It seemed impossible.
Once, he had soared through the sky in defiance of the law of gravity. He had grappled with foes older than the dawn of time. He had been a paragon of justice in a world that needed it.
Now, he shambled through a wasteland, a shadow of his former self. His allies no doubt presumed him dead. They weren't that far off. He was wounded and alone, miles from the nearest food and water, weak and powerless. The pillar of strength had become a ruin.
Once, he had been a hero.
But he had underestimated his foe. He had assumed that she would do anything to survive, even if it meant letting him escape his doom. But she hated him so much that she gave her life to ensure his downfall.
Powerless, he had fallen from the sky, still burning from the explosion that had consumed the airship. He landed, defeated, in the middle of nowhere, broken and battered.
"Defeat," he muttered grimly as the sun dipped below the horizon.
The bitter word had never escaped his lips until now.
The stranger had come in the middle of the night. The dog barked in ferocity, alerting the farmer and his wife, who went to the door to find a weak and injured man, just barely clinging to life, limping towards the farmhouse. He looked up, and his broken face painted a sorrowful picture.
"…help me," he managed to say before he collapsed on their threshold.
"Hank!" yelled the farmer's wife, waking their farmhand from his slumber, "get over here! There's a man who needs our help!"
Hank lifted him by the shoulders and the wife lifted him by the feet.
"I say, Aggie," lamented the farmer, "are you sure about this? We don't know this lad, and he looks like he's been in a fight. What if he brings trouble?"
"Oh, George," Aggie groaned, "look at him! He needs our help, it'd be a sin to throw him out the door and let him die! Besides, anybody wanting to make mischief will have to answer to me."
They lay him down on the floor by the fireplace, and Aggie produced a rifle.
"I'll stand watch, just in case. You two clean this boy up, give him some food and water. George, call Dr. Shoemaker and tell him we need him up here right away."
"Hang on, sweetheart," George protested, "I should stand watch."
Aggie opened her mouth to protest. "But-"
"Not because you couldn't do it, and not because you're a lady, we know each other too well for that sort of thing. It's because you're the best damn healer I know, and if we're gonna take this boy in, he's going to need your help."
Aggie nodded, bowing her head. "Maybe you're right. But I'll take over the minute I've got him back in good health. Don't forget that you're tired too."
"What about the children, Mrs. Mackenzie?" Hank interrupted, "surely they'll be up soon, and they'll be scared."
"That's good. Might be a long night, and we'll need their help. Besides, they're too young for that trash you charitably call coffee."
Hank and George chuckled, but their laughter was interrupted by a distant chittering noise from outside. Aggie opened the door slowly, but the source of the noise could not be discerned. She glanced outside at the dark night, then back at their patient.
"And they're not the only ones who're frightened." She handed her husband the rifle, then went into the kitchen to prepare a special medicine - tea.
As he opened his eyes, he was, for a moment, lost. The sleek, futuristic but sterile white of the Hub had been replaced by something far less sophisticated, yet warmer and more welcoming. A fire crackled nearby, and he could see wood everywhere.
Wood roof, wood walls, wood firewood, wood mantelpiece. How did they not burn the house down every time they lit a fire?
His train of thought was interrupted by a crashing wave of memories.
His comrades in battle.
There had been a terrible explosion, and his teleporter was damaged.
While his friends were beamed back to the Hub before they could save him, he found himself falling as the floor was instantly burned away by flames.
Burning. Pain. Searing. Screaming.
Then empty. The airship, gone. Air. It whistled through his ears.
A great light overhead, and ash rained from the sky, falling to earth.
Falling, falling, falling.
He groaned, the pain of that word far greater than that of his wounds.
There was a clink as a cup of tea was placed. He noticed a small pine table in front of him, the cup resting upon it, and a woman sitting down beside him. He sat up, grimacing, and looked at her more closely.
She was a hard person, like stone. Everything about her seemed as resolute as granite, and yet there was warmth in her eyes and worry lines on her face. Almost immediately, he knew she had to be a mother.
She clutched a rifle in her hand. The fallen hero tried to ask about this weapon, but it came out as a wheezing cough, and for a moment, he felt as if he was a skeleton with a ribcage full of cracking, frail bones and centuries of dust.
He felt the teacup pressing against his lips as the coughing spasm died down, and gratefully, he accepted the warm liquid. It slid down his throat with ease, warm and soothing, seeming to heal his wounds and his soul.
For a blissful, heavenly moment, he felt as if he was drinking pure nectar.
"Don't even try to talk," the woman commanded, and he obliged like a willing child.
The greatest hero to ever live, and he was taking orders from this woman. He would've laughed, but he didn't want to risk another coughing spasm, especially while he was still drinking the tea.
Finally, she placed the cup down. He nodded, his mouth and throat trying to come to terms with each other. They decided to obey her orders, for the time being.
"Now, you just lie down for a spell. That tea will help, and Doc'll be here soon."
He nodded his thanks. Trying to put his fears and concerns out of his mind, he lay down, his grief and anguish gone for the time being as the world vanished and he fell into a deep sleep.
Somewhere in the darkness, a strange creature sped into the night.
If anyone were there and they'd been able to see in such enveloping darkness as the creature could, they might've been able to see a pale, skinny, vaguely humanoid being, hunched over and bounding on all fours through the night like an animal. But this was clearly no animal.
One could've mistaken it for a human, albeit a starved and deformed one, if they hadn't been able to see it's face and if they hadn't looked into it's eyes. Then, they would've known this was something wrong, something that didn't belong in the world.
It ran to a little cave in the side of a hill, almost invisible to anyone who wasn't looking for it, where two others of it's kind and a third that was… not sat around a fire. The other creatures hissed and chittered, speaking in a strange tongue. They seemed to be having a conversation with the newcomer, though anyone that didn't know the language they spoke never would've heard what they were speaking of.
The third person at the fireside was silent and impassive while the creatures chittered and hissed. Then, it stood, and silence fell.
"What news do you bring?" The creature turned to face the mysterious being.
"It sssseems you were correct, masssster." It spoke the last word with derision, but the so-called master ignored it.
"Then he lives?"
"Indeed. A family tendsss to him, but they are no match for ussss, and he isss weak and powerlessss. Hisss onccce-great might hasss dessserted him. He cannot sssstand againsssst usss now. Shall we sssslay them?"
The other creatures howled with excitement, eager to slaughter and devour.
"I shall move against in my own time and way, but not here and not tonight."
He stood. Next to the creatures, he looked almost human if one ignored the glint of steel showing through his trenchcoat and the smell of oil that emanated from him. In three fluid strides, he made his way to the cave entrance and glared at the stars above.
"Soon, very soon, the hero who fell from the sky shall know of my vengeance. My bullets will tear through his flesh and he will breathe his last. But only after he suffers. Oh yes, he will suffer." He tore off his fedora, the rage hidden within bubbling to the surface as he balled it in his fist and crumpled it.
"As did I."