Six knotted pieces of black string sat on the edge of my bathroom vanity, above which stood a reflected image of me cutting more stitches off my arm with a pair of medical scissors.
“Looking good, scarecrow.” My wife said from the door.
“You should see the other guy.” I said. “Well, girl.”
“You said it wasn’t that bad.”
“No, but I did say there was a fight.” I said. “And you know how that works with me. Plus she got you involved.
… I think Zarra will find her way, eventually.”
“I hope so.” She said. “So what’s next?”
I pulled one more stitch before I met my steel grey eyes in the mirror.
“Couture.” I said.
“What do we know?” She asked.
“Next to nothing.” I said. “If I didn’t know better, it’d be questionable whether or not they actually exist.
“The long story short is that these people are ghosts. I don’t know how many there are, where they came from, how long they’ve been here… But I know where they have a base of operations, I know everything that’s happened lately is their fault, and I know that Vivian Malveaux is right at the top.”
“So where do we start?”
“Zarra gave me an address.” I said. “A dress shop on second. I’ve seen the place before. Zoe says they use it to front their operations in Bastion.”
“Well.” Iris smiled. “Shall we?”
I zipped up the front of the open carbon subsuit. “Let’s.”
The edges of the hallway were finished with a deep, rich varnish, sleek and elegant running boards reflecting the soft yellow lights over the rich crimson carpet.
A set of high-priced black flats came down lightly on the floor as a similar set followed close behind.
Vivian slid a gentle hand across the rich oaken wall paneling in wistful recall.
“When I was six or seven, my dad would chase me down this hall. I never realized how much that meant after all the time he spent at the company every day.” She smiled. “I remember one time I fell and scraped my knee, there he was.
She examined a pillar in the wall, smooth wood beams running up from floor to ceiling above the intricately carved base.
“It wasn’t anything terribly significant, I guess. But there were a hundred things like that.” Vivian said. “He once told me that caring about someone isn’t really about all the dramatic things to write home about, it’s about making consistent sacrifices. That’s who my dad was.”
“I’m glad you had somebody like him.” Scarlett replied. “I know Caesar… Mr. Ackerman meant a lot to you.”
“Caesar.” She corrected. “…It was Caesar. Well. Dad.
“Not my mother. It was always ‘yes, Ma’am’, or ‘I’m sorry Miss Malveaux’. Especially that last one.” Vivian scowled. “Wasn’t even her name…”
Scarlett approached the idea with a somber reverence. “…Can I ask a question?”
“How did they end up together?” She asked. “I know… all the things she said about him.”
Vivian sighed. “It was political, mostly. My grandmother’s responsibility. She raised – Well, conditioned my mother to be the head of Couture. Caesar was the aspiring owner of the biggest steel company on this side of the country. Made sense. She’d get the money and the power, he’d have his empire, and when Mallory became the head of the organization, she’d be able to raise a powerful heir.”
“That makes sense.” Scarlett said. “Now, what did you mean Mallory wasn’t a Malveaux?”
“She was just an agent, like my grandmother.” Vivian replied. “By the time she was up for the chair, he figured she’d be better off with a more prominent name from the line.”
“So he chose Malveaux?” Scarlett asked.
“It was my name first.” Vivian said. “She stole it from him, just like everything else.
“He told me that I could make something of it.” She said. “Vivian Malveaux would be one the great names in history.
“The name my father gave me.”
They walked up the hall in silence for a few moments as Vivian’s thousand-yard stare fell across the polished wood.
“There’s something important I need you to do.” Vivian said. “Something that I can only entrust to someone of your talents.”
“Of course.” Scarlett said.
“…I’ll have Alsleigh get you your best dress.”
A long concrete hallway stretched through the ground beneath the high-end women’s fashion shop, dim lights smooth over the dark floor.
I turned the corner into the hallway quietly, looking down the empty concrete tunnel in search of Vivian’s agents.
The dark hallway echoed, empty.
A thick steel door stood at the end of the hallway, bars running along the edges on either side of a passcode unit in the center of the door.
No way was I getting in there.
I opened a door at the other end of the hall leading into a dark room filled with rows of metal filing cabinets.
I determined the room was empty before sliding one of cabinets open, reading the carefully labelled pages inside.
I searched for a few more moments before the lights came up.
I turned around to view a woman in a deep crimson dress, soft red hair falling over her shoulders.
Light brown eyes stared intently past well-manicured lashes, a confident stare holding a delicately-measured spite.
An elegant dark red evening gown cascaded to the floor, layers of red lace curling down around the edges as the crimson faded down. A collar pushed up around one side of her neck as it rolled over her shoulder, floating effortlessly in waves down her back.
She ran her hands up the sides of a long set of white gloves, coming to a point just below her shoulders. A set of sharp red lines ran up from her delicate fingers, curving across the arm-length gloves between the contours of the material’s intersection. Something was odd about them, appearing as though they were composed of a set of thin material plates, curving gracefully up her delicate muscles.
“Well I feel a little underdressed.”
“Nah.” She shrugged. “I’ve pulled off some infiltration ops in stranger outfits.
“But I’ve gotta say, reaper, I do like the look… Even if it’s a little on the nose.”
“Oh, I know.” She said. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”
“Unfortunately I haven’t had the privilege.”
“Scarlett Toussaint.” She said. “Couture.”
“Figures.” I said. “You work for Vivian?”
“She’s a friend of mine.” She said. “She’s told me a lot about you.”
“Likely the worst parts.”
“And what about all the people she’s murdered?” I said. “What about all the lives she’s ruined, all the people she’s corrupted?
“What about Jackson Garmana, or Lazarus Wolfe? What about Agent Hudson, or Zarra?”
“I never trusted Zoe too much.” She said. “And Hudson chose the life she led. The rest was… It wasn’t Vivian’s responsibility.”
“That doesn’t excuse you.” I said. “If Vivian really thought she was doing any good you’d know that.”
“Vivian sees a bigger picture than you.” She said. “There are bigger powers in play here. Things you haven’t seen yet that would shatter your world like glass. We are the line between them and Bastion.”
“I guess Vivian really didn’t tell you much about me.” I said. “I’ve been around the block a few thousand times.”
“I know.” She said. “My point still stands. There’s more going on than you know.”
“I know about the blood on Couture’s hands.” I said. “That’s all I need.”
“Then let’s see who wins.”
Scarlett swung first, firing a straightened hand forward toward me. I shifted to the side, grabbing her wrist and firing a knee up into her elbow to break it.
The steel plate on my knee bounced off the unflinching red-trimmed glove.
Her elbow fired into my jaw, throwing me back against a filing cabinet before driving three hard hits into my torso.
I rolled them off, somersaulting over the floor and drawing a black steel ninjato.
I arched the blade forward, slashing across the corner of the room. She twisted her arms through the air, shrugging the steel blade off the edges of the gloves as she pushed back.
She spun her arms wide around the blade, twisting her hand around the back and attempting to wrench it from my hand. I pulled back and drove it forward, scraping over the thin white material on the gloves as the weapons collided.
I spun the ninjato backhanded, tearing forward to regain ground as she blocked every hit, arms like lightning as they tore through the air against the sword.
I swung from high up, bringing the blade down hard to Scarlett.
She held her forearm vertically, bringing the blade to a dead stop between her two fingers.
She smiled over the black steel as she twisted them together, bending the sword between her two fingers before snapping the end of the blade with a flick of her wrist.
She twisted the broken end of the sword effortlessly through her hand, blocking my broken blade with her opposite arm. She swung the steel fragment low, tearing it across my stomach before curving it back up my arm. She swung back around with it several more times, tearing in deep as she forced me further back.
She threw the broken steel straight as an arrow, punching it through my shoulder before freezing at the conclusion of the throw’s perfect form, a long, slender leg extending from an opening in the front of the dress.
“I can see why Vivian says what she does about you.” Scarlett said. “You’ve both got the ninjato thing going on… I was raised with rapiers, but I’m generally inclined to katanas. More ergonomic. And much as I like the flashy alternatives…” She ran a hand delicately up one of her powerful gloves as she shifted her weight, revealing a thigh holster from which she pulled a polished silver pistol. “…Sometimes you just can’t beat the classics.”
The first volley of brass-jacketed steel exploded through the air, tearing through the walls behind me as I spun out of the way. She fired three rounds before she corrected her aim, leading her shots and firing three more. I stumbled as the first one caught my leg, the following two cutting across my stomach as I slid to a stop against a filing cabinet.
I put an arm up on the top of the cabinet, pulling myself up as Scarlett leveled the pistol.
“A pistol?” I asked. “Honestly I expected a little better from Couture.”
“Well, we’re full of surprises.” She said. “I honestly expected a little better from you. Angel of Death and all that.”
“Well.” I said. “I’m full of surprises.”
I lifted my head to meet Scarlett’s eyes, white fire burning out of my head as my teeth sharpened to razors. The world faded to black, the instantaneous storm ripping the wind through the shattered window behind me as the gale tore through the room.
Scarlett looked up to the reaper before her, the chaotic terror gripping at the edges of her mind, breaking down her reality. The vortex pulled at the edges of the world as the wind bellowed outward through the window, pulling the shade back into the night.
She blinked a few times as the light began to return, shaking her head and staring through the empty room at the broken window.
“Dammit.” She said, scowling into the empty night. “Next time, reaper…”
I stood in front of the bathroom mirror.
As the blood dripped slowly from my stomach, I thanked the lord for the finish Iris put on the tile so I wouldn’t have to scrub it out of the grout.
I smiled to myself, considering the fact that I was more concerned with cleaning my floors than digging the lead out of my abdomen.
The third and final copper-coated shard fell into a steel dish atop the vanity.
I wiped the blood from the wound, pushing the curved needle into it to stitch it back together.
“Looking good, scarecrow.” My wife said from the door.
“You should see the other guy.” I said. “Well, girl.”
“You know we’ve got anesthetics for that, right?”
“I studied years of pain tolerance for it.” I said. “There’s also scotch.”
“And a wife who could give you a hand.” She said, sliding her hand over the scar, a cool light shining from her soft palm as the pain began to fade.
“There’s also scotch.” I smiled. “But that works too.”
“So.” She said. “Didn’t go so well, huh?”
“Not entirely.” I said. “One of Vivian’s agents… Scarlett, I think.”
“I didn’t expect so many bullets, considering Vivian’s affinity for swords.” She said.
“I thought the same thing.” I said. “But you should’ve seen the gloves.”
“Nope.” I shook my head. “You get to see them yourself.”
I turned around, patting around the freshly stitched wounds as I leaned back against the vanity.
“I’ll have to head back.” I said. “There’s a security door with a computer room behind it, according to what I found. The information I could get from it would be priceless.”
“You’re not worried about Scarlett?”
“Vivian will have set up some agents on defense by the time I get back there.” I said. “But with both of us, even someone as dangerous as Scarlett should be less of a problem.”
“How’d she stack up to Vivian?”
“She’s…Well, Vivian’s far better trained.” I said.
“Then why’d you lose?”
I paused. “…What?”
“Why did you lose?” She asked. “Top of your game last year you could kick Vivian’s ass up and down with your eyes closed.
I sighed. “I don’t know.”
“I think you do.” She said. “Maybe you just haven’t figured it out yet.”
“I… Zarra said that the light is the only thing that can hurt me.” I said. “That people can’t be afraid of themselves.
“Zarra showed me I’m not the hero I’m supposed to be.”
“So what’s next?” She asked.
“…I don’t know.” I said. “But it starts with Couture.”
“He… got away.”
“Are you alright?” Vivian asked.
“Fine, I guess.” Scarlett replied.
“What did he do?”
“I don’t know…” She said. “It’s like everything just… Shattered.”
“I’ve seen it before.” Vivian said. “As long as you’re okay. Did he take anything important?”
“Not that I know of, but he’ll be back.” Scarlett said. “I’m sorry.”
Vivian sighed, leaning over the desk before she smiled. “Don’t worry about it, sweetheart.”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course.” Vivian said. “I’ll get some agents on security, why don’t you move our assets from the shop to the tower? It’s time to move.”
“What about Azrael?” Scarlett asked.
Vivian smiled. “I can handle him myself.”
Two black steel swords penetrated the upper level walls of the building above the dress shop, hilts exploding in clouds of grey smoke as two crimson-clad figures descended on the balcony.
Iris and I entered through the windows over the broken Couture guards, infiltrating the building at the highest floor, met in silence. We descended an oak stairwell at the corner of the building, moving down to the lowest floor where the file room was and coming to a halt at a small concrete landing at the bottom, a heavy metal door across from the stairs.
“The file room is through the first door.” I said. “Get everything you can and get out.”
“What about you?”
“Computer room.” I said, rolling my shoulder beneath a heavy metal chain slung over it. “I’ve got it covered.”
I opened the door into a concrete hallway, a locked door across from the entrance before it stretched down toward the dark end, an electrical pipe and a set of utility lights at the top of the wall leading up to the black steel door at the end.
A silver shield manifested onto Iris’s arm as she lifted it, bringing the bottom of the heavy steel crashing into the doorknob to break it off. With a strike from the side of the plate the door flew open and Iris entered the file room.
The sound of the fight was muffled behind the hard walls, covered by the sound of footsteps rushing into the concrete hall.
At one end there stood two of Couture’s agents, dressed to the nines and outfitted with a series of custom-made pistols at the ready beside two black-clad gunmen.
At the other, a black hood over steel chestplates, softly reflecting what little light was offered in the dim hallway over a powerful form.
The chain rattled as I wrapped one end around my palm, shrugging it from my shoulder and pulling it tight between my hands in the few available beats of silence.
The hammers cracked against the casings as the air exploded, a sharp light bouncing off the concrete walls. I ducked to the side, crouching to close the gap between us as I arched the heavy chain through the air, shattering the first light and snapping it back to strike an agent on the right side of the group.
I swung it wide in front of them, knocking them back as I threw in hard, wrenching back the first one’s arm and firing her pistol into the next two lights in the hall. I twisted her spine over my knee, hitting her jaw with one hand before doubling the chain back around to push back the others. I threw both fists forward in wide archs, striking with the sides and tearing across them with the chain.
I slammed one of the gunmen into the floor, wrenching the shotgun from his hands by the barrel and beating back the other with the stock. I swung the chain one-handed to fight back the others as the disarmed guard stood up behind me, throwing a punch as I ducked beneath it.
The shotgun spun around my hand as I fired it backwards next to one of the agents’ head, disorienting her as the recoil blew the gun through the air and into the side of the standing gunman’s face.
I raised the chain again, swinging the arch of steel links between my fists around the dark hallway.
The two agents came in fast, kicking high into the air as I blocked them off on the outside.
I brought the chain down hard, catching her leg with it as I threw the other end around her neck, hanging it from the mounting of the broken light. She clawed at her neck as the other agent threw a punch behind me.
I caught her arm with the end of the chain, twisting it and breaking her elbow as I grabbed it further up, pulling myself higher for leverage as my knee collided with her jaw.
I spun backwards to kick the agent hanging from the light fixture, pulling the chain off of the incapacitated fighters and wrapping it around my hands.
The gunman raised his hands on the offense as I raised mine, pulling the chain tight between them. The steel slammed into him, the chain rattling to punctuate every hit.
I whipped it over my shoulder to strike an enemy agent, jumping off the wall as I struck hard with an over-the-shoulder throw.
The chain hit the floor with a series of sequential clanks as it unwrapped from my hands, my breath heaving as I stood over it.
I looked to the end of the hallway where the file room door hung open, Iris leaning against the wall next to it.
“…Shit, I’ve got nothing.”
“Aww.” She sighed. “Never thought I’d see the day you ran out of one-liners.”
“Well.” I said. “Maybe it’s time for a new chain of command.”
“Ugh.” She said. “Good enough.”
“Sorry, I lost my chain of thought.”
I drug the chain across the concrete, throwing it up around the bars on the sides of the door.
I gathered the chain over my shoulder, pulling it tight against the four corners of the door and clipping the ends together in two loops.
I pulled the scepter from my belt, opening its balance-scale shaped likeness and hooking the chains over the arms.
I leaned just past the file room doorway to see Iris sorting through the drawers.
She looked up.
I smiled. “Time to blow this thing wide open.”
“Just stop while you’re ahead.”
I pulled the scepter back with all my might, the supernatural force of the weapon pulling the chain to rip the broken steel door off the frame.
Time to get what I came for.
I opened up the stairwell door into the shop.
A faint streetlight fell through the window at the storefront, the backwards calligraphic word “Couture” written on the glass and visible between the three mannequins in front of it.
A series of clothing racks were built into the rich wooden walls, elegant and expensive dresses and overcoats cascading down to the rich champagne tile.
A set of hand-crafted couches stood around a coffee table, a silver tray atop the table holding a set of crystal glasses.
A well-manicured set of clear-coated nails wrapped sequentially around one of the glasses, pouring a clear light brown liquid into it from a crystal decanter.
She lifted the scotch to her thin lips before she smiled.
“Bonsoir, faucheuse.” Vivian grinned. “C’est bon de te revoir.”
Good evening, reaper. It’s good to see you again.
© Josiah Delnay 2016.