The assault rifle slammed against the wall on the other side of the room as the blue light tore through the man holding it, slamming him into the floor. I smiled at the man with the augmented arm as the blue and silver streak swept beneath his legs, dragging his body across the floor to a hard impact in the wall. The streak jumped around the room, collecting the unconscious bodies and placing them by the wall. The blue bolt came to a graceful halt behind the containment unit before slowly rounding the side of the container to face me. Around the corner walked a young man, enormous cobalt blue eyes shimmering electrically on his thin face behind a blue beam mask, short brown hair quaffed upward above his forehead. He wore a sleeveless steel blue suit with black pants, grey outlining his toned torso. His fists were wrapped in black cloth beneath a segmented set of chromatic silver vambraces, extending half way up his upper arms. His boots were constructed in the same manner, stretching all the way up his thighs, gold accents around the edges glinting in the faint light, cooling from an unnatural shimmer as he slowed to a stop. In his right hand he twirled a gold staff, a curved blade stemming off the back at the top end and collapsing as he spun it around to a sheathed position on his back. He smiled as he used the athletic wrap on his palm to buff the silver sigil on his chest, a diamond with two stripes pointing up to his shoulders on either side. “Did you see me doing your job for you,” He asked, his words dripping in sarcasm. “Or didja blink?”
“Job isn’t done yet.” I said, turning to the stack of men by the wall as two of them rose up, one flexing his mechanically-enhanced right arm. The speedster in blue looked at my right hand in his periphery as I gestured symbolically with my fingers in silent instruction.
The man with the augmented arm threw forward first, aiming for me. The speedster countered, sweeping the thief’s leg from under him and flipping him onto the floor. We spread to either side of him, ready for the fight. We worked opposite one another, moving in a circle around the robber as he returned to his feet. He struck at me several times in rapid succession, trading shielded blows in a frenzy of furious desperation. The blue streak circled him rapidly, striking at his torso before striking the center of his lower back. I struck his head with my knee as he flew forward, sending him back into my counterpart, who promptly brought him to the floor, rendering him unconscious.
He turned to the other men, now making their escape at the rear staircase. “Wait.” I said, placing my hand on his chest to prevent him from giving chase.
“We’re letting them get away?” He asked.
“Not exactly.” I said. “We interrogate this one, he gives us what we need to find the others, their base of operations, and who hired them, plus we can use the box to track them, and we can tail them when they get down to the getaway car to find the rest of them.” I explained. “And now they know what I’m capable of, and can teach all their friends back home to fear me.”
“That’s… Actually pretty smart.”
“I don’t know if you noticed, but I’ve been doing this for a while.” I said sarcastically. “So did you come here just to show off? Because I don’t think showing up late works for you.” I smiled.
“I think my timing worked out pretty well for you. The structural integrity of your skull thanks me.”
“Nice save.” I laughed. “But I had it under control, message man.”
A straight black blade flew into my hand from the wall behind me, where I subsequently disarmed the concussive charge mounted in it and returned it to my vambrace. “Really.”
“…Still.” He said. “Figured you could use a hand. Plus I have some news.”
“I hear that’s kinda your thing.” I replied. “What’s going on?”
“My mom’s back at your place. She wants to talk to you.”
“What about?” I asked.
“Not sure, but it doesn’t sound too great.”
“Fine. Go tail the getaway car, and do try to go unnoticed.” I said. “I’ll go talk to her and get this guy where he needs to be. Meet me back at the house when you find out where they went, and I’ll show you how we get information these days.”
“Will do.” He said, turning toward the exit. He reached the doorway, pausing as he walked out. “Wait.”
I looked up.
“Can I be bad cop this time?” He asked, an anticipatory wince coming across his face.
“Pleeeeease?” He pleaded.
“Gabriel, I am always the bad cop. It’s kind of what I do.”
“But do you always have to be?”
“Gabriel, I can manipulate fear. I am made to be bad cop.”
“But I’m always good cop.”
“Bad cop defies everything in your nature.” I said. “Now come on, they’re getting away.”
“Ugh, fine.” He sped through the door.
I turned to pick up the unconscious thug, my gaze called again to the doorway by a swooshing noise. “Can I at least try it with the next guy?” Gabriel asked.
“Fine, you can try.”
He lifted his head.
“Welcome to your worst nightmare.”
“What the hell is going on?”
“Tonight you and your friends robbed a science and technology firm. I want to know what you took, and who hired you to do it, and I’d rather not have to break every bone in your body to get you to tell me.”
He swore in disregard of the demand.
“Not a smart idea.” I snarled.
“I’d have to agree.” Gabriel added. “You don’t even wanna know what this guy’s capable of.”
“I ain’t afraid of you.” He replied.
“Then maybe it’s time you learned to be.” I growled.
He closed his eyes tight and grit his teeth as my fist approached, but the impact never came. His eyes opened hesitantly, looking about the room. The chair he’d been tied to had morphed into the passenger seat of a van, speeding down the road.
A mask fell into his lap from behind. “You ready to do this?” His friend asked.
He’d never felt more flustered in his life. What happened? Had it all been some dream?
His thoughts were interrupted as the man in the driver’s seat nudged his arm with the butt of his pistol, grunting in the expectation of an answer. Jonathan shook off the confusion, replying in the affirmative and trying quickly to keep away the haunt of the odd change of scenery as he readied himself for the break-in.
Four men broke through the glass doors, power in every deliberate motion.
Jonathan made for the manager, a woman in a white dress shirt with a nametag reading “Marsha”, pushing a cart around the store as she gathered up the cash boxes. He pointed his gun at her, sweat dripping from his every pore. The brown-haired woman knelt to the floor, pleading for mercy as Jonathan’s associate rifled through the cart. He waved the gun threateningly, his hostage cowering away from it.
His associate closed a metal door on the side of the cart, pushing it backwards into the woman and causing her to fall out of the way.
Jonathan pulled the trigger.
He stared for a moment like infinity, as though time had slowed to a near halt. The woman before him bent backwards, the visceral impact just above her right eye projecting from the wound. He watched in horror as it tore through the back of her skull, casting her corpse into a bloody pile on the floor.
The moments passed as though he hadn’t been there to witness them, and he found himself in the back of the van once more. He pulled his mask off, his expression still stricken by what he’d done.
“Aw, man, what the hell did you do?” His friends asked him. “It wasn’t supposed to go down that way.”
“I thought she was making a move.” He explained. He’d made a mistake. An innocent woman died, and it was all his fault.
He was a murderer.
“How could you do that?” Asked the man across from him. “What did you do?”
Jonathan lifted his head to look his accuser in the eye. Across from him sat a man in silver armor, a black hood over his face.
The Grim Reaper.
“What have you done?”
The reaper’s knuckles collided with Jonathan’s jaw, and as soon as he’d opened his eyes in recovery from the impact, he found himself cuffed to a chair in a dark room.
“What…” Jonathan stuttered. “What did you do to me?”
“Fear is an interesting thing, isn’t it Jonathan?” I asked. “The things we fear can teach us things we never even knew about ourselves… What do you fear?”
“What did you see?” I asked.
“I… I killed someone.” He explained through ragged breath. “I pulled the trigger and I saw her die. It felt so real.”
I turned toward the door of the room, placing my finger on a light switch next to the doorframe. “What makes you think it wasn’t?” I asked, flipping the switch as the door closed behind me.
Jonathan looked to his right, where the beam of light illuminated a second chair.
A chair seating Marsha’s dead body.
Gabriel followed me up the stairs away from the chamber. “What did you just do, exactly?”
“I showed him what he’s afraid of.” I said. “I produced a hallucination that subjected him to his fear, then left him to sit there and let it haunt him.” I closed the door to the staircase behind the garage, and took off my jacket as we walked toward the house. “Now his psyche is cracking. Fragile. Now I’ve linked his worst fears to me, making me haunt him on a personal level and turning myself into a psychological weakness. As he sits in the chamber next to the corpse he’s hallucinating, that weakness gets bigger, and power over him through intimidation gets stronger.”
“I see.” Gabriel said. “What next?”
“Next, we go back in and poke the holes in his armor.” I said. “If he knows I’m capable of showing him his worst fear, I become scarier than it.”
“Does that screw him up in the long run?”
“The psychological damage is minimal, and not only will it drive him away from crime, but he’ll tell people about what I did to him.” I said.
“Nice.” Gabriel nodded.
“Like I said, I’ve been doing this for a while.” I said, opening the large red front door of the house. “Did you have any luck tailing the getaway van?”
“Yeah.” He said. “They led me to an apartment building on 44th.”
“Not bad.” I said. “Once this guy gives us all the info we need we can head down there and catch them with their pants down.”
Gabriel paused. “…You don’t mean that literally, do you?”
“We’ll see what the future holds.”
I looked up to the landing at the top of the staircases to see a mauve-eyed, white-clad woman with dark brown hair, leaning over the rail next to my wife. “And speaking of the future.” I said. “Gabriel mentioned you wanted to talk with me.”
“If you’re not too busy.” She smiled.
I walked up the stairs. “Step into my office.”
She followed me into the dark oak room, closing the door behind her. “Can I get you a drink or something, Raziel?”
“Iris already got me all set, but thanks.” She said.
“Thanks for sending Gabriel.” I said. “He’s doing well.”
“That’s good to hear,” she said “but I was actually wondering about you and Iris.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I heard about everything that happened with Droigheann.” She said. “I understand things have been hard for the last few months, and I’m sure Droigheann didn’t make it easier.”
I heaved a hard sigh. “You got that right. Plus Jackson was found dead.”
“She mentioned it.” Said Raziel. “What did Droigheann tell you?”
“She told me about how what I was doing was pointless. How my fury will inevitably overtake me. How I couldn’t save Jackson, or my brother, or anyone, in the long run.”
“Do you think she’s right?” Raziel asked.
There was a silence as she waited for my answer. “I… I don’t know.” I said. “An innocent man died for nothing. Doesn’t sound like I did anyone any favors.”
“And what about you and Iris?”
“Iris and I worked through it. We’re doing better now.”
“Then why was Gabriel the one who backed you up last night?” She said.
“I…” I began, unsure of where I was going.
“There it is.” Raziel said. “Azrael, you have to stop trying to do this by yourself. You need help.”
“I have this one under control.”
“That’s not what I meant.” She said. “I mean by yourself. Alone. You and I both know there’s things you’re not telling all of us.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You know what I mean, Az.” She said. “I know your secret.”
I paused. “How much?”
“A few vague things about how this started. They were in the book.” She said, placing a large tome on the desk. It was a thick, leather-bound book, two gold locks wrapped around it. The center of the cover displayed Raziel’s sigil, a stylized eye representing her ability to see the future. “Your father, ‘Hellfire’, the dream.”
“Does Iris know about it?” Raziel asked.
I sighed. “…I haven’t told her about it.”
“I think it might be a good place to start.” She said.
“I… You’re right.” I said. “I just… I worry about her.”
“You know why, Raziel. You know me.” I said, turning toward the door. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go get some answers.”
“No you don’t.” She said. “Gabriel can get what you need, but you have to answer my question. You can’t hide your problems forever.”
“Fine.” I said. “You wanna know why I worry about her, or the problem I have with the kid in that room? Fine.” I sat down on the chair opposite the desk. “I look at you, Iris, Gabriel, Michael especially, and I see good people. Heroes. People who save other people. I look at the work Michael does, and how objectively, unquestionably good it is, and I realize I’m not like that.”
She sat in silence, taking in every word.
“I’m sure you’ve noticed, but all my daughters have purple eyes. Sure, Carolynn looks a lot like me, but they all have their mother’s eyes, and honestly? I’m glad they do.
I look at her and I see goodness. Kindness, generosity, I see a woman who literally makes flowers flourish in her presence. A woman who fosters life. Who has a love for every little thing.”
I flipped over a scythe in my hand. “I look at you and your powers to heal and protect, and I control fear and darkness. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say I look an awful lot like a demon.”
“You can’t blame yourself for that.” She said.
“That’s not even the real problem. You’re all good people deep down.”
“Me?” I said. “I’m not. I go out every night and hurt people, make them fear me. I look at the news every day and I see thieves, murderers, rapists, and my first instinct is to hurt those people. Make them pay for the things they did. The things Droigheann said to me only got under my skin because they were true. I am the fury. I’m cruel, and I’m wrathful, and I’m violent. I’m like the thief down in the interrogation room. I’d kill without a second thought. You know about the dream I have. The dream only proves that I’m a bad person… I don’t want to subject Iris to what’s really down there. Inside.”
“You’re not bad, Azrael. Think about your scepter.”
“What about it?” I asked, drawing the scales from my pocket.
“You don’t think you were given those for a reason?” She asked. “There’s a balance in the universe, and God gave you those because He knew you could understand that. He knew you understood right from wrong.”
“Your point?” I asked.
“My point is that He gave you your abilities for the same reason. He does everything on purpose. Believe me, nobody knows that like I do. I mean, I don’t have parents, Az. Iris’s mom took me in as an orphan out of a box in the street, and then raised Iris and I by herself. I learned how cruel the world can be, and how we needed to work differently than ever before, just like you did, and when the day came that I found a baby boy crying on the doorstep of my apartment eighteen years ago, I understood so much more.”
She placed the book on the desk, opening it to a random page to display an intricate text, not unlike the angelic text, yet distorted just beyond my realm of understanding. “It’s all in here. All the horror.” She said. “But I look at my son, and the work he does, and I see a smart young man who just enjoys living by the minute, who creates joy in those around him and who does the right thing, and he’s proof to me that all the bad predispositions in the world mean nothing if we choose to be better than them.”
She lifted the scales from the desk. “You remember what you said to me when He gave you these?”
“They say some people are born great, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” I said. “Of course I remember.”
“But you didn’t believe that.” Raziel said. “What did you believe?”
“Greatness isn’t something given to us. It’s something we achieve by choosing to do the right thing every time we can.”
“And here you talk about how you’re so deeply predisposed to wrath, to hatred and violence. How you’d kill without a second thought, yet you choose not to. You choose to do the right thing. That makes you great, Azrael. That one choice, over and over, choosing to do the right thing.”
“I’m not a hero, Raziel.”
“Does Marsha believe that?” She asked. “Does Carolynn?”
I sat in silence as a smile spread across my face.
“You just have to keep making that choice.” She said. “And what helps you to choose the right thing?”
“Iris.” I said. “It’s always been Iris.”
“Then you just have to keep making each other great.” Raziel smiled. “But you can’t do it if you won’t let her in.”
I sighed as I stood, glancing at the scales before I returned them to my pockets. “I guess you’re right.”
“You don’t have to tell her everything at once, just start with something simple like the dream.” She said. “It doesn’t even have to be her just yet.”
“That’s all you need.” She smiled.
“Thanks, Ava.” I said. I heard a knock on the door. “Come in.”
Gabriel stood in the doorway. “I think I got what we need.”
“Do tell.” I said.
“According to Mr. Blake, all seven of the guys are targeting Pharaoh Security Logistics tomorrow. They’re looking to steal the payload from three armored cars en route to the facility at the end of the night. The apartment should be empty then, and they’ll have the package from last night in a safe there.” Gabriel explained excitedly. “The way I see it, we can have somebody recover the project while the other three cover the cars.”
“What was the project they were stealing?”
“They were hired to break into CloudTech and steal the Fibre prototype, whatever it is. He says he thinks it’s some kind of signal booster and macro-processor.” He said, stumbling through the words, a partially confused look on his face. “The person who hired them did it all digitally and anonymously. Wired the money to them, nothing more than a screen name.”
“He says they called themselves Armor.” Gabriel replied.
“Armor?” I said. “Hm. Well, good work, kid. Maybe we’ll find a use for you yet.”
“I wouldn’t mind if you kept him another day.” Raziel said. “But I have a store in the Bastion Mall that doesn’t exactly run itself.”
“Speaking of which, Iris has a painting she thinks you could sell.” I said. “You up for stopping a robbery with us tomorrow night?” I asked.
“Eh.” She shrugged. “Beats a glass of red and a romance novel.”
“Just one glass?” I said.
“We’re not all closet alcoholics, Azrael.” She laughed, stepping up on her toes and throwing an arm around my shoulder before she stepped through the office door. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Gabriel stood in the office in silence for a moment. “Well I’m not an alcoholic.” He said.
“Shoo.” I said. “I think I have an errand to run.”
The open-air Bastion Mall was thriving with weekday shoppers as I rounded the corner of 2nd onto Main Street, calmly taking in the sounds of the busy citizens and the wind over the nearby sea. I stood on the sidewalk, looking up at the gorgeous little shop before me, a white storefront adorned in climbing rose vines with a well-loved sign reading Valentine’s Flowers.
The bell rung as I pushed in the door, flooding my senses with the welcoming aroma of the flower shop. A gorgeous woman with greying brown hair and a nametag reading Rose stood behind the counter, making change for a customer. She smiled as the man turned to leave, wishing him a good day. She lifted her wise silver eyes from the counter, meeting my gaze with a warm smile.
“Hi mom.” I said.