(Author’s note: Brothers In Arms: The Red Day is the conclusion of a two-part episode following Brohers In Arms: The Black Herald. Azrael: City on Fire will premiere the weekend of Friday, April 1st.)
A sleek, pale leg stepped into the limousine, an expensive black heel coming down on the floor of the vehicle as a woman in an elegant black dress and a white coat with purple linings stepped into the car. Vivian had made sure to look her best for the big night, donning her finest pearls as she considered all the people who’d be doing the same the following evening for Valentine’s Day.
Little would they know how different those two days would be.
She couldn’t help but sit there smiling. The anticipation, the nervous energy in the air was everything. This night would change everything.
Alsleigh remained silent like his passenger, thoughtless in the long evening drive.
Until he stopped the car.
He stepped out to open the door on the curb, where he greeted a woman in a brown fur coat.
She stepped into the car, taking a seat in the left row opposite Vivian. Alsleigh returned to the driver’s seat, sliding up the divider as the woman sat.
“Good evening, Vivian.”
She smiled. “Good evening, Mallory.”
The forest at the edge of Bastion’s Southwest end was dark under the late winter sky, black trees laid bare and filling the area in dark shadow. The snow coated the ground, frozen hard in the chilling evening as it cracked beneath the footfalls of our pursuit.
The branches rustled as we tore through the darkness, giving chase to the ancient creature before us.
We came to a stop in a small clearing.
Raphael turned an ear to the sky, concentrating to find the beast in the darkness. The forest was quiet through the wind of the winter night.
I extended my sense into the mist, my physical consciousness reaching into the forest. I felt the power in the earth, the soft life forces moving through the trees, the insects, the birds.
Raphael spun his spear in his hand, the heavy blade sliding to full length at the end as it touched the ground.
Uriel follow suit as his archblades spun into his hands, his blue eyes turning orange as his pale tattoos glowed in the darkness.
My scepter fell into my hand, a scythe coming into the other as a tree cracked in the distance.
A hurricane tore into the clearing, a blue-grey streak firing into the area as the trees collapsed beneath its enormous steps.
It was well over twenty feet long,, four legs supporting a tight abdomen and a large, hulking ribcage, heaving hard breaths in the cold forest air. Its legs stretched down to four large feet, three toes each with sharp claws. Its spine extended into a long tail, hard scales running over the thick, broad muscles of the creature. The head boasted two horns like a bull, a snout with a rounded nose similar to a pig’s, a large silver ring stuck through the middle. Its sharp yellow eyes scowled, bearing rows of razor sharp teeth.
Ashur sat atop the creature’s shoulder blades, spear in hand as he circled it in the air before he tapped it to the creature’s tusks. It grunted, shaking its head before he swung it low to the side, leading the beast to charge.
It ran towards the three of us, barreling across the landscape as it charged. I pulled my scythes and slid forward, aiming for the stomach where the armor would be the weakest. The beast slammed a claw before me, stopping me as I crossed the dirt. It lashed toward me, gnashing its teeth and growling as I held back its enormous head. A bolt of electricity shot into its side as I drew my scepter and fired myself away from it.
The saliva of the creature followed me away, burning as it sizzled through the snow. It shot back after shaking off the blow, barreling toward Uriel as it lowered its horns. He steeled himself.
I always thought he was too confident.
He leapt into the air, firing over the creature’s head and shooting straight for Ashur. He pulled a set of trench knives from his belt as he sailed through the air, blades ejecting from the hilt and shooting into the beast’s face. He spun the brass knuckle hilts in his hands as he dove for Ashur, tackling him to knock him off the Turrak’s back. The monster collided with a nearby tree as Raphael caught Ashur in the follow-up, throwing him across the frozen ground. Ashur stuck his spear into the ground, running up the side of a tree and flipping over it to recover before spinning it back around to Raphael. Their polearms gleamed as they clashed in the night, ringing through the clearing as the monster rallied behind us. I moved to cover Ashur as Raphael turned to fight the creature, drawing a pair of black and orange submachine guns from the back of his belt and tearing into its hide.
Ashur and I traded blows as the two tried to fight back the monster when Ashur’s spear caught the side of my leg.
Damn, that one hurt.
He took the opportunity to vault over me, pushing past the brothers to regain control of the Turrak. He charged forward. Knocking them aside before doubling back around the tail, sending Uriel hard into a tree.
“Not a good move.”
He stood up as his tattoos began to glow orange, eyes illuminating in the night as the light moved up his throat.
His voice was rough through the smoke in his mouth as he looked toward his brother. “Raphael!”
His brother’s orange eyes lit up like his own as the clear tubes running the length of his torso filled with a bright liquid, Raphael’s saliva glowing as he snarled.
“Let’s roast this pig.”
The creature charged toward Uriel as he rallied himself, rolling his shoulders high and drawing in breath as the light inside his throat grew brighter, erupting into a roar into a beam of fire and tearing across the Turrak’s armor. Ashur put up a hand to dodge the blast, losing control of the best as Uriel’s beam drove it to the right. Raphael squared his stance before it, grounding a foot behind him and spinning the liquid in the tubes through the gloves.
He yelled as the creature approached, orange strands like fire stretching between his teeth as he threw his hands forward.
What came from him wasn’t a yell more than it was a roar, a deep, guttural sound stretching through the air.
His cry split the air, a beam of power stretching out to the monster and splitting the earth in two, driving enormous pieces of stone into the midnight air. Fire erupted from the ground as his voice shattered the earth, forcing the monster to a stop and throwing Ashur forward.
I ran to contain Ashur, wrenching the spear from his hand and pressing my knee into his back as I pressed the shaft of the weapon into his throat.
Uriel and Raphael moved around the sides of the creature, Uriel employing periodic shocks to keep it down as Raphael carefully approached its face. He put his hands out as the light in the suit subsided, carefully approaching the creature and placing his hands on its tusks.
He pushed them down, pressing the creature’s jaw to the ground, never breaking his eye contact with the monster. He kept the animal’s skull pressed low before he placed a foot on the end of its nose, holding its snout closed with his boot as he drew his SMGs.
A set of short blades came from the end of the guns’ grips.
Raphael scowled as he gripped the weapons tight in his hands, staring the creature intently in the eye as he touched the blades to the creature’s tusks and slowly cut a scratch into each of them.
He holstered the guns and removed his foot from the animal’s snout, holding it down with both his hands. He slowly removed the pressure until he took his hands off the creature, the monster’s head remaining on the ground for a few moments before slowly raising it back up. The two scowled at one another before Raphael turned, walking away from the creature without giving it a second thought.
“It’s over, Ashur.” He said. “I got a cell back home waiting for you.”
“And I still have a spear waiting for you, Raphael.”
“Well,” He said “Get in line.”
The silence hung on as the limousine sped down the road, coasting over the bridge before Vivian finally spoke.
“Any word on your… leadership decision?” She asked.
“I wouldn’t be at liberty to discuss it with you.” Mallory replied.
“Your silence speaks volumes.” Vivian mumbled.
“Why?” Mallory said. “You know the answer, you’re just too stubborn to accept.”
“You never gave me a chance.”
“You failed all on your own.” Mallory said. “Scarlett is capable.”
“After Arthur Nezumi?”
“I’ll admit, Arthur Nezumi was an… Unfortunate complication, but Scarlett is a strong and well-trained agent who’s worked by my side for years. She’ll make a great leader for this organization someday.”
“Someday?” Vivian asked.
“Given the fact that neither of you have recently…excelled as I’d hoped, it’s fairly clear to me that I may need to postpone my retirement.”
Vivian paused, trying to contain the fury of vitriolic pressure building up within.
“…You’ll be staying with Couture?” She asked.
“Until you prove yourself capable, Scarlett improves her leadership skills, or another agent catches my eye.” She said. “And lately, hope has not been inspired in the likelihood of the former.”
Vivian rolled her shoulders, briefly closing her eyes and catching her breath. Her fury subsided with her exhalation as she considered her intentions of the drive.
“If I’m being frank, Vivian, it was always a fairly clear choice. I just hoped after all the effort I put into raising you for the job that you wouldn’t fail. I suppose it may be the only time you’ve surprised me.”
“You imply that you raised me.”
“You conditioned me, mother. Like a goddamn dog.” She said. “You forced me to try to be you, then hated me when I wasn’t. You didn’t care about who I am as a person. You still don’t.”
“Vivian, my obligation is to Couture.”
“So that meant you had to be a shitty parent?” Vivian shot back.
“Vivian Malveaux, you will treat me with respect.”
“I am done treating you with respect.” She said, firing forward a scowl black as death. “The fact is that you are the most wretched, uncaring bitch I have ever have the sincere displeasure of knowing. Frankly, I find you insufferable, you miserable piece of human garbage.”
“Vivian Malveaux, you listen to me.”
Vivian pulled her pistol from her jacket, throwing it forward with a straight arm to square it on Mallory’s forehead.
“No, mother.” She said. “You listen to me.
“I have given everything I have to inherit this organization, and I will not be deprived of my birthright.”
“Birthright nothing. You’re barely even a Malveaux.”
“I am the only Malveaux.” She said. “You stole everything you had from Dad before you left him to die, Miss MacArthur.” Vivian said, a poisonous sting placed on her mother’s former name.
“Caesar wasn’t the man you think.”
“Shut up.” She said. “I deserve this organization, and you’re not going to take it from me because you’re petty.”
“Vivian, I’ll have you know that I will be cut to pieces before I will have you extort this organization from me.”
She pulled back the hammer and smiled. “Don’t threaten me with a good time, Mallory.” She smiled.
Mallory remained silent.
“You want to know the difference between you and Dad?
“When I was eight, Dad read me bedtime stories. He was there for me every time I cried. He was good. When I turned sixteen, he took the day off and brought me to the boardwalk, bought me ice cream.
“You made me kill a man.
“You ever wonder why I never called you Mom?”
“You’ve made your point, Vivian.”
“I wish I could.” She said. “But this’ll have to do.”
The car pulled to a stop where the doors opened, revealing two black-clad men with assault rifles.
Vivian stepped out of the car as Mallory followed.
The mercenaries stood on either side of their captive in an empty field just outside the city, rifles in hand.
“The world’s changed, Mallory. People have evolved with it.” Vivian said. “And those who didn’t?
Vivian straightened her pistol. “Well. Natural selection’s a beautiful thing.”
“You’d better pull that trigger.” Mallory threatened. “Because if you don’t, I swear I will come back with everything I have, and god willing I will tear you to the ground.”
Vivian smiled. “Do your worst.”
She holstered the weapon and opened the door of the vehicle. “From where you’re going, I might be glad to see you for once in my life if you came back.” She sat in the back seat of the limo, closing the door before opening the window. “If only so I could kill you myself.”
The car peeled down the road, and in an instant, Mallory was gone.
Vivian had never felt as relieved as she called Zoe.
“Begin the operation.” She said. “We’re under new management.”
I stood out on the deck, staring up into the sky in the early morning. The sun would be up in an hour or two, and Valentine’s Day would begin for people all over the city. Personally, I planned to catch up on the night I spent monster hunting in bed.
The tablet in my pocket chimed to reveal that it had found a pingback on my missing programmer.
So much for that.
Raphael stepped out onto the deck, closing the sliding glass door behind him.
“Brooding?” He asked, passing me a glass.
“Something like that.” I said.
He crossed his arms and leaned into the rail. “What happens next?”
“I have a lead on the programmer I’m looking for, so it looks like I’ve still got my work cut out for me.”
“No rest for the wicked.”
“You’ve got that right.” I said.
There was a brief lapse.
“I hear you’ve been busy.” He said.
“Something like that.” I said. “Secret societies trying to control the city and all that.”
“How’s your family doing?”
“They’re holding up.” I said. “I brought Carolynn in on the secret a few months ago.”
“How’d that go?”
“She’s a good kid. Tries to help out when she can, but I’m… Well.”
“Her dad?” He asked.
I laughed. “I guess. Wasn’t a problem until October.”
“I get that.” He said. “Some days it feels like people can’t be close to this without getting hurt.” He looked down at the ground. “Especially where family is concerned.”
I paused for a second to take a drink. “Concerned sounds about right.”
“Yeah…” He replied.
I swirled the glass in my hand.
“How about Uriel?”
“Uriel’s himself.” He said. “Maybe grew up a bit, but I’m amazed he can even take himself seriously, let alone anything else. You know how he is.”
“I guess he got the sense of humor.” I said.
He laughed. “Guess so.”
We stared up into space.
“Can I ask you a question, Az?”
“…What happened to us?” He asked.
“What do you mean?”
“You and me, we used to be something.” He said. “What changed?”
“…I don’t know. The world. My place in it.” I said. “You’ve seen the work I do, Raphael. It’s not the same. I had to change for it….Brought something out.”
“What kind of something?”
“I don’t know. The Axis, the Nazis, the USSR. A hundred years finding the enemy overseas, now conquest is over and I’m here.” I said. “He put me here. Born and raised in the Bastion streets. Why?”
“What do you think?”
“I don’t know. That’s the problem. I’ve been doing this for years and people like Vivian Malveaux are everywhere.”
“Then what are you afraid of?” He asked.
“…That people will see what came out.
“You saw Lazarus when you brought him where he belongs.” I said. “I did that. Not because it was right. Not because I had to. I wanted to hurt him. I have dreams about murdering my father that are so realistic it haunts me.”
“I’m dark, Raphael. On the inside. Deep down in the cracks where it’s hard to see, where you can’t wash it out. That’s the kinda shit in me.”
“I’m a pastor’s kid, Az. People think that means you don’t have some skeletons in your closets, but I get damages, Azrael. And sure, back in the day when we ran the front line, when the fight and the family were separate, back when the night was for fighting and the mornings were for your pretty little bird, maybe things were black and white, but that’s not the way they are anymore.
“I get what it is, Azrael. Those moments when you can’t smile, when you can’t take a joke. When the black shade falls over you for just a passing second, when whatever kind of… stuff that’s in you, deep down in the cracks meets reality.
“These days, most of us are more cracks than concrete.” He said.
“But we can’t be two people, Az. You and the mask, you can’t divide yourself like that.”
“That’s the problem, Raphael.” I said. “I am the mask.”
“Then maybe you can find a way to take it off.” He said.
“Look, Az. God could’ve made as many Archangels as he wanted, but He didn’t. He didn’t make a hundred of us like the army, or twelve like the guard, He made seven. Seven of us, so that there aren’t too many that we’re not all important. So that we could work together, depend on each other. So that when we won, we did it side by side. That’s what it’s all about.
“We’re not made to do this alone. If we were, there’d only be one of us.”
We stood there for a few moments as the dust settled before Raphael straightened up.
“We’d best get Ashur back where he belongs, and you’d best get inside before Uriel cleans the top shelf off.” He said. “Only person I’ve met with a drinking problem almost as bad as yours.”
“I don’t have a problem.” I smiled.
“First step’s admitting it.” Raphael shot back, closing the door behind him.
I stood in the evening silence a few moments longer, considering what he said.
Maybe he was right.
Maybe it was time for a change.
I heard the door slide open behind me as Iris stepped onto the deck, wrapping her arms around my abs and leaning into my back.
“That took a while.” She said. “You ladies get to gossiping?”
“Something like that.” I sighed.
She moved to my side. “What’s going on?”
“I don’t know.” I said. “I feel like he and I exist in two different worlds. He’s level-headed, communicative, always making sure peace comes first. I’m volatile and it’s like hell follows me wherever I go.” I sighed. “He almost feels like a stranger.”
“How much of that is your differences?” She asked. “And how much of it is you?”
“I know it’s all me, baby.” I said. “I’ve known that for a long time.”
We stood there for a few moments.
“Can I ask you a question?”
“Anything.” I said.
“What Droigheann said at the end of last summer, about you being angry at Raphael.” She said. “What did she mean?”
“She misread me.” I said. “Less anger, more… Regret.”
“Years ago, I did something that affected a lot of people, including the Wrights. Neither of them know it yet, but… It’s not something I’m proud of.”
“If it affects both of them, why did Droigheann only mention Raphael?”
“Because Uriel forgets.” I said. “Raphael doesn’t.
“Raphael told me something. He said that these days we’re all more cracks than concrete.”
“What I have for him is more than a crack.” I said. “What I have for him is demolition.”
“One thing at a time, handsome.”
We both stood there in silence, looking over the horizon for a long time before we said anything.
“Man, that moon looks beautiful.” She said.
I looked in her eyes, now a deep, deep blue to match the late night winter sky, the stars and the moon appearing clear as day in her irises. “I like the view from here.”
She smiled, laughing as she leaned in to kiss me before we both leaned over the balcony, returning our gazes to the sky.
There was a pause.
“It’d be so simple.” I said.
“Then let’s just go, Apollo.” She giggled.
“Anytime you’re ready, pretty bird.”
“Pretty bird?” She asked. “That’s been a while.”
“Felt like bringing it back.”
“It was sorely missed.”
I laughed. “So guess what today is.”
She smiled, throwing an arm over me and leaning into my shoulder. “Happy Valentine’s Day, sweetheart.”
“Happy Valentine’s Day, gorgeous.” I said. “I got something for you.”
I stepped inside for a brief moment to produce a white box, moving back onto the porch and passing it to Iris.
“Seriously?” She grinned.
“The flowers and card are on the kitchen counter if you’d rather start there.”
She blushed as she smiled beyond her ears. “I think I can start here.”
She tore it open, lifting a grey V-neck sweater of a fine, soft fabric.
She gasped and smiled wide. “Azrael… I’ve been looking at this for so long, how’d you know about it?”
“My slightly shorter sidekick may have given it a mention.” I smiled.
“Oh my god, you really are the greatest.”
“Well, you know a Valentine’s Day isn’t complete without candy. Although I know chocolates aren’t your first choice…” I said, revealing a plastic bag of saltwater taffy.
A microsecond hardly passed before she threw her arms around me.
“I love you, pretty bird.”
“I love you too, handsome.” She said. “More than I could tell you.”
“You could try.” I laughed.
“Well I can start here.” She said, pushing her lips to mine for a slow, deep kiss.
She leaned back as she looked up into my eyes. “Then maybe we could go in and I can show you.”
“I think I’d like that a lot.” I said. “But… Unfortunately, I can’t afford to let that programmer get away, and I just got some intel on his location.”
“Dammit if it’s ever a convenient time for us.” She sighed. “I’m not letting you get away from me that easy, hero. I will get you yet.”
“And I so look forward to it.” I said. “Soon as it works out.”
“Oh, just try and stop me.” She said, leaning in for another kiss.
“I’ve brought down some serious pieces of work in this job, but something tells me that trying to do that might prove a little more difficult.”
“I think you’d be right.” She smiled.
Aki came with little resistance. Vivian’s safehouse wasn’t exactly in the best condition, and my presence was one that wouldn’t be stood up against, especially in his case.
I watched as the police car rounded the corner to pick up a man they’d been tipped off about, pulling the vehicle to a stop next to the light post where I’d ziptied him. I watched from the window of a nearby building as two more cars pulled up alongside the other, followed by a black police personnel vehicle.
Four officers from the first, more following suit.
The officer in the front approached the light post, holding his gun in his hands and aiming to the ground as he stepped forward.
“Police! Don’t move!”
He cut the tie securing the man to the post and pushed his shoulder, shoving his across the asphalt. Aki stumbled to his knees.
He motioned over his shoulder as a black-clad man in a bulletproof vest came forward, an assault rifle slung over his shoulder. He approached the programmer, pulling the pistol from his hip and lacking in all hesitation as he shot Aki right between the eyes.
He watched the man collapse into the blood splattered across the pavement as he holstered his sidearm, equipping the assault rifle.
“Bring me the hood. Dead or alive.” He said, sliding a magazine into the well. “I don’t care which.”
Copyright ©Josiah Delnay 2016.