(Author’s note: Azrael: Necessary Evil is a two-part episode. You can read the first part here. The thirteenth and final episode will debut the weekend of Friday, August 12th.)
“Bonsoir, faucheuse.” She smiled. “C’est bon de te revoir.”
Good evening, reaper. It’s good to see you again.
“Bonsoir, Mademoiselle. Il es bon de vous voir aussi.”
She grinned over a crystal glass of scotch, leaning back into the sofa and crossing her legs. “Tu parle Français?”
You speak French?
I smiled as I moved around the couch on the opposite side, continuing the conversation in the language. All I had to do was keep this going long enough to finish my remote data upload from the terminal in the basement while staying in the area.
“I speak many languages.” I said. “But French is one of my favorites.”
“A culture of boldness and nobility.” She smiled. “Where did you learn?”
“I grew up on the Seine, a few hundred years ago.” I said, sitting down opposite Vivian and pouring a glass. “But Paris is a different place now.”
“It certainly is.” She said. “But then, so is Bastion.”
I laughed. “Paris doesn’t have people like you.”
She laughed in return. “I think you’d be surprised.” She said. “I spent a lot of time in Paris when I was a girl. Long enough to know that there aren’t people like you.”
“Maybe.” I said.
“That’s the hard truth of it, Azrael.” She said. “There aren’t people like you anywhere.”
“I could say the same about you.”
“I think you’d be surprised.” She said. “My organization has existed for over four hundred years, and it certainly isn’t the only one of its kind.
“People need order, Azrael.” She said. “They always have. That order may come from governments of their choosing, from local special interest groups, or from groups like mine, but however they choose to maintain that order, a man like you is well acquainted with the fact that there are certain parts of doing so that are less than… Reputable.”
“I understand why you’d come to that conclusion.”
She jovially shrugged it off. “As would the cab company worker who will never walk again.” She said. “The point is, maintaining order in such an organized sense tends to require a lot of things that are better off for public appearances if left covert. I mean, you kept yourself a secret from the world for a long time.”
“I did that so I could help this city.”
“And everything we’ve done is to do the same.” She said. “We were founded to foster the growth for the prosperity of the city, and we haven’t lost track of that.”
“And I’m sure that includes killing Jackson Garmana and keeping a man as loved by the people as David Fadi out of office.” I said.
“David Fadi was not part of my plan.” She said. “I’ve only recently gained control of this organization, and unfortunately the things set into motion regarding David Fadi’s election by my predecessor are too late to be changed.”
“I thought you were supposed to help the people.”
She smiled. “I would’ve said the same about you.”
“I’ve brought down crime, I’ve saved countless people, fought drug trafficking, and stopped people who could level this city.”
“My organization has done the same things.” Vivian said. “That’s just the point, Azrael.
“There have always been organizations like mine.” She said. “But there’s only ever been one you. One person like you.
“It’s because you don’t belong here. Organizations of order like mine have shaped the world, and then there’s you.”
“What makes me different?”
“You don’t fit in the equation.” She said. “Think about it. People have read stories about capes since before World War II, but you’re the first to do it. Why do you think that is?
“Tragedy occurs naturally, Azrael. Empires rise and fall, and their people with them. It’s the flow of order throughout the universe.” She said. “Capes change that equation, but before they inevitably rule themselves out, they upset the balance. The natural order of power structures is interrupted, which means it will suffer, at any point, for any number of reasons.
“That’s why I can’t let you keep doing this.”
“You think it’s that simple?”
“Of course.” She said. “I’ve beaten you once.”
I scoffed. “I seem to have missed that one.”
“Interesting.” Vivian said, pulling a cell phone from her pocket and holding it up in one hand.
A voice came through the speaker.
“I’m sorry you had to hear it this way.”
It was me.
“Gloria. You’ve never been afraid to dream big.”
“Stop.” I demanded.
She turned it off.
“October 31st last fall.” She said. “The day that Azrael died.”
“Where did you get that.”
“The day that the Rat King set off his bomb, you recorded this.” She said. “I monitored a lot that was going on down in that lab of his, but that isn’t the point.
“Over half a year ago you were ready to end your own life in a sewer beneath this city, because I wanted you to.
“I made you kill yourself, Azrael.” She said. “Before you even knew my name.
“That’s the power I have, Azrael.” She said. “That’s what I’ve already done.”
The shop sounded silent.
“I don’t care who you are, Vivian.” I said. “I don’t care what Couture came from, or what it’s founded for.
“I did what I did to save the people it tried to kill. I put this mask on every night to protect the people Couture has hurt, to defend the ones that it’s manipulated.
“I’ve lived in Bastion since the day I was born.” I said. “I know these people. They trust each other. We’re all part of something, something we believed in, and you stole it from us.
“I can’t let you take anything else.”
“Then I suppose it’s time.” She said.
I swung a scythe wide through the air, caught above the table by a black ninjato.
Vivian smiled over her sword. “I’ve been waiting to do this again.”
“Oddly enough, so have I.”
“Can we not do this in the shop?” She asked. “There’s a lot of valuable stuff in here.”
“I understand.” I said. “You know, my daughter likes this store.”
“Really?” She grinned. “That’s great. I’ll see if I can send her a coupon or something.”
“Well thank you, I’m sure she’d really appreciate that.”
“My privilege.” Vivian said. “Now, where to?”
I flicked my eyes to the door in the corner to the roof access stairs.
“Staircase.” She agreed.
Our blades collided as we fought our way up the stairs, pushing back up into the hallway.
She pulled back up the staircase as I followed, coming up hard as a scythe curved through the air.
I jumped off the railing and threw a foot forward, blocked by her forearm as she parried with her sword, caught by my blade.
“The stairs were a nice choice.” She said.
“Thanks. I’ve done this a couple times.”
Vivian’s sword glanced off my vambraces as I pushed her further up the staircase, ducking beneath her strikes and jumping up through her defenses.
I knocked her back into the hallway, swinging off the walls of the staircase to slide across the floor and slash into the side of Vivian’s boot.
She launched off the wall with her opposite foot, driving it forward as she followed through with the blade, bringing down my defensive hand and cutting across the outside of my arm.
I shut the sword out with my forearms closing blocks around the outside of my head and weaving around every drive, leading the fight back toward the window at the end of the hall. She swung wide with the blade, cleaving a tabletop vase at the side of the hall in two with one clean cut as she pushed onward.
I found myself at the end of the ornate hallway as Vivian approached, driving the black blade forward with terrible force and intent.
I ducked to the side as the black steel glided past my shoulder, piercing the glass behind me as her blade collided with the window.
I grabbed her violet lapel and pulled the white coat forward, continuing the natural path of the stab motion and driving her head into the glass. I gripped the back of the collar to strike her against it again, pulling the coat to the side against the steel stuck in the window and pushing a knee into her stomach before the glass shattered against her skull.
Vivian fell onto the sidewalk, falling soft into a roll over her shoulder and fumbling onto her side. She stood up slowly, holding a hand to her forehead and clenching her eyes closed.
I hit the sidewalk on one closed hand.
“Not bad.” She said. “Kept the lasting damage low while going for disorientation.” She rubbed her hand across her forehead once more, blinking a few times to regain her focus. “You’ve had formal training. A lot of it.”
“Enough to win this fight.”
“Not so fast.” She said, punctuated by the steel click of the hammer at the back of the pistol between us.
“You and I both may have enough training to know how this game goes, but I happen to know of a particular upper hand I have.
“Well…” She said. “Hands.”
In a flourish of crimson through the air, Scarlett Toussaint fell into the street, pearl-white gloves raised at the ready with two fingers up on each hand.
Scarlett threw in hard first, crimson-laced gloves twisting her arms through the air.
Fighting Scarlett was a purely defensive game. The armor on her gloves was too hard to cut through, and they made her attack speed too fast to match. I had to find advantage somewhere else.
We traded blows as Vivian came in from the side, swinging down from above as she jumped forward. I pushed forward to dodge Vivian’s descended blade as I jumped off the railing opposite the shop, driving a knee forward as blocked by Scarlett’s forearms.
She stumbled back, struggling to regain her balance as I came down to the ground. I lurched forward, sweeping her leg out from under her and doubling up to the back of her head to bring her down.
I swept off Vivian’s slashes as a sword extended from my vambrace, firing into the wooden lower edge of the shop’s window and attaching a grapnel cable to the hilt.
I caught one of Scarlett’s gloves with the steel cord, throwing the other end around a ball atop a pillar in the stone railing at the other edge of the sidewalk.
Scarlett curled a fist through the air, caught by the steel and scowling as I moved in.
Vivian caught up to me quickly, black blade tearing across my shoulder.
I fought through it, getting in all the hits I could on Scarlett while blocking Vivian’s hits from behind me with my vambraces and boots.
Scarlett got in a few hard strikes with a straightened hand, jabbing my ribs as Vivian cut into my side.
I couldn’t fend both of them off much longer. I had to even the score.
Vivian lunged forward, driving the blade toward me as I rolled it off my forearm and throwing her to the same side as Scarlett.
Scarlett caught my arm, twisting it around and striking my chest to push me back.
Vivian leveled her pistol, breath heaving.
“…I’ll be honest, I don’t have anything dramatic.”
She cocked back the hammer.
Four rounds exploded from the pistol, glancing off a hard steel plate.
Iris peered over the shield as the bullets fell to the pavement.
“Man, nobody’s really got it tonight, huh?”
She immediately spun into action, her legs curving through the air as she spiraled forward into the fray.
Scarlett deflected her, pushing her back where she rallied on her heels.
“About time, red.” I said.
Iris’s backhand slash tore forward, met by Vivian’s blade as the two stepped into combat.
Scarlett straightened her ensnared arm, a pointed black stiletto blade stretching out from behind her wrist, slashing the cable in two.
Damn. Didn’t know they did that.
She swung the blades forward, giving me only a moment to draw my scythes and push them back.
The sparks flew as we traded slashes, blades ringing as they shook against each other.
She cut deep into the side of my leg, doubling back across the back side of my arm before driving for the stomach, blocked out by the hard plate on my forearm as I pushed her gloves back with a blade.
Iris’s shield crashed down from above her, followed up by her heavy blade bearing down above Scarlett as I moved back.
I fought back Vivian as Iris took on Scarlett, fighting my injuries as Iris pushed through the scars she’d gained from Vivian.
The four of us pushed apart once more, Iris scowling over the blood falling from the thin red line on her cheekbone.
A blade of serrated black steel shot into my hand, a silver charge at the hilt blinking red beneath my hand.
I threw my hand up and the blade spun through the air, spiraling down to Iris’s hand.
Vivian lunged forward as Iris ran a hand behind the sword, the black steel heating to a dull orange as her power engulfed it.
My blades collided with Vivian’s, fighting back each of her advances as black steel collided before the dark storefront.
“Order isn’t worth destroying people.” I snarled.
“This is the only way they can survive.” She said.
“Then what about Jackson Garmana?” I asked. “What about Harvey Adams? Or Marsha? What about Arthur Nezumi?”
Scarlett and I looked up as Iris called my attention.
Iris threw the superheated blade forward as I ducked beneath it, time slowing as the red-hot steel glided narrowly over my chest.
Scarlett slammed her hands together, bringing the blade to an instant stop just in front of her stomach.
Her feet slid across the sidewalk as the force drove her back, clenching her teeth as the blade came to a halt.
The red charge in the hilt sparked to life as it exploded, blowing fragments of steel outward from Scarlett’s grasp.
Vivian abandoned her attacking stance as she went to help her friend, Iris and I taking to the air in the commotion.
Scarlett laid in the street, the smooth surface of the gloves torn as the thin plating beneath it was displaced, sparking in the darkness.
Vivian looked up as the smoke cleared to see me atop the next building.
She screamed a curse as she pulled her pistol, emptying the magazine in fury over her fallen ally.
“This isn’t over, Azrael!” She screamed. “You can’t find the tide forever!”
I looked at the tablet, confirming that the information upload had completed before returning it to my pocket.
“I won’t have to.”
“Hold still.” Iris insisted, pushing a curved needle through either side of the cut in my shoulder. “I’m almost done.”
“It isn’t usually this bad.” I said, clenching my teeth as I folded my hands together and pressed my elbow into the bathroom vanity. I picked up a glass of scotch I’d left on the vanity a few minutes prior. “This might have something to do with it.”
“You are incorrigible.” She laughed. “There isn’t a program with enough steps for you.”
“There aren’t staircases with enough steps.” I said. “But this time it’s medicinal.”
“Suuure.” She said. “Does it work that way every night?”
“Do I come home hurt every night?”
She thought for a moment, laughing as she shrugged it off. “I guess you’re right.”
There was a brief lapse as she continued to stitch the wound.
“Not at the top of your game tonight.” She said. “Something else on your mind?”
“Vivian.” I said. “She got to me again.”
She wiped off the scar, covering the wound and pushing her thumbs into my muscles.
“You know…” She said. “I knew about it.”
“About the message.”
I paused. I wondered how she found it, but it didn’t matter. Not much of it did.
“…So what do you think?”
“Well what’d she say?” She asked.
“…She killed me. Halloween proved that she could do it, without even trying.
“Every time we fight, she keeps winning. In some way or another. Manipulating me, haunting me, forcing me back.
“I don’t know if I can beat her.
“If I can’t do that… What am I supposed to be able to do for this city?
“Am I really what they need?”
“Az… Do you think that’s what this is about?” She asked.
“What do you need to do?”
“…I need to stop Vivian Malveaux.” I said.
“So do it.” She said. “You’ve trained for centuries. You invented the arts she’s studied. You have every skill you need to ruin her.
“But you can’t do that inside your own head.
“Look, I know you’re looking for a way to be something better, to establish some sort of myth.
“But a myth won’t stop Vivian Malveaux. Azrael will.
“No legend. Just you.”
She slid her hands up my spine, pushing up through my shoulder blades.
“Heroism isn’t about being something incredible all at once, it’s about being what someone needs when they need it.
“When the Rat King’s bomb was five seconds away, the people of this city needed someone to stop it. You were there to do it. You were just a man, who handed off his life, who signed his own death warrant to save millions of people who would never know you did it. No legend. No myth. Just a man doing what was necessary.
“You said that Zarra taught you that you weren’t who you needed to be. But that? The person who stepped up, for nothing? Maybe he wasn’t who he needed to be, but he was who this city needed him to be. That was you. That’s always been in you.
“And maybe you haven’t found the hero you need to be. But you found the one this city needs.
“So go be him.
“Go be you.”
The mirror in front of me displayed a tired man, sunken silver eyes above a worn, scarred, sharp jaw weathered by the age of combat and the scars it had gifted him.
He wasn’t a fear. He wasn’t a myth, or a legend. He was a man.
He was me.
He could stop Vivian Malveaux.
Scarlett stretched beneath the bandages, curving her torso and clutching her wrapped side as she held the bandages pulled by her black sports bra. Broken rib, definitely a pretty harsh bruise. She slid a jacket over her shoulders, rolling up the sleeves over her white-wrapped wrists and forearms. She pulled the zipper up, wincing as the jacket tightened around the dark purple bruise on her stomach before deciding against it.
Her legs fell from the edge of the bed as she picked up her cellphone, groggily opening her link to Couture’s data servers and exploring the records for a few minutes.
She stood up, her legs failing her as immediately as her feet touched the lush red carpet. She caught herself on the nightstand, limping against the bedposts as she made her way around to the door.
A shaft of light fell in, blinding her delicate waking senses. She held a hesitant eye open, softening her hold on the opposite as her wince disturbed the scar on her cheek.
Her wrapped hands slid over the varnished oak walls as she limped down the hall. This wasn’t the first time she’d done it, and she had no doubt it wouldn’t be the last.
She opened a door at the end of the hall, a gentle light within generated by the candles around the edges of the room.
A black-haired woman sat on a mat in the center.
“Figured you’d be in here.”
Vivian stood. “Are you alright?”
“Well.” Scarlett said. “I’ve been worse.”
Vivian looked down through Scarlett’s open jacket, observing the purple bruise on her stomach and extending her hand.
Scarlett stepped back, rejecting the gesture and leaning against the edge of the doorframe.
Vivian recoiled softly, returning her hand to her side. “I’m glad you’re alright.” She said. “I didn’t know what Azrael was capable of.”
Scarlett twisted at the top of the bandages on her forearms. “I was distracted.” She said. “…What did he mean?”
“Azrael was talking about… The people we’ve affected since we got involved with him.” Scarlett said. “He mentioned Hangman, Jackson… And Arthur Nezumi. Why?”
“Arthur?” Vivian asked. “Well, I don’t know. He might’ve found something in our files about him.”
“But why did he attribute Arthur’s actions to you, Vivian?” She asked. “He said you were responsible for all of them. Why would that include Nezumi?”
“He’s just a thug, Scarlett, he doesn’t know every complexity of how this organization operates.” Vivian said. “He probably just established the connection on his own.”
“Well.” Scarlett said. “I considered that, but then I found this.
“While I was moving the datastores we had to the Imperial building, I was looking through the information you requested.”
She lifted the phone up, producing a still from the sewer lab’s security footage of Toxicity’s black carbon gloves descending upon a gas mask of a frightened scientist.
“You know why he stopped?”
“What?” Vivian asked.
“Why Azrael stopped.” Scarlett said. “Amour.”
Vivian stuttered for a moment.
“Why’d he mention your call sign?”
“Scarlett, Arthur is insane.”
“Eliminating Arthur was my mission. Why did he know about you?”
Vivian sighed. “I…”
Scarlett scowled, narrowing her solemn, moist eyes. “You hid him from me.” She said. “You gave him all the equipment, didn’t you? Arthur Nezumi cost me my promotion. You stole this organization from me!”
Vivian’s eyes slanted down to the lower corner of the room. “Scarlett, I—”
“Why, Vivian.” She said. “Just tell me why. Was it all about the power? Did Couture mean that much to you?”
“You lied to me, Vivian!” Scarlett snarled, the tears breaking over the edges of her eyes. “I trusted you!”
Vivian’s heart began to break. “Scarlett…”
“I guess Couture meant more to you than I do.”
“Scarlett, you mean—”
“No.” Scarlett growled, struggling to hide her breaking voice. “I’m done, Vivian.”
She turned into the doorway, pulling her pistol from her jacket’s other pocket and throwing it on the floor.
“Keep your goddamn gun.” She said. “It’s over.”
Vivian followed, teary-eyed as Scarlett limped angrily down one side of the hallway.
“Au revoir, Vivienne.” She said. “Je vous verrai en enfer.”
Scarlett slid her hand down the smooth varnished oak walls as she walked away.
This wasn’t the first time she’d done it.
But this would be the last.
I was sitting in front of the monitor in my workshop when I got the phone call, encrypted through my informant network.
“You and me.” The voice said. “Name a time and place.”
“Behind the medical center on Twelfth. Twenty minutes.”
“I’ll be there.” She said.
A redhead in a black track jacket stood in the back alley, leaning against the rear wall with a briefcase in her hands.
I emerged from the shadows as Scarlett lifted her head, a gentle orange light illuminating her shaken features from the tip of a half-spent cigarette.
“Right on time.” She said.
“A point of pride.” I responded. “Something you wanted to see me about?”
“Something.” She said.
She held the briefcase forward.
“What’s in it?”
“Something of mine that you might be able to get some use out of.” She said. “I don’t plan to use them much anymore.”
She opened the case, revealing the broken pair of mechanical white gloves, now charred with black ash from the explosion.
I took the case.
“What are these for?”
“You’ve got some good tech. Maybe you could put them to good use.”
“Why?” I asked.
Scarlett sighed. “I’m… Leaving. I don’t know. I don’t think that Couture’s the place I should be anymore.”
“What about Vivian?”
“Vivian’s… Not who I thought she was.” She said. “Do what you want with Couture. You win, she wins… Either way. I don’t care anymore.”
She walked into the shadow, the orange light passing into the darkness.
“I’m sorry.” I said.
She looked over her shoulder.
“What for?” She asked.
“That any of this had to happen.” I said. “The world is changing. Don’t forget who you are.”
She stood there for a few moments, taking another drag off the cigarette before dropping it to the pavement.
“Thanks, Azrael.” She said.
With a twist of her heel, the light went out.
The red-laced gloves sat on the workbench, the steel stiletto blade compartment hanging open as the blade hung from a loose joint.
I twisted the curved end of a serrated tactical sword, bending back the smooth, sharp tip to fold the sword back.
Vivian stared at the gun in her hands. She didn’t know how long she’d been just sitting there looking at it, but it never got better.
The door opened up behind her as her butler stepped delicately into the solemn room.
“Alsleigh.” She said.
“Is there anything I can do for you?”
She wiped the smeared mascara from her cheekbones. “Call the girls at Imperial. I’m starting the operation.”
“Are you sure?”
“…I’ve got nothing left to lose.”
Iris stepped into the garage, observing the folded sword in my hand.
“What’s that?” She asked.
“The tech I need to finish my design.” I said.
“Nice. Think you can get it to work?”
“I think so.”
“So?” She asked. “What’s next?”
“…The end.” I said. “All of us, against all of them.
“Let’s round them up.” I said.
“Their era is about to end.”
© Josiah Delnay 2016.