A limousine sped down the street, the lights rolling gently over the smooth black finish as the engine hummed through the darkness.
A black-haired woman leaning into the bench on the side swirled a dark glass of top-shelf liquor in her hand, adjusting the purple trimmed lapel of her long, white jacket and pulling the collar up around her neck.
The pale blonde woman across from her put her hands in the pockets of a black trench coat, adjusting the tight leather gloves fitted over her hands.
“Are you ready?” Zoe asked.
“I’ve been ready for twenty-two years, Zoe.”
“We’ve been fighting for a long time, Vivian.” She said. “As long as you stick to your convictions.”
“You understand what it’s been like for me, Zoe.” Vivian said. “I was raised for this. Spent my entire life training. Preparing. Waiting for this opportunity. I will not be deprived of what’s mine.”
“Remember what we’re doing this for.” Zoe cautioned. “We both wanted to make a difference. That’s what this is for.”
“Of course.” Vivian said. “I never forgot.”
The vehicle pulled to a halt and the two made their exits.
Zoe stood by the car door, a black steel blade in her hands. “Do you want me to stay here?”
Vivian sighed as she placed her hand on Zoe’s shoulder before taking the weapon. “…Thank you for understanding, Zoe.”
Vivian walked slowly, now alone through the moonlit field, stepping gracefully through the dampened grass as she passed the rectangular stones in the earth.
She followed the path beyond the rising headstones, sweeping past the effigies of remembrance of scores of the fallen. She was looking for one.
She neared the back of the cemetery, following past the increasingly extravagant monuments and into a small clearing.
Before her stood a stone pillar, a roaring eagle with spread wings perched atop the glorious monument. Intricate carvings fell down to a smooth stone plate at the bottom engraved with the name.
“Caesar J. R. Ackerman”.
Vivian knelt in front of it, driving the sword a few inches into the soil in front of her.
She closed her eyes.
“…I don’t know what to say.” She said. “Every time I’ve been here, I’ve had so much to tell you.
“I’m so close.” She said. “I’m going to get back everything she stole from us. Everything you and I deserved. She’s not going to take any more from us.
“We’ll finally have everything we wanted. I only wish you were here to share it.
“The power will finally belong to the only real Malveaux.”
I sat in my office in front of the computer as the telecoms frequency decryptor flashed across the screen. I folded my legs in the chair, closed my eyes and focused on breathing, feeling my formerly fractured scapula shift with my lungs. It felt brand new.
I contemplated the past few days. The world had changed so much since I started this. I told myself people like Amour didn’t exist before. Maybe even believed it a little, but I always knew I was wrong. I’d been fighting people like her for years.
But she was different. She hurt people I care about, destroyed innocents. No more.
I reflected on the words I’d shared with Raziel and Iris. Maybe I was too involved in this. Her actions had pushed me too far.
Looking at it then, stretching out my consciousness to sense the spirits of my wife and daughters as I meditated, I wondered about the situation. She threatened all of them. This whole city.
I felt Iris come up the stairs.
The door opened.
“No.” She said. “Just wanted to make sure you’re okay.”
“Well, I’ve been running this for about twelve hours now.” I said. “So I’ve had better days.”
“I figured as much.” She said, placing a cup of coffee on the desk. “Not exactly what I was wondering, though.”
“By which you mean?”
“…What happened yesterday?” She asked. “You weren’t exactly forthcoming.”
“Didn’t go so well.” I said. “But I have a lead. Turns out the assassin was a machine, looks like the aperture model. Fortunately, that means I can track its comms frequencies to find it.”
“That’s good news.” She said. “But you missed it?”
“Right between the lines.” I smiled. “…It pushed me off a building. Hit a dumpster at the bottom.”
She cringed. “How bad?”
“Cracked skull, scapula, definitely a concussion… Lost my eyesight for a little bit.”
“Yikes.” She said. “What’d you do?”
“I got a girl from an apartment complex to get me to my mom’s place, called Raziel for help.”
“Smart.” She said. “I bet she and Rose had some interesting things to say.”
“Something like that.” I said.
“Anything especially interesting?”
“…When I lived at the flower shop, when I was a kid, I needed something. I’m still not sure what.” I said. “Someone who could stop the… destruction. The pure chaos. Someone who the people who hurt others without thought could look up at and fear.”
“I had to be that person for my mother. For myself.” I said. “But now that I’m here, I can’t help but wonder…”
I leaned into the desk. “I don’t doubt that Amour has to be stopped. She’s ruining this city. She’s too dangerous. Of course it’s right.” I said. “But David, Carolynn, you… I just… I don’t feel like it’s right.”
“What do you mean?”
“Stopping Amour is the right thing to do, but…”
“You’re wondering if it’s the same if you do the right thing for the wrong reason.” She said.
“I guess.” I said.
“What do you think?”
“… I don’t know.” I said.
“You’re second guessing yourself.” She said, sitting down in the chair on the other side. “Figures.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked.
“Az, I know what it’s like when you don’t trust yourself.” She said, placing her hand on mine to reveal a faded scar on the side of her thumb. “But I know you. I know your soul. I’ve seen the fire behind your eyes, the strength in your spirit, and I know how passionate you are, and the one who made you that way? He did it on purpose.
“It makes you strong. Powerful. It’s what made you tear Lazarus down and put the Rat King in his place.” She said. “It gave you the power you needed.
“That’s your weapon, Az. He gave you that so you could use it for Him.”
“You’ve second guessed every move you’ve made since you started all of this.” She said. “But the world’s a different place now. People like Amour mean legends aren’t good enough anymore. She needs to know who we are, whatever it takes. And honestly?”
“I’m glad you’re self-conscious about it.” She said.
“Because it means that you’re doing the right thing.” She said. “I’ve seen the fire in your spirit, Azrael. It’s what makes you good at what you do. Hell, it’s one of the reasons I fell in love with you.
“But when you question yourself, you hold every action against your morality before the fire starts. And you can spit all the curses you want or cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war, but you always figure out the right thing to do.” She said.
“Azrael, I know what she’s done to you, and I know you want to stand up for this family. So do it. I know you’ll do what’s right.” She said. “And as long as you keep following the same standard, I know you’ll keep doing what’s right.”
She crossed around the desk and sat down on my lap, putting her arms over my shoulders. “And you’ll keep being my hero.”
I leaned my head into her chest. “So what do I do?”
“You stop Amour.” She said. “You show her what happens, and you make the legend live.”
I looked up at her. “Then the war starts now.”
Vivian meditated in front of the marble pedestal a few moments longer before she heard the shuffling in the grass behind her.
She sighed before she stood up, turning to face the voice.
She beheld a woman with curly black hair standing behind her in the pale light.
“Good evening, Miss Si—”
“What the hell is going on?”
“Mallory.” She said. “What’s going on?”
“What are you talking about?” Vivian asked.
“What do you think it looks like when I find you here?”
Vivian scowled. “I can’t see my father’s grave, huh?” She asked. “Do I answer to you?”
“I answer to Mallory.” She said. “Which means that if you’re planning something against her, I can’t let it happen.”
Zoe approached from outside the clearing. “I’m sorry, Vivian, I didn’t catch her coming up.”
“Don’t worry about it, Zoe.” Vivian said. “What would make you think something like that, Miss Simon?”
“Mallory considered you to lead the organization.” She replied. “All the work you’ve been doing outside it, plus the rumor going around that she might choose Scarlett, then I ask you about it and find you visiting this monster.”
Vivian smiled, laughing for just a moment. “…Agent Clarke.” She said, keeping her gaze on Agent Simon. “Would you mind giving us a moment?”
“Of course.” Zoe replied, stepping away from the clearing.
“Now are you going to tell me wh – ”
Vivian punched Simon across the jaw, knocking her to her knees.
“You will not say another word about my father, you understand me?”
She kicked Simon and flipped her over.
Vivian stood over her, punching her repeatedly in the face. “He was not a monster.” She gasped between strikes. “My mother is a liar!”
Simon struggled to get up from her knees before Vivian gripped her head behind her ears, driving her knee repeatedly into Simon’s face. “He was a better person than she could ever dream of being!” She struck again, beating into her as the blood splattered across her leg. “My father was a saint!”
She dragged Simon across the ground to a headstone nearby, slamming her head into the corner of the slab. “He was a great man!” She struck faster and with more fury as she heard the bones began to crack, Simon’s face dissolving into a haggard, bloody mess “He was a goddamn hero, do you understand me?” She yelled, punctuating every syllable of the curse with her victim’s head.
Vivian dropped her limp body, gritting her teeth, breath heaving. “He was a hero.”
She pulled the sword from the dirt, calming herself and closing her eyes as she faced the black monolith, as though to pass a silent word to her father’s memory before she left.
Zoe stood at the side of the limo, presenting Vivian with a towel to wipe the blood from her hands.
Vivian’s breath was labored as she wiped the blood from her face. “Get somebody out here for the body.” She said. “Contact the hunter and get him in this city in the next twenty-four hours, and tell the commander to prepare.”
“Are you sure about them? If he ever found out you were using his resources, I don’t think that the Ro–”
“Don’t say it.” Vivian said. “He’s particular about that.”
“Anything else?” Zoe asked, handing the glass of scotch from the limo to Vivian.
“I’ll need something to wear.” She said, observing the blood on her clothes. “Get Alsleigh to meet me at the dress shop with box number two.” She snapped her collar, shooting back the glass. “I have work to do.”
A broad concrete floor spread out beneath the dark warehouse, bright white ceiling lights illuminating the room with a synthetic glow. An old man sat at the back of the room in front of a large computer monitor, examining the information onscreen as he modified the code. The human-faced android sat at the side of the terminal, cables running into an opening at its head.
He leaned forward into the desk as he typed, working intently on the machine.
A black baked steel ninjato floated in front of his neck as he leaned back into the chair.
“Turn around, slowly.”
The chair turned, revealing an old man in a brown jacket, thinning grey hair stretching back over a skull deformed by years.
“Who are you?”
“Aki. They hired me to code the machine.” He said.
“Something like that.”
“Anything you know about her. Quickly.”
“Black hair. Pretty thing.” He said. “Not much else, but they paid good.”
“Where did you meet with her?”
“Coffee shop on sixth.” He said. “She tracked me down first, gave me a cell phone and called from a blocked number.”
It figures she’d use a burner. Given the information he’d already provided, she had to have hunted him down first. She was a professional, there wasn’t any way she’d leave a trace I could find her through with him, especially if he had the tech expertise to program an android as complex as the Aperture unit. He wouldn’t have any more useful information.
The robot stood to take his side, a katana extending from its hand as it rushed toward me.
Damn. Not again.
A serrated black sword with a curved tip shot forward from my vambrace, piercing the robot’s neck as it approached. Its gait was staggered before it rebounded, charging toward me. It started low as I stepped on its chest, twisting the blade and tearing the head off the machine.
Just as soon as I pulled back to shoot the sword forward, an aperture droid shot down from the side of the room, nearly striking my shoulder as I turned to slash it with the blade in my hand. It deflected with its katana, shooting down to the floor beside me. A scythe shot from my hand into the robot’s back. I followed with my empty hand, gripping the weapon and tearing off the machine’s shoulder. It spun upwards and our swords cracked together, my counter spinning inwards and dragging the scythe down the machine’s arm. The sword fell twisted around the magnet in its, losing stability from the fingers I’d cut off with the previous slash. It shot back at me with its legs as I twisted my blade around it and shot it into the machine’s hips, twisting the blade to remove the robot’s leg before shooting for the neck again with my scythe. I tore it apart between the sharp slabs of steel.
Two more robots emerged from a door at the side of the room. Enough was enough.
I deflected the two machines and shot forward, knocking the controller to the floor as I stuck a blade through the monitor. The hilt sparked to life as the device exploded, rendering the computer into a charred pile of severed tech. The robots were soon to follow, a third approaching after I dispatched both of them. Where were they coming from?
I followed into the door the machines had comes through, slashing the head from the final machine as I worked into the next room.
A bullet reflected from my shoulder plate as I came to a stop, swords in hand.
“So rare to find a duelist who appreciates the ninjato… Black steel, the weight, the balance, the versatility, and good god, the pushing power with the forward force… ergonomic as a samurai with a lot more guts, you know?”
A set of red lights came up from either side of the room.
Drones. Twenty, maybe more. The lights came up slowly, revealing an elaborate machine in the back of the room leading up to a set of metal rings in a cylinder. A production line.
A shadowed figure stood in the center of the room before a light came up over it.
A slender female figure stood beneath it, a black fashion jacket going halfway down her sides with full-length sleeves leading to tight leather gloves. She wore a high-end, elegant black shirt and tight black pants held up by an equipment belt, leading down to a set of calf-high leather boots.
Her voice was muffled by the black motorcycle helmet covering her face, glinting beneath the upcoming lights.
“Of course, they are my weapons of choice.” She said. “Been a while.”
“Guess you got that face guard fixed since last time.” I said.
“And I’m not the only one who got an upgrade.” She said. “Love the new look. Very… audacieux. Really brings out your best.”
“Could say the same for you, but I have to admit, the mask leaves a bit to be desired.”
“Mostly a formality.” She said. “We haven’t exactly been well acquainted yet.”
“I know all I need to, Amour.”
She scoffed. “Evidently not.” She said. “But I guess first name basis is a pretty good place to start, Azrael.”
She removed the helmet, shaking out her magnificently kept black hair. The larger of the two bangs fell to the right side of her face, the remainder of her smooth black hair pulled back into a series of small, elegant buns at the crown of her skull. She had sharp silver eyes framed by well-kept dark lashes, high, smooth cheekbones and a slim rounded jaw. Her glossed ruby lips curled into a smile as she raised a sharply groomed eyebrow. She was beautiful in her own right, if the things she did didn’t disgust me so.
She grinned at me. “It’s okay to be shocked.” She said. “Vivian J. Malveaux.”
“Oh, I hoped so.” Vivian said. “I’ve had my eye on you for a while.”
“Not available.” I said.
“Ooh. You married or something?” She asked. “Girlfriend maybe? No worries, I don’t do much long-term.” She stretched her neck, pulling her collar up around it. “Shame though, handsome guy like you. I’m sure she’s a lucky lady.”
“Not too lucky to be hurt by you.”
“Oh, that little lady in red? It’s nothing personal.”
“What about David Fadi? Dylan West? Or Lily Hudson?” I asked. “What about Jackson Garmana, or Arthur Nezumi?”
“Hudson’s situation wasn’t my intention. I didn’t even know about what they were doing with Agent Hudson or her husband, and if I did, I swear I would’ve done something. No one deserves that.”
“What about the others?”
“…There’s more going on here than you realize, Azrael.” She said. “We’re both trying to make the world a better place.”
“By destroying people’s lives?”
“By doing what it takes.” She said. “Something I’m sure you’re well acquainted with, after the fourteen men you hospitalized the other night.”
“I guess I forgot to mention the six girls from the sex trafficking ring.” I said. “Were they part of your plan?”
“A symptom of a disease I’d hope to treat.” She said. “The world has evolved, Azrael, beyond the simplistic control that ran it yesteryear. You’ve seen it. You’ve been in the streets, seen the carnage. The chaos, the betrayal, the theft. The world’s fight has become a war of idealism. It’s the reason people like us exist. You know it as well as I do.
“I’ve seen what you can do. The way you make them fear you. The power.” She said. “They need something like you. Something to fear.”
“I’ll show you something to fear.” I said, black steel ninjato falling into my hand.
“I want to believe we’re on the same side, Azrael… But I can’t expect you to see the big picture yet.” She took a device from her belt that extended into a black steel sword. “So be it.” She offered her blade forward as I crossed it with mine.
Our swords clashed as Vivian and I both swung wide in a high arch above us, swinging back lower to the floor before spinning back around to come in from the side. The blades clattered in the air as the sparks flew, black steel cracking the sky.
Vivian rifled her blade back over her shoulder, pointing it forward before her.
She drove it forward over her shoulder, spinning and slashing in a mad fury of clashing steel.
I rotated the blade around mine, opening her up on the opposite side before slashing forward and cutting across her zygomatic bone just beneath her eye. I blocked her sword with the plate on my left arm, cutting across the side of her shoulder. She dodged low, slashing across my thigh and under my opposite arm before I blocked her next strike, spinning the blade and pushing her off.
She readjusted her pose, loading the sword above her shoulder pointed outward by her eye. She wiped the edge of the cut on her cheek, examining the blood between her two fingers.
She smiled. “Nice.”
“I’ve seen your style.”
“Figures.” She said. “You use it… Some of it, anyway.”
She spun wide above her head, bringing the ninjato down from above. I dodged to the side, hooking her in the ribs and spinning around to the side of the room.
She followed in broad strokes, jumping up to fire off of the wall before she hooked the side of my jaw, driving her sword into the left side of my abdomen. I clutched my side, growling as I pulled the sword from her hand and rallied back, driving my blade forward. She fired forward with her legs, kicking repeatedly as she drove upward, forcing me back. She spun her heel into the hilt of the sword in my gut. I fell to one knee before firing a sword from my vambrace. She slid aside to dodge it as a set of blades followed. She shot forward for the sword, dodging my blade as she slid beneath for hers. I forced it out as she pulled it from my abdomen, splashing the blood across the floor.
We traded a few more blows in circles as we switched sides again, readying our stances once more.
“Man.” She heaved. “I thought angels would have some fight in them, but you… You’re something.”
“I didn’t think you’re the kind of person who’d believe in that.”
“Are you kidding?” She asked. “I’ve seen what you do. The power. The fear. Hell, even the wings. Guy with that kinda power and your intentions? Seems like more than your average vigilante.”
“You haven’t seen the worst of me.”
“Maybe not, but you saved my life once.”
I couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow.
She smiled. “You don’t remember?” She asked. “It was the day we met.”
She began to pace slowly past the framework of the assembly machine, banging her sword on the support bars rhythmically.
“Justice for the martyrs. The voice of the executioner.” She said. “The chance to bring them all to justice.”
The banging stopped.
“The Gallows has fallen.”
It all came back to me.
She grinned slyly as she ran her eyes up the blood-slick steel blade in her hand. “Into our town the Hangman came, smelling of gold, blood, and flame. He paced our bricks with a diffident air… And built his frame on the courthouse square.”
“You were there.” I said. “You were at the Gallows when I stopped Harvey.”
“I was more than there… I was practically the star of the show, second to you.”
“He was going to execute you.” I said. “…I saved your life.”
“And I appreciate the favor.” She said. “Guess I owe you one for that. Maybe next time.”
“I don’t expect you’ll be able to make good on that.” I said, raising my arm to point with two fingers behind her. She gazed over her shoulder to view a tactical sword lodged into the wall of a chamber on the assembly line. A blue light ignited at the hilt of the blade, blinking slowly.
“Well.” She said.
“Those are the self-destruct charges for the Aperture robots.” I raised my thumb. “That thing blows, this whole place goes up.”
“Alright.” She said. “You win.”
She sheathed her sword.
“Not another inch.” I said, stepping forward while keeping the direction of my gesture squared on the sword.
“You won’t.” She said. “You do that, you, me, and the programmer all die. Besides, if you stop me now, the organization certainly wouldn’t be happy.
She shrugged. “Let’s just call this one even.
She turned and began to walk away. “Tell that little lady in red of yours I hope you two have a happy Valentine’s Day next week.” She winked over her shoulder. “I’ll see you around, handsome.”
She walked out.
I stepped through the front door, shaking the snow off my suit as my wife rounded the doorway. “How’d it go?”
I raised a blood-covered right hand from my side. “Little better than expected, actually.”
She helped me pull off my coat as she placed her hands over the stab wound on my side. “Yikes. This one looks bad.” She said. “Must’ve been good if this is better than expected.”
“That or I have low expectations.” I laughed, wincing as she began to close the wound. “I destroyed the android production facility.” I said. “Got this fancy little thing from our mutual friend.”
“Amour was there?”
“Vivian J. Malveaux.” I said. “She… Got away. Her and the computer engineer.”
“Malveaux?” She asked. “What next?”
“I have to find her engineer.” I said. “I recovered as much information as I could from the computer before the place went down, he’s all they have left. I don’t have a lot to go on, but we’ll see.”
“So did you do the right thing?” She asked.
“…I guess so.”
She slid her hands up my chest. “Then that’s good enough, hero.”
“Easy now.” I said. “You’re gonna get blood all over the suit.”
“As if you’re helping it.”
“You’re right.” I said. “Maybe I should wear more red.”
She slid her hand slowly across my cheek. “It might help with the lipstick stains, too.”
“Of course. No, don’t worry about it, it’s all taken care of. Yeah. Get some sleep, sweetheart. We have a lot to do. I’ll see you soon, Scarlett.”
Vivian hung up the phone.
She placed it in the hand of the suited man behind her, trading it for a glass of bourbon on a tray in his opposite hand. She downed it and returned the empty glass to the tray.
“Anything else I can do for you, Miss Malveaux?”
“No, thank you, Alsleigh.” She said. “Put the phone with my personal effects and take the rest of the night.”
“Of course, Miss.”
She placed the stick lighter back on the table as she lit the last candle. “And Alsleigh?”
“Get some sleep.” She said. “I’m anticipating this Saint Valentine’s is going to be a big day for all of us.”
“Of course, Miss Malveaux.”
She crossed her legs on the woven grass floor mat amidst the candles, closing her eyes and breathing in deep.
“A big day.”
Copyright ©Josiah Delnay 2016.