Consciousness returned reluctantly to Nash. Every part of his body protested. His chest was on fire. His legs ached. The skin of his face was stinging painfully. His palms were scraped, contused by gravel. And his heart felt like it was being stabbed with every beat. But he was alive. He’d not expected that. He took a deep breath, and was made horribly aware of the way his ribs ached. He opened his eyes and took stock of his situation. He was sitting in a white-walled room, on a large, comfortable white bed. A single window let in the bright dawn light as the sun rose over the hills. He leaned back against the soft mattress. He thought back to last night.
Silas Nash was not much for signs and portents. The human mind, he considered, was an extraordinarily effective pattern recognition system. So effective, in fact, that it had a bad habit of discovering patterns where none existed. Nonetheless, he might as well write down what he’d seen. He reached into his jacket, and was grateful to find the notepad was there, and his pen- And the pink book from the night before. He could examine that later. He began scribbling down what he could remember while it was still fresh. The strange shape of his assailant. There was no question that they had been something strange, even before he’d gotten bitten. The two large puncture marks in his arm, surrounded by a spiderweb of green, confirmed that. A snake, he remembered, scribbling that down. They hadn’t looked older than a teenager, but they’d been strong enough to nearly kill him. He took a deep breath, steadying the brief shiver of terror at the idea, and tried to remember who he had seen in the hallucination. Dean and Megara, Pearl, Ariel, Harry, Isabelle, and whoever the figure in black had been. Except for the figure in black, they had all been people who he had met in the town. Was that because it was truth, or because they were the people at the forefront of his mind?
And the woman in red. She’d spoken to him. He’d see her a handful of times in his life, always with a smile on her face, always driving him to rage. He shuddered softly at the memory. Her voice had been a strange thing, terrible and deafening and soft all at once. He began to force himself out of the bed, his heart racing, the EKG monitor letting out a staccato set of beeps in protest. In seconds, the door opened, and the woman from last night stood in its frame, barring the way out. His fevered mind had produced an image so stereotypical it made him cringe with embarrassment, but he could see why he might have seen what he did. The doctor stood in a lab coat, her skin a well-tanned bronze, her hair dark as pitch, and her face was more handsome than beautiful. But it was very handsome. She held a long black ceramic cigarette holder in one hand, her other arm crossed over her chest, holding her elbow. A small cigarette burned merrily at the tip of the black cigarette holder. A golden chain hung around her neck, a small wedge-shaped red gem hanging from it. “Making a break for it, were we?”
He gave an apologetic smile. “I’m sorry to have bothered you, Doctor-”
“Smith. Megan Smith.” He nodded apologetically. “And when you stumbled to my door, your heart was in fibrillation. If Cassandra hadn’t helped told me that you’d been bitten by a cobra, you’d be on a slab right now.” The doctor narrowed her eyes. “There are many strange things in this city of ours, I know. But not many of them could let a man whose heart has stopped restart it again without medical intervention. The moment the antivenom was in you, your heart started beating. What exactly are you, Agent Nash? You don’t have the right smell for a spirit. You don’t have the right look for a hero.” She lifted the cigarette holder to her lips, and puffed on it. It flared into life, and she blew out a long stream of smoke. “You are an anomaly, and to be perfectly frank, that is something that we cannot afford in the city, at this moment.”
He frowned, and couldn’t bring himself to meet her eyes. “I’m just a man, Doctor Smith. You’re not the first person to show a bit of distaste for me.” He wondered, just for a moment, what the people in this town saw in him that scared them so damn much. How could they all share an opinion of him that seemed so… Well. Negative. He didn’t consider himself to be charming, but even among his coworkers, he rarely got this kind of ferocious reaction from people. Could they smell the guilt on him? See his sins on his face? “How about you tell me a bit about this city, and why it can’t handle an anomaly?” he asked pleasantly. The doctor stared at him, lips pressed together. He realized, despite her weary stance, she was not old. There were no lines on her face. She didn’t look much older than him, in fact. She seemed to finally find what she was looking for in his face, because she moved to take a seat next to him.
“Fine. What would you like to know?”
He paused for a moment. The open offer of information was suspicious, if only for the contrast it offered to his experiences in the town so far. But he didn’t have to take anything she said for granted.. “I’ve heard a lot about monsters and heroes in this place. What, exactly, does all of that mean?”
She told him. And as she spoke, she also wove a picture in his head. A time before there were concepts like time, when the world was defined by forces, and not words. The coalescence of gas created a star. The compacting of silicon and iron created a world. The interplay of hydrogen and oxygen created water. A daub of carbon mixed with the right phosphates and chemicals, and life was born. And through it all, the forces existed. They were always there, nameless, purposeless, mindless. They were things like Fire and Space and Air and Conflict and Death. They existed with power, the ability to change things, but no desires, no opinions. They acted as their natures told them, and they never considered that there could be any other way to act. It was a simple existence. It was a meaningless existence. Life became more complicated. And then the first thing with a voicebox spoke to another thing, and told it that the bright point in the sky was called the Sun. And suddenly, two nonillion kilograms of hydrogen was informed that it existed for the sake of a handful of plains-dwelling apes on the fifth-smallest planet orbiting it. This would not have been so bad, except the Sun believed it.
Forces that had existed for billions of years suddenly found that they had been made into people. Some of them hated this. Some of them loved it. All of them were able to hold an opinion only because of the unasked-for gift. The great forces, like the sun, the tides, the moon, these things had existed for long enough that they had, if not wisdom, at least tradition. They did not change their courses at the requests of humans. They made the tiniest of changes, perhaps, if they felt the mood take them, but so small as to be nearly unseen. The other, lesser forces were not nearly so lucky.
Take Coyote. He had been a normal coyote, once. By a quirk of chance, he had traveled alongside a small band of hunters. They had noticed the way he waited for them to kill a buffalo, letting them take the lion’s share, and then worrying away at the ragged corpse. He had not eaten the finest meat, but he had profited from the work of others. The men laughed, and told each other that he must be an extremely clever hunter, to gain the reward without any of the risk. And in that moment, the light had appeared in Coyote’s eyes. He had thought to himself, ‘what a clever being I am’. And he acted like a clever human. This had created a great deal of trouble for him, but that was alright, because humans liked to see the intelligent getting their comeuppance. And so, a simple plains scavenger became a god of trickery and wisdom.
Megan Smith had been a white buffalo calf, albino and sickly. Left by her mother to die, she had been found by a hunter, who had taken her in out of some strange fascination with her unusual appearance. The winter was lean, but he went hungry to ensure she had enough food. Miraculously, she survived, and the spring brought with it a marginally better harvest than usual. And the hunter’s people, who did not quite understand the concept of chaos theory, solar variance, PH balance being affected by an unusually acid-free snow, and a slight decrease in the number of plant-borne illnesses, attributed it to the white calf. As she had grown older, she had been treated like a sacred animal by the tribe. And bit by bit, she became so. She had always thought it was quite unfair, however, how she had been given the credit for the pipe. After all, it had been a quite clever young man that she fancied who had worked out how to make it for her. But people liked symbols. And the peace that had spread across the Plains tribes because of that pipe had been a grand thing. Right up until the point when a separate tribe of humans arrived, and murdered almost everyone she knew, and conflated her with a confused young woman who had not kept track of the father of her child in some distant desert city.
Not that Megan Smith was bitter. Of course not. But spirits and humans had lived in harmony. The spirits were those things which had been attributed power by humans, and thus became powerful. And the heroes were much the same. They were made, not born. They were what happened when a human was lucky, or daring, or courageous. Sometimes they slew a spirit. Sometimes they tamed one. Too often, they married one. And humans told stories about the hero, and other people believed those stories. But unlike spirits, heroes were mortal, like all men. But it could make a part of them too great to die. When a hero died, the belief lifted off of them like a shroud, taking their soul with it. It would drift, and settle on someone new. Some likely young boy or girl, eager to prove themselves. And that power would flow through them, and awaken as they embraced their heritage, or fought against it. And so, heroes never truly died. They simply changed faces. Among the Lakota, these heroes were often the opposite side of a spirit. Sometimes they were indistinguishable from spirits. But they were all great.
Megan spoke at length about a young man. The warrior who had starved to feed her. He had become a hero through his sacrifice. When he died, she left her people for a time, until he appeared again. He disappeared and reappeared many times, over the years, and each time, she found him again. Then the tribe had been slaughtered to the last man over a dispute with foreigners. He had died standing over a young mother, protecting her. And he had never returned. She might be the only person who still remembered him.
“I have seen great things in humans. And terrible things.” The doctor smiled softly. “You have the smell of those invaders on you. I don’t mean the white skin, or those fine European features. Those things weren’t what made them evil. It was the smell of gunpowder. The clash of steel. The glint of gold. These things had maddened those who came to this land. The talismans of the Horsemen.”
Nash frowned. The memories of the Lakota, and their end, were still lingering in his mind. He shivered softly, as the memories ran through his head. They had been more than simple words. Images had flowed through his head as she spoke. Feelings. A certainty entirely absent in his own life. She really knew how to tell a story. “The Horsemen?” He could feel the capital letters slot into space. “Death, Famine, Pestilence, War?”
She smiled. “Close. Very close. Of course, people confuse their names so often nowadays. But an idea as strong as the Horsemen, it doesn’t matter the specifics that people believe. They endure.”
Certain concepts did not exist before life. Could not exist before life. How could there be Death without life to delineate its existence? She was the first, the knowledge that lurked in the heart of all things that lived, that they would stop living. That eventually, everything dies. Second was Famine, for famine could not exist without abundance to mark it by. The difference between ‘enough’ and ‘not enough’ did not become clear until there were life forms that fed on limited things. When there were, they became able to feel lack, to strain to find the food they needed, and to end the day more empty than they began it. Third was Conquest, for when famine came, Conquest soon followed it. When you had nothing but your neighbors had plenty, you would raid, and take what was theirs if they could not defend it, and make it yours. And last was War. Not the war against the other, but the war against those who were closest. Conflict with those who were your brothers. When the bonds of family, mate, friend, were overcome by need.
War was born with humanity, the youngest of the four Horsemen, but all of them became aware at the same time. They were given names. And they were despised. They were the reasons people suffered. Humanity hated the Horsemen, and the Horsemen hated them back. The Horsemen sought to destroy their makers, as vengeance for the guilt, the shame, the revulsion they were made to feel for what came naturally to them.
Evil lurks in all things. The desire to harm others. To take what others need, to kill that which is weaker than you, to oppress that which will not obey you. And the willingness to do these things to friends, to kin, to lovers and children. The Lakota had always known about the Horsemen. They lurked everywhere, in the shadows on the moon, and in the heart of your neighbor, your child, yourself. The Lakota could not kill them, any more than they could kill the sun and the moon, but they could triumph over them by learning to control the dark impulses. Counting coup, showing your opponent that you could take their life, and not doing so. Megan had loved the great tournaments and battles of those days. The ferocity of man turned on its head, so that the battles were won by bravery and skill, without the need for death. The careful marshaling of resources, so that famine’s edge could be blunted. The trading back and forth of land, so that conquest could be sated by taking things without holding them. It had been such a beautiful country, laughter echoing beneath the bright blue sky, and a plain that seemed to stretch out to the edge of the world. It hadn’t been perfect. People had died before they should. Starvation took children. People suffered. But they danced with the Horsemen every day, and counted coup by enjoying their lives.
But the Horsemen weren’t contented with this. And not everyone was so wise. So one day, the invaders swept out of the east. Preceded by disease and sickness, they held weapons that could shatter armies of Lakota. And they were never satisfied. It was not because of the color of their skin, or the gods they prayed to. It was because of the Horsemen. It was the nature of the world. That didn’t make the loss of everyone she loved any easier, though. She had seen her people shattered. And she had wept, because for all her power, there was nothing she could do to stop the deaths. There were monsters, from across the sea, and spirits, corrupted by the offer of power and the lure of the invaders. Creatures that she could do nothing to stop. Spirit had devoured human, and hero had slain spirit, and everything she loved had fallen apart.
“The nature of the Horsemen is to destroy both sides. Spirit, and human. The power they provide is built through conflict, and through challenges. They reward their champions with strength, and set them against one another. It is not enough for them to destroy empires or cultures or religions. The end they seek is the end of everything. And the end of everything requires a great deal of might.”
Nash sat quietly. The stink of blood was still thick in his nostrils. The story had been… entrancing. The words echoed in his head. He didn’t know how much he believed the idyllic past that Megan offered, but she certainly believed that things had been wonderful. “What is Zion?” He asked softly.
Megan laughed. “The solution to the Horsemen.”
The first city was created at the dawn of history. It was in the heart of Mesopotamia, and it represented a realization. Spirits and humans could not remain at war with one another, or the Horsemen would have their victory. So instead, they lived together. A city built by the hands of heroes, and spirits. It represented a pact, a truce, and it placed a barrier between the world of the supernatural, and the world of humans. A little bit of the magic left the world, but so did a great deal of the terror. It was more difficult for spirits to prey upon humans, and for humans to kill spirits. The second city was in the Far East; The third in Europe, in the heart of the black forest. The fourth was built in the New World. And the fifth was Zion. Each one of the cities strengthened the barrier.
Now, Zion stood as one of the five barriers between humans and spirits. The Greeks had built it, during the emigration from Greece in the 19th century. The monsters of that place saw the growing instability in Europe, and sought a new home, fleeing a nation and a religion that had never recovered from its millenia-old conquest. They built Zion, and invited heroes to join them. The legendary figures of the world retired together to this place. It wasn’t a time for heroes or spirits anymore. The world became quieter, and more predictable. The Japanese emigrated in 1945 and 1946, and were able to live in harmony, for the most part, with the Greeks. The Native American community followed not much longer. Small and fractured as they were, the natives didn’t have the option of not living in harmony with the others.
The truce, as it was called, was not simply a series of rules. It was an integral part of the barrier. No one would harm another. No one would take another’s life. They would not allow the Horsemen into their hearts. Laws were not simply a set of strictures provided by a government, here. They were the mortar that built the wall between worlds. And that mortar had begun to crumble with the death of Dean Constantinou. The city had always been a fragile melting pot. The three cultures existed in an uneasy alliance, but the cracks were beginning to show with the death.
“There has always been a taboo against mixing between the three cultures. Heroes and spirits are, ultimately, guided by stories. The children of Heracles and Megara die by the hand of their father. The white snake maiden kills her lover by accident. The goddess of death is rejected by her husband. These things are stories that are very difficult to avoid. Oftentimes, the attempts to do so lead to the very outcomes they were trying to evade.” Megan puffed on her cigarette, staring out the window. “If the different stories mix, it becomes very difficult to predict what will hold primacy. That’s not good for anyone.” She took a deep breath. “Whoever did this, it doesn’t really matter. Dean Constantinou is dead. He’s not going to be brought back. Resurrection’s a rare thing even in stories, and the loss of his children is a key aspect to poor Harry’s life. He fought that fate all his life, but…” The young woman shrugged.
Nash frowned. “You can’t really believe that. Those are stories. They don’t define the world, they just try to explain it.” He took a deep breath, and tried to focus. The story Megan Smith was weaving was compelling. But it was one thing to accept monsters and gods and demonic Horsemen as real, and another thing entirely to say that people’s ideas meant anything to the world. “Dean didn’t die because of a story. He died because someone murdered him. And I’m here to see that his killer is brought to justice.”
“And if your justice makes things worse? What if the killer’s loved ones decide to take revenge? This is a crime that is punished capitally. Death breeds death, after all.” Her eyes were very cold. He looked away.
“What do you suggest I do, then? Stop investigating? Let things hang as they are? Do you think that people shouldn’t have to face consequences for their actions?”
“They so often don’t. But here, the nature of Zion demands that wrongs be righted. And two wrongs so seldom make a right, do they? This city, for all its strength, is balanced on a knife-edge.” Megan was silent for a moment. “I never agreed with the idea of the cities, you know. The barrier between mankind and the world of spirits… It is overkill. We are not all monsters.” She took another puff, staring out of the curtains. “I fear that we have abandoned the world, and allowed it to rot, when we could have been helping to preserve it. And now the rot has come to infect us, as well. The world is bereft of heroes, and gods. Is that a good thing?” He frowned at her.
“What the hell makes you think that the world needs heroes, or gods?” He pulled the blanket away, standing up, somewhat unsteadily. He was still dressed in his clothes from the day before. He’d nearly been murdered by a teenager. He hated this town. He hated the people and the insanity. He hated that he couldn’t trust his own senses. And he hated being lectured. “The world doesn’t need some magical outsider to come fix all of its problems. That’s just a fantasy. A hope that you’ll be saved without having to do the hard work yourself. Humans might want a savior, but we don’t need one. And I don’t care what dark mystical forces you believe are behind this. Ultimately, one person took the life of another. My job is to make sure that they face the consequences of their actions. And I don’t care if it makes people angry, if it makes them vengeful. I have a job to do, and I’m going to do it. Not even gods are above the law.” He gritted his teeth. “What, exactly, is the worst that’s going to happen if the peace of this city is broken, Doctor Smith?”
It would start slowly, simply. A few cracks in the world. Reports of strange disappearances and odd deaths would increase. Each one would increase people’s fear of the unknown, and force the cracks wider. Larger things would come through these places. Monsters, spirits, ghosts, and demons. They would attack humans. Humans would, as they always had, fight back against their predators. And with the grand tools they had made, there would be greater conflicts than ever before. The walls between worlds would come crumbling down, and everything would flood back. The gods who had slept for millenia, the ancient dark things, the sun-eating serpents, the end of days. A self-fulfilling prophecy. Inevitably, it would end humanity. And this would lobotomize any of the spirits that survived the war. The world would go gray and silent again, without meaning, without purpose, and without a future.
Nash realized he was shaking. He turned his head away from her. “That’s on you. If the world is so close to destruction that it can’t survive a single act of justice, maybe it doesn’t deserve to survive.” He walked to the door, stepping around the doctor.
“Why do you think she chose you?” Nash turned back towards her. Megan was standing with her back to the wall, her eyes locked with his. “All the people in the world she could have brought here, and she chose you. What do you think was her reason for doing so?” He frowned. He had wondered the same thing about Pearl’s decision.
“I suppose I was just convenient. Anyone would have done.”
Megan snorted. “You believe there’s nothing special about you at all? Nothing destined, nothing heroic, nothing that makes you better than other humans? You deign to decide the fate of the world, without even the necessary arrogance to think you’re deserving?” She tapped her cigarette onto the end-table by the bed, ash piling in a small heap on the table. “Maybe that’s why she chose you. Your car’s in the parking lot. I would recommend you get a good meal, and avoid any heavy lifting today.”
He frowned at her. ” One last question before I go. What are Pearl and Ariel?” He thought for a moment. “And, I suppose, Heather and Gene, too, if my instincts are right.” Megan grinned.
“They… are like me, but much older. They are, in a way, the opposite of the Horsemen. If the Horsemen are humanity’s impulses turned against them, those four are the parts of the natural world that love humanity most. Have you ever heard of the story of Rainbow Crow?”
He frowned. “My mother used to tell me that story. She loved it. I always thought it was a bit sad. The crow gives up everything for the people around her, ruined by the cost of saving the world, and her reward is that nobody would want her.”
“There is a certain freedom in nobody wanting you. No one eats crow. No one traps crows to listen to their song. I suppose it is a story about making the best of what you’re given.” She sighed softly. “It is a story that is told over and over again, in many different places. A time of cold and darkness, and the cost a noble being pays to bring light back into the world. That is the nature of the Sisters.”
Four sisters, the greatest forces of nature, making even gods look small in their wake. They warred forever with one another, conflicted over which one would rule the world. They spent an eternity in deadlock, with no hope of success, and no way of understanding one another. It was only when humans arrived that the balance changed. Humans worked with the four sisters, tamed them, worked them. They made tools with their ingenuity and the Sisters’ strength. Humans cared for the four Sisters, nurtured them, strengthened them, and worshiped them. Sometimes, when they were angered, the Sisters would strike humans, crushing them, burning them, drowning them, flaying them. And for a time, humans would fear them. But the Sisters had a great weakness. They were proud beings, but they were people, now. They could not be lone, majestic, unfeeling forces. They needed the love of humans to keep them sane. They had been seduced by humanity.
And so, from time to time, they would intercede for exceptional humans. When a spirit beseeched them, or when humans cried out for a hero, they would offer a quest to those they found deserving. It was both price and training. The nature of the quest would vary; Air favored journeys and exploration, Earth favored strength and resilience, Water favored empathy and forgiveness, Fire favored passion and great dreams. But when the quest was completed, their chosen were greater than they had been. It was said that the Sisters did it because they loved humans, in a way that no other spirit could understand. They gave of their power, sacrificing themselves for the love of the foolish, mad, wonderful, brief creatures. Unlike every other spirit, which gave power in exchange for a price, the sisters gave power without condition, without control. It wasn’t a pact. It was a gift borne of love, and it hurt them to love such short-lived creatures. They chose carefully. And they fought the Horsemen at every turn, to protect humanity from itself.
Nash didn’t speak as he turned away from her, leaving the room as the story ended. He remembered the tears in Pearl’s eyes, the night before. He flipped open his notepad, checking what he had written before Smith had walked in. He couldn’t concentrate. His mind flashed back to something the doctor had said. Cassandra. When he’d first met the girl, she’d been terrified of him. Possibly for the same reason that everyone else in this town seemed to dislike him. She’d told him he wasn’t a hero. So why, exactly, had she gone out of her way to save him? From the sound of it, she was the only reason his heart was still beating. A question for another time.
He walked out of the front door to find his rental car waiting for him, and checked the notepad. He scribbled a few reminders into it. “Visit school.” He considered. “Talk with Cassandra about last night. Bring Pearl along to smooth things out.” He thought for a few seconds more. “Snakes. Who are the snakes in this city?” He stared at the notepad. “Why am I here?” He underlined that several times. Then his stomach growled. “Get breakfast.” He wrote. He checked his clothing. “Get new set of clothes.” He sighed softly, and started the car.
The memory came back unbidden. The sight of the woman in red, advancing on him with her knife. The blast of the gun, and the dark-skinned woman with dark hair and soft brown eyes falling to the ground, the steak knife falling from her fingers. They’d said afterwards that she had a history of violence, that she had wounded a police officer in a fight, that she was a ticking time bomb of mental illness. But that wasn’t why he had shot her. It had been the moment of mad, horrific fear. That moment when he could choose between his safety and hers, and he had chosen his own. When he had killed someone who had a father, a mother, two kind sisters and an older brother who ran a deli. He had weighed the value of his life against hers, and killed her to preserve himself. He could have let her keep approaching, try to keep talking, and he might have died that night. But he wouldn’t be a murderer. He wouldn’t live with the knowledge of all he’d taken.
He couldn’t afford to get bogged down in the madness of this place. He had a job to do, and if he tried to pull a moral dimension into it, he would drown under the weight of what he had to do, the harm he would cause. He shifted the car into gear, and sped out of the lot, kicking up gravel. He needed a new set of clothing, and to digest everything. He did have at least one good suspect, though. Megara Drakos had admitted to the death in his dream, and the woman was the snakiest person he’d met in the city. He was going to ask her a few questions later that day.