The snow fell thick over the unconscious bodies of four small-time car thieves on 106th street, gently coating their limp forms in a thin layer of white powder.
Police Captain Aaron Slate surveyed the scene, the Christmas lights reflecting off the ice collecting on the criminal quartet.
Slate cracked a smile, heaving a sigh made visible by the grey condensation in the winter air.
“Guess he’s kept busy.”
“That’s a way to describe it.” I said, shaking the snow off a black leather jacket and unlatching a steel plate from one arm as I responded to my wife’s observation about my late nights.
Iris leaned against the champagne wall of the hidden chamber behind the master bedroom as I returned each component of my armor to the glass case in the alcove.
She brushed her smooth black hair over her shoulder, her smooth voice flowing through the gently lit chamber.
“Still averaging about twelve arrests a night this close to Christmas?” She asked. “I’d call that busy.”
“Actually tonight it was fifteen.” I smiled.
“Exactly.” She said, gently shoving the black carbon plating formed across my chest. “Whatever happened to ‘the season to be jolly’?”
“Well, costume’s off, and it’s still early.” I said. “I guess ‘don we now our gay apparel’.”
“Hard to get much gayer than that.”
“Rude.” I said. “And I got rid of the leather pants like ten years ago.”
“Much to my chagrin.” She said, following me out of the alcove. “You do all those squats and get rid of the pants that showed off your…good side.”
“Even ruder.” I said. “Besides, these are better for motion.
“And I’ve had my kids. Takes a toll on the hardware, you know?”
“Eh.” She shrugged. “I like to think we get better with age.” She said, punctuating the end of the sentence with a swift and decisive… motion.
“Hey hey hey you.” I protested. “Don’t handle the merchandise until you’ve committed to a purchase.”
“Well…” She said. “Maybe later.”
“Mm.” I said. “Well I’m sure we’ll be able to work something out.”
She placed a single finger in the center of my chest, gently holding me back. “…Maybe after you finish wrapping those presents for the girls.”
“…You know, I just remembered I have a lead to follow about those disappearances around the plaza.” I said, faux-stumbling out the bedroom door. “So I should probably go do thaaaat…”
“Oh you are so full of crap.” She said.
“You know I’m no good at wrapping presents.” I said. “Besides, I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise by seeing those Steel Knight comic bobbleheads you got me before Christmas.” I winked, ducking through the doorway. “Which were the first thing on my list.”
“Only if you picked up that present for Gloria.”
“Well you’ll be happy to know I did.” I said.
“Was it that co-op shooter she asked for?”
“Well, I figured Battle Zone: Reckoning would be –”
“Oh you wanted that game as bad as she did.” She said.
“She asked for a co-op game to play with her dad!”
“Her dad who wanted a video game and comic book memorabilia.”
“I – Shut up.”
“Oh my god, you’re such a nerd.” She said.
“I am a collector and enthusiast.”
“Tomato, tomahto!” She called through the door.
My youngest daughter, Gloria, rounded the corner of the opposite staircase as I walked out into the hall.
“And what are you doing up so late, young lady?”
“Definitely not wrapping presents.” She said. “Nothing like that at all.”
I smiled. “Gotcha.” I winked. “Just don’t stay up all night, alright?”
“Alright.” She said. “Good night, dad.”
Iris’s hands snuck around me from behind. “You can’t escape that easy.”
“Of course not.” I said.
“If you really need to go track down those leads, I can finish the gift wrapping myself.”
“Not tonight.” I said. “I was just planning to sneak down to the kitchen to steal some of the Christmas cookies Carolynn made before going over my notes on the disappearances in my office.”
“It can wait, if it’s that important.” I said.
“Eh.” We have a couple days.” She said. “Do you have any new info?”
I pushed open the office door and stepped in as Iris followed. “Not as much as I’d care to.”
I flipped the whiteboard over to its opposite side, revealing an intricate web of names, photos, dates, and locations involved with the recent disappearances.
“But I’m starting to find some similarities.
“The earliest disappearance I have on record was December 5th. Since then there have been five more, as recent as yesterday, and all within the same area of the city.”
“December 5th…Why does that sound familiar?”
“I’m not sure, but it was the day of the first disappearance. Since then, all the new victims have stayed within the same age range, with the youngest at seven and the oldest at fourteen.”
Iris rolled her shoulders as she readjusted her weight in her chair, carefully measuring her next words.
“…I don’t mean to…Well, do you think there’s all that much to this?”
I lowered my hand from the whiteboard, returning it to my side without turning back to face her.
“What do you mean?”
“Well…I…” She stumbled. “I want to make sure you’re doing okay.”
I didn’t say anything.
“Look, I know it’s been hard to adjust ever since…Spring. Are you sure this isn’t just you… looking for something?”
I turned. “…Maybe it was Vivian Malveaux. Maybe it was Couture, maybe it was the fame. But it’s been nine months, Iris.” I said. “I’m not the same man who fought Vivian.”
“Maybe not, but I know things have changed. Without someone as obviously evil as Couture, I wonder if you’ve… lost purpose in all this. If it’s changing you.”
“All I know is that there’s five missing kids out there who need someone to help them.” I said. “I have purpose enough as long as I’m doing that.”
“I don’t want this to control you.” She said. “It’s all you can think about lately. Couture controlled your every decision for almost a year, then the fame only made you more dedicated to this.
“I just… I just don’t want you to spend your whole life prowling for the next fight out there.”
I bent forward, meeting her gaze at her seated level. “Then what’s it going to take for you not to worry?”
“More time for Az Valentine the man, not Azrael the Great and Terrible.” She said. “It’s Christmas. You love Christmas. Take some time with us, with your kids. Slate knows what he’s doing, let him do it.”
“You know me better than that, Iris.”
“I know.” She said. “But think about it.”
I stood up and considered the idea. “Your mom invited us over for lunch tomorrow. She says we can see the holiday parade on State right from the flower shop.” She said. “Try starting there.”
“That sounds good.” I said.
“If not, you can try starting just down the hall.” She said. “Where I’ll be waiting.”
She closed the door.
I considered Iris’s words for a few moments. Maybe she was right.
I had found a strange unity in myself ever since the Hangman, simply knowing that there was something bigger out there for me to fight.
But I’m a warrior. I’m made for battles. Finding new enemies is what I was built for.
I looked at the whiteboard one last time, a group of bright, hopeful faces now lost to the frightening uncertainty of possibility.
I couldn’t have gone too deep yet. Whatever was happening had to be figured out, and I had the ability and connections to find the truth. It wasn’t a question.
I shook my head back into reality. Best not to think about this too much.
I flipped the whiteboard back over to hide the information and turned off the office lights.
A line of red-clad dancers kicked through the street, gentle snow falling over the busy street as the parade marched down the avenue.
My daughters leaned over the edge of the old stone railing, peering to the street below to witness the events.
A woman in long grey coat sat on the side of a flowerbox next to a glass door, grey-streaked brown hair blowing in the cold December wind over the golden-decaled letters spread across the door.
The snow piled up in the black metal corners of the plate glass windows as my mother shook it from her hair, clutching a portable cup of coffee between her cold hands.
Her gentle silver eyes floated up to the row of identical street lights between each business on the row, adorned with green wreaths and large red bows as they stretched down the avenue.
“They do the same thing every year.” She said.
“You don’t ever get tired of it.” I smiled.
“Neither do you.” She said.
“Where do you think I got it from?”
She laughed. “We’ve always had that in common.”
“Most of your grandkids, too.” I said. “Iris might love Christmas even more than I do.”
“She should’ve met you when you were just a kid.” She said. “Wasn’t much that got you going like the holidays.”
“Wasn’t much that got me going.” I said. “But I wasn’t exactly a normal kid.”
“Not exactly.” She said. “But not being normal suited you better.”
I smiled. “That’s an interesting way to sum it up.”
She took a sip from her coffee as we both looked up in silence at my children, leaning over the rails and peering down at the festivities.
“They’re not much like me.”
“What makes you say that?” She asked.
“Well, Carolynn’s about the age I was at when things started changing.” I said. “She’s got a way better track record than I did.”
“She looks a lot like you.” She said. “Like us.”
“More like you.” I said.
She looked up at me, raising an eyebrow.
“…I have a hard time seeing myself in them.” I said. “I look at them and I see their mother. I see this… purity, this grace that I just can’t attribute to me.
“I blame Iris, really.” I said. “Running around, getting her perfection everywhere.”
She laughed. “I think they’re more like you than you think.” She said. “Where it really counts.”
“Maybe.” I said. “They’re warriors like me. They don’t stay down.”
“That they certainly don’t.” She said. “But there’s more to all of you than that. Even you.”
“…Maybe in moments like this.” I said.
“…They’re turning into some beautiful young women, Az.”
“Don’t remind me.” I said.
“It’s never easy, watching them grow up like that.”
“It never gets easier.” I said. “All my years, all my kids… Couldn’t have been this hard with me.”
“Always was.” She said. “Still is. But then again, it was a little odd knowing that my son was so much older than me.”
I smiled. “That figures.”
I pulled my phone from my pocket and scrolled to a photo from about a decade ago, three little girls piled up amid a stack of gifts surrounding a Christmas tree.
I showed it to my mother, a smile splashing across her face as her gaze met the photo of my younger children. “I remember this.” She laughed.
She looked up, contrasting the memory with the present.
“Man, look at them.” She said.
“Tell me about it.”
“Gloria’s really growing into herself.” She said.
“She is.” I said. “She reminds me of you.”
“She’s a dreamer, if nothing else.” I said. “My own little rockstar.”
“You should be proud of her.”
“Oh, I am.” I said.
We stared at the railing for a few moments longer as I shifted my weight between my legs.
My mom knew I didn’t like crowds.
“Wanna go in and get some coffee?” She asked.
“That sounds good.”
I opened the door for my mother as we walked back out into the street.
“Iris should probably want to get everyone home soon.” I said. “So I guess I’ll be seeing you at the house for Christmas in a few days, if not sooner.”
“That sounds great, sweetheart.” She said. “Try to take care of yourself, alright?”
“I’ll do my best, mom.” I said. “Let’s see if we can find the kids to say goodbye.”
“Of course.” She said.
We walked to the stone railing at the edge of the street, regrouping with Iris and the girls.
I gave Iris a kiss. “So what did you all think of the parade?”
“They’re really starting to outdo themselves.” Carolynn said.
“It gets crazier every year.” Roxy agreed.
“The girls all really seemed to enjoy themselves.” Iris said.
“Where’s Gloria?” I asked.
“Oh, I gave her a couple bucks to go get some cotton candy from one of the vendors down that way just a few minutes ago. I’m sure she’ll be back any second.”
I peered down the street. “Why don’t I just go down and see if I can’t find her?”
“If you say so.” Iris said. “We’ll hang back here until you’re back.”
I turned down the sidewalk, weaving through the center of the departing parade crowd in search of my youngest daughter.
A sea of faces parted around me, none the violet-eyed young beauty I was looking for.
I passed a cotton candy vendor on the street, still unsuccessful in my quest to find Gloria.
I pulled the phone from my pocket, texting to ask Iris if she’d come back that way yet.
I looked around for a few more moments, looking further down the street for more vendors. Maybe she’d gone to a different one further down.
I started walking down the next street to the next seller, my paces getting faster as I moved up the center of the avenue.
My shoulders brushed off a red-headed woman walking the opposite direction as I casually excused myself without stopping.
My steps ceased abruptly at the end of the block, no black-haired Valentine child in sight.
My heart rate began to rise as I pulled the phone from my pocket, dialing Gloria and lifting it to my ear.
“…Hey, this is Gloria Valentine.”
I hung up, turning back down the street and moving even faster back to the first vendor.
I pulled up a photo on my phone as I reached the stand.
“Excuse me, have you seen this girl?”
“Not that I know of, man. There’s been a lot of people coming through today.”
I turned back around, eyes darting up and down the sidewalk.
Come on, Az. Don’t lose it.
I dialed Gloria again.
“…Hey, this is Gloria Va-”
Take it easy, Az.
My ears started to burn, eyes widening.
I ran further down the block.
Shit. Shit. Take it easy, Az. Keep it together.
Oh god, where’s my daughter?
A rusted chair with faint blue padding stood beneath me, shouldering the weight of a shell, a machine. I had vague flashes of moments since. Nothing I could recount in detail, but I had an idea of what had happened.
The officer leaned over the steel table, my tinnitic haze fading out as the sound of her question became clearer.
“…Is there anything else you can tell us, Mr. Valentine?”
The words dried up in my mouth, crumbling to dust, unsalvageable.
“That’s all I saw.”
“Alright.” She said. “It’s not uncommon for disappearances like this to happen at such large events. Huge crowds, large location, lots of area for kids to get lost in. I’ll put all my officers on it, but if we’re lucky the department will give you a call within the next twenty-four hours.
“For now, take your family home and try to get some rest. We’ll let you know the moment we have any new information.”
She put her hand on my shoulder for the last part, trying hard to smile and genuinely meet my gaze. On some level I was acutely aware of the contact, but save for my limited understanding, it passed right through me.
She turned, opening the door and gesturing to see me out before a man in a blue shirt stepped in, dark skin splashed with salt and pepper stretching over his head and beneath his wide jaw.
His large brown eyes were heavy as he walked into the room, dismissing the officer who’d questioned me and closing the door behind her.
I shook my head, trying to refocus as he sat down in the chair opposite mine.
Captain Slate began attempting to console me with all the typical remarks he’d give someone in my situation.
I didn’t want to waste any time. “Aaron, it’s me.”
He looked confused.
He paused as he realized. “I didn’t recognize you.”
“One of my talents.” I said. “I need you to find this girl.”
“We’ll do everything we can.” He said. “I can send you the info we have, if you think it’ll help.”
“I… Yeah.” I said. “Yeah just… what you have.”
He put his hand on my shoulder. “Try and get some rest.”
I drove home a blank slate, my mind subconsciously confused about the way it was operating.
Right now I should’ve been in rapid-fire, hatching plan A through Z on how I should get my daughter back.
Instead I was staring five thousand yards into nothing, pale grey haze swimming through my head.
Four Valentines entered a dark foyer, red carpet stretching up the pale white marble stairs in what little light the winter night provided us.
I stood in the center of the hall, vacant, as Iris hugged Carolynn and Roxanna and told them to go to sleep.
I threw my arms around them as they hugged me, squeezing them with what strength I had. Holding them as close to me as I could, yet somehow without really being involved in the exchange.
The girls made their way up the stairs to the left as Iris stood in the foyer with me for a few silent moments, sitting down at the bottom of the staircase.
Maybe it was a few minutes.
Maybe a few hours.
I genuinely didn’t know.
I could only stand there, motionless, passively observing her without conscious thought. The way she held one hand over her mouth. The way she furrowed her brow as the tears began to gather on the ridge of her lower eyelid.
She dismissed herself with a sentence that neither of us really heard involving the word ‘upstairs’, and in a moment she was gone.
I stood there for a few minutes longer before I felt it.
An urge. A need, a pure desperation to find something.
I began running around the house, throwing open doors until I found it.
A coat closet beneath one of the staircases in the foyer.
I stared into its emptiness,
Closed the door,
Sat down in the corner,
And broke down crying.
I knew exactly what had happened earlier. I had a panic attack. I blacked out. The tinnitus, the blurred vision, the elevated heart rate, the hyperventilating. I lost it. For the first time in years I’d lost it.
I reopened my eyes. I’d eventually fallen asleep in there, for maybe a few hours.
I reached in my pocket to check the time on my phone, pulling my hand out to reveal not mine, but Gloria’s. Something I’d found in the street during the initial panicked search.
At least it was starting to come back to me.
I woke the screen, my attention immediately focused not to the clock, but to a notification banner that sat beneath it.
Two missed calls. (Dad)
I closed my eyes and shook my head awake as I returned the device to my pocket, deciding against it as I rose from the corner and opened the door, setting it down on a window seat before I noticed the kitchen light had been left on.
Much to my surprise, this was not an error of focus from earlier that night. Or yesterday, I suppose. But this was a deliberate choice by the young woman sitting at the kitchen table.
Carolynn sat there in a black shirt and grey sweatpants, holding her face in her hands before a crystal glass and a bottle laying on its side on the table.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
She looked up, bloodshot eyes over dark grey, sunken circles.
“Can’t sleep.” She said.
I pulled a labored breath in and heaved a sigh. “Neither can I.” I said, lifting the bottle from the table.
I swallowed as I looked back down at the label.
“Not exactly.” I said. “But this isn’t going to help you.”
She watched in silence as I put it back in the still-open cabinet, trading it for a different variety of liquor.
I set it down on the table and Carolynn looked at it for a few moments, turning her gaze to the empty glass in front of her before foregoing the formality and drinking directly from the bottle.
She set it back down.
“Not bad.” I said, pulling off of it myself.
“You alright?” She asked.
“Are any of us?” I replied. “I just woke up at three o’clock at night in a coat closet.”
“That’s fair.” She said. “What were you doing in there?”
“Same thing you were doing in here.” I said. “Dealing.”
She stared vacantly over the table, one hand still wrapped around the neck of the bottle.
“So what are you going to do?”
I looked up. “Hm?”
“Come on.” She said. “You’ve gotta have something.”
“Yeah.” I said. “Yeah I got a pretty good idea about what I’m gonna do.”
I found the first on Third Street. Showed him the back end of a lead pipe.
The second pulled a gun on me. Not a mistake he’d make again after they dug the two slugs out of his leg.
The fire extinguisher case at the end of the apartment hallway shattered, casting bloody glass all over the floor as the hoodlum followed.
I pulled him up by his collar, pulling my flat palm across his face to smear to glass beads further across and deeper into his cheek.
I gripped the edge of the skull. “Parker Adams’s disappearance!” I said. “Now.”
He spat his words through clenched teeth, heaving them out between the painful grunts as he clutched at the deep cuts in his face. “I don’t know anything, man.”
“Not what I was looking for.” I gripped the back of his palm, pulling it from his face and twisting it in my hand.
An older man opened up the apartment door behind me, peering out to see the disturbance in the hall.
I turned over my shoulder, holding the broken thug in my hands.
“Back inside.” I said.
The gangster fought back my grip.
“Back inside.” I spat, punching the gangster in the raw cut in his face, smashing the glass into his flesh.
The door slammed.
“I don’t like waking the neighbors.”
“…Not a problem you usually have, huh?”
I felt the bones in his wrist fold over each other in my hand.
My next demand stepped on his scream.
“I don’t have time for your bullshit.” I said. “Parker. Adams.”
“Aagh…Adams…Adams lived down the hall. Some middle school kid, what do I care?”
“I’ve got a whole lot of time and a whole lot of anger to get out.” I said, clutching the bloody side of his face. “So maybe you can point it in another direction by helping me find his kidnapper. There’s still a lot of broken glass around here.”
“Nnh! I don’t know, man.” He said. “Home from school every day at, I don’t know, Three, Three-thirty. See him in the hallways sometimes.”
“What about when he disappeared?”
“Tuesday.” He said. “I don’t know, man. I saw him come home that day, went out later or something and didn’t come back.”
“When.” I said. “Specifically.”
“Maybe a half hour later, I don’t know man, I was strung out all afternoon.”
“Then looks like it’s time to clean up.” I said, throwing him aside.
He clutched his bleeding face. “-You, man. I’ll show ya, you just watch. Me and my guys’ll show you how these streets run.”
I rammed my knuckles into his collarbone, pressing down on the new fracture as I looked him close in the eye.
“Show them the scar.” I said. “And tell them I’m coming.”
A fourth hit the small of his back on a first-story railing at the bottom of a stairwell.
The fifth was kicked through the same banister.
I beat six into his car door, took his windshield out with seven.
A man with a dark expression sat at the end of the bar, watching the snow falling gently onto State Street through the front window.
He smiled, leaning his elbows onto the bar and raising one hand to hail the attention of the bartender.
“One more.” He said.
The bartender slid a small glass down the oaken slab, the man throwing back the peach schnapps and setting a bill down with the empty glass.
He stood up, heading to the door. “Keep the change.” He said.
He stood on the doorstep, rolling his shoulders and smiling as the icy wind blew over his neck, then turning to enter a stairway a few doors down.
He took an elegant brass pocket watch out of his coat, twisting the chain in his fingers as he whistled the first line from the Twelve Days of Christmas.
Apartment doors lined the otherwise featureless grey hallway, a security guard leaning against the wall in the middle.
He looked at the man swinging the watch chain, wary as he approached.
“Evening, sir.” He said. “Where you headed?”
He carried on his tune, ignoring the guard.
“Excuse me.” He said, placing a hand on his holster.
The man in the coat flicked his wrist, a long black chain flying through the air and snapping hard against the officer, the steel link cracking his cheekbone.
The officer hit the floor, clutching his face as the man in the black coat continued forward without pause.
He whistled “five golden rings”, the final note stretching on with a cheery vibrato as a black chain extended between his two open hands.
He wrapped it tight around the guard’s neck, closing off his windpipe and forcing him down as he whistled jauntily down the last few lines.
The officer’s eyes bulged, hands clutching at his neck as his consciousness began to fade.
The strangler smiled, tilting his head back before leaning in, pursing his lips and stifling a laugh at the end of the line.
“And a partridge… in a pear tree…”
The basement walls echoed back the sound as I pounded the leather sandbag with all my ferocity, not tempered by the three hours of work and hundred stitches I’d passed out.
So I struck.
Three-hundred BPM. Strike, after strike, after tireless strike.
Strike, after strike, after tireless strike.
The mirrors that coated the studio walls shook with every hard hit as the stand that held the sandbag up fought back hard to stay stationary.
I couldn’t give it my full strength. It wouldn’t stay still.
That may have been the worst part.
The sweat poured from my face as the pace started increasing.
The door flew open as Iris stepped in, wet hair slung over one shoulder.
“What are you doing?”
I roared as I cut another punch across the bag, tearing the lining and spilling sand across the floor.
“Hey hey hey!” She protested. “It’s six o’clock in the morning!”
My breath heaved. “…I didn’t sleep.”
“Yeah no shit you didn’t.” She said. “What are you doing?”
“I’m managing.” I said.
“No you’re not. For god’s sake, Azrael, you didn’t even take off the costume.”
I pulled a breath in, biting my lower lip, searching for words and finding only a growl.
“Look, I know – ”
“I don’t know if you do.”
She scowled. “She’s my daughter too.”
“This isn’t – ” I stumbled. “I… Dammit.”
I gripped my mask hard, pulling it off my face as I ran my tense hands through my hair, tearing off my hood and swearing to myself.
“NO!” I spat. “I can’t take it easy, Iris.
“I… I was there, when they needed me. I have been at the forefront of every line in history. I tied up my boots and ran into Berlin, Iris. Rome. China. Japan. Everywhere. I have felled a thousand armies, brought down a million warriors, for god’s sake, I was the cloud of blackness that killed every son in Egypt. I am one of the most ancient and terrible things that have ever existed.
“And right now, right this second, I have never been so powerless.”
I fell to my knees. “…What…What am I supposed to do?”
“I… I don’t know.” She said. “The cops say –”
“She didn’t just get lost, Iris.” I said. “She was taken.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Please, Iris.” I said.
“…So we have…” My phone buzzed. A message from Slate. “…A very limited amount of time.” I said. “And I cannot sit here with my thumb up my ass and wait for the cops to catch whatever sick piece of shit is doing this.”
“…You’re right.” She said.
“So I’m leaving.” I said. “To find our daughter.”
Iris sat on the floor as the door closed, left alone in the room.
She lifted a handful of sand from the pile on the floor, the grains gently falling back to the floor between her fingers.
Iris was used to seeing the backs of closed doors.
Maybe more than she preferred.
She contemplated my departure. She knew this wasn’t good for me, by any means, but it would be far worse if I didn’t have her support.
She knew this was something I needed to do. Like I had said, I couldn’t sit around doing nothing.
She still worried. Concern was all she could give me in times like these, and as worried as I knew she was, she knew it was better off if she didn’t fight me on this right now. It would only make things harder for me, and I needed every advantage I could get.
But she wouldn’t let me go it alone.
“Talk to me.”
“Well you’ll wanna lose that tone pretty soon.” Slate said. “Kid just came back.”
“Is he alright?” Iris asked.
“Shaken up, but they think he’s okay.” Slate said. “Just showed up in the hallway with my freshly-strangled officer this morning.”
“I need to talk to him.”
“Not like this you don’t.” Iris said.
I cleared my throat. “A word.”
Slate’s eyes shot between us, expressing a confused look before he continued to the apartment door.
“Look, I’m sorry about earlier.” I said. “I just… I have to find her, Iris. I’m doing everything I can.”
“I know.” She said. “But we can’t afford to make a single mistake in there. I know you’re desperate. So am I, but it’s important that we try to stay level.”
“You’re right.” I said. “Let’s go.”
We followed Slate in, two patrol officers standing around the inside of the room before a blanket-wrapped child on the couch.
According to previous interview information I had from Slate, Parker was never a terribly well-behaved kid, but now was different. Wherever he’d been the past few days, it silenced him with fear.
Iris approached him slowly as I took a step forward, rethinking it and receding back to the doorway.
Slate and I watched as she introduced herself to the frightened boy.
“You’re not going in?” He asked.
“No.” I said. “Better this way.”
I folded my arms. “I’m the bad cop.”
I watched as Iris began her quiet exhibition of grace under pressure, every carefully-measured word not hushed to soften tragedy, but bright and friendly, introducing herself not as a detective or someone looking for answers, but on a first name basis.
She moved forward through it like a conversation, and began describing some altogether mundane yet specific accounts of thing she claimed to have done the day before, to Captain Slate’s visible confusion.
Then she started.
“So what did you do yesterday?”
He launched into it, recounting the experience as though it were just remembering some frightening dream.
“There was a guy in a black coat, in a big grey room.”
“What did he look like?” She asked.
“I don’t know. He wasn’t there.”
“You mean you were by yourself?”
“Yeah.” He said. “But I heard somebody.”
“Someone else?” Iris asked. “Someone like you?”
“Kind of.” He said. “She was asking for help.”
“Do you have any idea where you were?” She asked. “Did you see anything? Hear anything?”
“Just a big grey room.” He said. “I heard water.”
Maybe the bay, somewhere near the North or East Sides. Maybe a reservoir somewhere beneath uptown.
“That’s good.” She said. “What else?”
“In the room?”
“That’s good.” She said. “Is there anything else you know about the man?”
“He gave me a card.”
“A card?” She asked, struggling to hold back her desperation for the answer. “What kind of card?”
Not her only question. She’s trying to keep things calm, one at a time.
“Like a birthday card.” He said.
“Do you still have it?” She asked.
“Yeah.” He said, pointing toward an end table on the opposite side of the room.
Iris turned her head, visibly desperate not to run across the room and grab it.
“Can I see it?”
“I don’t know.” He said. “He told me to give it to someone.”
“He said someone would come to ask me about it.”
He was sending someone a message.
“Well I’m asking you about it.” She said, in the hopes of being allowed to see it. As much legal right as Slate had to take it, she needed it to be on his terms.
“Yeah, but you’re a girl.”
Iris considered the curious implication. “So he told you a boy would be asking about it?”
He had to know someone would come for it.
He could have meant me.
She turned to face me, pointing to my side of the room. “Can one of my friends have a look at it?”
He thought about it for a moment, looking Aaron and I up and down as Iris assured it would be important to us.
“Okay.” He agreed.
Iris returned to Aaron and I and spoke softly.
“Slate and I will go to the hospital and see if we can get anything from the guard.” She said. “You get the card and cross-reference it with all your data.”
“Az, you’ve slept maybe, maybe two hours in as many days, and spent all night passing out broken bones.” She said. “Go home. We’ll get what we can and decide what to do from there.”
“Sounds like the right idea.” Slate agreed.
I ground my jaw, wanting to fight it, but I could feel my body giving up. She was right.
“Fine.” I said. “I’ll… see what I can do.”
Iris and Slate saw the family out, leaving down one end of the hallway toward Slate’s squad cars.
I stood by myself in the hall, tearing the envelope open.
A simple red greeting card with a gold party hat on the cover read “On your special day…”
I opened it, black scribbles all across the interior screaming in chaos, a slew of horrible, arbitrary words dancing around the center.
“The most important day of your life.”
I sat down in a chair across from the whiteboard, manila folder in my hands as I paged through Slate’s CSI workups.
I looked again at the greeting card the kidnapper had given the child.
“The most important day of your life.”
The lines blurred together as my vision faded, focus phasing in and out as I tried to absorb the information on the pages.
The letters fell off as my chin fell forward, my shoulders sliding down in the chair.
The most important…
The pages fell out onto the floor as I drifted away.
She woke up dragging black hair across a cold concrete floor, silence in the empty chamber amid the roar of the nearby bay.
She stretched her neck, cracking her joint as she clutched her arms, fighting back the chill in her bones. She wrenched the water out of the back of her hair, looking into a small dark puddle on the floor before she abruptly realized what was happening.
She shot to her feet, clutching upwards towards the narrow shafts of dim light falling through the grate at the top of the small room. She tripped as the shackle on her ankle pinned her immediately to the floor.
She slowed for a moment, touching her fingers to the bruise on her cheek as she gazed at the iron chain around her leg.
The entire room was gently coated in rust, concentrated in a few streaky spots on the floor.
She didn’t know what time it was. Maybe early evening, based on the light in the vent.
That only meant it was going to get colder.
She put on a hat and a pair of gloves from her pockets, gathering her hair up to stay as warm as she could.
She clutched her knees close, closing her eyes to consider her options.
She felt a warmth from the corner of the room, as if there were something on the inside of the wall. She curled up next to it, keeping her arms and legs as close as she could. At least she wouldn’t freeze down here.
She stared up at the light, quietly accepting her situation and struggling to fight her fear.
Mom and Dad taught her to be brave. They were going to be here. They’d find her.
She could stay warm. They’d be there soon.
A miniscule splash of dark water splashed in through the bars in the ceiling.
That could be a problem.
I awoke with a start, my eyes firing open as I shook back in my chair.
The pages settled across the floor from my abrupt gesture, falling into place in front of me. I shook myself awake, standing up and pacing arbitrarily around the room in a hurried attempt to pull myself back to reality.
I had lost time. A few hours at least.
I had to move.
Six disappearances. I thought, reviewing the notes on the board in front of me and grabbing up the pages from the floor. December fifth, ninth, twelfth, fourteenth, s-
Iris’s voice flashed back into my head.
“Why does that sound familiar?”
I crushed the pages as I clenched my fist.
I knew exactly why.
Carolynn stepped up the sidewalk, a quizzical look splashing across her face as she followed my footprints behind the shed to see me coating the edges of the storm cellar’s doorway with crimson paint.
“Doesn’t seem like much time for exterior design.” She said, an air of lingering depression evident through the stoic delivery of the joke. “What’s this about?”
“I’m about to do something really…dramatic.”
“Stupid?” She asked.
“…Yeah.” I said. “Pretty stupid. But this is my only idea on finding your sister.”
“And…” She started. “I hate to say it, but, what if it doesn’t work?”
I slid my bare hand across the red paint on the doorframe. “Then I walk.”
“Through every solitary inch of this city. For as long as it takes.” I said.
Carolynn sighed. “Is there any way I can help?”
“Come on, dad.” She said. “You know I can’t just sit here.”
“I know you will.” I said. “This is too dangerous.”
“At least tell me what’s going on.” She said.
“Well…” I started. “There are… Powers. Old gods, some would call them. Most are demons, some are fallen. Beings who wanted to subject humanity. Some of them only wanted mankind to suffer. Predators. Baal, Asherah. The pagan gods of old who lusted for blood.”
“You think one of them is responsible?”
“Not one of those two specifically, but a predator.” I said. “At least it’s the best guess I’ve got. So I need to speak with one.”
“And how are you planning to do that?”
“Like I said. Something pretty stupid.”
“And the paint?” She asked.
“To protect everyone else.”
“…Are you sure about this?” She asked. “Doesn’t sound safe.”
“It’s not.” I said. “But it’s my only chance.”
I threw open the doors and descended the stairs. “Stay inside.”
The cold concrete was wet from the melted snow dripping down the stairs, a dark stain spreading across the floor to the drain in the center of the room.
Behind it sat six short pillars in a semicircle, the center adorned with a small metal brazier, bronze cage filled with a handful of large lumps of coal.
I lit the fire, the flame flaring up in the brazier as I put a small bronze bowl on top of it.
I heaved a hesitating sigh as I put my arm out above it.
The knife spun over my hand, solidifying in place as I grit my teeth, dragging it across my arm.
The droplets of blood splattered into the bronze bowl, bubbling over the heat of the flame beneath it.
I sat down in front of it, crossing my legs as I waited.
I knew he was coming.
A black ink swirled through the air above the fire, curling into a shape in the air.
Two thin, coal-black shoulders appeared at the top, black, animalistic fur spread wide across his shoulders. Dark grey, black-spotted skin spread over thin, tight muscles, almost unnaturally lean as they stretched over his scrawny build. His emaciated yet muscular hands stretched down into long, sickening curves like blades. A dark brown piece of burlap circled his waist, tied to his hips by a black chain. The links flowed down over the sack, pounds of steel hanging around his legs over a small gap at the bottom, a black hoof extending down through it.
His shoulders faded around the edges, black coal dust floating through the air in his wake.
His scowling gaze appeared through two holes in the goat skull that covered his head, red rings surrounding his narrow yellow eyes.
A black steel voice echoed from him.
“The shadows fold together as the great and terrible chaos coalesces before you.” He hissed. “Why have you requested the audience of the black deathless, mortal?”
“I was naïve enough to hope you gave up on the high school poetry.”
“Who dares speak to –”
I pushed back his shoulders as a scythe shot to his neck. “Cut it, spooky.”
He paused in confusion for a moment, gazing down the blade as the bones his jaw curved into what resembled a smile. “Well,” He said, stretching the word out as his dark growl changed into a jovial yet unnervingly manic cackle. “Azzzraaaaael. You look gooooood!” He crowed.
“Shut up.” I said. “Tell me where my daughter is.”
“Not that easy to do both of those things.” He said. “Aaaand I’m not really into either, so.”
“Then maybe you can start with the second one.” I said. “Then I’ll tear your tongue out your neck and we can work on the first.”
“Ooooh, fun!” He cooed. “I’ll bring the mistletoe.”
“Where’s my daughter?”
“Santa Clause lane.” He dismissed. “You’ll have to try harder.”
I drug the end of the blade across his collarbone.
He twisted his head back, breathing a high breath that turned into a laugh as the blade cut into his grey skin.
“Oooohh ho ho. Now there’s some Christmas spirit!”
“Tell me where my daughter is!”
“Oh I think you know.” He growled. “You just haven’t realized yet.”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh come on, Azrael.” He said. “Don’t pretend you can just shake it out of me, like I’m not special.”
“Then maybe I’ll make an exception for you.” I said. “And I’ll split your skull open and see if the answer falls out.”
“I doubt it.” He hissed.
I slashed forward as he disappeared in a black cloud of coal dust, reforming behind me and drawing his malicious claws.
“Why?” I asked. “Why her? All the others were younger. Problem kids. Why Gloria?”
“Because the others were all the same. Children given birth, the most important day of their lives, who squandered it on selfishness. He said. “But Gloria’s not like that… You are.
“You see yourself now heralded in this city like you’re some kind of God.” He hissed. “But you are just a man. Powerless to stop me. Consumed by desperation. Commanded by fear.” He paused, eyes dancing over the thin blades that ran across his fingers. “A lesson I hope you’ll learn soon… for her sake.”
His chain legs faded as he left the floor, a black cloud following him as he drifted into the wall.
I yelled as I swung to catch him, barely missing before he disappeared through the solid concrete.
The silver scepter appeared in my closed hand, blowing a hole into the solid concrete wall as my enraged fist struck the stone.
I looked at the silver four-pointed sigil in my hand, blood from my knuckles dripping softly over it.
“I’ll show you fear, Krampus.”
Iris met me in the kitchen, reviewing her interview of the hospitalized guard with Captain Slate.
“He couldn’t tell us anything specific about the kidnapper.” She said. “Slate’s officers are looking around the bay to see what they can find.”
“I know who he is.” I said.
Iris stopped dead. “…What?”
“I know who took our daughter.”
Her eyes shot wide open, irises bursting into an inquisitive bright green. “W-What? Who? Where?”
Her eyes faded into a dark blue as her face dropped. She fell back against the side of the doorframe, sliding down to the floor. “Oh god.” She ran her hand through the side of her hair.
“It makes sense.” I said. “Problem kids taken from around local shops. December 5th, Krampusnacht.”
“Why… Why Gloria?” She said. “Gloria’s a great kid. And she’s so much older than all the others.”
“It’s because of me.” I said.
“He told me this is my fault.”
“When I summoned him.”
“You summoned him?”
“I need to find my daughter, Iris.”
I slid down the opposite side of the arched doorframe. “It was my only choice.”
“Well there’s gotta be something else we can do now.” She sighed. “What about the card?”
“Nothing.” I said. “Everywhere I look, it’s just f– Nothing.”
“There’s gotta be a way we can find him.” She said. “I’m sure we –”
“He says he put her in a place I know.” I said. “But I haven’t figured it out yet.”
“How can I help?” She asked.
“I don’t know.” I said. “We can go over the data. There has to be something I’m missing, some pattern I haven’t figured out yet.”
“We’ll see what we can do.” She said. “Let’s head up to the office.”
Iris paged through papers on the desk as I stared at the basic workup on the whiteboard. I sorted through the kidnapping dates in my head, correlating locations, names, parents, schools, anything I could think of.
The numbers in my head began to intersect, mixing up behind my eyes before I shook them out of my head.
I grabbed the side of the whiteboard, throwing it to one side and knocking it over.
“Dammit! I’m not getting anywhere.”
“Easy.” She said.
“Iris there is a very real chance that our daughter’s gonna… Dammit.”
I threw the two office doors open and stormed down the staircase on the left.
Iris stared down from the office doorway as I disappeared through the arch.
I stopped in the living room, squeezing my forehead with my nails and swearing at myself.
Come on, Az.
I paced around the living room. I had failed, so many times. And my daughter was counting on me. I had to do something, I just couldn’t figure it out.
The Christmas tree cast a dim yellow over the room, the only glow in a house darkened by the snowy night sky.
Krampus said I knew the answer. I just had to find it.
I cast my eyes down to the floor in front of the tree in thought.
What did I miss?
A small package sat right in the front, silver and red paper with a shiny silver bow. Not one that I remembered.
I picked it up, folding back the tag.
Daddy. Love, Gloria.
I tore it open from behind, faced with the plastic front cover of Battle Zone: Reckoning.
We got each other the same thing.
…Years since that first night.
I pulled off my shirt and threw it into the master bedroom from the hallway, stepping through the door across from it.
Iris stood in the dark room, leaning against the edge of the crib as she gazed at the small pile of blankets inside it as I walked up beside her.
I put my arms around her and gave her a kiss. “Go to bed.”
“I know, I know.” She said. “I just want to look at her.”
“So do I.” I said, peering down at the tiny, squishy little face in the crib. “But one of the best parts, really, is that she’s gonna be here tomorrow, then the next day, and every day after that.”
“Awww.” Iris cooed, searching for something to say, yet wordless as her eyes never left her child.
I kissed her again. “Gloria Valentine.” I said, testing the name we’d considered for so long now made a reality. “Valentine. One of us.”
Iris sighed. “How did we make this?”
“I can think of a few ways.”
She laughed and playfully punched my arm as she leaned into me.
“I can’t take any credit for this. This one’s on the man upstairs.” I said. “And the very tired woman down here.”
“Yeah, I think I got it.”
“Then come on.” I said. “Get outta here.”
“Fine.” She said. “But you have to come too.”
“Alright.” I said. “Just a sec.”
I looked down at the newest little Valentine girl, tiny hands closed tight.
First night home. Three in the hospital. A survivor, like her dad. She closed those little hands hard as she could and held on to life with everything she had, bless her little courageous soul. Thick, dark hair, big old purple eyes. She looked just like her mom.
Just three days old, instantly the most important thing in my life.
I remembered the moment my mother first saw her. When I brought her sisters to the hospital. The first time she called me “daddy”. I remembered her first birthday, every cake that Iris ever made. I remembered when I gave her her first guitar. Her sketchbooks. Every time we scolded her for tracking paint through the house, every night she fell asleep playing video games with me. I remembered every smile, every tear, every precious moment that led my daughter to this day.
The most important thing in my life.
The most important… day… of my life…
I set the game down by the tree.
Hold on, sweetie.
I’d left Iris at her apartment that afternoon in an awkward silence, a feeling I was getting a little too well acquainted with in the few months since I’d come back. My mother had tried to encourage me to spend time with her, not like the implicative, matchmaking kind of way from when Iris started working at the flower shop, talking about how she’d hoped to have grandkids someday, but in the way that people encourage… victims. Like she knew Iris would be the thing that could fix the person who came back. I knew they cared, but the things I’d just been through…Not yet.
I latched the simple iron shoulder plates to the jacket, surveying my targets in the area. Six, maybe eight, depending on how many were in the van.
Four waited by the depot at the edge of the coast, knees locked, pistols in their folded hands.
Jesus, and the mob thinks I’m too into ceremony.
The van pulled up in front of the warehouse, two other gangsters stepping out.
Cocaine purchase. Picked up the intel from some hood I threw through a window the previous night.
I brushed the dust off my tight leather pants as I stood up.
Maybe I’d be better off with a more flexible material.
The first collapsed beneath my knee as his spine folded into the concrete.
I threw for the one on his left as he raised his pistol, twisting it from his hand and firing two shots into the abdomen of one across from him as I pushed his shattered ulna through his forearm. I shot the fourth one twice in the legs before twisting the slide off the gun,
One from the van ran toward me and I pushed him back, pulling out his leg and crushing him backwards into the concrete as I set upon the one behind him.
I pulled him forward, twisting his face down to the running board and slamming his head in the van door.
I threw a knife into the final one’s shoulder and pounded the remainders into unconsciousness, before I turned on the one who’d been stabbed.
I picked up a gun from one my previous victims, pulling back the slide as I approached him and pressing the muzzle against his forehead.
“Oh god, please don’t – ”
I shot a round into the outside of his thigh. Flesh wound. Generous.
I put the gun back against his head to stifle his yelling.
“Where’d you get the coke.”
“Please, man, I don’t – ”
I hit him with the gun. “Answer the goddamn question.”
“Some guy. Old dude, Walker I think he said his name was.”
I hit him with the pistol.
“Where can I find him?”
I hit him again.
I shook him.
Damn. Knocked him unconscious.
I still needed answers, and a way to get them with a little less force.
I turned to the one half hanging out of the van.
The color started to fade back into his vision. Cold concrete on his cheek.
The shock shook his body as his vision was filled with the waves, gasping for breath and finding only water.
He fought back to the surface, gripping at the edge of the dock and trying to pull himself up, failing from the grip of the cables tied around his ankles.
He stretched to grab the lip of the dock, barely reaching it and hacking up water.
When he noticed the cable around his forearm.
His eyes followed it up to a cement block sitting on the dock, a steel-wrapped leg extending up from it.
“Tell me where you got the cocaine.”
I pushed the block forward with my foot, tipping it onto one side.
“I don’t like repeating myself.”
“Some guy, Walker or something.” He said.
“Where do I find him?”
“I don’t know, man, I just push.”
“And so do I.”
I kicked the block, sliding it closer to the edge.
“Oh god please don’t.” He begged. “Please!”
“What did I say about repeating myself?”
“We pick the coke up every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at midnight, we bring it straight here ‘cuz the mob cuts us a deal.”
“Fifty-first and Grey!” He said. “In the alley behind the laundromat!”
“Make sure they’re delivering there to you in two days.” I said. “Or this won’t be the last time you see me.”
“Yes. Sure, anything you want.” He said.
I turned to leave.
“Wait, wait, you gotta help me!” He yelled. “You can’t just leave me here, I’ll drown!”
I put one foot on the block.
“You have at least a couple more years.” I said. “Before I come back.” I pushed the block to the lip of the dock. “But until then, you’re going to tell everyone who did this to you.”
“The Angel of Death.”
The block hit the water.
That was the first time I’d said it.
Almost twenty years since I was there on that same spot.
But he knew.
The waves chopped against the docks, sweeping in over the bay as it was bombarded by the heavy falling snow, frozen air blowing in over the water.
I crossed my forearms, curling my fingers as I extended my sense into the surrounding area.
Come on, she has to be here somewhere.
My feeling was hazy. Tired. Distracted.
I growled as I broke my concentration, tensing and trying to shake it out as I paced worriedly around the area.
Come on, Az.
I tried again. Still nothing.
Ugh. I didn’t have time.
What did he say?
I shook it off as I stared forward into the icy bay before sprinting forward and diving into the black water.
The concrete extended down into the stones at the bottom of the water, waves beating against the algae-laden wall. My eyes shot around the water, desperately searching for any kind of clue.
A small barred grate was fitted into the wall at the water line.
I swam toward it, gripping the scepter in my hand and throwing my hand through it and tearing it out. I stuck my head through the hole, peering inside.
Gloria’s heel was chained to the floor, holding her down as she desperately clawed at the surface, gasping for breath.
I couldn’t get through the grate.
I pulled up to the surface, pacing furiously over the cell, attempts at answers screaming through my head.
I picked up the scepter and pointed it at the edge of the dock.
Okay. I thought. About seven feet back, maybe eight.
I moved the scepter back accordingly and got down on one knee, raising it into the air.
The concrete cracked as I drove the scepter into it.
I struck, repeatedly, breaking through the stone.
I felt a carpal in my right hand crack as I struck, but I couldn’t stop.
Again, and again.
I drew a concussion explosive from my belt, attaching it to the end of the scepter and smashing it into the concrete.
Finally it collapsed, broken pieces of rebar falling into the hallway as I followed with them.
I hit the center of the doorknob with the scepter, cracking it open.
I roared as I hit it twice against the hinges, the door cracking off the frame as the water rushed into the hallway.
I threw the door aside and stepped into the cell.
Gloria laid in the middle of the floor, motionless.
I broke the chain with the scepter, rolling her over.
I hit her cheek a few times, desperately sputtering in name.
Come on, sweetheart.
I tore the carbon plated glove off my broken hand and punched her in the chest.
I hit her again.
Not today, baby, not today.
I clenched both my hands together, raising them above my head and driving them down.
She coughed, spewing dark water and gasping for breath.
I heaved a heavy sigh of relief as she shuddered, looking up at me.
“Are you alright?”
Her breath heaved. “I… I think so.”
I hauled her up in my arms, rising to my feet and carrying her out of the room.
I walked up a staircase at the end of the hall, using the scepter to blow the door open and carrying her outside.
I stood on the top of the concrete loading dock, ready to carry her away.
“Powerless.” He boomed.
He stood at the end of the dock, holding his hands up as he let the snowy wind fall over him.
I muttered an especially harsh curse as I set Gloria down on a crate nearby, turning back toward him.
He kept his face turned toward the sky, eyes closed.
“Powerless…” He hissed.
“What are you doing here.”
He laughed as he slowly lowered his arms, turning to face me. He smiled, or at least elicited whatever semblance of a smile could be articulated by the skull the formed his head.
“…So you figured it out.”
“The most important day of my life.” I said. “They day the legend started. Where I was born.”
“Good.” He said. “Does that mean you learned your lesson?”
“Your birth.” He said. “Squandered on your selfishness of being heralded as a god, as a nightmare. I only hoped to show you some humility.”
I grit my teeth. “Humility?” I snarled. “Humility?” I drew my blades. “Let me show you something about humility.”
I lunged at him, driving both blades forward.
Krampus’s legs faded into clouds as he shrunk back to dodge the attack. His fingers stretched into terrible slim claws, black chains curving around his arms as they formed from the smoke.
I threw my blades up at him as the black links blocked the strikes, steel clashing together and shattering the frozen wind.
I spun across, twisting forward in a furious flurry of attacks.
Krampus turned the fight’s direction back his way, arms flailing manically through the air as the heavy chains twisted toward me. I blocked them with my blade, steel crashing together.
He tore upwards, a strike caught by the scythe in my right hand.
The bar in my hand shook as the links tore over it, aggravating the broken bone in my hand.
Krampus realized his opening.
He twisted the chains through the air, focusing his attacks on one side to limit my defense to where he could damage my hand.
I had to fight through it. Even if I could just get some stress off that side.
I dropped the blade in my left hand, drawing the scepter and hitting his arm in an upward strike. I used the opening to drive it into his ribs, throwing him back hard.
I used the pause to switch hands. The scepter would do most of the work for my right hand, and my left would be fine for the blade.
Three black ninjatos rose from my belt, pointing toward Krampus. I pushed the scepter forward through the air as they followed, shooting toward him.
He twisted to dodge them, narrowly avoiding the upper two as the lower clipped the side of his leg. He buckled from the cut, the chains around his waist falling against the ground as he gripped at his bleeding hoof.
This was my opportunity.
He shot chains forward as I ran toward him, blocking the incredible force of each one with the blade in my left hand as I approached.
My broken hand seared in agony as the scepter hit his jaw, throwing his head back hard. I slashed across his chest with the scythe, hooking his shoulder with it and pulling him forward to hit his sternum hard with my knee. I twisted around him, pushing his shoulder forward as I twisted back his left arm, shattering his elbow.
I held his broken left arm with mine, dropping the scepter from my right hand and taking the blade from my left.
With one hard swing from my right hand, his body fell forward.
He caught himself on his right arm, pausing in agony before he looked at his upper left.
He rose his arm, but his broken elbow never followed.
I walked around to the front of him, holding it in my hand.
His severed arm hit the ground between us as he started laughing.
“Aaaaah.” He grinned. “Thought you were gonna kill me.”
“Oh I will.” I said. “But I’m gonna make it hurt.”
“Not this year, Azrael.”
I spun, searching for him.
“I’ll be back, Azrael.” He said. “Not just me, more of us. We will march on your city, we will do to you every atrocity done to us, and in time and terror, you will learn.”
“Do your worst, Krampus.” I said. “This time, next time. Always ends the same way.”
“Never again. Never will you –”
“No.” I said. “No, you listen to me. I will fight for Bastion. I will push you back for the rest of my days, but in God’s name, if you ever threaten my family again, I will fold every world together and tear you apart between them.” I yelled, sleek black wings folding out from my back. “Do you understand me?”
“…For now, Azrael.” He hissed. “Merry Christmas.”
He laughed as the voice faded.
I sheathed my weapons and picked up my daughter.
Iris and I rushed into the hospital room, Carolynn and Roxy following close behind.
Gloria laid on the bed, wrapped in blankets, pale, and tired.
Iris threw her arms around her, pulling Gloria’s head to her chest.
I followed beside her, finally holding my daughter again.
It was over.
We brought her home with us the next day.
Gloria walked up the stairs, stepping into her room and sitting down on the bed.
I peeked around the side of the door before I came in and sat down next to her.
“You doing alright, sweetheart?”
“…Yeah.” She said. “Yeah, I think so.”
“It’ll get better.” I said. “It’ll take some time, but you’ll get there.”
“Yeah, I know.” She said. “…Did the cops tell you about…them?”
“The guy who… took me.” She said. “And the one who saved me.”
“A little bit.”
“Azrael.” She said, referring to the mystery who’d appeared at the bay.
“Really?” I asked. She didn’t know. She wouldn’t until I was ready to tell her. “The guy with the hood?”
“Yeah.” She said. “And some… guy, I think. Not normal. Something…scarier.”
“Well you don’t have to worry about him anymore, alright?” I said, pulling in close as she rested her head on my shoulder.
“Like I said. Just give it some time. Try to get some rest, and things’ll be better tomorrow.”
“Alright dad.” She said.
“I love you.” I said.
“I love you dad.”
She smiled, for the first time since the parade, and I don’t know that I’d ever been so happy to see her gorgeous grin.
I opened the office door, unlocking an oak cabinet within and opening up an old book from the shelf.
Iris stepped into the office and closed the door behind her.
“You didn’t tell her?” She asked, referring to Gloria’s still not knowing the man who saved her.
“No.” I said. “Better off this way. She needs time to forget all this. The things in our world, it’s a lot to accept all at once. After all…”
Put the book down on the desk, open to an old page headed Jolasvienar.
“…There’s a lot of crazy stuff out there.”
© Josiah Delnay 2017.