At seventeen, the boy became less a boy, but not quite a man. A real man, his father often told him, was marked by self sacrifice. The will to give away a piece of yourself for someone else was what made man more than simple beast.
Not just that.
It made man into something greater than themselves.
It made a man into a hero.
And now, the boy had a chance to prove himself.
"It's over." The boy said, his voice accented with a wheeze speckled with blood. His hero costume was a good match of colorful and military with a meshweave black bodysuit balanced out with circuit-like streaks of glowing light, almost white green. The streaks drew out an insignia of a three pointed shield on his chest - the symbol he had chosen to represent himself as a hero.
That symbol was now thoroughly defaced with a smoking diagonal char running across it, almost as if someone had taken a superheated pen and crossed the entire thing out. The skin revealed by the line was red and raw, thoroughly burned and beaten through battle.
"No. No it's not." Another boy of the same age floated in the air, a dozen or so meters away. He had on a plain black bodysuit. One with no real flair to it, mass produced and soulless. His face was by every definition the archetype of the golden era comic book hero. Square jawed, radiating strength.
But his eyes, his bright golden eyes that did not so much shine as they did burn, were searing mirrors into a tortured soul.
"Look around you, Seth." The boy who wanted to prove himself a hero motioned around him. There was nothing but smoking rubble and above, a night sky with a pale moon that looked down with indifference, the same kind of indifference it must have had in the many millions of years it had seen disaster after disaster come and go upon the surface of its host planet.
"Blackwater's nothing but rubble. Solomon Solar's been captured. The rest of the Trident's been busted. There is no great revolution. There is no new Age of Villains.
There's nothing left for you to fight for."
"But there is," said Seth Solar. When he spoke, his breath distorted the air with heat waves. His golden hair, once slicked back, now shimmered up in the air like live flames. Bright, sunlit cracks traveled across his hands, his face, his entire body, like he was a porcelain doll ready to shatter into pieces at any moment.
"It's all of you. All of you that got to live happy lives, parading around in proper hero academies, deluding yourselves that you're fighting for something good in this world.
In this idiotic world that makes no sense and cares about nothing. I'm going to break it. Burn it all down.
Then, at least, there'll be peace."
"You don't want to do that," said the boy. He put his hand out. A round shield of pale mint green energy forged itself around his forearm. It mimicked that of Minuteman, a proud hero who once stood as the current era's representative of Golden Era heroism, when heroes gave all they have for a better, brighter tomorrow.
Minuteman had been the boy's teacher before an attack by the Trident ended the noble hero's life all too early. Now, it was up to the boy to lift this shield in honor of his teacher.
In honor of everyone that he protected and loved.
"Just…give up, man." Another boy's voice echoed through the air. A collapsed roof slid over to the side, and beneath it, a muscular boy crawled out with a girl behind him.
"Adam. Elaine." The shield bearing boy nodded, smiling. He knew deep down that his close friends, both trainee heroes like him, were not dead. But it still warmed his heart to see them alive and kicking.
But figured. Adam was too stubborn to ever die. And Elaine too smart.
Adam pointed an accusing finger at Seth. "Nihilism is totally out of fashion, dude. And it must suck ass living for nothing. Or trying to make everything nothing.
I promise you, there's a better alternative to fix your issues than burning everything down.
A blast of solar energy from Seth Solar's fist sped towards Adam like a shooting star.
Adam's gained a chromatic luster as his skin turned into durable metametal in preparation to take the hit.
Before the solar blast could hit, however, it unraveled, breaking apart into various strands that coiled around each other in an ever shrinking ball. Eventually, the ball just disappeared out of existence.
"Running that mouth of yours again…" Elaine coughed blood, her rainbow eyes bloodshot from using her energy control powers excessively. Her long hazel hair was burnt and cut up in awkward spots.
"Elaine, don't burn yourself out!" said Adam. He raised a fist at Seth. "You - I'll get you for that!"
"If you didn't say anything, he wouldn't have done anything," commented Elaine.
"And you're in no condition to move. It's taking you all you have just to stay standing with metalform on."
"Which means he's going to kick your ass instead!" Adam pointed at the shield boy.
"You should have stayed under the rubble." Seth grinned as he sped forward, fist cocked back, ready to unleash it right into Adam's face.
The fist clanged backwards, hitting the boy's shield. Force reflected backwards, sending Seth flying back in the air. He stopped his recoil mid-air and spat in disgust.
"Your friends are just sitting ducks. Weakness that'll anchor you down, make you waste energy. Sooner or later, they'll be the death of you," said Seth.
"I don't care," said the boy. "A hero…is meant to protect, no matter what the cost is."
"Yeah? That so?" Seth laughed. Then he laughed some more, doubling over, losing his breath in his peals.
"Did he go nuts?" whispered Adam.
"Quiet," said Elaine. "Take this time to rest.
"I don't get the point of you heroes. Or wait, you three aren't even real heroes yet," said Seth. "But still. You make my stomach crawl. Especially your type, the Golden Era cosplayers that think they're making a difference.
At least the average hero knows that their cape and costume are just for show. They know they just want fame and credits.
But you-," Seth looked down at the boy and his friends in disgust.
"You protect, no matter the cost, huh?
Then where was your kind when I was born? When my shitty dad knocked up my shitty mother to make his own personal punching bag? Where were you to stop him? To stop a miserable life from growing up in this shithole of a world?
Where were you when I was tortured, beaten, shaped to be something I never wanted to be? I never asked for anything much. All I wanted to do was be happy. Normal.
Have a mom. A dad. A life that I could call mine and only mine, not just some egomaniac's pet project.
No, let's forget about me.
Let's forget about the big bads you can see in front of your face. The kind you can just beat down, put in prison, and forget about.
Where the hell are you for the starving child in the streets? In the outskirts of so many cities?
Where are you for this system of heroes that lets people like my father thrive? What about the corporations? The way the Panopticon controls the world's credits, funneling them to the top while everyone below just chokes on shit?
What are you going to do about all that? About this system that's so rotten down to the core that it deserves nothing but to be burned down?"
"Change it," said the boy firmly. "I don't know the details. I don't know the path I'll take to get there. But I'll change it. One step at a time.
You and I are the same in that way. We want to see the world change. But where you want to see it burn, I want to see it get better. And deep down, that's what you want too, isn't it?"
"No. I'd rather see ashes than progress in spite of me." Seth Solar roared as his eyes flashed, unleashing twin beams of golden, superheated solar energy.
Seth Solar was not rationing his solar energy anymore. He was going all out even when his body was breaking apart from within. He had let his emotions - his rage, mostly - overcome him.
Had Seth rationed his energy, kept making attacks against Adam and Elaine to distract the boy, then he would have tired the boy and his shields out in a long, drawn out fight.
But now, this was going to be the final confrontation.
The boy raised his arm, blocking the beams. The rubble in front of him started to glow molten orange just from the sheer heat radiating off of the beams.
The flesh around the boy's arm began to sizzle and bubble, melting off through his heat resistant suit and trained body.
But still, the boy took a step forward, against the scorching tide. He closed his eyes so as to not be blinded.
Step by step, he went forwards, ever forwards, just like the change he had promised.