A grey-clad soldier collapsed beneath a shining blue shield as Michael crashed down onto the pavement. I shot into the alley from behind, flooring a soldier on the opposite side and knocking him into the brick wall beside him.
We stepped into the back of the alley to find an ingress to the lowest floor of the hotel, finding our entrance in a basement window well. I shot two swords into the hinges to pry it open, and we made our way inside the building.
The dark lowest floor of the hotel was a grey concrete room, broad and open, walls lined with washing machines and shelves containing linens for the rooms upstairs.
Michael wasted no time taking in the room as he made his way to the elevator service hatches, broad silver engines sitting in the room as the ferried hotel patrons between floors.
“Alright.” He said. “My recon suggests that Manacle’s men are posted up through this entire hotel, but his officers are running the show from the penthouse suite on the top floor. It’s likely that their telecomms center is on the top level.”
“With plenty of resistance to protect it.” I said.
“No doubt.” Michael replied. “If we block staircase access three levels from the top, we can restrict the number of personnel in the area before we put this place into fire lockdown and clear out, pushing up.”
“And the roof?”
“Manacle doesn’t have the air resources to be bringing more guys in up there, but I’d be willing to bet he’ll use his personal chopper to meet us there as soon as the lights go off. Odds are he brings maybe a handful of soldiers with him, but he’ll want to be here to finish the job.”
“Locked up here with us.”
“Exactly.” He said.
“Sounds like a plan.” I agreed. “What’s next?”
“Our first job will be to come up under seventeen and seal the stairways from there. There’s one on the Eastern and Western sides of the floor.” He said. “Both floors above those have stairwell and elevator access, card-locked to keep unwanted visitors out of the VIPs’ affairs.”
“Locks don’t tend to keep me out.” I said.
“We’ll need to use the stairwell entrances since the elevators will be disabled.”
“No HVACs?” I asked. “What kind of an infiltration is this?”
“One that isn’t a heist movie, Ocean.” He said. “Now let’s get to work.”
He drew his sword and cracked open the operator’s panel, opening the bottom of the elevator shaft. We stepped inside.
“You know, last time I found myself at the bottom of an elevator shaft, it didn’t turn out so well.” I said.
“What, you get a pulled muscle or something?”
“Intestinal stab wound, actually.” I said. “Went all the way through.”
He laughed. “Bet you wished you had some kind of protection.” He said, tapping twice on his collapsed shield. “Shame you wouldn’t know something about equipment like that, huh?”
“Yeah, but inventing several martial arts takes time away from valuable experiences like that.”
“I’m sure it does.” He smiled.
I jumped atop an elevator at the bottom floor, riding the cabin up the shaft as Michael followed on the opposite side.
A soldier on the seventeenth floor stood between the two sets of elevator doors, assault rifle slung over his shoulder. The elevator door chimed as it opened and he stepped inside, examining the silent, empty car for passengers. The service hatch in the ceiling exploded open as I flew out of it, choking him out between my shins as I hung into the car. He collapsed as I fell in above him.
I shot off down the hallway, flying around the corner toward the guard by the stairwell. I threw the gun aside as I came in for the hit, flying up to triangle lock him as I brought him to the floor.
“Move.” I commanded into my headset as he faded from consciousness.
Michael stepped out of the elevator, drawing his bow as he slid a cartridge into the underside of his vambrace.
He crossed out into the hallway, aiming the weapon as an arrow extended over the bridge. A string of blue light bent between the stretched arches as he peeled off the arrow, knocking back the guard at the end of the hallway as the head sparked to life with electricity.
His shield folded out over his arm as he put the bow away, slamming the side of the shield into the door to knock it open.
I kicked the door on my side down and drew a sword, a black square on the hilt lighting up as it spun into place.
The two cartridges on either side of Michael’s forearm rotated to switch places as he drew an arrow from the second, a silver charge on the hilt flashing a red light. He floated down the stairs, the arrow sliding down his hand until he gripped the back of the shaft and threw it into the support of the staircase above him. He returned to the doorway he’d cracked open, touching his fingers to his earpiece. “Clear.”
I swung over the railing to land face to face with a soldier on the lower floor. We stared at each other for a moment, his eyes shooting briefly to the sword in my hand before he swung forward with his rifle.
I caught the weapon, wrenching it from his hands as I slashed at the top of his arm, kicking him upside the jaw before throwing the sword into the ceiling and tearing the radio from the soldier’s shoulder.
I pulled a steel grapnel cable from one of my gauntlets and wrapped it around his neck, using the opposite arm to grapple back to the landing as I hung him in the stairwell.
I threw his body onto the landing above, rolling across the floor as I struggled to incapacitate him.
Michael’s voice came through my headset. “Az?”
“Little busy.” I grunted.
Michael looked down into the stairwell as he heard the sound of two soldiers moving up the stairs.
“Working on it.” I said, kicking at the soldier who’d wrestled away from my grip.
The two in Michael’s stairwell noticed him from across the gap, opening fire up the flight as he blocked the hail with his shield.
“I’m getting there!” I said, striking the combatant across the face with a closed fist.
“Fire when ready.” He said.
The staircase in front of the captain collapsed as he blew the charge.
Michael heard the door on the level above him open.
“Az, blow your staircase and move up the elevator, I’ll draw from this side.”
I choked the mercenary between my forearms. “You can’t hold that many from there.”
“Then you’d better get up the stairs pretty quick, huh?”
I stood with my back against the wall as the mercenary fronted on me with a combat knife, turning up to bounce off the wall and kick him down the staircase.
I pressed the trigger and collapsed the staircase beneath him, looking down to his body atop the wreckage of the flight a story below. He struggled to raise a shoulder, dropping it as soon as it came up.
“On my way.”
I hit a trigger on my tablet to blow the power as the fire alarms roared to life, the black hallways flashing with crimson light as the water poured from the ceiling.
I flew up the staircase, tearing open the door as I ran headlong into the eighteenth floor, attacking the staircase-bound soldiers from the rear as they mounted their assault on Michael.
I marched down the hallway, breaking a soldier over my knee before I punched another through the drywall. A sword flashed into my hand to cleave an assault rifle in two as I kicked it’s user through a wall, wrenching the rifle from a man next to him as I bent him into the floor. I peeled off a few rounds into the shoulders and legs of the two soldiers before me, holding the gun by the barrel and striking a guard’s temple with the stock before firing it into the wall and launching it into an officer with the recoil. I ripped a gas grenade from his belt as he collapsed, pulling the pin and throwing it into the hallway behind me as I roared into the hallway before me.
A soldier by the staircase access doorway yelled as he pulled his trigger, the blocked off barrel of his shotgun exploding and peeling back as a blue shield bounced off the wall beside him, striking his jaw for the takedown. Michael emerged triumphantly from the door behind him, tapping a button on his vambrace as the shield flipped off the floor and sailed back to his arm.
“You didn’t think I’d stay down.”
“Never.” I smiled. “How’d you secure the upper floor?”
He grinned as he spun an arrow with a silver explosive charge at the end between his fingers.
“I always have a plan.” He sneered. “The only way to the last floor is the elevators.”
I cracked open the door and fired a cable up the shaft. “Then let’s get to work.”
Vivian Malveaux stood before a monitor in her office, observing the situation at the hotel. The security footage displayed four soldiers going down in the flash of a rifle, a black hood tearing through the hallway.
She grit her teeth, standing up abruptly from her desk and dialing Manacle.
“You see what’s going on at the hotel?” She asked.
“I take it that’s rhetorical.”
“Then why the hell aren’t you there?”
“What’d I hire you to do?”
“Any time you want an actual answer, sweetheart.”
“Anytime you wanna get it together and do your goddamn job, Manacle.”
“Already on my way, toots. Take it down a notch.”
Vivian snarled. “Don’t disappoint me.”
Zoe looked up from the corner.
“What’s next?” Zoe asked.
Vivian sighed, spreading her hands across the desk and looking down into it. “Get the car.”
“I’ll call Alsleigh.” She said.
“Not the limo.” Vivian said. “Your Stang.”
Zoe looked up.
“The black chest.” She said. “The pistols, the silver…
“It’s time to bring her back.”
Michael shot a cable up the shaft. “The communications room and mobile special arms lockers will have the heaviest protection, so either way this floor’s not gonna be pretty.”
“Situations I’m in don’t characteristically look too pretty.” I said.
“Maybe throw out some of your mirrors.” He smiled, shooting up the shaft to the next floor.
I shook my head. “Every damn time…”
I opened the elevator door, stepping into the small antechamber between it and the penthouse.
“You know, I’d really appreciate it if you actually said something positive once in a while.” I said.
“And I’d really appreciate it if you’d watch your language sometimes.” He said.
“Just saying.” I said. “Talk shit, get hit.”
“See, right there.” He said. “There really isn’t any better way you can-”
Our conversation was interrupted as an absolute mountain of a man opened the door, swinging an arm to knock Michael straight through the wall to our right.
He looked up from the floor into the pointed rifles staring back at him.
The soldier by the door swung back for me as I ducked beneath his arm, firing three successive hits into his side just beneath his arm.
He looked down at me briefly, craning his neck as the hit bounced right off him.
“Oh son -”
A size fourteen combat boot, right in the solar plexus.
I rolled off the hit, landing on my side on the floor as he missed his following strike.
I opened my eyes, teeth grit tight, when I noticed Michael’s shield sitting on the floor next to me.
His fists clashed against it, driving my knee into the ground as I absorbed the hits beneath the blue steel. I fired upwards, pushing his arm to the side as I struck him across the face with the edge of the shield, pushing him back into the doorframe. I rushed forward, pushing him backward behind the shield before stopping abruptly and cutting a hit up his jaw, pushing his fists aside and blowing a few more hits across his torso. I threw the shield to the wall behind him, bouncing it off the wall to hit the back of his skull and drive him down headfirst into my knee.
I picked up the plate to block the hail of bullets from the guards on either side of the hallway I’d broken into, throwing it into one of them before I used it to pound the other into the floor.
I held it up as I ran toward the next room, the door snapping off the frame as the wood split around the blue steel. I swung it to crack open the door to the room Michael had fallen into, rolling to throw it into a soldier there.
He threw a soldier in his hands toward me and I swung the shield up, the force of his flying body and the swinging plate colliding on the top of his head.
Michael smiled, about to say something as the hole he’d left in the wall was smashed open by the giant from the entrance room.
“Not again.” He said.
I flew in shield-first, pounding him down as Michael came in from the side, swinging devastating strikes before I passed him the shield. We both laid into the enormous man as he threw it back to me, twisting the mercenary’s arm and rotating him around as I wound up with the shield, striking him hard on the side of the head for the finishing blow.
We both heaved a sigh as we stood over his collapsed body, the shield hanging heavy from my arm.
“Not bad.” He smiled.
I passed it back to him. “Yeah.” I said. “Shame I wouldn’t have any experience with a thing like that, huh?”
“Point made.” He said.
We marched on the barricaded door to the communications room at the center of the penthouse.
He grabbed the edge of the shield, turning it to me.
“Care to do the honors?” He asked.
I shrugged and picked up the steel plate. “Why not.”
I wound back to break the door in.
The comms room never stood a chance.
I hooked my tablet up to the master communications computer rig. “I should be able to access the comms from here. We can cut the channels as soon as we’re ready.”
“Can we broadcast from here?”
“I think I can make that work.”
“Then get ready to make the most of this.”
I put in a few more commands before passing the device to Michael. “Just press this button when I get up there.”
He reached to take it as I tightened my grip, withholding it. “I should warn you.” I said. “This isn’t gonna be pretty.”
“I know.” He said. “Do what you have to do.”
I opened the utility roof access doorway. “Thanks, Michael.”
The rooftop door swung open and closed with a steel clang. The cold wind blew over the roof, shaking the black rubber tiles and rattling the chain link fence around an electrical field. Unarmed soldiers stood around the rooftop, skirting the corners of the floodlights around the fence.
Manacle stood within the border beneath the harsh light, throwing up a hand to gesture for me to come closer.
I moved forward slowly, scowling at the men on the roof as they cleared my path to the fence’s gate.
“I’ve been waiting.” Manacle snarled.
They closed the fence behind me, closing the gate’s latch. I turned toward it, pulling a black ninjato and driving it into the post, a blue gel erupting from the hilt to seal the door behind me.
I turned to Manacle, cracking my knuckles.
“Well look who’s tough now.” He said. “Gonna take a lot more than fancy toys to walk outta this cage.”
“A lesson I’m ready to teach.” I said.
“One liners to boot.” He said. “Just put the underwear on outside your pants and you’d almost be a real superhero.”
“We’ll see about that.”
Manacle and I raised our fists into fighting stances, the cybernetics on his arms whirring as they locked into place.
I threw first, firing a few strikes into his chest and the underside of his jaw before he came in from the side, punching my side just beneath my shoulder and doubling up with the other fist. He pushed further to drive me down, kicking at my ribcage and throwing me across the cage.
His soldiers pushed against the chain, shaking the cage and forcing me to lean back into the fight. They cheered as their leader landed his hits, throwing their fists in the air and shouting.
I jumped back to Manacle, dodging his combat knife and coming back up behind him, flooring him to aim for the cybernetics. His fist attachment discharged against the roof, flipping him over to strike my chest. He stood as I regained my footing from the hit.
“Come on, mask.” He said. “I expected better.”
He blocked a few more of my hits before firing the skeleton’s punch mechanism into my leg, forcing me down as he pulled his sidearm.
“I’m not sure why. You’re everything I said you are.” He cocked the steel back against my forehead. “Just some guy.”
I laughed. “Yeah. Asshole with a hero complex, right?”
I shot up around the gun, wrenching it from his hand as I twisted his arm around his back, cracking the cybernetics’ joint on his elbow and peeling back the arm plating. I pulled back on the components on his shoulders, pushing my foot into his back and forcing him down as I dismantled the armor, tearing parts from it one by one.
I pulled a crescent-curved karambit knife from beneath a plate on my scapula, tearing at the machinery on his other arm and ripping it from the suit.
“Maybe I’m not sure what to call it, but people look at me and they decide what I am.”
I dragged him back as he tried to crawl away, cracking the exoskeleton on his leg and turning him over.
“The people I save from terrorists like you, they say I’m a hero…”
I threw three hits to his chest, plying the karambit beneath the carbon plates and pulling the armor apart, firing hits into his stomach and his chest to crack his sternum.
“But the people in the hospitals, the jails, they say I’m a monster…” I said, punctuating each word with a strike before peeling off his helmet and breaking his nose. I raised his face to mine.
“Because they’ve seen me up close.”
His soldiers began to fall silent as he tried to strike, my armed hand catching his arm with the karambit and tearing deep into the muscle fibers in his shoulder.
“Close enough to realize that I’m not some preacher vigilante. Not some highway warrior.”
I threw him aside and he struggled to his feet, clutching at his bleeding arm. He flinched his shoulder attempting to raise it and failing halfway up as what remained of his muscles failed him. He came forward with the opposite arm, drawing his combat knife and slashing.
I cut a tendon off the top of his thumb as I dragged the blade up his arm, forcing him to drop his knife as I tore away his bicep. I continued the motion to drive my knee into his stomach, grounding him again.
“Close enough to see that I’m a butcher.”
I crawled over him, gripping his collar as I cut a mark deep across his cheekbone.
“I’m the chill they can’t ignore, the shadow behind them getting closer by the second.”
I punctuated with a second cut across the other side, punching him several more times before throwing him into the side of the cage.
I gripped the back of his head with one hand, holding it to the fence while gripping the chain links with my bloodied right hand, shaking it as I shouted to the soldiers surrounding the area.
“ And people like you can stand behind your walls and infect the police department, can hide in the shadow and ignore, can look the other way but eventually you will know that I am the all-seeing hand, and I will find you.
I fronted around the edges of the cage, dragging Manacle with me as the soldiers fell back from the fences in fear.
“This city is the valley, and mine is the shadow of death.”
“There is nowhere that you are safe from me.”
I threw the bloody commander aside, clutching the fences and roaring as I tore the links apart to leave.
Fifty silent soldiers backed away as I walked to the edge of the building.
“Get the hell out of my city.”
It was a few days before the hospital room door opened to reveal Vivian Malveaux.
She looked into the room, a solemn man sitting in the bed at the other end behind a red line and about six feet of empty floorspace. His arms were unnaturally thin beneath the bandages they were wrapped in, suspended in delicate casts on either side of his wrapped body. He looked up beneath a swollen eye, scowling over a bandaged nose.
“They figured I wouldn’t have many visitors.” He said.
“Felt like stopping in.” Vivian said. “They told me not to cross the line, but honestly…” She walked over the line, standing alongside the bed. “You don’t look too dangerous to me.”
“They tell me the bastard shaved off almost sixty percent of the muscle fibers in my upper arms.” He said. “Said I won’t ever be able to bend my elbows more than a few degrees.”
“Not bad.” She said. “He impressed me, unlike you.”
“Who in the hell do you think you are?” He spat.
“I am the woman you failed.” She snarled. “And you are pathetic.”
“It’s your fault this happened.”
“I gave you everything you needed.” She said. “But that wasn’t good enough for you.”
“I could’ve killed Azrael.”
“Then why in the hell didn’t you?” She growled.
He started to argue.
“Shut up.” She said. “You know… I’m really tempted to kill you, but you really aren’t worth my time. I just wanted you to know what you did.” She turned to leave.
“Yeah.” He laughed. “I’m sure the man you betrayed to get my service will be thrilled with what you did to me.”
“Yeah.” He said. “The black banner. I know what’s going on.”
“You ever seen him?” She said.
He scoffed. “No. Don’t even know his name, but his money’s good.” He said. “And I’m sure it’ll be great when I tell him all about you.”
Vivian flexed her fingers beneath her leather gloves before she turned around, walking slowly back to Manacle’s side. She placed her hand on the depression in his upper arm, gently squeezing the fresh wound.
He grit his teeth, groaning from the searing pain. “Stop.”
“Make me.” She said.
He seethed as she pushed her fist into his broken ribs with her other hand.
“Stop me, tough guy.” She said.
She let go, moving her hands up to his neck and squeezing his windpipe.
“Stop me.” She snarled.
He waved his legs beneath the sheets, gasping for breath and begging for her to stop.
“Get up and stop me.”
His eyes rolled back before she finally let go, his lungs heaving as he sputtered.
She turned around and went back across the red line on the floor.
“If I ever hear from you or him about this…” A collapsible sword extended from her hand.
“I will do worse than Azrael fears to dream.”
Michael and I stood behind my garage, looking through the trees over the Bastion sound, the city lights of New Avalon shining from across the water.
“I guess that’s it.” I said. “Every man Manacle had in this city saw what I did to him, and now they’re all running for the hills.”
“We did it.” Michael said.
“Yeah…” I sighed. “Michael?”
“Do you think we’re heroes?” I asked.
“What do you mean?”
“All those soldiers down there think I’m a nightmare. It’s like I said, there’s not many good people who know who I am. All this chaos, I just wonder if we’re the heroes people need.”
“I don’t think that’s for us to decide.” He said. “I think we just have to do what’s right, let them figure it out.”
“But what we do… How do we know it’s right?”
“You know why, Az.” He said. “You know who put us here.”
“He didn’t ask me to do this.” I said. “He didn’t ask me to put on this mask and go out every night, He told me to inspire people, to lead and bring wrong to justice. Why is my right better than somebody like Vivian Malveaux’s?”
“Think about the people in this city, Azrael.” He said. “The people you’ve saved, all the people you’ve helped who have done good. They’re the difference between you and Vivian.”
I thought back to people like Marsha and Jenny.
“Am I doing this the wrong way?”
“Only you can answer that, Azrael.”
I sighed. “Maybe it’s time for a change.”
“Maybe you’re right.” He said.
“You should go.” I said. “I’m sure Chrissy’s been worried.”
“And lord knows Isaac can handle himself.”
“Don’t start with me on teenagers.” I laughed.
We made our way around the side of the house, slowing to a stop as we walked up the deck.
“I guess he really isn’t…” I trailed off as I noticed the front door hanging open into the hall.
I ran into the silent house, tearing up the stairs. “Iris!”
I threw open the office doors, turning to the bedroom as I continued my search.
I flew down the stairs, turning to the side. “Iris!”
I came to a stop in the living room, taking in the scene.
The coffee table had been shattered, picture frames askew, decorations on the shelves knocked onto the floor.
My eyes were drawn to the wall on the opposite side of the door, a capital Z carved into the drywall from the floor to the ceiling.
I stood in front of it heaving, a scowl cut deep into my face.
Michael looked into the room from the doorway. “You want my help on this one?”
I spoke through my teeth. “Go home, Michael.” I said.
“This one’s personal.”
© Josiah Delnay 2016.