I pulled a black storage crate from beneath the desk, dragging it with a scrape across the smooth concrete floor of the garage. The black lock clicked as I pulled it open, lifting the lid to confront the cold gaze of a black mask sitting inside. I began lifting the components out individually. Carbon chest and torso plating, heavy boots and leg plates, a black hooded overcoat, and a smooth black gas mask with red goggles. I threw the pieces across the desk, resuming work on the partially completed suit.
I’d called her Toxicity. She was built for extreme situations, and this situation certainly felt pretty extreme.
I stared into the dark red lenses at the top of the black face mask in silence for a few moments.
The quiet air was shaken by the sound of a crying baby in the next room.
Iris turned over, pushing the sheets aside and rubbing her baggy eyes. I placed my hand gently on the side of her cheek.
“I got this one, gorgeous.”
I pulled up the black sweatpants around my waist, emerging from beneath the sheets into the cold night air and stepping through the master bedroom door. I opened the door across the hallway, gazing into the darkened soft green room. The noise continued from the dark brown crib against the opposite wall, sitting at the base of a tree painted on the back wall.
I leaned over the railing, gazing into the purple eyes of the small lump folded in the blankets below.
“Hey there, pretty girl.”
I lifted her into my arms, holding her to my bare chest as I rocked her gently, pacing around the room.
I kissed her forehead gently as she began to settle.
“Easy now, sweetheart.” I said. “Daddy’s not gonna let anybody hurt you.”
It was only a few minutes before she gently closed her eyes and I’d placed her back into the crib.
I smiled from the doorway.
“I love you, Carolynn.”
The mask stared blankly back at me, the cold breeze shaking the garage door and chilling the room.
The Rat King would pay for what he did to my little girl.
I thought for a brief moment of what would happen if I had to kill him.
I wouldn’t hesitate.
Not for a moment.
I stepped through the rounded red door into a silent foyer, the same feeling hanging in the air as the one that hung over the entire city. A wordless terror. A dread of uncertainty for the unknown future. Fear.
I dragged myself up the rounded staircase, making a left down the hallway. I opened the door slowly, gazing into the deep purple room.
My wife sat on a desk chair in the corner with closed eyes and palms pointed upward.
She raised her gaze to meet mine, a shared concern between us.
“How’s she look?” I asked.
“Not too bad yet.” She replied, walking over to the side of the bed where Carolynn slept. “I’m doing all I can to help her, but we can’t do this for too long.”
“I know.” I said.
“Rat King said the first body should drop tomorrow.” She said.
I brushed Carolynn’s hair from her face. “Not if I have anything to say about it.” I said. “…The suit is done.”
“Really?” She asked with a hopeful enthusiasm. “What happens now?”
“Now I need to move forward with the next part of the plan.” I said. “Thankfully, I have just the man I need on the job.”
I pulled the cell phone from my pocket, dialing before raising it to my face.
“David Fadi.” He answered.
“The Albright project I requested.” I said. “Is it ready?”
“Albright Industries has been working on it as hard as we can.” He replied. “All we need is a formula.”
“If I’m going to find one, it’ll be soon.”
“Then let’s save this city.”
I returned the phone to my pocket, turning toward the door. “It’s time we finished this.”
She took my hand, turning me to face her. “Please be careful.” She said.
I hugged her tight, stroking her hair as I held her head to my chest. “I won’t let him win.” I said. “Not after this.” I kissed her forehead. “Keep her safe.”
Iris’s hands glowed white over Carolynn as I closed the door behind me.
Gloria leaned against the wall on the opposite side of the wall, her black hair hanging over her face.
She lifted her gaze as I pulled her into my arms.
“…Is Carolynn gonna be okay?”
I paused. “What’s your name?”
“Your name.” I said. “Tell me what it is.”
“All of it.” I said.
“Gloria Evelyn June Valentine.”
“You know what that last part means?”
“Valentine.” I said. “That means that God watches out for us. We fight. We stand up.
“Valentines don’t die that easy.”
Knee-length carbon boots with thigh plating, steel tool belt, carbon and nanofiber plating over the torso, coat slung around my shoulders. Black carbon sleeves, steel knuckles, and a full-face mask with red goggles beneath a dark hood. I strapped in the special equipment. Liquid storage tanks attached to the pressurization system, gas filtration fitted into the mask, blowtorches slung in the equipment storage on my right thigh.
The flat black and red suit dimly reflected the harsh white light as I pulled the chemical containment unit from its storage chamber. It was a large white cylinder, blue Plexiglas plates on either side with a tube running up the middle. I slung it over my back, pushing my scythes into the spaces on the underside of my arms.
Time to finish this.
I stood in the grated reservoir above the Rat King’s hideout. I wouldn’t lose a fight here again.
The chamber buzzed with a dim, high-pitched echo coming from the tunnel below the grate. I lifted the service hatch, stepping into the dank tunnel as the noise from the antechamber echoed louder. I stepped to the edge and looked into the room.
Rats. Thousands. More than I’d ever seen in one place, coating every inch of the floor. Screaming into the air, crying for vengeance. Hungry for blood.
He stood at the head of the chamber, a perfect circle of emptiness around him, an island in the sea of chaos.
I drew two black rods from the side of my leg, the ends erupting in flame as I jumped into the chamber. The rats recoiled from the blowtorches, squealing as they fled from the flame.
The Rat King turned, his gaze cast straight down the room as the rats divided up the middle, clearing the walkway between us.
“Azrael.” He said, his words tainted with a facetious cordiality. “I see you’ve dressed for this occasion.” He remarked, looking into the red goggles of the smooth black facemask. “Do you presume to frighten me?”
“You believe a new mask makes you intimidating, Angel of Death? I know who you really are.” He said. “Beneath it you are still merely a man, powerless to stop my virus. Afraid to die.”
“You don’t scare me.”
“Don’t I? I control the life of every man, woman, and child in the city you’ve fought so long to protect, and even now as I begin to draw each of them to a close, you stand unable to save them.” He said. “I have proven your superior. I’ve already won.”
“Tell me that again in a few minutes.”
“Such arrogance.” He cooed. “A wardrobe change won’t save this city.”
“No.” I said, dropping the white containment unit slung over my back onto the floor. “This is for saving the city.” I cracked my steel-plated knuckles. “The suit is for stopping you.”
Arthur’s chest inflated as he clenched his fists, his muscles tensing. Rats began to pour from every orifice in the room, swarming around me, biting fruitlessly at the suit. I let them stand for a few moments as the Rat King watched before lighting the blowtorches and scaring them away once more.
He drew his grenade launcher from the table behind him, firing straight down the chamber. I sidestepped the first two, who filled the room with a grey-orange cloud. I struck the third one to the side with my forearm as I began to walk closer, catching the fourth in my hand and throwing it behind me as I stepped out of the cloud of smoke.
I shot for the weapon, wrenching it from his hands and kicking him in the stomach. He slammed into the side of the table as I opened the barrel of the firearm, removing the remainder of the ammo and throwing it aside before jamming the loading mechanism and pushing a shell into it backwards, rendering the weapon unusable.
He threw forward at me with a broad strike from the right as I caught it and struck repeatedly at his ribs. I twisted my arm around to the back of his shoulder, pulling his arm out of its socket as I threw him to the side of the room.
A glass ball cracked open in his extended hand as I pushed him, unleashing a swarm of enormous infected mosquitos into my face. The suit’s carbon plating and nanotube fabric made their bites useless, as a group of emitters on the outside and inside of my forearms sprayed an air-activated toxin around me. They fell out of the air as I set upon the Rat King again, now clamoring at the laboratory door.
I gripped the back of his skull, slamming his temple into the door three consecutive times before throwing him to the wall. I unleashed a flurry of rapid punches to his chest before grabbing the collar of his oversized blue and grey jacket and hurling him away from the door.
He struggled to stand and reset himself. “The suit is impressive…” He remarked. “But you. The brutality. There’s a new fire in you, Azrael.” He paused. “…You’re losing someone, aren’t you?”
I set upon him again, punching him in the stomach as his back slammed against the wall before flipping him over my shoulder and throwing him across the table.
“That woman you were with… Your wife? Girlfriend? Perhaps a good friend of yours, a sibling? A son? …A daughter?”
I dove over the table, tackling him to the floor before beating into his chest. I raised a fist, loaded over my shoulder and prepared to fire.
I punched him in the face repeatedly, before stopping myself again, my hand clenched around his throat.
“Tell me Azrael…” He wheezed. “Does she suffer?”
I pulled him up from the floor, pushing him against the side of the table as I drew a blowtorch from the compartment on my leg, my hand never leaving his windpipe.
“You say one more thing about her and I swear to god, I will burn you into ash.” I threatened.
“Just like I’ll turn her into ash?”
He shrieked and flailed around the chamber as his jacket burned, struggling to strip the flaming cloth from his body.
He threw the coat away from him, bracing himself by his elbow against the wall. The black bandage around his chest was hanging loosely, the disappearance of his coat now revealing the yellowed gray skin of his thin, veiny arms.
He struggled to catch his breath for a moment.
“This city will burn!” He cried, hurling a glass sphere of acid into me.
The liquid splashed over my arms and chest, steaming as it began to burn the suit. A clear fluid sprayed from the underside of my wrist, causing the acid to steam as my solution neutralized it and washed it from the suit.
I threw him against the side of the table, noticing a lead pipe on the floor to the side. I picked it up and began to swing, bruising his torso and his bare arms.
The rain poured down over me in the dark alley, my father pleading for mercy every time I brought the baseball bat down on him.
I paused, lifting the pipe into the air and breathing hard as I stared through the shattered Plexiglas visor of the Rat King’s gas mask into his sunken, terror-filled brown eyes, begging me to stop.
I looked him over for a moment, horrified at what I was doing.
“Wait.” I said, throwing the pipe to the side as I stared at his pale, yellowish-gray skin.
He shrunk and cowered as I pulled him up, shrieking in protest and grabbing at my hands as I pulled the bandages over his chest open.
I stepped back as he hung in horror, both of us staring at his jaundiced, grey chest, dark lesions cutting across it like knives.
“You… You have the infection.” I said.
He shrunk down, cowering against the front of the table.
He flinched as I placed my hand on his shoulder.
“The cure, Arthur.” I said, speaking softly. “You have one, don’t you?”
He pointed sheepishly toward the laboratory door.
I grabbed his collar and pulled him across the floor, opening the door and stepping into the lab. He crawled to a safe in one of the cabinets, unlocking it and opening the door.
Inside sat a rack of small vials filled with a blue liquid. The front of the rack bore a piece of masking tape, scribbled with the name.
I knelt down in front of him.
“Elise. She was one of your test rats, wasn’t she Arthur?” I said. “She bit you.”
“She gave you this disease. You only had three days to cure it. To save your own life.” I said. “You’re patient zero.”
“Why did you do it, Arthur?”
“..Sh-she said so. My sickness would purify the world. She said she needed me. She gave me the money. Told me to do it.”
He stuttered. “…The black-haired woman.”
I placed my hand on his shoulder. “Amour doesn’t control you, Arthur.” I said. “I won’t let her hurt you. Just let me help.”
He shook, collapsing into himself.
I took the vials from the safe, securing a few of them in a containment unit on my belt before placing one in a chemical scanner on the counter. I began the process of synthesizing the cure.
I typed away at the command console, filling dispersal tanks and the unit I’d brought in with the newly-synthesized cure.
I secured and white and blue tank and tapped my headset.
“David. I have the cure. I’ll be delivering the containment unit at the dropoff location in just a few minutes.”
The Rat King lunged at me, plunging a steel blade into my abdomen and looking into my eyes as he raised the gas grenade in front of him. “This city will burn!” A cloud erupted from his hand.
I jumped out the open door, the Rat King collapsing out behind me as I pressed against the open knife wound at the gap in my armor. The gas would kill me if I let it get in. I only had one choice.
I pressed the end of the shaft against my stomach and ignited the blowtorch,
I grit my teeth, screaming as the wound burned closed.
Arthur stared up in horror as I limped toward him, gripping his collar before pounding his head into the floor with my fist.
“Azrael, are you okay?” David’s voice crackled through the headset.
I clutched at the burn, panting as I tapped at the headset. “…Let’s save this city.”
David and I fitted the tank into Albright’s dispersal device as he pulled a long-range remote from his pocket. He passed it to me. “Care to do the honors?”
I pressed the button and watched as blue smoke erupted into the air from rooftops all across the city, raining the airborne cure over every street in Bastion.
He smiled. “I’ve partnered with Albright Industries and White Shield to give out the liquid form. In sixteen hours, everyone in this city will be completely cured.” He said.
“We saved Bastion, Azrael.”
“Looks that way.” I said.
“You don’t seem too happy about it.”
I stared at the vial in my hand. “I’ll be better when I get this where it needs to go.” I said.
“Then I guess I’ll let you get to it.” He smiled. “I can’t thank you enough, Azrael. This city owes you everything for what you’ve done.”
“You know I don’t do this for the accolades, David.” I said.
“I know.” He agreed. “Because you love this city like I do.”
“Because the world needed someone to be better.” I said.
“Because your daughter needed somebody to be better?”
“What’s her name?”
“…Carolynn. Carolynn Annabelle Hope.”
“That’s beautiful.” He smiled. “Hope… I like that.”
“She’s sick.” I said.
“I’m sorry.” David replied. “…You did this for her.”
“I did this because it was the right thing to do.”
“Bastion needs more men who do the right thing because it’s right.” He said. “But I’m glad we have one like you.”
I stood up. “Thank you, David.”
“You know I’ll have to talk about this, right?” He asked.
“The people will expect an address about this whole thing.” He said. “And I’d like to give credit where it’s due.”
“The people will find out when they’re ready, David.” I said. “But there’s too much happening right now. Bastion isn’t the place either of us think it is.”
“This city’s on the brink of a new age, Azrael.” He said. “We have to embrace it. That age starts with you.”
“I didn’t ask for an age, David. I asked for a safer world.” I said.
“If you say so.” He said, extending his hand. “Now it sounded like you have one more person to save.
“…Carolynn should be proud, Azrael. Everyone should be.”
I shook David’s hand. “Maybe when the Azrael age begins.” I smiled.
Carolynn’s blood drew into the blue solution before I pushed the antidote into her veins.
Iris smiled. “You sure this thing works?”
“I double checked his research, and this version worked in every trial.”
“Good.” She kissed me on the cheek. “What about Arthur?”
“…Arthur should get the help he needs, but he’ll have to learn to want it.”
“How about you?” She asked. “Are you okay?”
“Carolynn’s alright.” I said. “That’s all that matters.”
“Are you sure?”
I paused. “When I was fighting Arthur, I saw the dream I have about my father.” I said. “The alley, the rain, the blood. The brutality.”
She took my hands. “Az, you saved the world today.” She smiled. “None of that matters now.”
She wrapped my hand around my wrist. “You feel that?” She asked. “That’s your heart. It’s still beating.” She wrapped her arms around me, staring up at me from a few inches away. “You’re here. Right this minute. You saved the world. That’s what matters.”
I pulled at the small of her back, kissing her gently. She ran her hand up my side and I recoiled as she touched the burn on my abs.
She unzipped the shirt, opening it to reveal the burn mark. “Good god, Az, what did you do?”
“Arthur stabbed me.” I said. “I couldn’t let it get infected.”
“You really did give everything you had to save this city.” She said, gently touching the burn with a soft, glowing white hand.
I thought for a moment about the message I’d recorded just the other day. “I did what I had to.”
She smiled. “Well this city owes you a lot.”
I looked at the mask I’d placed on the chair. “You know, I really do like this suit.” I said.
“I might just have to keep the look.”
“If you were wearing a mask like that…” She smiled, sliding her hands across my bare chest into the open armor. “I couldn’t do this.” She kissed me.
“You guys might have to add vomiting to that list of symptoms if you keep this up.”
“Oh well good morning, Carolynn.” Iris pushed out abruptly, turning around and blocking my chest as I zipped up the armor.
“How you doing, pretty girl?” I asked.
“I guess I feel a little better.”
“That’s good news.” I said. “I gave you the antidote. Everything’s going to be okay.”
“You saved the city?” She asked sleepily.
“He saved the world.” Iris said.
“Now get some rest, sweetie.” I said. “Can’t have you lying around forever.”
“Alright dad.” She said.
I peeked through the doorway as I stepped out.
“I love you, pretty girl.” I said. “I’m not going to let anybody hurt you again.”
“I love you too, dad.” She said.
Iris and I stepped into the hall.
“You’re blushing.” I said.
“Stoooop.” She groaned, giggling to herself.
I wrapped my arms around her, holding her head close to my shoulder. “She’s a good girl.” I said. “I’m so glad she’s okay.”
“Me too.” Iris sighed. “…I was thinking.” She began. “All that time I spent sitting there with Carolynn… Raziel told me that she read about her in the book. That her future was like nothing she’d ever seen before.
“That scares the living hell out of me.” She said.
She pressed into my shoulder. “I just… I don’t want her to live like this.” She said. “Every time I turn around someone she loves is getting hurt. I don’t want… I don’t want her to live like us.”
“No one wants the best for her more than I do.” I said. “But we’re on the brink of a new age, Iris. We have to embrace it. And if there’s anything I’ve learned over the past few years, it’s that Carolynn is one of the strongest people I’ve ever known. Strong enough to handle anything.
I took her hand. “Her heart’s still beating.” I smiled. “There’s still hope.”
She kissed me again.
“I know the plans I have for you. Plans to prosper you.” I smiled. “Besides, I’ve always known Carolynn was destined for greatness. I don’t need a book that contains all of human history to tell me that.”
“Really?” She asked. “What makes you say that?”
“Because she’s a Valentine. She’s one of us.” I said. “One of you.
“That’s the most beautiful thing in the world.”
“I love you, Azrael.”
“I love you too.” I said. “Now I remember something about being promised bacon?”
She laughed. “I’ll get right on that.”
“There was one more thing.” I said.
“When I asked Arthur why he did it, he said someone told him to.”
“Who?” She asked.
“A black-haired woman.” I said. “Amour.”
“Lazarus, the thieves, the Rat King. They’re all connected.” I said. “And she’s the lowest common denominator.”
“So how do we find her?” She asked.
“I don’t know, but we’d best do it soon.” I said. “Or she’s going to destroy this city.”
Copyright © Josiah Delnay 2016.