The white light spilled dim over the concrete, a woman in a grey sweater sitting on her knees in the darkness, hands chained to the floor.
Matted black hair hung over her face as the steel door opened, black heels clicking against the hard floor.
A black-haired woman in a white coat stood before the captive, one hand on her hip as she smiled down.
“Iris.” She said.
Iris raised her eyes, staring upwards in malice.
The woman before her crouched down, silver eyes leveling with Iris’s crimson scowl.
Vivian smiled. “I’ve heard so much about you.”
Two weeks I’d been looking for him.
The red Surenos had found their way into Bastion about a month ago under the protection of the remnant Spanish Mafia, who just loved the work I’d been doing. Edging them out of the city had been no easy process, and my demolishing a good deal of their edge left them desperate for firepower, a role the fleeing Surenos were glad to fill for the right price.
It was this that had led me to the shipyard, where my intel suggested a group of them would be receiving a weapons shipment.
Nothing like a few freshly filed-off serial numbers to bring them out of the woodwork.
I sat at the top of a crane, staring through a set of binoculars at a black van in the yard below.
I pulled a phone out of my pocket, checking the time superimposed over a picture of my wife and newborn daughter.
Gloria Valentine. I thought, rolling it around in my head.
A white van pulled up from the side, parking a few yards from the edge of the arms dealers.
I waited a few more minutes until I could find the payload before I went in.
The first to fall was carrying an assault rifle behind the dealers, clearly some kind of bodyguard before his L3 disk was cracked.
The crowd of mobsters stumbled back as he bent beneath me and I stood above him, clenching my fists and snarling from beneath the black shroud.
Assault rifles split the air as I tore the organization apart, when two shots as loud as thunder cracked the sky, felling two mobsters in front of me.
I turned to witness a fury of black leather spinning through the air, a glinting silver blade shimmering as it tore through the mobsters, flashes of gunfire from the opposite hand bouncing off the polished steel.
I threw back into another mobster as I watched her spin across the air, tearing through them with the silver sword in the center of the massive fight.
She drove the blade toward me as I moved to the side, stabbing a dealer behind me as I flipped over her following arm, narrowly passing her before the revolver discharged again. I rolled under her, arching up into the mobster behind her as we worked around each other, leveling the mob as we twisted around each other.
Her revolver downed the last one as she turned around, leveling it to my forehead as I turned, fists at the ready.
We stared from either side of the dead heat, panting from the fight and considering the motivations of the vigilante opposite us.
“Not bad.” I said. “But you’re out of shots.”
She pulled the trigger, the hammer clicking against an empty shell before she lowered the weapon.
“Not so bad yourself.” She replied. “Pretty sharp.”
“Sharp enough to know you’re a couple months early for Halloween.”
She gave my suit a once over. “That’s funny, coming from you.” She said. “Guess it’s nice to know there’s one of us that isn’t tired of that joke.”
“Who are you?”
“I could ask you the same thing.” She said.
She paused, holstering her revolver before slashing thrice into the chest of the broken mobster next to her to cut a Z shape into his torso.
“Zarra.” She said.
“Go home, kid.” I shrugged.
“Not gonna happen, reaper.”
“It’s Azrael.” I said.
She scoffed. “And you think I have too much imagination.”
I laughed. “You have any idea what you’re getting into here?”
“You’ve seen what I can do.” She said. “I’m not backing down.”
I sighed. “Of course you’re not. It’s never that simple.” I said. “But if you’re going to do this in my city I’m not going to just let you get yourself killed.”
“I don’t need your help, if that’s what you’re saying.”
“Not exactly.” I said. “But I’m guessing you’re after the Red Surenos.”
“And I want them out of my city.”
“And what exactly could you have that I need?” She asked.
“More training and intel than you do.” I said. “The connections, the tech, home field advantage…”
She considered the offer.
“You think we can stop the Surenos?”
“I think you can get out of it alive.” I said.
“…Works for me.” She said.
I took a drink. “Fifteen years later and I pounded her face into the same concrete.”
Carolynn stood expressionless as she contemplated the story of how we met. “So you guys fought together after that?”
“Pretty much.” I said. “Taught her how to fight, how to interrogate, track. Built her new sword myself. And the revolver that gave me this thing.” I said, tapping the gunshot wound in my stomach.
“What happened?” She asked. “Where’d she go?”
“Zoe was young then.” I said. “I was angrier. I couldn’t help her control her rage because I couldn’t control my own.”
“So she left?”
“Yeah.” I said. “Something like that.”
“So she hasn’t always been like this.”
“No.” I said. “Zoe was my friend. I trusted her. She knew about you, about Iris…”
“How’d she get mixed up with Vivian Malveaux?” She asked.
“I don’t know.” I said. “But it certainly redefines our relationship.” I added sarcastically.
“Clearly.” Carolynn said, implicating my bullet wound. “What happens next?”
“Zarra said I’d know where to find her.” I said. “Zoe’s clever, but subtlety clearly isn’t her strong suit. Odds are she’d do the same thing she did with the docks and choose somewhere significant to our relationship.”
“Do you have any idea where?”
“I think I know exactly where.”
Iris said nothing.
“You’ll apologize for the… accommodations.” Vivian said. “But an associate of mine is making a point.”
“And how is Zarra?” Iris asked.
Vivian paused. “What do you know about Zarra?”
“I know she’s just like you.” She said. “Which means she doesn’t have a prayer.”
“She’s got some fight in her.”
“So does Azrael.” She said. “Which is you should be scared.” Iris smiled.
“Five months ago.” She said. “Lazarus Wolfe. Beat that guy to death.”
“Halloween. Beat Arthur Nezumi’s face in with a pipe.” She said. “Made him scared to ever see his face again.”
“A few weeks ago, he hospitalized sixteen people.” She said. “Beat one of them so bad that they’re still talking about it.”
“I can only guess what he did to Manacle just a few hours ago.”
Vivian said nothing.
“You’ve seen what he does, Vivian.” She said. “But you don’t know him. You don’t know what he’s capable of.
“All those things he did were for us. For me. For this city, people who’ve never done anything for him. And you honestly think that after everything you’ve put him through that he won’t tear you apart the same way?
“Some advice.” Iris said. “From someone who knows him far better than you do.”
“What’s that?” Vivian said.
Iris looked up, crimson gaze piercing Vivian’s as she scowled.
“Run. Like. Hell.” She said. “Or Azrael will tear you to pieces.”
Vivian smiled. “You’re tougher than I thought.”
“Act like the romans.” She said.
Vivian smiled. “You know, I like you.” She said. “You remind me of myself… You have the fury.”
Her eyes lit up. “You haven’t seen the worst we can do yet.”
“I’m counting on it.”
The train station was far from the place it was fifteen years ago. The higher end of the city had given up on it when they rerouted the system a few years later, and ever since then this place hadn’t seen a soul.
The old steel line was a spectrum of dusty grey and brown, rotting plywood over the gate-blocked doorways in the once beautiful metal station.
Two lines ran through the forgotten arched room, an empty train on either side of the platform running through the center between the boarded tunnels. A clock hung from the center above a bridge over the platform, conjoining the two elevated railings on the outside edges of the station. The door came in from the surface down an arched stairway, broken turnstiles blocking the exit from the walkway above the train platform. A similar exit was on the other side of the bridge, with two entrances coming down to the central platform between the tracks.
I stepped down the entrance staircase to the central platform of the symmetrical room, the dusty and old lights spilling an altogether minimally effective pale yellow glow over a line that reeked of abandonment. The rain poured over the dust-coated glass, black shadows hanging deep over the empty station.
I looked up into the long-forgotten room.
“Nice to see you’re still breathing.”
“You should know it takes more than that.” I said.
“Oh cut the act, hero.” She said. “I know you too well to be afraid of you.”
“You should be afraid because you know me.”
“Please. I know what you do, Azrael.” She said. “I know your fear.
“I am fear.”
“Not quite, Azrael.” She said. “There’s one exception.
“There’s the light.”
I looked up around the empty room for the source of Zarra’s voice.
“Years you’ve spent in the darkness, hiding behind it from the light.” She said.
“Because in the light you’d see yourself clearly. The light’s the only thing that can show you the truth.
“The light’s the only thing that can hurt you.”
A volley of gunshots erupted from the back of the room, pelting dust up from the spots where the bullets tore into the floor around me. I wove around under the bridge as she spun down from above, tearing into the shadows and out from in front of her sights.
She’d removed the black leather overcoat in favor of the base of the suit, a black jacket and boots with two shining, smoking barrels in her hands.
I hung at the top of the chamber as she paced methodically through it. She wasn’t even searching for me, she was creating the moment.
“My dad taught me a lot about honor.” She said. “About pride. He was strong, taught me to tell the truth.
“He told me that we couldn’t be afraid of ourselves, Azrael.
“More than I ever learned from you.”
She paced methodically up the stairs to the center of the room on the bridge.
“You see, Azrael, he trusted himself. He understood his principles and was consistent with them.”
She examined the way her well-polished revolvers reflected the dim light, glinting off the sleek edges of the barrel. “People have asked me why I chose revolvers. When I was young I had a hard time using them one-handed because of the power. They’re loud, they only carry six slugs… Why this weapon?
“It’s pretty simple, really.
“You’ve studied enough guns to know why.
“They’re powerful, they’re accurate, but you know my favorite thing?
“Revolvers never jam. Automatics are nice pieces of machinery, but much like us, they aren’t perfect. Every time you fire there’s a chance that nothing happens. But with revolvers… Every time you pull that trigger… Boom. Loud as God and twice as bright, the thunder. Lightning right in your hands.”
Zarra caught me in the corner of her eye before the bullets punched through the side of the train, slugs shredding through the steel as they split the air in two.
She knew my movement patterns too well. I had to find a new way.
“My dad was like that. Consistent. Dependable. A person you could count on every time. Maybe that’s why he found himself in the place he did.
“But I can’t help but wonder… Do you think Iris thinks the same things about you?
“What about your kids?”
“You don’t know anything about them.”
“How’s little Glory doing these days?”
“Do they know where you are right now? What you do?
“Do they know where their mom is?”
I said nothing.
“You always used to tell me how important they were to you. How you’d do anything for them. But you don’t even care enough to tell them the truth.”
“Don’t you dare—”
“I don’t have to.” She growled. “Because you’ve already said it yourself with your actions. Maybe you’ve even known it about yourself for all this time, but you’re too scared to say it out loud. Why else do none of them know the real truth? Why do your kids not know about that fancy little costume you keep in the closet?
“Because you’re afraid. You’re afraid of yourself, or that they’ll think less of you, that they’ll hate you, that they’ll leave, that they’ll betray you, that they’ll get themselves killed. You’re afraid of all it. Fifteen years we’ve been apart and you still don’t have the stones to be straight with them for a second.
“But lies don’t work that way, Az. You should know enough about them to understand that by now. They know there’s something. Something extra behind the curtain. Iris has known for twenty years.
“How do you think that makes her feel?
“The woman you shared your life with, and you can’t trust her enough to give her that one little bit. That single truth.
“You ever wonder if she has something like that? Some little thing just out of sight like you?
“Something that she just doesn’t trust you enough to tell you?”
Three more slugs tore through the glass in the railing of the walkway as I evaded the shots.
“And why should she trust you? You started a life. You gave her a family. And yet, here you are, out every night risking taking yourself out of that equation forever. You have no stability. No dependability. No consistency.
“I’ve watched the work you’ve been doing since Hangman from afar. After all, Vivian has me around almost exactly for that purpose.
“But I noticed something. A pattern, I guess.
“Lazarus Wolfe puts her in the hospital, you beat him to death. Arthur Nezumi threatens her city and you step right up to kill yourself for it. Vivian Malveaux delegates some dirty work, and swear against her more vengeance than I might’ve ever heard from you, and damn if that doesn’t mean something.
“I take her away from you and… Well look at everything you’re doing right this minute.
“You’ve always been so quick to give up everything for her.
“But what about last summer? When Temple beat you half to death and you drug your sorry ass halfway through the city bleeding to death.”
She fired a bullet up into the corner of the room.
“What about Halloween? When you literally poured out your last testament beneath a city that had no idea you exist?”
Another shot shattered the clock at the center of the station.
“What about when you fought Cloak and Dagger, or Vivian?”
The lead split the air as she fired off one more round.
“You see it yet, Azrael?”
“…Where was she?
“Where was your Valkyrie, tearing the ancient god down brick by cursed brick?
“Where was your Phoenix crushing the Rat King’s bones into dust?
“Where was your Promise, when you were all alone?
“I chose revolvers all those years ago because I trust them and they don’t fail me. They always have my back.
“Consistent every time.
“Maybe neither of you are the people that you thought, Azrael.”
“You know my favorite thing about revolvers, Zarra?”
“You were never very good at counting your bullets.”
She turned to face the sound of my voice, pulling both triggers as the hammers came down for a hollow strike on empty shell casings.
I pulled hard on the steel cable I’d attached to her foot, pulling her hard toward me where I punched her as hard as I could in the jaw, throwing her legs into the air before I slammed her entire body to the floor when I pounded my fist deep into the thoracic arch at the bottom of her ribcage.
She slammed into the floor, clawing at her stomach and gasping for breath.
I moved back in slowly, gripping at her lapels as I slammed her back into the concrete.
“Where. Is. Iris.”
She coughed as she slowly began to regain her breath.
A long, curved silver blade extended into my hand, her flesh recoiling as I pushed it up to her throat.
“Take all the time you need…”
She choked out raspy words. “One condition.”
“You’re not in the right place for bargaining.” I snarled.
“I know… Where you live.” She said. “Where they live. You don’t have the honor… To fight me like a real warrior…Then I don’t stop with Iris.”
“If you even think about touching my daughters…”
“Then finish it the right way.” She said. “You and me. One last time.”
“Same place we did it last time.” She said. “Tomorrow night.”
I growled. “Deal.” I agreed begrudgingly. “Now where is she?”
Zoe coughed. “You know, Az.”
She smiled as she recognized my realization. I let her go.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, Az.”
A steel door flew open in front of a black concrete room, light flooding into the dim room.
A woman in a grey sweater looked up toward the visitor with eyes of fire.
”I swear to god you touch me and I will kick your f—”
“Evee!” I said, tearing off my mask and hood. “Evee it’s me.”
Iris heaved a sigh as her eyes widened, dropping her shoulders as her eyes turned a deep violet.
I knelt down to the steel brace holding her hands together, prying it apart as her hands lit up to burn through it.
She threw her arms around me, sinking her head into my shoulder.
“It’s alright, gorgeous.” I said. “I’ve got you.”
“I’ve got you.”
The red door swung open as I carried her across the threshold, dragging my tired feet slowly into the foyer.
She leaned into my shoulder, eyes closed as I walked up the stairs.
“You remember when we built this place?” I said.
“I remember how insistent you were about putting in all these stairs.” She laughed quietly.
“And I remember carrying you all the way up every night after we started living here.” I said.
“Well that’s what you get.”
“Not like I mind.” I said. “You holding up okay?”
“Yeah… I think so.” She said. “Could use a shower.”
“Well I think we can make that happen.” I said.
“What about you?” She asked. “What’s next?”
“Don’t worry about me.” I said.
“You took care of Zarra?”
“No…” I said. “Not yet.”
I set her down on the bed when we got to the master bedroom.
“You think you can stop her?”
“…I’m not sure.”
“No.” I said. “I’m not sure I want to.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m… I’m not doing this right. I haven’t been for ages.” I said. “Zarra was my chance to make something better, something that could really make a difference, and I failed.
“I will not fail again.”
“I believe in you, Az.” She said. “I always have.”
I smiled. “Get some sleep, gorgeous.”
I made it back downstairs, removing my boots as I hung my jacket and gauntlets on the stairs in the foyer.
I flexed beneath the light black plate armor, feeling the living room carpet beneath the knee-high socks that padded my boots.
I sat down on the living room floor, crossing my legs on the carpet as I looked up at the Z carved into the wall.
I closed my eyes before I heard it coming.
The trains roared through the subway line, echoing through the tunnels beneath the Bastion streets.
I checked the time on my phone, the white digits over a photo of an onyx-haired beauty holding a grinning baby.
Zarra saw the photo from over my shoulder. “Getting pretty big, huh?”
“Gloria?” I asked. “She’s catching up.”
“Premature, like when I was born.” I said. “Had some trouble starting out, so she’s still just a little small for a kid her age.”
Zoe grinned at the photo. “Look at that smile.”
“Pretty as her mother.”
She listened to the air for a moment. “Sounds like our train.”
“Sounds like it.” I agreed, pulling up my hood as she tied her mask behind her head.
The subway drew to a stop and six men stepped out.
They were no match for the two of us.
Zarra floored one of them as I incapacitated the last one, the fight abruptly ended with the sound of a steel hammer pulling back.
I turned to see her standing over him as he crawled sheepishly back into the wall, cowering before her brand new, upgraded revolver.
“Zarra.” I said.
“Where’s your boss.” She asked.
“Zarra.” I repeated.
He cowered, sputtering through monosyllabic shakes as he struggled to give an answer.
“I don’t have all night!” She roared, blowing a round into his knee.
“Zarra!” I said. “Easy.”
“This is who I came here for, Azrael.” She said. “This is why I came here. Now where is your boss?” She demanded,
He answered the location of the Surenos in Spanish, pleading for mercy through his pain.
Zarra pulled back the hammer. “Nos vemos en el infierno, bastardo.” She snarled.
A gunshot rang through the two-way station where I’d found myself again only a few hours ago, forcing me back into the reality in my silent living room.
My eyes snapped open to look up at the Z on the wall.
“Not this time, Zoe.”
© Josiah Delnay 2016.