A secured shipping crate sped down interstate fifty-two, the security guard and driver in the cab struggling to stave off sleep on the late-night journey. The passenger yawned and dragged his hand over his face, stretching his eyes open before shaking his head. He gazed out the cold, foggy window, noting a sign by the side of road reading that Bastion, their destination, laid only a few more miles away. He sighed, attempting to console himself with the thought that he’d finally be able to get some sleep once they delivered their cargo.
This reassurance seemed paltry a moment later, when he found himself lying in the empty roadway, battered from being thrown from the vehicle and choking on the blood from the gaping bullet wound in his neck.
The assailant had dropped down from above the cab of the speeding truck to its running board, firing two well-placed rounds through the passenger side window before ripping the door open and throwing the passenger into the street. They gripped the edge of the roof, swinging into the cab and kicking the recently deceased driver to one side, then grabbing the wheel and pushing his body through the door. They closed the passenger side door and took control of the vehicle, speeding into the night.
The rear doors ripped open as a second figure swung from the roof of the container on a cable, gunning down both security guards and landing inside the truck in a fluid motion. They strode immediately toward the back, when they were interrupted by a stray gunshot from a security guard they’d failed to kill zipping past their shoulder and striking a security cable. They spun around and jumped off the side of the truck, heel landing on the floored security guard’s neck with a sharp crack. They resumed their journey to the opposite end of the container, reaching a sizeable crate at the end. They pulled a crowbar from over their shoulder and cracked open the box, confirming that they’d secured their target. They took no notice of a small crate who fell off the end of the truck, left behind in the street like the personnel before it as the hijackers sped into the night.
A young woman with straight brown hair going down just past her jawline and shimmering purple eyes stepped out of the fitting room, clad in a stunning, deep-blue, knee-length dress. I looked up and smiled as she twirled around in front of me. “What do you think?” She smiled.
“I think it’s gorgeous.” I said, standing up and looking her over once more. “Then again, I’m a little biased.” I winked. She laughed. “I’d ask your mother. She knows a little bit more about dresses than I do.”
“With that picture Gloria has of you two playing dress-up together, I think you know at least a little.” She joked.
“That was nine years ago!” I protested.
“And I bet you’d still rock those heels just as well now as you did then.” She replied, smoothing out the dress in front of a nearby mirror.
I shook my head and laughed. “Speaking of your mother, where’d she get off to?”
“Gloria talked her into going to the candy store on second.” She answered.
“That wouldn’t surprise me.” I said. “She’s always loved that shop.”
“And nobody loves sweets like mom does.”
“We should go see if we can track her down.” I said. “And don’t you pretend like you’re not exactly the same, Carolynn.” She laughed.
The Bastion Mall was one of the oldest parts of the city, and having spent a majority of my young life there, it held a very special place in my heart. The streets were composed of two levels, with railed sidewalks connected by small bridges on the second level, and brick streets between the sidewalks and one story below. Each street was lined with countless storefronts going on for blocks, mostly consisting of various types of private businesses, including flower shops, clothing stores, bistros and restaurants, bakeries, and artisanal stores of all kinds.
Carolynn and I exited the clothing store on the lower level, moving through the crowd toward the candy shop. “So I hear the Glass and the Kings recently lost some numbers in a gang fight in the project on the East side.” She gave me a playful nudge with her elbow. “You and mom haven’t heard anything about that, have you?”
“No, that doesn’t sound too familiar.” I shrugged sarcastically, smiling at her. She tilted her head at me, her short, light brown hair waving in front of her soft face and shimmering purple eyes. I smiled. “You remind me so much of your mother.” I said.
“Dad.” She pushed.
“Alright, fine.” I conceded, gazing nonspecifically to the side through a bakery window.
“He called himself the Hangman. Prosecutor. About a year ago he lost a friend to the Glass, and they bought off or extorted everyone involved, so the killer got off clean.” I said.
Carolynn stopped at the window of an upscale women’s fashion shop, gazing at a display outfit through a window labelled Couture. “So what did he do?” She asked.
“Used fear mongering and lies to gather up a following, started hanging people involved in the trial, said he’d have his followers kill a hundred unknowns if anyone tried to stop him.” I said.
She seemed surprised. “How’d you stop him?”
“Your uncle gave us a hand.”
“Michael was there?” She asked excitedly.
“Not personally, but he lent us some soldiers. I’ll tell you the whole story later.” I said, holding open the door to the candy shop.
Before me, gazing at a sizable bin of saltwater taffy, stood a familiar onyx-haired beauty.
“Hey there, gorgeous.” I smiled, greeting her with a kiss. With her stood the two who didn’t know about my nightly endeavors, Roxanna and Gloria.
“Hey sweetie.” She smiled. “Gloria talked us into it.”
I squeezed my youngest, the spitting image of her mother. “That sounds like my girl.”
“Hey, I found something you might be interested in.” Iris said, pulling the cell phone from her pocket. She passed it to me, an article from the local news onscreen detailing a mysterious accident on a nearby interstate early this morning.
“What am I looking for? It doesn’t look like they’ve found anything out yet.” I said. “They haven’t identified the victims.”
“Look at the photos.” She said.
I examined the photos for a few moments before I realized. “There’s no wreck.”
“And multiple victims in different places.” She added. “Meaning it wasn’t a hit and run.”
“That is odd.” I said. “Sounds like we should have a look.”
I parked the silver convertible on the side of the interstate, stepping out and straightening my gray suit jacket. Iris wore a deep red shirt with a brown blazer, her black hair gathered over her left shoulder. I walked casually onto the scene as two police officers approached me. Iris brandished her badge authoritatively, as I did.
“Detective Chase, this is my partner, Vivian Hawthorne, special investigation per order of the BCPD. Have the CSIs already been through to get a report together?”
The officer complied without much question. “Yup. Came by this morning. Not sure why they needed more.” He said as he walked us toward the first victim outline.
“You know how the suits get. Walk me through it.” I said pointedly.
“Vehicle got stolen.” He began. “First guy wound up here. Multiple impact from hitting the pavement after being thrown from the vehicle, one gunshot wound in his neck.”
“Do we have victim photos?” Iris asked.
“Sure thing.” He said, calling to another officer on the scene to bring the file.
Iris and I gazed at the photo, examining the injuries between the two that had been thrown from the vehicle.
“Two identical gunshot wounds, point blank.” I said to her, gesturing toward the wounds on the victims. “This one was the driver?” I asked the officer. He nodded. “Whoever did his knew what they were doing.” I remarked. “No skid marks on the road plus impact wounds on the victims means our guy shot both of them near perfectly while hanging off the passenger door, and quickly enough that the truck never stopped moving. The truck was hijacked, clearly by professionals.” I looked up at the officer. “Do we know who the truck belonged to?”
“Yeah, some museum from out of town.” He said.
“Get me a cargo manifest.” I said. He complied shortly. Looking over the list there wasn’t anything that stood out in particular. “Anything else?” I asked.
“Yeah.” He said. “There was an open crate just up the road in the street, full of broken glass.”
“Odd.” I said to Iris. “They wouldn’t get out to open one up on purpose, given that they stole the whole truck.”
“A truck like this would’ve had at least one armed security guard in the back.” She said.
“Maybe it fell out when somebody opened it up to kill them.”
“That may be true.” I agreed. “They’d definitely want a second person on the job to secure whatever they were after.” I glanced over the manifest once more, noting its origin from the Pyropolis Historical Museum. “I’m going to need a photo registr – ” Then it hit me.
Iris looked up at me in concern. “What’s going on?”
I packed up the file and made my way hastily back toward the car, dismissing the officer. I started it as quickly as I could, tossing the file onto the dash and loosening my collar. Iris was visibly worried.
“What’s going on?” She asked as I turned it around and began driving back to the city.
“Did you figure out what they took?”
“Worse.” I said. “I figured out what was in the abandoned crate.”
“What?” She asked.
“Take a look at the manifest.” I said. She pulled it from the file and her eyes shot down the page. “I don’t understand.”
“The crate contained a glass box.”
She looked at the manifest when she realized what I meant. She put her hand over her mouth. “Oh no.”
“We have to find him, now.”
The moonlight shown off the surface of the local apartment complex’s pool, rippling ever so slightly in the gentle nighttime breeze before the peace was shattered by a man falling from a third story window. He flailed back to the surface of the water as I gently floated down through the air to one side of the pool. I gripped his collar and tore him from the water, dragging him across the concrete toward the hot tub. I threw him over the side before I started. “Early this morning someone stole a museum truck inbound for this city. I need to know where it is.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about!”
I gripped the back of his head and his shoulder, pushing his head under the surface of the water. I held him under as he thrashed before pulling him up, coughing profusely and soaking wet. “A truck from the Pyropolis Museum was hijacked. Where is it?”
“I haven’t heard anything!”
“Did the Glass steal the truck?” I demanded.
“No! If they did, they haven’t told me!” He sputtered.
“And you don’t know where it is?” I asked, gripping his skull threateningly.
“I swear I don’t!” He cried. I pulled him from the hot tub and threw him through the boarded fence surrounding the pool deck, rendering him unconscious.
I kicked the step on the outside edge, shattering the tile and concrete before taking to the skies.
“Dammit.” I said, slamming my fist against the wall next to the case where I kept my armor.
“Easy.” Iris said. “We’ll find him.”
I ran my hands through my hair, breathing an exasperated sigh. “I don’t know where to look.” I said, shoving my armor into the case as I continued. “My first thought was that the Glass might’ve stolen the truck in their power grab after what Hangman did, but none of the people I asked knew anything about the truck or our missing friend.” I laid my weapons in their allotted spaces in the drawer, taking a moment to gaze at one of them. It was a scepter with a handle just over four hands long, my four-pointed crest at the top with a protrusion on either side, folded compactly to the sides of the handle. “I don’t know what else to do.” I said, twisting the weapon’s handle and causing the sides to spring upwards, now perpendicular to the handle. The scepter was silver with a red-wrapped handle, the arms shooting from the sides supporting two small scales, in perfect balance. I gazed down at the weapon as it gently reflected the warm light in the champagne white alcove. “I guess I’ll be making good use of this.”
“We’ll find him, sweetheart, we just need to find a new way to look at this.” She smiled, leaning against the closet doorframe. I closed the case and stepped out of the alcove, turning off the light and sliding the rounded back wall of the closet into place in front of the hidden doorway. Iris placed her hand on my shoulder as I walked past her and sat on the edge of the bed, hands over my face. I sighed.
“We have to stop him, baby. He’ll level half the city if we don’t find him soon.” She held my head against her chest, leaning hers on top of it and running her hands through my hair.
“We will. We’ve done it before, we can do it again.” She said softly.
“I just hope we can do it in time.” I said, leaning back on my hands. “Did you at least get any results with finding the truck?”
“Not yet.” She replied. “It doesn’t look like anybody’s tried to fence anything on it yet, and the tracking unit is out.”
“Great.” I said, sarcastically. “Our problems are really just solving themselves these days aren’t they?”
“Let’s figure out a way to find him.” She said, sitting on the mattress next to me. “That’s all we can do for now. Where would he be?”
“Anywhere he can find the supplies he needs.” I answered. “Brickyards, construction companies, I don’t know. If he had shown up at any of those places, we would’ve heard about it. He’s not exactly the kind of… thing you see walking down the street every day.”
She pulled her feet up and crossed her legs. “Then he has to be somewhere we’re not thinking of. He probably understands how quickly we’d find him if anyone saw him, so he’s hiding somewhere in the city until he’s prepared to face us.”
“You’re probably right.” I said.
“Where could he find the materials he needs?”
“Anywhere there’s loose brick he could take without anyone noticing, that would also allow him to stay out of sight.” I conjectured. “Abandoned buildings, maybe?”
Her eyes turned green as she lit up when it clicked. “What about the sewers?” She proposed. “They’re old enough to have enough loose bricks for him, plus there’s never any credible witnesses down there.”
Her eyes glittered a vibrant purple when she saw me finally smile again. “It’s a good start.” I said, standing back up and walking toward the window.
“You’re going to go find him now?”
“The night’s still young, and the sooner I find him, the better.” I said. I clenched my fists, closing my eyes and lowering my head, and in a single moment like a gust of wind, my armor sprung outward from my back, encapsulating me as it automatically equipped itself. “Besides,” I said, “It’s not like I have anything better to do than search through miles of sewage for a lost museum artifact.”
She stood up and faced her palms to each other, arms perpendicular. She drew her hands apart diagonally as a thick red banner formed between them, flying around her body and generating her silver plate armor. “Not the most convincing setup for a date, but as long as it’s with you.” She smiled.
Iris and I passed through the dark sewer, wading through the dark water. I smiled at her through the black gas mask that covered the lower half of my face beneath the mask. “It’s stuff like this that makes me glad I wear knee-high boots.”
“You walk through a lot of sewage, handsome?”
I paused. “For once, I don’t think I have a witty response.”
“I have that effect.” She giggled.
“I’m thinking we might have to call it a night.” I said. “I’m not seeing any traces he’s been down here.”
“Neither am I.” She agreed. “Maybe we were wrong on this one.”
“You get home.” I said. “I’m going to have a chat or two with some informants and see if I can at least try to pretend this night wasn’t a complete wash.”
“From where I’m standing, that being in a few too many inches of… this, a complete wash sounds like just the thing we need.” She said. “You are not coming to bed like that.”
I laughed. “Well, I’m sure we can figure something out, together.”
She threw me a wink and flirtatiously promised to see me at home as she turned around, walking to the other end of the tunnel and flying up to the surface.
I stared into space for a moment after I watched her go, then shaking my head and grinning. “Living the dream, Az.” I said to myself, briefly considering the woman I spent my life with before taking a step forward and being greeted with the pleasant sound of what was now on the bottom of my shoe. “Well,” I said “Maybe not the dream.”
I moved further down the dark tunnels, thankful for my capacity to see so clearly in the dark. I didn’t know what I was expecting to find, but finding the artifact meant too much. It was just too dangerous.
A few tunnels later, I approached an intersection of tunnels in a large square room. On the side from which I entered, the walls were thickly laden with bricks, stacked neatly against the walls. The two walls approaching the rear wall held a fading pattern of bricks decreasing in number as they approached the back wall, who had been stripped of nearly every brick that covered it, the concrete and clay behind them exposed to the open chamber. My scythes flew into my hands from beneath my vambraces, the curved blades making soft metallic sound as they extended to full length, poised to strike. I approached the tunnel on the bare wall cautiously, prepared for any impending action.
The corridor opened up into a large brick cistern, about thirty feet in diameter and floored with an enormous gridded steel grate. Water dripped from the ceiling, falling through the grate and mingling with the sewage coming in from the pipes on the walls of the chamber. High above the grate intersected two catwalks for service purposes, connecting tunnels on the four sides of the chamber. Pipes of various natures crossed about the ceiling, hiding the brick roof of the surface access tunnel above the chamber.
The brick walls had been stripped of their materials, gaping holes in the brickwork peppering the room. My eyes shot about the room. “Where are you, you big ugly—” My thought went interrupted by the sound of stones shuffling together in a tunnel above, echoing through the cistern. I flew silently up to one of the catwalks, gazing anxiously toward the tunnel where the noise originated. My eyes remained fixed on the mouth of the dark passage, senses running wild in anticipation for anything.
It was only a moment until I saw the shadow in the tunnel.
“You know,” I said “Looming in the shadows is kind of my thing.” A black steel, serrated tactical sword descended into my hands, the three allotments in the blade fitted with small silver devices. In my left hand I pulled the scepter from my belt, the scales’ arms springing to life, ready for the fight. “Brooding doesn’t really suit you too well.” I said.
Out from the passage stepped an absolute monument of a creature, eight and a half feet tall and hulking in stature, broad shoulders and enormous arms hunched slightly forward like some sort of beast. He had short, stocky, cylindrical legs, lined with five small bricks emulating toes. He was barrel chested, the sideways bricks forming the wall that was his breastplate, almost a yard wide. His long arms and broad chest were lined with divergently placed brick, defining his human-esque form. His head was small and domed against the top of his body, lined with bricks that formed facial features, and a series of parts that resembled a beard. Rows of red bricks made the top of his head appear almost like hair, pulled back away from his snide grimace. His glowing yellow eyes shifted beneath his furrowed, maniacally scowling brow, his lips curling into a sinister grin that revealed small chips of bricks resembling teeth.
He had a thick voice, echoing through the chamber like thunder. “Long time no see, old friend.”
“Not long enough.” I said. “Doesn’t look like you’ve changed much, outside of somehow managing to get even uglier.”
“Don’t hate me because I’m pretty, Azrael.” He boomed, placing a large hand on his chest, the bricks that he used as his fingers clacking against it. “Besides,” he said “we can’t all look like we’re in our prime forever.”
“What brings your ugly mug back to me then?” I asked.
“Like I’d know.” He replied. “Maybe we’re just meant to be together.”
“Who got you out?” I demanded.
“What, no ‘what’ve you been up to for the last few hundred years’, buddy?” He said.
“You’ve been in a glass box, where you belong, and I want to know why you’re not anymore.”
“Look, I don’t know who it was that made me fall off that truck.” He said. “But it ain’t like it matters. I ain’t nobody’s goon.”
“Not anymore, you’re not.” I threatened, bracing myself into a combative stance and raising my weapons.
“You ain’t stopping me.” He said.
“Big, bad, ugly, and stupid. What more could you have, Temple?” I taunted.
“I got you, and the chance I’ve been waiting for to put you in the ground.” He snarled.
“Don’t count on it, you big ugly bastard.”
Temple lunged down the catwalk, barreling forward with all the might and force of a tidal wave. I threw forward the scepter, and the air rippled at its command, throwing a wave of force toward Temple that stopped him dead in his tracks. The black sword flew from my hand, piercing his shoulder and erupting in a fiery explosion that blew countless bricks off of his left arm. He snarled and flew down the catwalk as I ran to meet him, scales in one hand, scythe in the other. As we reached the intersection of the catwalk, I dodged to one side, piercing his right shoulder with my scythe and swinging up to his back, where I used the force generated by the scepter to push him to the ground. I set off the sword’s second explosive charge, launching more bricks into the air as it exploded beneath him. With the explosion, the sword shot blade-first into the air, when I spun around and grabbed it by the hilt, sticking it in the gaps of the bricks in Temple’s back. I grabbed the railing of the catwalk and used my grappling hooks to swing beneath it as the third and final charge exploded, tearing Temple’s back asunder. As I worked to complete the upward arch of the swing, Temple, now trying to stand, caught me with his right arm, throwing me to the floor of the catwalk. He raised his right arm to strike as I desperately raised the scepter, his hand stopped by the wall of nothingness that formed in front of me. He continued to strike at me, each strike halted by the scepter’s field. The brick pile that was formerly his now severed left arm sprang to life, mounting themselves on his broken shoulder to form a new arm. With this weapon he struck with greater speed and fervor, the catwalk bending beneath the force of his weight.
As many things that bend do, the catwalk broke, throwing us both to the floor of the room. Temple and I stood and recollected ourselves.
“Still using that little toy of yours, huh?” He asked, gesturing to the scepter in my hand.“You steal all your weapons?”
I lunged at him, aiming to strike at his chest with the scepter. He grabbed my arm with both of his enormous brick hands, sliding backwards from the force of the scepter’s blast and never losing his grasp. He bent my arm back, the elbow eliciting a sharp crack as the scepter fell from my hand. I struck at him to no success with my scythe as he lifted me off the ground with one hand. “You made a mistake, Azrael.” He said before throwing me against the wall of the cistern. He approached like a hurricane over the horizon as I gripped my arm, struggling desperately to fight the pain as he approached.
“You thought you could beat me.” He said. I attempted to roll to one side to dodge his attack when his massive stone foot bore down on my leg. He bent down to turn me face up before he struck me multiple times in the ribs, cracking beneath his sharp stone knuckles. “But how could you?” He shouted, continuing to kick me around the room. “You.” He said, pausing to kick me in the side, throwing me across the floor. “You’re just an angel.” He persisted in striking furiously, the force of his fist against the side of my face literally hitting me like a ton of bricks. “Me.” He taunted, lording over my broken body. “I am a god.”
The blood dripped from my mouth and through the steel grate I laid on, falling down into the sewer below. He spoke softly. “You can’t beat a god.”
He sauntered out of the room. “I’m glad you’re so durable, Azrael.” He said before pausing at the mouth of one of the tunnels. “This way you can watch me tear your city down, piece by piece. Maybe I’ll even kill that pretty little lady of yours. You got any more kids this time?” He paused, knowing full well I wouldn’t respond. “I’ll look forward to shattering them, just like you.” He turned and sauntered down the tunnel. “See you around, Angel of Death.”
The crimson red liquid dripping from me smeared against the pristine white marble tiles of my foyer floor as I dragged myself in with my arms. I struggled to call for help, my dry throat projecting a meager “help me” through my broken voice. I called out with everything I could muster, until at long last, a familiar young woman with short brown hair peered around the corner at the top of the curved staircase on the left side of the room. Carolynn flew down the stairs. “Dad!”
I reached a hand out to her. “Go… get… your mother…” I wheezed, blood dripping down my chin. I watched as she ran up the staircase on the right side and turned to run toward the master bedroom.
The world turned black.