Mason's jaw dropped. The house in front of him was the largest and most extravagant piece of architecture he had ever seen, and he was about to go inside. Knocking on the door, the young man wondered just how he managed to secure this important interview. After all, he was just an intern at the newspaper, and yet, he was about to interview Charles Wiseman, a man whose influence and hold over the world seemed to grow by the day, his numerous businesses all over the globe making him extremely rich and powerful, and for the first time in a while, the Australian had found himself in the States. Everyone was competing for an interview, and yet, somehow, it was Mason of all people who ended up with the opportunity for a talk, with all of his travel expenses paid for. Once again going through all the stuff his editor had told him to ask Mr. Wiseman, Mason waited for the door to open, expecting to be greeted by a servant or a butler.
But the man who opened the door and let him in was none other than Mr. Wiseman himself. Seeing him, Mason's first thought was that the information he had been given had to have been wrong, for the man in front of him could not be forty-five. Tall and elegantly dressed, with each part of his carefully coordinated outfit radiating confidence, his host smiled, stepping aside and inviting his guest in. The interior of the building was no less impressive than its exterior, with the journalist overwhelmed by the decorations which, he was sure of it, cost more money than his entire family tree had made over its entire existence. Mr. Wiseman's green eyes scanned the boy who was finding it hard to focus on the matter at hand, his manners eluding him as he took in his surroundings. He faked a cough, reminding Mason of just how impolite he was.
Mason tried to be as polite as he could, excusing his behavior and introducing himself, explaining that he was there for the interview his newspaper had scheduled, fighting not to stutter, the gravity of the situation and importance of the person he was speaking to weighing on his excited mind, constantly ruining his focus.
"Why of course. Shall we go into the study?", his host replied, showing Mason the way.
Having already made the mistake twice, this time, the young man was prepared. Not even in the movies had he seen a study of such elegance and style, but he remained focused, minding his manners while also being careful not to disturb anything in the perfectly organized room. Next to the dormant fireplace was a pair of leather chairs, Mason noting it was the most comfortable piece of furniture he'd had the pleasure of sitting in, his bottom sinking into the soft seat, his upped body leaning onto the tall back which perfectly molded to the shape of his torso and shoulders. If it was up to him, he would never leave the comfort of the chair.
Pouring himself a drink, Mr. Wiseman offered Mason the same, the young man forced to refuse for he was not yet allowed to drink, being only 18 years old. His host sat on the chair across from him, crossing his legs, his eyes focused on his guest, waiting for the interview to start. Mason took his phone, and, having set it to record the conversation, placed it on the small table between them, next to Mr. Wiseman's drink.
One after the other, his questions were answered, Mr. Wiseman explaining his reasons for visiting the States, as well as the plans he had for the future considering his ever expanding empire. Mason also had the chance to get a few snippets of information about the personal life of the businessman he was interviewing, still finding it hard to believe that one mortal could hold such wealth and power within his hands. Suddenly, Mr. Wiseman's vest began to vibrate, a phone call requiring his urgent attention. Excusing himself, he briefly stepped outside of the study, leaving Mason to ponder on the information he had just received.
The young man was still taken aback by just how much stuff was under Mr. Wiseman's control. It was as if the man the king of the world, or rather, he was in everything but the name, controlling a vast majority of the trade and business going on everywhere. A small object caught Mason's attention, a piece of the decor he had previously missed while scanning the room when he first entered it. On top of the fireplace, amidst the pictures of people Mason could only assume were Mr. Wiseman's family members, was an unusual mask. It seemed highly out of place, occupying the space between a wedding picture of his son Trenton and his husband Jonathan, and one of Mr. Wiseman and his deceased wife Claire. And right there in the center was an odd black mask, its surface looking smooth yet covered in strange symbols, with clearly marked spaces where one's eyes, mouth and nose should be.
Mason was sure he was giving it far more attention than it deserved, and yet, somehow, he found himself unable to stop looking at it, intrigued by its presence, pondering its significance for Mr. Wiseman. Was it a precious gift from someone, a lucky charm for the successful businessman, or a symbol of something more? Unaware of his own movements, he reached out for it, his fingertips moving over the cold material, his curiosity guiding him as he picked up the mask from the stand.
And then, a sound brought him back to his senses, reminding him of why he shouldn't touch things which did not belong to him. Something inside the fireplace clicked, the pictures on top of it shaking, struggling not to fall down as the stone structure slid to the side, revealing a hidden staircase leading somewhere below the house. Mr. Wiseman had still not returned, and once the concealed passage was fully open, its secret door once again locked in place, the room was completely quite.
Mason was sure that the sane, logical, reasonable thing to do was to put the mask in its place and pray that it would cause the fireplace to slide back into its original position, and that all of that could take place before his host returned having finished his call. But despite all that, he found himself reaching for his phone, pausing the recording and turning on the camera, venturing down the spiral staircase, the mask still in his hand. The descent did not take long, and soon, Mason found himself inside a small, underground complex. The walls were decorated with a strange, triangular symbol, chains running down the sides of the emblem, the center stage reserved for a red sun shining behind a kneeling man, both placed under a crown with a red jewel inside of it. Mason made sure to zoom in on it, recording everything around him. The room he was in looked like a command center, a large panel with multiple screens and keyboard covering the wall on the other side of the room, a few hallways leading further below. Approaching the screens, all the while recording the images they showed, the young journalist's body filled with dread.
"The Cartelin Empire...", he whispered, reading the words from the screen, his eyes taking in the numerous reports of military training and operations, financial schemes and biological research presented in front of him. Much of it he couldn't understand, including the maps with red dots all over them, the strangest of which was the one on the Moon. Stepping back, Mason suddenly found himself unable to move further, bumping onto something hard and spiky, jumping forward and tripping as he turned around, falling on his back, his phone, as well as the mask, slipping from his hands.
Gone were the elegant clothes of Mr. Wiseman, his body now clad in black armor with small spikes all over it. A red cape waved behind his back, as he knelt and picked up the mask from the ground. His eyes focused on Mason, his gaze filling the young man with dread and fear, for the boy felt as if he was looking into the devil himself, gone the sympathetic eyes of a business magnate, in their place those of a calculated criminal mastermind.
"Greetings Mr. Jones, hope you enjoyed the tour.", he said, putting on his mask, his voice becoming muffled. "Allow me to show you the rest of my home."
His feet detached from the ground, his body hovering in the air, towering over the trembling teenager. Snooping around and poking his nose where it doesn't belong was nothing new for Mason, neither was being captured while doing it. After all, his lips had kissed the sticky side of duct tape more times over the course of the previous couple of months than they had those of another person over his entire life. Superpowers were no surprise for him either, The Timer, a mysterious time bending superhero, being the object of his affection ever since he had first seen him. And yet, nothing could have prepared him for the man in front of him.
His lips were shaking, a string of disconnected words stuck in his throat, unwilling to leave his mouth. Drops of sweat ran down his shoulder as he felt his own body rise above the floor, a mysterious force manipulating his limbs, straightening his body, his legs extended and pressed against each other, his arms pinned to his sides. His mouth was now firmly closed, his eyes feeling as the only part of his body he still had freedom over.
"Come now, Mr. Jones, allow me to show you my guest room."
"Great work out there Tompson!"
Tim had just gotten out of the showers, an intense training session behind him. Drying himself off, the blond athlete opened his locker and noticed he had a new message, one from a number he did not recognize. The text only contained a place and a time, both of which meant nothing to him. If his knowledge of the town was right, that address contained a block of warehouses owned by a local trading company. Why in the world would he need to go there? Then he noticed that a video file was attached to the message.
His eyes widened, his body quickly backing against his locker, his arms bringing the phone closer to his face so that no one passing him could catch a glance of the contents of the video. Drops of water coming from his wet, spiky blond hair concealed the sweat appearing on his forehead.
"Mason...", Tim whispered.
Even with the sound on his phone dialed down as much as possible to prevent his secret from getting out, he could still hear frightened moans of the hostage on the screen, a strip of silver, duct tape keeping the teenager's trembling lips sealed. His eyes were wide, the camera able to capture every ounce of fear dominating Mason's brown eyes. He was struggling in a metal chair bolted to the floor, his arms and legs strapped to the metal frame of the seat with tight, leather belts, the buckles biting into his clothes.
It was hard for Tim to make out the rest of the video, his hands shaking too much. Taking a deep breath, he tried to calm down. It wasn't his first time saving the young man he had first stumbled upon inside a trunk of a car, handcuffed and tape gagged. And he always felt it wouldn't be the last, having saved him a few more times, as well as discovering the boy's name was Mason, and that he was the head of his unofficial fan page. Tim found all of that, as well as Mason himself and his tendency to get into trouble, rather cute, a part of him almost glad for the chance to meet face to face with Mason any time he would find out about his capture, even though it usually meant a perilous rescue. There was something about the sparkling of Mason's eyes every time he'd appear, the way he smiled every time The Timer peeled the tape from his lips. Something which made Tim's stomach tingle, and his knees weak.
And yet, none of that was there now, replaced by pure terror. For this time, it seemed someone had purposely captured Mason as a way to get to him, the message was clear. With his childish behavior, jumping to the rescue of the boy each time like Superman going after Lois Lane, he had actually drawn him into more danger. Cursing into his beard, Tim dried himself off and got dressed, hastily leaving the locker room. It was time for The Timer to make an appearance.
He was late. A top track athlete, a superhero with the ability to manipulate time, and yet, he was always late. Cursing, he stopped in front of the warehouse mentioned in the message he had received. Images of the bound and gagged Mason flashed in front of his eyes, the sound of his frightened muffled groans echoing through his ears as if Mason was right there beside him. Shaking it off, he pressed his finger on the lock of the door in front of him. Turning back time, he waited to hear the mechanism inside the lock turn, the obstacle in front of him soon gone as he opened the unlocked door and quietly moved inside.
The building seemed completely empty and dark, except for a small circle in its very center. There, under a small light bulb hanging by a cord from the ceiling, The Timer could see the person he was there for.
Mason's restrained body was suspended above the ground, a chain connected to the ceiling holding it in the air. Thick, black rope was covering the majority of his body, his wrists restrained behind his back, barely visible under the coils and coils of bonds which were wrapped around his torso, all the way from his shoulder to his waist, with his legs receiving the same treatment, his shoes and pockets the only things visible, the rest concealed by the black cord. Layers and layers of duct tape were wrapped around his head, sealing his lips and completely hiding them under a thick, smooth layer of silver, his eyes closed behind a bandanna covering them. His gag silenced his cries, the muffled whimpers it produced echoing through the vast, empty space around them.
Looking around, Timer could not see anything, or anyone, in the darkness surrounding him. He was about to move when, out of nowhere, the warehouse lit up completely, illuminated by a number of bright lights running along the edges of the building.
It was an unknown, menacing voice. Looking in the direction the sound came from, The Timer saw a mysterious persona hovering in the air in the corner of the room, previously hiding in the darkness. He was dressed in dark armor, many of the plates covered in small spikes. Dark brown hair fell down the sides of a dark mask covering the person's face, a red cape flying behind him as he slowly approached the superhero who's body was tense, ready for action.
"A pleasure to finally meet you, Timer. Or do you prefer Tim?"
Mason, who had previously been wiggling and grunting into his gag, was suddenly completely motionless and silent, no doubt hoping to hear more details about the hero who had become one of main focuses of his life. Tim, on the other hand, wasn't too fond of the idea that someone out there knew his real identity.
"Who are you?", Tim asked the mysterious person in front of him.
"You can call me... The Emperor.", the hovering villain responded, making a swift movement of his hand, as if calling Tim to come to him. Suddenly, the young man felt an unknown force controlling his body, lifting him on the ground and hurling him towards The Emperor. It was his chance to put an end to this fight. His opponent was bringing him within the range of his powers, all he had to do was briefly stop time around him when he approached The Emperor, and take him out without the man able to defend himself. Simple as that.
And yet, when the time to act came, the young hero faltered, unable to focus his mind and use his powers. He was used to fighting common crooks, those who came at him with bullets or fists, things he could slow or stop when near them. The villain he was fighting now had discovered his identity and was able to capture Mason and use him as a hostage. And most importantly, had superpowers just like him. The Timer's confidence faltered, his mind unfocused, his powers beyond reach. His body flew by The Emperor, the young man unable to land on his feet, hitting the ground and grunting loudly, a wave of pain spreading through his body from the point of impact.
"Shame.", Emperor remarked, "Was hoping for a demonstration of your powers. And yet all I got was unlocking a door."
Timer got up on his feet, grasping his side.
"What do you want?", he asked through his teeth, trying to conceal just how nervous and distraught he was.
"Simple. I want you.", the villain replied, pointing at the confused her. "A change is in store for this world. Soon, the time will come to choose. You will either stand by my side, or perish like all those who oppose me."
"I would never join you!", The Timer screamed, his voice echoing through the empty hall, Mason cheering his decision with a muffled scream of support.
He couldn't see the reaction on the Emperor's face, the only response he got was an extended arm of the villain pointing at Mason.
"You know, I could make you join me in an instant.", he said, clenching his fist.
The blindfold covering Mason's eyes disintegrated, torn apart on the molecular level. Mason's eyes struggled to adjust to the sudden light around him, his sight blurry without his glasses. He was still able to make out the couple of silhouettes in the building, the unmistakable blue and black costume of The Timer, and the hovering, menacing presence of The Emperor.
"Or I could end you with even less effort."
The Emperor's hand moved towards The Timer, the young man feeling as if for a brief seconds something tightened around his neck before letting go, drops of sweat appearing on his forehead, his eyes wide with shock and terror.
"I will ask the same question once again in the future.", The Emperor said, "I hope you'll reconsider your answer by then."
The villain was no longer interested in the hero reaching for him, flying upwards, a window opening on its own and allowing him to disappear into the night. The Timer was still frozen, unable to move or speak, staring into the spot where The Emperor stood a few moments before. Meanwhile, Mason was furiously struggling, trying to reach the blond hero despite the layers of duct tape silencing him, his body tugging on the ropes binding him and the chain keeping him suspended. Suddenly, the chain snapped, Mason's body plummeting to the floor, the thud it produced as it hit the ground bringing Tim back to his senses.
The young man was unconscious on the ground, the fall knocking him out. The Timer ran to him faster than his body had ever ran before, dropping on his knees next to him. He was trembling, desperately trying to focus and use his powers, attempting to ignore the jumbled mess that was his train of thoughts. Finally, focusing on one simple thought, he took a deep breath, and closed his eyes. Slowly, he began reversing time around him, until Mason's body started moving back into the air, the boy's eyes opening. Tim placed his hands below the bound young man, before allowing time to slowly move forwards, until Mason gently fell into his arms.
"HMMPH!?", Mason mumbled into his gag, confused by what had happened, his mind unable to piece together the past couple of minutes, a gap between the moment he hit the floor and the moment he was in his hero's arms impossible to comprehend. Within minutes, he rubbed his wrists, finally free from his bonds, able to speak up. The Timer demanded he explain everything about how they captured him, each word leaving Mason's mouth cutting like a knife into the hero's confidence. He was on his knees, and the young man could notice that the more time passed, the more his body trembled, fear dominating his gaze.
"We have to print this story, everyone has to know about this."
"There's no point.", The Timer said, his eyes pinned to the ground.
"There's no point, Mason! It's Charles Wiseman, one of the richest, most powerful men in the world. No one would believe you."
"But you saw it too!", Mason complained, even though he knew it was a long shot. The Emperor had erased all of the footage of his base from his phone, leaving the junior journalist without any tangible proof to back up his claims.
"And who'd believe me? I'm just a kid playing a superhero..."
Mason pouted. He had never seen the hero in front of him like this. Always dashing, energetic, a smile on his face, for Mason, he was the symbol of courage. None of it was left there, The Timer on his knees, devastated, his confidence crushed by the existence of The Emperor, and the knowledge that he let them off the hook.
"So what to you suggest we do?", he finally broke the awkward silence.
"There's nothing we can do..."
Mason had had enough, he just couldn't take seeing The Timer broken like that. And then, not knowing what to do, nor how to help, he let go of reason and logic, his hands grasping The Timer's face, lifting it up and pulling it closer to his. As their lips touched, the hero's eyes flew wide open, his cheeks blushing, his body completely frozen. After a couple of seconds, Mason let go of him, pulling away.
"Listen, you can't give up. You're a hero, you fight bad guys, have done so many times, saving me from certain harm.", he paused for a seconds, and not getting any response from the still silent Timer, continued, "I know it seems like there is no way to defeat The Emperor to you now, but you can't just give up. It's not over. You can train, get stronger, get better. And if you need help, you can... you can always rely on me... if... if there is anything I can do for you. Timer?"
It was barely audible, but Mason was sure he heard it right.
"It's Tim.", The Timer said, pulling his mask off.
Mr. Charles Wiseman was enjoying a drink inside the command center below his home, a couple of files opened in front of him on the screen. His network of spies had already prepared a hefty file on The Timer, most of the information retrieved when they hacked the files of one Xander Frey who also had an interest in the hero, while his vast resources and connections easily deduced his real identity. The rest was pretty easy, paying off Mason's editor, buying the warehouse, the entire operation ready in less than an hour. All with the goal of seeing The Timer in action first hand.
But he had to admit that he was quite disappointed with what he had seen. Then again, The Timer had earned his reputation fighting small time criminals. The Emperor was in a completely different realm of existence. Reaching for the keyboard, Mr. Wiseman entered his thoughts at the end of the file.
"Subject currently of no interest, as he appears too weak. Time given to potentially grow into a valuable asset."
Closing the file, the villain focused his attention on more pressing matters, the business of taking over the world requiring his further devotion.