Henry scratched at his bare chest and rust flakes chipped off, settled in the lap of his pants.
His electric blue eyes were as vibrant as they were when he turned eighteen, joined the Army and rode off with a parachute on his back to destroy the greatest evil the world had ever faced. But now, eighty-six years after his birth, he sat in his rocking chair, watched TV. His fighting days long gone.
The apartment was warm; the way old people like it. The wallpaper was sun-faded. The ice box was stocked with bacon and real butter. Henry used a percolator for coffee and ate plain Cheerios.
When he moved in back in ’73, he installed a mantle. Along the shelf he lined out photographs of his wife whom he lost to the void of his work long ago. The greatest fight of his life. Now, she was nothing more than what his memory recalled and his imagination invented.
His thirty year sobriety chip gathered dust nearby. When Stacy left, her parting words, the whole thing, it was below the bottom. He could not repair anything now, but he could stay dry. For her memory.
Henry had once been a hero. Now that he was a distant thought, the city cried out for a new one. Evil, it seems, takes advantage. The Furnace emerged to answer the call. Night after night in this new age of real-time technology, that single man, engulfed in fire and rocketing through the sky, his exploits were caught on film by news cameras and celebrated.
He was on the TV tonight. Henry watched as The Furnace raced across rooftops chasing the greatest villain Henry had ever faced. The Soulless had returned.
“Watch your back, kid.” Henry spoke to the TV. “That guy’s a doozy, alright.”
Henry’s shirt was open, and as he itched at his chest, his shoulders, his arms, his everything, a flutter of burnished flakes like snow fell to the floor around his seat.
Flecks of himself, decomposing and scattering about like tarnished leaves.
This plane is flying too fast, Henry thought, hearing the wind cascade along the skin of the C-47.
The word was spreading down the line that the plane was much too high as well. Henry looked around, everyone’s nerves on edge. They had trained a year for this drop.
Nazi flak began booming outside. Henry’s guts coiled at how close some of the detonations were. Small pinpricks off in the distance, just staccato pops, but nearer were the grumbling roars of more accurate shots.
Kurtz spun around, wild-eyed and slick with sweat. “The parameters were 700 feet off the surface and 110 miles an hour drop speed, right?” His thick New England accent turned every word into a yawning slur.
“Yes.” Henry answered.
“So what the hell-”
“I don’t know, Kurtz. Just get ready when they open the door.”
“I am not just-”
Explosion. Jostling like they were in a fault line.
Fire erupted from the cabin. Washed back in a liquid tide. Kurtz’s face boiled and cracked in a split-second as the steel skin of the airplane started shedding like old, dusty scales. Nose to rear, the plane dismantled in a snap.
Henry’s ears deafened; white noise screeched everywhere. Heat stung his eyes, suffocated. Poured sand down his throat. He buckled at the waist, felt the flooring vanish. One minute it vibrated with the work of the propeller engines, now just threads of ruined metal scattering to the French night.
The C-47 disintegrated. Fire and rage blistered into an inky black cloud. Henry’s whole stick, obliterated by a direct hit.
Freefall. Behind him Nazi anti-aircraft burrowed through the sky, exploding with hot shards of metal like teeth of titanic ghosts. Chewing their prey mid-flight. Henry saw the last vestiges of his drop plane, now a smoking ruin of puzzle pieces as they plummeted down to the earth.
His fellow soldiers—friends—annihilated. But not Henry. Somehow Henry missed the blast wave, missed the incinerating wash of hellfire. Missed the hot chunks of airplane all around him.
Henry spun and wheeled into the void. Currents so fast he got sick. Cheeks puffed out like sucking on a blow vent. Nostrils wind-tunneled with the surge of air into his throat. He tried screaming. No luck. Fingers flaring, he raked them through the tufts of blitzing air like he was swimming at 200 miles an hour. Must’ve fallen through a hole created in the plane’s flooring, just to sky dive down to the-
Henry grappled at his back, feeling how patches of his uniform had been seared away to crispy, burnt holes. Struggle. Each empty handful dosed fuel on the fire of sickening, dread-filled urgency.
His leg bag snapped and fell away. His helmet lost to the rush of descent. His rifle gone. A section of uniform shirt came un-bloused and flew up in his face. He tasted singed threads and fire-smoke. He lashed at it, snatched handfuls of sky as he tried to get his parachute.
The taste of metal tickled his tongue. Despite the frigid air he was sweating like he was running from police. The ground was hurling upwards. Henry cried out, yanked his parachute.
Nothing. It came undone, unraveled. Ruined, thrusting off into the sky beyond him, canvas lashings flapping their goodbyes before the night’s blackness erased them from sight.
“I’ll be damned-” Henry screamed into the vacuum as he saw the finest details on a blade of grass. Like he was pressing his face into a pasture, studying its every line and hard angle a millimeter off the surface.
Henry collided into the ground so hard he tasted dirt; felt it invade between his teeth. His neck snapped back as he landed upside down on his face, his spine compressed into a spring and all four limbs wrenched at their joints and sockets. He bounced, jangled like a rag doll. Hit again. Breath gone. Unconsciousness grabbed his vision, punching him out like a freight train.
Henry sat up suddenly, gasping for breath.
Picked grass and dirt out of his teeth, his hair. Vision was so unnerved everything was a blur. Coughed, more dirt came out. Quiescence swam around him. Crickets chirped. A gentle breeze played about. Finally able to focus, and Henry saw he was missing a boot.
Where are the Pearly Gates? He thought, held up his hands. Saw his splayed finger, flexed and curled each one. Then his wrists, elbows, shoulders. Turned his head. Nothing snapped or broke off. His lungs burned, but he inhaled. Tasted the air. No blood.
Awe-struck, dazed. Incredible. Unbelievable. Miracle. Odd, once-in-an-eternity fluke. Henry couldn’t comprehend it. He was alive. Unscathed.
Stood. Ensconced in an opaque fog, he tested his legs. He stepped up and out of a small crevice in the earth, oddly shaped like him. Scattered about where he landed were small fires burning. Shards of metal jabbed into the ground. Obscure things that he didn’t want to study too closely.
This isn’t…Drop Zone Dog, is it? Could it be? Henry stared at the sky until the fog’s chill penetrated down to the bone, earnestly wandering how he fell like a meteorite and didn’t end up a red smudge for Nazi boots to trample through.
Eventually he came across a broken rifle, bayonet attached. He took the blade, searched for his compass. It was gone. The airborne mess of blackened flak contrails and all that death gave him his bearings. With nothing else to do but continue living, Henry stared walking towards the rally point.
Hushed German barking, muzzle flashes and bullets knocked henry off his feet.
Again, Henry sat up suddenly, gasping for breath.
He looked down to his chest, his hand rubbing his wounds. He looked at his palm. No blood. Just papery, flesh-toned scraps. Henry yanked apart his shirt, saw two holes in his chest, each punched open and exposing a gleaming, clean metal. As fresh and gorgeous as newly polished chrome.
Astonished, indifferent to having just been ambushed, Henry pinched the torn flesh and peeled it back. More chrome. He had metal under his skin.
Never broke a limb as a child, never got deathly ill, even that time when Richie’s dog chased me across the yard and bit- Henry’s mind raced and raced and raced but I’ve bled before this is new did something happen at puberty did that huge impact awaken something inside where did-
Bullets snapped to life all around him. Making sure he was dead. Henry took one to the side of his head and heard a tell-tale clink as the bullet ricocheted off. He had no idea what was happening, but for the moment he was invulnerable against Adolf’s storm troopers.
Muzzle flashes to the right. A copse of trees hid silhouettes. Bayonet in hand, invincible, such a strange occurrence and there was no time to think. Henry charged. He must have been shot thirty times before he killed them all, and not a single wound to his body.
Each round revealed chromed flesh underneath his skin, and he fought the war for the Allies as invincible as a god among mere mortals.
Henry discovered that under his skin was a layer of impenetrable metal.
He deflected bullets. Fire torched his skin but it grew back in a matter of days. His strength was unparalleled. His aging slowed to a crawl.
The Invincible Ironclad Man Saves The Day Again!
Mysterious Man Of Metal Fights Crime When The Police Cannot
Shocking! Ironclad Accepts No Salary For His Triumphs!
“Marry Me, Ironclad!” Heard Across The Fruited Plains
The City’s Crime Rate Dips Well Below Nat’l Average Thanks To Ironclad
And throughout the decades:
The Sinister “Terror King” Soundly Trounced By Ironclad
Stolen Art Returned to Museum—Thanks, Ironclad
“Clawed Phantom” Meets His Match
Is Ironclad MARRIED? Experts Say YES!
No Masked Criminal Can Defeat The Invincible Ironclad
But that was before The Soulless. That was before Stacy was worn down to threads of night after night, Henry being gone, coming home as the sun rose, chewed up from Tommy gun fire, blasted by post-WWII arms that had fallen into the Mob’s hands, assaulted by other masked villains who surfaced, each possessing a special talent like Henry.
The weight of his secret grew burdensome. Every stitch Stacy made to repair a damaged costume was a prick to her heart. She grew weary of all the worry. Having to make excuses for Henry’s absence at holidays or when visitors came. How he would hide in the bedroom because the night before the Scorcher burned off Henry’s face.
“It’ll grow back, Stacy,” he said, staring into their bathroom mirror, tending to the blackened crisps edging his scalp. Peeling off the most brittle pieces, he’d said, “See? It doesn’t even hurt.”
“I’ve told Majorie and Frank twice now you’ve been ill. You’ve never even met Michael. He’s almost a year old now.”
But it was all lost down the well where they threw most everything. Stacy grew tired of filling it.
Henry barely aged, Stacy did. Henry was always tired from selling cars by day and crushing the city’s enemies by night. Stacy needed something more. She needed her husband, and as long as there was a city to defend she would not have him. She needed something more.
Especially for the life growing inside her.
So after the Soulless appeared, and Henry got his hands on him, she had her excuse. Henry was never the same. Drank. Yelled. Thrashed and withdrew into himself. Retired. Ruined after his last struggle with The Soulless.
All he had given for the city, all his sacrifice. None of it remembered when he disappeared from the world. The headlines questioned his absence, then begged his return, then excoriated him as a coward, then pronounced him dead. Forgotten. Swallowed whole.
Stacy left. It was easier than she thought it would be. She told Henry she was pregnant, but he was so drunk she didn’t think for a second he comprehended her. Her hero. Her one true love.
As Stacy left, lips quivering and heart destroyed, Henry mumbled through his bourbon. “I ignored my wife for my mistress…and now I have neither.”
Stacy left and never remarried.
“The one villain I could never beat,” Henry said.
Watching The Soulless leap from one building to the next as new helicopters documented their every move, Henry barked a hollow laugh. “Got my hands on ‘em once, though. Bastard.” He itched away rust.
Henry only looked in his sixties. As his age advanced his human skin became much more frail. Starting on his back and chest, it wore so thin he found it normal to discover entire holes now. He couldn’t wait until it crept up to his face. The day would come.
He watched as The Furnace played nice. Held in reserve. Not like him. Not at all. “Just torch his ass and go home, kid. Good riddance.”
But The Furnace did not. The inferno of a man pursued, acting as though if he came too close, The Soulless would trigger a bomb. “Looking more and more like cop car chases nowadays. All tempered, givin’ up too easy.”
Henry leaned forward. “Where’s your swagger, kid? Where’s that easy confidence you have?”
The Soulless shot at The Furnace. “No use, moron!” Henry shouted at the screen. “The kid is all molten fire and-” Henry froze, those words empty now.
The Soulless, a man devoid of all his humanity, was the most vile and cruel villain to ever plague the city. And his penchant for bottomless horror was only matched by his cunning.
The gun was senseless. Any bullet hitting The Furnace would liquefy. But The Soulless had something in his other hand, something that squirmed. Fought back to no avail.
From the TV, “…looks like The Furnace might need some help here, Keith. For once he can’t just spray fire all over the place-”
Henry didn’t notice himself as he stood. Like him, The Soulless had disappeared soon after their last fight. Only now is he back, trying to make up for lost time. And here was the media, already turning on The Furnace like they did to him.
“It’s bastards like you that make me hate mankind.” Henry said. An old fury rising up at The Soulless and the announcer at once.
The TV announcer buzzed in, “…And Keith, I hear through my sources that the child currently in the grasp of The Soulless is none other than The Furnace’s own flesh and blood. Or should I say, fire and blood? Ha! What a fight this is shaping up to be-”
The front door slammed to the sound of the announcer describing in painstaking detail how the Furnace seemed off tonight, and how he was treating the entire scenario with kid gloves.
The Soulless was toying with his enemy.
Should he decide to, he could channel his filth, that intangible portion of his empty heart that swirls inside his chest, green as disease and greasy like the floor of a back alley diner. And he could channel that filth through his every atom; exude it through his pores like a film. Something dirty on his hands just needing to be wiped off. Let it touch The Furnace’s boy. Held tight against The Soulless’s chest like a shield. Something with which to tease his bonfire father.
The Furnace knew this. He knew that whatever The Soulless touched would decay on command. Rot out. Die. All that beast of a man had to do was will it to happen.
Still on a rooftop, still with the TV news helicopter above. Spotlight flickering around them. The ocean nearby, susurrating in regular rhythm with the helicopter’s rotor deafened the sky.
The Furnace racked his brain to find a way to separate the villain from his child. One bullet struck him in his shoulder, but melted and ran like mercury down his chest until even that flow of metal crisped, turned to dust and finally vapor.
Just get Darren out of the way and light up his corrupted ass like kindling, The Furnace thought. Don’t ruin him.
“Let him go,” he said, trying to muster a sense of command in his voice. “The child has nothing to do-”
“Shut up, Camp Fire Man,” it crawled out of The Soulless’s throat like demonic tendrils, each syllable slithering and worming about. “The boy serves a grand purpose, you see.”
The Soulless held out the child, seven years-old, paralyzed by terror, still dressed in his pajamas. In a silly way. “Notice how weak you feel, Camp Fire Man. How weak, indeed. You walk with a swagger as you hold dominion over fire, man’s greatest ally and enemy alike. You pretend to be fearless only because you have the power to make a flame dance to your whistling tune. That is not power. That is having a gun against your fist-fighting opponent. It is cowardly.”
“And threatening a boy?” The Furnace shouted. “That isn’t? Put him down and fight me like a man!”
“No, no no.” The Soulless shook his head as if he were hearing the same sad, not-funny joke for the umpteenth time. “I am exposing you. There are no threats. A threat is made to intimidate. To sway. I mean no such thing. The boy will die when I so choose. His time here, now, is to demonstrate to you that all your accomplishments, your successes, are predicated on the fact that you are a bully. Nothing more. You have wasted your life.”
The Furnace struggled to gain the upper hand. His mind clouded from waking, hearing Jackie screaming. Darren missing. A message scrawled on the wall. The front door was rotted off its tarnished, flaking hinges. The boy’s favorite action figure a crumbly mess of dust, his feet still standing out of the pile of his former self.
The Furnace’s worst fear actualized: his identity was known. Known to his worst enemy. And now his family-
“You see, Camp Fire Man, what does a common bank robber hold in his arsenal against a man who commands fire? I suppose he himself could take a hostage, a shield, but in the end-”
An old man. Out of nowhere. Launches from a shadow behind them and punches The Soulless in the back of the head. Darren drops, rolls forward. The Soulless turns around, teeth bared and snarling, recognition immediately flashing through his eyes. He coughs a harsh laugh.
“You…” He stands, his palms glowing with that inner sickness that deteriorates all he touches. “Returned at last?”
Henry, fists balled, turns his head left to right, cracks his neck. “I guess not.”
“Let the boy’s blood be on your hands,” and The Soulless leapt towards Darren. The Furnace spit fire, an overwhelming spray of brilliant reds and oranges like a geyser across the rooftop. The Soulless dodged, sliding his hand across the roof.
Henry tried to avoid the tide of fire, but it was vast. Obviously trying to end it right there, The Furnace spread his rage far and wide. Henry was soaked, clothes and skin turning to wisps and falling away.
The Soulless went for the boy. Darren crab-crawled away from the man whose blotchy, green skin seemed dyed a sick black in abstract patterns. His teeth filed to points. Eyes red like they were filled with blood.
The Soulless laughed quietly as an eerie green glow snaked from his palm, staining a snaking line towards the boy. The green crawled like a fast insect, wiggling from side to side as it cut a path to Darren. Behind him, The Furnace raced forward, and with every step dread mounted.
With good cause.
The green ate away at the fabric of the rooftop. The surface under the boy went from solid to loose, a fine layer of dust like ash peeled apart. Fraying.
“No!” The Furnace bellowed, leaping for his son. The Soulless snarled with a sinister mirth and played his theory.
The Soulless was known to use miniaturized but very effective gadgetry ranging from explosives to firearms. Once in a blue moon he was creative with his implements, or he customized one to a particular adversary.
With The Furnace in reach, The Soulless withdrew a small canister. It sprayed a gout of plain water on fiery hero. The Furnace’s arm and chest were doused, sizzled as the fires disappeared and his skin turned to smoking ash underneath. He lost his balance and fell, writhing.
“Simple water,” The Soulless said, dropping the depleted sprayer. He grabbed Darren again, backhanding him savagely. “Your father’s very flesh becomes fire. His very flesh. Tremendous! As comical as it sounds, plain water is your flaming father’s Kryptonite. Oh, the irony. The cosmic joke of it all.”
He turned around, saw Henry step out of the flaming end of the roof. “An old man, now,” The Soulless said. “Where is your stainless steel, gleaming and perfect body? The Golden Era of The Invincible Ironclad, now rusted over. You grate when you walk, old man. How does it feel?”
Despite their numerous encounters, only once did The Soulless touch Henry. And in that one moment he lost everything. His polished, silver skin eroding, crumbling. Henry had to run, had to will his human skin to grow faster, cover his wounds. For the first time since D-Day, he feared he would die.
“Let go of the boy,” Henry said. “I’m not afraid to die. You know that. I will take you with me.”
“The boy is alive because I am enjoying this, Ironclad. Test me like you mean it and I will lose my humor. And the kid, here. Well, you’ve seen rotting meat, have you not? The Soulless smiled. “On a similar note, remember how my gadgets always seemed to shock and awe you?”
“You had some cute little things that went boom,” Henry said, his gut sinking. “Nothing worthwhile.”
“Not worthwhile, eh?” The Soulless fired a rocket from a form-fitting shoulder mount. He jumped to the roof’s edge as the closest news helicopter was hit. Roiling explosion. Tilted. Dropped from the sky.
Henry saw a silhouette disappear over the roof edge. The helicopter swept down. The Furnace in agony, clutching himself, watching helplessly as he lost his boy again. The ill green devouring the rooftop, cutting a crevice towards him.
Henry leapt, his metal muscles pushing him ten times the distance any normal man would enjoy. Over the crevice, he swept an arm down and scooped up The Furnace. Over the roof’s edge just as the helicopter slammed home, exploding again and blowing out the top floor of the building.
They fell five stories and Henry landed feet-first, shattering the sidewalk concrete. He made divots, cracks spreading outward. The Furnace breathed slowly and tried to fend off the pain of his injuries. He stood straighter, trying to ignore his wounded arm, being tough for his little boy.
“Why didn’t you save the boy?” he croaked, eyes furious. “He’s out there with that maniac all alone and-”
“He’s alive,” Henry said. “I know The Soulless. He is not one to let good misery go to waste.” Henry brushed his flaking metal skin, watching as rust snowed down.
“But you had him right there! If only-”
Henry held up his hands. “I can only imagine your terror right now. That’s why I came out here to help. Like I said, I know The Soulless. And the entire time he had a hand on your son. Look at me. Go on, look.”
The Furnace stared. The old man was no better than a two hundred year-old anchor which had been dredged from the ocean floor. “I’m looking.”
“Now imagine your little boy getting this treatment. We need a plan. I underestimated The Soulless once, and it cost me everything. If you want to gamble your boy like that, tell me so I can leave. I couldn’t bear to be a part of it.”
The Furnace looked up as other news helicopters pulled away. Looking for rockets. He turned off his fire and became a simple man. Henry studied him. His every feature. I’ll be damned he thought. Felt a warmth spread through him.
Finally The Furnace asked, “Well then, if you know him so well where the hell did he take my son?”
Henry smiled wanly. “Look at the two of us, friend. Metal and fire. Where would you go if you wanted to torment men with these traits?”
Quiet, The Furnace’s brain was mottled, scattered. “I don’t know. Where?”
“What’s your name? Your real name?”
“Thomas. Thomas Settleborn.”
“My father-in-law’s name was Thomas. Good name. I’m Henry Boyd. Nice to meet you.”
“Likewise.” Impatient. On edge. “Where. Is. My. Kid?”
Henry turned to the east, said over his shoulder, “Thomas, you hear the tide coming in?”
The Furnace’s face dropped. Water. “So be it. Let’s go.”
Henry went, admiring at how strong Stacy’s features were in Thomas. His ex-wife, Stacy Settleborn. Gave the city’s old, decrepit hero its new hero. Henry felt an urgency to save his grandson.
Darren Settleborn dangled from an outstretched hand over an old, rotting fishing pier.
The Soulless stood in plain view, glowing hands diseased emerald beacons in the obsidian, bleak night. The pier gently rocked in the wash of sea water; wind gusts taking off the wave caps and spraying them like playful taunts.
Fire streaking through the air was a lead for the news cameras. The Furnace launched forward to find his boy, blasting exhaust and crackling yellows, oranges and reds in his contrail. His arms dangled, locked forearm-to-forearm with The Ironclad’s. They neared the dock and Henry looked up, gave a grizzled smile.
“Let go of me on the far side of the wharf, you circle around. We’ve got to jump him before he can ruin your son.”
“Okay.” The Furnace looked troubled, but foraged ahead. “Anything else you got in mind?”
“He’ll drop in the water. You power down and go in after him. I’ll engage The Soulless. You get the kid, drop him off somewhere safe, then come back. Spray us both. Fire doesn’t bug me.”
They both continually readjusted their grip on one another. Henry’s tarnished skin kept cracking and breaking under the strain of being held. Brittle, sand-like under The Furnace’s grasping hands, little scaly pieces of Henry kept coming loose. Hard to hold on.
“Hey, I’m not going to like…wear down your forearms into nothing, am I?” There’s a lot of rust coming off here.”
Henry was worried about that. He could start to feel it getting irritated down near the bones. He laughed it off, asked, “How concentrated can you project your fire?”
“Pretty hefty, really. Almost plasma if I try hard enough.”
“Is that like a laser or something?” Henry asked.
The Furnace barked a dry laugh. “Yeah, pretty close.”
“And your aim?”
“Just curious how that works, I guess. I never had any offensive powers like that. You ever hear of the Golden Zip? Back in the ‘50s?”
“Heard the name.”
“Well, he could shoot these golden lightning bolt-kinda things out of his hands, but you know, that son of a bitch couldn’t aim them at all. I watched him hit a Ford Edsel once-”
“Game time.” The Furnace said. Henry quieted as The Furnace pulled in for the final decent and neared the wharf. Henry looked back up, flakes of his rusted body being snatched away by the wind dragging along his surface.
“Thomas,” Henry said. The Furnace looked down. “Remember, the point is to get the boy. If The Soulless survives this, you’ll have another crack at him one day. Impatience cost me.”
“I always just thought you got old.”
“What’d your dad tell you about me?”
The Furnace frowned. “No Dad. Mom left him and raised me at my grandparents’ house. I just knew that you were awesome, then one day you were gone. So when I realized I could- you know, turn my skin into fire, I figured, hell, I’ll be the new Ironclad.”
“That’s something, kid.” Henry looked away, images of Stacy and now Thomas welling up in his mind. Pushing teas near the surface. “That’s something special, all right.”
“Anyway,” The Furnace said. “Mom said Dad was a good man but a workaholic and an alcoholic. Not a good combo. Never met ‘em.”
“Maybe you passed him on the street sometime and didn’t know it.”
“Maybe.” The Furnace said absently. “We’re at the drop zone. Ready?”
“Ready,” Henry said.
And the first shoulder-mounted rocket detonated very near them.
Explosion. Jostling like they were in a fault line.
Flashbacks to D-Day as the flak fractured the screaming night, Henry surrounded in fire as The Furnace flew too high, too fast.
The Soulless peppered the air with the munitions. Each buzzed and flared like a grand finale firework. The Furnace evaded the onslaught until one detonated inches from his head.
Shards struck him in the face and neck, and even though they simply melted into nothingness he was still human. He flinched. A natural reaction. Twisting his body, veering off a high speed.
And Henry’s abraded forearms gave way. Snapped in half. He fell.
The Furnace saw it, dove after him. But The Soulless saw it as well. He unfolded a miniature chain gun and unleashed an impressive rate of fire towards The Furnace.
Henry came crashing down into the wharf, shattering its corrugated roof, causing a massive cavalcade of noise. The bedlam quickly caved in on itself, plumes of dust replacing it. Violent ripples of water surging out from underneath the devastated building.
Henry had fallen through into the cold void of the bay.
Munitions punched The Furnace midair. Their force knocked him off course. He spiraled into a defensive countermeasure. Darren bellowed with fright as a torrent of blistering hot shell casings rained down from the chain gun’s ejection chamber, bouncing everywhere and plinking into the waters below.
The Soulless laughed. The Furnace braved the rounds face-first as he charged forward. The Soulless stopped firing and jiggled the boy, a harsh reminder of what was at stake.
The Furnace landed so close to The Soulless that the heat corona of his fiery skin licked at his enemy. Like holding a palm to a fireplace just inside its tolerance. The Furnace burned hot just then.
“Give me my boy.”
The Soulless snarled. His gums were riddled with spots like cancerous lesions. “Why? What will you trade?”
“Myself. Just let me ensure his safety. Then you can have me.”
“Sounds a bit risky. I’m much happier with your naked torment.”
The Furnace fought his infinite frustrations. He struggled to gather the strength to concentrate. If he could just focus a beam of plasma, fire it from his eyes-
“Hoe about I drop him and then touch you?” The Soulless said, reading The Furnace’s intentions.
“Get a hold of me and try.”
The Soulless suddenly grew tired of this pointless taunting. The desire to start the hurting filled him. “Can the boy swim?”
The Soulless let go. Shocked, The Furnace turned off his fire. Roared, dove. The Soulless jabbed out with one vicious hand, trailing green wisps of sick energy. Going for the throat. Just enough to weaken The Furnace immeasurably, to paralyze him as he watches his little boy sink to a cold grave.
In slow motion, Darren’s feet went in. His shins. As his knees submerged The Soulless grabbed a hold of The Furnace. Thin streams of the hero’s life drained out into his enemy. Empowering The Soulless. A chill settled over The Furnace and an atom at a time—so fast he couldn’t comprehend it—he lost the will to resist. He wanted to vomit, to turn away, to die.
Darren’s head leaned back even as he fell fully into the water, gasping for that last breath his body said it needed. The water circled up around his nostrils, his eyes. Kissed his lips with freezing fingers, digging in. He heard the swirl of a million sea shells in his ears. The lulling tongue of mermaids whispering. Calling to him. Telling him to let go of his terrestrial life.
Telling him to drown.
The Soulless rejoiced. He threw back his head and hollered his satisfaction to the sky. To a God he had spent his life defying.
He had won. And he believed it, even as the water exploded where the boy sunk. Henry bounded upwards, Darren in the crook of his destroyed arm. Henry’s other arm was splintered badly, needle after needle of rusted hero where his forearm used to be.
Henry cleared the pier just enough for him to thrust those needles forward. Haymaker. Down along The Soulless’s chest, impaling through his foot. Stabbing him to the pier.
The Soulless let go of The Furnace, screaming in agony as stalagmites of metal rammed through him.
The Furnace rolled, fell back. Though he was near dead, his mind was clear. He simply didn’t have the strength to worry now. But he saw Darren, and his heart swelled. And as it did, so did a fine red dot in his vision.
Henry tossed the boy onto the pier, his body seized up like an unoiled engine. He could feel the needles in his forearm buckle and break off as he came down. They snapped, pinned his arch nemesis to the rotting wood. The Furnace’s war cry filled the night and a single laser-line of plasma fired from his eyes, punching a hole into The Soulless’s forehead.
The man-creature collapsed, his face a smoking ruin. Henry hit the water, and saw things as they should be. As the sea opened up to accept him once more, he saw his own son now for the first time. Holding Darren, they comforted one another.
Now just Thomas Settleborn, he looked up and met the eyes of Henry Boyd before the old man sank into oblivion. Concerned flooded Thomas, but Henry reassured him with a glance. In that old man’s iron smile, Thomas saw a familiar quality. Something he saw in pictures of himself on holidays or special occasions. It wasn’t Ironclad’s smile exactly, but there was a peace in it—just like Thomas had, when he was with those he loved the most.
Henry had it. Thomas and Darren reunited. The Soulless met his end. Then Henry sank, and he was gone forever.
It was peaceful as it came, bit by bit.
Henry could not drown. Instead he rested on the bottom, frozen into a statue like a ship wreck. Each grain, each fragment of his rust coming free and floating off with the currents to new and far corners. Henry felt no pain, just the cold pressure from the water and the warm welcome as he knew he would see Stacy again soon. Hold her. Love her. Apologize and be forgiven for letting what was most precious slip away.
Their son safe. Their grandson safe.
And when that divine light appeared, down so deep in the water that the sun’s rays were strangled out before reaching the bottom, it was glorious.
Stacy was almost too bright to look at. She held out her hand, touched his cheek and said “I love you.”
Ryan Sayles is the author of Subtle Art of Brutality and Warpath, two hardboiled detective novels out or forthcoming through Down & Out Books. His novella Goldfinches is forthcoming from One Eye Press. He has over two dozen short stories in print, online and in anthologies, including the Anthony-nominated collection Trouble In The Heartland. He may be reached at VitriolAndBarbies.WordPress.com
–Art by Ahndhi Sticha