Silas Nash walked across the grass. There were still imprints in the ground from where the tables had been set up the previous day. The memories flooded back. The taste of good food, and the laughter of his friends. Zion was a quiet town at the best of times, but the silence in the streets was profound, right now. The words ‘sepulchral’ and ‘silent as the grave’ were marching to mind, and that was not a very happy thought.
He crouched down, and picked a paper plate off of the ground. It must have blown out of the trash, he considered, as he carried it with him. He walked through the small alley to the parking lot of the hotel.
The city was not erupting in violence. There was simply no one around. That was worse, somehow. If people were fighting in the streets, he could stop them. If they were screaming and fighting, he could hold them apart. This silence was the sound of ‘too late’. He approached his hotel door. Against all the odds, he still had his keys in his pocket. He opened the door. His room was as he had left it the previous day. He felt a little twinge in the pit of his stomach at the familiarity of it all. The last time he’d been here, Heather had promised to protect him.
He undressed, and climbed into the shower. He stopped for a moment, and looked around. “Pearl?” he asked softly. “Ariel? Gene? Heather?” His words were absorbed in the silence. There was no giggle. There were no Cheshire cat grins appearing out of thin air.
Nash had spent his entire life fearing the voices in his head. Hating seeing things that weren’t there. Feeling imprisoned by jailers who no one else could see. The sense of having his head entirely to himself was something new. And it was awful. As the hot water began to pour down his face, washing the mud away that the rain hadn’t cleared, he felt tears running down his cheek. “Please, someone. Talk to me.” He spoke barely above a whisper, his eyes closed.
Nothing responded. Even Bella seemed to have disappeared. He felt, for the first time in his life, as though he was absolutely alone. He let out a scream, and lashed out, his fist striking the tile wall of the shower, leaving a gaping hole in the wall. He stared at his knuckles. They should be torn, bleeding, gashed open by the sharp, cracked tile and the sheer force of the impact. But his hand was unharmed. He turned off the water. He still had their gifts. He just had to trust that in some way, they were still watching over him.
He stepped out of the shower, toweling himself off. He dressed slowly, deliberately, taking his time. His hands passed in an unconscious pattern, stringing the tie around his neck. He stared into the mirror, and looked down at the desk. His badge and his gun were gone. He wondered for a moment how he would explain the loss of his firearm. He shook his head. No time for the real world. He had to go out into the madness.
Under the gray sky, the rain dripped down his cheeks. He opened the door to Heather’s office but predictably, nobody was there. The hotel seemed empty. His car wasn’t in the parking lot. It hadn’t been in the graveyard, either. On a hunch, he walked across the street, to the garage. He opened the door, and Gene was nowhere to be seen. He had expected that, but it still made him hurt a little bit inside. What he did find, however, was a set of keys, and his car. He pulled open the garage door, and started the engine. It responded instantly, purring to life, as he drove out into the streets.
The massive eye was still sweeping across the streets, but it seemed to be unwilling to make eye contact with Nash again. As he drove, he noticed a few people out on the streets. Some of them were wandering, seemingly insensate. He had to slow the car, avoiding a young man walking in a daze through the middle of the street. Others were screaming and raving, though most of them didn’t make any noise as they did so. Still others seemed to be clawing at their own skin, scratching themselves badly. And a number simply lay on the ground, face up or face down in the rain, catatonic. The entire city was being driven mad. He could see faces in windows, briefly, but they stayed back, away from the glass, and out of the sight of the eye.
Someone ran out of a door. He recognized the bronze-skinned man whose hand he had broken the day before last. He made it a half dozen steps before the eye turned towards him, staring wildly. The big man began tugging at his hair, growing larger, his body swelling, skin turning to metal, as he screamed and beat his hands against his skull. After a few moments of this, the man fell to the ground, and didn’t move again, simply clenching and relaxing his hands as the rainwater dripped down his body, pooling around him. It was one of the more unsettling things that Nash had ever seen.
The Japanese suburbs were no better. Quite a few more people were out in the streets, apparently caught by the eye while they were trying to find family members. Nash recognized a few of them from the crowd he had seen on Onnashi’s doorstep. One of them in particular stood out. Cassandra’s mother, Mrs Hirosata. She was walking, her eyes darting madly, seeming to search for something. Nash stopped the car, and got out. “Mrs Hirosata?” She didn’t turn her head towards him. He approached a little bit closer, moving slowly, trying to act nonthreatening. She slowly turned to face him, her eyes large, questioning, her head tilted, a frown on her face.
“My… I lost them.” She spoke in a soft, sing-song voice, her eyes having trouble focusing on his face. “My husband. My daughter. I lost them. I don’t know where they are.” He gently reached out, and took her hand. She didn’t resist as he lead her to the car, opening the door for her. He started the car again, and they drove for some time.
His eye was caught by a bright red man lying in the middle of the road. Nash stopped again, and got out of the car. Miss Hirosata did too, seeming slightly more focused as she did. The two of them lifted Mister Hirosata into the back of the car. Cassandra’s mother sat with his horned head cradled gently on her lap, crooning something softly as she ran her fingers across his head. Nash started the car again, and drove onwards.
The clinic was empty, as they drove past. There was no sign of cars in the gravel parking lot, and no sign of anyone inside. He hoped that the people who had been hurt in the riot the day before last were simply staying out of sight of the eye. He looked up at it again. They were closer to it, now. Close enough that he could see the way the rain fell on it. It spread across the eye, leaving a dry patch beneath it that covered the police station.
The building was damaged worse than before. Its roof was caved in, and rain dripped from the bottom of the eye into the center of the building. There was a visible hole leading down to the morgue in the middle of the station, but it looked as though it had been caused by something erupting out. Nash’s gaze returned to the massive eye. “You two stay here in the car, alright? I’m going to check to see if anyone made it.” He didn’t say what he was thinking. If he found Cassandra down there…
He walked across the damp floors. He couldn’t see much of what was downstairs. There was a lot of water filling the morgue, and some of it was disturbingly red. He felt his head pound as he made his way down the stairs. The morgue’s floor was slick. The furniture had been thrown around, the metal examination table bent in half. His breathing came fast. There was nobody down in the morgue. He had no idea whether that was good, or bad. On the one hand, there was a fair amount of blood. And bodies could be moved. But why would anyone move-
There was a faint metallic click. He had his hands up in an instant. He approached the row of refrigerators. He reached out, running his fingers over them. Most of them were quite cold to the touch. One was not. He turned the lever, and pulled it open. He saw a pair of bright eyes, twinkling in the darkness of the refrigerator. They were terrified. “Oh god. Oh god, please no.” Cassandra’s voice was soft, pleading, terrified. Tears were in her eyes.
He felt the rage bubble inside of him. He had been betrayed. She had struck him. Stabbed him in the back. She had sentenced him, through her actions, to an eternity of being trapped in a mask, revisiting the worst memories of his life, over and over again, trapped in a hell that would never end. He could reach out and punish her. He could take her life away, the way she had tried to take his life away. There was nothing she could do to stop him. There was nothing anyone could do to stop him. And wouldn’t he be right? Hadn’t he believed in her? Hadn’t he shown her compassion and told her the truth and protected her? Hadn’t he trusted her?
He held out his hand, and smiled gently. He crushed the rage underfoot without a second thought. “It’s alright, Cassandra. You did the right thing,” he whispered softly. “It’s okay. I’ve got your parents outside.” He stared at the young girl, as she burbled and shivered softly. She’d been so full of fire and confidence before. So determined to prove herself. He wondered if he should have tried to try to hold her back from the things that were happening. If he should have refused her help. She would wear the scars from this time, he knew. But he could at least make things turn out alright. “Tell me about what happened, Cassandra. Who was the other agent of War?”
Cassandra shivered. She shook her head.”I can’t say. If I tell you, she’ll know. She’ll come back for me. She’ll drive me insane.” Cassandra’s voice was a ragged whisper, as she shivered. She reached out, and took his hand, squeezing it for dear life, shaking like a leaf. “She did something. Her eyes were glowing. And she made that thing, that eye. Everyone went mad. Megara attacked Irayama, and Harry got involved. Officer Dio got cut open when he tried to pull them apart. Doctor Smith was trying to get him to the clinic. Her part of the keystone got taken. The person who did this, she’s insane. She’s going to destroy the city. She said she needed the keystone for something. To bring War into this world, to break the rules.”
Cassandra shook, and Nash nodded. He started to stand up, and she grabbed his wrists, burying her face against his chest. “I’m so sorry, Nash. I’m so sorry for what I did. I thought I was doing the right thing. I knew it meant something horrible was going to happen to you, and I did it anyway.” She was breathing heavily, her eyes full of dripping tears, as she shook like a leaf.
Nash had never spent much time around kids. And right now, that’s what she was. He softly rested a hand on the top of her head, and pet her hair gently. She sobbed into his shirt, and he felt the anger blossom in him again. This time, it was directed at the things that had forced her into this position. He took a deep breath.
“It’s okay. If I’d known what you were thinking, I’d have thrown myself into Hades for you, Cassandra. I trust your judgment. And it was important.” He looked up, still holding her with his other arm. “I’m just sorry you had to be the one to push me. Now come on. I’m going to get your parents in here. The three of you take shelter. Where did Susan go?” He felt her jerk at his guess. There were only so many people who could have been responsible for this, though. The girl quaked against him.
“She… She went to the apartment towers.” The girl let out a little sob. “She’s going to find me, for telling you. She’s going to find me, and she’s going to-” Cassandra let out a little choking sound. She had to have one hell of an imagination.
“No she’s not, Cassandra.” Nash stood up straight. “I’m going to stop her.” He lifted her in his arms, carrying her, his arms around her. Her legs didn’t seem to want to move, and he couldn’t blame her. The eye darted down, and he met its gaze head on. Cassandra tensed, as he stared into the golden eye. It darted away, like a socially awkward Sauron. Cassandra let out a strangled little sound, and looked up at him, eyes wide. If anything, she seemed more afraid of him. He smiled. “It’s all going to turn out alright, Cassandra.” He didn’t lie.
The two of them made their way up to street level. Cassandra sat gratefully with her parents in the back of the car, clinging to them.
The twin apartment buildings near the edge of the water were visible. One of the towers seemed somewhat shorter than it had been before. The eye did not look at the four of them. Cassandra’s parents seemed to be recovering somewhat. They were speaking softly in the back of the car, as Nash drove. A combination of Japanese and a little Greek drifted from the back. He let them speak together, regaining their sanity as a group.
There had been that flash of anger towards Cassandra. He knew what she had done, why she had done it. He had still felt, for just a moment, like he could have killed her. She could have spoken with him. She could have trusted him. But of course, that was exactly what she couldn’t do. He was a servant of War, she had been right. It wasn’t easy to trust the judgment of others, sometimes. But he had done his best with her, wherever he could. She seemed like she needed that little spark of belief like other people need air.
He parked the car several hundred feet from the towers, where the two modern structures blocked the view of the eye. A garage was open at the bottom of the shortened tower. A bit of stone fell, crashing onto the pavement, crumbling as it struck. Someone was on top of the building, fighting. He opened the car door. “I’m going to end all of this.” He made to step out, and Cassandra grabbed his arm.
“I’m not letting you go up there alone,” she hissed, her eyes wide. He smiled.
“Not this time. You’ve had more than enough pain, Cassandra. I’m going up there, on my own, and I’m coming back down with everyone.” He smiled. “Have a little faith.” With that, he gently pulled free of her grasp.
He stood up, out of the car. Another piece of concrete fell from the roof of the building, and smashed to powder on the pavement in front. The lobby looked badly damaged. Instead, he went for the garage. It appeared to be an underground structure, large enough to hold several dozen cars. Inside, the fluorescent lights hummed. There was a rumble, and they flickered, briefly plunging the building into darkness.
He walked serenely in the black, feeling the air swirling around him. Ariel’s gift led him forward through the blind shadow, as quickly as if he was walking through a fully lit corridor. He effortlessly sidestepped a discarded glass bottle that could’ve given him a nasty concussion if he’d stepped on it and fallen. His hand pushed open a door, leading him into a stairwell.
Under the red emergency lights, he ran into people at the third floor. Residents were beginning to evacuate the tower, fleeing the place of safety that was clearly no longer safe. He slipped through the crowds like he was swimming, moving faster by the second as he stepped between the lines of people. Heather’s gift made it easy. Soon, he was free of them again, the only sign of their passing a desperate scent of sweat and fear that hung in the air. He fought free of it, and came to an abrupt end. The stairwell was filled with debris.
He looked around. The stairwell was on one side of the building. He reached out to the wall, feeling the solid stone, and swung his fist into it. The power of the earth made him strong, and he ripped open a man-sized hole, revealing the fresh rain-swept air and the endless lake beyond. He swung himself out, driving his fingers and toes into the concrete exterior of the building. It crumbled under his touch, and then become solid when he pulled himself upward.
He could hear the sound of conflict. Screaming, the crashing of flesh against flesh, and the intense suction of power. He struggled to keep moving upwards, and to not pass out. It felt as though he was being summoned, as though he would just float upwards towards the fight if he released his death grip on the wall. He did not put the theory to the test. He just kept clinging, and dragging himself upward. It was only a couple of stories to the roof, but even supernaturally enhanced, he was aching and exhausted by the time he got there.
He tried to tally his efforts. He’d been going since the previous day without any rest besides being temporarily unconscious. He’d been in two absolutely life or death fights. The fatigue was making itself apparent as he pulled himself onto the top of the tower. And yet despite it all, he could feel the adrenaline pounding in his veins, driving away the exhaustion.
The top two floors had been almost entirely removed. The third floor from the top was still half there, walls holding parts of the second floor upright. Underneath this shade, Irayama Onnashi stood. She was Izanami. Her body was rot, and decay. She stood nearly twelve feet tall, her arms too long and too skinny, almost ape-like in appearance. She was wearing no clothing, but her body was hardly recognizable, ravaged by maggots and suffering. Her ribs were visible in her sides, hanging out of open holes, and her eyes were gone, replaced with something that writhed unpleasantly. The scent of her ran across the roof, foul and polluted, as she let out a bestial hiss of rage. Her hands glowed with black fire, as she traced green runes in the air.
On one of the two open corners, Harry Constantinou stood. The man’s skin was red, his eyes darting wildly, foam running down his lips. His breathing was audible from where Nash stood at the edge of the roof. He was undressed, and under one arm, he carried a massive tree trunk, groaning under its own weight. Roots were visible at one end, and branches at the other. It looked like a young White Pine. The big man held it in a one-handed grip, watching the other two. There was none of the calm, gentle compassion of the man that Nash had met. There was just a berserk animal, waiting for someone to make a move, so that it could know what to tear apart.
Across from him, Megara stood. She had taken her monstrous true form, standing tall, skin blue as sapphires. Her eyes glittered malevolently, as she drew sigils around her, a great hiss rising from her throat. She was watching the other two, one hand extended towards each of them, creating intricate combinations of mystic symbols in front of her, as though waiting for something to draw her ire, and send her surging forward.
The power was overwhelming. They felt stronger than they ever had when Nash had fought them before. He felt as though he was going to be torn apart, each of the three pulling with an impossible strength. And behind them, visible in the sky, the eye was watching. Its pupil widened, becoming almost circular as it opened, shaking violently in the air. The world, just for a moment, held its breath, and the rain seemed to stop falling as the three waited for a sign of weakness.
Nash didn’t give them the chance to strike. He leapt forward into the middle of them, his hands up. Harry seemed to take the challenge first, charging forward with a roar like a wounded bear. Nash turned to face him, and felt the crackle of electricity on the hair on the back of his neck. He spun to the side, out of the way of the lightning bolt that Megara had just thrown at him. Harry caught the bolt in one hand, and threw it backwards, over his shoulder, where it sizzled into the sky with a crack-snap like a falling tree. The rain began to fall harder, and heavier.
Nash assessed his surroundings. Harry was swinging the tree trunk. Nash leapt agilely into the air, pulling his legs up, as the pole swept beneath his feet. Harry reversed the grip with impossible force, and backswung. The massive log creaked, sizzling in his grip, as he reversed its immense momentum with sheer strength, catching Nash in mid air.
The gift of earth, Nash remembered. No use against a still-living tree trunk with the spark of life still barely aflame in it. He briefly empathized with a baseball in a major league game, as he was struck towards Irayama. She sidestepped him easily, and his body pounded into a concrete wall, digging a deep gouge in the surface as it shattered under his touch. He rolled drunkenly across the ground, and leapt to his feet.
Harry was charging at Megara, the fractured tree trunk still in his hands. She threw handfuls of flame, which hissed and spat violently in the rain. Each one was batted away with the tree trunk, eating away at a bit more of its mass. Onnashi appeared to be waiting for them to weaken one another, pacing like a caged tiger. Nash took advantage of this, and threw a chunk of concrete at the back of her head. She spun, writhing eye sockets full of rage. He ran for her, and just as she raised a hand to snuff out his life, he slammed his foot into the ground underneath her. Gene’s power crumbled the already strained roof beneath her feet, and Irayama tumbled downwards into the darkness. That gave him a moment.
Megara had coiled her tail around Harry’s chest. The muscles in the tail bulged and writhed as they tried to crush the man’s ribs. One of Harry’s hamhock-sized hands was wrapped around Megara’s throat, and squeezing. Her face was turning a shade of purple as she struggled. Nash sprinted into the pouring rain. He wasn’t as physically strong as either of them. But he didn’t have to be. He stepped forward, and reached out. His fingers closed on one of Megara’s pinkies. Even with her relatively delicate frame, he had to center his stance, drawing on the strength of Gene, just to bend it back.
Her eyes glowed with rage as she kept squeezing Harry, even as the pain became obvious. The sudden snap that filled the air made her face turn ashen, and Harry turned his head towards Nash, his eyes glittering dangerously. His free hand released Megara’s throat, and swung at Nash’s head with a blow that could have removed not only Nash’s skull, but most of his body above the waist. Trapped in Megara’s coils, however, the blow was slower than it could have been, and Nash danced out of the way.
The enraged couple exchanged a glance, and suddenly, both were charging at Nash. He had succeeded at keeping the two of them from killing each other. Now it was only a matter of keeping the two of them from killing him.
He reached for Heather’s gift. The waves of bloodlust pouring off of the two were palpable. They weren’t trying to be subtle. They weren’t fighting like people. They were fighting like animals. Impossibly strong, enraged, and deeply cunning animals, but he could do this. He took several steps backwards, forcing them to follow him, and took the moment of respite to breathe in.
Just for a moment, he thought he heard Heather’s laughter. But it was just his imagination.
He leaned back a fraction of an inch, avoiding a swipe from Megara’s clawed nails that would have ripped open his carotid artery. Harry tried to grab his wrist, and Nash easily reversed the grip. He couldn’t overpower the bigger man, but he could outmaneuver him. Nash slipped out of Harry’s fingers like an eel, jumping back a few steps further.
The only warning any of them had of Irayama re-entering the fight was when Nash sprang into the air. Two glowing black-wreathed hands thrust up out of the floor, where his feet had been moments before. The last time he had fought these three, they had been uncertain, easily swayed, not wanting to really hurt him. Now, all three were in their own worlds, full of rage, hurt, and violence. He knew that they were determined to kill him. And so, he began to laugh. Partly to damage their resolve, to make them enraged, to make them sloppy. And partly because he was winning.
Irayama pulled herself free, and all three of them chased him, getting in one another’s way. Blows that should have killed him were being redirected to strike each other. It would have been easy to kill them. It would only take the right strike. He could have driven fingers into eye-sockets, or flayed open arteries with a piece of broken glass. He could have thrown them from the roof to land, punishingly hard, on the ground, many stories below. He could have redirected Irayama’s murderous hands against them. Instead, he exhausted them. He let them chase him, as the power of Heather made his movements perfect. They expended ten times the energy he did with each attack, and with Ariel, his lungs never tired. He could toy with them as long as he needed. But he didn’t have all day.
Harry was first. The big man was the most obviously exhausted. He was the most skilled of the three in hand-to-hand combat, but he wasn’t using that now. That left him a weak link. Nash removed his tie in a single flowing pull, providing himself with an incredibly strong silk garrote. He dodged under one of Harry’s blows, and when the man tried to follow up with a brutal haymaker, Nash leapt. He passed over Harry, and the necktie wrapped around the big man’s throat. Nash hit the ground and crouched, pulling forward with all of his might, his back to Harry’s. The combination of the biting silk pressing against the man’s jugular, and Nash’s weight hanging off of his shoulders, began to pull Harry off balance. Nash had to pull with all his might to keep the man from sliding a hand underneath the necktie, and breaking the hold.
It was a horribly dangerous technique. Ten or fifteen seconds would leave an average man unconscious. More could cause brain damage. Lose focus, and it might result in a corpse. Nash would never have used the technique in any normal circumstances. But he could feel Harry’s bloodlust, with the help of Heather. When it waned, disappearing, Nash released the hold. The colossal lumberjack hit the ground, still breathing, but his anger gone. Nash darted away, and was shocked when he realized the man was still conscious. Harry had fallen to his hands and knees, but the madness in him seemed to be receding, as he blinked in the cold rain.
Irayama lunged for Nash again. Her long-nailed hands reached for his chest, trying to stop his heart. He did not allow them to find purchase. He darted back, feeling the rage building inside of him. He let it flow. His limbs, growing leaden with fatigue, became spry again. He could feel the strength flooding him as adrenaline and anger did the work of a dozen pots of black coffee, supercharging his reactions. He caught her wrists, hefting the corpse goddess’ arms into the air. Her skin was like tallow, flowing slightly under his grip as he held on for dear life. He could see, out of the corner of his eye, Megara, tensed to spring at him. As she leapt, her tail was caught by Harry, and he pulled her close. Two arms that could have snapped her spine wrapped around her like an iron bar. She hissed and screamed, clawing at him, and he didn’t stop holding her for a moment, his eyes closed as she struggled.
Nash bent low, and flipped the death goddess. She slammed into the ground with a sound like thunder, and he lifted her arms into the air, while leaning his foot against her chest. He held her immobile in the position, his arms straight out to either side, holding her until she finally went limp, no longer fighting. Nash released her. He saluted the eye with a single finger, and fell to his knees. Fatigue flooded his body, refusing to be denied. He sat, and panted, as Megara relaxed. “Everyone sane again for the moment?” he asked, his voice weak.
Harry released his wife, the woman laying on the floor, panting heavily. He spoke, and there was just a bit of rasp to his voice that hadn’t been there before. “What the hell happened? The last thing I remember, we’d gotten Dean back. Cassandra told us that you had stayed behind to save them, that you’d given your life to save my boy. Then, that Susan girl began to laugh. And then…” Harry shuddered. “I couldn’t think. There was nothing but pain. I could remember things tormenting me, and I kept trying to stop them, but I couldn’t catch them.” He stared down at his hands, and his wife, who was rubbing her own throat slowly. The look of horror that ran across his face was a terrible thing to see.
“Madness is difficult to sustain.” Irayama whispered, her figure shrunken back to that of an old woman. “It burns you out. Her eye only managed to overpower us through a great investment of power from without. After that was spent, the madness would naturally fade when we ran out of energy. Of course, in the middle of a fight, that would likely only happen when we were killed by one of the others. It would have taken away one of her foes.” Irayama wiped the rain out of her eyes as she slowly stood up, her tie-dyed shirt ragged. “Twice in one day you have escaped from the underworld, Nash.”
She kept wiping her eyes. It wasn’t the rain she was trying to wipe away “I am ashamed to ask this of you. But I must ask you to risk death once more. The girl has my part of the keystone, and I suspect Megara’s, too.” The blue-skinned snake woman’s hand went to her throat, pulling out a gold chain. it was noticeably absent of any gemstone. “She is going to corrupt the keystone, and bring War into this world. Fully formed, free of the bindings of the rules that hold back the Elementals and the Horsemen. She will give power to that eye, and spread its gaze across the world. Everything is going to end, Nash. And she will use the life of my child to do it.” Irayama shook her head. “I know I ask much of you. Can you save her?”
Nash stood up. His bones hurt. His chest was aching from where he had been struck with the tree trunk. He could still feel the fatigue. Everything was catching up with him. “No problem.” He got a running start, and sprinted, as the three people watched him. His legs pumped, and he leapt lightly to the remains of the roof. A second leap carried him to the top of a tattered wall, standing on its own. His third leap carried him to the top of the opposite tower.
Four people stood on the roof. Susan was holding a small fruit knife, and she turned in surprise, raising it as he approached. Dean and Isabelle lay, back to back, their eyes unseeing, with the same catatonic look that the people in the street had. A gold chain rested around both their necks. A single great ruby, at least three inches across, shaped like a perfect disc, hung from the chain. And beyond them, fiery red hair and a dress like the red of dying suns and dying men both flapping in the wind, War smiled with gunmetal teeth. It was like standing by a singularity, the sheer pull of her power growing more intense by the second. She opened her mouth, slowly, her tongue like a scarlet obscenity as it moved.