The house, like the city, had seen better days. Its weatherbeaten hide was in need of some repairs, in no small part due to the large amounts of rain that the area had been experiencing recently, and broken branches littered the area around the building. The mailbox at the end of the long driveway was the only thing that had been repaired, as it had been pulled partially out of its foundation by the high winds. The day's newspaper, dated October 10, 2105, sat inside, untouched.
Four figures slipped through the bushes and eyed the house. In the late evening light, their features were indistinct, but one could easily guess that they were nearly all teenagers, if not younger.
"There it is," one of them whispered. "Just like I told ye."
A second voice replied. "You sure this is it, Steen? Maybe Kim got the directions wrong or somethin'." A second voice.
The reply was almost a hiss. "This is it, Ev. Now are ye with me or not?"
A sigh. "I'm with you, I'm with you," Ev sighed.
A third voice. "Do you really think one of those superheroes from the early days is here? One that didn't Ascend?"
A fourth voice. "Pffft. You still believe in that crip, Jenny?" "Everyone *knows* all the heroes left Earth to save their own hides!"
"Don't say that, Pat! You know it's not true!"
"Hey, d'ye mind? We're trying tae sneak up tae a house here!"
"Sorry, Steen. Though can't we just knock?"
"Are ye deft, lass? If there's anyone in there, they could call the rangers, and then we'll all be in deep!"
"Then let's stop yappin' and start sneakin'!"
"Aye, Ev, a good idea. This way."
The four figures crept closer to the house, making their way to the nearest side of it. When they reached the front doors, Ev reached out and tried to open the door.
It was unlocked.
"Do we go in?"
"Maybe we can find something valuable," Pat suggested.
"But that's stealing!" Jenny exclaimed.
"So? This house looks deserted. I doubt anyone even *lives* here, much less cares about the stuff that's here."
"Aye, Pat. We go in."
The foursome, including a reluctant Jenny, entered the house, closing the door behind them but making sure it wasn't locked. Slowly, carefully, they began walking through the immense foyer, all of them in awe of the sheer size of the house.
"Think we should split up?" Ev asked. "Cover more ground that way."
"Nae. We'll play it safe and stay together."
"Um... what's that?" Jenny asked, pointing at light coming out of a room.
"Let's find out," Ev said as they crept closer to it.
What they found seemed to be a sitting room of sorts, complete with a high ceiling, floor-to-ceiling bookcases on the wall to their left, and a large window to their right. Directly across from the door was an old-fashioned brick fireplace... and there was a fire burning in it.
"Nice," Ev commented, warming his hands by the fire.
"Too nice," Steen noted. "I smell a trap."
The group whirled about to see a man standing in the doorway. He was dressed in a white dress shirt, black pants, and black shoes, with brown hair that hung down to his shoulder. He was in his thirties, but seemed to have a wisdom about him that left the four intruders in awe.
"I smell a nice fire, and possibly even hot chocolate for anyone who wants some." There was a sincerity to the man that relaxed the group, though they were understandably still cautious.
"Are... are you one of the superheroes?" Jenny asked.
Pat thwapped his forehead. "Jeez, Jenny, did you have to be so blunt about it?"
"Will ye calm down already, Pat?" Steen demanded.
The man chuckled. "It's okay. I haven't been asked that in years."
"Well, then, are you?" Pat asked. Ev rolled his eyes.
"Does it matter?" the man asked. "Whether or not I'm one of the superheroes of yore is something you'll have to figure out on your own. But I do know a lot about them, and I have stories to tell. Assuming, of course, that I have an audience."
Ev and Steen gasped.
"S-stories...?" Jenny whispered.
"How can a man your age have stories of the superheroes?" Ev asked. "All the records were lost, and nobody tells stories anymore."
The man closed his eyes, contemplating this. "A shame," he said after a moment. "Doesn't anyone understand the power of stories anymore?"
"Wait a minute!" Pat retorted. "All the superheroes turned tail and ran back during that big war! And that was over a hundred years ago! You're too young to have known them!"
"Ah, but I didn't say that I knew them," the man pointed out. "Just that I had stories about them. If you're willing to listen."
"I am," Jenny said.
"Me, too," Ev added.
"Aye, and myself," Steen also added. "Pat?"
Pat just glared at her. "Why?" he asked after the man had excused himself to prepare some hot chocolate from the group. "Why should we listen to some guy we don't even know?"
"Because maybe we can learn the truth," Ev pointed out. "Aren't you curious about what really happened during the wars?"
"Why should I be? That's all ancient history!"
"Is it, now?" the strange man said as he re-entered the room carrying a tray with five mugs of hot chocolate on it. "Then please, take a seat. Maybe something *can* be learned tonight."
Steen, Ev, and Jenny sat down on the large couch in the center of the room, facing the fireplace. Pat hesitated, not wanting to listen to some crazy man's lies. Then, realizing that he had nothing better to do, he dropped himself into a chair to the right of the couch -- and opposite the chair the man was sitting down in.
"So educate us, teach," he said sarcastically.
And so the man started telling his stories, his audience listening attentively. He told them about the early days of the heroes, back before the crises that threatened to destroy them. He told them about the villains the heroes used to fight, from muggers to costumed villains, from petty thieves to cosmic menaces.
The hours passed, yet they seemed like weeks. The four friends listened, enthralled by their host's stories of heroism. The never asked him his name -- they never needed to, as it really didn't matter during that time of dreams and fantasy. He told them about the fantastic worlds -- both in this universe and others -- that the heroes visited, of the fantastic events they were witness to, and the friends and allies that they made.
But everything must come to an end sometime. Even the night.
The man settled back in his chair. "It felt good to tell that," he commented.
"Please, sir," Jenny said. "Tell us more."
"Yes, more," Ev added. Steen nodded her agreement.
Pat just sat there, staring at the fire.
The man sighed. "No, my friends. Your time here has come to an end. After all, man cannot survive on stories alone."
"How long have we been here, anyway?" Ev asked. "It seems like it's been days..."
"Time passes differently when stories are told," the man said, standing up. "It's all a matter of perspective."
Steen glanced nervously at her two companions for a moment. "Sir, we just wanted tae say... thank ye. For the stories. And for... telling them."
"You're welcome," the man said.
Pat, still sitting in his chair, leaned forward, burying his face in his hands.
"Pat?" Ev asked, concerned. "You okay?"
"I..." Pat began hesitantly. "I remember my mother... when I was young, she used to... she used to tell me stories..." Steen suppressed a gasp as she realized that her friend was holding back tears. "She... she told me about... about the heroes..."
Steen cautiously reached out and put a comforting hand on his shoulder. "But when she died, your dad made ye forget about the stories, getting you tae think that the stories were lies..."
"And you grew up to believe that there was no power in storytelling," the group's host said.
Jenny knelt down next to him, taking his hand in hers. "Oh, Pat..."
"And now you have the stories," their host said. "Or, at least, the ones I've told you."
"What... what do you want us to do with them?" Ev asked as Jenny helped Pat stand up.
"The only thing you can do," the man said. "Keep them alive."
The four friends looked at each other. Each understood the awesome responsibility that they were about to take on... and they were ready.
It was knowledge that stories can be true.
It was belief in the power of stories and storytelling.
It was hope.
The man returned to the chair, sitting down thoughtfully. He reached over to the table next to the chair and picked up a framed picture, regarding the image in the picture with a small smile.
"Hey there," he told it. "I think something good happened tonight. Those kids will spread the stories, and maybe people will get interested in learning about us. Who knows, maybe the stories will inspire today's heroes to band together as a new force for good. I wish you were here to see it all with me.
"This world might not be as bad off as I thought."
He put the picture back on the table and settled back to enjoy the still-burning fire.
But the stories lived on...
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