I ran. Jumped across the rooftops, steel cables firing between walls as I swung over the streets. Running.
I hit a wall, vaulting up to the roof and ducking behind a rooftop air conditioning hub. I knelt behind it, peering around the corner as I covered behind the unit. She was here.
The sword came from behind, cutting along the muscle striations and gliding through my shoulder and up my neck, shredding solid chunks of muscle off my arm.
She shouldn’t have done that.
I stood, drawing my scythes.
“Glad you have some fight left.” She said. “I’m gonna love beating it out of you.”
“You should’ve killed me.”
“Not yet, handsome.” She said. “Mommy needs her playtime.”
Her blood-slick ninjato tore through the air, colliding with my scythes.
The steel clashed as my blades shattered like glass.
I stared in marvel at the fragments of steel left at the hilt before her sword tore off the top of my arm, tearing across my elbow and cutting through my thighs.
I fired toward her with all my remaining strength, tearing a shattered blade across her chest as she doubled up, the end of her sword shredding down my back, tearing deep into my flesh.
I turned slowly as we both gripped at our injuries, standing covered in my own blood as she turned around slowly.
She pulled open the front of her torn blouse, wiping the blood from her chest.
She stared at me, smeared blood across the sides of her collarbones as she smiled, pulling her bloodied hands from the wound on her sternum.
She laughed as she revealed a deep cut from the attack, a crimson stain in a familiar shape etched into her chest.
A circle with four points.
The same one I wore.
I awoke with a start, catching my breath before turning to see Iris gently snuggled into the pillows.
I stood up slowly, shuffling across the room and walking over to the dresser. I lifted the decanter and a glass as I looked in the mirror.
Hard muscles born of violence, scars of the same origin. Tired eyes from the late nights, a bottle in one hand with an empty glass in the other.
I put the cup down and pulled a shot straight from the decanter. I was never one for propriety.
Vivian haunted me. The way she cut straight through me with the movement of my muscles like it was nothing, just like she did when we fought. She wasn’t trying to fight me, she was trying to disassemble me.
I stood by the bedside, leaning against the wall with the bottle in my hand as I stared at the half-empty bed.
Smooth black hair over soft skin, spread across the deep silver sheets. Dark eyes, lashes gently pressed together. The antithesis of my every horror.
I put the bottle back down and crawled in beside her, pulling the blankets up around her shoulders and kissing her forehead softly as I put my arm behind her, stroking her hair.
I’ve learned to live for the calm. All the simple moments. When Gloria and I play fight on the living room floor, the way she giggles, or when we stay up all night playing video games until she falls asleep on the floor. That first kiss Iris gives me when I come home every night, or the sound of her voice when she wakes up every morning. Laying beneath the blankets trying to keep out the cold with my arms around her, taking in the smell of her hair and the sound of her soft breath. Those few precious seconds that last for years, not long enough, where I can stop being an angel and just be a husband, or a father, or just a friend.
Moments when I can just be ordinary.
Iris shifted beneath the sheets, pushing her head up into my neck as I pulled her in tighter.
But extraordinarily lucky. I said to myself.
I found myself in one such moment just a few hours later as a tired voice welcomed me into the day. “Good morning, handsome.”
A reactionary shot fired through my mind momentarily, like the moment when you’re falling just before you catch yourself. Vivian. I shook myself awake to view my wife before me.
“Good morning, gorgeous.”
“I’ve been better.”
She groaned, adjusting her position in the bed as she moved in closer, sliding her hands across my torso. “Easy now.”
I looked her in the eyes, her irises now silver as they reflected the horizon of the morning, just like they did every day when she woke up.
“You know,” I said “most people don’t like the sky in the winter because of the clouds, but you’ve made me appreciate it in a whole new way.”
“I love you, beautiful.”
“I love you too, handsome.”
She kissed me before snuggling back into my chest.
This is where I belonged.
I sat at the end of the stairs, staring into a text message I’d recently received. Bad news.
My daughter sauntered around the edges of the room.
“Can I ask you a weird question?”
“Well.” I said “When two people care about each other…”
“Shut up.” She laughed. “…Have you ever been to the moon?”
“The moon?” I asked. “I’ve thought about it.”
“Thought about it?” Iris asked, walking in from the kitchen. “Won’t shut up about it is more like it.”
“Well excuse me for having dreams.” I said.
“You can’t just-”
“It’d be so simple.” I said.
“Anytime you wanna go, Lance.” Iris agreed, however facetiously. “What’s got you down?”
“I got a message.” I said. “From –”
The doorbell echoed through the foyer.
“That’d be it.”
I opened the door to behold a lean, blonde man with looks deceptive to his age, sharp features and sleek jawline decorated with piercing pale blue eyes. His hair hung down to the base of his skull, intricately styled with what I’m sure was an inordinate amount of effort, falling to the high flipped collar of his white leather jacket. The coat itself was fairly simple, a high collar and lapels zipping down one side, elbow-length sleeves with grey accents running down the sides of the torso. One side of the front hung open, decorated with a line of silver rings that matched the five in his ears. His hands were wound haphazardly with grey combat wraps, covering up the pale white ink tattoos that adorned his arms. He smiled with the youthful joy and mirth of a man half his age as he threw his arms forward.
I moved forward to meet him. “Ur–”
“Evee!” He grinned, stepping immediately to my left and throwing his arms around Iris.
“Uriel!” She responded. “It’s so great to see you. You know if anybody else called me that I’d be mad.”
“Az doesn’t get a pass?” He asked.
“There’s an exception to every rule.” She replied as they stepped apart to look each other over. “Oh my god, I love your hair.”
“And I love yours.” He said.
She mimed an exaggerated blush. “Stop it, you. Seriously, you look good.” She smiled. “And I’d bet I’m not the first lady to say so.”
“Nor the last.” He winked. “There’s a reason they call me Mr. Wright.”
“That might be because it’s your name.” I smiled.
He turned toward me. “Azrael. How’s brooding treating you?” He smiled as he approached to hug me.
“Same old.” I laughed. “It’s good to see you, Uriel.”
A smooth, thick, dark voice replied from the doorway. “I wish it were under better circumstances.”
The voice’s owner stepped into the foyer, a black costume stark against the white foyer. He had a sharp jaw decorated with a black goatee, broad cheekbones and deep orange-brown eyes. His slick black hair was pulled back over his head, and he wore a black jacket with leather components over the shoulders and sides, sleeves going down to his elbows. His forearms were covered in fingerless compression gloves covering all the way down to his hands, the fabric fit tight over his powerful arms and chest. He wore loose black pants slung around his waist with a set of equipment belts. A box on the side of hip produced a series of clear tubes running up his sides and around his shoulders.
I smiled. “Bad circumstances do seem to bring us together.”
Uriel turned to greet Carolynn as I welcomed his brother.
“Unfortunately.” He laughed, grasping my hand before throwing his other arm over my shoulder. “It’s been a while. You look good.”
“You too, Raphael.” I said. “I only just got your message. What’s going on?”
“Bad news.” He said. “Like I said, unfortunate circumstances.”
“Well come on in.” Iris said, leading us to the kitchen. “Drinks on me.”
“Tom Collins.” Uriel said. “Five ice cubes stirred four times clockwise with a teaspoon, counter on the third, gently sprinkle the sugar with the glass behind your back and do a flip when you’re finished.”
“Decades after the Iron Curtain and he still orders drinks like double-oh-so-sad.” She laughed.
“Careful what you wish for, James Blonde, you just might get it.” I said. “Nobody mixes a drink like this lady.”
“Not like I don’t get the practice.” She added.
“Not with a guy like Azrael around.” Raphael laughed.
I smiled, removing a bottle of scotch from the shelf before pouring it into a set of glasses. “Careful, pretty boy, might put some hair on your chest.” I joked, pushing the glass toward Uriel.
Uriel smiled. “Hasn’t done much for you.” He said, tipping the glass in the air. “Cheers.”
We all took our seats at the table, passing the bottle around as Raphael began to explain his situation.
“You’ll forgive me for assuming this isn’t a social call.” I said. “Mind telling me what’s going on?”
“Two nights ago there was an escape at a containment camp on the other side.” Raphael said. “A Turrak.”
“My thoughts exactly.” He said. “One of my guys helped me track it, and once we found it leading this way, I decided to pick it up myself.”
“Damn.” I said. “Is that all?”
“We’re never that lucky, Az.” Uriel said.
“Unfortunately not.” Raphael said. “Looking at the circumstances, it’s pretty clear it was stolen.”
“Which means there’s a reason it came this way.” I said. “How’d your tracking op go?”
“Not well.” He said. “Whoever took it covered their tracks pretty well. Someone with training.”
“Like a Calestaan?” Iris asked.
“I don’t like jumping to conclusions.” He said. “But it looks that way.”
She sighed, hanging from her shoulders with her fists on the table.
“I assume that means they’re here for me.” I said.
“People think I’m narcissistic.” Uriel said.
“So where do we find them?” Iris asked.
“That’s the real issue.” Raphael said. “If it is a Calestaan, I can probably track them.”
“Well, the guest room’s all set.” I said. “Or the crawlspace beneath the back porch, in Uriel’s case.”
“Better than upside down in the closet where you sleep.” He said.
I looked over my shoulder to see my daughter in the dark next room.
I gave my glass a shove toward the center of the table.
“Iris, why don’t you get these guys all set up upstairs before we get to brass tacks?”
“Sure thing.” She said, leading the two up the stairs. “Hope you guys pack light.”
I filled the glass as they exited the room. “Eavesdropping really isn’t your style, little lady.”
She stepped into the room. “Not good, huh?”
“No.” I said. “Not really.”
“What’s a Turrak?”
“Well… It’s kinda like a dragon, but a little more like a boar.”
“Are you kidding me?”
“Raphael and Uriel come from a… different place. It’s been called a lot of things, but we refer to it as the Aether, home of the Black City.” I explained. “Every terrible thing that’s ever existed and doesn’t work for the light or the darkness lives there, including a lot of things most people could never believe.”
“Like nightmares.” I said. “Some of it makes it into legends, but the rest… Well.”
“So what’s a Calestaan?”
“The Calestaan were once a culture. A tribe of people who studied the behaviors of creatures, including all the nasty ones. Over time a lot of them were lost, but they taught people what they knew. As their techniques evolved, they became the first monster hunters. There’s not many of them left, but their order knows monsters better than anyone else. That’s why Raphael trained with them.”
“Raphael’s a monster hunter?”
“Not exactly.” I said. “He’s not one of them, but he’s followed them for years and learned a lot of Calestaani huntsmen’s techniques.”
“So he can find this thing?”
“Probably.” I said. “At the very least I know he can fight it. Guy’s one of the heaviest hitters I’ve ever met.”
“What about Uriel?”
“What about him?” I asked. “Kicks most of the ass with three times the sass.”
“You guys think you can stop it?”
“I know we can. We’ve been through worse.” I said. “But we haven’t done much monster hunting in the city.” I took a drink.
“…Do you think it has something to do with the woman?”
I put the glass down. “How’d you know about her?”
“I heard you talking about her a few days ago.” She said. “Said something about the Rat King. What do you know?”
“Stay out of it.” I said. “The less you know for now, the better.”
“Dad, I –”
“Carolynn, Amour’s actions almost killed you last Halloween.” I said. “I will personally drag her to Hell screaming before I let her try again, you understand me?”
I sighed. “I don’t know if she has something to do with it, but I’m not going to let her hurt us anymore.” I said.
“I know.” She said.
“I don’t appreciate your micromanaging this.” He said. “I am a professional.”
“As am I.” Vivian replied. “Which is why I want to make sure you get this right. Not only is this a serious operation, but it’s a larger scope than much of your previous experience. It’s going to be a long night.”
The man across from her crossed his legs on the table. “I gotta say, hiring me was an interesting choice considering you don’t trust me.”
“I trusted you enough to hire you.” She said. “Besides, my money’s green. Why the hell do you care?”
“What do you need?” He asked.
“You’re aware of the Azrael risk?”
“I’m not afraid of some asshole with a hero complex.” He said. “I’ve killed more people who fit that description than you’d know.”
“Don’t underestimate him.” Vivian warned. “He’s tougher than you’d think.”
“You’ve seen my resources.”
“I have.” She said. “Even still. That’s why I brought this.”
She placed a large case on the table, sliding it to the other side.
He opened the case to reveal a set of steel arm augmentations.
“For me?” He smiled. “You shouldn’t have.”
“I’m glad you like them.” She said. “I imagine you’ll put them to good use this evening.”
“I think so.” He said.
“We’ll be in touch.”
Vivian’s associate stepped out of the room as Zoe made her way in. “Are we ready?”
“I think so.” Vivian replied. “He can handle himself.”
“I’ve seen his work.” Zoe said.
“And he’s a frequented resource by our friend in the shadows.” She said. “Who only works with the absolute best.”
“Are you sure it’s the best idea to use his resources without his knowledge?” Zoe cautioned. “I don’t know that he’d be too pleased that you’re cutting him out.”
“No matter.” She said. “I don’t fear him.”
“Perhaps you should.” Zoe said. “He’s dangerous.”
“As am I.” She said. “Is my mother ready?”
“I’ve worked everything out with Mallory.” Zoe replied.
“Not everything.” She remarked ominously. “That’s my job. But I guess I owe Scarlett a call first.”
The two brothers and I stood on my front porch, waiting in the falling moonlight as we went over the plan.
Raphael checked through his equipment, mounting two large black canisters of varying sizes on his back. The first was a ring of seven gunmetal cylinders that ran the length of his back, the second a smaller tube only a bit longer than his forearm. He finally collapsed a spear, placing it over his shoulder as he holstered a pair of small automatic guns at the back of his belt.
“I’ve tracked the Turrak to somewhere in the southwest end. We’ll head for its last known location and pick up the trail from there.” He said.
“Heavy arms for poking around in the dirt.” His brother replied, placing two trench knives in his belt and spinning a pair of half-circle blades. “Although I do enjoy the fire superiority.”
“We can’t be sure what’ll happen when we find whoever stole the creature.” I said. “If they’re Calestaan, we may have to be ready for a fight.”
“In a normal scenario, I’d be inclined to talk it through.” Raphael said. “But the Calestaani’s aggressive culture is what drove them to near extinction, and their frequent rivalries with the guys on our team haven’t done much to help.”
“Interesting.” Uriel said. “I would’ve expected a people who wrangle destructive monsters to be more warm and fuzzy.”
“Your sarcasm is appreciated.” Raphael said.
“Ironic.” Uriel shot back.
“We should go.” I said. “The sooner we get this thing the hell outta my city and I can find that programmer the better.”
“Most people would skip the manhunt and just call tech support.” Uriel said.
My wings stretched into the sky. “My problem’s a little more unique than that.”
Raphael stared into a set of three claw marks on the ground, drawing a spear from over his back and placing the end of the ground, hanging from it as he knelt to examine the mark.
“This is the last clue I found.” He said. “Odds are it’s somewhere near here.”
“Lead the way.”
We trudged through the snow for minutes looking for the creature before we reached the edge of the city beneath the bridge.
A faint light filled the hollow area beneath the old bridge in the outer part of the city. I approached in silence, stretching my consciousness into the area around the bridge.
“They’re here.” I said. “I can’t sense the monster, but there’s someone down there.”
Uriel drew his blades, two half-circle weapons with handles in the center, a broad serrated edge running the outside arch.
“Then let’s go get ‘em.”
“Easy.” Raphael said. “Three fully armed Archangels aren’t gonna send the message we’re looking for. If we wanna do things the easy way, we’d best take it slow.”
“You first.” I said.
Raphael stepped down the hillside and into the light spilling onto the grass.
We watched from the shadows as he stepped slowly into the view of the person under the bridge.
“My name is Raphael.” He said. “I’m looking for something.”
“I haven’t forgotten, Raphael.” A voice said from beneath. “Nor have you, I’m sure.”
He drew a spear. “Ashur.” He said. “I figured it’d be someone like you who stole what I’m looking for.”
“And I figured you’d come looking for it.” He said.
“Not alone.” Raphael said.
Uriel and I stepped out of the shadows.
Ashur wore a black hunter’s outfit and a traditional Calestaani war mask, a black fur vest with a grey shirt of hard leather, wrapped hands studded with animal teeth and various bone fragments on the knuckles and running the outside of his forearm. A collapsible spear hung over his back on a strap mounted with a set of kunai knives, and a serrated dagger poked out of his boot.
His mask was dark brown, shades of green and yellow flashing across it beneath his slick black hair. There was a large rectangular extrusion coming down over mouth and nose, curved wings swinging out over his cheekbones and around his eyes.
“One chance to give it back.” Uriel said. “But we’re taking both of you in, either way.”
“We’ll see.” He said, pulling his spear and swinging the tip close to the ground.
A claw came from the shade, three black daggers scratching through the snow with a monstrous hand, rough muscles and tight skin.
Raphael’s weapon extended from his arm, a full length polearm with a heavy, double-sided blade on the end. Uriel flipped his archblades in his hands as I drew my scythes.
Ashur shot forward, vaulting from his spear as Raphael’s glaive collided with it. They spun, poles colliding as I followed up behind him, attacking from the rear. He pulled the knife from his boot as he kicked back my attacks, spinning and slashing across my arms as he pushed us back.
Raphael stepped back for a moment, rolling his shoulders and broadening his chest as the tubes lining the upper part of his suit lit up orange, his irises glowing in response.
He stomped into the ground, a sharp spike of the dirt shooting up in front of his foot.
He opened his mouth, the orange glow coming up through his throat, surging as he drew in his breath.
“Easy!” I said. “Not here.”
He pulled himself back down, stomping the ground once more and kicking upward, driving a stone spike into the air.
Ashur stumbled as Uriel jumped in from the side, electricity sparking between his hands as he bounded toward the hunter, the spark manifesting into a straight bolt as he drove it into Ashur’s back.
Ashur rolled back as Raphael’s blade swung forward, tearing through the earth as it narrowly missed the hunter.
Ashur fired back behind the bridge as I gave chase, the black claws tearing at the soil after he passed, narrowly missing me.
He jumped up onto the animal with his spear, shooting away from the bridge.
“We have to follow.” I said. “We can’t let him get away.”
“Sorry about that.” Raphael said. “I should know not to use the breath this close to the city.”
“Don’t worry about it, just follow him.” I said. “We can’t let Ashur get away with a Turrak.”
A black set of wings unfurled from Raphael’s back, curling up into the air. “Then let’s go.”
“Hey there, Scarlett.” Vivian said, smiling to Zoe past her cell phone as she leaned into the table. “How are you?
“…Well, I’m alright.” She said. “Have you seen my mother? I can’t seem to get a hold of her and she hasn’t been by the shop.
“No?” Vivian asked. “Well alright. I’m sure she’ll turn up. I’m not too worried. How about you, how are you holding up?
“Of course.” She smiled. “Well take it easy, sweetheart. Go get some sleep. I’ll see you soon, alright?”
She hung up.
“Is that all?” Zoe asked.
“It’s enough.” Vivian replied. “Is Mallory ready?”
“Then go tell Alsleigh to bring the car around.” She said. “It’s a beautiful night for a revolution.”
View the new artwork for this chapter in the Art Gallery!
Copyright ©Josiah Delnay 2016.