sword into a sheath connected to the back of his flak jacket, then he sighed, and sat on the edge of the building. “At least ‘Artist’ is marketable.”
His head turned to the sky.
The city was tinted red, monotone with countless brick building. The sky was completely covered with clouds, reflecting the light back to the street lamps that bore it. The air smelled of a mixture of smog and saltwater, the taste of potato chips lingering when you breathe. Conversations of car horns and tires, indistinguishable yells and music of all types mixed in a quiet racket. On the rooftop, he could hear everything, yet it melded into nothing.
Though the city was red that evening, other colors littered the streets. Reds and white lights from cars and the greens, red, and yellows of their gods created a moving city floor, and the myriad combination of advertisements and signs created soft glows on the skyline. Countless numbers of people walked along the streets, oblivious to the man above them, but rapidly aware of his presence in the city.
The stark harshness of Monal City was broken by the man’s eyes. They were simultaneously bright and dark, beacons in the night yet shadowed by inner conflict and unrest. The windows were naturally a blue that some paid to fake, like an ocean on a clear day with streaks of silver and gray, with a black tempest calmly sitting in the middle.
The pools of color were part of a young face. The ‘Artist’ looked like he was barely old enough to drink. His cream skin was broken by a single pair of freckles on the right side of his neck. He had no stubble, but his hair was messy, matted, and black. He had what someone had called a “boy band chin,” which somehow “complimented his toned, muscular athlete’s build.”
The Artist read the news article like a college text: intently, but with no real interest. He was, essentially, reading it to go over the details of his life, as if he didn’t believe it-
“Actually, it’s more of expositional stuff,” he said.
“Don’t mind me, mister Third Person Omniscient Narrator, just breaking the Fourth Wall,” the Artist said, giving a thumbs-up with his left hand to the pale red sky. “It’s a Harlequin thing, cookie if you get the reference. Just go back to the story.”
He continued to read the article, as if to remind himself of that which he was not, nor could not, forget. “‘Police have mixed feelings about the mysterious vigilante who has left alleged murderers at police headquarters, saved over thirteen people from fires from the Monal Arsonist, and stopped numerous muggings. Officially, police do not condone vigilantism, and are investigating the ‘Ninja of the Alleys.’ Oh, I like that.”
The Artist set his mask down on the rooftop next to him, and with his free hand, removed a flask from his belt. “It’s called the ‘Thingy Belt,’” he said, to no one in particular. “‘Utility Belt’ was trademarked. Fuggin’ Batman.”
The Artist opened the silver flask, unscrewing the top with his thumb and index while holding the flask with his remaining fingers. He brought the container to his lips, noting the Army sigil that decorated it. It had been his grandfather’s in World War II.
He sipped the thick liquid, swallowing slowly. The taste was sweet, with tang. It was still hot, a small blessing on his nightly vigils. He repeated the gesture a few times, sipping and swallowing, before replacing the lid and then the flask itself on his belt. He retrieved his mask and stood, feeling the liquid warm his body. It was a familiar sensation, one he took solace in against all the stress and conflict he upheld as Monal City’s protector.
He recalled the first time he had tasted it, the first time it had touched his lips. He was young, some might say too young. He wasn’t at his best, and he felt nothing would make the world the bright place it should have been. Understanding his plight, his mother brought the irreplaceable resource to him, and he even remembered the word on the deceptively plain container.
“Campbell’s Tomato,” he murmured.
His recollections were interrupted by a shout in the distance. He turned quickly in the direction of the sound. The scream was loud enough to echo among the cluttered alleyways to his ears, but no matter how loud it was, it would never get the attention of the be-leagued authorities, not in time for it to matter. He pulled his mask over his head, already running. His face hidden, the Artist’s eyes grew brighter. It wasn’t just the reaction to adrenaline and other hormones now coursing through his body, but something more. His eyes were more alive than any light the city could muster, and a smirk was clear against the fabric of his mask.
His mind “turned off,” as he just reacted. He leapt from roof to roof, feeling the gamut of textures of the buildings through the soles of his boots. He jumped over a steam pipe, slid under a water tower, flipped over a gap between buildings. In the midst of this acrobatic moment, where he flew ten feet across and twelve feet down, he had a thought. It was clear, concise. It formed instantly, played out in his head like text in a moving light sign-
Are cannibals afraid when they kiss?
-and then it was gone.
He landed on his hands, bending his elbows to compensate for the stress of the impact, then stretched out in a handspring back to his feet. He was running again instantly.
Another scream disturbed the chaotic serenity of the night’s usual sounds. The Artist was close enough to discern not only the direction of the source more accurately, but more of the source. A young woman, which, probably, also determined the crime.
He altered his direction, pumping his fists for more speed. He dove across yet another gap, this time arms and head first. The vigilante landed in a somersault, was back on his feet and headed towards no audible sounds of a struggle; three male voices were also heard.
The Artist reached the edge of the building and stopped. Below him, three men held a woman down. She was blonde, and what was surely a pretty face was covered with muck and grime. He could practically taste the dirt covering her mouth. The swordsman could see her sleeves tattered, and her shirt was pulled down to expose a bra and it‘s contents. She wore a jean skirt, and it had been pulled down by a large male, late 20s, white, with the worst stubble/hair combo the Artist had ever seen. He held an M9 pistol, popular amongst military and video game aficionados. The Artist instantly labeled him as “Yuppie”. The two other men held back. One was about the same age, was Asian American, had gelled up hair in a “kid at play” haircut and wore an ensemble that had to have been stolen off a mannequin in American Eagle. The Artist could not think of anything other than the television show Scrubs, it’s whiney protagonist yelling “Eagle.“ A suitable moniker, he decided, but the young kid didn’t scare him. Only the third attacker gained his attention as a direct threat.
The man was older than his cronies, the Artist would guess mid-thirties, but more importantly his jacket was adorned with an Army Ranger patch. His hair was a messy brown, but even seven stories up, the Artist could tell by his gaze and stance, this man was not afraid of violence. This was a “Veteran”.
He made his analysis in less than a second, and was moving even before he finished thinking about the three goons. He jumped from the building, grabbing onto a drain pipe and sliding down a couple of stories, then he pushed himself off onto a fire escape. He dropped from railing to railing, the smell of iron burning his nose, until he got to the third story. He latched himself to the drop down ladder with a hard grip, and kicked the latch that held it in place. The Ninja of the Alleys fell with the ladder, falling off in a back flip.
His acrobatics over, he landed behind the lead rapist and in front of the other two thugs, his feet hitting the ground before the ladder.
Undoubtedly hearing the noise, the yuppie turned his attention to the source. He swung around until his gun would have been level with the Artist’s face, but the vigilante was no longer there. He had ducked lower than the gun, and before the yuppie rapist could lower the gun to aim, he brought his right hand, open-palmed, and swung it clockwise until his fingers wrapped around the gun and the yuppie’s hand. He quickly hit a switch on the gun, ejecting the clip, then slid the top of the gun assembly back, sending the chambered round clinking down to the alley ground. The Yuppie didn’t even have time to blink.
“Aw, wan outta buh-wits,” he mocked.
“Tweety Bird?” the yuppie said, confused
“No- I have no interest in being plastered on little girl clothes,” the vigilante said, absentmindedly.
“The hell are you talking ‘bout?” the veteran demanded.
“I have no idea.”
A moment passed, and nothing happened. The sounds of different streets were muffled by the myriad twists and turns of the alleys. Louder than any sound that came from the desolate metropolis, the girl’s ragged breath was more intense than a heartbeat. She held still for a moment, then breathlessly-
The Artist heard the telltale *snap* of a switch blade, and instantly judging the height of the thug, Eagle, kicked his left leg back and high connecting his boot with Eagle’s face, his body bending to allow the move. Eagle fell back, hit the ground and slid further, his momentum spurring him along the west, pebbled ground. Hopefully, his designed clothes were ruined.
Rising back up, he used his gloved hands to pull down on Yuppie’s wrist and simultaneously push up the barrel of the empty gun, breaking the Yuppie’s index finger, and putting pressure on the thumb. With a yelp, the Yuppie relinquished his hold on the gun. Artist took the gun, and with a quick turn, Frisbee-threw it into the Veteran’s chest, who was reaching into his jacket.
Possibly the greatest threat temporarily sidetracked, he returned to the more important threat to the girl. He spun backwards to his left, hitting Yuppie in the nose with his right forearm.
“Run-” he commanded to the girl, but she was already rising to flee.
The Artist followed up his elbow with a tiger palm strike with his left, crashing his hand into Yuppie’s right side. Even through his gloves, he could feel Yuppie’s body caving in to his blow. Unrelenting, he brought his hands up to bring Yuppie into a Muai Thai clinch, and two quick knees to the same spot in the ribs. The way the rapist’s torso moved combined with Yuppie’s pained grunt. Further adding a jumping right knee to Yuppie’s face, the Artist let go of the clinch to allow the would-be rapist to collapse to the ground.
With the chief threat to the girl incapacitated, the vigilante turned to face the bigger threat to him.
The Veteran had finished his retrieval from his jacket the Artist had interrupted; he now held a .44 revolver.
The Artist dodged down and to the right as he sprinted forward to the veteran. The former Ranger fired and missed, his arm bending from the recoil. Veteran was aiming his second shot when the Artist was upon him. The vigilante turned his body to avoid the gun and chopped at Veteran’s outstretched arm. His right hand connected with the elbow, and combined with the recoil of the second shot, the handgun flew back into Veteran’s face.
The Ranger stumbled back, dropping the gun.
“I totally planned that,” the Artist lied. “Don’t call me a liar.”
The Ranger steadied himself, his fingers tightening and relaxing and tightening into a fist. “What the hell did you say?” he demanded. His words were altered by the broken nose he had received.
“Nothing. Self-aware protagonist thing,” the Artist said, almost happily.
The Veteran just stood there. Their eyes unwavering, the two were still for a moment, the Artist weighing his opponent, the ranger undoubtedly doing the same.
The air had changed some point during the fight. The taste of potato chips was gone, replaced by a thick nothingness, save various alley smells of garbage, rot, and sex. The temperature had also changed; the Artist surmised that it was going to rain. The air felt colder and foreign. It probed his eyes, and snaked past the hold in the mask for his eyes, teasing the rest of his face with the memory of a fresh breeze.
The Veteran made the first move. He jumped forward, throwing a left hook, his right arm up in a face guard. The Artist twisted right, his head just passing under the fist. With his left hand, the Artist grabbed the wrist, and tugged. Using his right hand in a formation that made him think of Mecha-Godzilla’s hands, he jabbed his fingers into the exposed ribcage, sending the force of his blow to Veteran’s left kidney.
Veteran’s left arm tensed, but before the Artist could capitalize, the attacked attempted to use his right hand to hit the Artist’s own wrist. The Artist recognized the move as gun disarming technique. He relinquished his grip from the Veteran’s wrist, pulling his arm back to avoid the hit. The Veteran’s attack changed from a palm strike to a rushing elbow. The Artist bent back, playing the Matrix song in his head, but the tip of Veteran’s elbow connected with his forehead. He took a step back, but Veteran tried to slam his right calf into the Artist’s left torso in a mid-section kick, but the vigilante moved with the leg and used his left arm to catch the kick, and gave a hard solid punch to a bundle of nerves in the capture leg.
Veteran grunted, pulling his numb leg away from the Artist. He was shifted, placing his weight on his left leg. The Artist tried to capitalize with a left jab, but Veteran swung his right arm up in a Tae-Kwon-Do forearm block, and then blocked the Artist’s right palm strike with a chop block.
With Veteran’s attention taken to guarding his face, Artist changed tactics. He leapt up, sending the steel-toed tip of his left boot into Veteran’s gut. Veteran instantly and reflexively bent down, exposing his face to another kick, from the Artist’s free right foot.
The Veteran’s face rocketed up, but he didn’t stumble. The Artist landed on his back using his arms to cushion the impact. He swung his legs around, sweeping Veteran off his feet. The large man came crashing down splashing into a random puddle.
The Artist somersaulted backwards, back to his feet. Already Veteran was attempting to get to his feet. The Artist rushed into an inziguri, slamming his right calf into Veteran’s face. Veteran’s head slammed back like a pong dot on crack, and he was still, save for the ragged breathing being pushed out of his damaged nose.
The artist took a second to make sure the Veteran wasn’t getting up, but a movement caught his attention. American Eagle was up, blood was trickling from his nose and lip. He shifted on his feet, left and right, left and right. His eyes were panicked, and his right hand against held the switchblade, but it now shifted wildly.
“That’s not a knoife,” the Artist mocked in a Paul Hogan impression. “But, neither is this,” he finished in his own voice, drawing his sword.
His courage at its limit, Eagle threw down the small blade and turned to run. The Artist leaped after him, and with a swift kick, sent Eagle into a large dumpster, causing the last conscious rapist crumbling to the ground like a child’s blocks.
The alley was silent and still. Light changed subtly, as the overcast clouds moved overhead, sending new reflections to the Earth, and taking away some of what was there. The Artist took in the results of his evening.
With a satisfied sigh, he removed a can of “Cerulean Sky Blue” spray paint. He took a lackadaisical step toward the wall of an unknown brick building and raised his hand to the red rock, but an astounded voice took his attention.
It was the girl, the blonde who he had saved. She had fixed her shirt as best she could, and she was as calm as could be expected, considering what she had been through.
“Are you okay?” the Artist asked. He turned his body towards her but kept the spray paint close to the building.
All she could manage was a nod as she just stared at him.
The Artist nodded, then looked back at the building, still keeping his body faced toward her. He shook the can, then pressed down on the nozzle. The sounds and smells of the alley were replaced by the rushed hiss from the can, the wall changing color to match the movement of the vigilante’s arm. He made a large “t,” then drew two lines at the bottom, as if attaching an upside down “U” to the letter. He moved to a different symbol, and started with a short line from lower to a higher right endpoint. This line went down, and the blonde’s eyes followed as this line jutted down and left. The Artist added another small line of wet, shimmering paint, another dash next to the tail of the second symbol, parallel and connected higher to the horizontal line.
The vigilante brought his arm back and admired his work for a moment, his eyes moving carefully along the bizarre lines he had left. Satisfied, he replaced the spray can onto his belt.
“What does it mean?” she asked sincerely. She looked nervously at the characters the vigilante had left on the wall, as if afraid to read someone’s diary.
“Nothing,” he said, still keeping his body pointed towards the dripping wet paint. “I’m just bad at still life.”
“No, I recognize those, they’re Chinese characters- yeah, “ she said, as if unraveling a mystery. Her eyes grew wide as she explained, almost more to herself. “Those two characters, they mean, ‘heaven’, and, and ‘down’, right? ‘Heaven’ ‘down’?”
The Artist stared at the characters, as if to discern some new meaning from them. As he did so, the light faded from his eyes. “Huh, weird. Honestly never occurred to me.”
There was a beat, and the alley was more silent than it was before the violent dance had started minutes earlier. The girl shifted, the awkwardness palpable. She spoke, again breaking silence. “So why do you do it?”
“It,” she reasoned. “Fight crime, go all Batman Spiderman on asses. What makes a grown man pick up a sword and put on a mask?”
“I’m not very good at knitting,” he said. He tried his best to smile through the mask.
But it was a lie.
And she wasn’t buying it.
“I don’t believe that.” she said.
Neither do I. he thought. Again, they descended into silence. The Artist couldn’t tell if she was trying to muster courage, or didn’t know if it was polite to leave.
Her eyes changed, and her expression reminded him of a quiet college girl, which, gauging her age, she probably was. “Look,” she said. “I don’t know how this works, but if you’d let me, I’d love to take you to dinner sometime? My treat.”
The Artist smiled at that, genuinely.
“Thanks, but I don’t get a love interest until a later story.” he declined, trying to speak as softly and kindly as able. The girl nodded, understanding his meaning, if not his words. She looked away, her mouth twisting briefly into disappointment.
“Thank you.” she said, again looking into his eyes.
The Artist looked away, back to the bleeding paint. He was still, unbreathing. He blinked once, his eyes unwavering. “You’re welcome.”
But the girl was gone.
The Artist had returned to the roofs, his gaze blank, unseeing.
His left hand reached back into a pocket that hung on the hip of his belt, carefully removing a ragged, folded newspaper. He unfolded it, and afterwards, didn’t look at it.
He didn’t have to.
On the paper clipping, it read; “Drug bust goes tragically wrong; wife, daughter, murdered in front of his eyes.”
“Heaven down.” The Artist repeated.
A man stood on a roof, alone.